Man of War
by Stephanie Dickinson
"As early as 1950's psychoanalysts began to report significant changes in the forms of psychopathology that appear to have emerged in response to a sociocultural situation characterized by metaphysical homelessness."
"Pretend I kidnapped you. That's what men back east did. They scratched G.T.T. on their doors, and threw their womenfolk in the wagon. Gone to Texas," the headshot photographer Brill laughed glancing at his leggy passenger. Taila—whose plum skin lips looked delicious—smiled without showing teeth. He liked the girl's hint of difference although he assumed her name was as fake as his own. He wove into another lane, not using his turn blinker. "You're on part of the old Chisholm Trail." He listened to the purr of his powerful Thunderbird as it climbed bluffs that overlooked the Brazos River.
"Really." Taila chewed on a strand of her chocolate brunette hair. Now her slightly parted lips appeared hungry. She wore a jean micro with silver butterfly buckle and a hot-pink triangle halter that looked made out of parachute silk. Silver butterflies dangled from her ears. But women never admitted they needed to eat, especially young ones like Taila who survived on three celery sticks and a packet of Ramen noodles a day. Between the index and middle finger of her left hand she held onto one of his business cards as if it might transmute itself into a water cracker and cheese spread.
Brill Crème, a Hollywood-trained photographer specializing in commercial and theatrical head shot photography for the beginning actor, actress, model, and seasoned pro.
The girls were easy to pick up once you mentioned a beach party with big entertainment figures attending. This one he had to work for, promising her an appearance in the metal band Malaria's comeback video. Blue-eyed Brill stood 6"2 and with hair gelled flat to his head, he fancied himself a blond Great Gatsby. He gave his age as thirty-nine but the truth was somewhere on the other side of fifty.
Ahead loomed the gleaming girders of a suspension bridge.
"This bridge was constructed in 1870 and for a century the only span across the river," Brill said, grinning as if he'd built it. But he'd never endangered his hands; rather he was fastidious, keeping them manicured with the lightest coat of clear on his nails. In Federal prison he'd foregone the polish, although he'd spent hours with an emery board.
"Weren't there children burned in Waco?" Taila asked, remembering the TV her junior high social studies teacher rolled into the classroom filled with the Branch Davidian compound in flames. "Even babies?"
"Yes, but you won't hear the Chamber of Commerce bragging about that."
The Brazos sparkled in the high noon sun as they drove onto the bridge. Taila gazed at the same twisty water that long-gone cowpokes and steers had seen. On the riverbank grew lush stands of burr oak and pecan. Those trees must have been dangerous in the old days when bandits would pull you out of your sleep, and aim a six-shooter at your heart. Taila wondered if the pecan trees were ripe with nuts. A single pecan settled in her mind's eye. Hours since they left Dallas and each time they'd passed a sign for food she hoped he would stop. She thought of her one room apartment on Lemon Avenue, the cockroaches that seemed to live on nothing because there was so little food there. She'd read that cockroaches could survive for a week without their heads and only died because they had no mouth to drink water with. There was less to eat in her mother's house. At forty, her hard drinking mother had given birth to a baby girl who suffered from fetal alcohol poisoning. Her mother's softness was for south of the border men. No one knew if the baby could see or hear and when Prairie came home from the hospital, a feeding tube was implanted in her throat.
"Look there. The Armstrong Browning Library. It has the world's largest collection of Robert Browning papers. Fifty-six stained glass windows depicting his poetry," Brill said enthusiastically. Wife #1 who fancied herself a poetess adored My Last Duchess and recited it on a full stomach, i.e. after swordfish and white wine but between the baked Alaska and cognac. He glanced over at the girl. Lately models were turning up in magazines with her style of racially ambiguous looks Her eyes were melting milk chocolate not dark bitter. He preferred unsweetened eyes. They contained more meaninglessness. They contained more of the encounter with nothing. They photographed better. "How about it? Would you like to look at some stained glass?"
Taila was plainly annoyed. "Won't we be late for making the video?"
"Nothing starts without me," he said, straightening the creases of his beige slacks.
"How do you know the guys in Malaria anyway?" They were a '80s thrasher band, middle-aged men with skulls and crossbones tattooed on their hairy arms, popular before she had been born. Her mother played their tapes at maximum volume, the idiotic lyrics making her weepy.
"One of my ex-wives was their manager."
"Oh," she said, almost hearing the lead singer's tin voice. Then her stomach growled.
Brill threw back his head and laughed. "Was that you?"
"It was you," she accused, blushing. Couldn't he see she was famished, but shy about saying so? Why did a girl always have to pretend a sprig of parsley would hold her?
"Not me. My belly is used to going without food. I eat a thousand calories a day."
Indeed, he'd gotten into that discipline in prison, orange juice for breakfast, and then a trade of his toast for another inmate's juice, 300 calories, iceberg lettuce salad with rubber plum tomatoes for lunch, 200 calories, and for dinner pink gravy and gristle over biscuits, 500 calories. He'd served four years of an eight-year sentence. He felt his accusers still pointing their fingers at him, the three Caligula's Kittens in their satin swimsuits and high heels, their cat ears and whiskers. Patti, Cathi, Sandi, the interchangeable "I" girls who claimed he lured them across state lines, drugged, raped, and videotaped them. Brill counterclaimed they were willing performers. After all they were hostesses in a private men's club in Little Rock.
