Chapter 2: Saturday
It was not a good idea to refer to Melissa in the Collection Room at Mundo Modo and the clock says 4:52. Peter lets his eyes adjust to moonlight. The sensei slept with the drapes wide open and who was he to change anything in her absence. Were he to rouse himself and walk to the window, Lady Liberty, the gift from the French (unrequited?), and the nearest gravitrain chute would all present themselves before Manhattan in Ansel Adams phosphorescence. But it’s a view for the real estate agent, one to highlight and abbreviate in a classified, not one for him to indulge in. Not one for vistas, he, Peter Matasavage. Let the marvelers marvel at the natural and the manmade—he’ll stay out of their way… The clock says 4:54, signifying that one of his simultaneous waking realizations has been altered. The other, the one about Melissa, repeats and his pleural lining tightens.
He traipses into the living room, where Dartie sleeps on his side on the sofa. Bawdy shenanigans in a dentist’s office on the vid—a Russ Meyer flick. Peter’s favorite American auteur. He decides not to pull up the menu and review what else and how many the kid ordered. He waves the whole thing off.
Peter: Wake up. We’re going back to Mundo Modo.
I left something there is what he said but he didn’t say what. He said it was very important but he didn’t say why. The kid didn’t press him on these issues, which was good. They didn’t speak in the uni, the gravitrain or the dinocab all the way uptown. At a red light Peter looks at a queue of extras awaiting entry even at this small hour into a club. Slaves to the rhythm scene, motored by space-age qualities. Melissa and Jomo are frequent patrons of these zoos, he knows, having disinterestedly inquired about their social life on occasion. I don’t really want to know is the tacit admission. Once he tripped in her foyer on a pair of her baby stilettos on a Sunday morning. He said she was loaded, a teacher, in that collection room. He may or may not have said her name. He definitely said that he could access her funds, the word access sticking in his craw, while he was under surveillance through the mirror. In his bed in the Shallows, around 4:55, it occurred to him there would have been a camcorder on the other side of that glass, or worse, a geek at a terminal entering data and running locators. Whatever dirt they had on him since the shakedown was back there and had to be destroyed or erased before they let the goons out to dun his daughter.
They get out two blocks from Mundo Modo and walk down a sidewalk undulating from disrepair. Fog-cutting yellow street lamps cast parabolas on the lower stories of the projects, largely abandoned years ago for the Owning-Your-Own-Home dream of The Shallows and better rents in The Rivers. Present Danger, whoever that may be, is advertised in the shattered windows on the pockmarked building facades behind the stripped limos. Peter rubs his neck, less angry now that he has been tieless for several hours. Two or three emaciated extras—he can’t make them out exactly outside the nets of the lights—stumble up out of a door below street level. No doubt a den for the base qualities the kids today crave. He’s seen the names online: Swear, Cynico, the Anti’s. He and Dartie pass a group sprawled on a stoop, their eyes like cats’ attracting all the neighboring beams, concentrating and reflecting them in ocular alchemy.
He wants to buy from these shadows. He wants to whisper inquisitively to Dartie, secure complicity, then accost these strung-out waifs, drop a few hip salutatory lines and cop a quick deal. The tectonics underfoot interrupts his gait and sends him into a protracted stumble. That his coordination after all these years prevents a fall means nothing to the stoop loungers, whose snickers burn his ears. Standing still, he makes to hurl a barrage of epithets but instead the preparatory deep breath rakes his alveoli and brings on a hacking fit. Hunched over, drooling on the concrete, he thinks Dartie has been asking if he’s OK. That is no longer an option, he almost says.
In fact he says nothing at all until they face the crime scene, wrapped in police tape, the moonlight supplanted by spotlights that were left on for some reason. All the rounding and cleaning up attendant to a shootout has already taken place; only one private car sits idle by the main entrance. This is what he expected at 4:57 in The Shallows, not hoped for but expected, and the coming-true of his conviction steels his frazzled frame. A citizen with nary a first-hand encounter with the fuzz, he has successfully predicted the duration of what must have been a significant law-enforcement operation. He stands in the dark and looks at his trusty sidekick, primed to do his bidding. The plan is, the plan is… A man, a plan, a canal, Panama. Never the real or virtual quarterback, he knows he has no play to call but if he doesn’t say something he imagines a whistle will shriek and the fans and bettors will slander him into loserdom.
Peter: Let’s go around the back. See if there’s another way in. Stay quiet.
Mundo Modo’s rear abuts a volleyball lot. Rusty bars transect the courts from both sides of the chain-link cage. Nets were inevitably pilfered in post-urban facilities such as this. If they weren’t on a mission he’d ask the kid rhetorically where do all the nets go. Instead, he treads lightly to a frosted window, which tells him only that the lights inside are on. Contemplating breaking it and shoving the kid through, Peter stares at the sky. The few faint stars in these citified parts offer little help or inspiration, as if he were the type to wish for anything. Letting Dartie go solo becomes problematic as he thinks about D’Angel’s ultimately unsatisfying mission at Monsieur Deng’s.
Peter: All the bats are gone. You notice?
Peter: The sensor bats. There’s no more commotion so they went back to their caves.
Dartie: You think they feed them blood?
Peter looks at Dartie and reevaluates the bit about the trusty sidekick. This will be a joint effort or it will fail. They continue along the alley, past a row of bins that are stenciled HAZARDOUS MEDICAL WASTE.
