“…A torrid tale of angst set in a surreal little town a bit like Petaluma. Our narrator is a frustrated and slightly delusional would-be screenwriter coping with art, love, and life while searching for a leg up (or at least a crumbling foothold) on his foundering career. Is he condemned forever to small-town Dullsville and his career as a beleaguered movie theater projectionist? Or will he reach the escape velocity attained by his former girlfriend, now a world-class concert cellist? …The book’s true strength, is the hilarious interaction among the narrator’s charmingly bizarre circle of slackers, swingers, stymied geniuses, and other miscellaneous malcontents. Howell’s gift for dialogue is this novel’s greatest asset.” — Bohemian
Or, From Angst to Zilch:
The Portable Buntel Eriksson Filmography
a novel by Daedalus Howell
Clamor, racket, fracas, din…
The door to the projection booth was an onerous mash of darkly painted kindling and kitchen cabinet hinges that only shut an eighth inch eke into its jamb; and this after much shouldering and cursing. It was a spiteful, ugly thing, and responded to the ritual abuse by hatching open from faint changes in the air pressure to incense audiences with the projector’s deafening clacks.
On the door, a thumbtack pierced the topmost point of a silver star of the sort pinned to strip club dressing rooms. Darted across it in black marker: “Sven Gerhardt, Projectionist.”
The luminous screen reflected achromatically off its shining surface. Though back-lit, I could discern the equine shape of my face. The once dashingly-gaunt cheeks had rounded some since adolescence, but a distinct handsomeness persisted. The brows took well to shadows and though the eyes were bright and dramatic of their own accord, the cinematic flicker infused them with a worldliness that, in my twenty-odd years, had otherwise always eluded them. The true glory of this face, I thought, lay not with the shady eyes or lucky lips, but with the nose. Some have described it as “scalene, keel-like in proportion and shape,” but more perceptive types acknowledge the aristocratic geometry that informs its Romanesque arch, that it is dimensionally sound within its context, and when regarded with the tangle of chestnut curls which roll like dervishes over the great manzanilla olive of my head, that I possess an inexplicably Mediterranean air.
I adjusted my ascot, my best liked, with the skeleton-leaf print.
My colleague, Young Sergeant Phil, a varsity projectionist with heavy framed glasses and a thatch of straw hair, had fixed a hook lock onto the terrible door so a fortuitous moth’s wing or discreet mid-shift sigh wouldn’t whisk it ajar during a showing — in this case Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. Bergman fans concealed wine and cheese in their bulk and corduroy and were, as a matter-of-course, inclined to complain from the slightest provocation — the suggestion box brimmed with confetti in the making.
I would remind them that I was simply the projectionist, that it was I who manned the great machine, turned its colossal reels until the film was woven figure eight-wise — I, who lit the lone Odin eye that peered into worlds vast and strange and so far from Lumaville — I, who blinked the house lights to watch the ever-obedient Bergman fans scamper to their seats like famished rats to the nursery.
• • •
The crowd bustled through the theater’s double doors, briefly radiating in the green light of the EXIT signs they passed upon entering. Nattering wives clutched the sleeves of their benumbed husbands and fumbled for their seats. Migratory children with candied fingers returned to their nests of sweaters and popcorn boxes. An obese man in suspenders bulldozed the third row with wind whisking action-slacks. A nervous young woman pried herself from the line at the ladies’ room. Automatons.
I hated Bergman. Of Sweden’s filmmakers, I preferred the ignored and underrated Buntel Eriksson — the antidote to Bergman’s poison, director of such classics Vargtimmen, Liten Hund, Svanga Langtansfull. Yes, Bergman brought Swedish filmmaking into the light of day, but his populist appeal kept Eriksson forever vanquished, nocturnal.
It was Eriksson’s work that inspired me to write the Motion Picture Version of My Life — I kept a page of the screenplay pinned to the wall of the projection booth. That it was the only page had recently become a point of considerable personal reproach. I had been writing it for two years, but like so many of my mannequin generation, I had trouble budgeting my time. Time others prostituted without hindrance. So many comrades had I seen drift from their promise — capitalism swatting their asses as they rooted, in comfortable day jobs, for its truffles.
Erstwhile — gametes, bearing each a hemisphere of a zygotic blueprint, are shepherded one toward the other by the staid, ancient gravity of biology. Ensuing months (a quarter scant of the calendar entire) bring Hippocratic turnkeys — reflector-browed ushers who diligently divine from crudely scribed forceps headlines that, indeed, “It’s a boy!” With a swift nick of their razor-king steel, a jump-cut into born, the blade-men liberate a wallet-sized portrait, a sobbing yam, an awkward sunspot in the cyclic dim of mortality and stamp his dharmic passport, with a rubbery smack to the tail end.
Twenty-odd years later, still smarting from the swat, that boy dashes from the gnashing scowls of police dogs scarcely a pant cuff behind.
He turns left at Fourth and D to shake the horde, legs it past the post office toward the depot and in lockstep with his pursuers to the Lumaville Historic Library. Where he would usually turn on B, work-bound toward the cinemas, he scurries instead to the rear of the library, hidden under the night shade of the cypress trees along Volk Street. Thickening smoke dims the street lamps.
He vaults the concrete stairs, three, four at a time, down the thoroughfare between the stationery store and the travel agency, then hooks a right past the back end of the Hide-Away and into American Alley.
“Halt! You are in violation of Section 11.36.050 of the Lumaville Muni Code,” the flat, official voice squawks from a patrol car.
He sags into the recess of a doorway to evade the sweeping spotlight atop the grain elevator, a memorial to young beauty queen Ms. Lumaville marking her rueful last step into the powdery, wheat-hued zephyr. The ray pales, however, against the carmine inferno panting into the winter dusk from Main Street.
He charged to that inland finger of aquatic gristle known as the Lumaville River, to chance its turbid turns toward salvation.
[NOTE TO AUTEUR:
Technically a slough, or (as it was oft picturesquely put) a "tidal estuary," (or better still, "the amniotic discharge spilled from the mother of all evil") the Lumaville River was only mercifully declared such by an Act of Congress in the early ‘50s so that its dire dredging could be federally funded. It doesn’t flow. The effluvial sludge rises and falls with the moon but does not rush to its promised union with the sea so much as it merely leaks into the bay. It is stagnant. It boasts no maritime activity. It simply separates the suburban dreck of the Eastside from the Westside’s bounty of movie location shots. As it was, Hollywood was constantly using the quaint burg’s better half for its hometown aesthetic, inadvertently preserved by a slothful planning commission — a time capsule of Americana, the town du jour for clamoring location scouts whose anxious reconnaissance brought the film industry slouching toward our tiny Bethlehem.]
The young fugitive makes a break for Occidental Avenue and speeds toward the mooring docks lining the river at Water Street.
At the river, our hero reconsiders his plan, remembering the mysterious disappearance of his best chum in its jelly the night before. Between sharp breaths, he chances a glance of the fireball behind him, the flames that were once his hometown, the serial setting of his youthful exploits, the backdrop of every love he’d known. The single salve for the catastrophe he had become was evolving ever earnestly toward ash. Finally
[NOTE TO AUTEUR: Insert something in the middle]
INT. CAFÉ – THE NIGHT BEFORE
Tight shot of a forlorn young man writing in notebook.
- CHRIS F. (V.O.)
- Perhaps it was those crackerjack E’s, the homemade calligraphy of some dime store socialite; or the pointillist punch that capped her lowercase ‘J’ like a pinball in stasis. Two words written lipstick across the TV’s snow storm simply reading “Elephant Juice.”
FADE TO BLACK.
I bore Buntel Eriksson’s torch proudly and with a cavalcade of boyhood chums, forced from familiarity into a common flat, shared a library of rare books on the auteur. Ben Trovato (would-be filmmaker), Trout Munroe (resident poet and scholar), Griffin Zax (actor), Horatio Scott (recovering Eastside trash and bookseller) and I (screen memoirist) collected all known volumes penned about Eriksson sans one.
Our communal attitude regarding the Eriksson library, however, was a fraud for I, the Projectionist, had concocted a scheme — one which I deigned not share with my dawdling brothers, so deep had I planted my flag in the dung heap of parsimony.
In short, I wanted to become a Swede. I wanted to be Sven Gerhardt, screenwriter. Upon procuring the final Eriksson volume, I’d sell the collective library for a one-way ticket out of Lumaville’s stifling suburban climes so I could present the motion picture version of my life to Buntel Eriksson whose stark Swedish sensibility, no doubt, would surely be stirred by the essential bleakness of my autobiography.
I reached for the projector’s lamp knob, but hesitated. When Young Sergeant Phil had abdicated the projectionist gig to me, he schooled me on the will and whims of the projector. We derisively referred to it as “The Cyclops.”
“First the motor, then the lamp switch, otherwise it’s Los Alamos up there. Print’s susceptible to damage against the heat of the bulb. What we in the trade call an ‘Atomic Montage.’ Looks cool, but then it’s you and the mob squaring off over comps,” Young Sergeant Phil explained. He paused to scrape his gray front tooth. “You’ve heard of a ‘final cut’?”
“Of course. Buntel Eriksson insists on final cut.”
“If there’s a meltdown and I’m cutting the film back together, forget it, I’m taking artistic license. The projectionist gets final cut.”
Young Sergeant Phil stepped back with an approving, Indian corn smile. “First the motor, then the lamp switch.”
Young Sergeant Phil had rated the severity of Atomic Montages from “The Gadget,” being a minor bubbling of the frame, to “Fat Boy,” full obliteration of the print necessitating the loathed splice work before it could be returned to the distributor. He longed for the Atomic Montage he simply called “The Bomb.”
• • •
The motor’s toggle switch made an affable click before setting into clamorous motion. The lamp bloomed to full luminescence. Swedish filled the cavernous auditorium. A glint of projector light reflected off a coffee cup caused me to double-take. The motion made my ears ring.
The reel was running, the audience placated — I was obliged to take a break.
• • •
The Shrag was a serviceable cafe with large street-side windows, through which the soft interior light shone amber as though refracted through a river-water martini. Tables were uniformly arranged against the brick interior in the manner of a law library, each allocated a dim lamp with glowing green shade and tarnished brass works. The staff, a handful of dissolute young steam-queens, were likewise shady and brassy but as yet too green for a full tarnish.
Behind the counter, Minuet, Midge and Ruby had discovered weeks prior they were all originally named Jennifer.
“I’ve nominated you for president of my fan club,” Midge anted as I approached her perch. Her cherry lipstick ripened her blanched, porcelain face somewhere past her mere eighteen years. “Location scouts were back today, told the chief we might be extras — spares, moving props. Auxiliary talent. Pitches a bit cheap though — ‘extras,’ but it bodes well. A face in the crowd, the director mollified by the light in my eyes. I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up famous like Paige Paillard.”
Midge genuflected in mock reverence.
Like all Lumavillains, Midge enjoyed invoking the name “Paige Paillard,” the young flaxen-headed cellist who earned world acclaim popularizing the tunes of dead Germans with the youth set. Paige was a native of Lumaville and many professed to know her when they did not. She was a sycophant whose real talent was plucking the sonorous bristles of opportunism rather than cat-gut, but then I was privy to such insight, I professed to know her.
Midge signed the back of a tab and kissed it so that the imprints of her glossed lips swallowed her signature.
“You want my autograph?” Midge mused. “Say, I’ll put you on payroll to openly resent my success after I’m discovered.”
“You won’t be discovered in this shit-hole. The entire film industry drains into Lo-Cal,” I explained repellently. “Stars are filtered from the current and the others wash up as existentialism effigies, only to plunge themselves from the ‘Why’ of the ‘Hollywood’ sign, to garner credit on a tombstone.”
Midge frowned, though her daydream was not entirely unfounded. Paige was discovered in Lumaville. Her departure left a tiny trickle of hope for similarly-minded wannabes that, like the infernal river, seemed as if it would never dry up.
She turned to fetch a cup. Her ass, amiably tucked into dark peddle-pushers, peeked from behind the blue apron cinched around her waist in a loose bow. It was an ass I knew well — I had seen its honeyed cambers from innumerable vantages. The two of us shared a record of profuse lovemaking. We spoke little of it — our dalliance was a secret kept from even ourselves. Romantic details were scanty and the entire affair was strangely immaterial.
I endeavored to appear unaffected, a piece of my heart caving under the duress of my unfinished screenplay. Midge tossed her cheaply dyed black hair and poured me a cup of coffee. The tip jar on the counter brimmed with currency. It had a sign wrapped around it that read, “Support Counter Intelligence.”
“Black?” she asked.
Service slowed considerably at the Shrag whenever the great Moloch of Hollywood was in town. It was as if Ruby, Minuet and Midge moved in some order of contemplative molasses. They began conferring amongst themselves, huddled like archeologists divining significance from an arrangement of fractured shells.
“Who do I have to fuck for a break?”
Fuck them all. I’d let my best chum sink into the muck and mire of the Lumaville River if it got me an inch closer to Sweden.
My thoughts were interrupted by a sudden faintness, a spell that came on as Café Shrag’s espresso machine erupted into shrieks and hisses from the brawny torque of a steam-queen’s forearm. I rattled my head with a terse shrug as I collected myself and noticed an indistinct buzz ebbing from my ears like a loose radio dial rolling through the frequencies.
I returned to the cinemas and spent the last minutes of my break noodling on the Motion Picture Version of My Life — that’s when my roommate, the recovering Eastside plebian Horatio Scott, called from his gig at the used bookstore.
“Damn it, Horatio, my name is Sven Gerhardt.”
“Sure it is. And I’m Ingmar Bergman. Listen to this: ‘From Angst to Zilch: The Portable Eriksson Filmography’ edited by Raff McGuffin,” Horatio reported in a concise if strangled manner. The tinny acoustics of the receiver made his homemade accent sound like that of a golden age radio actor. “Hardcover, some highlighting. The final installment.”
“Where’d you hide it?” I asked excitedly.
“Romance Sector,” Horatio murmured. “You’re all clear here. The boss has his nose in inventory and there’s no sign of…”
“Don’t say it, lest he shall be summoned.”
“Chris F.,” Horatio retorted and hung up.
I folded the screenplay into my breast pocket, closed the projection booth door with a quick swipe of my shoe and trod through the balcony to the john. I pissed, at length, while reading the new graffiti I had penned earlier, “Repeal the Seventh Seal” and bounded down the stairs.
A deferential ogre in a tweed jacket and wire-rimmed glasses caught my arm as I turned into the lobby.
“Are you in charge here, young man?”
I blinked and scratched my head. In the dark, the patron had rubbed a fair portion of Brie into his lapel.
“That noise from your projector…”
“Is an intolerable assault to Mr. Bergman’s work.”
As if in a showdown, the lug focused his entire weight toward my eyes which glazed against blinking from an anticipated shed of saline, the molt of a liar’s conviction.
“I don’t expect you to be aware of this, Bergman fan, but it was the director’s intention that the projector be audible during this sequence in Wild Strawberries so the audience may question whether the old man’s memoir was based on his experience or merely a projection.”
The patron huffed and scrubbed his lapel with a wad of napkins. I retreated to the projection room.
As the man had complained, the door was agape, the Cyclops indignantly yammering. I threw myself against the door twice and closed it with a resounding bang. Denizens of the balcony yowled their disapproval. I muddled with the forgotten lock until I was satisfied it fastened and left for the bookstore, chimeras of Eriksson’s coattails leading the way.
At Occidental Avenue, Fourth Street becomes Volk, Fifth becomes Cellar and Sixth becomes Topping. Seventh through Ninth remain Seventh, Eighth and Ninth until, having spanned the alphabet backwards from “J” Street, they disappear at “B”. Tenth, however, only stretches from “D” to “B” at which point it becomes Fair Game Street. First and Second are hybrids that, like Seventh through Ninth, also end at “B.” There has never been a Third Street. Main Street, which carves through town in tandem with the non-flowing River, presides where a Third Street would fit. We lived at 160 Main.
The bookstore was at Fourth and Occidental, right before Fourth turns into Volk and Occidental. The sign that once announced, “Ozma’s Used Books” had been vandalized by a high school shit named Everett Poole to read “OZMA’S USED BO KS.” Poole pronounced “BO KS” as “Box” which was his indelicate vernacular for vagina. He was also responsible for a steak house sign that read “MILLI’S CHILI BAR & S E KS” on the south end of Main. He was a fast kid in a slow town, but in a fast town he would have been a slow kid.
• • •
Ozma’s was the dog pound of used booksellers. Only books that were previously lost, stolen or abused comprised its inventory and Mr. O’Hoglibosh, Horatio’s employer, a rotund chain-smoking sausage who genteelly hid his shrewd business acumen under the guise of moral activism, had made it policy not to allow holds, layaways, special orders or employee purchases of merchandise. “All the books, for all the people, for all the time” he brogued.
To circumvent this policy, Horatio and I devised a system inspired, in part, by Buntel Eriksson’s espionage thriller Den Plastspion (released to late-night television as The Plastic Spy). Upon discovery of the rarified Eriksson tome, Horatio would mis-shelve the item, indicate to me where it was, and I’d purchase it. We thought it brilliant (in the Eriksson flick, villainous psychic brain pills were shelved with eardrops in a pharmacy). The only risks were the occasional free-radical that happened across the mis-stocked book before I, or Lumaville’s other collector of Buntel Eriksson materials, the Wombat got there.
• • •
My shoelace caught a wormy nail burrowed in a step leading into the basement shop. I knelt to unhook myself and from the lower vantage spied the bearded, pipe-wielding Horatio through the shop window. He was speaking animatedly to a slender blond fellow whose back was to me and making a big to-do about adjusting his recently acquired monocle.
Inside, in his tiny, dim office, O’Hoglibosh himself labored over the company war book — his silhouette three cannonballs set laterally on a fifty-gallon drum. Behind the counter, Horatio paced hither and thither, turning tidily on his instep. He raised his eyes as I entered, then coolly resumed his work. Boris, the boorish shop dog — front-end bull-terrier, chassis shepherd and collie in the boot — hibernated in his tattered basket inside the counter.
I ventured through the towering bookcases toward the Romance Sector as Horatio had instructed on the telephone. The shelves were dusty and crammed with books like grotesque smiles in grave orthodontic need.
Idlers and browsers were strewn through the narrow halls, kneeling, peering and variously engaged in the pensive positions of a figure drawing class. From a corner, Crazy Larry, a resident of the flophouse Lumaville Hotel at Volk and Westside Park Way, wheezed a salutation from the Action-Adventure Sector. Piggy-backed to his stumpy form was a heavily packed rucksack that counterweighted his enormous gut.
“I spy Chris F.,” he observed through the opera glass of his thumb and forefinger.
His feet concealed by the enormity of his paunch, Larry was cautious not to tread on the spindle-shanked crawdads of his shoe laces. A small amateur camera dangled from a black cord looped over his wrist. I passed as he read the back blurb of a spy novel with gravelly inhalations.
“‘An auspicious meeting of menace and malaise,’” Crazy Larry read. “‘When they’re together, the sun-scorched Isle of Mordoom is threatened from a greater heat than the triple suns’: the veritable firestorm of Passion!’”
In the Romance Sector, the blond fellow ruffled the short hair on the back of his thin neck. He glanced at me from over his elbow momentarily recalling Regen Vomstold’s performance in Eriksson’s Vampyr. All I could see were his eyes.
I stood near him and perused the shelves for the Eriksson book, comparing every title against the index of words I repeated to myself, drumming their syllables on my knee. Discouraged by its invisibility, I shifted to another shelf and accidentally grazed the chap’s shoulder.
“Sorry, pal,” I apologized.
“No worries,” she said. The revelation that the chap was a woman sprinkled over me like the misty premonition of rain. She pulled a swath of hair behind her ear, revealing large, dewy eyes that turned like blue, cat’s eye marbles on play tea saucers.
Color hued warmly in my cheeks and sizzled in my ears which popped at the exciting notion that there was a new girl in town. Unknown women in Lumaville were rarer than books on Buntel Eriksson.
I endeavored to ignore her, but could not help noticing how keenly her short hair was tapered and how precise its part. Stretched over her buoyant chest was a T-shirt that read “Crash and Burn ’37.” I tried to keep my eyes on task, but they were seduced by a dour beauty mark that lounged at four o’clock from her left eye. She wore licorice-colored reading glasses as a headband and looked tall and trim in her forest blazer — a shield-shaped patch stitched to the top pocket of the sort worn at a boy’s boarding school. I lowered my eyes — khaki chinos made a long reach to the floor and turned at the cuffs against black loafers with Mercury head dimes inserted where the pennies went.
“So Swedish sailor, Watch for the rocks, Sing with the sirens, After you’ve docked,” I chanted to myself — a rough translation of Eriksson’s maritime musical Svanga Langtansfull (The Wistful Waves) released in an English dub as The Whaling Swedes and alternately Bane O’ the Tides.
I knelt to examine the bottom shelf of a bookcase that listed slightly to the left. In my haste, I again brushed against the young woman’s coat and I thought my sleeve button might ignite like a friction match.
“Sorry again,” I mumbled, turning toward her as my fingers blindly groped From Angst to Zilch. She nodded, knelt and plucked a thin volume from the shelf and examined it. I glanced at her, lost my place and began to survey the row again as the silence between us grew uncomfortable until, suddenly, “Hey, this is a library book!” came protesting from her bowed lips.
Book in hand, she turned to me in outrage. “I can’t believe it — they’re trying to sell a library book. This is stolen property — stolen from The People, from us!”
I felt a tickle between my ear lobe and jaw as if I had eaten fresh pineapple.
“This is bullshit,” she continued, but for all her vehemence, something rang false. I flashed that she was unpinning a K through 12 parochial education with the quick fix urbanity of casual profanity, the way Lumaville chicks tired of wholesome poise smoked imported cigarettes or slept with older men.
My eyes blurred as her silvery skin rebounded the overhead light casting her in an angora-like soft focus.
“My parents are professors, French in fact — staunch socialists,” she said, “Libraries are sacred to them. They empower the people.”
I was silent, though I detected in her a need for commiseration, and for a curious moment felt as though we were both rain-soaked travelers berating a late train. Her parcels tied in string, their carefully penned addresses trickling India ink rivers from the drench as she curses things treasonous to the spirit: toast without tea, devices that dampen postage stamps without licking, Bergman. I nodded calmly and dreamt inwardly of warming my nose in her brimming cleavage.
“I’m going to buy this and send it back to where it belongs,” she said resolutely. She read an inscription on the fly page, “To ‘Fourth Street.’”
“I’ve never been to Fourth Street,” I stammered obtusely.
Horatio hacked pointedly from behind the counter, a strangled cough that came off like a duck call.
I darted up and eyed Horatio from over the bookcase. In a panic, he mouthed words at me. Coffee table? I shrugged in confusion and descended out of his view.
The young woman had started a fine pile of books that formerly belonged to libraries.
“Sometimes they sell off old titles,” I suggested.
She scrutinized the inside cover of a misplaced book on marine biology.
“This is marked ‘checked out, checked in, checked out, checked in, checked out.’ It was never checked back in.”
She loves me, she loves me not, I thought as I again heard radio static but could not discern where it was coming from.
“This is a literary chop-shop,” she appraised, the ire in her voice raising. “This degrades literature. This degrades crime.”
“Like detective fiction,” I jested to deaf ears.
“Pure deviance. I have a kid brother — when he doesn’t live with the parents it’s off to Addlepate and Lackwit where they have rubber walls. He’s a fuck-up and he wouldn’t do this kind of shit. Certified,” she elaborated. “Decent-looking chap apart from that nose — and what is that around his neck — a bib?”
“No!” I responded sharply, though I quickly realized no one had asked the question. I adjusted my ascot.
In the excitement, it was with only partial consciousness that I registered her voice in my head.
“Don’t defend him, the kid’s a head-case. You have siblings?” she probed. “I wonder if he has a cigarette.”
“Of course,” I responded reaching into my pocket for Midge’s cigarettes, which I had lifted the night before. “They’re imported.”
There was a loud bang near the register. I shot up again. Horatio had dropped a large ornithological encyclopedia on the counter from a great height. Framed in the doorway, Mr. O’Hoglibosh creaked backwards in his chair to inspect the noise. Horatio looked frantic.
“Mind the noise, Oratio! You’ll wake that vicious pooch!” he said as the beast shifted in its basket.
Horatio glared at me as he responded to Mr. O’Hoglibosh. “Sorry! Dropped a COFFEE TABLE BOOK!”
Finally understanding Horatio’s caution, I looked toward the shelves laden with coffee table titles and felt, for the first time, my scrotum tighten in fear.
The Wombat’s bloodshot eyes hovered below his bashed fedora as he meticulously examined each shelf. The fabric at his shoulders bristled into pubic-like frays down his sleeve which cuffed just short of concealing his bloated, veiny wrists. Two crooked fingers, yellowed by prison-grade cigarettes, picked the rusty stubble below his thin blue lip. Though I had never seen his face, I knew it was uglier than hammered shit.
In Lumaville’s miniscule book trade, the Wombat had made a name as a shrewd and even vicious collector of the rare and antiquarian. Twice before he had snatched Buntel Eriksson titles I had been searching for and twice I had paid him through the nose to own them. My nose is bigger than most — its capacity for currency regrettably high.
The young woman added more books to her pile. I began to formulate a plan.
“What’s your name?” I asked hastily.
“What’s yours?” she countered.
I told her. She raised an incredulous eyebrow and I began to perspire about the hairline.
“Like the Buntel Eriksson film? Your parents hated you. Mine hated me too. Ariadne Tailleur. Greco-Franco, see? Aria for short.”
“Don’t get short with me!” she laughed. “Always works, that.” “God, Aria, why do you insist on saying that stupid joke?”
She presented her left hand to shake with a cheery sigh as a flash bulb ruptured the bookstore’s moody dim like the sad, strobe-lightning of a student theatre production. Crazy Larry huffed a general apology for the minor lightning as he packed the tiny camera into his rucksack. The flash had left me temporarily dazed and I stood dumbstruck before Aria.
That’s when I realized I had been hearing the voices again. Anxiety rattled inside me. I thought I might be experiencing some kind of chemical withdrawal but couldn’t discern if I needed booze, coffee or cigarettes. Indeed, I’d had it bad, once, coming off that cough syrup binge.
A drink sounded right — it would at least bring me down. The inclination to self-medicate always defaults to the handy elixir of booze. In old films it is the career highlight of tearful maid-servants and stunned footmen to fetch and administer all order of spirits to a lead who has collapsed upon the epoch of a plot point.
I drew Aria down below the shelf as she squinted at me through her long blond bangs.
“Listen, I need your help,” I said, perhaps a tad over-dramatically. She rolled her eyes which mildly bruised my zealous manner.
Boris the shop dog barked loudly at Horatio who fumbled for his balance, having just kicked him in an effort to get my attention. I bolted upward. Horatio tried to quell the grumpy Boris as I pantomimed my distress at not finding the Eriksson book. Horatio’s eyes bugged in alarm.
I shook my head as one will when reeling from a sneeze and spied the Wombat moving toward the Biography Sector. As he plowed the shelves, his head jerked mechanically like the carriage return of an electric typewriter.
Boris’ barking persisted.
“Chop!” Mr. O’Hoglibosh hollered as he emerged from his desk and captured the yapping dog in a half-nelson. “Chop, Boris, Chop! Vet’s got eyes on ’em, dog!”
The blaring bark abated. While O’Hoglibosh tended the dog, Horatio’s bony finger jabbed the air in the direction of the Travel Sector. I turned, and there, searching the low shelves, the Wombat squatted like a shitting woodsman.
“Do you see the man in the overcoat?” I asked Aria, who seemed impressed with the urgency of my tone, enough at least to participate in my scheme.
“Signal if he follows me.”
Aria nodded and I felt very much as I did as a child, the inventor of games, nearly asking her if I could tie her to a tree. Stepping away, I thought I heard her appraising my anatomy but her faint voice grew silent as the distance between us grew. Then I realized she had said “How?” not “Wow.”
When I reached the Action-Adventure sector, I turned my head in three-quarter profile (to the left — my nose is slightly bent and after countless, studious hours in the mirror I divined the left was my “good side”) and with a monocular fish eye watched Aria. She touched her finger to her lips. This was the sign.
The farsighted Wombat strained his head backward from his chafed neck like a sling-shot loaded with his enlarged Adam’s apple. Titles quivered under his gaze.
I moved to the How-To sector along the eastern wall. Aria whistled, the sweet wind brushing the back of my neck; but like impetuous Orpheus, I turned. The Wombat’s dark form barreled into me. The heels of my wingtips, worn to a forty-five degree angle, succumbed to the imbalance and I was knocked to the floor.
“Next time, partner,” he hissed as he stepped over me, his inky coat a momentary night over my eyes.
The Wombat huffed up the stairs and ambled out of sight as I collected myself from the floorboards.
Horatio suddenly appeared before me pressing a length of blood soaked receipts to a puncture on his forearm. The wound hypnotized me as the red blood blended with the black register ink.