Taila snorted, "How can you be so exact about your calories?"
"I use a calculator. In LA all the wait staffs carry them." He buzzed her window down from his door lock commander and let the wind blow her hair up. Then he reached for his Powershot Pro that incorporated Ultrasonic lens, 8.0 effective Mega pixels. Steering with his knee, he raised the Pro and zoomed in on Taila's slender long neck. Her finest feature. An eighteenth century neck holding up a shrunken twenty-first century ego. The impulse to touch it evaporates. The heavy odor of refried beans wafted in the car. He knew she was hungry. Each time he passed a fast food entrance—Caso Ole, Crispy Taco, El Conquistador—she flinched. Then she gnawed on her knuckles, her teeth breaking the skin. She couldn't say it, 'I'm hungry, and I know a girl shouldn't be hungry.'
Her stomach gurgled again. A receptionist by day repeating endlessly "Mitchum Marcum & Block this is Taila," and by night an actress and dancer associated with the Kitchen Dog Players, she had a speaking part in Craving Gravy, a ten-minute play for the attention-span challenged. And she was unusually good with Elizabethan English because one of the furnished rent houses she lived in as a kid contained a set of Shakespeare's tragedies and comedies. Her family that had consisted only of her mother and herself grew to include Lear, Ophelia, Poor Tom, Cleopatra, Hamlet, Cornelia, and The Ghost.
A flag bearing the Dr. Pepper trademark unfolded in the breeze as the Thunderbird zoomed past a Sonic. She turned in her seat unable to disguise her yearning. Why was he teasing her like this? He had seemed so nice in his studio, even reducing his prices when she'd come with her makeup already done. And then after fifty-plus shots, complimenting her, saying she reminded him of Jane Fonda in Barbarella. He mentioned he was fresh from Sundance. Would she like to meet some of his independent filmmaker and musician friends partying all weekend on Mustang Island? How about being in a video? It was the kind of break she thought would eventually happen, but always to someone else.
"I brought wife #2 here on a cultural extravaganza."
"The one who managed Malaria?"
He nodded, thinking of the old photos he'd stuffed into the glove compartment. They were taken in BD days. Before Digital, before detention, before divorce, before a compact titanium package with black leatherette cover and a sharp 28mm 2.8 lens could retract into a camera body. Those were the over exposed days. Before that trio of narcissistic Caligula's Kittens who never developed past the "mirror stage" accused him of false imprisonment. He'd flown them into Dallas from Little Rock for a weekend bash at his condo. Liz, wife #2, was out of town. Before she morphed totally into a Brill-hater, she'd introduced him to her buddies, filmmakers on the outskirts who might have oozed through an interdimensional porthole but had a clear vision of the future. And there was the cameraman Cuba, in his way a true artist, who believed porn would become as mainstream as antacids.
"I'll show you some wife #2 pics. She was the most average looking lady I hooked up with," he said, reaching over Taila into the glove compartment. "Here."
Taila was only mildly interested in what he considered an average looking lady. What kind of word was lady anyway? There she was-wife #2 a strawberry blond with turquoise-blue eyes (red embers in their centers) goregous like Nicole Kidman and, if anything, more emaciated. Thin had various stages and hers was extreme. But instead of Nicole's mischievous smile, Brill's ex-wife was sneering at the picture-taker, her nose curling up, and a look of pure hatred in her eyes. Taila started to laugh.
"What's so funny?"
"The expression on your ex-wife's face."
"Love, isn't it grand? I dug her best when she hated me." Brill wiped his forehead as more hot air poured in. "She had no soul," he said. That was true of all women. He crooked his arm out the window, pointing to a Luby's Cafeteria. Like a palm tree rising up from the desert. The beige and burgundy logo with its oversized apostrophe and motto Good Food from Good People. "Waco is the birthplace of Luby's Cafeteria."
"For God's sake stop!" Taila cried, surprised at the words flying out.
His lips made a thin line when he smiled, and then he clicked the turn blinker and pulled into the Luby's lot. "I guess your little belly needs something to eat." Brill reached over and squeezed her kneecap. It was every woman's ugliest feature. He took off his Ray-Bans, then unstuck the fuzz buster from the dashboard and stowed it under the seat. He stopped the Thunderbird next to a live oak tree, and when they got out of the car he could hear the whole tree buzzing with black flies and mosquitoes, the tree vibrating like a demimonde in which the female body served many masters. A cloud of gnats came after them. Taila still held his business card and then it came to him like a stroke of heat lightning that she'd forgotten it there.
"What's wrong with your fingers?" Brill asked, holding the door for her.
She brushed past him without answering. Inside, the lunch crowd looped the length of the cafeteria. Taila kept walking. The lobes of her ears burned. What if he decided not to take her to Mustang Island? What could she say? The truth? That something had happened in her mother's womb. Nerve damage. She had come into the world with two silent fingers on her left hand. Or perhaps it was the time her mother, once a bus driver for the Grand Prairie School District, accidentally slammed Taila's fingers in the bus door and had no money to take her for an X-ray. Taila wanted to be thrilled with the air conditioning, the Formica tabletops, the deep booths, and the smell of food. How happy the rivers of iced tea in tall glasses tinkling with long spoons made her, as well as the stares she was attracting from a crush of Mexican laborers and white roughnecks in nylon shirts with Lucky Strikes in their pockets, who turned to gawk at Taila's flat belly and pierced navel (a butterfly stud adorned).
