‘It’s basic economics, mes petites-souillons. If the American people ever allow a private bank to control the issue of their currency,’ so Wilhelm Reich tongues the clitoris of his dinner guests’ politics, ‘their children will surely wake up homeless on the very continent their fathers had only lately conquered.’
The laity piffles.
‘Naturellement, I have no faith in the American. Morons of the highest degree. Simply a miracle they haven’t yet been conquered by tyrants.’ And at this, the attendant smatter of social scientists – cherry, virginal and intellectually lazy, stinking of Veuve-Cliquote, loaded with cocaine, multilingual, pansexually liberal, hypothetically socialist and not a one of them older than 24 – clank their tableware and cigarette holders against crystal, enrapt.Nearly one hundred years later. A late spring. Wilhelm masturbates on his back porch sort of saluting Lake Maxinkuckee in the wee small hours. Cup of coffee steams on a railing. A wing of geese light and wheel, spreading seagreen cigars of shit. On the far shore, candycane tape seals off another foreclosure. The sheriff’s face one big squint as he yawns. The wholeness of the routine is singular. Far too charitable a word, ‘moron’, the ancient psychiatrist and sometime charlatan thinks to himself.
The lake is some kind of cool steel blue this morning. It looks cleaner, right to the sandy bottom. All the prolonged freezing and thawing while tiresome definitely killed most of the worst stuff in there. The weeds and algal mass will start to grow back in a matter of days, but right now: it epitomises fresh. Herr Doktor Reich lusts to drop his aged seed into the water and continue his morning toilet.
The positive energies of the Universe are tied together, and coming brings it through the person.
A tautology both occult and dangerous, Wilhelm had at one time thought about helping the world to it. Promulgate the discovery’s regenerative power. His name would sail into the forever of infamy. How ironically prescient. The swine locked him in jail for a time, enfeebled by their own insecurity, he thinks dimly now.
Cardinals chirp from the maples. Pretty pretty pretty. A gentle fap-fap-fap of self-abuse. At the waterline, a muskrat flops and plunks. Orgasm teeters on one foot, a trick of perspective that has it retreating or approaching dependant on one’s optical mood. Of course such a stasis will always be upset. Nature’s truism.
The telephone peals. Only too timely, but unstartling to such a stout practitioner of art and wielder of science as Wilhelm. His more dextrous hand continues to piston while his left methodically pulls on the loose skin of his scrotum. The regular self-inspection for testicular cysts. Untouched by such a manly cancer, he fondly informs dinner guests – of which there seem to be unending droves following his recent, spectacularly successful base jump from an International Space Station cargo capsule on its return trip to Earth; informs them the results of his examinations. ‘Found a new mole near my anus, best alert NASA,’ he will pronounce over soup. ‘The old taint was quite rigid this morning, but clean as the air in Kathmandu,’ he’ll quip at the vienneta. Occasionally a returning guest will ask for an update. Normally, though, his pendulous prognoses come unbidden.
The base jump, the foolish trick of gravity and Kevlar that saved Wilhelm from obscurity. Yeah, everyone loves that toss.
Eventually the phone tires of its unrequited rattling. Answering machine takes over, servos click, tape spools. His publicist and assistant, Sandra, can be heard identifying the number as that of Herr Doktor Reich who may or may not beregrettably indisposed, directing the caller to Be a lovely dear and leave us your contact credentials, and you will be rejoined in due course. Ta. The precocious young thing is not even English, though she is quite fond of putting on accents when making recordings. She fancies it makes them sound more official.
Sandra joined Wilhelm when he came to the Midwest some four years past. She had been one of the literature grad students through the region hand-picked as candidates for the vernerated doctor’s personal assistant by faculty familiar with his mission. Wilhelm was most smitten with her button nose, so she got the job. On introduction, her youth belied an underdeveloped wit and temper that people tended to regret taking for granted. Sandra often took the advantage.
Shortly into their first meeting, the would-be candidate rounded on him. ‘Oh, orgone or whatever,’ in a doe-eyed sneer, ‘just like that Karl What’s-its-name, from the late-night commercials,’ putting on one of her voices, ‘Don’t get scammed by copycats and fakes! Insist on being scammed by the original, genuine liar who invented this pile to steal your money!’ She stood. Walked to the door. Breezily turning, a sparkle of muted hubris as her lashes fluttered at her presumptive interviewer. Her voice dropped back to normal. ‘I don’t work Sundays or Mondays, and you can’t ever comment on my clothes or hair – and don’t ask me about my shoes. I don’t often wear them.’ A big smile. ‘And don’t you ever dare get your prick out in front of me. I’ll start next week.’
From that point forward, she took complete control of his affairs. Wilhelm is not even certain of the amount she takes as a wage.
The answering machine’s tape receives some unashamed obsequy or another. Some cub reporter, some regional news source. Some clap-trap about the base jump. Cocksuckers, Wilhelm spits through the screen door. These same mindless taste-makers who only seventy years ago would have been discrediting his scientific pursuits now seek to laudate such an imperilling mendacity as donning a wingsuit and falling through the stratosphere from a supersonic hunk of metal.
The speaking fees pay the bills again, true – the first time in decades. He shouldn’t complain. But Wilhelm feels this late celebrity is making him soft.
In terms of his edge, he is as sharp and terse as ever. But he is also half flaccid in his parchment-and-rope hands this morning. The afflatus of his ego, teased and sucked by a fauning public, disgusts him past his own physical arousal. Fucking moron America, lying down to die in a shallow pile of conceited filth, self-centeredness decentralised by mass media, social media, multimedia consumer experience, her spirit of constant self-invention being co-opted by the fascists. The ancient psychiatrist pumps away irrelevantly. Sets his long-false teeth.
Being sold choice. Buying freedom. Shopping for the corporate sanctioned alternative. How the fuck else could Goldman Sachs pillage then go sit on a screw-daddy administration and claim to be un-fucking the things it had fucked up in the first; describe a system with obscured underlying mechanisms and oblivious operators. Cowards and whores. There it goes – rage puts some lead back in his prick. Salivating, he reaches for his cup of coffee with one hand.
Only a small rebirth. The past month or so, his dream journal features a lot of zombification. His mind simplified, body learning to subsist on a foreign and sometimes abstract element – one night it was raw ethyl alcohol, the next it was the shame of his transformation, peeling off skin and picking veins from his arms; another night, dream-Wilhelm fed on the self-inflicted misery of those around him. Not vampirism, because he fed without cunning or thought or care. And not sadism, because he derived no enjoyment.
Is it a kind of ennui, he wonders. Maybe embracing it would be therapeutic. That is after all how he ended up in the wing suit falling at thirty-two feet per second per second. He was addressing a fear of heights. Not half as deadly as the cure, no doubt. But entropy is different, is an honest disease. So many people get depressed, find drugs, get to the bottom, find their way back, or ascend to mania, end up dead or – even worse – find religion. His coffee goes back all in one go. Wet ring on the rail and a new one started just near it under a cup suggesting If your wife drives you to drink, have her drive you to the Bear’s Den.
It is at this opening that Sandra clears her throat. Now Wilhelm seems to startle. Hadn’t even heard her automobile pull in. One of those hybrid whatevers. Still, his perfunctory onanism continues. Addresses his lone staff member: ‘Well I might have sworn I relocated to this lake for a bit of undisturbed peace.’
These last few years, Sandra’s girlhood has stood aside to the full, beaming energies of womanhood, a blush of utter certitude awakening in her cheeks, a totality of self eclipsing all other previous iterations of her powerful beauty. From a bag, Sandra produces the bound folio containing the day’s agenda.
‘There’s no peace in a place named after the people from which it was stolen, Herr Doktor. Now finish up, there are matters… at hand.’ That dimpled smirk. The rolling meadow of her chest as she pushes past to the kitchen.
The self-abusing Austrian notices the fabric holding her breasts is thin today; meagre offerings to some Verbius who would clash with others for the Kingly rights to suckle on their life; to some Hippolytus to shun the worldly pairs of pink nipple meat for the divine cleavage displayed.
‘Doch, liebchen. Peace is impossible. I was more ruing the dearth of privacy around here.’ Sandra rewinds the tape on the answering machine. Starts the steam arm for an espresso. Checks her mobile device screen. The ex-psychoanalyst continues his thought as the vain often do, oblivious.
‘Privacy disappeared from this culture ages ago.’ Fap fap fap. ‘Secrets, too. No one desires either of them anymore … a secret is a very lonely luxury, so virtually null value. And privacy is so cheap – secure shopping, online anonymity, PIN numbers – that its ubiquity elicits disgust from the chic and the common yearn for a more conspicuous stuff … nobody’s buying, so we have none.” His assistant’s eyes are glazed when he seeks them through the screen door. And Wilhelm realises he’s gone mostly soft again.
And just as well, he thinks to himself. A long time ago Wilhelm reasoned that as scientific inquiry, itself woven of our thoughts and concentration, stitches up the causes of all things, it is less likely that we retain an inner life. This outer world both prevailing on and created by the inner, the imagination, the idea machine that pries further into our thoughts, ironically laid bare by them. Will it finally dispel the jealous curses of displaced insecurity, duplicitous promises to loved ones, the perfect fetishes and desires that go unnamed, unrealised, leeching out instead, rampantly mutating, pinning us to the ground. Lies. Self- deceit. Repressed sexual impulses and violent energy. Will we finally redefine morality? Imagine no tension or contradiction between the invisible world of our imagination and the everyday world of sensate interactions … just a constant coming on of wind. Just like falling.
And we’re back to the base jump from the International Space Station.
As we were saying before, Wilhelm has been experiencing dream inertia. Before the zombies, the dominant theme was heights. Dreams where he was at the top of a very high tree, or pole or building’s façade, with no obvious safe way to retreat. He knew getting down would require double the bravery it took to climb or scale or however he gained the spots he found himself. He was mortified. Often the dreams would lurch forward or fold back on themselves and there would be the ground, but he could never take action. Weeks and weeks of this. The ‘character’ Hardy wrote about just failed to manifest time and again. It was during this spell that he met Jeb Corliss.