“Never mind the arm, the dog’ll get his,” Horatio swore. His monocle was fogged. He pulled me to my feet and brushed off my coat. “Now off to the Romance Sector!”
I dashed back to the Romance Sector and discovered Aria mysteriously gone. I tossed through the titles that sat loosely on shelves that minutes before were uncomfortably clogged and finally realized, if it were ever there at all, From Angst to Zilch: The Portable Buntel Eriksson Filmography had vanished with the girl.
I stormed out of Ozma’s and up the steps to Fourth Street, before it becomes Volk. I peered up the south side of the block squinting against the sunlight that beamed off the chromium street traffic. Aram’s the Armenian joint, the Lumaville Travel Agency, antique shops — but no Aria. The north side; Carithers Furniture, Alm’s Engravables, the art shop — no Aria. A peek up Occidental revealed the dry cleaners where Johan Non sublet his private-eye office — but no Aria.
I cantered down Occidental en route to Cafe Shrag, swiveling my head, desperate to seize on Aria as I dodged passersby. I hightailed it to the Shrag.
Wind gusted from the door as I entered and swayed the woozy Ben Trovato who discreetly gripped the counter and adjusted the package under his arm. He was haggling with Midge and his frustration showed in subtle blotches across his otherwise marble cheeks. The salutary smile he affected seemed the prelude to a bite.
“Ben,” I panted, “I’m looking for a girl.”
“Me too. Maybe we could go in together,” he snorted.
I started with her description, indicating Aria’s height with an accidental karate chop to my nose. “She’s wearing a shirt that says ‘Crash and Burn ’37,’” I persisted. “You seen someone like that?”
“Perhaps,” said Ben as his eyelids became two shrewd slits. I shivered with impatience. “They say my credit’s no good here, er, Sven. How ’bout going Dutch on a coffee date, but you leave me out of it?”
“Two,” I said to Midge who nodded curtly. The air about her chilled as her torso rotated from the counter. Ben bowed Thank You.
He was slated to direct the Motion Picture Version of My Life — after I wrote it — which seemed sometime off as my quotidian experience yielded little in the way source material. Ours was collaborative procrastination, however. A stickler for pre-production, Ben insisted we also procure a camera.
“Now, regarding the female you described,” Ben began as eavesdropping Midge slammed the coffee pot back onto its burner. “She hooked a mean left onto Main in some order of ‘Automatique,’ French-made, with a pro-herbivore sticker on the bumper. Tell me, how is it you always spy the new girls first?” he japed with a wink. Gestures of this sort were Ben’s onramp into the surly world of carnal expletives. An explicit summation of what he would like to do to her followed.
Midge returned to the counter with a single cup of coffee which she slid toward Ben, her face hard and pallid.
“The last,” she muttered, then added with a deleterious smile that more was brewing for me as horse-faced Ruby emerged from the recess of the kitchen to confer this point with a sisterly arm around Midge’s shoulders. They snickered and curtsied.
• • •
After our routine discussion of its merits, Ben decided we should sit at a window table so the sun’s glare would obscure us from our friends outside lest they suspect us of conspiracy. I agreed, despite the seeming breach of our recent protocol. As it was, when Ben hoofed, hot-headed past the Shrag a week previously, I had instantly thrown my eyes back to my newspaper as Ben kept his eyes downcast toward his wingtips; his black flat-top wedging through the night drizzle and hawk-faced gaze snapping back but once to confirm I was ignoring him. Like a garrison of absurd spies, my cronies and I had taken to appearing occupied by exclusive phantom ventures. When it seemed opportune, Ben would make exits announcing he had to make an “important phone call” then launch himself into a phone booth where he would pantomime a conversation to the droning dial tone. I mailed letters to myself and opened them privately, hoping to be discovered in the process — then I’d abruptly lock them in a drawer and sheepishly refuse to discuss the matter.
• • •
Ben tore the brown wrapping from his package and rolled the sixteen millimeter film canister across the table like a gargantuan nickel.
“Regard in awe,” Ben gloated as a scheming smile split the shores of stubble that defined the ruddy isthmus of his mouth. He peered at me through the viewfinder slung around his neck like a religious talisman. “Vargman!” he exclaimed in crumbling Swedish. He had a fat lip. “Horror beyond your imagination.”
Ben turned the backside of the canister to me. A runny inscription on masking tape transversed the circle. It read The Boy Who Cried Wolfman.
“That’s the American release title,” Ben explained in an apologetic tone.
“Sacrilege. Eriksson’s distributors have the reek of villainy. Poor chap’s getting it from the inside too.”
“Sadly, you may be right,” Ben agreed. “The ringworm of Ingmar Bergman’s conspiracy seems to’ve finally reached Eriksson’s own people — a syndicate foreordained to cripple the better half of Svensk Filmindustri.”
Ben and I lowered our heads as he pawed through his second-hand suit for a cigarette. Failing to find one, he inquired about my reserves, then curiously asked if I could light one for him. He took a weak drag with some discomfort.
“So, you’ll like this — I cribbed that print from the University archive.”
“You went to the Eastside? Ghastly.”
“I showered afterward,” he assured. “This goony chick who works there’s mad about me. A library aide. Built. But she’s a real head-case so I promised myself I could get the film without, er, involvement. She’s got contrary notions, though.”
“Why go through all the trouble?”
“I’m on sabbatical.”
“Reasons,” he said curtly. “So we’re in this dark alcove of the U library’s archive level. Desolate. Somehow she’s got me on the floor already, I don’t know how, tripped me or something and right off she’s in rasping the thigh-highs. Cricket. Ping! A little garter clasp quits it and she’s, you know, ‘Oh, dear me, tee-hee,’ up with the skirt, cuts some flash…”
“You already have the film?” I asked.
“Going in. ‘Here, have it. Bring it back someday.’”
“Why’d you hang around?”
“She locked me in. I think she hypnotized me. I don’t know. These U chicks are clever. So she gets me all wrapped up in her, but she’s dangerous, right? Thought The Virgin Spring was part of a trilogy.”
“It is,” I said. “Was Bergman’s three-pronged attempt to dominate Swedish cinema.”
“Whatever. I still think she’s a nutcake and I’m not going all the way with her anyway, cuz I’m on sabbatical which I tell her. But forget it. See — I owe — dig? I mean, that’s the language here — she says I ‘owe her.’”
“Owe her what?”
“Listen — one, two, she does some Aikido move and — Hi-ya! She crosses her legs around my head in the ‘upright and locked position.’”
“From the biblical. She wants her apple bit, I’ll bite. But after about twenty minutes I realize this girl’s in for the long haul.”
“I said ‘uncle.’ She’s a sadist — only loosens her thighs enough so that a tiny trickle of oxygen will keep me alive. I have no feeling in my head other than I think my teeth are loosening. My tongue, what tongue? I’m waiting for her to mercifully break my neck. Delirious, absolutely gone, mad. Apparently I’m so looped I come to believe I was a famous football player and begin to show resentment about what I thought were racist statements about my ability as an athlete.”
“So she finally goes…”
“No, man,” Ben says, painfully exhaling smoke. “After all that, it’s just over — nothing seismic, not even a little shudder — just this sort of vaguely climatic sneeze. Kachew.”
I prodded the Buntel Eriksson film canister.
“Eriksson would be proud.”
“Didn’t talk for the last two hours just for the novelty of keeping my mouth shut.”
I finally lit my cigarette, an action Ben thought “Brilliant” as he framed me with he bookends of his hands, then with the viewfinder.
“There it is. Light your cigarette again, just like you did.”
I put out the cigarette and lit it again as per his instructions.
“They’re shooting here again,” I informed him through the smoke and flame. “In Cafe Shrag.”
“Moloch,” Ben snapped, composing his frame, a hazel eye huge in the viewfinder. “Action.”
I dashed and lit the withered cigarette again.
“Fuck Hollywood. Establishment crap, worse than Bergman,” he spat as he watched me smoke. “Wait’ll they see our film.”
“Ha, wait’ll we see it.”
“That’ll show ‘em.”
“They won’t believe our eyes.”
In innumerable acts of hubris, Ben and I had declared ourselves Lumaville’s resident filmmakers, but in the face of a Hollywood production company, we were only crude caricatures of our own ambition.
“This is nothing short of hostile occupation,” Ben averred. “What gets me most is their tinkering with the tincture — shootin’ up the town in their motley. Technicolor twits. Lumaville is a black and white town, damn it.”
Indeed, to Ben, everything looked black and white. Once, his idiocy bolstered by a liquid hallucinogen blotted on the page of an underground rag that invited readers to
Ben tried to light a cigarette with a magnifying glass and the sunlight. Before he conceded a teary defeat, he had damaged his retinas such that his world thereafter appeared only in shades of gray.
• • •
I dashed a line of action onto my script: “Man lights cigarette” as Midge finally sashayed to our table with my order.
“Drink up. We’re closing,” she sniped, then turned to Ben, “You want a refill.”
“No. I swear you put dishwater in it,” he said. He picked up a salt shaker and with no pretense of stealth put it in his coat pocket.
After I burned my tongue on the scalding coffee, Midge softened a little and said I could take the cup to the theater so long as I promised to return it the next day. The narrow sill of the projection booth’s ventilating window was lined with an army of such promises.
My break was over. Ben asked if he could use the phone at the cinemas. I said he could and he quickly forgot the matter. After work, we would screen Vargman. Private screenings met no objections from Young Sergeant Phil when bribed with any order of controlled substance and Ben had a bottle of warm beer in his pocket he had acquired when leaving Murphy Pullman’s housewarming party the previous night. It was the gruff Pullman’s second housewarming party in a month — his first landed him an eviction.
Turning into the cinema, Ben and I found the doors blocked from the inside. Elbow patches and long skirts pressed against the glass doors. The lobby rumbled like a hive dense with bloated patrons.
“Holy shit!” escaped from my lips.
Young Sergeant Phil ambled and turned in the mob’s gyrating center. Panic had scrubbed the droll countenance from his face as he rose and tumbled like a scarecrow in a wind tunnel.
Hurriedly, Ben and I pushed our way through the doors and past the crowd’s gnashing mouths that frothed with complaints like a hundred-headed Cerberus with a master’s in film studies. We plowed toward Young Sergeant Phil. It looked as though the crowd might lynch him. He was the sad misunderstood Frankenstein monster, harried by the improvised weaponry of a peasant populace — torches, hoes and pitchforks — upgraded to rolled theater programs, popcorn boxes and airborne chocolate-covered peanuts.
I pulled Young Sergeant Phil to the floor and my knees were wetted by spilled coffee. Ben shielded us with his hard-earned film canister. All the ruckus appealed to my cinematic sensibilities — a repressed penchant for war films, the trench warfare of my social life, colluded by the popcorn machine rattling away like distant gunfire.
“What happened here Sergeant?”
“They pulled me from the hole after…” his voice trailed as his bent finger pointed to the letter crypt where the marquee’s alphabet slept. A knee caught Ben in the back and he retaliated with an instant elbow. Young Sergeant Phil gripped my collar.
“After what, Sergeant?” I pleaded, shaking him.
“After the fucking print broke!” he coughed. “Where were you? Where were you, Projectionist?”
Shame iced through me. Young Sergeant Phil fervently gathered my lapel.
“I’ve never seen an Atomic Montage quite like it… It was beautiful… It was horrible… Like a burning flower, er, Sven, like tulip torches.”
“It needs splicing. I’m going up,” I declared. Ben halted me, a rough hand on my arm.
“Are you mad? You’ll never make it!” he shouted through the noise.
“I have to Ben, it’s my duty.”
“Then I’m going with you.”
Ben nearly buckled from the drafty emotion netted in our war picture exchange. We duck-walked through the crowd and toward the balcony stairs, showers of popcorn and crushed ice cascading over our shoulders.
Though Young Sergeant Phil had once been a crack projectionist, he no longer had the ability to roll film. He had once suffered a breakdown during a showing and had come to fear the power the projector furnished him.
During a matinee of Peter Pan, the house bursting with rapt gazes and fidgeting children, Young Sergeant Phil quietly quoted the Bhagavad-Gita to himself and pinched a frame of the passing print, halting it before the blazing lamp where it melted into Technicolor oblivion. Children cried for days from the sheer horror of it — Peter, while precariously dodging the sweep of Hook’s blade, inexplicably froze in time. His crucial rhythm stymied, he suddenly exploded into a globule of green pigment and evaporated in the blinding light.
Young Sergeant Phil demoted himself to marquee letterman and spent most his time in the letter crypt puzzling over how to spell The Wistful Waves with the one S and inverted Ms for Ws.
The auditorium was infused with white light, pure and absent of projection. We turned up the stairs to the balcony and blazed by a few moon-faced stragglers who had stayed behind to loot coats and purses. The projection booth door was half open and Ben and I apprehensively stirred in front of it before entering.
Inside, the projector’s great cooling fans panted like a murderer settling after a crime of passion. Ribbons of film print, Bergman’s entrails, were strewn in heaps across the floor. The great reel still turned, however, and the amputated stock whipped the projector with each revolution.
We reached into the pile of film and fished for an end. Voices rose from the lobby. Ben investigated and quickly pulled back through the door.
“This door lock?”
“Little hook on the outside.”
Ben found a heavy chair in the corner and pulled it to the door to secure it shut.
“There’s nothing that can be done here, Ben, not immediately, not in time,” I said, shaking my head.
“I’m not going down there without putting something on. Bergman fans, they’re a brutal sort, bleak motherfuckers,” Ben shook his head. “You heard about that usher who passed in front of the screen during The Silence — they say his flashlight was still shining when doctors removed it from his…”
There was a crash against the door. Ben and I searched each other’s eyes for a moment and then in simultaneous collaboration, he offered his film canister to my reaching hands.
We pulled the lead reel off the Cyclops and let it find the floor through the bushels of celluloid. I pressed the Eriksson print on and pulled it through the works as Ben pulled a dummy reel off the wall and threaded the leader. He reached for the lamp switch.
“Wait! Motor first. Make sure it’s rolling before you hit the lamp!”
Ben hit the motor and turned to me.
I peered through the projection window as I clicked on the lamp, its great heat warming half my face. An enormous “5 4 3 and 2″ appeared on the screen, then white tiles carved through a field of black reading, “Vargman!”
A dwarfish fellow in the third row stood on his seat and announced toward the doors, “It’s rolling!” A tidal wave of patrons washed back into their seats and burst into sudden applause. Ben smiled wryly.
The audience watched quietly, appeased, unquestioning, not aware that a shallow scratch across the dingus’ shellac would reveal the bird a fake.
Ben and I reclined in the balcony’s mangy seats. The excitement had brought a throb to my temples and a low ring in my ears. I mentioned this to Ben who, with medicinal concern, jabbed Murphy Pullman’s nickel-plated flask into my ribs. I capped it and as a gesture of faith, belted down a slug.
“Christ, what is this?” I sputtered.
Ben grinned, “A riverwater martini.”
Young Sergeant Phil shuffled up behind my seat, the stink of official deportment coming off him like a mean dose of aftershave.
“Your pal Griff’s outside.”
“In the lobby?”
“He’s got his head stuck in the face hole of the box office.”
Ben sized it out with his hands. In order for Griff to put his head through the circular cut of the plexi-glass, his head would have to be the diameter of a doll’s.
“Light-weight.” Ben teased, offering the last of Murphy Pullman’s stash.
“Let him in,” I moaned.
“His head’s stuck.”
I looked hard at Young Sergeant Phil.
“Officially, you’d have to admit him. I hold no jurisdiction over the box office.”
“You can open a door.”
Young Sergeant Phil shook his head. “I only do letters. I’m the letter man. The marquee. All letters. No doors. You open the fucking door.”
“I’m all the way up here,” I protested.
“So am I,” he countered, amused with his rhetorical finesse. “His head’s stuck, man.”
Begrudgingly, I exited the balcony and strolled through the lobby. Like a priest entering a confessional, I stepped into the slender box office. Griff’s disembodied head greeted me. He looked like a victim of Puritan justice, his Hollywood good looks beaming through the stocks. Griff fancied himself an out-of-work actor and moonlighted as a barfly. He was penciled to play the “Chris F.” in the Motion Picture Version of My Life and forswore all other pursuits as he prepared for the role.
His mouth yapped open and I considered feeding him a quarter so he could tell me my weight and fortune.
“I was showing off for the ladies,” he said, then whistled a low note. Ruby, Midge and Minuet appeared shivering from behind him.
I came around the door and pressed the weathered bar that released the lock, letting them in.
“Come in, no worries. Ben’s upstairs, go, quickly, go…”
The girls scurried in. I was always amazed they had legs. It seemed they operated Cafe Shrag with only locomotive pivots of their torsos and arms, emitting both steam and slanders like bawdy mechanical figurines.
“How do I look?”
“You have something in your teeth.”
Griff bashed his finger against the invisible guillotine, forgetting his reach was cut short. It was cruel to continue teasing him, so I quit after dousing him with ticket stubs.
“There’s not much I can do for you without my boss’ consent. It may be a while, you understand. We only communicate by wire. Top-Notch Telegramme doesn’t open until morning,” I explained.
I left the box office and searched the concession quarters for a hammer to bust Griff free. Under the counter, the lid was missing from the tub of goose fat used in the popcorn machine. A few clumsily deployed kernels were lodged in the sherbet lard, inert and torpid, cemented in an eternity only to be ended by the deus ex machina of my hand.
I was jarred by the sound of knuckles rapping on the glass door, and turned to discover Griff freshly extracted. I let him in.
“I remembered how to do it,” Griff guffawed. “You have to empty your head of all thoughts — deflate like a balloon. As an actor, of course, I’ve nearly perfected the discipline of empty-headedness.”
I flinched from his boisterous display, not yet boozy enough to prevent minor shocks.
“What are we watching?” Griff continued.
“Some trash-ass Bergman flick,” I said, maintaining the fraud.
“Bother. What are we drinking?” he asked while preening into a tiny compact he snapped shut and tucked into his pocket.
“It smacks of plumbing.”
Griff shot up the stairs and I followed after checking the locks and emptying the suggestion box into the garbage. When I arrived in the balcony, Griff and the girls had assembled in the first row and had reserved the aisle seat for me which was next to Midge, though for a negligent moment I’d have preferred the monstrously young Minuet. I settled and soon the flask came back into my reach.
Rifka Benco, Eriksson’s usual leading lady, appears in the doorway of the clinic costumed in a nurse’s uniform, a vial of blood in her hand. Hans Morgon, dashing, nervy, waits in the examination room, a large window in the background, the night sky suffocated by clouds. Benco cuts an easy smile and explains to Morgon his blood came up clean. Morgon is skeptical and protests, but she insists and attempts to embrace him. The scent of roasted coffee grounds rose from Midge’s dark shoulders and bobbed hair, at once sweaty and sexy. Morgon pushes her away and conceals himself beneath a table.
My head ached and the hum in my ears became unbearably audible, then sizzled and cracked in the echo chamber of my wee skull.
“Put your hand on my thigh.”
“Excuse me?” I queried Midge, astonished at my own astonishment. Her expression was blank, her eyes forward reflecting the screen.
“Did you say something?” she finally asked.
“I thought you said something.”
I extended my jaw to dislodge the pressure in my ears. Midge brushed her bangs from her eyes and pursed her wide lips.
“Put your hand on my thigh.” I heard again, clearly in Midge’s flutey voice. I realized my eyes had been on her all along and she hadn’t moved her lips. I looked down the row at the others. Griff, Minuet, Ben and Ruby were each enraptured by the film.
I put my hand on Midge’s thigh.
She shifted amiably in her seat and loosened her clenched thighs an inch.
Hans Morgon reaches from under the table. He accompanies his Swedish oration by pounding his fist. He swears to Benco that he is indeed ill. Benco refuses to believe him. Clouds visibly part in the background window, revealing a full moon. Morgon begs Benco to leave; again she refuses. Tight shot on Morgon’s hand. Midge raised the incline of her leg. I corresponded by groping a finger width toward the hem of her skirt. Through a series of dissolves, Morgon’s hand transforms: first naked, white, and then suddenly sprinkled with woolly smudges. I spread my fingers so that my little finger traced the curve of Midge’s thigh and quietly ducked under her skirt. Morgon’s nails darken, a crop of coarse hair emerges on his knuckles. My middle and ring fingers followed my pinkie under Midge’s skirt. A quantity of heat vented from her underwear. Morgon’s hand deepens a shade, the hair thickens. My index finger pulled under the elastic that clung to her inner thigh. Benco approaches the table, her brows twisting in horror.
“Did you say something?
I reached into the mesh beneath Midge’s sateen panties as she sharply inhaled. Morgon, fully transformed into a werewolf, leaps into view and seizes Benco. Everyone in the house screamed, including Midge who shot up in her seat and painfully contorted my elbow as I discreetly reeled my fingers home.
Griff wrestled his arm free of the infant Minuet whose painted eyebrow had defected to his shirt sleeve. He leaned over Midge to speak with me.
“You should write a scene like that. I could be that guy. I wouldn’t shave, I’d eat dog food.”
Ben’s interest was piqued.
“No werewolves in the movie, Chris F.,” he cautioned.
“I added a line of action after the opening monologue,” I said.
Ruby shushed us, which did little to prevent Griff from running his line from memory.
“…Two words written lipstick across the TV’s snow storm simply reading “Elephant Juice.”"
“Exactly, then in an incredibly tight shot, you light a cigarette. Eh?”
We all nodded with approval.
“How ‘bout I light two?” Griff offered.
“Yeah, one for me and one for the girl.”
“But the girl’s gone, Griff.”
“Brilliant!” Ben interrupted. “Put it in the script.”
He receded back into his seat.
Young Sergeant Phil was scheduled to close the theatre, albeit seventy minutes later than expected. The credits rolled and the shagged-out audience, cinematically hypnotized, eyes bloodshot, exited in slow drag-footed droves lauding what they, in concordance, believed was the complete cut of Wild Strawberries. We pushed through and rolled up Main, a drunken sextet of caroling coats and skirts.
The apartment I shared with Horatio Scott et al sprawled upstairs above the consistently vacant Cafe Press Pass. Our lights were on but the downstairs street entrance was locked and I never had my keys. Ben threw a handful of pennies at the window and in seconds Horatio Scott appeared over the brick windowsill.
“Ah, my people!” he cheered. “Get up here and settle an argument between Trout and me. Catch!”
The keys chimed with a miniature music as they tumbled down.
In the flat, the air was hued with pipe smoke, a dense, sweet vanilla that curled against the corners of the ceiling. Horatio shook hands with Griff, Ben and me and attempted to kiss the hands of the steam-queens who coquettishly resisted. Midge hovered near my side.
“We previewed Eriksson’s Vargman,” I said to Horatio.
“Villains,” he said jealously, then lit his pipe.
Horatio was in his element whenever such props were concerned and the pipe succeeded where the sword-canes, monocles and mustache wax had failed. The smartly trimmed beard was a good match as well as the favorable switch from dopey model-making to building ships in bottles and though he was only a clerk at Ozma’s Used Bookstore, he referred to himself as an “Antiquarian Bookseller” or when extreme, a “purveyor of literary artifacts.”
Horatio escorted me by the arm down the hall and into our living room which he had decorated prior to my tenancy with antique-looking maps, faux Persian rugs, and a suit of armor.
Trout Munroe sat in an over-stuffed chair beneath the empty knight’s raised blade, quietly stroking the spine of a Buntel Eriksson biography with a lank and covetous knuckle.
“I trust you’ve said nothing of this afternoon’s snafu?” Horatio whispered to my careful nod.
Griff passed the flask to Minuet. As she brought it to her lips he reached for her defenseless breast. She countered by bringing the flask down on his wrist, loosing some of its contents on his shirt. Ben bolted toward them with a swiftness that, on first take, appeared motivated by chivalry. However, he merely retrieved his flask and chastised them for spilling Murphy Pullman’s hooch.
Horatio took the floor. In his hands he tossed a jar of pickled nasturtium seeds. The cheap metal rim of his monocle had begun to encircle his deft squint with an allergic green.
“It is my assertion that, when pickled, nasturtium seeds are what we commonly refer to as capers,” Horatio spouted. “Is this correct?”
“Is this relevant?” Ben joked.
All eyes went askance in search of Horatio’s answer before finally turning to me. While I hesitated, Trout rose to his soles in a singular fluid movement, like Nosferatu rising in the hull; his thin, razor voice spiking the smoke from his long notched nostrils. A churlish gleam sparkled in his green-tinted glasses.
“Nasturtium seeds, when pickled, friend, are simply pickled nasturtium seeds,” he said with a censuring hiss. “Capers hail from a bush in the Mediterranean called, obligingly, the Caper Bush — capparis spinosa”
Trout reclaimed his seat. His lean form hardly disturbed the chair’s cushioning. He then added with a jab, “Pickled nasturtium seeds are used in Eastside brasseries as cheap caper substitutes.”
I endeavored to appear sober and judicial though I knew upon entering I would vindicate the academic and meticulous Trout. He was a student of poetry, chess wise and compulsively correct. Even as a child, Trout possessed a monumental store of trivial knowledge. By five he had restricted his reading to dictionaries and encyclopedias and began writing his own avant garde poetry at seven. He once confided to me he thought himself an undiscovered prodigy. This haunted Trout. Be it squandered or nonexistent, the notion of prodigy seemed a vestigial part of him — something tucked under the corpus callosum behind the ear or left on the dock of evolution’s clearing house next to the appendices, tonsils, tails and extra toes. It could not be discussed without a sentiment of loss.
Horatio cocked a well-practiced eyebrow and strolled to the shelf on the bookcase we called the “bar.” Above, the collective Buntel Eriksson library, a veritable shrine of nineteen volumes dedicated to the Silver Swede, rested on a soon-to-be-emptied shelf.
“Hmmph. ‘Stiffy’ anyone?”
Ben adjusted the lamp near my spot on the couch to prevent my nose from casting an unflattering shadow. Horatio brought me a riverwater martini.
“Where from the caper? Pickled nasturtium seeds or Trout’s untalented fiction?” Horatio punted. Trout blurted a sudden “Ha!”
“I have more talent in my little toe than all you shits combined,” he admonished.
“Before I answer, I’ll need some facts.”
“He’ll never answer; it’s a diplomatic ruse,” Ben chided.
“I don’t get why Sven has to answer,” Minuet admitted. Fourteen grim eyes gave her a grinding once-over.
“Dig that; she said the name,” Ben cackled. The room kindled with snickers. Even Trout flashed an eyetooth. Somebody muttered, “Child.”
“What? What is it? That’s his name, right?”
“Yes. That’s his name,” I concurred.
“So?” Minuet demanded.
“It shows your age. If you’ve known him long enough you wouldn’t call him that.” Midge explained. “‘Sven Gerhardt’ is his own invention. The details of the switch are too embarrassing to recount in polite company.”
I made a mental note to publicly ridicule young Midge in the future.
Ben turned the harsh lamp straight to Minuet’s eyes. “Just exactly how old are you, anyhow?” he interrogated.
Minuet rummaged Ruby and Midge’s grimaces for an appropriate retort but finally shrugged and coolly answered, “Almost sixteen.”
“Fascinating,” Horatio smirked lasciviously.
Abruptly, Griff stepped away from Minuet and crossed the room to make himself a drink.
“Where’s the hard shit?” he burst. “What’s this ‘Turpenoid’ crap?” he demanded, sniffing a rectangular can he found on a shelf below the bar.
“Oh, don’t drink that, it’s turpentine for my ships. It’ll take the pigment right out of your skin,” Horatio warned.
“It says ‘Turpenoid’,” Griff challenged, adjusting his hair in the can’s reflection.
“It’s artificial turpentine,” Trout corrected. “It’s a fake like everything else in his Eastside life.”
“I don’t want fake shit. Where’s the real shit?”
“On your fucking shirt,” Ben replied.
Griff read the label of the can.
“‘Danger! Combustible. Harmful or fatal if swallowed. Exposure may result in nausea, headache or confusion.’ Fuck me, what’s the real shit like?”
“Evidently too real for Horatio,” Trout remarked. He then removed the wingtip and sock from his left foot and vigorously scraped his little toe against the carpet. Horatio, Griff, Ben and I had witnessed this ritual thousands of times and were loath to comment on it. The steam-queens, however, were mystified.
“Do you have an itch?” Midge ventured, followed by howls of laughter. Trout replaced his shoe and sock, dismissively fanning his hand at us. His toe had been possessed by a terrible and incurable itch since his early teens and he had long forsaken all social decorum as regarded the matter.
“For as long as I’ve known him, an itch and no cure,” Ben said and then fogged the lens of his viewfinder. Griff turned a folding chair backwards and sat.
“Oh, there’s a cure. Trout just doesn’t have the testes, does he?” he taunted. “Wouldn’t hurt long — you’d be walking in a day.”