"Would you like me to help with your tray?" Brill asked.
"I'm fine," she sniffed.
Luby's was a smorgasbord, and she hated all the selecting and loading and balancing. Her two unmoving fingers might be further exposed although she'd found a way to edge the tray between them. She wished she were bold like Heather McCartney, the ex-model married to the ex-Beatle, who lost her left leg from the knee down after a motorcycle ran her over, and yet she skied, she danced. She had even removed her prosthetic half leg on Larry King Live and set it on the coffee table. The leg was made of ruddy plastic as if it had soaked in sunless tanning cream, and the foot itself wore a sandal and red toenail polish. Heather dared anyone to laugh.
"Taila, how about some of that Durango chicken? It looks pretty good," Brill urged. He had already loaded his tray with Luby's famous macaroni and cheese, the jalapeno cornbread, the tortilla soup. He added Italian chicken breast, then sides of mixed squash casserole, and shredded carrots. Wife #1 had been a marvelous cook unlike his mother whose specialty was the chicken pot piece. "I'll carry your tray."
She shook her head, but he doubled their trays up.
"She'll have the chicken," he said.
"No, no. I usually don't eat meat."
He chuckled, "How about some macaroni and cheese?"
Brill loved an occasional pig-out. All the food lying on warming trays reminded him of other edibles, the women whose showy nakedness was shackled and gagged, whom he viewed again and again in video. Once he had found Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer at the bottom of his banker father's dirty clothes hamper, his place marked by a photograph of a woman wearing only handcuffs. Those first Lady of the Night Orchids brought to him by his VCR, the Kitty's, Misty's, Kohl's and Cinnamon's, were intoxications you couldn't let speak. What allure those moth orchids gave off, pink with a light sprinkle of purple spots where the whip licked their flesh open? And when the vixens cried out they sounded like cats whose tails had been pulled. Ultimately, the Arnolda Schwarzenpecker's, the Stormy's and Rachel Rotten's bored him. Too shrewd the goddesses of bondage. He hankered for girls he could give orchid names. Disa and Vanda and Cattleya.
Brill and Taila approached the salad bar. He took the bowl from her and heaped it with lettuce. "Carrots? Cucumbers? Radishes?"
She wanted them all.
"Sunflower seeds, croutons?"
Taila nodded to cheddar cheese. Black olives and green olives. Cheese was good because it came from a living animal, and olives naturally ripened. Eating seemed to her the most sacred of acts, the sacrifice of one kind of life for another. You could hear the hurt of celery and carrots when the teeth broke them. She thought of the gruel her baby sister ate. 'If you move out on me, Taila,' her mother had said, 'I'll have me another baby.' Her sister Prairie would never reach Taila's age, her sister might never crawl across the floor or feel a word in her mouth, never move her arms. Yet little Prairie was the most beautiful baby Taila had ever seen with eyelashes like tiny birds beating their wings over huge blue eyes.
Brill's tray overflowed with side dishes stacked on side dishes. "Dessert?" he asked.
The strawberry shortcake stopped Taila in her tracks, how wonderfully vibrant each berry, wetly red and innocent as her baby sister's lips. And there was the key lime pie. He picked the butternut brownie pie with peaks of whipped cream and rocky road cheesecake for himself. For Taila who seemed shy in the presence of so many calories he chose the key lime and strawberry shortcake. Then he stopped to take a picture of the original cheesecake. Somewhere between burlesque and hardcore.
When they arrived at the cashier Taila reached into her tiny pony print shoulder bag for her twenty. Besides that bill, an ATM card, a key and lipstick made up the contents of her bag. She detested phones and was one of the few Luddites who refused to carry a cell. Nineteen years old, and these past twelve months at Mitchum Marcum & Block she'd answered 700 calls a day. By the time she turned thirty, how many voices would she have swallowed? She slipped the money between her knuckles.
Again Brill glimpsed the two fingers, the index and middle. They were bent at the knuckle and curled slightly. He was pleased to find something broken about this gorgeous girl. Of course, he should have noticed those fingers immediately.
He tapped her elbow. "Put your money away."
"That's right, ladies never pay," the cashier said in a Texas twang. She had a worn face, but sea-green eyes that were too pretty to be sitting on a stool adding up entrees. "Is that all you're having? Her eyes twinkled at Brill. "You've got some hardy appetite."
"Most of this belongs to the girl. Want anything to drink, Taila?"
"I'd like some coffee," Taila said, spotting the industrial sized percolator. Coffee was wonderful, but who knew what the beans had suffered traveling from Costa Rica to Waco. Brill immediately reached for a cup and filled it. How nice his hands were, their graceful movements, economical, clean hands with sheen to their fingernails, they didn't drop things, didn't fumble and spill. She liked watching his working hands as he filled his pocket with containers of Half N Half.
"One java with moo juice," the cashier said, brushing back her blond bangs, her inch long fingernails painted with Lone Stars.
"Hold that pose, Ruby Tuesday," Brill exclaimed, reading the cashier's nametag, and wondering if she knew there was a famous drag queen by that name who had starred in Gang Bang Trannie. "I want to get a picture of those fingernails." He lifted his Pro, centered Ruby Tuesday in his lens. "Electric Ladyland!" Another woman whose soul he had captured. He fished two twenties out of his wallet, and then handed her an extra five. "That's for you."