Jeb has at some point in twenty years of throwing himself off of cliffs and whatnot, accordingly broken all the bones in both his legs, seen friends dash their lives out against mountainsides, and has come to find swimming with toxic jellyfish relaxes him. Quite a visceral conduit of the conscious universe, totally sociopathic and balding. Of course he would find the Doktor somewhere along his journey.
The two men were at the same bar in some well-heeled end of some dirty city on perpendicular speaking tours when they happened to meet in the toilet. The withered Austrian insulfating narcotics off the ceramic sink-edge and the other one politely asking after the soap dispenser. Invited to a snort and a toot of his own. Sharing stories, convincing a member of waitstaff to bring drinks in. Only natural, once he learned the other’s profession, that Wilhelm would ask if Jeb could teach him to overcome what was an apparent fear of heights. He accepted, partially due to the instant artificial bond cocaine lends, but also partially out of respect for the antiquarian bad boy. Sandra offered no objection. Said it might be good for some publicity.
They were the oddest couple for the next few weeks: the one beyond elderly, deflective, fond of abortion as a primary method of birth control; the other a thirty-something adrenalin junkie, sometime clothing designer and maybe contributor to deaths-by-mountain-smashing, promoting such activities as recreational instead of suicidal as he does. It was a harmonious mismatch.
Jeb suggested base jumping from a crevice in a gorge; Wilhelm said let’s. Jeb told him he would take a free-fall from the peak of an inactive volcano in the Southwest; Wilhelm begged to join him. Jeb phoned and introduced the possibility of a jump from the moon. Wilhelm thought a short moment and said why not. No better way to deal with dream-vertigo than with a waking 400,000 kilometre base jump. Sandra would shortly come to inform them that without gravity there is no such thing as jumping, falling, wind, etc. But they were committed to do something, ahem, spacey.
After much brainstorming, the pair decided to trek to the International Space Station; hitch along on a re-entry capsule of equipment and samples; eject themselves from this hunk of man-made debris at the first possible altitude where they will be drawn bodily toward the ground. There would be the question of oxygen, and then of friction – nobody wants to burst into flames unless they are affecting some kind of punk rock posture or making a statement entrée on Top Chef or whatever. Sandra would handle the press. Days of planning. Meetings. Jeb seemed tireless. Wilhelm focused on the frenetic hum of those around him; the higher the tension of a situation, the more energy available to tap into.
The jump itself was calming.
Plunging through the atmosphere, the earth coming closer by intervals too slow to register, a vicious wind lifting one’s person back out to drift, resisting the infantile effort to get groundward, back home; the wind seemed to question, but what is home to you, plummeting ape, was it not your choice to come all the way out past the Van Alen belts into the radiation of open space to perch atop a capsule aimed at the pulsing electric dynamo below, to try to cheat it in every other way; to give a thumbed nose to gravity, thumbed nose to home, to crushing pressure changes; a middle finger to the whipping winds of the upper troposphere, to the static discharges of the cirrus boiling with icicles and rupturing typhoons; thumbs at ape noses as if to claim that this ape fabric cannot be ribboned, these ape bones no mere balsa-braces carrying newsprint sails. Chutzpah. An utter cheat. Pfoooh. Back out to space with you.
But of course, they fell and fell and coasted along and then deployed their ‘chutes and eventually landed in the green, green grass of home. Iowa, actually, but you know what was meant. Back on the ground of Earth, in one piece: home.
A veritable field of press coverage was waiting, everyone’s sensors and lenses and instruments pointed skywards during the preceding three hours. The whole thing documented. Two Kevlar flying squirrels in jetpilots’ black-domed bee masks and oxygen tubes speeding unnaturally through the sky, growing somewhat larger, slowing, seeming to grow smaller, softly touching down. A wave of applause for miles. People sat up in barstools and Barcaloungers, reverent, inspired. Sandra gave Wilhelm a kiss on the cheek. Pinched Jeb’s butt. A beautiful sunny day in the corner of the world where they landed. And the 24-hour press cycle kept on pushing the angle, celebratory at first, until it resembled a cat kicking dirt over its month-old shit.
Back in the kitchen, the back porch by an awakening Maxinkuckee, Wilhelm has given up on masturbating himself. He pulls his robe shut. Joins his administrator inside the pale blue of the tiled kitchen.
She sips at the crema on her Illy shot. ‘There you are; down to business. You have a junket in Detroit, we fly out at one; before that, there’s the Town Council BZA luncheon where you take an honorary At-Large appointment, and you need to get some pants on pronto, Doktor.’
‘Who was that on the answering machine?’
‘It was your dead, tart mother for all you care. Now stop avoiding it and get a move on, old man – there are a billion things to do today!’ His erection stirs.
We fell in love; she died in childbirth.
She had said: There’s nothing quite like getting lost in a thick Russian novel in the winter when the roads are all black ice and gusty.
She also said: You have to dance every day.
I’ve been gardening. It’s keeps me from crying in the house. Instead, I’m all over the property, restoring order, selecting what will continue to propagate, what dies with exposed root systems under the punitive sun, the wicking wind. The old novels went in the mulch pile.
We bought it to raise a family in. It’s a new-ish house on an old plot of land, one of the ones that’s actually above street-level in the neighbourhood, so the sump pump isn’t working overtime and the yard isn’t leeched through with decades-worth of slurry and other such run-off. A little bloodmeal, some bone and other organic material, maybe some mycorrhizal mycelia for good measure, and this place will be raging. A rival to Eden itself, I think.
My first foray out beyond the garage, on the south side of the property, something wonderful presents itself. There is a stump of a well-established rose bush in the middle of this bramble patch. An indiscriminate mat of thorny fronds crowd the otherwise well-kempt plant. The care that had gone into trimming it back for its first five or six years is clear. Then it was swallowed by the wild blackberry, the Rubus armenias brought over as a cultivar by the braggadocio, foolhardy Europeans, but which quickly went native, out-flocking the local flora. Carried in the guano of birds across the continent, extremely efficient burls dug in and deep deep racemes stretched out. Seeing it all laid out there on my property, bloodlust, pure and unrefined, wells up in me. I set to besting this botanical beast in battle directly.
If your environment beats on you, tries to wear you down for ages, yet still can’t manage to deal the final blow; well, then you kind of deserve to have someone help you fight back. Oh, it’s cold, pulling on finger gloves and hacking away at the brambles. And I get cut up a bit. But I’m doing the work that God let fall by the wayside.
I feel like a very important individual. Reviving an empire despite the barbarians.
Like Colonel Sanders – he once owned a hotel, ran it as a five star accommodation specialising in the little extras. Shoe shine service, laundry, two meals inclusive. One of the dishes the place served to guests was fried chicken (apparently the steak was also excellent.) After some time though, the adjoining arterial road was changed to a highway miles away from the site, and travellers were no longer regularly driving past, getting tired, stopping for respite, no matter the fabled quality of the repast.
The doors might have shut, but the Colonel decided to commodify his chicken recipe, selling the breading mix and cooking techniques to area restaurants. He took orders and delivered the stock in person. He grew older. Looked for a legacy. Ex-Governor Brown of Kentucky came forward and bought out the sales business, only to resell it at great profit to a large company who turned what had been at its most basic stage no more than a recipe written on a bit of grease-stained card into a national restaurant franchise.
Some small time later, sales were suffering and the company sought out the Colonel as a quality control agent. He whipped kitchens into shape everywhere the beleaguered conglomerate sent him. The bombastic nature of the cane-toting old codger was soon recognised, and he was installed as a spokesperson for a product he no longer owned. The role filled him with the frustrated pride of the truly screwed, and sapped his energies.
Now he’s in a nameless grave near an Indian cemetery on the edge of Wahawnee County. Caesar is dead; all hail Little Caesars.
There’s a university around the land where the grave’s rumoured to be, a college. It’s run by nuns; the nuns farm; there are artisan cheese-makers, organic pastures for the antibiotic-free cattle herd, a brewer with forty-foot tall pylons of hop vines, bookbinders and others of the requisite hemp-faithful, a stray pack of Amish candlers tallowing near the banks of the Tippecanoe River, and unsurprisingly a group of women who refer to themselves as the world’s first and only lesbian ant farmers. They get on fine with the nuns who run the college, everyone being free of male penetratives and all. The ants are sold via sundry mail-order catalogues, ads in the backs of comic books, word of mouth at the VFW and the like. Very old-fashioned.
It is through one of these catalogues that I receive the call: INTERNSHIP AVAILABLE. Tend and feed productive vegetable patch. Experience helpful. Apply in person to Lesbian Ant Farm, AncillaCollege, Wahawnee Trail, IN 45666.
I respond to the ad immediately, firing up the old Dodge to rattle along the B roads to the college’s property. Pick my way down the paths to the lesbian’s array of tipis on the eastern edge of a barley field. Hold up the bitty square of newsprint. Oh, look, a man to order around, one remarks. They hire me with a modicum of questions. Get out of the desolate atmosphere of my abortive bridal home for three days a week? Help to support the world’s most important source of beneficial ant species? Share a tipi with a few hairy-legged women? Yes, please!
Celebrating means leaping in through the doors of the local honkey-tonk after I return home. I change a fifty dollar note into quarters for the jukebox. Merle Haggard gets a royalty check.
When I’m nice and drunk on wine and beer, mescal and rye, I like to throw my glass on the ground, you know: to show how happy and rich I am. The next day I call work, which has been giving me time off anyway, and inform them of my new past-time. My boss says it sounds therapeutic.
Three weeks in to the internship, I decide I could save on gas by not going home on my days off. Help out instead with some of the other farmers. Seven weeks in, I get a phone call from my sister-in-law:
‘You left?’ ‘Yes, I’m gone for a month or so by now.’ Silence. Irritated breathing. ‘Well, when are you coming back?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘That’s a lie – you know you’re dying to come back, you just want to, I don’t know, feel isolated… it’s pretentious.’ I count to five in my head. The air smells fecund. ‘No, it’s a lie because I don’t want to go back. I’ve already come back, I don’t want to go back.’ I hang up.