It had been a long standing notion that Trout should anesthetize himself with alcohol and amputate the toe himself. A few times he’d come close on drunken nights amid mesmerizing shadows and the heaving, perspiring forms that cast them; the thunderous pulse of congas curving off the ceiling, candles anointing the narrow hall — there Trout, amidst howls and jeers and ebullient breasts, digging his heels as we pushed him toward a girl seductively unfolding a straight razor concealed in her cleavage, would often come to the cusp of liberation. But alas, he was a chicken-shit.
Horatio had fixed me another drink which happily took the edge off the Shrag coffee. My head no longer ached and I had routed my auditory problems to the place in my mind that accepted untenable phenomena like a motion picture being shot in Cafe Shrag, the success of Paige Paillard or my own dissolution and corruption.
The girls went giggling down the hall and locked themselves in the bathroom. Midge swatted my ass en route (though I’d have then preferred Minuet) as I perused some papers among Horatio’s secondhand hobbyist magazines pirated from his gig at the bookstore.
“Any mail for me?” I asked.
“A summons to appear for hocking library books to Horatio’s bookstore,” Ben laughed as the secret ghost escaped his swollen grimace.
I hated it when Ben lost my secrets, but this sort of admission had become a ritual means of exculpating sins perpetrated against one another and perhaps the reason we had all remained chums in excess of a lifetime.
“Just coffee and cigarettes ‘til payday,” I reminded. “Bought it back before it was due.”
Horatio, playing dumb asked, “You’d jeopardize my good name?”
“I did and so did you for a lid of Black Cavendish pipe tobacco.”
“Alas, my vice, I was weak.”
“Of course it wasn’t actually Black Cavendish.” Griff continued. “Not to quibble; it wasn’t even tobacco. It was wood shavings but Ben said the shoe polish made it look like tobacco.”
“It was a tough thing to do to a chum,” Ben explained, “But the Projectionist here had spent your half of the pocket change from the book swindle.”
“On what?” Horatio demanded.
“On Ben,” I dodged.
“On film,” Ben corrected.
“En garde!” Horatio blurted.
“I borrowed it to shoot Griff’s head shot,” Ben confessed. “I owed him for helping me plaster a hole I put in Hannah’s wall after she dumped me for that cleft-chinned bastard.”
“An actor who’s gonna be somebody needs a current head shot, see,” Griff asserted.
“So when I couldn’t pay the loan, Sven here seized the collateral,” Ben elucidated.
“What was the collateral?” Horatio huffed.
“The head-shot.” I responded.
“Which put me in a real jam,” Griff continued, “because I got a message to call my agent — thought I finally had an audition. Turns out she was just letting me go, but at the time I really thought I needed the film.”
“Film? You mean it wasn’t even developed?” Horatio sputtered.
“No,” said Griff. “It wasn’t even shot, actually, but your man, er, Gerhardt wouldn’t let us have it anyway until I gotcha some Black Cavendish pipe tobacco cuz that’s the kind of stand-up cat he is.” Griff winked at me. “So, I’m in a scrape because we were all broke, and I bump into Trout at the Shrag who says he’ll sell me his advice for a cup of coffee. I put it on your tab,” he said to me.
I looked at him incredulously.
“I’m sure you’ve worked it off by now,” Ben ribbed.
“Trout said…” Griff began.
“Merely conjecture,” Trout readily inserted.
“…That ‘Horatio wouldn’t know the difference between pipe tobacco and wood shavings,’ and said you’d ‘smoke either as long as it maintained your west side affectations.’”
“Ha, ha, ha,” Trout said with a sinister flatness before adding, “Ben supplied the shoe polish.”
“Griff had gotten plaster all over his new wingtips — came off kinda scuffed,” Ben remembered.
Griff turned back to Horatio who gawked in fury.
“So I popped by the bookstore with a little paper tobacconist’s bag. You were happy. But you were still a tight-ass. You wouldn’t let me use the company phone to call my agent so I bummed a quarter.”
“Pray tell what became of it?” Horatio fumed as he leaned on the bar, which nearly gave from the weight of his elbow.
“The Projectionist took the quarter.”
Horatio glared at me.
“Because I only proffer the crappiest fare available from the Lumaville Historical Museum and Library, the shelf-value of the books I sell tends to depreciate rapidly. In a week or two, they wind up in the twenty-five cent bin where I buy them back and return them to the library.”
“And you assholes risked my health for that? I smoked shoe polish? It’s a known carcinogen!” Horatio exploded.
“So is tobacco.” Ben chortled.
“I should see a doctor — immediately.” Horatio tried to peer down his throat with a mother-of-pearl-backed hand mirror. “How long ago was this?”
“Like it was yesterday.”
Horatio’s rage showed in his reddening cheeks and balled fists.
“Well, Sven Gerhardt — or whoever that man there purports to be — lost the last known Buntel Eriksson volume to some chick today! So there,” Horatio tattled.
The steam-queens rolled into the livingroom, gleefully fanning a pungent smoke that wafted from the bathroom door. They collapsed onto the couch. Ruby said, “Nose” and they burst into raucous laughter. Reefer went into my head wrong, I discovered, after I tried to smoke it after a youthful blowout with children’s cough syrup. In my teens, I was considerably more impressionable and thought the syrup would make me a better screenwriter. Being underage and never out of the company of minors, I became adept at lifting five dollar bottles of alcohol-laden children’s cough syrup from the drugstore next to Trident Records down from Cafe Shrag.
The elixir was packaged like a miniature cocktail set complete with puzzle-like child-proof tops visible beneath the top hat of their dosage cups. For all the packaging’s promise, the shit cured coughs but not hacks.
• • •
When the room simmered down I again entreated Horatio for my mail.
“Are you expecting anything?” he pried.
“Nothing out of the ordinary.”
“Then yes, another one of these perfectly ordinary letters arrived.”
Clearly suspicious, Horatio produced the unopened letter from his breast pocket.
“The usual plain white bond envelope, typed address in all caps, no return address. Your customary fare. Nothing out of the ordinary.”
“Kind of you,” I said snatching the letter from his hand.
I proceeded to my bedroom, closed the door behind me and in accordance with my ceremony, sat at my desk and waited for footsteps to swarm about the door. Slowly, letter-opener in hand, I began the jagged surgery that would extricate the envelope’s blank contents.
Midge walked in.
“Who’s your letter from?” she asked coyly.
“Who sent you?” I grilled. Midge froze and I shut the letter in the drawer, pleased at how I imagined it must have looked to her, like Holmes folding up his rig upon Watson’s doleful entrance.
“I came of my own accord.”
“Are you alone?”
“Turn off the lights, I don’t want them thinking anything’s going on.”
Fresh Out of High School
and Steadily Filling Her Dance Card
Young Sergeant Phil rang at two o’clock. I awoke and surveyed the room for the ringing telephone, astonished to discover I was still wearing my coat. I was, in fact, wearing an entire outfit including shirt, ascot, argyle socks and wingtips; a comforting suggestion the night previous might not have occurred as I was beginning to remember it. Nothing is more prohibitive, indeed prophylactic, than full dress and I was tired of myself for always sleeping with Midge as she was assuredly tired of me for continually bumbling her bondage-a-go-go shenanigans.
I was aware of the phone’s second ring which revealed it was located on my nightstand, mysteriously shrouded in a girl’s strappy undershirt. I reached for it, the exertion leaving me bare of the covers, whereupon I discovered I was not wearing pants or underwear. I winced and pried the tail of my jacket from under Midge’s rump.
She was like the candy vending machines that support children’s causes — a minimum investment, a momentary pleasure and somehow, somewhere, charity.
I answered the telephone.
“Your nickel,” I coughed into the receiver. I knew this annoyed people.
“Lead Kisses matinee, Projectionist.”
“I hate Bergman.”
“It ain’t directed by Bergman.”
“I’m just saying…”
“We’ve got an audience waiting here since noon.”
“That’s when it was supposed to start, Chris F.”
I gathered my pants from the bookshelf and yanked them over my shoes, palmed Midge’s cigarettes from the nightstand and exited out the back door, landing me on Water Street which paralleled the static river. I had no compunction about leaving sleeping Midge behind. She knew the drill, and later at Cafe Shrag, only forensic science could prove what had happened between us as it had a hundred times before.
I raised my collar against the chill and accidentally brushed my ears. In that moment I thought I heard a name called out. A pang of nervousness slapped my stomach. When I heard the cry again, however, I was satisfied it had been produced outside my head — last night’s madness at bay.
I shuddered. Somewhere, an ancient wound began to swell against its suture.
“Chris F.!” I heard it again and knew it referred to me. I turned to locate who was calling the ridiculous name, trying to place the apparition sometime previous to my eighteenth summer when ten bucks at a certain print shop got me an ID that said I was Sven Gerhardt.
It seemed the two most popular names for boys and girls of our day were Christopher and Jennifer. Every first day of every year of grammar school was spent denominating classes full of Chrisses and Jennies, ascribing alpha-numeric variants, forging identities. I became Chris F. which was more fortunate than the fellow who followed me in my grade school experience as “The Other Chris F.” The poor kid was alphabetically inferior by dint of an unnecessary “S.”
I heard the name again. My mind agitated and I briefly held the suspicion Trout had engineered the embarrassment.
I turned into the parking lot thoroughfare that crossed Main into the plaza where the afterschool toughs congregated. I stumbled and nearly squashed a child.
The kid extracted himself from the lining of my coat.
“That’s you I sez to myself, ‘Chris F.; Frank Lloyd Wright of the sandbox! Pow! I’m in a two block sprint!” he panted while tugging my shirtsleeve.
I reeled on my heels and was nearly overcome by dizziness. The Other Chris F. squinted up at me. With the sun behind my head, I fancied I must have looked like some kind of saint, a halo emanating from my stained collar as this cherub buzzed around me.
The Other Chris F. was immaculately preserved. His features hadn’t changed, sans a few knocks and pings and a crescent-shaped divot by the brow. His hair was combed in a long straight part and appeared fixed by lacquer. His corrective orthopedic shoes were still in the same disastrous knots. He was a ventriloquist’s dummy with molded plastic features, childlike and kept in a trunk. Such a dummy hung unclaimed in the Lumiere’s projectionist booth, I recalled.
“You may have been architecturally sound, but I was the great innovator with materials. Who else would have used cat shit?” The Other Chris F. snorted, his miniature mouth contorting wildly as if adult words were simply too large to fit through the little hole properly — a mouth better suited for candy and fat lips. He was, in effect, exactly the same as he was in second grade.
I was absolutely dumb. What happened to The Other Chris F.? Did he sell his soul to science fiction? Had living in my shadow as an “other” crippled him? Or did The Other Chris F. elect not to venture into adulthood the way some kids take auto shop or drama in high school?
“You look successful, Chris,” I wagered. I couldn’t account for his lack of age and was equally in a crap shoot gauging the state of his professional life. “How’s the circus?” would have been rude.
“Sure I’m successful. I design children’s recreational facilities for chain and franchise restaurants. Piece of cake. It’s all about keeping kids in motion in a very confined space with limited liability.”
“You do slides?” I asked peevishly.
“Sure slides. Slides and tubes and shit that spins.”
The whole encounter reminded me of Buntel Eriksson’s, Liten Hund, released stateside as The Lap Dog.
A henpecked scientist strives to create a serum to arrest the growth of Labrador retrievers, suspending them in permanent puppydom — the way his wife adores them.
The scientist’s basement laboratory, a real Dr. X affair with bubbling vials and arcing electrical nodes, is overrun with discarded grown dogs and other failed experiments; a two headed-chicken, a legless weasel, a cycloptic badger. These animals are neglected by everyone except the young son who brings them his own dinners concealed in his shoe.
Later, the scientist leaves his work to fetch a new test puppy and, in heart-stabbing irony, the lone child ingests the serum and the frame slowly fades to black as we realize he can never grow up.
At the Lumiere, I held post downstairs as Young Sergeant Phil spliced Wild Strawberries back together upstairs.
I flattened the local newspaper, the Lumaville Daily Echo, on the glass of the concession stand. An anemic gazette with no more heft than an onion skin, it had to be fixed to there with a salt shaker and napkin dispenser to prevent it from blowing away. During my brief tenure as a paperboy, the Echo was so ethereal, so weightless, that despite a decent pitching arm, the wind invariably blew my deliveries back to me.
The headline bespoke an unusually slow news day: “Miss Lumaville Joins Drama Club.”
When I came across the horoscopes, I read mine — it was as usual, vague and universally applicable — but habit brought my eyes to another which I realized after a moment was that of the renowned cellist Paige Paillard. My former girlfriend.
Indeed, Paige had once topped the roster of those I let close to me. She was the only girl I’d known who could stomach my strange, constant associates, and often she defaulted into an adolescent den mother applying bandages, tonics and aimless flirtation. In her charge, we were the closest Lumaville ever came to either a street gang or an art movement. It was sandy, fore-locked Paige, after all, who detoured us from our homebound after-school routes and entreated us to pursue the tiny piracies that lay along a river that never flowed.
Upon waking on countless afternoons, Paige and I shared the apocryphal data of our stars over toasted French bread and black currant tea. She had yet to realize her promise as a concert cellist. I had just begun scripting the Motion Picture Version of My Life. We ushered each other from the crest of our teens into the first tremulous motions of our twenties, lived together three years, endured countless hardships, made love and hate heartily, and split hairs like so many atoms that we finally combusted in a righteous flash of mutual antipathy.
Within a year of our break-up, Paige had managed an escape to the magnificent world beyond precious Lumaville and as if magically, no longer forestalled by the bane of being my lover, became a world-class musician with recording contracts and a performance schedule that took her all over the whole blessed world — even Sweden. Our home town embraced her as its very own cause célèbre. A door south of Cafe Shrag, a poster blared from the storefront of Trident Records, “Lumaville’s Page in Music History: Paige Paillard” with a photograph of the cellist depicted in the throes of performance.
Paige and I no longer spoke and consequently I tracked her inner life only by her horoscope. I purchased her albums through the clandestine machinations of mail order.
In my wallet, a picture of her lurked amongst my wages. I laid it on the counter. Originally a photo of Paige and myself in front of our Fourth Street flat, I had torn the picture so as to excise Paige’s image, but in a fit of poetic absent-mindedness, I had hastily discarded my own. Once more, I studied it, as though it were a frame of the Zapruder footage — where in the grain had the magic bullet lurked?
Her face was square around the jaw; lips wide and full. Her nose had a little lift to it which retained a markedly youthful attitude. She wore her dense, wheat-field hair back in a bow, but teased out subtle strands to frame her face and peer demurely through. Her eyebrows were broad calligraphic strokes above oval eyes that sharpened at the points and were dark blue, more sea than sky, and fixed strangely inanimate during conversation. And she had such beautiful hands, like two tiny Rubenesque nudes, languid and long-boned, perfectly suited it seemed to convey a bow across cat-gut.
She carved her space well. Her body was tense and sporty. Her thighs were unduly muscular from four years of high school athleticism. During lovemaking, they could become a boa-like clamp — their strength enough to fold my ribcage into itself like pious fingers interlocked in prayer. At times, they would crush my head as oral sex never appeased so much as drove her reeling, mad. The enormous pressure set my ears ringing as I would attempt to draw away, breath — failing — a lion tamer extracting his head from the lion’s mouth and catching his collar on the saber teeth.
When last we shared a closet, Paige had over three hundred pairs of shoes. They were all black, heavy-heeled with silver buckles. Shoes were her private obsession. During times of distress, she would retreat to our bedroom and begin trying them on, pair by pair, examining the minor variations in manufacture and relating anecdotes about the nature of their purchase. To me, each shoe was indistinguishable from the next. I could hardly tell lefts from rights, they all appeared to be the footwear of a dominatrix or a leather-clad centipede.
• • •
“Haute couture,” Paige would say, self-pleased.
“Large word coming from such a small mouth,” I’d respond, spiced with a modicum of morning-weary vitriol. Our conversations often went like that, parry, riposte, stick and move.
She would let the coffee cup slacken in her hands so that I might see her withering, ocean eyes.
“I don’t have a small mouth.”
“No you don’t,” I conceded and braved the heat fuming from the toaster between us to stroke her wrist consolingly. “It was a joke.”
“From a movie — a Buntel Eriksson film.”
“Of course. What else?”
“Den Polisen. Has the great scene with the English-woman departing from the train station in Goteborg.”
“‘On a night like this,’” Paige recited.
“She presses against the train window as it begins to leave the station and she frantically says, ‘I love you,’ to her lover Sven who is standing on the platform,” I explained to sweet Paige, “But of course Sven can’t hear her and he misreads her lips as ‘elephant juice.’ Heartbreaking.”
Paige blinked for a few moments, then said, “I like my mouth. I could be a model if I wanted.”
“Stick to the cello.”
“What does that mean?”
I pantomimed applause.
“That’s not what you meant.”
“Best in your row.”
“You’re insulting me again.”
“You should have another mimosa.”
Paige sat back in her seat and sighed, shaking her head.
“I told you, today I rehearse. I’m lead chair.”
“I’m lead couch.”
“And I’m sleepy,” she continued, ignoring me.
“We stay up too late. Last night, we were up all night,” I said with a wink.
“We were up?” she interrupted.
“All night, finding different ways to spell monogamy.”
“I must have slept through it.”
I lit a cigarette which Paige took from me and smoked herself. I lit another.
“I didn’t like you last night, if you have to know. You think you’re being aggressive but you’re being uncomfortable. Boring, old news, bad upholstery.”
“Oh, you liked it.”
“Hardly noticed,” she said pointedly.
“You know why? Because you’re dead in the sack,” I retorted.
“I was hoping that if I ignored you, you’d go away. Like a badger in the woods. Now, make me another, piss-boy — I’m feeling flat.”
• • •
Yes, being the ex-lover, the discard, the castaway, the youthful mistake of a world-famous musician was a chastening predicament and I suffered many a sidelong glance from Lumavillains interested in the lore of my erstwhile intimacy.
Yes, I was jealous of her prosperity. Yes, I despised myself for never leaving the knick-knack town. Hourly, I taunted myself with daydreams of my own arrival, holed up, happy, purging my memory on a cranky Underwood for a hog’s share of the local currency. Alas, I thought, there are so few seats reserved in the pantheon of the modern great and some weak part of me believed she had taken mine.
Lead Kisses played to a half-filled house.
Terse, cheap dialogue billowed from the auditorium as a patron passed through its flapping doors.
“He’s a killer,” protests the heroine.
“But he’s a man first. You’re the bait, kiddo,” he insists.
The soundtrack, coupled with the hum of sausage rotisserie, proved an insurmountable racket. Then, discordant static flooded my ears.
I arched my brows and squinted. An indistinct signal began to buzz in my ears like the apprehensive visitation of a mosquito. I thought I could discern the rumbling pipes of advice-for-the-lovelorn radio personality Red Barnes as the goddamn mania set in again.
The signal was inconstant, but so was Barnes. A chronic booze-head, Barnes’ program manager wrapped a brown paper bag around the microphone to keep his mouth aimed in the right direction.
“Caller, see, you tell’er it’s’a matta of perception,” Barnes growled sagely. “Don’t be down on no ‘You ain’t got no direction,’ jack-of-all-trades bullshit. Shit. You tell the bitch you’s a Renaissance man. Ain’t nobody in the history of high school ever got fucked up from no ‘shop’ course. How old is your woman?”
“We’re both fifteen, Mr. Barnes,” a pubescent voice quavered.
“Then what the fuck does she know ‘bout direction? The only direction young folks should be worryin’ ‘bout is down – as in gettin’ down! Am I right? Ding-a-ling! Next caller.”
I shook my head and went next door to the Shrag.
That evening, I dined on coffee and cigarettes amidst the bustle of film industry types clad in baseball caps and parkas, rampaging in and out of the café doors and congregating on the sidewalk outside. Minions of Moloch.
Midge was on break and silently watched me ingest my coffee.
“I’m sorry you blacked out last night,” she said, her dark eyes downcast on her little hands. “We were having such a nice time.”
“The paper bag deprived me of oxygen.”
“You talked in your sleep,” she said smiling, then her tone crisped at the edges. “About a girl.”
“Who?” I asked. Midge took a cigarette from my pocket and broke it. “Seriously, who?”
“That girl Horatio said got your precious book. The one I overheard you and Ben circle-jerking about. With the garish name.”
“Not garish — Greco-Franco. Beats the hell outta ‘Midge,’” I jabbed.
“My name is Jennifer,” Midge hissed. “They just call me ‘Midge’ — Chris F.!”
“Never say that name in public!” I reprimanded. I looked around to make sure nobody heard. “I am Sven Gerhardt, Projectionist and Screen Memoirist.”
“You’re going to leave me for her, aren’t you?” Midge insisted.
“I don’t know her.”
“I should get my good-byes in now, right?”
“How could I leave you?”
Midge brightened slightly as I spoke.
“I’m not with you.”
She stared at me blankly for a moment, retreated to the counter and returned with a pot of coffee.
“Drink this,” Midge commanded as she carelessly splashed coffee into my cup. “I’m going to watch you drink this whole pot. I don’t care if it takes my entire shift. You’re going to drink every fucking drop of this piss and I’m going to watch.”
“I trust this is on the house.”
“Fuck you. Drink it.”
Midge looked out the window. Her breath steamed it momentarily as she sighed. A gaffer entered with a large piece of reflective cardboard and Midge’s eyes followed it until they were back on me. “You should be nicer to me, you really should. It’s a small town, we make do.”
“That’s the polite way of putting it.”
“Shut up and drink that coffee, you smug fuck. You’re ‘not with me’ – well that’s fucking for sure – unless you have a hard-on. You’re in Luma-fucking-ville, man. Were on a fucking iceberg, Chris F., adrift like sorry-ass – what are those tuxedo birds?”
“We’re like sorry-ass penguins on an isolated, heedless iceberg and we happen to fuck each other now and again so we don’t freeze. That’s all. Warmth. So you are with me, you’re definitely with me, until somebody learns how to swim or the shit melts,” she said and refilled my cup. “Drink.”
It was either because I was broke or it seemed this was the last time I’d be offered free coffee at Café Shrag, or perhaps it was because I was somehow captivated by Midge’s sudden verve, but I drank the entire pot of coffee, ravenously, despite its slightly sudsy taste.
Then my head hurt.
Midge retreated to the kitchen in a huff and was greeted by the thin applause of Minuet and Ruby. Her vacant chair remained so only briefly.
Trout had entered, but waited wide-eyed and buggy until Midge’s admonition had ended. He joined me at my window table and sat silently with me, in plain view, hidden from our friends.
In a moment, Trout’s lips began to split from his teeth as though he were forbidding an emotion to overtake him. He looked as though he had something important to impart and indeed, his mouth stirred with the silent rehearsal of words. I turned my head slowly to the left. Trout did the same. I turned my head to the right. Again, Trout followed. Then I realized Trout was simply mirroring me. He aped my expression in an attempt to discern its meaning. I had myself been mouthing words and had been doing so since Midge’s caffeinated assault. I read my lips from the inside. They were saying, From Angst to Zilch.
Nervously, I scanned the room. Seated toward the back was a cabal of University students, Eastside trash, who Trout dubbed the “U-Niks.” They were playing some order of team chess. A missing pawn was replaced with a thread-spool.
The U-Niks’ leader, Cricket McCoy, a high-strung but attractive self-made blonde who concurrently enjoyed cigarettes, bubble gum and ceaseless banter, suddenly dumped the chess board and pieces onto the laps of her chums — the florid third-year wino Sawyer Treadwell and ruddy, stone-faced Gustav Jenkins, whose sideburns reached halfway down his neck. They had apparently won. Viola Varnish, Cricket’s pear-shaped, bespectacled side-kick added to the commotion by entreating, “Nurse! Nurse!” at the nonplussed café staff.
“Drones,” Trout exhorted, shaking his head at the rowdy gang. “University teems with this type of insect person. Ants who’ve mistaken themselves for humans because, like us, they go to war, keep slaves and cultivate fungus.”
Behind Trout, next to the newspaper racks, Young Sergeant Phil sat alone reading a book on mathematics. He paused, curiously turned the book sideways and continued reading.
I’m fucked, I thought. I felt as though I was floating in a warm bath — the water rising into my ears until all sounds became inchoate murmurs. Too much coffee. I shuddered. Trout shuddered.
Thrice, once in the bookstore and twice in the theatre, I had heard voices in my head. More peculiarly, I had heard the voices of people near me. My hands trembled and I ran them through my hair, momentarily catching in the brier of curls. I tried to sooth myself by breathing deeply, but every breath deepened the fear. There was an explosion of moths in my gut. I thought of my screenplay, the Motion Picture Version of My Life, and realized winding up in the nuthouse would not be a satisfactory ending. The screenplay would have to be destroyed.
“Trout,” I began feebly. “I’m going to ask something of you.”
“Wait — I’m going to ask you something first,” Trout interrupted while reaching into his canvas army bag. He extracted a large black plastic cube with an electrical cord attached and placed on the table next to the lamp. “What do you think this is?” he smirked.
Trout reached beneath the table and plugged the electrical cord into a socket imbedded in the running board.
“Look above you,” he instructed.
“Look up on the ceiling.”
I looked up at the ceiling and faintly, struggling against the daylight was the digital readout “8:50.”
“It’s a clock. It projects the time on the ceiling,” Trout explained. I was annoyed.
“It’s a ‘Hightimes Ceiling Clock,’” he attested. “For when you’re lying in bed. You just open your eyes and there it is always looming above you — time — tick, ticking away.”
Trout paused for a brief rumination, his green lenses reflecting a passing cloud through the window.
“I was in the Fourth Street park and there it was, wrapped in newspaper, on a bench. Rather how I’d imagine one would leave a bomb. Carefully, I examined the package whereupon I discovered this,” Trout dangled a gold colored pendant from a red thread. “Behold.”
“What is it,” I asked. “A fish?”
“A golden trout,” he said proudly. “Being much enamored of pendants and this being my namesake, I was smitten. Who could abandon such a treasure? The package, I assumed, was the little fellow’s luggage; I was obliged to handle it for him when I adopted him.” Trout’s glasses slightly fogged. “He is concerned with punctuality.”
Midge brought a fresh cup of coffee to our table.
“Just for you,” she said peering through her brows. She retreated to the counter and whinnied with Ruby.
“More?” I gasped.
The cup stood handsomely on the table, its content so black it nearly reflected the numeral projected on the ceiling as steam rose in concentric circles like smoke rings. I reached for the cup but broke off to regard some swell toting a clipboard emerging from the Shrag’s back office. Like Ben, he briefly framed the long hall with his hands. He nodded and smiled uneasily when he noticed Trout and I staring at him.
“Moloch,” Trout muttered.
I sipped my coffee. The bitterness rattled me by the shoulders. I heard static. Trout was prodding his miniature fish with a fork.
“I wonder if you’re magnetic.”
“Is it?” I asked.
“Strange, that’s just what I was thinking.”
“You’re thinking aloud.”
“Never. Thinking aloud is vain,” Trout admonished.”Chris F. is an odd duck but not a tactical concern.”
Hearing Trout’s reedy voice in my head finally hurled me into full-bore panic. I sprung to my feet, accidentally jarring the table. My cup capsized and splashed coffee across the surface. Trout clutched the Hightimes Ceiling Clock as the black waterfall fed into a puddle on the floor.
“Perhaps you should consider decaf?” Trout suggested.
I pushed him aside and trudged down the hall to the bathroom. Midge and Ruby watched me silently as I passed the kitchen entrance.
“Pawn to king four”
“Some have g-o-o-o-ne and some remain”
Voices cascaded through my head in all order of timbre and subject.
“Christ, what a nose,” I heard as I bowled passed the man with the clipboard.
“If I coiled you in copper wire and ran a current through you — then you’d stick to the refrigerator.”
In the bathroom, I splashed cold water on my face as it always seemed the first remedy of movie heroes when attempting to stave off madness.
I looked into the mirror above the sink but the reflection of my face was distorted in the water-streaked glass. I wiped the mirror with my sleeve but my panting breath fogged it before I was able to see myself.
“Chris F., Chris F., Chris F.,” I chanted.
My knees gave and all went dark.
But there was solace in my collapse. There, on the linoleum, I finally understood the comfort Midge sought when I would find her sobbing on the cool tile of the bathroom floor of my flat.
Trout Munroe’s was not a summer birthday. Minutes preceding his conception, his parents, Duncan and Hailey Munroe, an ill-conceived traveling jazz combo, collapsed the back end of their microbus while exiting the parking lot of Zoya’s Twenty-Four Hour Cafe and Truck stop off south Main. Trout’s maternal grandfather, a vociferous and flagellant mechanic, had schooled the music lovers that their bus “don’t got meaty ’nough works to support a piana anda harp,” which Hailey recapitulated at that moment to illustrate Duncan’s “absolute failure at thoughtful planning.”
Duncan adjusted his beanie cap and spun the woven yarn talisman that hung from the rear-view mirror.
“Shit. Our ride’s broke.”