"You've got a right regular guy there. I think I'd keep him," Ruby Tuesday said.
Brill picked up their tray, carrying it to a booth. After unloading he took out his calculator, and began punching in numbers. "This is what I call a gorge fest. 2,500 calories." Then he hunkered down. She'd never seen anything like it; he ate so fast his knife and fork hitting the plate almost sparked. He cut up his chicken as fast as the dicing machine you saw on late night TV. He held his fork to her mouth with flesh on it. "You need some protein." He could see she liked being fed. They all did. Even and especially his mother. Look at those lips. He watched her nibble.
At first the chicken tasted tender coming from his fork. Tender was nice. Her father had moved on before she was born, and her mother made herself rough, so much so, not even mechanics cheated her. Then she saw chickens cramped together, chickens on top of each other as far as the eye could see, unable to move, their talons fused to the cage wire, droppings hanging like a forest of shit stalactites. She reached for her napkin, and coughed.
Brill paused to unwrap a foil of butter into his squash. "You have a soft quality I feel I can talk to. Maybe it's because of your fingers."
She speared a strawberry and silently apologized. All things deserved respect. Was she about to hear his confession? At the reception desk she'd heard plenty of them from the UPS and Federal Express pick-up men, and in elevators, strangers had told her their wives were totally deranged, that they were planning on kidnapping their own children to give them security. Mmmm, the strawberry tasted as red as it looked.
His cell phone played the William Tell Overture. "Hey," Brill answered, "my man, Cuba." His partner in that lost weekend with Caligula's Kittens, Cuba had been the masked dungeon master, his anonymity preserved. And Brill had done his Federal time without once being tempted to give his friend up. "We're at Luby's in Waco. I'm not kidding." Taila put down her fork and excused herself to the ladies room. He watched her walk off all the while reassuring Cuba that the most discreet place was right out in the open. Didn't he know they were all being watched? In elevators, taxis, gyms, car washes. "Cuba, baby, the guys who man the security screens are brain dead," he said, wondering exactly where the Luby's cameras might be. In that supporting column or those hanging baskets of plastic shrubbery? At the napkin dispenser and tray stacking station?
Upon her return Taila slid in next to Brill who was lining up his brownie pie and coconut cream. He lifted his fork loaded with cheesecake, a smile plucking at the corners of his mouth. "Hey, gorgeous, lick this."
The heat was buzzing inside the Thunderbird. Out from under the seat Brill lifted the fuzz buster, his radar detector, a flat black box with rubber suction cup that stuck to the dash. He studied Taila settling herself into the passenger's seat. Where some hang'd themselves for love. A line from the Robert Herrick poem flitted into his mind. While soaking in the tub wife #1 liked to read old English poetry, and Brill grew fond of it. The erotic slipped inside the formality. He bade me then that Neck-lace use. He put on his Ray Bans and slipped his key into the ignition. Then he leaned against the headrest and sighed.
"It's so hot in here," she finally said when he made no move to start the car.
"I dig the heat. Just give me five minutes while my food digests." He felt sexy as a boa constrictor resting in the sun after devouring its squirmy meal.
"I'm about to melt." She pushed on her electric window button but she had no power. Dig, what world was it that people said that word in?
"I grew up in the Houston River Oaks District. Pretty ritzy. Every house had a swimming pool. It had to be at least a hundred and five degrees for me to jump in."
Her mouth hung open. "You had a swimming pool?"
"Six feet on the deep end with a diving board."
She thought of the flat out heat of Grand Prairie, the red dust and the stock tank she had tried to make into a swimming pool. In back of the crackerjack house was a shed and inside a trough she'd dragged out into the sun. Black shale coated the inside. Waiting for the garden hose to fill the tank, she fantasized back-floating whole afternoons. But the shale inside the tank wasn't rock at all, instead it turned out to be saliva, decades of horse slobber. Dead livestock called back by the sun and water soon made the yard stink like a pigpen. The neighbors called the Sheriff. So Brill had a real swimming pool.
"I wish I could be in the water right now," she said.
"My parents still live in the same house next to the same pool. When the Daddeo dies, Ma will sell it and move. She'll be a millionaire."
"A millionaire? You're kidding, aren't you?"
"Daddeo is a retired big time banker," Brill said truthfully, but his next sentence was a lie. "He used to bankroll Martin Scorsese back in his independent film days."
Then it went quiet in the car. She wondered if she could crack the door for air. Taila looked at her watch. Almost one o'clock. What time were they going to start shooting the video? If they were using the beach as a backdrop, wouldn't they need the sun? What was she thinking going off with a strange photographer on the promise of meeting entertainment people and dancing in a music video? He was turning out to be a little strange. She thought of her baby sister lying all day in her crib taking noisy breaths. Sometimes Prairie forgot to breathe. Then they had to give her oxygen, and force air into her. Taila would like to make lots of money so she could take Prairie to specialists, maybe the darkness inside her could be fixed.
She fidgeted, shook her foot, perspiration trickling from her temples. The heat pressed down until her head grew heavy, and then light. Through the windshield the leaves of the live oak shone so green they appeared black. Sun on the car's silver hood jittered. She didn't want to open the door; he might take that as a hint she was comfortable and rest for an hour. She reached for the section of Dallas Star-Telegraph folded on the dash and began fanning herself while Brill's chest rose and fell. Teen Abducted from Roy Rogers Found in Dumpster the headline announced.