I guess I’m kind of annoyed after this conversation, pent up restlessness leads me to drink. Seeth away my clear head. In my battle against negativity, I had seemed to have prevailed, but, huzzah! – how the alcohol seems to clarify my rage to a point on the horizon that I can squint towards, personify and spit at. For weeks I had been facing life in a better way, fully regimented: every morning, a cup of gritty coffee and a shit. Read a half chapter of this bad zombie story I checked out of the college library. Shower in the faucet stall set up by the Amish. Go out to the fields and put my sweat into the ground, alongside the others who preceded me in the internship; the sharecroppers before them, and the homesteaders before them, and the millennia of Indian terraformers and cultivators who started it all rolling. Just a breeze blowing over the farms now, because I want to fucking hit someone with my empty bottle.
So I go on a walk. Blow off steam.
Look, there’s the spot one of the lesbians told me they buried Colonel Sanders.
The barley fields to the east have been blown over by the wind. A storm coming on soon. The corn, just two feet high in the adjoining land to the west, rustles in a convincing mimicry of polite, excited whispers before a film screening. Being angry and full up with spirits, I dance off through the rows, immature fronds slicing at the backs of my hands. At the centre of the field, there is a clearing and I trip over something. On my hands, I’m in a depression three times wider than that between the tilled rows. And at the centre of the depression is a trapdoor that I have only narrowly avoided splitting my forehead on. No joke, when I tug on the dirty iron ring that serves as its handle, I kind of feel like a Goonie. There’s a spiralling stairwell cut into the moist earth. The walls are lined and buttressed. I go down for a while. Then a passageway. A few torches here and there, pitch on linen and they put out a reek that cuts right through my own boozy stench.
Why I walk so long before I get scared, I guess I can blame on the alcohol. But, yeah, I get acutely, childlike scared when I feel the dry breeze that brings a smell worse than the torches, like a stroke victim’s mouth. And when I see someone running towards me, I do piss right down my pants.
It’s only Liz Carmouche sweeping up the tunnel. A Marine by trade, she’s trained as a mixed martial-arts fighter for the last handful of years and has only recently come off a closely-called fight in the UFC against none other than Ronda Rousey. I am surprised to see this woman, and not just because we’re in a corridor cut from the limestone and clay about forty feet below a corn field; also, I recognise her. We had attended the same primary school until her family moved to another country when we were seven. Used to kick the hell out of me at tetherball, football, every kind of ball. Everyone else, too. She recognises me too, and gives off a very protective air after the initial look of friendly surprise flees her face. Pulls me aside under one arm. In a hushed tone:
‘Jesus fuck, Keith – what are doing down here?’ Snuffs her nose. ‘You’re sodden drunk…’ then she pushes her weight on her back foot, holds up a mean-looking black shank of a combat knife. ‘Were you coming to help with the feeding?’
I can’t say anything. My mouth is very dry, I feel the wind in it, feel it kind of try to work at rubber bands. She relaxes a bit.
‘No, the nuns would never let a man in on the secret.’
My tongue and lungs grab a second’s worth of traction and I make a rusted-gate sound, “Secret?”
A momentary stone-hard look that decides a lot about me, my character. I’m surprised how much of that little girl is still in her face after all the conditioning she’s gone through. She turns around and faces further down the tunnel. ‘It’s a farm for bodies.’
‘The whole operation above is a front that helps the underground here… helps them feed the living dead.’
Incoherent. I remember once being so high on psilocybe mushrooms that I felt the words rolling along each of the articulators in my human throat and face one by one, but could not coordinate them in a way that assembled actual words – here it is again. I guess this makes Lizzy impatient, because she smacks me, hard, on both cheeks. I let it all out, terror, confused boiling fear: ‘… the FUCK are you HERE!? … are YOU doing … here!? — the Living WHAT!?’
‘Keep your voice down. I’m not one of those sick zombie farmers. But I am a lesbian. I’ve infiltrated the cult. I’m here to take out their demonic leader. The lynchpin.’ She turns her head to face me again, and it’s only then that I realise I have been following her in a crouch down the corridor.
‘It’s Sister Catherine.’
‘The head nun!?’
‘The head fucking virgin; she’s the totem for a cult of sex-pervert murderers and the custodians of the undead. You civilians call them “Catholics.”’
Okay. The Holy See… has at least one branch of clergy… who farm organic barley, apples, and human flesh… It makes less and less sense the more Liz tells me. But I feel more and more certain of its truth the less I resist the idea. I reflexively try to piss myself again, but I’ve already done that so nothing comes out. I start feeling like I might vomit.
‘There are zombies deep under almost every cathedral in the world, including the one in the chapel above us at Ancilla. Don’t totally freak out,’ but I’m already ready to totally freak out, and her asking me not to doesn’t help one fucking bit. ‘The sacrificial wine that is poured over the altar, it isn’t wine. It’s blood. And it’s not enough to keep the zombies satisfied for long.’
There’s a scratching sound ahead of us. Liz halts. So I halt. She says it so soft I swear she’s only thinking it loudly. ‘I’m going to stop all this. Don’t you worry.’
Then the torchlight goes out. I hear the ex-Marine helicopter pilot grunt as she springs ahead into the tunnel, and I feel very, very alone in the darkness. There are loud wet smacking sounds, and horrible smells, now even worse than before, rush at me from ahead. I turn, too quickly, crack my head on the cold limestone wall, things go viciously orange, I crumple. I hear screams. Novel screams. Combat screams. Screams of death. I pass out.
I wake up by the opening with the trapdoor. The storm is here. I cannot move.
As I lie in the mud, rain thudding into my person, rivers of earth washing around my face, stinging my eyes, running into my open mouth; I’m a worm. The worm sees this man. Trudging through the sucking field in high rubber waders. His feet have left huge puddles in the mud that describe his path back to a truck near the far end. The worm can follow this path forward, sees that it will lead to the furrow with the stone set in it where the lesbians say the late, fabled patriarch of Kentucky-style fried chicken slow cooks his way through eternity.
He walks straight up to the undistinguished hump of earth and takes down his umbrella; goes first onto one knee, then prostrates himself, gushing; the worm’s ears may be concussed by gravity and water, but he can just make out the supplicant’s words:
‘I have been waiting years to stand before you, to get here and tell you: all the women who had hurt you, scorned you, used you – I found them all. Tracked them down and seduced every last one of them. I came in their mouths, spat whiskey in their eyes and told them your name had been avenged. It took me decades and no small fortune.’
And then, still kneeling before the little flat gravestone, he puts his head in the mud and begins to shiver with sobs. He keeps repeating one phrase.
‘I just hope it was enough, Colonel.’
The car whipped around the bend in front of the frozen lake. A steep slope down from the town’s only stoplight, the Dodge pressed into the graded bend. All treacherous fifty-five degrees of it. Cradled by a ten foot drop and about seventy yards of playground equipment, footpaths and some beach, then it’s just the cold, thirsty bitch of Maxinkuckee. A wrought-iron fence, a 20 m.p.h. zone. None of it would really help. We’d been drinking between five and eight beers an hour, chased with Jameson’s and highly charged in-fighting, for the last four hours. Nonetheless, Glen’s Dodge whipped ‘round the bend… right into a small patch of ice. Precision correction that only manual steering can provide, the cassette in the dash rolling out Ummagumma’s flatulent psychedelia, Glen bellowing tangily in his momentary invincibility. And then we slammed into the deer, two or three big, wet heavy thumps all at once. Pushing the vehicle’s rear-end into the air almost as high as one of the tawny sand-bag beasts. A near perfect illustration of inertia. I spilled my drink as my forehead spider-webbed the windshield.
It all started at the Central City Building twenty miles away in what is affectionately referred to as the County Seat. A squat, baby-poop brick edifice just off the jailhouse, it houses every single office and department within the district. There had been a zoning ordinance up for amendment concerning wind farms. Drought-stricken land owners have been seeing rents decrease now that insurance claims have dried up, and the utility developers have been watching prices. Some prospectors came through a couple years back. Two viciously opposed factions of concerned citizens have been bloodying the country lanes ever since. This afternoon’s meeting marked what both side had been hoping would be the death-knell for the others’ appeal. The County Plans Commission ended up tabling the amendment due to riot.
I was attending in a journalistic capacity; I have been freelance at a couple of the daily papers that get thrown past the porchswings, stuffed into lonely roadside mailboxes, and stacked in the stagnant truckstops of the backwater hamlets that dot the farmlands around this county, itself a quilted lump of stolen Indian land snuggled down between interstates. Glen is my appointed camera man, not on account of any apparent talent, but merely down to his possession of a serviceably professional-looking kit and a cleaner driving record than anyone else on the payroll. His massive ‘80’s era Dodge picked me up about five. When I jumped in, he motioned to the back seat, which was almost entirely taken up by one of those tape recorder rigs with the big reels, the olive-drab satchel, the microphone. ‘She’s a beaut, ain’t she!’ ‘Tell me you didn’t pay money for that.’ He told me this would mitigate any untoward effects of the ridiculously strong marijuana we were about to smoke. Quite a few submissions in the last six weeks have carried the mark of chemical amnesia. ‘Pretty smart, right? And not as heavy as she looks, either!’ ‘I know you certainly don’t give a shit. You’ve got to be the laziest cunt alive.’ ‘Hey, green’s your colour, man,’ Glen said with a cough, and passed me the reeking joint as he put the Dodge into gear.
County Council meetings are usually a big thing around here. The bowling alley has a cheap pitcher deal and half-price lanes going on the first Thursday of every month, but it’s not until eight o’clock. Council meets the same Thursday at 6 P.M., and anyone who cares to talk can speak directly to the young stenographer with red painted nails, who takes down every word without breaking that smoldering gaze of hers. The men wear their best western shirts and bola ties. She was out with the flu this particular night, but the room was packed anyway, hundreds of yokels out of the farm towns and mud holes that comprise the county district. The place was a sauna. Glen and I were ridiculously high. I couldn’t help menacing a few of them, making eye contact, accosting them, ‘you ain’t from around here! Is you!’ pushing the microphone up into their face. Glen would snap a few shots on the Canon. If things got lopsided, he’d unsheath that massive Bowie knife of his and wait for the Sergeant at Arms to restore order.