“This is an omen. This is the zenith of your career as a touring musician,” said Hailey. She fished a roach from the ashtray and exhausted it in two hits, her sullen face reflecting orange flame in the passenger window. Duncan spied a hitchhiker near the freeway on-ramp with a sign that read, “Oz?”
“If we were horn players we could hitch,” he mumbled.
“But we’re not.”
Duncan called their combo “Adam’s Rib” which he thought underscored the husband and wife theme in their outfit; the harp created from the innards of the piano, Harpo after Chico with intermittent disaster.
“I’ll call the gig. You go make some friends, someone with a pad and weed,” he suggested.
“I don’t want to make friends.”
“I want a baby.”
Duncan rested his wrists on the wheel and let his head roll into shoulders. His arguments against overpopulation, artistic sublimation, diapers, now all devoid of novelty, he improvised.
“Blossom, there’s no room for a baby with all the gear.”
An hour passed quietly apart from the crackling and clicking of an occasional joint and a disposable cigarette lighter. And then the rustling of groping corduroy. And then the ripe smack of a kiss coming to completion. And then Duncan intoned into the silence, “Let’s make love and think it over,” and they succumbed to the will of Spring.
The lasting result was twofold. The microbus’ front end collapsed in complement to the back and Trout, their offspring, would be a winter baby. Brumal nativity meant Trout would be only fifteen and a half the summer preceding his junior year in high school and thus could not be licensed as an operator of motor vehicles.
Though being six months younger than his classmates had provided Trout a glint of prodigy when compared with his scholastic peers, it incensed him wildly that he couldn’t drive. It was this circumstance that led him to seek alternate means of personal transportation. This is how Trout attempted, with an equally guileless cohort, to sail the never-flowing Lumaville River with a homemade craft consisting of two wood pallets, twine and the cheeky optimism that shepherds adolescent boys toward dooms unforetold.
• • •
Trout and I carried our vessel to the mooring docks, resting our narrow, peeling shoulders only once to trade an opinion of seaworthiness with Crazy Larry.
“How do you mean?” Trout angled, his freckles realigning in a new constellation, Polaris of the Little Dipper lost in his squint.
Crazy Larry closed the notebook beside him on the park bench and folded a rectangular 110 camera into his natty sleeve. He tugged his tweedy, patchwork beard which briefly enlarged the whites of his eyes as his whole face gave into the motion like a rubbery mask. A corner of cigarette paper concealing a shaving wound shook free and fastened to his lapel as a surly waft of bay rum burned our eyes.
“That twine’ll fall apart wet, she’ll shift and put you in the soup.”
Larry beat his lap as he coughed out the last syllables of his warning. Ash rolled off his knee as his leg gradually straightened. Before getting hung up in Lumaville, he had spent eight years on tour buses drifting across America so his legs were inclined by habit to fold, ankle to ass, from sleeping on cramped bus seats.
Trout bore skepticism honorably, like a defiant Boy Scout, his lower lip enveloping the upper.
“Give me a match,” Larry wheezed, pinching a new cigarette between his thumb and fore finger.
Trout fished a book of matches from his army pant cutoffs. I noticed him assuring himself there were no girls’ phone numbers inside it. We were always hawking potential pearls to one another.
Larry plucked the matches, amidst a bevy of lint and Black Jack gum wrappers, from Trout’s hand.
“I’ll keep these; they’re gonna get wet,” he puffed. “You’d better give me your smokes too.”
“We’ll be smoking on the river, thank you very kindly,” said Trout. His hubris was an embryonic thing but a minor thrill to witness all the same. He nodded at me and we hoisted the craft above our homemade haircuts — short up the back and sides and long on top, sheep-dogged but nothing like the long-standing forelock that skirted Paige’s chin.
Stringy bracelets of beer tabs and other charms slunk up our skinny forearms and caught on our elbows. I had a quarter with a hole drilled through it that had once accessorized my image as a young luftmensch. Trout had a smallish hoop earring from a girl he purported to have groped near the towering grain elevator just over the river.
• • •
A two-tiered affair, the mooring dock was a menace of eroded wooden pillars, tarred and permanently obscured from the sun by the deck above. Slick botanical life of a greenish hue unmatchable outside the damp recesses of nature proliferated, as did a fecal reek that yawned from the cat tunnels boldly fouling the air.
Trout and I tightroped the ancient railroad tracks that carved the splintered beams of the deck to a steel ramp lined with shabbily adhered grip-tape that led to the lower dock. We shuffled down on the slippery soles of our second-hand wing tips, passed the old mill but halted before the Yacht Club for fear of appearing suspect. It was common knowledge anyone passing the Yacht Club on foot was derelict, craven and up to no good.
Trout surveyed the waters and concluded there was no detectable movement. The river never moved. On one occasion, a paper cup remained stationary in the turning basin for three weeks until an egret lanced it out of pity. It was Trout’s contention we could easily hand paddle north or south but he preferred the latter as it led out of sight. He also suggested we dub the boat “Mona” after the cow-eyed girl he sat behind in biology and plotted toward all summer. Having no particular interests myself, I approved and we christened our gadget, “The Mona” with two adroit smacks of spit. We shook hands for the last time.
“Lower ‘The Mona’ into the water!” Trout commanded, an oral feat only slightly encumbered by his reedy, buzz-saw voice which cracked on Mona. A soprano gagged by wax paper and comb, Trout’s voice never fully descended the scales into the bass clef of maturation. Instead, he elongated his vocabulary in proportion to the disparateness he felt between his voice and his age. By twenty-one, he had exhausted modern English so far as any of us could tell and began a brief foray into middle English.
“What sholde I more unto this tale sayn?”
The Mona hit the river. A dense splash nearly swallowing her whole, she made a springy retort and rested above the water. We ditched our shoes and socks and crawled gingerly aboard, our knees bearing the tiny prickles of the pallets’ splinters as we secured hand-holds in the empty knots.
Trout shoved us off with his bottle brush legs.
There was a salient moment of buoyancy, beaming, sun-soaked faces, some declarative remarks about nautical prodigy and how this could get us laid — all of which came to a swift end as the twine came undone, the pallets separated and we were heaved into the oily chill of the river.
We submerged completely, then gasped hungrily to the surface and shared a few joyous moments of threats and splashing.
“It’s warm toward the bottom,” Trout observed.
“Because I pissed there.”
“Fuck you, you pissed there.”
“I’m pissing now.”
“I’m pissing too.”
We treaded water.
“Are you really pissing?” Trout finally asked.
“Then I’m going to see how deep it goes!”
“What?” I shook the water from my ears.
Trout’s fingers caught a loop of twine that twisted from the shape of a musical staff to the number eight as it strayed from the wreckage. He pulled himself under.
I floated quietly for what seemed too long, taking the time for a brief appraisal of my fourteen-year-old life. It occurred to me I should overcome my mysterious aversion to French-kissing, that it was integral to the repertoire. After all, I was very nearly a sophomore. I tried to turn my tongue on itself to approximate and made a roster of possible guinea pigs and pithy ways to broach the subject without losing a tenuous hold of the romantic.
Trout shot to the sky with a ferocious gasp and battled to the dock, pulled over and onto his back; haunted and heaving.
“What is it, Trout?”
“Get out of the water!” Trout managed through a cyclone of ventilating spasms.
I was out like jump cut.
“I went down,” Trout panted.
“To the bottom.”
“And,” he gasped dramatically, “I touched it.”
“You touched it?”
My query belied a sudden reverence.
“I touched it,” Trout confirmed, his words ringing with a sense of secret knowledge.
“It looks deeper than it is,” Trout continued. “It’s like nothing and everything you’d expect.”
He spat some drainage into the river. “It gripped me,” he said sternly.
“You were stuck?”
“I thought that was propaganda, kids’ talk…”
“Have you touched it?” Trout folded his arms behind his head. “It got me by the toe and almost sucked me in.”
I looked toward Trout’s feet and discovered his left little toe seized by a knob of glistening clay.
“See?” Trout gloated. He exulted in this evidence for a satisfying minute then tossed his foot into the river to wash it away. When he brought his pale limb back into the sun he realized the trophy had persisted. Trout anxiously thrashed his foot through he water and again the clay was unmoved. Finally, he scraped his toe against the abrasive edge of the dock and completed his pedicure with a sharpened popsicle stick. And then it started to itch. Incessantly. And it never stopped.
“Chris F., Chris F., Chris F.,” buzzed and echoed in my ears. They felt cupped by mitten-clad hands. I opened my eyes, saw only black and closed them. I registered the sound of a clock being wound, a symphony of tiny clicks like an old camera having its aperture quickly adjusted.
The utterance began again; its tone had deepened.
“Chris F., Chris F. — wait a second,” the voice clipped, followed by more clicking and tuning. It resumed, further modified, speaking in a monotonic warble like the coffee-can echo of a cheap sci-fi flick’s talking computer — like the tracheotomy-induced rasping of Datamaskin 6000, the evil artificial intelligence of Eriksson’s tech-noir thriller Datamaskinville. “Wake up, Chris F., it’s your birthday.”
I sat up and the headphone band flipped over my face into a chin strap. The apparatus dangled like a stethoscope from my sideburns. My heart sank a little when I realized it wasn’t my birthday.
I traced the cord from the headphones over a heap of chunky audio-recording equipment. During the summer prior to my first and last year at University, director Ben and I acquainted ourselves with a variety of such sonic devices. We had temporarily shelved our cinematic aspirations to ply our collective muse as café troubadours.
Ben mail-ordered and home-assembled an aluminum string bass replete with wood grain laminate. I strummed a second-hand Wood-Chip Social-Six acoustic. Paige Paillard, the only musician among us, tortured her cello with our hasty compositions — jagged scales that sounded as though she were repeatedly slitting the throat of a doe. The three of us conducted weekly guerilla concerts outside the Shrag, resulting in a new loitering law that killed our gig and left our budding fan, Sean the Wall-Eyed Kid, bereft of evening entertainment. A tone-deaf driving instructor complained to the city council that she cried herself to sleep to drown out the noise.
• • •
I followed the cord until it vanished beneath a scuffed black shoe. A dark figure rocked in a rickety chair.
“Trout dropped you off in a cab — took the fare outta your wallet.”
My wallet lay empty next to me like a shriveled balloon.
“You tipped well,” the voice continued.
My kid brother, Gannon F., slouched in his seat, drumming a battered canvas-covered box with his attenuated, four digit fingers. The motion caught my eye which caught my brother’s eye.
“You were listening to a refurbished Echoflect Acoustic-Shadow tape-delay run through a spring reverb unit,” he said flatly in his breathy baritone. He opened the lid to reveal a tiny reel-to-reel tape head. The looped tape churned like a snake tied head to tail — a magnetic Mobius strip. It appeared motionless at first but close examination proved its endless revolutions.
“You talk and it records what you say and plays it back a second and half later through the same speaker you’re coming out of. But the vocal record is demolished as you say something else and the whole cycle repeats itself, repeats itself,” Gannon said through his microphone which remained patched into the reverb unit. He reached for a switch. “Until, until, you, you, turn, turn, it, it — off.”
The room was muggy and vapor seemed to bead in the air. It felt like the inside of someone’s mouth and would have been perfect for cultivating mushrooms.
Gannon stood in the dark of his windowless studio. Younger by three years, he was a refinement of the theme on which I was based — a composite of the shavings and trimmings left on the shop floor. I was from scratch — he was leftovers. He had a succinct chin and nose as well as a toothy grin that appeared to take conscious effort to conceal. He was so thin that his ink-black T-shirt hung emptily from his shoulders as if worn by a hanger. The garment was loose around his neck and Gannon’s clavicle protruded visibly, suggesting something of an exoskeleton.
His skin, like mine, was olive-based but lacked its Romanesque swarthiness. In fact, Gannon was monochromatically green. He had not seen sunlight in six years. Since his teens, Gannon had operated his music venture in the late evening to accommodate day-jobbing musicians. He lived on the premises — a converted chicken coop a mile from north Main, sound-proofed and blind to the world, surrounded by junked cars, feral canines and an insomniac landlord that dealt methamphetamines from a kitchen lab down the gravel road.
Gannon was nocturnal. He had no windows. His plants always died. You could see his heart beating inside of him if he stepped in front of a light bulb.
He regarded me silently as I held my head and moaned, then sauntered to a compact sink set into the corner of the one room structure. The entire kitchen had once been a fixture in a houseboat.
“Cherry Flavored Cough Suppressant?” he asked, his lips pursing around his large teeth.
“No thanks, man. I quit.”
“I’m not offering, dumb ass — I’m asking if you’re on the shit,” he queried in an admonishing tone.
“No,” I sighed.
When I was on the syrup, Gannon had received innumerable deliveries of me in the same condition in which I had just arrived. Angelic cabbies and Good Sam types from town would collect me from beneath park benches in Wickersham Park or atop the lone fire escape in American Alley and shuttle me to Gannon’s hovel. In the Motion Picture Version of My Life, the scene would be shot from a bird’s eye view — the young Sven Gerhardt with an empty cough syrup bottle in hand and pen just out of reach. Papers and pigeons flutter over the immobile figure and obscure the frame whilst singing condolences.
“You didn’t look like you were on the syrup,” Gannon said while handing me a smudgy glass half filled with water and a large chewable pellet of vitamin D. “Your mouth wasn’t red.”
I was startled to hear myself speak.
“I’m hearing voices,” suddenly wedged into the thick air.
Gannon looked at me incredulously as he sat and maneuvered his chair’s wheeled base.
“Again? Dipshit. Take your vitamin and go back to sleep.”
“Thoughts. I’m hearing people’s thoughts in my head.”
Gannon rolled his chair back to regard me as if to see the whole of an art-book plate having thoroughly studied the detail.
“It’s not what you’re thinking,” I tried to explain feebly, “but it is what you’re thinking.”
“S’cough syrup. You’re on the shit — don’t lie,” Gannon charged. “Stick out your tongue.”
I did. Gannon examined it.
“Hmm. It’s not cherry-red. You must’ve rinsed your mouth out. Gargled a neighbor’s sprinkler system, dog dish or something.”
“You weren’t thinking ‘cough syrup,’ Gannon,” I interceded. “You were thinking ‘walkie-talkie.’”
Surprise crept over Gannon’s usually placid face.
“You sayin’ I’m not speaking my mind?
“‘Walkie-talkie’ – again?”
“Weird. I was thinking ‘walkie-talkie,’” Gannon affirmed. “Behind you — remember the walkie-talkies we had when we were kids? Dipshit lost yours in the field so I played with mine by myself until they said I’d have to see a counselor.”
“I found it in a box of gear shit last week,” he said. His tone became suddenly crisp, even accusatory. “Howja know what I was thinking, man?”
“I heard it in my head.”
“What am I thinking now?” Gannon asked hastily.
“‘Miss Lumaville,’” I said rubbing my temples.
“The Lumaville Daily Echo said she’s joined a state-sanctioned teenage death cult.”
“What, the high school drama club?”
“You heard that in your head?” he asked plainly.
Gannon leaned sagely in his chair, then said, “Sounds like you’ve got a case of RSVP, man.”
“Don’t you mean esp?” I asked.
Gannon glared at me a suspicious moment then proceeded.
“So, I find that old walkie-talkie and I remember, way back when, that I dropped it on the sidewalk out there on ‘D’ Street Extension before it was ‘D’ Street Extension, when it just went out there, off into the country. Weird thing for a kid. The sidewalk is a child’s only true domain in the municipal road system and Lumaville makes one that leads straight out to nowhere like that…”
I cleared my throat and Gannon continued.
“So, I put this busted up walkie-talkie back together as best I could, you know, paperclips, tin foil, that kinda shit — kid shit — cuz, what-am-I going to do — I’m a kid, right?”
“Sure,” I agreed, my headache finally departing.
“And it worked — sort of. The thing was, dipshit, my big brother, principal playmate and tormentor, lost my walkie-talkie’s twin. So, hours I’d spend roaming the neighborhood talking to myself into this plastic piece of shit when finally I notice that every time I say something into it a dog barks. Somewhere, sometimes distant, like from the number and letter streets, the University or the dreaded suburban netherworld of the Eastside, say wherever — a dog barks. Put that in your pipe and factor it!”
Gannon raised his eyebrows and nodded.
“I’m sorry I lost my walkie-talkie, Gannon,” I said, shaking my head with fraternal remorse. “Is this why you don’t go outside when the sun’s out?”
Gannon looked insulted.
“Who’s hearing voices, pal?”
He rose from his seat and navigated through the amplifiers, drum kit and microphone stands to a slipshod cinder block and pine plank shelf.
“Listen. Dogs’ ears can hear frequencies well outta the human spectrum and evidently, my little jerry-rigged transceiver could broadcast to them in those frequencies. Their frequencies.”
Gannon removed three crumbling paperbacks from the shelf to reveal a small cutaway in the sheetrock wall behind. He reached his skinny green arm into the crevice and carefully extracted the battered walkie-talkie.
“I’ve been working on it again. My after hours project to keep up my engineer chops,” Gannon said sotto voce from across the room. “You want some reefer?”
I shook my head and Gannon returned to his perch.
“Check this out,” Gannon began, his enthusiasm easily perceptible as his large front teeth protruded over his bottom lip.
He implanted the ancient toy next to a quietly humming police scanner into a console built onto his work table. After a couple of adjustments, Gannon slid a switch on the walkie-talkie and pulled out its retractable antenna so that it connected with an assemblage of wire coat hangers disguised as a mobile. Noise raged from its little speaker like heavy rain on a corrugated roof. He pressed a bright orange button on its side which squelched the noise as he spoke.
“Maynard. Maynard, come here, pup.”
Gannon caught me rolling my eyes but carried on undaunted.
“Maynard. I saw you in the garbage, Maynard. Bad dog, Maynard. Bad dog.”
The gravel was audibly stirred outside.
“Maynard, I know you snatched little Otis. I watched you bury his tiny little bones in the field by the old wrecked microbus. Maynard! Baby-snatcher! Come here boy — I got little Jill for you too, Maynard. She’s a fat little sausage, stuffed full of yams. Come here, Maynard. Mmm.”
There was scratching at the door accompanied by whining and panting.
“Go see,” Gannon prodded.
Unsteadily, I hoisted myself up and trudged to the door. When I turned the knob, I was immediately thrown back to the floor as Maynard, a brazen, powerful Rotweiler lunged, airborne, into a drum set with a resounding clash-crash of the cymbals. Instinctively, I made myself flush with the wall as the gnashing beast tore about the studio in a consorted effort to uncover Baby Jill. Gannon grabbed a distortion pedal and threw it out the door.
“There she goes, Maynard! Quick little meatball! Get her boy, get her!” he teased as the dog chased the gadget outdoors. I dashed to the door, slammed it tight and latched all its available locks.
“Jesus Fucking-A-Christ, Gannon!”
“Consider brain waves,” my brother said calmly. “Military science has been trying to get a handle on them for years. After the war, it was a fat time to be a sound engineer. The Pentagon hired scads trying to locate the specific frequencies of human thought so spies could read minds. You an audio-processor?”
“Do you hear your own voice in your head when you think?” Gannon asked.
“Yes, writers’ inner lives are generally first-person narratives.”
“Writer?” Gannon muttered. The effect was crushing. “If you’re an audio-processor then you could’ve been a candidate for the what the Pentagon termed ‘Radiopathic Signalization via Psychokinesis’ — otherwise known as ‘RSVP’”
“RSVP? Where do you get this shit, Gannon?”
“Crazy Larry,” he said.
“Downtown Crazy Larry? Oh, Gannon. The man’s lunched.”
“He showed up with a box of reels to erase — gave me a hundred dollar bill and let me keep the tapes once he was satisfied they were blank. Then he gave me this.”
Gannon tossed me a dog-eared audiophile magazine called “Shhh.” It unfolded at page seventy-two.
- The Psound Of Psylence:
- Feds Conduct E.S.P. Sound Experiments,
- Sensitive National Security Documents
- Leaked By Producer
“Advance token to the third paragraph,” Gannon instructed.
This is what I read beneath dried blots of brown mustard and cig burns:
“…though these experiments did, however, establish the RSVP protocol. Implanting a transmitting device was eschewed due to the invasive nature of the surgery and its facile detection under only moderate enemy scrutiny. Worse than endangering … reconnaissance … possibility of the technology being … by the adversary. Dr. … conceded an agent aided by a biochemically-devised receiver could … read mental frequencies … subject … the broadcaster was … irregular and unpredictable…”
I looked up from the page.
“They could read minds?”
Gannon looked at me coolly as he squeezed the walkie-talkie’s orange button.
I screamed as the heinous squeal exploded in my ears. It subsided as suddenly as it had appeared. “What the hell was that?”
“Feedback. Sorry,” my brother apologized. “I’m looking for your frequency.”
He made a slight adjustment, hit the button again and I promptly passed out.
Mitch the Cabbie kept a steady pace, caroming his junk-pot jalopy townward through the pylons on Dagoba Avenue. The back windows were open and the wind finally blew away the ascot that had been plucked from my shirt collar and draped over my eyes as a sunshade. The back seat smelled faintly of urine.
A Greek fisherman’s cap obscured Mitch’s face. He was a self-styled philosopher, dribbled poetry of the ilk scrimshawed into burl or leather goods, participated in Civil War reenactments and swore he had Native American blood in him despite the fact he was a pure-blood Eastside émigré and whiter than Formica. He turned over a cigarette foil with handwriting on it and grumbled through his long beard, “A fella, er, pal of yours hired the car to air you out. The windows are down if you gotta puke.” He took his eyes off the road to add with emphasis, “Don’t puke.”
I assembled myself in the back seat and retied my ascot in the slim vista of the rear-view mirror. I tried to get the RSVP on the driver to no avail, then noticed the flag of the taxi’s meter already down, the meter inert.
“Fella paid your first fare up, you gotta couple miles left on your second fare — where we going?”
“160 North Main.”
“Already been there. See, this, er,” he paused while again reading the cigarette foil. “You know a ‘Gannon?’”
“Well, the little shit sent you up the Lumaville River without a paddle. Told me to deliver you at that drop-off, but a guy there — a queer-ball with a pointy Shakespeare beard and a hickey on his neck ugly as a prison tattoo — see, he wouldn’t take ya in,” Mitch grouched. “And! Shakespeare answered the door naked. A man like that’s liable to take advantage of a fella in your predicament. Some kinda counter-culture, Elizabethan, Renaissance fairy.”
It made me uncomfortable to think such things occurred to Mitch. The cabbie turned to me momentarily and said, “You really should lay off the cough syrup,” he said and tapped a leather visor sheath that read “A man’s only as good as his liquor.”
As we passed the old hatchery, then the market where migrant laborers congregated in the mornings for construction work pimped by shady contractors, I noticed that Mitch’s beard was attached to his face by two hooks around his ears.
“So this queer-ball Shakespeare character…”
Mitch continued undaunted.
“This beatnik, commie, butt-fuck, pin-dick jive-ass mother-fucking, spoon-dog goon you’ve had the misfortune to shack up with gave me a ten-spot to drive your ass around for awhile. And it’s been awhile.”
“160 North Main, please.”
“Back to Fruitcake Castle, partner.”
Mitch double-parked outside the desolate Café Press Pass and I exited the car. I sifted my pockets for pennies to huck at my second-story window and noticed the flat above appeared strangely dormant. Below, the café’s docile, lonely proprietor waved at me and I nodded back as I jingled the change in my hand. After lengthening the crack in the window by four inches, Horatio finally tossed out the keys.
• • •
Inside, I flung the mail I had collected from the stairwell landing onto the bar and noticed one of my own, plain self-addressed letters peeking from the sheaf of inevitable collection notices, bills and propaganda. I turned, and there, reclining on a leatherette divan disposed amongst the usual clutter of the flat, was Horatio arranged in a black kimono. The costume had been fabricated from a satin bedsheet by the high school drama club.
“How do you like it?” Horatio asked, fanning out his arms to reveal the depth of his sleeves. “Ms. Lumaville hosted a silent auction for the trauma club at 201 Fair. Old costumes and props. Steals. We now have a set of six plastic martini glasses — rather obligates us to have a soiree, don’t you think?”
I was unimpressed with his acquisitions and was stirred more to comment on his afternoon’s address. 201 Fair Street was where the high school stood, which I found distressfully telling.
“Rather like hunting game at a petting zoo?” I insinuated.
“Aye, but a man’s got to eat,” Horatio hissed as the rangy Minuet exited his bedroom in a matching kimono, her mousy hair tussled into a clip. Horatio nervously lit his pipe.
“Babysitting?” I muttered to him under my breath.
“Tutoring,” Horatio whispered then cleared his throat to silence me as Minuet approached. I managed to get out “How was school today?” before he promptly stuck a second pipe in my mouth and lit it.
Minuet spun her long-lashed eyes toward me and set her jaw.
“I got sick,” she said.
Admittedly, I was smarting from a sudden jealousy over the girl despite my adamancy that, sixteen or no, the kid was a kid regardless of the nation’s rock and roll obsession with the number.
Minuet retreated into Horatio’s room when the window was rapped by a fistful of coins. Ben and Griff simultaneously bent to retrieve their pennies, bumped heads and collapsed, agonizing, on the sidewalk.
Within minutes of their arrival, Ben and Griff had transformed the living room into an impromptu sound stage.
“Roll sound!” Ben called through his cupped hands.
Horatio retorted, “Speed!” A riverwater martini chilled in the plastic glass resting on the sill next to him. A dollop of rubber cement endured on its bottom where a young property master had fixed it to a tray so it wouldn’t topple onstage.
Griff hurriedly shaped his yellow hair, reset his collar and stepped into Horatio’s bedroom. He closed the door.
Horatio clenched his pipe tightly in his teeth as he filled my plastic glass from a silver laminate container.
“The As Yet Untitled, Unfinished Motion Picture of Chris F.’s — er — Sven Gerhardt’s Life, scene one, take one.”
Ben leaned forward, his shot framed between the L forms of his thumbs and index fingers, and called “Action!”
Griff activated. His muffled voice sounded from behind the thinly paneled door: “Perhaps it was those crackerjack B’s, the homemade calligraphy of some dime store socialite; or the…”
I turned to Ben and asked, “Why is he doing his lines from behind the door?”
“This is the voice over,” he explained.
Griff continued his lines: “Two words written lipstick across the TV’s snow storm simply reading…”
Griff paused a moment. Ben looked agitated. Griff continued: “Aren’t you cold, little girl?”
“He’s improvising,” Ben sighed.
“You should put on something warm. Here, try my pants.”
“That motherfucker!” Horatio burst, his ears and face red with vexation. He tore into his bedroom.
“Cut! Cripes, criminy! Get this crazy man off the set!” Ben commanded. He rambled to the bedroom door. I followed.
Inside, we suffered the sight of Minuet’s lithe form: her kimono was cracked such that a steady line of flesh led from her painted middle toenail to the tip top of her rosy nipple.
“Prepare for take two. Griff, stay closer to book this time!” Ben hollered.
As we exited, he turned to me in the hallway and cautioned, “I’m an artist, not a pornographer. Kid and camera sharing shingles — looks utterly bad. I don’t do blue. Nix on skin flicks. But with that naked harpy fluttering around, chances are…”
“We don’t even have a camera, Ben.”
“Still, we can’t afford to be shortsighted,” Ben thrust his hands in his pockets to disguise a growing erection. “Horatio’s making her, isn’t he? Lucky bastard’s picking up the slack while I’m on sabbatical.”
• • •
During the second take I strayed to the bar for another riverwater martini. The can of Turpenoid was missing. I winnowed my plain, self-addressed-stamped-envelope from the other mail with a flourish devised to capture the others’ eyes as I returned to my seat.
Minuet had dressed herself and was lingering by the flat’s front door where she seemed to whisper into the crack as though confiding to a makeshift confessional.
Griff ran his lines. Ben made a satisfactory snort and directed Griff to re-enter the room, which he did, gregariously, wearing Minuet’s tiny kimono over his slim, nude body. He smoked a pantomime pipe and sniggered as he deftly impersonated a peeved Horatio.
Horatio and Minuet were surprised to hear each other simultaneously retort, “Hardly.”
I rose with pained nonchalance and unnecessarily wielded my letter about as I made motions to retire to my room. I paused and tried the RSVP on those surrounding, heard nothing and quietly exited, fanning myself with the letter.
As I passed Minuet in the hall, the front door to which she was muttering opened and in spilled Trout whose narrow mitts cupped my letter in a swift interception that landed him in the living room before I could register what had happened.
I was aghast.
Horatio, delighted with the opportunity to affront me after I had slurred his romance with the specter of illegality, nabbed the letter from Trout who stood self-impressed.
“Alas, I’m only the internuncio,” Trout smiled as Griff passed him a riverwater martini. Griff discreetly cut his own drink with the Turpenoid he quickly obscured in the kimono’s deep pocket.
“The usual plain white bond envelope, typed address in all caps, no return address,” Horatio announced as he began to finger the letter’s immaculate seal. “Your customary fare.”