"Oh, no, they found that girl," Taila said, tasting sourness in her mouth. "I just saw your newspaper. Oh, no." She felt a sob rising.
"Poor kid," Brill said, quickly sitting up. "Damn. Stuffed in a dumpster. They arrested some guy using her ATM card. Kids have bank accounts early these days." He twisted the ignition and down went the electric windows. A burning breeze rushed in. "Keep an eye out for flying debris. We're not going to be on interstate, and you're my co-pilot."
He seemed energized. Two more stoplights and Waco faded behind them. The Thunderbird started south through the red landscape, the sun glazing the ridges that followed the rim of an ice age lake. Brill prided himself on his driving control at high speeds. How seductive the distance always was. No trees just arid plains, the car racing them through lonesomeness.
Taila couldn't stop mourning the thirteen-year-old Dallas girl who had disappeared after buying a chocolate shake. Pictures showed a pretty but gap toothed and heavily made up face. None of the coverage mentioned a mother only a father and stepfather. Fish heads appeared on fences—larval hulls of catfish and bass strung up and honey-glazed as Greek pastries. Ditches ran alongside the road, dry gashes without a splinter of grass.
"Who would do something like that?" she asked, pointing at the fish but thinking of the dumpster girl.
"Ranchers like to show off the size of their catch by stringing up the heads."
"Is that why someone killed that just beginning girl? To show off?"
"They picked up an ex-sex offender. That's your main type. But Hollywood does it constantly. Isn't that the plot most movies follow?" His voice grew softer, but harder at the same time. "You have a beautiful neck, Taila. Some men would like to do more than kiss it. Ask any prostitute and she'll tell you about the guys who bring live pigeons with them to be strangled just before sex."
Taila gasped. "That's so cruel." Chills ran up and down her back. She felt like the sun had suddenly passed under a cloud. For a moment she was afraid to look at Brill. She thought about her baby sister and how the curls of her dark hair smelled. She stared at her watch and tried to go calm. "Who else besides Malaria is going to be here?" she asked, hoping he would say a little more about them. The entertainment people, the special ones who lived poised on the edge of the spectacular.
"The directors Peter Scarlet and Ken Loche are flying up from Mexico City, " he said. There's a major festival every July south of the border. I expect the critic George Rigney. He's seen every indie from Dogville to Blair Witch." Then unable to help himself added, "Oh, the young actor Henry Lee Lucas will be here." Lucas was a drifter serial killer who had killed over one hundred women.
Taila's eyes widened, that last name did sound familiar. She was thankful, at least the names were something to hang onto.
A fairy tale, Taila thought as they drove through the seaside city of Corpus Christi. White hotels and church steeples, the highway glided beside the Gulf of Mexico, until it felt like the Thunderbird would vanish into the glowing lavender water, into the boats and windsurfers, their sails like the wings of Luna moths. Taila, you've arrived in paradise. On the horizon barges pulled themselves like flat cockroach traps.
Soon they were on the JFK Causeway heading toward the Mustang Islands.
"These barrier islands used to be inhabited by the Karankawa Indians. They were known to be cannibals. They called it Wild Horse Island," Brill said as they drove down the two-lane, dunes on either side. "There's where the video is being shot." He pointed to a weather-beaten beach house that looked like a fish shanty on stilts, an outboard motorboat parked under it.
"You're kidding?" Her eyes clouded over.
"I am," he laughed. "Look over there. The festivities are happening at those condos. I own them as rental investments." He pointed farther down the beach to the high-rises glittering like pillars of salt.
After he paid the entrance fee to Mustang Island's private beach, his cell phone rang. "Taila," he mouthed, "reach into the blue cooler and get us both canned margaritas." Then in a low voice, "Hey, Cuba. Yeah, we've arrived. On the beach, baby."
There was that Cuba calling again. Hard to know if it was a man or woman. She leaned into the backseat where two super ice chests sat side by side. He'd already explained at length about the green cooler's contents. Extra swimsuits, a bikini for Taila, floatation mattresses, air pumps, a hand held fan, insect repellent. The blue cooler held his liquid refreshments. He must be talking about her when he said, "I don't know maybe nineteen, twenty. Lots of leg." She wiggled her hand into the ice chips and found the canned margaritas. Weren't there going to be lots of girls at the condo party? Why did he have to be so specific about her? She noticed the book on top of the blue cooler, The Hungry Ghosts. The cover illustration showed a peasant in cloth cap leaning on a hoe.
Brill had finished his call. He took the can from her, popped it. "That was the producer. Cuba created most of David Bowie's videos. The band is late. We'll do the beach first before heading over."
"Sure," she said, biting her thumb. "What's that book Hungry Ghosts about?"
"The starvation of Chinese peasants during the Great Leap Forward. Cannibalism."
Taila grimaced. A feeling of discomfort was once again percolating in her.
"Face it," Brill went on, "people are all voyeurs at the banquet of pain and suffering. We all want to see the worst humankind is capable of. It's called lust of the eye. We all have it. Particularly those of us involved in filmmaking."
She didn't think she suffered from lust of the eye. But Brill seemed totally uninterested in her qualities. She could be a car ornament, one that had ears and mouth but could not speak. Like Prairie.