When the gavel cracked the meeting roared straight into the jowels of hell. The factions – one calling themselves Concerned Landowners, the other Citizens for Truth – wasted no time at all dumping reason and facts into the garbage. One corpulent side blubbers the turbines are an eyesore, a threat to health and wildlife, and invite foreigners in to the county to ‘take our jobs.’ The other expectorates that federal tax breaks are going to expire soon, and now is not the time to be choosy. Ad hominem attacks, appeals to ignorance and passion, and other rhetorical flourishes quickly prevailed. Heading up either side were one of two brothers, Duggan and Jarvis Blaire. The sons of a local tractor supply magnate, they have been estranged from each other for nearly two decades after various mutual allegations of bestiality, larceny and criminal trespass; a protracted squabble notably inclusive of arson and an appearance on Jerry Springer. There in Room 2A of the Central City Building, whatever cooler heads might have been in attendance were not merely prevailed upon, they were cleanly caved in.
The Sergeant at Arms called in a brace of bailiffs and still only barely got the place under control. For our part, Glen and I just kept our backs to each other, pointing the recording equipment at whatever moved, kicking at lungers and staring down the rest. This is democracy, the rule of the mob, in all its beautiful, violent, instantly reactive truth. The hastily pronounced motions, seconded with a raspy blood bubble and some spat-out teeth, to adjourn. The gavel clacked. Of course they would have to clack the gavel again. Everyone not being apprehended by law enforcement felt entitled to a deep, heavy drink. Mullets and steel-toed boots went down the block to the lanes. Those with active bans from the alley had to make do with the cash and carry or follow us to the watering hole adjoining the City Building.
Yes, there is a bar next to the jailhouse. Why the fuck not. It’s there mostly to loosen up the clerks and pages and paralegals and government accountants and other such ‘professional’ clock punchers, overworked and kept just under the threshold for 401k contribution, so that none of them become spree-shooters. Any weekday afternoon you can catch a few handfuls of unattractively drunk civil servants trying to bang the stenographer, the comptroller’s assistant, the barmaid’s kid sister who’s a nurse’s assistant but just can’t seem to pass the boards to become registered. We piled in tonight mainly because most of the real trouble-makers had been arrested at the Plans Commission riot for violating concealed-carry without a permit. Also, it was next door. Also, being paid by the word for copy, I was desperate for a longer story.
Fortuitously, the reel-to-reel recorder was still going, and was listening in on sundry conversations. Later, after the accident, I would sit transcribing the lunacy, wondering at it all. What passes for civilisation some places. If God speaks through the Word, the harrowed utterance and shaped breath of Us, His Exalted Beasts, then here is some of the undistilled truth:
‘Explain to me again why these injun tribes are getting checks for $500?’
‘Whatever. It just don’t make sense… they signed these treaties to leave, they went to the new land, and then some shithead politician in the State House wants to gain a seat in the 7th District and cuts a deal? Aren’t the injuns just getting screwed over for being screwed over?!’
‘Well, they’re being paid a token value, not land or time, you know…’
‘As a token of what?’
‘You see, those first ones, them short-pants-and-pantyhose politicians, what they had the injuns sign… that didn’t mean it was a law… it also didn’t mean that no price had to be upheld forever an’ ever, plus interest and amen, either. What they shook on was a deal.’
‘Right, and them wig-wearers’ word was bullshit.’
‘Right. But the law now is like, you know, talk is cheap an’ all that.’
‘So this settlement the taxpayers are shelling out for…’
‘… is a token way of saying “we’re sorry,” without paying for what we were sorry for doing.’
‘Thas’gotta’be worth a more than five bills.’
”Well, that’s one opinion, and it’s your round, Ansel. I’m'a take a leak.’
‘Tommy, this is about fucked – we wanted the windmills ‘cause what the Rural Electric Co-op would save buying local, all the jobs, all the shit the counties around us have been getting out of their fucking deals… we let these assholes push us around on this amendment, we’ll be a little square hole in the middle of a money field.’
‘Look at the thing, read it. It allows the companies. Just with the setbacks and rules and whatnot. These rednecks are still voters, Duke. You got to let them feel like they had themselves a good fight about it!’
‘A mile setback from a lake? You can’t take a piss without hitting a goddamn lake around here! We put it through with these rules on and no company’ll have any fuckin’ room to build anywhere and, well … and nothing for us!’
‘’Come on, man. Thems want to do it can still pay to do it. Breaking rules is all about paying, Duke, you know that – ‘member that extension you wanted on the house, what didn’t get the go-ahead from your subdivision association, and you built it anyway and paid the fine?’
‘Yeah, but, I didn’t have any other house to build it on.’
‘… and what with all the time we put in showing them company folks around to the land holders and the bosses at the State Farm ‘surance, they feel right at home here, Dookie. Trust me.’
‘I don’t trust no people like you, Thomas Aquinas Fuller, and that’s why I kept what I done got so far.’
‘Well. Fuck you, too, then, and beer that hand up.’
‘I’m telling you, the fucking sheriff took that! He wants you to go and try to get it back so he ken arrest yee!’
‘Bullpussy, that’s theft. I’ll call the state police on the fucker. I’ll get him to come to the next county, where he’s out of jurisdiction! Are you sure you ain’t lying to me – I won’t care by this point. I just need to know so’s I can get started on a new one.’
‘I swear I ain’t lying! I didn’t take it. You just need to have another look for it. I’m sure you probably just put it somewhere while you was drunk.’
‘I thought you said it was definitely the pig what took it?’
‘Yeah, or the sheriff.’
Feels a bit like reading tea leaves or the bloody, warm entrails the mystics used to augur the fate of men and nations. Lamentably, it’s all in hindsight.
Glen and I were playing nine-ball and the umpteenth pitcher of the house cheapest was on it’s very last sudsy leg. There’s a torrent of racist jokes from someone at a booth. Just as I’m sighting up a shot in the middle of run on the table, this stout lady with short gray hair sneaks up and claps me on the side of my head in a not exactly timid manner. ‘You them reporters, eh, you them?’ she squacks at me as I swivel around. ‘I’m Captain Rita. Ex-Navy. I’ll break your fucking arm with your own pool cue if you don’t listen to me right now, you snot-nosed faggot.’ Glen recognises her. Says she drives around in a giant diesel pick-up with a snow blade attached to the front. ‘You city slickers?’ she asks. ‘We’re just local boys,’ I reply. ‘Glen here even works… over at the Medellin cabinet factory.’ ‘Well,’ her tone drops, taking me into some kind of yokel confidence, leaning in: ‘I got an angle on this whole thing you ain’t going to hear about in no fancy City Building.’ She looks back and forth, her candor verging on comical, and continues. ‘Them boys that Duggan runs, they don’t give a shit about no water fowl or migratory patterns. What they is, is they’re spooks, military boys, every one of them – and they’s hiding something in that lake.’ Glen pipes up and says, ‘what, like UFOs?’ Silence. Gives us a glowering squint as she takes a few slow steps backwards, and then goes about face and hustles away in her clomping rain boots.
For a second I think that we have blown her off, ready to go on with the game. Then she’s back all at once with a tray of shots and a couple fresh pitchers. One she pokes a long straw into, the other she sits right on the felt. Glen and I look at each other. We look back at the Captain, who sucks at the pitcher with a dour face for a full minute. There is a slurping sound just audible on the tape. And it is here that she lets loose this hushed, frenzied steam of paranoid vomit: ‘… the reason them kooks didn’t want no digging around the lake,’ and now in a slurred stage whisper, ‘is because of them aliens.’ I don’t know whether to laugh or run away or both. I get a little chill as she continues.
‘Started when they shot Kennedy. Found out about all this technology him and his brother was using against the commies, came from Mars or whatever. From the UFO they found. They had to put somewhere. Them ships are under the lakes – and the bodies! There’s a bunch of sailing wrecks down there from the old days, and mixed in between them are the UFOs the government don’t want nobody to find with those goo-goo maps or whatever. Obama comes in himself every three weeks to check on the new death ray that’s going to win this war against the towel-heads. Yep, and that’s why all the countries hate the US, ‘cause of them UFOs under the lake.’
Utter. Incredulity. In a daze, I call a safety meeting. Glen and I walk through the dirty slush to the dumpsters around the back of the bar. Silently light up another joint. ’It can’t hurt to at least check up on a lead.’ I can’t believe what I’m hearing myself say. Glen looks at me for a moment, then hands me the Bowie knife. Says he’s got another in the glove box in the Dodge, says the Captain is probably harmless, but you know. Better safe than sorry. Wade back around to the front of the bar. Now Rita has Duke with her – remember Duke? He’s going to point out the best spot. Of course. We’re all going to get in the car and rush down south. Impetuous drunkards. And Captain Rita says she gets to choose the music. Of course. Chooses Pink Floyd’s least enjoyable album, and puts on the least understandable half of it. We all have a moan. This is where the reel-to-reel cuts out. Then it was just the ride down frozen State Road Whatever.
Rita and Duke. Me and Glen. The deer. Smashed dead. Stagger through the snow. Bleeding.
She’s halfway down the snowy verge, facing the edge of the lake. One hand up like a hunting dog.
And then I saw it, too.
‘There! Look there! The light pillars coming out of the lake – it’s the way the ships communicate with the other, up in space! It’s like a homing signal, even though them aliens have been dead for years, the ship is still looking for them! I told ya! I told ya!’ I look back at the wreck. Duke hangs halfway out one of the back windows, his hand still closed around a can of domestic. He’s gesturing at the lake with it. ‘There’s a more … better view … around the other side …’
Up at the front, it’s a mess of twitching bodies. One under each front wheel. Glen is knelt down in the road cradling a smoking, huffing bulk of stiff hair, blood flowing over him from the broken thing, trying to dial 911 on the touchscreen of his phone with his nose. ’This one’s still alive,’ he’s screaming. I can’t find my breath to answer. Those two crazy fuckers are right – there are lights shining up out of the lake, beams straight into the night sky, significance unknown, source unknown, recipients … beyond our group of barely compos mentis drunks and a pile of corpses, unknown.