On account of the improvisational nature with which these cackling hyenas had procured and proceeded to expose my postal intrigues (a personal, if not federal offense) I took their prying to be merely the guileless explosion of months of repressed curiosity. I credited myself for being the only one amongst us cogent enough to execute an organized ambush – but alas, what more could I have expected from my letter scheme?
Ben tore my letter from Horatio’s talons and in so doing, exposed part of its blank contents. At least I hadn’t been foolhardy enough to enclose any secret affirmations. I rationalized the mysterious letter and its predecessors would be amplified by an unblemished sheet of forty weight bond. I could contend that all the letters had been blank, or most, or perhaps this was the first and was as much a puzzle to me as to them. Better yet, I could accuse Ben of sending the letter and let him fumble for an alibi.
Spleen interceded, however. I descried a churlish grin rip across Ben’s thin lips. Though this jocular panther, this ebon-headed hippogriff, meant only minor bruising to my mettle, I knew it would sting worse than a clap test. I began combing the attic for something with which to harm him — a needle to drag athwart the shallow, vinyl grooves of his psyche.
I earned myself a headache trying to get the RSVP working on him on him so that I might accouter myself with his own gritty secrets.
Ben cleared his throat. I lowered my head so that I might drolly raise my eyes upon the first inquiry concerning the unmarked stationary.
“‘Dear Chris F.,’” Ben began reading in a chiding tone. “At least they got the name right,” he said aside.
My gut made expeditious somersaults, twenty, forty in a second. Que es ca c’est? Trout perceived my discomfort and transmitted his apt detection that something had gone exceedingly awry by offering me a restorative cigarette.
“For your nerves?”
I nodded and continued doing so as he tried to light it for me. Ben read on.
“‘Much has happened since we last met. Remember our first correspondence? You passed me a napkin at that dive café on the boulevard — I can’t remember the name but surely you’ve outgrown it by now,’” Ben paused momentarily as we attempted to shrug off our mutual chagrin.
“‘You had written: “on a night like this, planets are born, Caesars are conquered and women are won.’” That and a few nights of casting your shadow into my window had wooed a younger and woefully more naïve me. And even though I found out you cribbed the lines from some Swedish skin flick…’”
“Den Polisen,” Horatio interrupted. Ben bowed approvingly and continued.
“‘…where you would also later steal that furtive penname of yours, I still found myself somehow moved. Perhaps it was a virulent form of pity or maybe that a good laugh is just a good laugh. Anyway, I’m returning to Lumaville to do a movie cameo. I’m sure this letter has found you there. Given the fact that Lumaville is a desperately tiny, precious little knick-knack town, our paths will surely cross. I implore you, for both our sakes, forego the acrimony we share a singular, synergistic ability to produce and at least fake through some pleasantries. And no more open letters to the Lumaville Daily Echo. Surely, you have grown up by now. By the way, how far have you gotten on the Motion Picture Version of Your Life?’”
Ben stopped reading and said consolingly, “It’s signed, ‘Paige Paillard.’”
Horatio exited to refill the bottle of riverwater from the tap as Ben coughed and announced he had to make an important phone call.
Trout and Griff lit salubrious candles.
Minuet asked if she could cut the autograph from the letter.
Later that evening, at the barren cinemas, I labored on my celluloid memoir, The Motion Picture Version of My Life.
It lay suspended on the sticky glass countertop — a tortured vertigo over the circus train of confections visible by a tangle of white Christmas lights below. I amended a line: “Man lights two cigarettes.”
There was a metallic rapping like a cheap locket being repeatedly dropped into a wine spritzer. I looked up and saw brass buttons of an otherwise obscure coat pressing against the plate glass of the theatre’s doors. My stomach lurched and calmed as I dashed the notion it might be Aria, the phantom girl who made off with From Angst to Zilch.
I crimped my screenplay into a tiny accordion and the haphazard origami reacted like a spring when pinched between my thumb and forefinger. The tapping at the door grew rhythmic and intentional. I had figured out who it was and sadistically counted off sixty seconds before I resolved to let the shadowy hulk indoors.
• • •
Moscow Jones wore a snappy red uniform two sizes too small replete with epaulets, yellow tassels and shiny brass buttons that barely closed over his girth like desperate hands reaching a chancy grip over a chasm. His pillbox hat was cocked to the side and secured to his chin with a black elastic cord that left deep purple grooves in its flesh. Moscow’s attire appeared to be that of a Commie bellboy. Moscow Jones was my private name for him, for I had never cared to learn his actual name. He was just a messenger. The yellow embroidery on his crimson cap read, “Top Notch Telegram.”
Silently, the lug handed me a telegram and let his great, paper maché head fall into his chest. Moscow looked mildly afflicted with gigantism; his mandible so enormous he could rest it on his chest and look me in the face without his eyes being eclipsed by his curiously sloped brow. He was an overgrown organ-grinder’s monkey, his ancestors all leashed to the tinkling box. His form, I believed, was so disgusting that it couldn’t keep a human spirit in it long. At night, perhaps, it slipped through his nostrils to take temporary refuge in the ventriloquist’s dummy hanging upstairs in the projection booth.
“Sign for it,” Moscow mumbled. He turned his back to me revealing a clipboard grafted to his uniform. A pen dangled from a string tied to his epaulet. He bent a little as I signed, “Sven Gerhardt, Projectionist.”
“New orders?” Moscow asked, like a precocious child left unattended at a cocktail party.
I slapped him.
The smudgy envelope felt rife with omen and I feared a reprimand from management for the previous evening’s change in programming. I turned away but I felt Moscow breathing through his mouth as he tried to read over my shoulder. Annoyed, I turned as he fidgeted with his cuff — his palm upturned in the sleeve he feigned to adjust. He cleared his throat and his eyes went askance to the candy behind the blurry glass of the concession stand. I had forgotten his tip.
I hopped the door of the concession stand and groped inside the candy chamber whose dense, sweet air was like kissing a girl chewing bubble-gum.
“Which?” I asked. Moscow’s mouth fell agape as though its ropes were cut from the sandbags of hard earned volition that kept it closed. A quick snatch of static brushed my ears like sandpaper being drawn against softwood. I pinched my eyes into a lazy squint.
“How ’bout,” Moscow began, but I interrupted him and tuned the static I heard by subtlety adjusting my eyebrows.
“Let me guess,” I instructed Moscow. His thick internal voice crawled over the bright magenta and orange candy boxes, “Lost Buttons, Chocolate covered Raison d’êtres, and More-So’s.” Moscow fixated on the chocolate and caramel medallions.
“More-So’s, right?” I teased. Moscow grinned dumbly as I tossed the box across the lobby.
He shook the box of candies at his ear like a poor man’s maraca.
• • •
I returned to my perch and opened the telegram. My dread of reproof left with the second tear which unhinged revealed a splash of alphabet soup that read:
Screen dailes for incoming production co — stop — Marquee: The Whaling Swedes — stop
— Regards, Mgt.
I crumpled the telegram in my fist and launched it at the suggestion box across the lobby.
The notion of Paige’s cameo and the steam-queen’s extra debut had already made me sick to my stomach but worse was the cruel gnaw that the Lumiere’s blasted management had instilled. They had pimped out the house to Moloch and marooned me to run the projector on their vulgar drivel. Young Sergeant Phil had always blithely done the deed before the Peter Pan incident — now I had to become complicit with Hollywood’s obnoxious endeavor. At least it wasn’t that loathed Bergman, I thought.
Young Sergeant Phil came jogging down the balcony stairs.
“It’s spun and done,” he panted, a necktie made from a strip of film around his neck. He produced a second already looped and ready to wear from his coat pocket. I stared at him.
“You like it? I made one for you so you could ditch the ascot.”
I took the celluloid cravat and inspected its foggy, miniature portraits against the yellow light of the popcorn machine.
“What film is it?”
“The extra what?”
“You’re brilliant,” I said and then informed him that “We’re playing ‘The Whaling Swedes’ for an extended run.”
He turned to me, blank-faced.
“The Whaling Swedes” or “Bane O’the Tides”:
Two geriatric stowaways who had been under cover of a lifeboat are pitched to sea during a heavy storm. The stowaways survive the rains, then the scorching sun, only to face starvation while adrift in the ever-expanding blue.
Swanson (Swedish names were replaced in the English dub), a phlegmatic and moody man, has preserved a deck of playing cards with which he predicts their fate by tabulating the results of repeated games of solitaire — he believes every round lost confirms their doom. Unbeknownst to Swanson, Monty — a jaunty epicurean — has been surreptitiously eating the cards one by one to stave off death. For variety, Monty seasons the cards with sea salt — or does not — alternates between wet or dry preparations and suns or shades his fare to taste. This sequence dominates the first two reels and is silent apart from the sound of waves lapping the shallow hull of the lifeboat.
By the fourth reel, Swanson and Monty resolve each to cannibalize the other should one die. Low comedy ensues as Monty occasionally wakes to find Swanson gnawing on his foot and vice versa.
“My apologies, sir. I thought you were dead.”
“No, sir, I am afraid not.”
The offended party must then prove he is alive and the other is not dreaming by recounting how they came into such untoward circumstances. However, neither survivor can accurately recall what precipitated their plight and tell considerable lies to each other so as not to be eaten.
Right as the action seems to picking up, “Look Swanson! It’s a…” the film abruptly ends.
When the theatre’s marquee brandished The Whaling Swedes attendance was zero; foot traffic detoured across the street to avoid passing beneath the ponderous title the way the superstitious skirt open ladders.
Young Sergeant Phil locked himself in the letter crypt to assemble his alphabet. I began to think about the miscellany of cynosures unknowingly sculpting my fate — wily abettors such as Paige, Aria, Eriksson and faceless Moloch. The end to which this trajectory would lead, however, remained veiled and incomprehensible to me.
This much I knew: I wanted out of shit-hole Lumaville. I wanted to start anew, as a Swede, as Sven Gerhardt, so far away that my consanguinity with Paige Paillard, indeed, all of Lumaville and my retarded friends, had no more ballast than a bead of brow-borne sweat wiped when awakened from a nightmare.
I crossed the popcorn-strewn floor to retrieve the Wild Strawberries lobby card from its frame. I paused at the door of the letter crypt and adjusted my brow until I caught the RSVP frequency on Young Sergeant Phil.
“I ain’t got two E’s. Fuck. Abbey’s seedy effigy, Aches I jockey elemental peas. Cue arrest tea You’ve Volkswagen asked why not Z.”
The unruly RSVP was operating again, but did little to quell the uncertainty that came when my thoughts turned inevitably, again and again, to Paige Paillard’s homecoming.
As far as I was concerned, she and I were playing a metaphysical game of checkers wherein she had completely decimated my forces save one grizzled puck. That marker, in spite of incredible odds, was two moves short of ending a board’s length trek into enemy quarters, whereupon I could demand “King me, damn it.”
Portents of becoming Swedish and Buntel Eriksson’s charge galvanized this ardent little checker, but as always, Paige loomed supreme. She had me beat — double-jumped in a mad zig-zag across the board of our fates. Yes, we were both amassers of stardust, but her store had coalesced into international renown and a cameo role. Mine had yet to manifest anything but a shared covey of used books and a pipe-dreamt vision of elsewhere.
And then, quite suddenly, an unexpected belch, a tidal wave of anxiety, surged into my awareness. If Paige and I were to encounter each other, she with all her ungainly prosperity and myself, single, paunchy and with only the first page of the Motion Picture Version of My Life supporting my claim to be a writer, the contrast would be so humiliating that I would have to drown myself in the stagnant sewer of the Lumaville River from shame. At the very least, I needed a girlfriend for nothing absolves mediocrity better than the appearance of unconditional love. Facing Paige companionless would prove my obvious failure at both love and life. A girlfriend, however, could shoulder fifty percent of the ignominy as a guileless defendant. But who? Midge was too young, impudent and weird to make the grade. All the other candidates in Lumaville’s diminutive gene pool despised my past or were part of it and consequently despised their own. A romantic tint crept over my endeavor like a rank membrane.
But, yes, Aria — of course. Aria Tailleur was just the match.
I realized that if I was going to find her, commence a seduction, spare From Angst to Zilch a postal odyssey to Fourth Street, steal it, betray my friends and plunder the Buntel Eriksson collective library, hock it to the Wombat, finish the Motion Picture Version of My Life, move to Sweden and present it to the auteur before my karma finally ricocheted and knocked me dead and deserving it — there was only one person who could help me…
Johan Non was a peculiar soul. An enormously muscular, if corpulent fellow, Johan’s ice-blue eyes, blunt features and blond hair bespoke a Teutonic bearing straight out of Eriksson’s Travesty of the Will. My relationship with him had always been predicated on some order of business partnership — by turns a drive-up crêpe stand (Johan bullied drivers, I seared batter), a cult based on the number nine, pamphlets touting the curative powers of magnets, a cemetery for puppets and finally a subsidy publishing racket. We kept fleabag-rate offices in the Prinz Building at 24 Occidental Avenue, Suite Six: Valhalla, for next to nothing, for it was then undergoing seismic retrofitting.
These headquarters formerly belonged to a corrupt chiropractor named Doctor Abelson Digby. Such a canker was Digby on the labrum of legitimate medicine, he could only achieve the moniker “doctor” by changing his first name to it. Eventually, Johnny Law chased him out of town for unlawful “digital penetration” of a client and her Pekinese and Digby forfeited all order of quasi-medical debris to the landlord. Needles were a constant discovery as were multicolored charts depicting every tributary of pain, pleasure and healing that coursed the human body like a blueprint for a scale human voodoo doll.
Such artifacts were instantly Johan’s and became the initial inspiration for an ever-growing installment art piece that gradually cornered him in his office, necessitating the elimination of the south wall for his release. I was allotted two reams of paper and a rotary dial telephone with frowning faces painted where the numbers once were.
Our company published two books — both mine — the first a slender volume of tepid poetry entitled, Ballad of the Saxon’s Daughter and the Book of Job by Chris F. (do not see appendix A) followed by its sequel White Chick and Other Short Term Arrangements (not attached). The critical response in the Lumaville Daily Echo was excruciating. Local artists’ prattle had it that critic Garson Grieves was so contemptuous he drafted his butchering reviews in red ink so as to emulate their blood (he later electrocuted himself with a self-stimulation device in the bathtub). I was so seared I changed my name and began a new career as a screenwriter. It was then that I began writing the Motion Picture Version of My Life — an endeavor I resolved to conclude contiguous with Aria’s seduction.
• • •
The next morning, after a late sleep and only a minor hangover, I decided to canter over to Johan’s new digs. I had performed an RSVP check on Midge while she slept in my bed and established it was again dormant. Its flippancy annoyed me, as did the fact that I was too broke to buy coffee at the Shrag Café and either had to wait until Midge’s shift or lift a library book to hock before I could get my fix.
• • •
On the two hundred block of Occidental Avenue, I stepped into the dry cleaning joint where Johan rented a desk in the dusk of a back room. Between business ventures, he had become a self-styled private investigator.
An old, crêpe de chine woman greeted me, an order slip in her hand. Since I had arrived at her shop with only the clothes on my back, she assumed I was there to retrieve items and opened a shopworn ledger on the counter.
“I’m here for Johan Non.”
“You not Mr. Non,” she said shaking her head.
“No, I’m here to see him.”
“He see nobody.”
“I’m his old partner.”
“He have no partner. Partner dead.”
Dead? I had no idea our relationship had grown so enfeebled. I tried a different approach.
“I’m a client of his.”
“Johan have no client. You not very clever, young man.”
“I’m a new client.”
“Who refer you?”
“His partner,” I said, unable to resist the compulsion to self-reference.
“Partner dead,” she reiterated.
“I know ‘partner dead.’ I’m partner.”
The woman paused as she weighed the spiritual implication of my words.
“You come long way, dead man. He owe you money too?”
She eyed me over, then shooed me through a narrow corridor flanked by gnashing machinery that discharged humid, chemical clouds as I passed.
At Johan’s door, I swooshed away the steam to reveal “Johan Non, Private Eye,” smudged across it in rub off letters undoubtedly lifted from the stationery department of the drugstore down from the Shrag. Crudely applied exclamation points hung from the bottom of the inscription’s O’s in an effort to represent magnifying glasses. Instead it looked like the icon of a new and curious gender.
I rapped the door lightly. It creaked slowly open, its momentum fueled by the sweltering steam engine of the laundry.
“Johan?” I queried as I entered the dim enclosure. So small seemed the room, it sounded as though my whisper had been breathed into cotton. I shortened my steps for fear of stepping into a quick wall. My knee grazed a desk within a few feet of entering. Cursing the sting, I happened to glance upwards and discovered the ceiling was a skylight, two stories above. It was so encrusted with pigeon shit that only a single splinter of light shone through and illuminated a heavy hand resting across the desktop. Clad in a black coat sleeve, the hand appeared autonomous of a body and was visible only from the white French cuff to its buffed fingernails. A watch divided wrist from fist with a thick leather band — its Roman numerated face was unobstructed by hands, though it ticked audibly.
“Johan,” I said gently shaking the hefty limb by the wrist.
Slowly the other arm emerged from underneath the desk, loosely clutching a silver-plated letter opener. The desktop looked like a tight shot of a card trick demonstration. A deep snore shook a dried, dead flower crumbling in a vase near the corner of the desk.
“It’s your partner, man, wake up,” I began, but WHACK! My head suddenly smarted — the peek-a-boo of overhead light blinded my right eye so that my left started to tear in sympathy — the cool blade of the letter opener pressed into my throat. I strained to balance my legs which dangled over the edge of the desk. Johan’s blonde tresses cascaded over a shoulder as thick as a railroad tie.
“My partner’s dead,” he grumbled.
“It’s me, Sven Gerhardt,” I squeaked. The blade began to crease my Adam’s apple.
“Okay, okay, it’s Chris F., goddamnit!”
I was hurled into an uncomfortable rolling chair that hit the concrete wall with a sharp slap.
Johan sat up behind his desk and threw his size thirteen feet up with a thud. The spikes of his golf cleats glinted in the narrow spotlight.
“Still cheap on shoes?” I joked, adjusting my ascot.
“Cleats are better than wingtips. They keep me from grating my soles on this shit-canned burg,” Johan said steadily. “Pure and clean this way.”
“That’s why you work in a garbage chute, eh?”
My lip inflated mildly from the smack. It had been awhile since I had seen Johan and I’d gotten slow to dodge his animated gesturing.
He withdrew two tumblers from his bottom drawer.
“Drink?” he offered.
“What, from the drainpipe?”
Johan’s burly knuckles whisked over my head and stirred the surrounding air into a brief tornado as I ducked into my collar. I sipped gingerly from the cup of rusty rubbing alcohol that Johan called a riverwater martini.
“Your receptionist thinks I’m a ghost.”
“You ever heard of a private eye without a dead partner?”
“You ever heard of a private eye that…” I let the thought trail as my survival instinct caught up. “Cheers.”
We connected glasses in a brawny toast. In fact, Johan broke mine. The conversation turned to business.
“There’s a new girl in town,” I said plainly. “Got out of Ozma’s Used Books with some of my merchandise.”
“What was that?”
“A book. Go figure.”
“You always see the wrong things in women.”
I leaned back until I was flush with the chilly concrete wall and waited for the patter to pass.
“Listen,” I implored. My sudden graveness had cooled him and he too reclined in his seat. I then began to explain my whole diabolical plan to him, from angst to zilch as it were. Johan was all attention, perceptibly impressed with my machinations, and showed especial interest in the mention of the book-thieving Wombat. He had a mechanical sensibility that could be piqued by such intrigues when the human drama lost him.
“But it gets better,” I continued and leaned forward. “Help me and we’ll pry ourselves off this rock and land ourselves somewhere where you can wear regular shoes.”
“No cleats?” Johan asked. He seemed to weigh this seriously. “You know my rates.”
“They ain’t vertical.”
“Not straight either. How do you feel about deferment?”
“Tell me about the girl.”
“She’s new. Her name is Aria Tailleur. Tall, blond, the business. Beauty mark. Parents are French. Or at least she says they are. She’s not, but she’s not from around here either. Has a kid brother. Apparently a nut-cake. Dresses like she fell out of a boys boarding school. Respects libraries and socialism. Has money to burn at bookstores. Smokes. Doesn’t like ascots. She wore a T-shirt that said ‘Crash and Burn ’37.’ I think she’s left-handed. Dig?”
“Dig. I’ll call with a plan,” Johan growled as steam filled the room.
Johan let me out the back of his office which landed me in a thin alleyway that popped open on the Sixth Street side of the block across from the mammoth St. Vitus church. I went southerly down the block, hooked a left on A Street, made a short jog across Fifth Street into the A Street parking lot where the gothic courthouse once stood. There, I turned right and walked steadily toward the Lumaville Historical Library and Museum on the corner of B and Fourth Streets.
I remembered Midge’s shift did not begin until evening, so to get my fix, I needed to hock a library book at Ozma’s.
The library was endowed by some turn-of-the-century oil barron and made from sandstone quarried from what later became the dump in Lumaville’s northerly country.
I jaunted up the granite stairs and through the vault-like doors. Inside, I plucked a couple of good books I knew Horatio would appreciate: Raising the Moderne Child and the California State Penal Code Handbook.
At the check-out counter a white-haired old crone made me re-shelve the California State Penal Code Handbook because it was a reference book and not allowed to leave the library. I checked out Contextualizing Puberty in its place.
What a sad grift, I thought, but it beat rolling a wino in the Fourth Street park or extorting little Joe High School’s cig money.
At the bookstore, Horatio, a little burned by my acquisitions, withdrew a weathered dollar bill from the register, tore it in half and left it on the counter as he turned to his waiting customers.
“Just this then? One dollar and fifty cents,” he said with excessive politeness to the little girl clutching a picture book about horses. Horatio winked to her parents, who thanked him for his patience while the child fished two dollar bills from her own tiny, beaded purse.
Horatio handed the kid her two quarters change which she promptly deposited on her blue, candy-stained tongue and shut her trap.
“Don’t we know a better place to put dirty, icky, change?” Horatio queried the ghastly child. She nodded but her parents interceded with “This is our little compromise.”
Horatio did not offer them a bag.
Outside, I passed through the parking lot between the McFar and Maze-Mart buildings. “DON’T PISS HERE” was stenciled on the far brick wall. I turned the corner, skipped past the theater and into Café Shrag. There, long-faced Ruby received my tattered currency and shooed me out the door with a cup of coffee she made me promise to return after my shift next door.
From the concession stand, I watched Young Sergeant Phil outside, balancing on the top rung of a bowed wooden ladder that looked as though it had been beset by rickets when only a growing footstool. Griff had passed by, checked his hair in the reflection of the plate-glass door and enlisted himself as Young Sergeant Phil’s co-worker. He held the ladder as the letter-man changed the marquee to read Bane O’the Tides, since the L for the Whaling Swedes seemed to have forfeited the asylum of the letter crypt and vanished.
I resumed working on the Motion Picture Version of My Life. I had resolved that the screenplay need not maintain the conventional narrative structured foisted upon us screenwriters by Moloch know-nothings and invented a motif in which an unseen voice is matched with the blinding, refracted light from a hand mirror as a representation of the main character’s fear of death. The real beauty of it, however, was that the voice only recited newspaper reports of tragedies — all I had to do was clip articles from the Lumaville Daily Echo and paste them into the script. I now had a whole other page laden with sensational car wrecks, flood victims and the death of a homeless person at the hands of zealous police personnel. The new scene opened with a riveting account of young beauty Ms. Lumaville in the company of a known bloodsucker and a local inventor who made a couch built with a built-in metal-detector to retrieve loose change and lost keys.
“I don’t have an ‘I,’” Young Sergeant Phil burst out. Enraptured with my cutting and pasting, I hadn’t noticed he and Griff had entered the musty lobby. “There’s no fucking ‘I.’”
I offered him some flippant eastern-sounding shit which Young Sergeant Phil mulled then turned quizzically to Griff.
“How’s he mean, look within myself?”
“Don’t look at me,” shrugged Griff, then added, “You’d see right through me.”
Young Sergeant Phil went up the stairs to the projection booth as Griff caught his image in the chromium frame that held the lobby cards.
“What’s playing?” he asked after tracing a wetted pinky over his eyebrow.
The phone rang before I responded. He nodded at me as I reached for the receiver.
“Lumiere, Projectionist speaking,” I said into the heavy, black phone.
“It’s Johan. Here’s the plan,” said my former partner through the ear-piece. I stood motionless with anticipation. “The Hindenburg.”
“The Hindenburg,” he repeated proudly.
“What’s that, the uncertainty principle?”
“German airship produced by Graf Zeppelin. Your girl’s T-shirt — ‘Crash and Burn ’37’— guess when the thing went down?”
“Yesterday?” I wagered.
“‘37. Had a hunch about the number so I ran it by a contact of mine over at the University. Turns out, they’re worn by members of some order of women’s guild or sorority.”
“Not like the drama club or anything, right?”
“No vampires if that’s what you’re asking,” Johan assured. “So here’s the plan — you have to host a party — a theme party — a Hindenburg party a la this club. So far as I know there isn’t a local chapter, a stray member like this woman of yours may be enticed to a stopover, especially if she’s new in town, as you say, and could dig a short-order social life.”
There was a moment of silence.
“You want me to throw a party for a blimp?” I asked incredulously as I turned my back on Griff who had been attentively watching me like an owl, occasionally begging, “Who?”
“Listen, dick-head,” Johan continued. “You just have to hit the motifs, see — banners, hydrogen tanks, a picture of…”
“Hitler?” I interrupted.
“You expect to be paid for this?”
“Trust me. From what I understand, these ‘Crash and Burn’ chicks are serious business. Like a cult, secret sect. Handshakes. They’re brainwashed to respond to all things Zeppelin-esque,” Johan explained. “Make a flier announcing the event at your flat, ten to nine says she gets netted.”
“There are other factors we can work with, Johan. She’s left-handed for instance,” I said at a loss.
“Put it on the bill — ‘Leftists Welcome.’”
“And when radicals show up?”
“Charge them double — for the cause.”
He hung up.
I returned the phone to the receiver. Griff went to the bathroom as I stepped over the dwarf-high door to the concession stand and gathered up the Motion Picture Version of My Life which stuck to the counter from schmutz. I slipped the screenplay into a small square coin pocket that clung near the hem of my coat’s lining. The pocket caught my attention and reminded me of the crossword puzzle answer in the newspaper. The square, black and white graphic had always looked to me like a tiny rat-maze and I was surprised to find one concealed in my garments.
My shift had ended.
There was a brief episode when, following Griff’s burst appendix and subsequent surgical complications, the infirm actor resided at Lumaville Valley Hospital for a number of weeks. In his absence, his more roughly hewn brother Sid, on rare furlough from the same hospital’s psychiatric ward, moved into Griff’s then shit-hole boarding house on Beagle Street, across from a City Hall so plainly designed it was rumored the architect was blind and drafted his work by tracing cardboard squares.
During this interim period, the mildly psychotic Sid assumed much of the responsibility of being Griff. He paid Griff’s debts, attended social functions in his stead and slept with Griff’s girlfriends. He only deviated from Griff’s regimen to pursue an avocation as an amateur avian veterinarian, jamming Griff’s dresser drawers full of dead birds.
Despite his penchant for ornithological debris, Sid was flesh and blood testimony to the fact that Griff was replaceable. So seamlessly did Sid substitute himself for Griff, that many, regardless of his ten extra pounds and facial tics, believed Sid was Griff. It could even be said that the bird-man was more successful as Griff than Griff himself. People who didn’t like Griff liked Sid. People who liked Griff liked Sid better. When Griff returned from the hospital, Sid quietly returned to the ward and nobody thought to discuss the interlude.
In time, memories of Sid were conveniently revised to be memories of Griff. Griff too learned to remember. Inwardly, this satisfied Griff for it was his myopic notion that an actor should abort his sense of self so as to better portray others. He used this premise to rationalize why he drank as much as he did. When his tolerance matched his consumption, Griff moved onto to stiffer fare, like Turpenoid. Of all of us, including the fastidious bottle-measuring Horatio, I was the only one to notice Griff’s proclivity for the synthetic solvent. Consequently, I was also the only one to notice Griff’s relative lack of color. The boy had always been fair-complected, but now he seemed strangely pale, perhaps even a tad translucent about the edges.
Griff and I hiked down Main toward the Shrag, our long shadows reaching down the sidewalk. During the familiar lull in our conversation, I noticed that Griff’s shadow wasn’t opaque as mine was, that it momentarily seemed more the product of a filter than an obstacle. I had become particularly shadow-conscious when an optical illusion once prevented me from seeing mine for a number of minutes when on a cough syrup binge. I panicked, flailed into the number and letter streets only to be discovered whimpering in the back yard of a young girl who soothed me into rationality. That’s how I met Paige Paillard.
“What’s wrong with your shadow, Griff?” I asked. “It isn’t as dark as mine.”