The Thunderbird pulled in next to a Porta Potty and Brill told her she should change there. While Taila used the chemical toilet he spread out their beach towels near the water where the sand wasn't pebbly but fine as cake flour. After lugging out the blue cooler and exchanging his Pro for his Sony he took stock of the scene. I love that bikini, he thought, spying a brown girl in an orange bikini. If he squinted her flesh disappeared and all he saw was the bikini like bandages of fire. He aimed his Sony MVC's optical zoom. The compensating image stabilizer feature removed the shake factor on this long shot.
Sand rose up in a dune mountain range. Fifteen-footers spiked with sea oats and panic grass, brown sand, pounded by the surf. Taila walked toward him, fresh from the Porta Potty, brushing her chocolate hair away from her face, her hips swaying in the bikini of black cobwebs. He was wowed and angered. He saw in Taila the female conceit, like his mother, an obsession in her own flesh, one hand splayed on her hip with those crooked fingers, the other playing with her hair, sure of the result her body and the string bikini was having on him. Women had no privacy, because they were only conscious of whether their body was being desired. They had no soul, a sliver of ego, and were unable to experience guilt or redemption. He let his viewfinder select the aperture and shutter speed before he took another photo of Taila. His digital of her would almost literally last forever. Ten thousand years from now his photo print of Taila at the beach would be exactly the same. Not a picture but a file and a cluster of numbers and those numbers wouldn't change. He glanced at his waterproof watch, and then followed the actions of Taila. Instead of coming straight to Brill, she went out of her way to slink around the lifeguard's chair, making goo goo eyes at the young man with a smear of zinc oxide on his nose.
Taila was in that state of heightened awareness called paranoia. She wasn't the same girl of ten minutes ago. In the gloom of the Porta Potty, a seagull flapping overhead had made her think of Brill's story of the live pigeons being strangled. And then with a sinking sensation she repeated the name Henry Lee Lucas aloud. Brill had called him a young actor. But wasn't he the one-eyed road rat who had killed his own mother? She'd read about him on a serial killer website.
Couples littered the sand, their bodies appearing dropped and partially broken, greased with coconut oil. Near the lifeguard chair was a sign that read Danger Jellyfish. Moon jelly washed up between sunbathers like waxen exploded cabbages. Everything looked injured or partially devoured. Taila wasn't sure why she put a hand to her forehead and squinted up at the lifeguard who gazed at the water with his mirror sunglasses. "What time is high tide?" she asked, wanting him to at least see her. The lifeguard grunted, but Taila couldn't understand.
"Taila," Brill snapped his fingers, "over here." See how she had to show herself to that muscle-bound lifeguard. Love brought me to a silent Grove. And shew'd me there a tree. That's how the poet Herrick put it, and so would Brill. Wrists tied in a complicated ligature of weights and counterweights. "Hey, are you with me? What do you think?" He dropped his beige slacks. "The Italian stallion," he sang out, pirouetting. His thong was fiery red and tiny, the size of a cracker. He kept his beige shirt on.
"Nice fit," she said through her teeth, "for a mosquito." The suit was too small for him. Out here she could see how much older he was, wrinkles under his ears, freckles over his shoulders and torso, the beginning paunch, gray hair around his naval.
"A mosquito?" Brill bristled.
"Yeah," she tried to laugh. And you're an old pink grasshopper.
She watched him assemble two canvas chairs side by side, pack his Ray Bans and don goggle sunglasses with side flaps and lenses like periscopes, the blackest she'd ever seen. She stretched out on the beach towel, sun beating on her shoulders. The heaviness bore down and filled her with anxiety. He had begun giving off a peculiar smell like clay. She reached for her tiny purse and stuck her fingers inside. She groped for her apartment key; glad when her hand closed around its jagged teeth. And there was her twenty. But how far could she get on that? Not all the way to Dallas. She had eighteen dollars left in her checking, two dollars shy of being able to withdraw it.
He unfolded the air mattress from his green cooler. He needed to kill time until Cuba set the house up, got out the harness, tacked black satin sheets to the floor, covered the windows with same, and then crisscrossed the ceiling with red jalapeno pepper lights. Cuba would phone after everything was ready. He found the bicycle air pump and began inflating the raft. "Would you like to do some floating, Taila?"
When she glanced up Brill's goggle sunglasses were staring at her. "Sure," she said, more than anything wanting to get away from those goggles. Slipping the strap of her purse across her chest, she stood up and took the air mattress from him. "Thanks."
The water was slippery as she mounted the float. "Hey," she heard Brill shout from shore, "You're wearing your purse." She ignored him, paddling out, stroking the waves until Brill grew tiny, a Diana butterfly wearing a speck of red. If she floated all the way away from him, she needed her purse. There wasn't going to be any video, not even the electric guitar and drumming of Malaria's ashcan music. Not any party with directors and actors. She thought of the house that resembled a sea shanty up on stilts. Roy Rogers Girl Found in Dumpster. The water felt like gritty silk against her legs, and the sun cool and soft.
Brill popped another canned margarita. His eyelids felt fat. Tequila made things balmy inside him, soaking him in a glow like he'd swallowed pieces of sun on top of everything else. He patted his stomach where the two thousand calories churned, the cheesecake in a fists-to-cuffs with the limejuice and salt. On the blanket next to the lifeguard's chair, a middle aged but still shapely woman knelt over a white-haired man, rubbing lotion on his stomach. The man wore two-tone aviator glasses like his father. When the man turned over, Brill's lids began to twitch. 'Don't send anymore letters to this house asking for money,' his father had written Brill in prison. 'We don't have a son.'