The front door was open, but you could have heard these two bitches coming up the street all the same. It was late. The after-bar traffic had petered out hours ago. Crickets one minute, and then a crescendo of hiccoughing laughter. The screen door creaked. My beautiful friend, Amelia, was dumping what smelled like a bag of shit soaked in old cooking sherry onto the rug in the living room. It’s my ex-girlfriend. There she lie, rumpled, seething. Amelia’s eyes were whisky rheumy, but there was her trademark twinkle of amusement balanced by some kind of shame. As if she had squandered some of my trust just pouring drink down the hole in Tabby’s face all night. ‘Well done.” She twinkles anew. ”You know you didn’t have to bring her here …’ No apologies. As we spoke, the stinking pile began inching its way along the carpet toward the bedroom. ‘I’ll send your sweatshirt around tomorrow.’ I wanted to hug her goodbye. Couldn’t risk a hard-on. Then I walked down the hall, checked that Tabby was breathing. I could smell the rasp of her body desperately processing the poison out of her, immediately pulled the door shut. Then I lie down on the rough nap of the couch and slept with the television going to cover up the sound of her snoring. It took most of the next day to air out the bedroom.
That was six years ago. I remember it sharply as I wake up and realise that it is my tangy bag of organs fouling up someone else’s room. My laboured attempt to clear out whatever it was I dumped in there last night. I’ve come across two continents to the heartland of the Midwest to teach American History at the middle school in some depressing backwater where my brother has been raising his family. The previous teacher was hit by a bus last week and lay in some condition or another in a special nearly-dead middle-aged women’s unit of the regional hospital, seventy miles away in what the locals refer to as ‘the city,’ presumably because there are more than two stoplights. Nonetheless, I was eager to leave the depressing backwater where I had been ensconced doing field work on ancient burial myths of some long forgotten indigenous people around Karwar, Goa. The grant money that had taken me there was nearly gone when out of nowhere the local school corporation shot me a phone call and offered to pay the plane fare. My little brother, bless his heart, had put my name into the hat and I fit the qualifications. After several layovers and lots of airplane sized bottles of Jamesons, he picked me up and we drove home via the honky-tonk and about twelve pitchers of watery American beer, various grain-based liquors, scores of calloused handshakes with people named Dale, Berta. Now I’m hungover as fuck and maybe late for school. The more things change.
This is what they mean when they say ‘slate grey morning.’ Everything looks dead. There’s a dust of ice covering everything. I can see my breath. I scrape a couple peepholes into the windshield of my brother’s pickup truck. Chuck my leather satchel into the cab and shiver. I wonder how soon until we get a snow delay. The thought cracks a thin smile on my face. Sink the key into the drive shaft, the sawing sound of the engine block turning over and rattling in its rusted housing. Watch out for the deer, I remind myself in my brother’s voice.
The bristles of the wintering cornfields are poking up through the snow, like those hedgehog-shaped shoe cleaners you find on old people’s front porches. So much unbroken space, you can see the horizon curve with the earth. The sun is barely lighting up the eastern edge of the inky henna nothing where the Sunday school teaches kids that God lives with their dead grandparents and hamsters. There are three times as many stars as I remember ever seeing in Karwar. Too many stars. I am glad I don’t have to guide myself by them. The roads all lead to the gas station, the court house, the cluster of cement block buildings where the rote socialisation of the rural youth happens under the ever-watchful eyes of the US Department of Education. Gospel music on the radio. It’s the kind of drive that happens by itself.
I’m suddenly conscious that I’ve pulled into a parking lot, taken the key from the ignition. Swing the door open and whisps of fast food wrappers, cigarette packets follow me out. Animal tracks dot the snow of the parking lot – that one’s a squirrel, that’s a rabbit, those two are from deer; that set is from whoever walked from and to this space yesterday. They crunch under my steps, icy memorials to an egress now destroyed. I pop another Altoid. I’m going to need some ibuprofen or something to get out of this terrible mindset.
I go through the motions of meeting some ruddy faced administrators, wizened secretaries, the principal – Missus something – shaking hands, making good impressions, being jovial. Their coffee is fucking horrible. Little unmarked silver body bags piled up by the drip-filter machine. I rub my jaw and realise I have forgotten to shave the stubble from half my left cheek. This is still better than combing through dirt mounds under a tarpaulin in the rain, sifting animal shit from sea shells. At least I speak the language. Enough to make small talk. Clawing open a paper sachet of aspirin. I toss my head back, open my eyes and she’s standing there in the doorway of the lounge. A girl. I hate all five feet of her. Pale blue eyes dusted in the same ice as the cornfields. Lank hair just like a pile of dead corn stalks. Just shaking her head. The principal, she addresses her, ‘Pamela, this here’s the fresh meat we got on emergency loan from the university. Gabriel’s brother. Can you do something right today and show him to his classroom?’ ‘Well then I’m telling the kids what really happened to the Japanese,’ and she turns to leave. Over her shoulder in a stage-whisper of mock confidence, ‘I suggest you stop in at the gas station if you want coffee. What they brew around here will probably make your asshole fall out.’ I wave goodbye to the people whose names I have already forgotten as I follow her down the hallway. Mug in front of my lolling head. Pamela. She does Literature. Or Language Arts. Something. She’s not from around here either.
I’m sure there is something here I am not recalling well. Some kind of look that she gives me where I know she’s not the tight-kneed, church-going girl her colleagues think she is. Something about the way she delivers the straight dope on the superintendent’s drinking habits, some hidden secret regarding the mathematics faculty; something subtle but definite that tells me sexual congress is, if not a certainty, at least within driving distance. She shows me to the bland little orange-coloured classroom where I slowly die for the next forty minutes while I prepare my lesson plan. She pokes her head in the door before the bell and my first set of students. “Jesus. You can open a window in here.” Why hadn’t I thought of it already. Shuffle about. “Where did you say your brother had you out drinking? Four Trees? Real redneck bar.” I hadn’t. Good guess. She knows my brother. Small fucking county. “Find me after school. I’ll take you somewhere a bit more civilised.” That was quick. Whatever I say to her, the smile in her chilly dishwater eyes is genuine although the rest of her expression looks like she’s holding her nose. Well. All roads lead to the center of town.
The day is forgettable if only because the whole regimented world of a middle school demands that it be so. I am sure if I think about it, I had a good time. All five periods of kids I will be teaching for the next six to eight weeks are great – bright eyed, innocent, in the flush of early adolescence. A few are even intelligent, asking questions, getting involved. No muck abouts, no bullies, no bullshit artists like I was at their age. At least none that I can tell. I eat the cafeteria lunch in my classroom. It tastes so fucking amazing I go back for a second tray, my body starved of nutrients. I think we had some pork rinds and peanuts last night. Most of my calories were liquid. In any case, the last bell comes out of nowhere, too quickly. I promise myself that tomorrow I will try to savour the experience, get some mindful joy out of my day. I didn’t come here just to survive, I came to live. Pack up the satchel. Return the mug to the lounge. Parting shot to the secretaries, the principal what’s-her-name.
Halfway through the parking lot, a snowball cracks me in the back of the head. There’s a nostalgic kind of pain. About face, unsurprisingly I see Pamela with a big dumb smirk on her face. “You don’t follow directions real well, do you. I’m flunking you out, dude.” The ball is in my court. I crank my head around; nobody is going to hear what I’m about to say. I’m honestly kind of angry at first, then it fades and I notice something else. The libido, the id, call it what you want. It’s been about six months since it’s had an excuse to attack. ‘Well who’s the attention starved, aggressive piece of ass around here?’ Very bold. I continue, ‘I feel like being pushed around by a perfect stranger. Know anyone?’ ‘You’re a horrible flirt. And presumptuous. I’ll pick you up at seven.’ She’s turned to her car door. ‘Shave that cheek. You look ridiculous.’ I don’t even consider to tell her where I’m staying and how to get there. Of course she would know. Things are so simple here, everything seems natural.
On the drive along the ‘B’ roads back to Country Breeze Drive, I wonder how hungry for company this woman can possibly be. After all, ‘the city’ is just over an hour away. Gasoline prices don’t seem high enough to make a booty call there prohibitively expensive, even on a teacher’s pay grade. Is there some taint to her? I pull up to the snow bank of a driveway. Speak to my screaming nephews, nieces. The sister-in-law is already putting their supper on the table. I shower, finish shaving, and change into some civvies. Gabe asks what I’m up to this evening. I fish around in the refrigerator for a beer – a plate of sliced onions in there give off a sweaty crotch smell anytime the door’s open, so I close my fist around the first bottle I smack into. Interested in what he has to say about her, I tell him who’s taking me out, and he laughs that old man laugh of his. He sounds just like our big, working man uncles used to. ‘Watch out you don’t get recruited for some Sunday school bake sale.’ She’s playing up quite a convincing ‘good girl’ front, I guess to fend off all the redneck dick thumping around. I relax. She’s not expecting anything from me. I’m just one among what must be a happy string of interlopers. I guess I’m cool with it. I swig my beer and ask my brother if he’s got any condoms. He shoots a pop-eyed look over at his brood slopping down hamburger helper and green bean casserole; I guess I already knew the answer.
A few bottles of light beer later, I hear her Dodge crumple into the frozen driveway right on time. We make our way up across county lines, up near the edge of the old Miami Indian reservation. There are some closed-up gift shops and the office for the ‘Trail of Tears’ tours that will start running in late Spring. Right now, the only thing lighted up among the looming tree line is the saloon, The Sandhill Crane, renowned, Pamela explains, for its locally-made draft lager, buffalo burgers and the well-kept felt on the billiards tables. The air surrounding the simple wooden structure of the place is electric, the forest behind a pitch black vacuum. ‘My buddies will be by later on. You can tell me about your field work in Goa while we eat.’ ‘Only if you promise to tell me how I can trade softball coaching for crossing guard duty.’ We order.