“I eat better. I’m not as weighed down, thick with gut.”
He was interrupted by the spectacle of Ms. Lumaville and an entourage of Lumaville Daily Echo reporters blocking the sidewalk at Occidental and Main below the clock tower. Surrounding them was the military-like activity of gaffers, lighting technicians and other movie production personnel bustling near the cinemas.
Ms. Lumaville’s expression was downhearted as she moved like an old river schooner across the street, a gaggle of has-been and hack penmen catching their cap-toes in the wake of her vintage frock.
“Ms. Lumaville, you think Paige Paillard’s return dims your limelight?” a stodgy reporter barked through the cigar in his mouth.
“Ms. Paillard is a fine talent and I look forward to someday meeting her,” the politic beauty queen responded, somewhat chastened by the question.
A younger, lanky reporter beseeched, “Is it true you’ve joined a teenage death cult?”
“Drama club, all right? Don’t you read your own newspaper?”
“But it’s common knowledge drama clubs are recruiting grounds for teenage vampires. Have you any comment?”
Mitch the Cabbie had stopped at the light in his idling jalopy and Ms. Lumaville dodged into the back door.
• • •
At 160 North Main, Griff and I found Horatio, Ben and Trout strewn on the floor surrounding the Buntel Eriksson library. That the books had been exhumed from their shelf was less perturbing than the dark conversation the monkeys were then having in hushed tones.
“You know we have a mint locked up in these old books, er Sven,” Horatio said obsequiously as he gestured to the pile of volumes with his pipe. “Fact is the Wombat would unload them from us for a real holiday.”
Ben and Trout nodded their heads in concordance.
I sculpted my expression to look appalled, when I was actually frightened these imbeciles had fostered plans similar to mine.
“Sellouts!” I burst — a stylized, mawkish protest. “You turncoats, you avaricious fiends!”
The boys recoiled from my accusations, unaware they might well have said the same of me had they known I too had considered the very same notion. Ben, admitting his shame, put the lens cap on his viewfinder as he peered at me through it.
“Real Buntel Eriksson aficionados would sooner drink poison than sell off such an exquisite homage as our collective library,” I blathered heroically. “Hand me that cup of hemlock!”
“We haven’t given up on Eriksson,” Ben tried to intercede but my boisterous charade overcame him.
“You bums aren’t fit to be Buntel Eriksson fans! Dilettantes! You don’t deserve awareness of the better half of Svensk Filmindustri — let alone to caretake a priceless bibliography! Go ahead and sell it, pledge yourself to eternal darkness, you Bergman fans!”
Horatio leapt to his feet in a flash of his billowing poet shirt and pried the rusted stage foil from the suit of armor in the corner of our flat.
“No one calls Horatio Scott a Bergman fan!” he spat, lunging at me. His blade grazed the tip of my unfortunately long nose as Ben and Griff wrestled him to the floor.
“Eastsider!” I fumed, making a mental note to atomize him in the near future.
Trout poured a riverwater martini for me and conceded, “You’re absolutely correct, er, Sven. Perish the notion, chaps — we’re not selling.”
The others bowed their heads and Horatio, also soothed by a riverwater martini, muttered an apology to me.
I made a motion.
“Gentlemen,” I began as doltish Griff turned to see who had entered, so ill-fitting the appellation seemed to him. “I’ve hired my former partner Johan Non to find the chick that got our book — From Angst to Zilch: The Portable Buntel Eriksson Filmography.”
Trout’s ears pricked up.
“Johan Non couldn’t find gingham at a bean feed,” he said.
Horatio and Ben slid down the wall to the floor like a pair of fallen letter L’s. Trout straightened the dust jacket on Liten Hound, a rare, published Eriksson film script.
“Johan suggests a Hindenburg party.”
“In observance of the ‘Uncertainty Principle?’” Ben asked.
“That’s Heisenberg, twit, but your attempt at double entendre is duly noted,” Trout tittered
“What’s an entendre?” Griff asked Ben who told him it was an hors d’oeuvre.
I did my best to emulate Johan’s P.I. conceit and explained the whole schmear to the balking crew. Somehow the decision to implement said schmear befell the ever-sagacious Trout to whom all eyes had turned.
“Aye,” Trout finally mustered. He itched his toe, turned away and began scratching into his notepad. “Yi, yi.”
I heard the pleasing snap of a tiny trap.
“If a gumshoe wears cleats is he still a gumshoe?” Horatio queried through his prickly smile.
As the boys began to prepare for the party, I took the heap of villainy and indigestion I had become into my shabby chamber for an early evening snooze. I had to store up my reserves for the raucous evening of drinking and idiocy sure to transpire in the ensuing hours after my next shift.
It was rather nice having the whole mattress to myself, to slumber without the requisite narco-traffic jams of elbows, knees and otherwise uncomfortably entwining limbs that marked any attempt at slumber with loosey-goosey Midge. If only she slept like a bat, strung by her ankles with the bizarre shackling gear she always returned with after perusing flea markets and garage sales.
I had dozed off only to be awakened by my phantasmal kid brother Gannon swatting my shoulder with the sonic insights of Shhh Magazine.
“Wake up. I only have a minute.”
“Says here that with a special serum you could tune your brain to process the mental frequencies of others — and,” Gannon explained while pacing the room, a bewitching echo device conveying his stolid baritone as he spoke into his walkie-talkie and out a small pig-nosed speaker. He prodded the audio journal with his prolonged forefinger. “With knowledge of brain frequencies, a remote party could broadcast to you. But you gotta have the serum.”
“With a serum? What serum? Gannon, I’m sleeping.”
“Read this,” he commanded as he pushed the magazine into my hands.
I opened the rag and there, inexplicably, on the verso side was a picture of a naked brunette inspecting herself with a hand mirror.
“What the hell’s this?” I queried Gannon.
“Shhh. Skip to the next page.”
I read the next page:
“…elicited mixed results with an orally ingested psychotropic. Incidentally, the new compound also proved an effective solvent; after the Pentagon disbanded the RSVP project, Dr. Lawrence would develop ‘Eve’s Drop-Lemon Scented Dishwashing Detergent — with a drop of real lemon juice.’ He later went bankrupt after lawsuits alleged the product…”
“I’ve never taken a psychotropic compound, well, besides cough syrup,” I protested, tossing the magazine back at Gannon.
An orange peel leapt to the floor from my nightstand.
“You haven’t taken one knowingly. Can you hear my thoughts now?” Gannon asked.
I strained the muscles in my face and clenched my teeth in an attempt to recreate the phenomenon. Nothing happened.
“Interesting,” Gannon appraised while adjusting knobs on his weird rig. “You must’ve metabolized whatever was in your system emulating the compound. What have you eaten in the last forty-eight hours?”
To my surprise, I realized the diet sustaining me the past two days was comprised only of booze, coffee and cigarettes. I admitted this to Gannon.
“You’ll have to maintain that menu for at least the next two days.”
“You can have a cracker.”
Gannon shook a Schmittoffen Luncheon Wafer from a cylindrical box he gathered from the floor and allotted me half, as if conducting a budget communion. I choked down the relic as Gannon’s attention returned to his portable contraption. He pointed the walkie-talkie antenna at me.
“We have to see if the RSVP turns on again,” he continued, then added devilishly, “We’ll figure out what’s causing it then broadcast mayhem and pornography into innocent minds everywhere. Meanwhile, I’ll find your frequency.”
I fell back to sleep.
When I awoke, I was alone, the flat vacated. My companions had forsaken me to Morpheus and gone into the night without me. Their absence was relieving. It gave me time to scheme without having to deal with their gall and stupidity.
I put on a Paige Paillard record — Mello Cello — everybody had a copy — and began thinking of her the way one absently eats popcorn until the stomach bloats and revolts into nausea. Indeed, I felt I betrayed myself with every idle thought of the internationally acclaimed wench. If only I had managed to stifle my own distaste for who she was becoming, if only I then had the ability to stymie my flaming ego — the inferno that consumed my dodgey soul — perhaps then I would still be with her, in her media circus, tanning my hide in her limelight, trotting her blazed trails to artistic success. Bollocks.
I went to the bar below the Buntel Eriksson collective library and mixed my thousandth riverwater martini. If those assholes had left me, so be it, I’d get myself good and loaded and perhaps reread Langfasal — but every time my eyes fell upon the tattered paperbacks, saddle-stitched treatises and graduate theses, I’d wince and inwardly grimace — yes, From Angst to Zilch: The Portable Buntel Eriksson Filmography sure would look nice there. And, damn, that chick who got it sure would look nice there too. Admittedly, I had little faith in the private-dick’s mad plan, but then I had little faith in anything anymore. Sans Buntel Eriksson.
I frittered away my lingering sobriety with such thoughts as I sat in the chair Trout had long ago claimed as his, despite the fact it was Horatio and Ben who labored it up the back stairs, rescuing it from riverside abandonment. Being alone, there, with Horatio’s hollow knight, the bogus suit of armor keeping quiet guard behind Trout’s throne always made me somewhat nervous, if not for the blades it wielded, then for the creeping feeling that it was somehow sentient.
- CHRIS F. (V.O.)
- The suit of armor was an existential mirror for me: armored on the outside and hollow on the inside — like a cheap chocolate figurine —ultimately just a prop in the ne’er do well drama that had become my circuitous existence.
Show HAND MIRROR.
I rested the plastic martini glass on the sill and leaned my head and shoulders out of the window so I could see hopping nighttime Main. A pigeon suddenly fleeing its roost startled me and a clumsy reflex sent my drink toppling to the sidewalk below. I was disappointed not to hear the tingling crash of glass — the beverage had been contained in Horatio’s sad plastic. It, in fact, bounced.
I lifted my eyes to see the car that had sputtered to the stoplight that kept transit amicable at Westside Park Way and Main. An “Automatique,” French-made, idled in the left turn lane. I chanced a voyeuristic peek through the sunroof — inside, to my surprise, sat Aria Tailleur. A shock rifled through my body but lingered in my loins as if I had grounded the mysterious current that generates in my belly button. Aria seemed to be having some fuss with her face — perhaps she was pulling a shred of tobacco from her lip as she smoked or — oh dread — picking her nose. I decided that she was fingering away a bit of excess lipstick so that her cupid’s bow countenance remained crisp beneath the glossy, red tallow. On the car’s bumper was a sticker that read “Meat is Murder.”
The light turned green and she turned out of view.
I heard the rumbling of drunk hyenas rolling up the street, howls, jeers and scuffling wingtips punctuated by a terse mechanical clack that received a soggy applause after each metallic snap.
“Don’t staple it to the lamppost — the staple’ll ricochet off the metal and stick in your eye,” I heard Ben reprimand Griff. “Staple the trees.”
They were hanging advertisements for the Hindenburg Project.
- Crash and Burn at the Crash Pad
Sven “Chris F.” Gerhardt et al to commemorate Graf Zeppelin a la the Hindenburg — Ben Trovato, Horatio Scott, Trout Munroe & Griffin Zax in attendance. Leftists welcome. Eastsiders stay home.
- No charge (except for extremists), small collection for wino and fliers.
- Charming event. Tomorrow night.
- 160 Main St. N., Luma
Suddenly, Griff screamed and fell to the ground clutching his face.
“For fuck’s sake! I’ve been blinded! I got it in the eye!” he sputtered, writhing in apparent agony.
Horatio and Trout dashed up to the others, their coats aflutter, their gaping faces purple with horror.
“Hold him down so I can see it,” Ben charged as he retrieved something from his pocket but kept it palmed over the wounded. The latecomers wrestled moaning Griff to the sidewalk. Ben straddled him and pried his grimy mitts from his face. Griff suddenly went silent, then cracked a smile. The befuddled three slackened in confusion.
“You could at least kiss me before you fuck me!” the actor cackled, shaking loose of the ad hoc surgeons. “I got you! Ha! If that ain’t acting…” he laughed heartily.
Horatio and Trout tried to look unimpressed but burst into their own sinister laughter when Ben revealed he had been holding a salt shaker.
Mock punches were traded, promises of future punishments made and soon they were below the awning of Café Press Pass.
“Sonofabitch! My new glassware!” Horatio exploded when he discovered the slain plastic martini glass on the sidewalk.
The goons entered the flat’s front door, went up the shoddily carpeted stairs and made their marks in the living room — Trout in the chair below the axe, Ben on the divan, Horatio with crooked elbow at the bar and Griff on the far end from Ben so that he might regard his increasingly vague reflection in the window. Drinks were made, riverwater martinis all round except for pale Griff who had committed to Turpenoid.
“Do you think the U-Niks will come to the Hindenburg Project even though some wise-ass put ‘No Eastsiders’ on the bill?” Ben asked the horde.
“This is about that Cricket McCoy isn’t it?” Trout surmised.
“University students are an exception,” Griff suggested. “If they’re female.”
“Is Cricket McCoy female?” Trout queried with a doubting smile.
“Last I checked,” said Horatio. Indeed, Cricket and the monocle maven were both refugees from East Lumaville and likely to have found each other beneath the bleachers back in high school. He added with a snigger, “All’s fair in love and drawers, old sport. Used to call her ‘Ms. One Way.’”
“Far be it from me to surmise the secret meaning in that,” Ben said.
“For all her worldliness and sophistication Cricket preferred, rather, accepted only one sexual position. The missionary. My entire tour of duty with her was spent predictably horizontal — a long, tedious, writhing landscape.
“You’d have preferred something more portrait-like?”
“A sundial has more positions, Ben,” said Horatio with a chilly smile. “The Missionary — how ghastly symmetrical.
“You know where that term comes from — ‘missionary?’” Ben asked rhetorically. “It’s the sexual position European missionaries employed when the were raping the natives to ‘improve’ their race. Damn sick if you ask me. That’s why I prefer the ‘Female Superior’ position — well it’s for my asthma really, but one should never pass an opportunity to feel political.”
“You’re rather sweet on Cricket aren’t you?”
“Hadn’t thought you’d mind.”
“Mind? No. Advise against? Yes,” said Horatio. “For your own good, sport. Particularly speaking of your personal — er, cardiovascular considerations. The geometric problems are self-evident.”
Ben began to sulk.
“You ever get the nagging suspicion we’ve wasted our lives?” he asked.
“All of them?”
“We went through mine pretty quick,” Ben continued. “And yours weren’t much to begin with. Especially Horatio’s.”
Ben was right, Horatio was Eastside trash and everyone knew it despite the hilarious pains he took to hide it. Horatio hated himself for it, that he once had a dog, girlfriends who could operate pompoms and that he knew something of contemporary television programming. Consequently, the transplant did everything possible to obscure his suburban roots and maintain an amiable air of Westside bohemian cool. His endeavor was nothing short of theater — props abounded in our hipster digs and his attire was pure costume.
“What do you care of Cricket McCoy anywho? You’re on sabbatical,” Horatio chortled, reaching for Ben’s crotch with a faux monkey paw back scratcher.
At the Lumiere, I cataloged every sigh, every sidelong glance, every aspect of Aria in the private Cinemascope of mind. So she picks her nose — who doesn’t? Myself, bearing such a sizable specimen, have on occasion mined three knuckles deep when necessary.
I angled a chair against the pocked wall of the projectionist booth. The ventriloquist’s dummy that had been abandoned at a long-ago matinee turned slightly and eyed the pile of letter L’s I had purloined from the letter crypt. It was our habit to throw them from the balcony like boomerangs.
Red threads spelled “Little Scrote” across the dummy’s yellowed sailor’s cap.
“You call that a plan?”
“Yes,” I retorted. My arguments were perpetually lost on the dummy — the dummy that stowed the spirit of telegram delivery boy Moscow Jones when he slept.
I thumbed the lighter that Paige had given me years prior and held it under Scrote’s shoe until the noxious fumes of burned rubber deflected me from eviler purposes. Instead, I burned the Wild Strawberries lobby card in a wastebasket as Scrote nervously, if woodenly watched.
“I’ve spared you again little fool. But soon you will burn and the spirit of that golem, Moscow Jones will burn too.”
His mechanical eyes remained on the L’s as the RSVP revealed his sapling mania.
“L is pronounced with an invisible E. L is one arm of a swastika. L is a long corridor then a dead end left. L is the first hint of labyrinth — the initial too. L is the shape of kneeling prayer. L is the twelfth letter, wayward apostle of the alphabet. L is 50 in Roman. When lowercase, l is one. L is where Cockney’s go after a bad life. L is French for her. L is for Lumaville.”
I put on the film strip tie Young Sergeant Phil had made for me. Aria Tailleur did not approve of ascots.
“You will burn you, little stick,” I cursed Scrote as I dimmed the projection booth’s light on the sad, little log.
“I may burn, but I can float!” he laughed, unconvincingly.
There was a time when I wasn’t a villain. When I pressed my memory, squinted my eyes and faced the sun, even in my blackest hours, I could sometimes recall idyllic summer days loping along the slough amid this boyhood brood, free to squander the whim and vim I would later conserve for my treachery.
I don’t know when my corruption was seeded. It cannot be discerned in the rubble of remembrance — tacked to a specific heartbreak, a stolen bicycle, hurtful references to Pinocchio by a drama teacher. No, a geographical samsara was the architect of my villainy. I hungered for escape from hometown Lumaville, from its suffocating succor, its binding provincialism, its crippling handhold on my affections. Complacency stained the air like the acrid stench of the Lumaville River and I inhaled it deeply.
Though I had once longed for it, I grew to disdain the endless childhood my friends and I had cultivated. So much savory time we spilled, lost boys, toasting our banal wickedness. We willfully regressed en masse into the common womb of Lumaville.
I changed my name so as to dislocate the dogged child I had been, but found it useless in a town where every face I encountered was a mnemonic link to another face and encounter. Déjà vu plus.
Time does not move in a small town, it just adds continuing laminations of meaning upon everything until a jaunt to the post office or visit to a coffee shop is an encumbering wade through a psychic swamp. No, my departure would have to be permanent, prompt, surgical.
And it would have been.
At 160 North Main, our guest list scripted itself as ghoul after ghoul passed through the gaping doors that entreated downtown Lumaville’s drinking class to stagger gamely in. An elephantine, middle-aged misery with features molded as if from a mallet, entered sporting a red star pendant on her pendulous chest. By the collar she dragged the ever amenable Crazy Larry, a Morely Special, smoked to its filter, wedged in his chapped pucker. Gris Simplice and Sketch Chapel, practically twins, were so lithe and sexually anonymous that in the dark one could score with either and never know which it was. A townie with whom I had spent a two-week syrup-binge when still teenaged, wafted in, ever gaunt and ghostly — her mouth, stained candy-red, her teeth pink — a junkie still. She dragged hard on a cigarette, her cheeks hollowed into dramatic cliffs, and when her languorous gaze fell upon me with its medicinal serenity, a wooden memory stirred quietly in my chinos. Oh, the thought of that cherry-flavored fortnight.
Hatched-Face and Peg Leg brought their fucking hippie ferret. Sean the Wall-Eyed Kid’s skittish good eye surveyed the bar as the dead pale one peered into dimensions strange and vast that seemed always just to the left.
Soon everyone was goof drunk. Everett Pool couldn’t keep his pen in his hand as he edited one of the party fliers to read “Ash an Urn at her spa.” Murphy Pullman openly, if wrongly, accused Griff of stealing the booze from his own recent party.
The U-Niks — Sawyer Treadwell, Viola Varnish and Gustav Jenkins — had arrived earlier and stood near the bar, engaged in an animate conversation over a duck decoy Sawyer balanced on his fingertips. Their leader, Cricket McCoy, was talking to Ben who unabashedly inspected her with his viewfinder. She squinted back at him, produced a pair of collapsible binoculars from her sequined purse, gave him the twice-over, then snapped them closed.
He had cut his lip on the cracked plastic martini glass Horatio had absently sent back into circulation and the resulting blood mimicked her exact shade of lipstick.
“University girl like you would know the anthropologist’s lore regarding Phoenician prostitutes, no?”
“Oh, crap,” Cricket said as she exhaled blue cigarette smoke.
“They painted their lips to invoke the nature of blood-engorged labia,” Ben continued.
He often made little sense, but his extemporized musings seemed fair sport when deposed on the pinkish, involute ears of so morosely fetching a banter mate as bottle-blonde Cricket.
Ben repeated the word “labia” for effect and happily found it jostled away some of Cricket’s reserve.
“Gustav can’t satisfy me orally,” she said plainly.
Ben composed himself, found words.
“I won’t even let him try now because his saliva is too acidic, it messes with my balance and I get yeast infections.”
Ben reached for her hand and stroked it consolingly.
She continued, “It’s fairly common. Anything can cause a yeast infection — allergy medication, bad diet, types of fabric, Gustav’s tongue.”
“I can help you,” Ben whispered. He stuck out his tongue and tried to say “alkali.”
They walked on down the hall passed pale-faced Midge who had tied the arms of my coat to my chair. She had been my nemesis all night, aborting my flirtations and foiling my lies and I gave her about as much encouragement as one would a monkey with a handgun.
“Listen you little runt, that’s not cool.”
“I know you’re waiting for that Greco-Franco-corduroy-bitch to show up here.”
“You have it all wrong, you little scab.”
Apologetically, I entreated her to sit in my lap, which appeared, in a word, dorsal. Instead she poured her drink on it.
“I’ll get you for this you hateful crumb!” I yelled at Midge as she ran off into the crowd, mock-cowering from my rage.
It was a well-engineered splash and covered my entire crotch as though I had relentlessly pissed in my pants. I covered myself with a sheaf of papers I grabbed from the bookshelf and awkwardly ambled to the floor heater. I stood there waiting for the soak to dry as the heat inflated my pants into two billowing Zeppelins.
A drunken Trout was mercilessly spitting a poem on beautiful townie Sandy Sallow’s orbital cleavage.
“I was born from a womb lined with sandpaper, Visigoth!”
He paused to receive a message from one of his University minions.
Horatio and Griff scuttled down the hall arm and arm but paused to shamelessly evaluate Sandy Sallow’s hindquarters. Horatio was buttonholing Griff about the success of the fliers and other promotions they believed accounted for the large turn-out.
“We should go into public relations,” Horatio declared as he straightened Griff’s knotty cravat.
“We don’t even have personal relations, Horatio,” the spruced actor responded.
“The firm of ‘Scott and Zax’ doesn’t have a ring to you? A faint chime in your ears? A minor tintinnabulation near the cochlea? Finish your drink.”
Griffin blinked and belted a lingering slug of Turpenoid.
There was a commotion near the back door — gasps that exhaled into applause. Someone had apparently made a wild entrance. I remained stationed on the heater, though the grill had begun to melt into the rubber soles of my wingtips, shrinking me by a quick inch. The hairs on my legs were singeing but a lingering spot on my pleats had yet to evaporate.
“Why does your name go first?” Griff protested.
“It’s the alphabet, Griff,” Horatio explained. ‘S’ and ‘Z,’ that’s alphabetical order.”
“Well I don’t like it. Not in kindergarten and not now. All my life, alphabetical order has kept me at the end of the line.”
“The bend of the loin,” Minuet offered as she squeezed seductively passed Horatio and chirped a couple candy-red kisses his way as she shook the ice in her glass like a rattle. I rotated toward the wall as she passed so as not to chance revealing the stain. Guests seemed to mutter amongst themselves with cupped hands masking their lips. Impossible that they could have seen my pants, I thought.
“The difference between you and me is that I dwell in possibility.”
“We dwell in Lumaville, Horatio, the point on earth furthest from possibility. I’ll put it this way,” the mummer began. “We’re drinking riverwater martinis, no?”
“I am, yes. Who knows what ghastly swill you’re drinking but it’s damn near ruined my new glassware.”
Griffs plastic martini glass had blistered and distorted around the bell. He discreetly placed it on a bookshelf.
“What’s supposed to be in a martini?” Griff continued.
Horatio avoided answering since his bartending acumen was mediated by an unorthodox cheapness — hence the all-purpose mixer “riverwater,” which he bottled from the kitchen tap. Griff answered his own question. The spot on my pants had lightened some.
“Martinis are made with gin and vermouth.”
“Or vodka,” Horatio added.
“That’d be a stiff martini, vodka and gin together,” Griff appraised with his eyebrows raised. I felt as though I might faint from the broil rising up my trousers from the floor heater. Midge had cost me precious minutes that I resolved to strip from her life with a particularly withering insult I had yet to concoct.
“There is such a beast as a vodka martini, Griff.”
“Yes, but who makes vermouth?”
“Why the vermouth manufacturers, you twit.”
“Martini and Rossi.”
“Them too, certainly.”
“That’s where they get the name, chump, that’s why martinis are called martinis.”
Trout appeared, huddled against the wall near the croaking imbeciles, removed his shoe and sock, and having overheard, came to Griff’s unlikely defense.
“Griff’s made a point,” Trout concurred. “Dominant culture wielded its abbreviating axe before the conjunction. So, Martini.”
“So what?” Horatio protested.
“So they’re not Rossis!” Griff said emphatically. “When’s the last time you ordered a Rossi?”
“I’ve never ordered a Rossi.”
“And you’ll never order a Zax,” Griff belched, swayed some and recovered. “Because my name is second.”
Finally, my pants were dry, Midge’s insult erased. I pushed past Horatio and Griff and leaned against a cool wall, my head cocked toward the kitchen, to divine what all the action was about. Could Johan’s fool plan have worked? Was Aria Tailleur in 160 North Main?
The meager thews of Trout’s shoulder collided with me as he lost balance while scratching his naked toe. Apparently, this disgusted Sandy Sallow for she extracted herself from his company.
“There was a girl asking about you,” he hollered reedily in my ear. He seemed gladdened when my knees visibly weakened and shaved an additional inch from my stature as he ran his swollen toe against the grain of the running board along the hall.
“A tony specimen. A refugee. Not from here, she.”
It amused me that I should labor to the apex of absurdity to lure the absent Aria Tailleur, beautiful nose-picker.
“Where is she?”
“In the john, I bet. A woman like that needs a lot of upkeep,” Trout said, having replaced his footwear, then abruptly seized Horatio’s martini and downed it. He smiled to reveal that he had caught the olive in his front teeth. “Don’t eat the olives. Horatio wouldn’t spring for the garlic so he stuffed them with chopped Styrofoam.”
I crammed past Trout and into a tumultuous sea of aspiring socialites, my cocktail bobbing like the bow of a galleon as my outstretched arm tired from its poise.
The door to the bathroom was closed though it proved unlocked as I turned the doorknob and intoned into the wood grain veneer, “Occupied?” I understood this was the nomenclature used on airplane restroom doors and thought myself quite clever.
No one answered. Upon entering, however, I discovered the tiny chamber was quite definitely occupied.
Paige Paillard, sleepy-eyed and cross-legged aloft the bathtub’s edge was quietly reading Trout Munroe’s epic poem Pussywhip/Death/Monotony. She pulled a tender wheat-colored curl behind her ear as she read and gyrated in a pleasing episode of laughter and hiccups before her eyes left the page to find me locking the door.
She swallowed some more wine.
“You write your own stroke stories now?”
“That’s Trout’s masterpiece. Says he’s writing his own ticket out of town.”
“Evidently he isn’t going very far.”
The two years she had spent under media’s ubiquitous examination had left her accoutered with short hair and short skirt sophistication that I could only assume was direly cosmopolitan. I myself had changed only superficially — yes, the meat still hung decently on my taller and broader-than-most frame despite a sporting debauchery of crappy food and worse drink that brought to bear a fairly concealable potbelly and a trifle gouty limp.
Suddenly the RSVP eerily reported a trill from Bach’s cello suites.
It was the same music we would make love to in our in our long-ago Fourth Street flat.
• • •
Sometimes the phone would ring when Paige and I were lying in bed; she would lift the receiver, instantly replace it, then turn to me and coyly say, “Wrong number,” as the last bars of the score faded out.
I would sip shit-burgundy from a tea cup as she would begin her usual post-coital monologue:
“Listen…” She paused to shake the wisps of hair clinging to her chin so she could light a cigarette, then restarted rhetorically asking, “About sex — you ever think that all our lovemaking is accumulatively more significant than the singular act in and of itself?”
“I’m not talking about quantity over quality…”
“No, we have both, but if you’re going to add it up, yes, I think it’s better to have high numbers. Me, I’m very results oriented,” I said groping her muscular thigh.
“Listen to me…”
“I am listening. You’re turning our sex life into a word problem. Don’t connect sex and math. I failed math in University which doesn’t bode well…”
“It’s like every time we make love — every interval — is an elaboration on a larger project,” Paige explained. I took her cigarette which had developed a long ash and rolled it into the makeshift ashtray shaped from the lead wrapping off the wine bottle. “Thank you. It’s like a score, like we’re adding measures to a musical score every time we do it. It’s as though our entire sexual history together is an ever-growing symphony.”
“Are we near the beginning or end, Paige?”
“Now? Second movement. Since the breakthrough with the folding chair when I really, really came for sure.”
She refilled my cup.
“I think my penis has gotten larger. It’s grown since we got together.”