Ten-year-old Brill remembered tattling to his father about his mother. 'Dad, she sets an egg timer when I eat. Yesterday I had to shove it in so fast that I threw up. Mom made me eat my puke.' He looked into the clear half of his father's two-tones and saw hard brown marbles. No help there.
Brill swigged from his margarita, and rubbed at his eyes like they held the past. When he opened them he couldn't find Taila on the air mattress. Feverishly, he scanned the swimmers, bobbers and inner tubers. His forehead broke out in sweat. He felt a pinch in his chest. At last he spotted her, the farthest one out. Christ, she reminded him of the "I's." The girls with their identical famine bodies and inside their heads-the coal pits God abandoned.
She had been lying lengthwise on the float, but now she pulled it sideways under her stomach, when she saw Brill getting up from his canvas chair, wading into the water, and then swimming. She could scissor kick easier with all of her legs in the water. The ten telephone lines at Marcum Mitchell & Block were coming to capture her. Brill in his goggle glasses executed a strong Australian crawl.
"Christ, where were you going, Taila? To Mexico?" His elbows rested on the air mattress. Brill pulled a strand of wet hair from her mouth. "You remind me of a spooked baby duck," he chuckled, his mouth open wide. Silver fillings glinted from left molars. "Isn't this great, Taila? Swimming almost naked and the whole Gulf of Mexico to cover you?"
Did that mean he would bury her here in the water? They faced each other across the raft while his legs entwined her waist. She tried to wiggle free of his legs but they stuck to her. Long tentacles sparkled in the waves. Strands of pink and blue, a resting Portuguese man-of-war with its sail collapsed like a lung. Ravishing currant jelly and tendrils of gelatinous lavender. How dreamy and lovely Taila found it. Taffy and bubblegum from another world. She wanted to ask it a thousand questions. What is it like where you come from? Is there any joy? Or is it constant fishing, dragging through the surf? Like a receptionist plugged into her phones.
"Has anyone ever tied you up?" he asked nonchalantly.
"What?" she said, trying to shrug his legs away, but they stayed clamped around her.
"A woman isn't irresistible unless her ankles are tied together. That's the name of Malaria's single. Bondage," he laughed. "When I saw your legs I knew you were the one."
His face with the hideous black hole goggles drew closer.
She twisted her face away, until her gaze rested on the man-of-war. Would she dare to disturb its world? Not a single marine animal, but a large colony of smaller organisms. The blue float was one animal, and on the underside the polyps were another, and the tentacles attached to them another, and the stinging cells, able to kill fish a foot long yet another. Once they had their prey, the whole colony attacked. In high school she'd written her biology research paper report on the Physaliidae, Order: Siphonophora. Dangerous even to people, wasn't it? If it touched your skin it left welts, the poison could interfere with your breathing. Luckily, the symptoms disappeared in two hours. A weapon? Not just a weapon, but also the perfect one.
Brill squeezed her between his legs. This time she tried to kick away from him. "I can't swim with your legs around me." If he let her go everything might still be fine.
He laughed at her request. "I've got you now, little lame duck." His silver fillings ever grinning, he reached over the air mattress, tugged at her bikini top and tried to untie the strings at her neck. "What's this? A fucking knot?"
Her hand dropped to where the man-of war flowed; she cupped tentacles, bringing them up like a handful of electrified linguini. Forgive me, she murmured to the creature. She offered Brill sea hair. She heard her exhausted mother. 'Taila always wants to touch.' The tentacles slimed around her wrist, another feeler came from under the water, hooking itself around her elbow, stinging.
Here," she said, lips suddenly numb, "look how pretty." Did he know she'd had to use this perfect stun gun on herself first? Now she was aiming it at him.
His legs opened from around her waist, freeing her. "Drop it! Throw it, throw it," he screamed, frantically pulling off the beige shirt that protected him from the sun. "God, it's on your back."
A tentacle whipped over her shoulders, slithering under her rib cage. The water around her went cloudy. "Prairie," she whispered, about to slide into the wriggling limbs. Her arm slipped off the air mattress. She struggled against the feeling of going under. 'Taila, bad girl.' But she couldn't go under all the way. Her mother couldn't be trusted not to abandon her little sister Prairie.
Then Brill wrapped the shirt over his hand to grip the feelers on Taila's back. He had frightened it. The feelers swarmed up his right arm. In taking him, they were letting her go. The tentacles stiffened and exploded, the purple streamers snapped. More of them coming up. "Oh, no," Brill cried out. Was it animal or plant? Reaching out to him like those early strippers. How could you take hold of something so nebulous? And then he became entranced with the interplay of himself and the creature, a gas filled pale purple translucent thing, a hydrozoa battleship with a sail, the tentacles had no end, twenty, fifty feet. A miraculous process was taking place before his eyes, a creation. The coils slipped around his belly and chest, constricting like the most complicated of ligatures. He felt dizzy, trying now to pick the tentacles off with his shirt. This poison wasn't strong enough to kill. No one gets hurt, not really, no harm.