After about twenty minutes, we’ve shared about as much about ourselves as you might want to when you are trying to look attractive. She grew up in Michigan. Rode horses as a girl, learned to hunt with a compound bow, likes line dancing. I told her about my brother, the travel my post-doctorate work has afforded me. When I mention the apocryphal burial cults of the Karwar Anshi, she shoots me a real weird face, so I quickly change the subject. How horrible would it be to screw up a sure thing by being pedantic, I think. To my credit, I leave out the “exciting” story of the time I spent a week in jail in Arizona waiting for creditor-dodging relatives to answer the telephone two time zones away, as well as any mention of my string of monogamous train wrecks during my early twenties that led to an interest in the solitary world of anthropological archaeology. I keep discussion focused on sports and other ephemera. Our buffalo meat appears between two buns along with heaps of coleslaw and a second pitcher of heady, yeasty tasting home brew. Then we are playing nine ball, dancing to country tunes on the jukebox. I’m pretty loosened up by the time her friends join us, maybe about nine thirty, two or three couples, something very dark about their complexions, their thick, inky black hair, and Pam tells me they live on the reservation. Suddenly we’ve gone around the back of the saloon for what I assume will be a marijuana cigarette, and instead we’re all drinking tea steeped from peyote cactus out of a big, red Nalgene bottle.
I’ve gone and started to trip my balls off with some real, live Indians, the in dios of Colombe’s diary. They’re all really friendly. A lot of questions about how I’m finding the weather. What Goa was like. I steer clear of the burial cult stuff. Then they say we’ll tromp through the forest for a bit. Share the smell of our blood with one another. Whatever that means. It sounds awesome, but I realise I’m more drunk than I had thought I was. Thoughts begin to somersault through my mind about the moon cults, the sun gods of the Karwar Anshi, how similar they must have been to these guys’ ancestors. I make a note to ask them later when the trip slows down a bit. Pamela’s pulling me by my hand through the shadows of the bare forest, the knotted roots and crunching of the frozen layers of leaves. ‘Listen to the trees whisper in their sleep,’ says Paul. He’s the one with the beads in his long hair. We come into a clearing. There’s no snow on the ground.
‘Where’s the snow and the ice, man?’ Nobody answers me. I can’t see anyone’s breath anymore. It feels kind of like there’s a bonfire somewhere close, but it’s just dark but for the stars and the yellow bull’s horns of the crescent moon. I feel a tingle on my scalp, little icy fingers, and the deeply sexual feeling like a woman putting her tongue in my ear. I’m all gooseflesh, and I hear a voice: These are the remaining tribesmen of the Atchatchakangouen people, who ranged this land for a thousand years, tending to her and ministering the fauna all around you. … the who?, I think to myself.
Paul finally answers me, his voice smacks me right in the face not just because of its assertive clarity, but mainly because it makes me aware of how hard I’m tripping right now. Like, I just heard a fucking disembodied voice! Two seconds ago! ‘The rain came and took all of the snow away. We needed her to be mud though. So it’s all good, brother.’ Needed the mud… Her …? I can’t manage to say anything. My tongue is rolling around. ’Alalia,’ is how they refer to it. Temporary loss of meaningful vocalisation. I look around, but wild, neon paisley patterns cover everything, I’m disoriented. Dizzy. I’m stepping forward in halting, drunken movements that I’m not in control of. That big voice starts up again – it sounds shockingly a lot like my own. It says to me, tickling my ears, the folds in my brain filling with that orgasmic, frozen metal:
This mud contains the sins of the devil who came and cheated the very ground away from us. The same ground we tilled our hopes and countless sacrifices down into, buried the ashes of our esteemed ancestors, and once every solstice aerated and allowed the evil spirits to flow up and into the skies; the very ground that bore all of our fruits and the life that allowed us to stop migrating and take root ourselves, to give our people a place and a culture and a history; that ground has always been full of our blood, and all the hatred it now carries. I continue to stagger towards the middle of the ovoid clearing. I can’t help thinking during this monologue how hokey the whole thing sounds. My other, Sam Raimi-film voice goes on:
The white devil’s poison. His agricultural subsidies and poisonous corn-based products and cattle feed. A disease of his own making. They will slurp it up until their bloated bodies burst. And the slimy mud will pour out of their ruptured corporeal selves. The spirit of evil will rise out of them, acrid steam floating into the heavens, the corruption of the earth, dissipated. We will live to see this consummation of their own curse, and we will smile for a moment, by the fires, and we will dance and sing and ask her rightful gods to re-bless the earth, sanctified and once again pure.
Paul is suddenly in front of me. His hand falls on my shoulder, and I to my knees. The ground gives a wet smack and I feel the mud soaking through my new blue jeans. I’m in a euphoria as I tip backwards and spread out on my back. The heads of the couples look down on me. The stars are swirling around. Too many stars. Pamela sweeps back the dead cornstalk hair from her forehead with one hand. I swear there’s a crackle of fire. So many things draw my attention to the vastness of everything here.
The rape of our daughters, the murder of our mothers; that is the most beautiful, truest sense of “life” … a struggle, a battle. Pamela is smiling above me. A certain prurience is in her cheeks. It is already won. We must simply experience the fight. But victory is here for us. The glint of a dagger in her hand. That familiar coital flush. It is already here.
He’s been doing this for like, seven or eight months now. I thought I would get him out of the house. His room is kind of starting to smell like feet, you know?
I get out plenty! That Nick is just kidding around. He’s only teasing when he says I’m hopeless. Calls me his favourite first-world refugee when we’re shooting snooker. He’s a big fan of brandy, him. Yeah, but it was his idea to do the break in across the street.
I’ve been doing this Santa shit for ages – always pro bono, of course, eh, for over like, five or six hundred years, whatever. First in the hinterlands, then ‘old Europe,’ and then Western culture swallowed the world and now me and the golden arches are the two most well-recognised symbols of the sacrificial calf. So my territory has expanded, my labour costs are gigantic, and so on; obviously, no government believes in me, so I don’t have to pay taxes, but I do need to generate income to make the machine work. We used to sell drugs, really early on we were trading spices and gold, slaves; but the last forty years, we’ve been producing pornography.
The US last year spent more on adult entertainment than they did on sport. Like, all of it put together. Nick is in the safest sector ever. He’s always going to be able to do what he wants, because he’s invested in a guaranteed return; and luckily for children everywhere, what he wants to do is hand out presents once a year. It’s a triple-win situation, really.
So, we were asked over by some of Julie’s people, and we thought, why not, hardly ever get lay-over time in London anymore… went in through the back door, and wouldn’t you know the kitchen and dining area were just choc-a-block with well-wishers! We didn’t mind it at the time, everybody was well happy to see us, but later on we were wondering how many people are actually out on Christmas day itself, battling rails of coke, pumping their fists in the air to dance and house and grime and grinding against strangers? I don’t want to sound like a stick in the mud, but I had no idea.
The old man fucking loved it, don’t let him act modest around you. He is a dirty old puss, he is!
Yeah, I was the one who said, let’s go break in to the Harrods and shoot a porn scene in “Santa’s Grotto.” We carry the film equipment all the time, you know it doesn’t take up as much space as it used to say, twenty, even five years ago. Mainly just use it for podcasting really. Anyway, I was out of my head on the blow, so much of that flying about, all these fucking Ecuadorans, man! The ideas were coming at ninety miles an hour and I thought, let’s take some of these Latina girls across and make some fucking art tonight?! Don’t let that Julie try and snow you, he was practically clapping like a seal and barking when he heard the idea, he was roaring out in front of the pack to get across the street!
We snuck over to Harrods with some pry-bars and slid in without much fuss. Of course Nick would be adept at breaking and entering, what was I thinking… my old friend Monalina was having loads of fun with the mission, having gone so far as to smear on some face paint, ‘ziss is my war paint!’ she kept telling everyone in her provincial Swiss accent. We were all pretty high. We hunted around in the emergency lighting and found the Santa’s Grotto. To be fair, it looked just like one you might find in any mall in middle America. PVC pipe frames holding up scenes printed on backdrops, foil wrapped cubes to add depth and, hanging over everything, that semi-sheer cottony sheet that could be snow or cobwebs. Nothing special. One of the elves or production crewmember or whoever he was kept raving about the height of the plastic reindeer. After a while, Nick’s phone rang, and he directed two girls in to the grotto, which he was calling ‘the set.’ He called these girls ‘the talent’ I remember Mona saying they had a contagious enthusiasm.
We filmed the scene, no problems, the lighting had a bit of a spotty, home-made feel to it, but everything went without incident. We wiped the reindeer down and retrieved panties and whatever else had been flinged around the grotto. Spirits were high and Julie was skinning up a blunt on the way out when it happened. Someone was feeling a bit too gangster, got a bit larcenous and broke the window in front of a jewellers, which set off all the alarms in the whole fucking world from the sound of it. Some asshole kid.
Could have been, I was completely fucked. Knicked. Processed. Hanged in Guantanamo. All because some asshole kid from the Embassy detail got a bit too full of wind. After the half second of shock and paralysis brought on by the helplessness of the scene, I grabbed the cunt by his hair and held him down, screaming at him. Monalina reminded me this wouldn’t solve anything, so I let him go. These milk-teeth staffers, wet behind the ears, straight out of some graduate uptake scheme; these whelps can’t handle their vodka redbull at all. Once again, Nick knew what to do and took charge.
We went right out the front doors. Pretended to be a band of wino street musicians out much too late. Nevermind we had only a harmonica and someone’s key ring between the lot of us; the cops blew past without too much scrutiny. We were fucking wrecked, and the combination of appearing well-heeled and smelling like a brewery is a powerful suggestion in this part of town. We limped off in the opposite direction of the blockade’s flickering blue lights. A few blocks down, there was an off-license near Sloane Square where we got some more Courvoisier and a bag of ginger snaps. Finally remembered to fire up the blunt Julie had rolled up. When we got back up near the embassy, we realised the Metropolitan Police had knicked the sleigh while we were out tramping around waiting for them to clear off so we could get Julie back inside. The missus just kept swearing at me on the phone when I told her.
I felt horrible, of course. I was the one who had told him just put it on the pay-and-display parking ticket. I had said, it’s Christmas, what fucking parking warden is out looking to bang-up a big rusty sled at this time of night. How wrong I was. It was only right that we take off across the rainy streets of London to rescue her from the impound; as it happened, Monalina had put some of her face-paint on me by this point, the yah-yeh was doing funny things to my head and she was calling me Caesar instead of my real name; I was consumed by the dramatic need to get “Santa,” and his leggy “Helpers,” home safely and soundly.