Paige snickered some.
“No. I don’t think — well? No, it seems the same. I can’t remember.”
“It’s been gradual,” I insisted. “Think back.”
“Do you remember the first time I gave you a blow job?”
“Does oral sex go into the symphony or does it count toward a choral work?”
Paige closed Trout’s notebook on the beaded necklace she was wearing, smiled and fell into the bath. I wanted to seize her and make love to her.
- It’s been a while…
- CHRIS F./SVEN
- Perhaps a while too long. Speaking of long…
- PAGE clenches the side of the tub with her track-and-field gams and pulls herself to her black leather pumps to stand lithely erect.
- Hold this.
- PAGE hands her WINE GLASS to ME/CHRIS F./SVEN and proceeds to thumb her stockings down to her ankles and off one leg. She gathers herself onto the counter top surrounding the sink.
- CHRIS F. (V.O.)
- I entered her. My body relaxed into hers with a soft sigh, a sentimental whimper, the type of whimper one would emit when trying on an old coat — (produces like whimper) – yes, a fur collared Swedish infantryman’s coat. Sweet Swedish whimper. Coat. Whimpering coat. Yes, it was like donning the uniform of a former station, its fit a gauge of the years. And, indeed, it had grown.
CUT TO: MS. LUMAVILLE in the company of a known BLOODSUCKER.
Paige smiled sweetly at me. Somebody asked for her by name outside the door and she instructed them to wait.
“Security. Can always find a party. They have to escort me everywhere around here because Lumaville is filled with poisonous wackos enamored of celebrity.”
“It’s nice to see you. Reminds me that I once had a life that wasn’t all, you know…” she let the phrase hang unfinished.
There was a pause and I stared at her dumbly. Then I said something really stupid.
“Poor sad Chris F., will you ever grow up?”
She passed by me and out the door where she was received by two rent-a-cops who escorted her safely through the throng.
I exited too, caught sight of Midge who was dead-set on cutting into my scene with her prissy antics. I was decidedly rough with her.
I took her by the arm from a conversation she was having with some crewcut bastard no one knew, bullied her past Crazy Larry who was messing with Trout’s Hightimes Ceiling Clock and I pushed her into my room.
“You’re weed with roots in hell surrounded by the saplings of fraud,” she accused. “And you’re hurting me.”
I plucked the bow from her hair and used it to tie her hands to the hanger-rod in the closet. Her mood changed instantly. I forgot this was a game she liked.
“Yes,” she cooed. “Now, tighter. Yes. Now my skirt…”
“Nope,” I said as I closed the closet door to leave her hanging by her obedient wrists.
I left the room with a slam and turned in my haste right into Aria Tailleur.
“You’re a Hindie too, eh?” she asked with a familiar tone and a happy, left-handed handshake. “Should have known.”
I had no idea what she was talking about but went along with her gab as I noticed a pit growing in my stomach, the sudden somatic symptoms of amour.
“Skull and Bones has nothing on Hindies. You agree, I know. But damn, it looks like the whole fricken’ town are members. Really franchised the movement out here. Who was your first with?”
I caught Trout’s eye far down the hall. He gave a facetious little smile.
“Trout Munroe,” I stammered.
Aria gave me an approving once over.
“A liberal man.”
“A liberal woman,” her eyes glazed slightly. “After making ten transatlantic crossings in regular commercial service, the Hindenburg was destroyed by fire in 1937 when landing in New Jersey. Thirty-five people on board and one ground crew member were killed. Do you dance?”
“Neither do I. Dancing is a metaphor for just one thing, right? The courting, the ritual the act, the gym floor — it’s all a mockery to me. So last year I gave up metaphorical-living, changed my dance card, so to speak, for the hard currency of legit experience. And, boy, by the end of the semester I was desperately in need of a metaphor before I completely exhausted my physical resources. I’m surprised I didn’t get bedsores.
“So the next semester I’m in this film history class — that’s how I know the man you call Eriksson — and we were studying ‘footages of historic incidence,’ when the camera just happened to be there when history was made. Think Kennedy. Anyhow, I’m sitting in the back of this department screening room, it’s hot, it’s dark, twenty-two year old bodies are crammed in the steep aisles like some orgiastic fresco. And I realize the girl next to me, a pretty girl, wide-eyed and intent, I swear to god, her breath smells like cum. Cum. Like she just gave head to some chap before class. My interest piqued, I look around this dark room for candidates — the usual prigs, ectomorphs and baseball-capped film students — but then I notice the way this girl’s glossy doe eyes follow the professor who is yammering about ‘the Humanity’ while we’re watching this Hindenburg cut. He’s a lanky, bookish chap, but not without his charms I suppose. Then, I realize the attention this girl is giving him is proportionately reciprocated as he’s basically teaching the class to her. So I’m convinced she sucked his cock. Normally that teacher-pupil dynamic would have repulsed me — in the political abstract, very predatory. But the fact that this man’s cum was lingering on this girl next to me — I mean, no stops at the water fountain, no diet cola, just the spit shine — I found it all very stimulating. I like your tie by the way.”
“What? Oh, yes, thank you,” I stammered.
“So the Hindenburg’s about to arrive in New Jersey and the blow job queen is breathing this sex all over the place and I’m getting myself turned on thinking about the professor and his cock and her sucking it before class. So I put my book bag in my lap and I’m wearing these over-sized, loose-fitting trousers. I very discreetly make that carnal reach and, dig, I’m a pro, I can get myself off in a stealthy minute if I have to, which I proceed to do as we watch this grainy footage of this giant floating cock-dirigible, explode and thrust into the earth. The great phallus igniting from its passion and destructing in the vulva tarmac crater below. Transatlantic fertilization, the meeting of Kraut sperm and Jersey ovum. The humanity. That’s when I cum. On impact. And that mad commentator’s voice yammering over that great hydrogen dildo, ‘Oh, the humanity, oh, the humanity,’ the professor lip-synching the words. Oral Annie next to me. It’s all very dizzying and I’m sold. My new metaphor becomes the Hindenburg. I started a club on campus, expanded a bit, nine or ten girls masturbating to filmed disasters. So what’s your metaphor?”
I hesitated as Aria sprung one of Midge’s cigarettes from my top pocket and lit it with her own matches.
She looked at her watch.
“Crap. I have to pick my crazy brother up.”
Aria pulled a thread from her sweater and tied it around my ring finger.
“This will help you remember.”
“611 D Street, seven o’clock. Dinner with the Tailleurs. You’ve passed step one.”
She kissed me on the cheek and exited.
Horatio saddled up, polishing his monocle, and asked, “Was that the chick?”
“No,” I said calmly.
I stood stupefied for over an hour and half in the same spot. Occasionally, a reveler would pass by and refill my glass. I drank. I was drunk on my feet. Finally Trout limped over to me and reported that some of our party guests were convinced there was a poltergeist thrashing about in the bathroom.
“Some of our party guests are convinced there is a poltergeist thrashing about in the bathroom,” he said matter-of-factly. “Some apparently claimed to have seen the medicine cabinet inexplicably opening and closing and said they heard whimpering. Sawyer Treadwell was taking a piss when the shower apparently turned itself on then off after a commotion of lathering. Viola Varnish said she saw the can of Turpenoid floating above the sink.”
“They’re all cracks and finks. U-Niks,” I assured him.
“It’s Griff,” he said plainly. “He’s turned invisible.”
It seemed possible. Anything seemed possible. Indeed, I didn’t recall Griff’s exit from the bathroom, though I had plainly seen him enter earlier, followed by a train of undaunted subsequent users. It was as though he had turned invisible, finally free of his daunting self-image, an actor without a face. Unfortunately, the only roll he was up for was Chris F. in the Motion Picture Version of My Life — a character that required a more substantial visual presence than Griff seemed up to.
“I like the poltergeist theory better,” Trout said with a nod. “It’s much more Buntel Eriksson, unlike these assholes.”
Paige’s security cops had returned to the party to guzzle what they could of the hootch.
“Security cops — that’s how karma punishes Nazis,” hissed Trout. “Now that they’re up here, everyone’s going out to see the set. Ben’s leading a tour.”
Horatio had shouldered up and reported, “Someone said there was a time warp or something in our bathroom.”
“Poltergeist,” Trout corrected.
“The ghost of an erection.”
The vandal Everett Pool had passed out in the hall and Ruby and Minuet had taken to drawing all over him with his own marker.
“Amateur night,” Horatio spat as we surveyed the growing brigade of junior cadets sauced on riverwater and bulk-bought gin. “I’m not going down there.”
The guests filed out in ragged convoy onto Water Street to inspect the transformation of Lumaville into whatever Moloch deemed it become. The security guards remained upstairs at the party, waylaid by the demon rum.
Where before the edge of the waterfront street banked the river’s decrepit wharf, it was now concealed by well-crafted two-dimensional storefronts such that it appeared we were strolling down an alley. The effect was imposing. Styrofoam and plywood had erased the stale river. The East and west sides of Lumaville appeared as one. Cricket McCoy and her U-Nik brood seemed somehow buoyed.
Black-eyed Ben ceased his march and the legion behind him desisted in unison.
“I’m going in,” he blustered and pulled his britches high. Somewhere distant, a drum roll played.
Midge had arrived late for the ceremony, her wrists red and sore looking. She wove her arm through mine.
“Anyone ever teach you how to tie a knot?”
Ben approached the set and stood before a door of an artificial barbershop. He knocked. Some giggled at his little comedy. A police siren could be heard zipping up the boulevard a block over. Its song bent flatly with its increasing distance.
“Who is it?” Ben asked himself.
“Ben Trovato, prodigal son returned.”
“We’ve already got one. Thank you,” he replied to himself.
The crowd laughed heartily. Midge and I began to step away. He knocked again.
“You don’t understand,” he sobbed and fell to his knees. “I can’t be here anymore. I implore you! Let me in! Sanctuary!”
“To gain admittance, you must denounce all friends and associations of your current, worthless life. You must relinquish untrue gods. You must banish Lumaville from you mind! And it’s five bucks.”
“I denounce them — all of them. May Lumaville be condemned to amnesia!”
He bummed some dough off Gustav Jenkins who inexplicably high-fived him.
“Once you pass through this door you can never return. Is this understood?”
Ben spit on the ground, then nodded at me.
“You may enter,” he said to himself.
He raised an eyebrow and yelled cockily, “So long, suckers!” as he turned the door’s knob. He seemed as surprised as the rest of us that the Hollywood property masters had bothered to hinge a real door. He opened it and stepped in.
There was a splash, then silence.
• • •
Midge and I shook our heads and retreated up the back steps and back into the pandemonium that was the flat only to spy Horatio with his back to us in his bedroom doorway.
He lit his pipe (which could hardly contain anything more than creosote, so dire was its need of refilling) and managed a smoke ring from his ridiculously contorting gob. Minuet, who seemed to grow awkwardly younger as she became drunker, stood in front of him. She flicked the straps of her sundress off her shoulders and the whole dainty mess went straight to her knobby ankles. Horatio closed the door.
Cricket McCoy had trotted up the stairs, soaking wet, breathlessly wailing, “Where’s the telephone?”
“Call the goddamn emergency line! Ben’s fallen in the river!”
“Fish him out.”
“We can’t find him.”
She was shaking and edgy. Midge escorted her to the divan only to find Young Sergeant Phil and a mortified, horse-faced Ruby writhing with limbs interlaced behind it
“Call for her, would you?” Midge instructed me. I went into my horrid chambers, stepped over some undulating sexual squalor on the floor and picked up the phone. I stepped into my closet for some privacy and dialed the emergency operator.
“160 North Main.”
“What’s your emergency?”
“Statutory rape by Horatio Scott.”
I hung up.
In bed that night, Midge was neither hot nor cold. Her emotional range remained hopelessly pinned in the gray, colorless without flux, like a mood-ring on an amputated finger. What she perceived as my feeble attempt at S & M had failed to impress her and she seemed no longer interested in me.
Later, I awoke to the gyrating commotion of Midge next to me. She groaned and parted her sugary haunches wide — so lustful was her spry 18 year-old body, it seemed to require satiation even in dream. Midge climaxed to a horde of sirens erupting in the distant night. I could have sworn, right before I went out for good, that I heard a faint trickle of RSVP — Griff’s voice saying, “What a chap’s gotta do to get laid in this town.”
• • •
My brother Gannon shook me awake in the safe hour just before dawn’s light would surely have reduced him to a pile of ash.
I blinked at him in the dark. Mysteriously, my pillowcase was missing.
“Sorry, I’m late, looked like a good party.”
“So listen, I’ve been thinking about your case. Certain bands, certain frequencies are off limit to the casual radio-head, right?” Gannon offered as he perched on the side of the bed. “I mean, they have to be, look what happened to CBs — every fat fuck showing ass crack with a hand-held is clogging the sky talkin’ dirty in cartoon voices. Those people are what I call First Amendment still-births, man.”
Gannon paused to light a cigarette, offered me one, but I declined.
“So to preserve the radioscape from wave pollution, Government’s got most of the truly ingenious shit under wraps and the fuckers are real straight about keeping their shit personal — except for Dr. Lawrence, the cat who invented RSVP.”
“So what’s happening to me?”
“I think you’re ingesting dishwashing detergent. In fact, I think you’re specifically getting Eve’s Drop Lemon Scented Dishwashing Detergent into your system. It’s the only way you could have come across the necessary chemical components. The shit’s loaded with it cuz it was developed by Dr. Lawrence — it’s essentially the psychotropic component of RSVP, what’s allowed you to become a receiver for human thought-waves.”
Gannon paused for dramatic effect.
“So what the fuck you doing ingesting dishwashing detergent?” he asked. “I always said cough syrup was a gateway drug. First syrup, then dishwashing detergent, next thing you’ll be huffing ant spray. The American household is a cornucopia of secret highs.”
Gannon zipped his coat to the collar and walked to the door.
“By the way, there’s a poltergeist in the living room.”
“It’s not a poltergeist.”
“What is it then?”
“An invisible man.”
“Your friends are lame, man.”
The bedside lamp had been left on all night but when I finally turned it off, the absence of its yellow hue left the walls gray like spoiled photo paper.
It was late afternoon, near four o’clock I figured. Midge was off at work. As I rubbed my eyes the string Aria had tied to my finger brought everything bounding back to me. Dinner…at? I groped for my pockets for Aria’s address I had hastily penned upon her exit. I found it in that strange auxiliary change pocket near the inside hem of my coat — a ragged cocktail napkin — as comforting as gun steel beneath a fugitive pillow.
Soothed, I pulled my clothes off and snipped my celluloid cravat.
I slept a few additional restorative minutes, expecting to wake to the rumbling, self-mythologizing the demon people I lived with were wont to convey after a night of consumption and conquest — but no pissing match ensued, none of the usual measure of their prowess by its proportionate possibility of exposure to a social disease. Just eerie quietude.
My hangover eclipsed my recall of events.
I took a leisurely shower, shaved, dressed carefully in a dark suit and selected a thin, collegiate-looking yellow and navy tie. Aria seemed to prefer the block print of a necktie over my signature ascot. I would not quibble about costuming — so far as I was concerned, I was undercover. The square threads were fine so long as they suited my purposes.
As I had suspected, the address Aria gave me belonged to the palatial stucco affair on the 600 block of the egregiously wealthy D Street. The sprawling joint had something of an institutional air about it, perhaps because it had always been the abode of some order of University faculty — including Aria’s parents — professors on a protracted exchange program spanning twenty years and two continents.
On C Street at Sixth, conscious not to tread cracks in the sidewalk for reasons so ancient they were no longer accessible through memory, my downcast eyes chanced upon the graffiti I had fingered into the once wet cement years prior. In timeless, stony broadcast, like a headstone to dead romance, I had written “I love Paige.” I dropped my cigarette on the epitaph and shredded it with a turn of my instep.
Then, quite clearly, I heard “Check, one, two, three,” buzzing in my ears.
I walked the terra cotta path to the front door of the main house, not yet aware of Aria’s tidy bungalow nestled in the gardens. On the red tile, the hollow timbre of my wingtips sounded like cloven feet — I was a satyr, I was Pan.
I pressed the plate brass doorbell and waited, arranging my curls in the yellow reflection against an attacking breeze.
The door cracked open and a gangly, mutant male caught in the sad maelstrom of puberty peeked from behind a barrage of pimples and thick glasses.
“Who are you?” it asked with a practiced gracelessness. I spat his query back at him.
“My sister’s a lesbian so you may as well go home,” he smugly retorted.
“I’m not that easy, kid.”
“Neither is my sister.”
I was myself a veteran of the same monstrous pubescence that blighted the aberration before me, yet, I could muster little sympathy for the creature.
“I’ve conquered tougher broads than lesbians,” I dribbled, fatigued with the spurious fancies of my own hubris. “I once seduced a nun, Sister Chastity Lockdupteit, on the steps of the Grillsbarger Observatory. I bedded a tigress on the banks of the Euphrates. I escaped death in the wispy sinews of the black widow’s web but only after being satisfied.”
Beguiled, the organism blinked before me.
“You can call me Dr. Escrow,” he finally said with an approving nod, then offered me the clammy, swollen palm of a chronic — as they say in boy scout manuals — self-abuser. I declined the handshake as a stately and attractive woman approached from the long hall.
Clad all in white, I first thought the woman was some sort of orderly or in-house nurse responsible for the boggy degenerate’s containment. Though hard to believe, she so willowy and refined in her ivory blouse and graying roots, was actually the boy’s mother.
She nudged past the groping basilisk and said to me with a bright smile, “You are here for Ariadne, no?”
“Yes,” I nodded. Her accent was indeed French.
I told her my name and made a quick adjustment to the tie knotted clumsily at my throat like a twin Adam’s apple. It was distinctly without the panache native to an ascot and I felt, suddenly, that I was wearing the wrong school colors.
The pretty mother turned to her homunculus and said while combing his wiry hair with her finger tips, “I am the second ‘Dr. Tailleur.’ I received my doctorate first, yes, but Gerard, he was the first ‘Dr. Tailleur.’ We are married, so then there were two!” she laughed. “You will call me Nanette?”
She smiled pleasantly.
“Let the nice young man in and fetch your sister, Dr. Achates.”
“Achates is dead,” the boy retorted. “I am now Dr. Escrow who killed him. I ruined him with my Vector Beam.”
“A ‘Vector Beam?’ Interesting. Is it to physics that your ‘Vector Beam’ refers?” Nanette asked young Dr. Escrow while adjusting his collar, unable to forego an opportunity to tutor.
The kid sighed and rolled his eyes so that only their white ellipses showed.
“When calculating the total force exerted on Dr. Achates, it is necessary to add the forces as ‘vectors,’ yes? If Achates has been made motionless, the total force must then equal zero,” Nanette proceeded. I came to the firm realization that the Tailleurs were not an ordinary family, that they were, in fact, extraordinary with even a bit to spare. Again, I felt the fervid pangs of intimidation Aria was first to deliver upon me.
She continued, “Dr. Achates is lying dead on the sidewalk being pulled down by the earth’s gravitational attraction as he is also being pushed up by the molecular repulsion of the concrete. Thus, the total force is zero — Dr. Achates is in equilibrium. Is that what you did — put poor Dr. Achates in equilibrium?”
The boy retreated up the stairwell to retrieve his sister.
Nanette invited me inside and made a general announcement into the cool, cavernous foyer that “Dare ease August!”
In a moment, two little girls peeked around a far wall and disappeared. Dr. Escrow rambled down the stairs and collided with Dr. Gerard Tailleur who was passing from the studio into the kitchen. He scarcely lifted his eyes from his notes on impact, greeted me in passing and continued his trek, absently dragging his son with him. Dr. Escrow unhooked his hair from a button on Dr. Gerard’s cardigan and declared his sister was locked in the bathroom. Nanette scolded the boy for attempting to embarrass his sister while straightening his skewed glasses.
“You ought not be so rude, Dr. Escrow.”
“Escrow was lost at sea. I made him walk the plank.”
“And who are you now?”
“I am Frodo.”
From the kitchen, Gerard proclaimed something that sounded indubitably dismissive in French.
Finally, golden Aria glided down the stairwell’s broad banister, landed in the fourth position of classical ballet and bowed to the applause of her mother.
Aria took both my hands and swung them in hers, then kissed me once on each cheek.
“You have passed step two,” she said, then clicked her boot heels.
If I had been chewing gum, I would have swallowed it.
Gerard looked weighed upon, serious, French — a member of a nation that made existentialism a national pastime. He brought a spoon of tepid vichyssoise to his mouth, considered it briefly and dropped spoon and all back into the bowl.
Aria’s little sisters, a pair of excitable six-year-old twins, giggled with abandon. The girls were nicknamed the equivalent of One and Two in the language native to wherever the Tailleurs’ travels had landed them.
“I want to collect eggs,” began One.
“Bird eggs that are blue,” finished Two.
“But where would you keep them?” asked Nanette.
“In the collection.”
“And where do you keep the collection?”
The girls giggled more.
“I used to have a collection of postage stamps,” Nanette told the girls. The girls looked about to burst. “I kept them in the third drawer of my little dresser where my sister, your auntie, couldn’t reach. She was smaller than me.”
The girls rolled in their chairs and unconsciously traded barrettes with tiny snapping fingers.
“But one day,” continued Nanette, “I went into the room with a new stamp and instantly burst into tears.”
The girls became silent as tears did not seem pleasant. Static brushed my ear; I felt the RSVP coming on.
“Your little auntie had covered herself with my entire stamp collection! All her bare skin and even under her jumper she was wearing my stamps!”
One and Two hyperventilated and pulled their own braids, mad with laughter. One turned upside down in her seat appearing as only socks and shoes while her sister shook like a seismographic needle.
There was a buzz, a crack and then the RSVP. I knew at once it was Gerard. He had been silently regarding the twins.
Aria caught my eye and mouthed something indecipherably lewd, then gripped her elbows so as to momentarily accentuate her cleavage.
I heard a French accent.
“They don’t look like me, they don’t laugh like me. So late in life to realize you have nothing, that your progeny are perhaps not your own. Cursed Beltane! The Celts, a randy lot, made an annual occasion of infidelity. All marriages were temporarily called off so wives and husbands could make use of other wives and husbands in random and wanton coupling. So we have a family tree that can only be traced by the matrilineal. A tap root of only mothers. Who else? The father could be anyone — Blodeuwedd or Creirwy!
“It has been discovered some orders of primates routinely commit infanticide. Males of the species slaughter the young of strange females so as to assure the next offspring are his. When the young are destroyed the female ceases to lactate and can thus ovulate and be impregnated where before she could not. There, under a never-ending watch to ward off lusty free agents of the jungle, the male primate triumphantly injects a heritage. What vigilance! What caution! The primate alpha-male, spared the sophistication of colloquiums in Switzerland, may defend the fertile haunches of his mate. For myself it is every February a trip to Lugano and all of Nanette’s children born in October. The math haunts me. It adds up to a battery of milkmen, repairmen representing the spectrum of household appliances under warranty, utility-belted rovers whose custom it is to raise aprons with their deft and hoary hands. Postmen.
“Aria, she is the analogue of her mother. From make to model she is a parthenogenetic replica differing only in release date. The twins — God knows where from these curled tresses. Nanette and I, for generations dating back to the prima materia, have had hair so straight draftsmen come to calibrate their T-squares and marvel at the simple beauty of it.
“I can only be sure of Frodo. The miserable child. God has granted me serenity with the knowledge that we share the exact rare eyeglass prescription. So rare is this prescription, the odds of Frodo being another man’s child have yet to find a number small enough to express themselves.”
Nanette dabbed a napkin with her tongue and liberated a smudge of the gourmet supper from the corner of One’s mouth.
“To scold your auntie,” said Nanette, continuing her story, “Your grandmother sat her on the front step covered with my stamps and told her the postman was going to take her away and it would certainly be very far due to the amount of postage.”
The twin’s gaiety rattled the wine glasses, shook petals from the floral arrangement and generally bloomed to good volume. Like Orpheus with lute, this was invincible music, immune to the acts of the world lest a particularly loud noise, the caterwauling of the Thracian women, were to overcome it and…
“‘Postman?’ I should have known!” Gerard hollered, monstrously loud. His suspicion had reached a magnificence unheralded among the bean counters of the jealous. Scholars of Medea and Othello the world over heaved a collective sigh, dropped their abacuses and mutually agreed, “This is the one.”
We were arrested in our seats, psychically glued, magnetized as if by one of Buntel Eriksson’s one-gloved villains. The postman, a sunny caricature replete with hat and uniform plying jocular canines with Milkbones and junk mail — this was the source of Gerard’s acoustical marvel.
A moment passed in silence. Clocks could be heard ticking. Chewing and swallowing became a symphonic undertaking. I heard a button duck through its hole.
Aria suddenly screamed.
The family and I turned slowly, annoyed Aria would possibly challenge Gerard’s outburst, especially without such a masterfully deployed red herring as “Postman.” Then I realized Aria had seen what those of us still entranced by Gerard’s pyrotechnics had missed.
Frodo, the mid-adolescent male fiasco, all elbows and lone chin whisker, the acne prone and insatiable masturbator, stood at the table above an untouched bowl of vichyssoise.
Candle-light reflected in his glasses like a yellow rumba.
A pistol weighed in his hand.
Gerard, sighed and moved his napkin from his lap to his plate.
“What is it now, Frodo?”
“I’m running away.”
“Go then. You needn’t pull a gun on your family, especially when we have a guest.”
I pantomimed to Nanette that I didn’t mind.
Frodo stammered, swallowed and choked on a word.
“You have something to say? ‘Good-bye,’ ‘So long?’” taunted Gerard.
“I need your wallets.”
We anted up our wallets and purses. The twins shared a coin purse between them. I threw in Midge’s cigarettes for good measure, then thought better of it. Frodo gathered up the loot, declined his mother’s invitation to take a sandwich, then paused at the door. He produced a camera from his pocket, took a snapshot of his bewildered family and guest, smiled and exited into the night.
“You’re the Postman’s child anyway!” Gerard bellowed after him.
Aria and her mother cleared the dishes.
She took my plate before I could pretend to begin to do so for myself.
In Aria’s studio, behind the house, we stood a fencer’s measure apart in awkward silence. She uncorked and poured the wine that went untouched at dinner.
“Wait a second,” she said, then sprang to her feet, to a tiny dormitory-style refrigerator discreetly supporting a small television. Inside it, Aria retrieved a clangorous ice cube.
My silence defaulted ‘no’ and Aria returned to our nest and curled on the floor. She plopped the ice cube into her wine glass. Foreigners have strange habits, I thought.
“I always drink red wine with an ice cube,” she said without apology.
“I’ve seen worse. I knew a fellow who always drank red wine with a tampon in it.”
Aria frowned silently at my joke so I invented a karmic twist to align myself with her dismay as she took a cigarette from her case.
“He eventually choked on it, of course. Swelled up in his esophagus.”
Aria lit her cigarette.
“Dig a hole deep enough and it’s a tunnel, eh?” she ribbed as she put a wine-stained cork to her eye and squinted hard to keep it there. She spoke in the procedural tone of a mystery story police inspector, deductive clips
“What we have here, it seems, Mr. Gerhardt, is an inordinate amount of surface tension. Understandable, of course, we being strangers and all that hullaboo. The usual discomfort endemic to the ill-acquainted is compounded by the fact that you’re a man and I’m a woman in a room where we could reasonably expect hours and hours of privacy. The fact that I invited you and you came suggests some order of mutual attraction which may be elevated in a aphrodisiacal manner by the wine we are now drinking — tampon or no.”
The cork fell into her lap and lay in the “Y” line of her jodhpurs. She considered the addition, circled her pinky over the blood-blue stain then pulled her pleats taut which jettisoned the cork into the general clutter.
She passed me her cigarette while she turned her head and exhaled.
“Do you know what breaks the surface tension of water?” she asked rhetorically. “Soap. Don’t ask me how — my father told me. Anyhow, soap, like a regular ‘bar of’ breaks the surface tension of water. If I was flying over an ocean and was forced to jump out of the plane, I’d throw the soap out before me to make the water softer. What would make the water softer here?”
“Let me borrow a book from you,” I suggested. “To establish trust.”
“I trust you.”
“Which?” she asked with a gesture to the bookshelf next to her futon.
“Let me see here,” I said playfully. “You have any film books?”
Aria looked puzzled.
“There might be a film book but if it’s from the library you have to take it back for me. To Fourth Street,” she said. “Some freak case was stealing books from libraries and fencing them to used bookstores. I got these in town — where I first met you.”
“Who stole the book. I tell you, freaks dog my life, surround me, are related to me — or want to be,” she said, then excitedly asked, “Hey, you want to order Indian food?”
“But we just…”
“Yeah, but Indian food, right now. Sounds good, eh? I’ll call. My treat.”
Aria uncovered a telephone from beneath her futon and dialed the information operator. When the operator queried “What city, please,” Aria listed three before she got to Lumaville, then asked me to name an Indian joint that delivered.