All in fun was his motto. He'd filmed Caligula's Kittens naked in his pool, jumping like nymphs from the high dive. He'd served appetizers—shrimp and red sauce, liver pate and rye triangles—still they complained. He'd lit candles and made a midnight supper of spinach tortellini and red sauce, a bottle of red wine, and Hagan Daz Rum Raisin ice cream for dessert, melted in the microwave. 'When are Jack Nicholson and Nicolas Cage showing up? And Martin Scorsese?' a Kitten whined. After their swim he'd provided them with yellow silk kimonos and cigarettes dipped in angel dust. The Halter was of silk, and gold. 'But you said Nick Nolte and Michael Douglas were coming.' Together Cuba and Brill had enslaved the women. The chandelier kept glittering, giving off a peculiar light. Vienna Woods, linden tree gloom. Two days later their naked bodies were still in the harnesses, the split ends of their blond hair trailed down to their waists, the lower half of their faces smeared with lipstick and spit, one of them had lost her blue-tinted contacts leaving large bovine brown eyes, black circles.
"Stupid, stupid," he hissed, lifting the alive shirt and throwing it into the surf. Then he vomited squash and chicken, brownie and tortilla soup, a projectile stream of whipped cream and ice tea leaving his mouth, a torrent of Luby's good food for good people. Pain shot up and down his arm and sizzled into his chin. He heard his breath being ripped from his chest, hunks of air leaving and not coming back. Some of the tentacles must have broken off and swam inside him, must be reaching into his chest, wrapping themselves around his heart.
What had she done, Taila wondered, what was happening to him? He wouldn't be able to swim himself in, and she couldn't leave him floundering in the water and vomiting. His face had turned the purple-gray of the man-of-war's tentacles and his lips made a straight line. "Brill," she called out, realizing this was the first time today she'd used his first name. "Are you O.K.?" she asked, clinging to the pillow of the air mattress.
Everything heightened. He was in a water wilderness. His father in the two-tone aviator shades bobbed past. 'Hello, non-son.' Brill couldn't answer. He tried to open his mouth. No words. His right arm dangled, his side was pulling him into the water. His eyes must be frightened, but could she see them? He still wore his goggles. Using his left hand he dragged the air mattress to him. Cuba must be about to phone. He could see a dark room, a single flickering candle.
"Here," Taila said between quivering lips, "can you hold on? I'm going to swim us in. Just keep your arm on the float." She rolled over onto her side and began scissor kicking. No matter how hard her kicks propelled them forward, the waves pushed them back. It felt like they were standing in place.
The sun burned in the sky like ice. When her feet touched bottom she stood up and lugged the air mattress. Her waterlogged ponyprint purse had flattened itself against her back. Brill did not speak. When they reached the shore he doubled up on the sand. Taila staggered past him, running between the sunbathers, her body tossing off drops of water. "We've been stung!" she cried. "We've been stung!" A man wearing a Budweiser hat raised his head from a blanket.
Brill watched one of her foot prints fill with water then wash away. The pain reached up into his jaw, a pale purple. He traveled back to Catholic school. Sister Mary Sheila rolled down a map but instead of a country it was a skeleton. She sang out femur, fibula, tibia, clavicle, pelvis, holding onto the words like music all the while her pointer pointed. He rocked in his desk, whispering the bones to himself, raising his hand to ask the Sister to repeat the words. Then he went back to chewing on his pencils, tonguing a black ring around his mouth. He was getting used to this funny way of breathing, this less air in his lungs.
"Get meat tenderizer on them," the man in the hat shouted. "It'll neutralize the poison."
"Urine, rub urine on them."
Whip-like red stringy welts rose on his stomach. The welts had prettiness to them. The man-of-war was writing a letter on him. Stupid, stupid. They'd held him back in the fifth grade because he couldn't focus on what the Sister was saying, just her lips moving or the chalk she held. He drifted when the overhead projector went on, merged with the blur. Even then he had pictured Sister Mary Sheila down on her belly on the floor, her chapped hands tied to her ankles, a blindfold over her spectacles. He woke when he heard the chalk talking. These days they taught on computers, and you didn't have to stay awake.
"Bleach, use bleach. Do it quick." Another man yelled. "Here I've got some."
Who would bring bleach with them here? The ocean ran down to the crooked horizon where shrieking seagulls trailed a shrimp boat. Brill felt detached like looking at a picture he had been removed from. The tightness, the fullness in his chest hadn't budged. Sun chilled the sand. He was chest deep in a snowdrift. There were others with him—peasants buried naked in snow. Peasants soaked in water and sent outside to freeze. Persons Wearing Glass Clothes. Brill must be wearing glass clothes.
For Taila it was hard to stand up inside the shivers. A man poured bleach over her, his girlfriend shook Knorr meat tenderizer over Taila's chest, rubbing sage on exposed skin. Her body fizzed into white blossoms of foam. I am being seasoned, she thought, teeth chattering. Her eyes shone. "I'm fine only cold," she smiled, teeth chattering.
Brill tried to crawl away from the crowd. The interchangeable "I's" were here. They followed him, leering at the pain in the center of his chest, playing with their hair as the throbbing spread to his shoulders and back. Now they wore big boots and called themselves Cruelty and Gun Girl. He could feel the weight of their looks. The lifeguard climbed down from his chair to kneel over Brill. "Hey, man are you O.K.?"
Brill started to sink, slowly at first. Then his ankles and wrists bound, he tumbled freely head over heels.
Copyright©2004 Stephanie Dickinson