Helpers, they’re adult models for chrissakes! Anyway, Julie was going on like it was some kind of heroic effort, but I think all the drugs had stilted his sense of self-importance; all he did was pay for the black cab and offer to cover half of the impound fee. The important thing was, we managed to get him to agree to let us use the introduction scene we shot outside the Grotto. He’s announcing the names of the talent one by one, the kids from the embassy are clapping and hollering. It was just a joke at the time, but now it seems only fitting we take advantage of the participation of such a celebrity. That should cover a bit of expenses, selling that content around! Thanks, Julie! Best of luck to you in the new year, and we’re never hanging around with your friends ever again!
I am a man on fire. The heart and fuel of a crackling blaze, about two and a half times taller than me. Surrounding me like a bulb radiates outwards around its filament. Setting papers – entire newsagents! – on fire. Singeing hallways and burning ivy off the sides of buildings. Anything plastic, synthetic or petrochemical within about a yard’s distance melts, smokes. The smell following me around is ridiculous. Like burnt hair, real gross. Especially when it’s someone’s shirt or trousers turning to hot sludge. And the noise – people scream louder once they realise it’s their own clothing what’s causing the pain. I’m not hurt. But it’s been a pretty fucking annoying afternoon.
I’m used to catching blame from irritated stupid people. You may have heard of my adult video series or read about my time in prison for pedalling obscenity a few years back. Some so-called ‘moralist’ bible-thumpers didn’t like my female talent claiming on film to be as young as twelve, seeing them get peed on, hit in the face, all the other ‘gonzo’ stuff my videos are famous for. Hell, that’s why most of the God Squad have seen these scenes in the first place. Everyone knows that if you want to watch a fresh-faced twenty-year old participate in her own sexual brutalisation, you go for a Max Hardcore title. All those rigid repressed pew warmers, they don’t have the cajones to go and do it themselves, but they do have the $34.99 to spend on smut, even after coughing up for the collection tin on Sunday. They also tend to have wives with a bad habit of finding the magazines, the DVDs, the encrypted file folders. Then it’s some good, old public repenting done. It’s just lust driving shame driving guilt driving persecution. A masturbatory ouroburos. Those self-righteous fucking pedophiles. We’re just dressing girls up to look underage, but those monsters … fuck me! At least in Max Hardcore’s world, girls have signed contracts, know exactly what they are being paid to perform. Studies show that pornography actually lowers rape, too, so who’s got the better moral argument here, right?
So when this mom on Berwick Street shouts at me that I’ve set her baby-stroller alight and might have melted half her child’s face off, I kind of take it with a grain of salt. Thanks for at least noticing that your pram was on fucking fire. Couldn’t you see me coming for blocks by now? Wouldn’t you cross the fucking street? Geez. Fucking breeders.
I had been down here in Soho for business. We’re putting a larger brand-campaign in place in our European markets, and this was kind of the start of the tour. We flew in two nights ago, did the usual dinners and meetings, and then the press yesterday. Today was supposed to be our easy afternoon – drop into some vendors’ warehouses, do photo-ops with some of the girls at a few of the fine retail outlets on Craven Passage. I went out for a cigarette and some air around 3:30, took out a smoke and my lighter. Just watching the pedestrians, thinking of getting some amyl nitrate, and that’s when I realised I was a halo of flames. This would happen in Soho, the six streets where you can’t swing your left arm without smacking into someone who’s absolutely flaming. A few of the canvas awnings over the top of the shop doors burst into ash and smoke. Hookers hold up their arms in front of their faces, move back up the stairs of their corner cat houses. Pigeons disembark. My cigarette is understandably gone. I move out into the street. My hand goes up reflexively to rub my forehead – my signature leather rancher’s hat is somehow still there. I look down and see my satin-and-denim Urban Cowboy get-up is intact. Some quick-thinker throws her coffee at me, startled look on her face. It does nothing. She drops the orphaned lid and the empty waxed paper cup and staggers away. This is obviously going to carry on for a while. Better go get a drink, I think.
I nip around the corner into Gerry’s Wines on Old Compton. Fetch a few bottles of pear cider from the fridge. Paw a few sterling coins out of my pocket. I drop them on the counter and they kind of singe the tissue paper that they use to wrap the wines and spirits. The clerk hasn’t even looked at me yet, even while he’s handing me my change.
There are a couple of large dropper bottles on the counter in front of him, marked something-something Elixir… being naturally curious, especially when involving liquors or young women’s sexual boundaries, I ask him what kind of medicine comes in a bottle that large. The guy finally looks over at me, and freezes. His eyebrows go up just a half of a half inch on his head, and then he looks down at the bottles, unfreezes, unscrews the rubber top of one of them, fills and withdraws the glass dropper, and holds it up level with his chest. He tilts his head back, looks down his nose through wire-rimmed spectacles, and the fluorescent lighting behind his graying, greasy head makes the whole scene feel somehow clinical. Greasy yet aseptic. Kind of how the casting office must feel for those girls their first time. “Put out your tongue,” his tone indifferent. The look in his eyes becomes blank again, but something there like enjoyment, nonetheless. I try to put my tongue out far enough, he depresses the rubber ball, and a dram or so of greenish treacle dribbles into my mouth. It’s like a chartreuse, or an absinthe… no, more like a Benedictine syrup. “How was it?” I tell the clerk about the bitter aftertaste, and he laughs. “Not the first time that’s been heard in Soho.” I chuckle at his bedside manner and ask for a bottle opener.
“Aren’t you that pornographer who does the handcuffs and the pissing?” Yep, I sure am. “Cool. How long you been burning like that?” he asks me, applying his own dosage via the dropper. Dunno, I tell him. Maybe ten minutes. Doesn’t hurt. “Have you tried a fire extinguisher?” Tried a latte. Stained my shirt. He obligingly grabs the red canister off the wall behind him, gives me a good dusting with the white smoke. Hasn’t even moved, just swivelling around on his fat waist behind the till. I’m still blazing. “Gutted. Well, worth the try, I suppose. Sorry, Mr. Hardcore, you’re starting to singe the ceiling, and I’m’a hafta ask you to be on your way, now.” No bother, thanks for the drink, see ya’gain. “Hope you get yourself put out. Cheers.”
Back out on the street, I’m just sat at the curb, necking my bottles of cider. Where the fuck is the law, I’m thinking. Back in the States, I’d have been interred at Gitmo already. They’d have flushed an issue of Penthouse Forum down the toilet. Just then, a real queen leans over, his hand holding a cell phone through the straps of his shopping bags. “Should I phone emergency services for you, darling?” I jolt back in dismay. Get fucked, you fucking queer-bait! I scream reflexively, him all in wool and cotton. “Yeah, yeah, I’m a homosexual, and you’re on fire, yes – are we going to point out more obvieties to each other, or shall we phone up the fire brigade before you become an arsonist too?” He’s talking sense. I relax. Sorry, force of habit. I had a rocky childhood relationship with a family friend, an itinerant carpenter named Shep who said he liked my long, strong legs. He used to massage them. Hold me down. Occasionally it got, er, gruesome. Still get jumpy around the pud-pullers.
I’ll be alright, I tell him. It doesn’t hurt. The fire, I mean. “No dramas, deary. If you’re ever looking for someone to be your Uncle again, you’re only a few blocks from my bar, the Shadow Box. You know, work those issues out. Just make sure you don’t come in like that,” making a wave towards me like this was a wardrobe decision, “unless you plan on helping with a lengthy insurance claim.”
He’s already skipping away. I told you, it wasn’t my Uncle, I mutter after him. It was just a family friend. I can see I’ve spilled my cider down the pavement, and the guttering flames surrounding my person crackle with shame.
Let me state this to you clearly: I wouldn’t have had my life any other way. Yeah, it was hard work scrambling out of the chicken-shit gutter of the South to the very pinnacles of a porn empire. Getting away from the degradation of physical molestation – those psychologists would call it abuse. Bullshit. I look at it as a crucial part of my education. It opened my eyes to my true path. People need help in our societies, they crave a specific kind of sexual entertainment that might be perhaps shunned and even damaging to other’s well-being. But in the end, they’re only sex acts. Just as one guy would be too lilly-livered to jump out of planes, there are others without that sticky response who strap it on and take the plunge without a second thought. So why not let the one live vicariously through the other – that what entertainment is all about. That primitive part of every person is otherwise, right or wrong, repressed by polite society. Nobody except kings and cult-leaders can satisfy the violent bodily need to propagate our genes as far and wide as commanded. Male and female, we are wired for new mates, variety, the exotic: who knows how much damage we do to ourselves keeping it chocked up… but adult entertainment, well, it releases that drive in a productive kind of way. People get to fantasize at their leisure, other people get to earn a livelihood, nobody gets hurt… much. Call it filthy, I call it necessary.
Not to say it hasn’t been rough going at times. Maybe the entire first decade was just trolling through strip clubs and seedy streets in Florida, Atlanta, paying talent in cash, releasing titles to mailing-lists, C.O.D. After the first big distribution deals with retailers got our product out of the postal system and into shop fronts, the business model became very lucrative. Of course, then you had the internet come in, and although I will admit that we never had high production values to begin with, the medium was changed. Companies had to get talent to do filthier acts at the same time as they trimmed budgets, sunk smaller investments. But Max Hardcore made it when others didn’t. And now here I am on fire in Soho getting hit on by middle aged businessmen and solicited for rough trade. I feel just like any one of the talent hopefuls that come through the agency doors every day of the week out in the Valley.
Each one squidging through the steel and plate glass swinging door, already slippery with lubricants, intoxicants. They are the embodiment of Diana. Athene. Woman is the priestess, her sacramental cunt full of red wine. Men supplicate themselves to her magic. Even the fairies idealise that image of woman, of life. We give these nubiles their first sullying, their first drubbing, until we knock the goddess out of them and send them back to work at TGIFridays and the Starbucks. And then the next wave comes through, ready for us to steal their glow, absorb their blessed, true natural energy. And let me tell you, they ain’t none of them been fucked that way before.