“Hurry Curry,” I suggested while scanning the shelf for From Angst to Zilch.
Aria peeled back a Paige Paillard calendar I hadn’t noticed on the far wall and wrote the number of Hurry Curry behind it where others also lurked. She called the restaurant and ordered sundry vegetarian items.
“I’m a veggie when I’m in the States — my quiet activism,” she said cupping the receiver. She then gave the restaurant directions to the bungalow and returned to the floor.
“What were we — oh yeah, freaks,” she remembered, then entreated me to join her by patting the rug she was sitting on. “Some people, my god, seem like they were still pulling the stakes when the sideshow rolled out of town. Shit, there were some people I went to lycee with — fated to be freaks — not like deformed or anatomically fucked up kids, or the ‘slow kids’ in the petite bus — but these people of small, inane legend. Imagine a sideshow caravan with the type A attractions — the fat woman, the skeleton man, the mascara and mustache hermaphrodite, a couple of pinheads, whatever, but then the barker pulls you aside because you’re a interesting-looking chap with an obvious eye for the curious and that extra jingle in your jeans that says payday to the carny ear. The barker says, for a buck more, no for five bucks more, you can see the freaks you went through public schools with. You do it?”
“Can they see me?”
“No. Blinded by a searing spot light,” she assured. “Remember, not the mentally retarded, not the self-made exiles of dominant culture, not the drama club, but the real freaks. The truly freaky people culled from the deep, moist and wicked corners of campus — like Hot Dog.”
“C’mon, every school has a girl named Hot Dog,” Aria said with a haughty laugh. “You paid the five bucks and inside the tent, the first exhibit is simply this girl holding a hot dog bun.”
“Where’s the hot dog?”
“Ahhh. Now you’re getting it,” she said. “Must I relay her sad story, a fable that endures presently in the collected annals of high school apocrypha? For reasons only known to the cruelest gods, one poor chick has to bare the myth that she was banging herself with a hot dog when to her horror it ‘breaks off’ inside of her and she has to go to the hospital. She’s forced to admit the whole scenario to her absolute humiliation and despite the doctor-patient privacy thing — everyone knows.”
“We had a girl like that,” I said. “But we called her ‘Frankie’.”
“There are variations,” Aria agreed.
“The secondary abstraction, ‘Frankie’ I think, lessened some of the stigma.”
“Perhaps, but it could have been worse because then it was codified such that only inductees of the golden order knew and coveted the information for purposes of social stature. It became classist.”
“You’re right. Yes, I can see that now,” I said nodding, scanning the shelf for the Buntel Eriksson book from afar.
Aria’s quiet rocking indicated it was my turn to nominate a freak which I did.
“The next exhibit — a boy stroking a feline,” I offered. “His placard reads simply, ‘Johnny Cat.’”
“What’s his story?”
“He fucked the cat. And somebody caught him. Invariably this befalls a new student and is explanation for why he changed schools.”
“We had a Dogboy,” Aria said. “But he was the real thing.”
“I didn’t — not conclusively, but he was arrested on campus one day and my friend Colette and I overheard her mom relaying the minutes of a school board meeting over the phone. Apparently this guy’s case was really stirring the shit with the community. Pictures were found.”
“He fucked a dog and took pictures?”
“No, somebody else took the pictures but he would never say who,” she said. “It’s worse though.”
“In the pictures, the dog was fucking him.”
“I think he got the charges reduced from animal abuse to some non-criminal charge like ‘weird fucked-up shit’ or something, on the premise that the dog was enjoying it.”
I rolled over on my back and rested the ashtray on my chest. Looking upside down, aha! I finally spied From Angst to Zilch: The Portable Buntel Eriksson Filmography on the floor beneath the perimeter of Aria’s futon, next to a book on marine biology. Just then, however, Aria lay on her back such that the top of our heads touched. My scalp felt electric and I was suddenly pacified.
“I don’t know if I qualify, but I certainly felt like a freak for most of my school years. Greco-Franco, after all,” she said as she turned around, her face just as pretty upside-down as it loomed treacherously over mine. She rested on her elbows which brought her even closer to me. She licked her lips and narrowed her eyes but suddenly turned as a metallic rapping began at the door, like a busted pocket watch repeatedly dropped into a jug of Ripple.
With charming reluctance, Aria rose and opened the door. Standing there with a paper bag brimming with white cardboard take-out boxes was Johan Non, Private Eye, decked in the threads of a delivery boy, replete with sadly pinned carnation dying on his lapel. He wore horned-rimmed glasses without lenses.
“I’d’a been here sooner but the place is swarming with cops.”
“They’re returning my half-wit brother,” Aria flatly reported, then said she had left her wallet in her car. I made a decorous reach for my empty pockets but was relieved when she reiterated it was her treat and skipped passed Johan and down the driveway.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” I asked the hulk. “Moonlighting?”
“Making sure you don’t fuck up our deal out of this shit-canned burg. Give me the book,” Johan commanded.
“The fucking Buntel Eriksson book.”
“Collateral against deferment of payment. Now hurry, you dumb prick.”
“It’s in the john,” I said. As he turned for a quick check on Aria, I kicked the poor book from under the futon and discreetly grabbed it as I entered the bathroom. There, I removed its dust jacket and traded it for the jacket of a like-sized volume I plucked from the magazine rack above the toilet.
At the door, I slipped Johan the book disguised as From Angst to Zilch which he stuffed into his outfit as Aria began to skip back up the driveway.
“Here you are,” she said, sifting a wad of bills she gathered from a billfold. She over-tipped.
Johan gave his cap a tug and smiled knowingly into the night.
Aria scattered pages from the Lumaville Daily Echo onto the floor and set up a buffet. Within moments she was liberally slathering a torn piece of nan with mango chutney. The pungent aromas of curries and other weird shit abounded. The Lumaville Daily Echo’s main headline peeked from between some creamed spinach and vegetable curry. It blared, “Paige Paillard Returns!” Below the fold and in smaller type was the three-deck headline “Ms. Lumaville Self-Sacrificed for Teenage Death Cult, Leaps from Grain Elevator, Memorial Spotlight Shines.”
“Vampires,” I thought and devoured some order of inferno potato. My eyes watered and Aria quickly handed me her glass of chilly wine.
“I’ve decided which book I want to borrow,” I said as I regained authority over my tear ducts.
Aria’s lips were swelling from the spice.
“Pray tell,” she said.
I finally read the dust-jacket concealing From Angst to Zilch.
“Psychopathia Sexualis,” I hesitantly read to Aria.
“You are a real Hindie, aren’t you?” she affirmed. “Can I trust you now?”
Coyly, I crawled over the crackling Echo and Indian take-out boxes to chin my whiskers on her patent leather ankles. After a moment, she crossed her legs tightly under her ass, letting my head fall to the floor.
“Well?” she insisted.
“Yes, you can trust me.”
She smiled gamely.
“Would you like to see my tattoo?”
I nodded. She unsnapped her riding pants and slowly pulled them past the refreshing arch of her hip bone. She curved a languid finger around her left inner thigh and opened it slowly to reveal in black script drawn to emulate the primitive print of a manual typewriter:
Risque de Choc
I squinted, pretending I needed a closer look which she offered me, a cool hand leading me by the collar.
“It’s French,” I surmised.
She permitted a moment for me to admire her lower anatomy, its pale, milky hues and smooth curves, then withdrew to the futon.
“I modeled briefly,” she began, as if to explain her blithe comfort undressing in front of a relative stranger. “A tooth-paste ad. The photographer thought my lips were too narrow so in an artistic fervor he popped me square in the mug. My lips swelled like water balloons and he snapped away. Got hazard pay.”
She unbuttoned her shirt and laid like a shock across the dark comforter, a double-jointed jack knife cooling in the bluish moonlight. The light hit her pale skin and diffused like hard rain on pavement. We kissed — a brutish, sudden smacker, that tasted something like a dare.
“So, is it true?” Aria asked as we continued kissing. She pulled me next to her and began stroking my chest and thighs and finally started undoing my pants.
“About Paige Paillard?”
“That she’s coming to town? It’s in the paper.”
“No, is it true that she’s your ex? People from the Hindie party were talking about it.”
I did a quick cost-benefit analysis of the truth as I averted my eyes to the calendar and wonderd, what social cache the sad truth could afford me.
Aria smiled strangely. She undid my pants.
“You wouldn’t mind me saying that I love her music…”
“It’s not her music, she just plays it.”
“You do mind,” she appraised as she reached past my boxers. “Can I ask you another question? Why did you name yourself after Buntel Eriksson’s Den Polisen?”
I summoned some mock vigilance. Aria found me with a firm left hand.
“Because Buntel Eriksson the single greatest filmmaker known to mankind. Den Polisen’s my favorite. ‘Elephant Juice.’”
“It’s a pseudonym,” said Aria.
“The name,” she reiterated.
“I haven’t legally changed it, no…”
“No, I mean ‘Buntel Eriksson,’” she said.
“You don’t know? ‘Buntel Eriksson’ is the name Swedish filmmakers use when they don’t want to put their own on the work.”
“I learned that in film class. Most of the so-called Eriksson films were just quick dough for a young Ingmar Bergman.”
My dick went dead limp in her hand.
“Someone pull the cork on your popgun?” she asked, disappointed.
I began to reel with panic.
“You mean Buntel Eriksson is Bergman?”
“Sometimes. Film critics have a ball with it — parlor tricks in print — theses, whole books, everything.”
“Jesus-Fucking-A-Christ! You must be fucking with me!”
“No,” Aria said flatly. “Quite comic — satire really.”
“You know what this means? This means my entire life is a fraud!”
“Whose isn’t?” she said rolling onto her stomach to fetch a cigarette.
“Prove it to me. Prove to me that Buntel Eriksson is Bergman’s pseudonym!”
Aria nonchalantly moved toward her bookshelf, then unsatisfied, looked under the bed. She came up empty handed.
“I can’t find the book right now, but it says plain as day in From Angst to Zilch: the Portable Buntel Eriksson Filmography that ‘Buntel Eriksson’ was a nom de plume. What’s the matter with you? You’ve turned white.”
“I don’t believe it! You’re killing my god!”
“It’s a god eat god world.”
My eyes met hers, then pulled away as I surveyed her tiny room, the walls of which seemed closer to us than before. I spied a natural sponge atop a pile of towels in the corner of the bungalow and was overcome with antipathy.
“By the way, sponges are animals, you hypocrite murderer,” I cried, boldly pointing at the carcass.
“Idiot! That’s a loofa!” Aria retorted.
I smiled smugly and exhumed the book on marine biology from under her futon. She seized it from me and tore through the pages until she found an illustrated item on sponges. Over her shoulder, I read the caption of a photo depicting a simularly bushy skeleton.
“This animal ingests food particles with a filtration system, whereby water is drawn through its body and expelled, thus trapping a luncheon of microscopic morsels,” I read aloud.
“No, no, no,” she protested as she circled the room, reeling, remaining on her feet it seemed, solely due to gyroscopic force. “Omigod! I thought it was a loofah!”
She recoiled and cupped her ears with her hands. It was evil. Pure evil, I know, but she had effectively ruined my life and I could not stifle my cruelty.
“If two sponges are near each other, they may grow into one another and become a single organism,” I continued, then added, “Like love.”
Aria stormed out of the room, slamming the screen door of her bungalow with such vehemence all the former insect life gripping the screen made a final plummet to the floor.
Outside, Aria made a clamor in a nearby shed and stepped out of sight. Several minutes went by before I spied her through the bathroom window kneeling next to a mound of newly-turned dirt. She clutched the sponge to her chest, prayed and then buried it.
She patted the soil smooth with her eyes focused toward the heavens, then turned forlornly to my window and flipped me off. She reentered the bungalow.
“You do not pass step three!” she scolded and then told me very plainly “to leave” but not in those words.
She kept the book.
I returned to the flat at 160 North Main and stepped lightly up the back steps after a perfunctory hello and how-do-you-do with the lonesome shopkeeper sweeping his patio of the cigarette butts and other castoffs from upstairs.
I didn’t have my keys so I slipped my hand through the peeling window screen inset in the back door’s open window and reached for the deadbolt. It was already unlocked and I stepped inside inquiring — with some trepidation — “Fellows?”
No one answered, which made the copious smattering of blood caked on the kitchen linoleum all the more ominous. I followed an orange-brown sunburst bedaubed over the cabinets, across the grease-smudged refrigerator door and smeared the length of the counter to the sink in which lay a stained faux bone-handled axe blade. On the kitchen window, parenthetically framed by ragged, gauze curtains and inscribed in blood by a finger-tip stylus was this poem:
- Fuck this ribald puckered shit.
- I see the quiver in your liver.
- I see the shiver in you shake.
- “Monotony, monotony…”
- A soliloquy
- A balcony
- friends, fiends, freunds, Freuds
- Graft a corruption to your cerebral cortex
- I’ve seated beauty on my lap and found her wet.
- Split her legs and wheelbarrow gripped her ankles
- on a long shot to a buttery sutra.
- I pissed in a jar for her meaningless verdict.
- I have two electric razors and I can slit my wrists with neither.
- I could write an entire book on pain.
- I could but I won’t. So there. So what. So long.
I began to do the math in my head and just as the sum was coming to me , I emitted a sharp and sudden scream.
On the windowsill, bobbing below the poem in a tumbler of crimson liquid was a pinkish nodule of flesh, an oblong marble — like a stillborn mouse — smooth sans a small gray depression that was the toenail.
There it was, preserved in an admixture of alcohol and blood — Trout Munroe’s itchy little toe, the miniscule digit said to contain more talent than the carcasses of our sorry gang entire.
I lit a cigarette and exhaled the smoke at the ceiling where the Hightimes Ceiling Clock indicated it was still ten to nine.
“Spare one of those?” Trout’s cheddar sharp voice intoned from the living room. Startled, I turned to see his bespectacled head peeking into the hall from the leatherette divan. “Don’t worry about the mess, I’ve called a service,” Trout consoled as I walked down the hall.
“I have to tell you something,” I began as I spied Trout’s bandaged left foot. It was wrapped — to my awesome chagrin — with my ascot, my best-liked, with the skeleton-leaf print. His anemic blood had seeped through it and coagulated in a coin-deep meniscus near the wound.
“Wait, I have to tell you something first,” Trout interrupted me.
I sat patiently, realizing how foolish it would be to tell him of my revelation.
“So we’d all had a few,” he began, wanly accepting a light for the cigarette I had planted in his mouth. “The firm of Scott, Martini and Rossi got it in their heads to exorcise the poltergeist and went bounding off to Saint Vitus’.”
My stomach turned. I loosened my tie. Trout continued.
“The moment Horatio got outside on the sidewalk — they nabbed him. Six cops dog-piled him. Rugby rules. Left a stain.”
“Took him off for statutory rape of that chick-a-dee he stowed around here. Anonymous tip. I think it was Ben, the jealous fool.”
“Ben — where is he?”
“Hell if I know. Listen…”
“Ben never came back from the river?”
“Don’t cut me off,” Trout admonished, then smiled vaguely at his inadvertent joke. “They’re all gone. Vamoose. Selected out. Adjö, hej då, avsked, bye.”
The last lurid peepshow of my soul was closing.
“Anyway, I returned to my work at the kitchen table, but every successive line began a boiling in that wretched toe. I tried to divert myself with music from the clock radio but I couldn’t find any — only Red Barnes and a station that offered a forty-five minute program of labored wheezing and gravelly inhalations. I have my suspicions that the Highttimes Ceiling Clock is a listening device,” Trout explained.
“I scratched my toe against the leg of the table — I wrote a line — it itched more. I grated it against the heating vent. Still, it itched. Maddeningly — a shrewd little fire, an acid pox — gnawing at the inflated wart that was my wee fore-hoof. I ran the cheese-grater against it until it shed blood through a hundred tiny portals. That’s when it occurred to me…”
Trout’s eyes shone with an evil spark.
“Horatio keeps a bottle of Pop’s Red Eye in the army trunk at the foot of his bed,” Trout continued.
“I thought that was chloroform for his little bitches,” I interrupted.
“No, it just says ‘chloroform’ on the label. Too cheap to pitch in for the real thing. Anyway, I figure the shit’s proof enough to knock me out — hang me up for a while until the itch subsides. Fire ants on my capillaries with razor teeth and salt tonics. I swig long, the chafing sizzle of the booze in my throat, heartburn from the get go, mean mad shit, this.”
“Because it’s chloroform.”
“It wasn’t chloroform. The second slug came right back up through my nose, the whole deal. Third slug and I’m getting a little left already.
“But the toe?”
“Itched worse than the week after prom,” he said with a wink as he recognized I understood this too. Small graduating class.
He French-inhaled from his cigarette and the smoke twisted into his lengthy nostrils like a ghostly ballet.
“The little beast is ferocious — I considered boiling it and even grabbed the pot the poltergeist left on the stove top,” said Trout.
“The poltergeist cooks?”
“I saw it make a sandwich,” Trout said.
“Where is it now?”
“I sent it out for booze and cigs.”
“No, it’s ‘poltergeist.’ It’s his greatest role,” Trout assured. “Anyway, I pick up the pot and there, inside, on the inner reflective surface…”
“It’s clean?” I interrupted.
“The poltergeist will on occasion do the dishes. So, inside the pot, I see the reflection of convict Horatio’s dreadful suit of armor. The ax is glinting. It glints. It beckons. A lighthouse leading to my salvation. Mixed metaphors, everything. I belted another slug of the Pop’s Red Eye and ambled into the room. At first the knight was reluctant to give up the weapon, but a swat of the pot put him right.”
“The axe is real?”
“It’d been dulled for the stage. I sharpened it on a loose brick in the wall,” he said and gestured to the mound of red dust on the running board.
“Then you went into the kitchen?” I asked, unashamed of my interest in the gore.
“No, then I took the cord from Ben’s view-finder and tied it like a tourniquet around my ankle to stop the loss of blood.”
“Eriksson’s war picture Krig Svin — when the young medic realizes he can save the pilot’s arm.”
“All tears,” said Trout, who then recited a line, “‘You may never play piano again, but you’ll play a mean drum.’”
“So I put a corner of the blade into the linoleum — I’m going to nick the toe like you cut a tomato. Let the weight ease me into emancipation — more accurate, anyway.”
“And it worked?”
“No. An axe needs velocity as it turns out. So I practiced a few swipes, despite my intoxication, and beside myself and rather like it wasn’t me at all, I whacked the fucker — solid — bloody-fucking-murder — clean off, straight shot, a shrieking, berserking, sudden shock to the very depths of my soul. Ha! The pain, Sven. It was as though the anticipated years of agony stored in the toe came running out in one mad drain in that harrowing nanosecond. A gross discharge. I screamed so loud a flock of pigeons fluttered, en masse, across the way.”
Trout paused and dashed his smoke.
“Then it was over?” I asked.
“No,” he said sternly. “Then inspiration struck. I finished my poem, my opus Pussywhip/Death/Monotony.” He paused, then added with some concern, “Strangely, I haven’t had it in me to write a word since. The shock of the thing, surely.”
Trout limped to the kitchen, reached for the sill and poured the tumbler, talent and all, into the garbage disposal.
• • •
I entered my musty berth to find Midge standing there, arms akimbo and foot tapping in three-quarter time.
“Where have you been?”
She floored me with a sucker-punch in the gut and stepped on my head as she crossed the room to lock my door. Then she insisted I hold her — demanded affection — which, from the floor seemed an impossible request as she had inspired something of a natural reluctance. My throbbing temples felt pinned by sandbags, pianos, boxcars, but I managed to rise and take the seething sprite into my arms.
Her skin was cool and I let my body shift into hers, rocking gently as if from her emotive breeze. I was careful not to let the rough of several hours worth of beard scratch her baby-smooth face. I made sure not to press with any rigor against her breasts which were perpetually sore from the pill. I minded my watch band whose silver buckle could catch her sweater. I breathed nowhere near her ears, throat or clavicle. I kept my fingers out of her belt loops. I tried to replicate all the rules that were theretofore reflex, muscle memory, rehearsed to the point of pure mannerism and was amazed a few hours elsewhere could eclipse them all.
I was someone new, an amnesiac trying pitifully to assemble a former life from photographs and love letters. My body had changed as if from a sudden, stormy puberty, dance lessons that forever obscured the old steps. My fingers could naturally curl to the first position of any keyboard, instinctively, where before Midge’s lackluster mood obligated endless recitals of Chopsticks, Chopsticks, Chopsticks.
She went slack, recomposed and then slack again.
“You feel different,” she broached.
I thought my impersonation was perfect down to the characteristic inhaling of my gut but she had found me out.
“You feel like someone else,” she said wanly, but the RSVP betrayed a more dire commentary.
“Why is he different? This isn’t me, there is something physically changed with him,” she thought, pulling away to assess my face. I heaved a somber tone, a vocal caress and we embraced again. I had to move my weight so her knee cap would not pry mine off from below.
“He holds me differently. He reached for my neck as is his custom to stroke the nape with his middle and ring fingers but missed and first stroked the crown of my head.”
I cracked my knuckles.
“Hands that would normally fall effortlessly on my hips, glided the grade of my rib cage before reaching their perch. His clumsy wingtips, always a mindful centimeter from scuffing my shoes are now at least a shoe size removed. In fact, he is off all the way over.”
My stomach turned.
“He holds me,” she continued her deduction, “as though he expected me to be half a foot taller. Like that bitch-slut Aria.”
She shuddered as a draft shrouded her shoulders. She pulled away. Her pupils dilated, her skin turned to granite and her lips trembled between staccato breaths.
“It’s not what you think,” I said. “Try as I might.”
“I’ve been putting dishwater in your coffee for months in anticipation of this,” she admitted. “I was hoping you’d accumulate enough toxins in your body that you would die before you could dump me. So fuck you.”
She grabbed my cock and pulled it hard enough for my eyes to tear.
“Fuck you, twice,” she said and then she was gone. No more Midge. Out. A minor panic ensued when I realized I’d have to pay for my coffee at Café Shrag.
There was a ruckus at the back door. The poltergeist was trying to break in again. Trout had locked it outside.
I entered the living room and lighted momentarily by the bar where the empty can of Turpenoid lay on its label. My ears crackled and popped as I set the hollow can upright and an uneasiness began to churn near my sternum. Something was amiss. The shelf above the bar was bare, the collective Buntel Eriksson library gone.
With Ben stewing in the tidal estuary, Griff invisible and Horatio in a holding cell playing matchstick poker, only the freshly maimed Trout could be my culprit. I went to the street-side window and spied the limping antipode artfully wielding Horatio’s sword cane with my pillow case slung over his back. It bulged with fractured angles, a cubist tear drop.
“Trout, you fink!” I hollered. His piggish eyes glared covetously behind his emerald lenses.
I dashed into the hall where I discovered the front stairs were strewn with an obstacle course of dirty dishes. I ran through the kitchen and out the back door where I caught a wisp of Turpenoid in the air as a force of wind raced passed me and slammed the door. I heard the deadbolt lock.
I ran down the back door steps and collided with the Café Press Pass proprietor who had parked his car snug with the building.
“They told us we have to move everything off Water Street,” he said plainly.
“No, they’re dredging the river for a body. Fucking Moloch is setting up a cast-of-thousands shot with Paige Paillard at the Lumiere.”
I pawed past him and the public works personnel congesting Water Street. The two-dimensional set that led into the river a day ago had evaporated and in its place was an industrial crane. I went through to the throughway that met the plaza from Main Street and caught a glimpse of Trout’s head bobbing amongst the antennaed production assistants who also pushed through a throng of young movie wannabees swarming in the vacant lot next to the theater.
“Desist, you fiend!” I called after him but he ignored me as he lamely scampered through the cinema’s unlocked doors. I panicked when I realized I was surrounded by a sea of children. Hundreds of star-struck doll-faced little drones clogging the sidewalk hoping to be discovered like Paige Paillard. The ones with craftier parents stood on overturned buckets and milk crates engineered to elevate their pudgy heads into the camera’s firing line. One perfectly edible tyke was wielded above the miniature throng by an adult while it beamed a gummy smile as yet without fangs. Cute cowlicks abounded, like the hasty hair plugs of a guinea pig.
I’d seen it every time a production company slouched into town. In Lumaville, such was the legacy of Paige Paillard.
“Watch it buddy,” a gaffer cursed after I collided with him and two other men filling a roaring generator with gasoline. I pushed on through a jungle of cables, light rigs and the scaffold on which Paige Paillard was to make her cameo above her worshippers.
I made it the doors of the Lumiere and entered the theater’s lobby. It was cool and vacant. I trotted upstairs to the balcony to catch an aerial view of the thieving Trout. The Cyclops yammered on and there, on the silvery screen flickered images of Lumaville, various cuts assembled into a mish-mash of dailies — the grain elevator, Cafe Shrag, the cinema, the boulevard, the infernal river.
“Regrets, eh, Sven Gerhardt?” Trout’s sinister voice came from the projection booth.
He was standing with Johan Non whose long hair was again tucked into his traitorous fedora.
“I believe you know the Wombat.”
They both smiled evilly at me.
“They’re worthless!” I laughed. “The Buntel Eriksson library is a fraud because Buntel Eriksson is a fraud, you fools! Everything in Lumaville is a fraud, just like all of us!”
“Just like all of you, Sven F. — Chris Gerhardt?” Trout laughed.
“Yeah, who do I send my bill to?” Johan the Wombat spat at me.
“Buntel Eriksson is actually Ingmar Bergman!”
Johan and Trout eyed each other suspiciously as I backed toward the stairwell. Trout commanded “Get him!” and unsheathed the sword cane.
I ran down the stairs and out the lobby, tearing down the jungle of cables and fixtures that met my path. Outside, I crashed into a cadre of crew people and overturned a heavily packed cart of uniform boxes. I began throwing over light stands, blind with rage and humiliation, divested of all that flickered human in me. Production assistants tried to stop me, but I thrashed so uncontrollably, they were unable to get a handhold.
Nearby, a lighting technician was testing a forest of lights so brilliant they forged renewed daylight upon the coming night. I barreled into them and brought them all crashing, sparkling and firework-mad onto the generator.
Suddenly, everyone surrounding began to scurry away, entreating even me, the bawling criminal to “Run, run!”
I sprinted in my slippery wingtips, only to feel the heat of the generator’s combustion on my neck as the finest Atomic Montage ever known to the Lumiere Theater began to engulf its façade. Young Sgt. Phil’s fabled “bomb” had finally come.
I began to pant. Where to go? Where to hide? I ran through the Maze-Mart parking lot, past the post office, past the Lumaville Historical Library, where police dogs materialized in the night heat, their steaming snouts grazing my soles.
I ran down Volk Street as the wafting smoke began to dim the street lamps and then down the concrete stairs, three, four at a time, through the thoroughfare between the stationery store and the travel agency, where I hooked a right past the back end of the Hide-Away and into American Alley.
“Halt, you are in violation of Section 11.36.050 of the Lumaville Municipal Code,” the flat, official voice squawked from its patrol car.
Then I heard a crackle in my ear, a faint tickle about the jaw. The RSVP began sounding in my ears.
“Check, one, two, three. Chris F.! You can hear me, I know it! I found your frequency. I’m broadcasting to you live from Radio Free Lumaville,” Gannon’s voice rang in my head. “I’m listening to the police scanner here — you’re fucked man, they know you blew up the Lumiere, they know who you are, they’re everywhere, man! The only place they’re not looking for you is the river! The fucking river! That’s the only place they’re not looking for you! Run to the river! Swim out of town! Go, man! Go! Go! Go!”
The voice crackled away and was silent. He was right. I ran like hell-fire down Occidental Avenue to Water Street where I paused before the sad, still slough.
Lumaville was in flames behind me. Love lost. Friends gone. Gods dead.
• • •
Dread Lumaville, sick desirous factory, it is you, beyond all else that made me who I am. Is it fitting of a child to despise the womb? If not, then why should I crave so indelicately for release? Is it because all creatures succumb to an appetizer’s promise, its first peep of light? If the devil knew consistent quarters, he’d surely claim a bunk in that first flicker. I wanted out. We all did, my wretched gang and I, we jigsawed schematists, friends, collaborators, hacks, cantankerous homemade orphans. We beat, broken, brethren, we whipping-boys feeding that vast lashing tongue Spiritus Mundi, yes. We yearned — our only crime.
I held my breath, closed my eyes and leapt into the Lumaville River. I sank for what seemed an interminable time but then, for reasons unfathomable, I began to float skyward, effortlessly and with absolute buoyancy, upwards, despite myself, into the night constellations that endlessly realigned on the reflective surface of the river. The Motion Picture Version of My Life fluttered free of my breast pocket and emerged on the oily surface where embers from the burning town spattered the few soaked pages and ignited them like a bowl of cherries flambé.
I could feel a current lurking in the quiescent river, a bantam tug, a newfound flux, as I swam, further and further and further and further and further and…
— Daedalus Howell