Just then, some Japanese guy snaps a photo of me. All exposed. Feeling low. The role reversal is complete. The camera flash drags me back into the moment. The reality of feeling equally self-righteous and confused for three or four minutes now. A lot of unwanted attention. So I push back towards the bookstore where I left my people. A few steps from the place, it dawns on me that I can’t go inside without setting the thing ablaze. Old Gerry’s has got those lofty high ceilings and bare cement walls, but this is all bookshelves and oak paneling I am going to have to either wait for someone to come find me outside or ask to use someone’s cell. I still can’t believe the fire brigade hasn’t shown up yet, but I guess no one has bothered to phone it in. These Brits are just too polite. Stare in the shop windows, down at their broadsheets and phone screens. Anywhere but at the crackling pyre of a porn kingpin out here in the street. Like cocksman’s wood on the set: a vital piece of property, yet ultimately superfluous to the action.
And just like that, my assistant Timothy pops out of the building. Holding two flutes of champagne, he scans around, sets eyes on me, and then there are suds and broken glass all over his shoes, the sidewalk. I know, is all I can say to him, my voice closing the distance. Fucked up, right? Like those monks in Tibet or wherever. It doesn’t hurt, don’t worry. “How do you want to play this, boss?” he asks me. He’s a good boy, Timothy. His hands still up where they were holding the champs. I’m just going to wait it out, I tell him. I figure it will go away on its own, like a herpes flare up. Can you go fetch another bit of bubbly, though? And try not to break it this time. People could cut themselves on that shit.
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We will never be alright, nothing will ever be safe again. It happens like this:
She is in her bath robe. She had showered with her hair up so it wouldn’t get wet and bothersome, and the smell of sex still wafts from the auburn frizz cascading about the smother of terry cloth on her shoulders. I’ve got coffee on the table and some eggs are soft-boiling in the kitchen; I’m smoking out the veranda on the balcony, looking towards the river over the back of some neighbourhood. She lives on the sixth floor. I think we’re near Vauxhall.
There’s an angry, disquieting rumble.
Down behind a few of the tract-houses below, the ground splits open with a crack and a geyser of boiling tar leaps up, arcs over to one side and then collapses with a wet slap over the tops of six or seven back gardens, taking down fences, flattening conservatories, melting play equipment, strangling any and all flora under a blanket of slick black death. This river then contracts slightly back towards the split in the ground for a moment, and the chasm proceeds to belch out another thick oily tongue of sick, then another. Each one rises level with the fag ash growing at the end of the B&H in my frozen hand. Each one pausing for a moment; then falling mirthfully in any direction it is pleased to. The neighbourhood sizzles underneath pools of hot black magma. At the edges of the pool, fire begins to spread. It dawns on me to move. I cannot. Then I am screaming. It doesn’t solve anything.
And there’s Annalina in her bathrobe. One moment, she’s inside, head tilted, eyes closed, she’s rubbing her neck exultantly with her arm crossed over her chest, asking me if I like the view; I turn back to the river… the next moment she is diving for the Nikon sat atop a tripod in the corner. Repeating, “holy shit, holyshitholy…” I don’t know how I hadn’t noticed this before; it is an amazingly sophisticated-looking piece of gear. We never did get too in-depth into our personal biographies with each other last night. I guess we never even got as far as what we do for our living. I’m here in my pants with a stranger. This realisation coming on top of the shock from the explosions outside doubles my confusion. What a dissonant fucking morning. In any case, she is yelling at me to get out of the way, “ shut your mouth and get off the fucking balcony!” Now I’m in double shock as well. Mercifully, she closes the distance and slaps me across the face hard enough to move me. “Get my phone!” she orders me while she starts shooting the first images, zooming and focusing while she does so. I kind of give a scramble and look for last night’s jeans, her purse, anywhere a phone might hide. My cheek stings.
We met last night while leaving the same restaurant. Our bodies knew at a short distance that we would eventually be thrown together in violent sexual congress. I could hear the tune being struck between the atoms in her meaty person harmonising with mine as we got closer. Adenosine triphosphate molecules cleaving hydrolytically at the same percussive frequency as my own. We both slowed down. I held the door for her. After you. Chemical antecedents leapt through the air from gland to receptor. Cheeks flushed. Judging from the look of appraisal in her eyes then, I was merely an object to her. I was perfectly at ease with that. Pressed against a locked door in the darkness of a winter’s night, I am the hooked iron key and there are duties to discharge. Wills collapsed. We fell into a black cab. She spoke an address to the driver, I think we may have exchanged names; fell back into a more meaningful conversation.
And now here I am, fearing for my soft and tender little life in the midst of what appears to be an apocalyptic disaster, pawing around someone else’s flat looking for her phone. And she bravely, valiantly documenting the expurgation with her camera. I find it on top of one of the work surfaces in the kitchen; I take it to her, she holds her hand out but does not take the phone. “Dial star one, and turn on speaker,” she instructs me with her hand shaped like a gun. The voice that picks up doesn’t sound chipper. “Dan, it’s Annalina – there’s some kind of fucking volcano erupting beneath Vauxhall, and I’ve already got fifty photos of the very beginning of the whole thing! Call every single paper you can think of and start the bidding war. There’s an extra ten percent if you get someone to quote six figures. Bye, bye bye!” Now, to me, “hang up, and dial star three. Quick, quick!” The whole time snapping photographs. This woman, so supine in the first half hour of this day, was now a little dynamo of a tyrant, and we phone her overseas agent and two television news rooms before I regain any sense of autonomy.
I guess she’s in photojournalism. I’m about to shit myself.
There’s an immediate and intractable rift between the two lives that have been commingling these last thirteen hours or so, first lustfully and until lately lazily; namely, my will is focused on fleeing from whatever terrible phenomenon is swallowing SW8 outside, and this bitch wants to stay and take photos of it.
I have to get out of here. “You what … ?” she begins, “you are… what a pussy! I can’t believe I fucked you.” Pride wounded, I have to think for a moment before I can answer. I have a life to get back to! is all I can come up with. “Oh. You’re so afraid of death this morning. Last night you put life to one side. Accepted the void, the familiar union of everything into one undifferentiated potential. Gave yourself up to some kind of fate. And here you are now, snivelling in your shorts.
“What do you think you are going back to do? Tell people how you left the scene, how you don’t know what happened that day, how you had to leave? If you even get to tell anyone anything, this could be the end of the bloody world after all, according to the Mayan whatchacallit! Anyway, sir: people don’t want to hear that story! People don’t want to know whether you are rational or a coward, they want information on what they did not get a chance to witness. You have a chance to be a witness, here!” She turns to me. Her eyes are a clear blue million. She’s hypnotized me.
She tells me I can get lost, go get dead somewhere alone. Or I could stay, and watch her work, help and support another human being in what may be the last few moments, however long, of toil that person might ever again endeavour to sustain. It’s up to you, she says to me. She turns her face back to the viewfinder and I realize that she had actually stopped taking photos for the first time since she picked up the Nikon and its tripod.
And I’m thinking to myself, I have certainly had stormier relationships. How about the Russian pianist? I had to call the police on her. I remember when I first realized she was batshit crazy. It was that early September in Spezia, we were in the library off the esplanade, and I found a book of classical Italian poetry. The sea was still warm, and we were covered in salt. Each poem was dedicated to, or had as its subject, a woman’s name. They were arranged alphabetically. Mainly because it was our first holiday alone, I was making naïve romantic gestures the entire trip. I located the poem of her namesake and copied it into my notebook. As I transcribed, I made a rough little translation. Something about daisies in a field. I am sure I still have that bit of paper somewhere, packed away in a box or folded between two pages in some book.
She read the note, folded it without looking up, and then briefly stuffed it into my pocket. She stared me in the eyes, little red veins threading in from their edges, this glow coming into her cheeks. ‘How dare you wave this, this agrarian bullshit in front of my face,’ she spat at me then. ‘Nobody needs to be reminded of the deleterious effects of the Great Leap Forward, you sick sonofabitch – my great-grandfather died on the fucking gulag!’ She ran across to the beach, and wept there. We continued sleeping together for two more days, until the airplane touched back down at Heathrow.
Four months later, she was banging on the door of my flat on Great Cumberland Street, demanding to have the satisfaction of an exit interview. How she got past the concierge and up to the fifth floor, I didn’t even have the time to guess. I had just got out of the bath, in fact, and had a train to the Midlands in half an hour, so I didn’t have a lot of time to do anything except plead with her to get out of my house before I was forced to call the Metropolitan Police. I do not recall exactly how I managed to extract her, but she had surely collapsed to her knees and grabbed at my ankles at one point. The whole time I was clutching my towel about my waist in some kind of enraged sense of modesty that could only come from witnessing the utterly pathetic. Fucking artists. Or how about the actress who left me in the middle of a country lane she had parked us on to lay me in the front seat of her car? – she chucked me out simply because I complained when she had used my shorts to clean the come from her belly. This was well before cell phones. I had to hitchhike in to some village and wake up the pub landlord to call a taxi home. They are always crazy, the ones I end up attracting. So if this one must be as well, at least she has something resembling a productive, positive devotion.
And just then, it clicks. I will stay. We are always falling on our own sword.
If Annalina is certain that she has a journalistic duty to document, to essay, to record; well, I think to myself, in the least I’m going to assist someone else’s quest for truth. If I perish, I may not have the protection of my own purity of heart, but perhaps I help some other soul find her way through the breach… Perhaps there’s some honour in that.
Where’s your video camera, then, I ask her. I can get some proper coverage? She looks impressed. A hard, tiny smile on her face. The split in the ground has lengthened, by now there are two or three jets of magma sending tendrils slapping about, destroying everything they caress. The fires are turning the wintry morning a few degrees noticeably warmer. “Go into my closet, and there’s a handheld on the top shelf next to the corsets.” She turns to me once more. “If this flaming cavern of shit out there doesn’t pull the whole building down, there may be a chance to show you some of them.” She takes a snap of me standing there looking dazed, nearly naked, full of admiration for her.