Peter: What do you think they have in here?
Dartie: Hazardous medical waste.
Dartie: Maybe they got some surplus prescription qualities. We should maybe check it out.
Dartie: We could make some big money turning the stuff over.
Peter: Listen to me. This is not a hospital. There is no hospital in the vicinity. Therefore, this is not medical waste.
Dartie: Didn’t you read the labels?
Peter: OK, OK. Go ahead, open one.
Dartie: I don’t know. Would it be a crime? I don’t wanna commit a misdemeanor or a felony. I don’t wanna have a record.
Peter: How can taking trash be a crime? They’ve already thrown it away.
Dartie: That’s a good point. OK, here goes—
He raises a heavy, creaky lid and strains to ease it back. Inside are stacks of large black bags, sealed along a white rib. Dartie fiddles with the end of one sack, then tugs it forcefully.
Dartie: I can’t open it. You try.
Peter: You almost have it. Keep at it.
Dartie: Why don’t you try?
Peter: You have to bite it. This is the age of shrink-wrap and child-proof—you have to bite and rip anything to open it.
Dartie: I never have to bite anything.
Peter: Use your canines and tear from side to side. Picture Strom when he gets a treat—it’s the only way.
Dartie bends forward and digs in, opening a dime-sized incision into which he inserts two index fingers, which he pulls in opposite directions.
Dartie: This material is strong. I can’t pull it apart. You try.
Peter: You look good. Keep at it and think positive thoughts.
The kid proceeds to work both hands into the widening gash. The synthetic gives suddenly and he rips open the sack, exposing a lamb’s head, covered partly by gelatinous flesh and predominantly by maggots. Death lunges up their nostrils, pushing them back against the fence. Peter digs out two mustard blunts, Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah’s both and hands one to Dartie, who cannot look away from his find.
Peter: You know what that is, don’t you?
Peter: Dragon kill.
Instantaneously another bag percolates. A flyweight dragon, one from the preliminaries, bursts out. Lacking a front leg and most of its throat, it rasps in agony. Peter grabs the chain links behind, searing his palm with lit mustard. Dartie leaps to the side and around the bin and slams the lid down, decapitating the monster. Clapping his hands to extinguish the ash, Peter kicks the head, bouncing it down the alley.
Dartie: Wow. That could have been dangerous.
Peter: Keen grasp of the obvious.
He looks back up at the night sky. The moaning man-in-the-moon distracts him for a few seconds before he realizes he should be checking for sensor bats, like a common criminal or a clumsy flat-renter who has inadvertently detached a fire escape or dropped a window pane. All is clear above, fortunately, and out on the court.
Dartie: Over here!
Peter rubs his palm, the wound more annoying than painful, and walks toward Dartie, who has pulled up metal doors in the alley floor. A stairwell leads them down to a basement door. Unlocked. Peter follows the kid inside, thinking that even as a child he never ventured into what he perceived as Forbidden Zones: unmarked closets at school, vacant neighbors’ garages, service areas of restaurants. He stands motionless in space.
Peter: There must be a light in here somewhere.
As though voice-activated, rustling, grating noises sweep all around them.
Peter: Oh no. No.
The light goes on and they stand amid pens of dragons regarding the human company with purpose. Dartie is up against a wall, finger glued to the switch, mouth agape. From several angles, dragons swing their forelegs busily to each side and approach Peter behind wide steel mesh caging.
Dartie: I thought dragons were deaf.
Peter: You’re not, so listen to me and shut up!
The nearest dragon puffs out his neck and Peter feels his scrotum implode. He runs to Dartie and presses next to him against the wall.
Dartie: Over there! In that corner, stairs. And a door.
With his eyes, Peter follows the narrow route. It takes them past a ceiling-high pen and its behemoth sentinel, Strom. The dragon of dragons awaits them in profile, his one eye blinking calmly. From cowl to tail, his armor seems to stretch miles.
Peter: These cages have to be solid. There’s really no danger here. The metal must be electrified or something.
Dartie: Let’s do it!
He scampers forward, Peter still girding himself for an articulated 1-2-3! Unbelievably, Dartie’s rush causes the beasts to recoil. Peter plunges ahead, skipping and sidestepping to stay as clear as possible from the pens. Like a damsel on a distressed lam, he trips directly in front of the last place on Earth he would ever want to call Home. Strom’s tongue flicks through the mesh and lingers over the steel before retracting. No sparks, no shock, no electrifying incarceration. Peter stands and the monster retreats, then suddenly rushes at his knees. The wall bends and holds but bolts in the ceiling clang to the ground. The mouth of mouths snaps at the steel and Peter hightails it to the exit where Dartie has just vanished.
They race up several flights of stairs and enter the coach-class dining area, two levels removed from the gladiator’s pit, then creep stealthily to the cashier’s. Dartie, again, takes the lead. Peter wonders how the kid knows where to go, as their mission has not been disclosed. The answer comes quickly to him (perhaps adrenaline and fear have waked his dormant thought processes): the kid thinks this is a break-in, a good old-fashioned heist. Sure enough, they step over brutalized cocktail tables and wind up at the panel of windows and depressions for currency pass-throughs.
Peter: Not here.
Peter: The collection room. Where they locked me in.
Inside all is untouched and quiet—the lone terminal, the lone chair—like a roped-off installation in a minor avant-garde gallery. Peter looks at the mirror and takes care not to position himself in front of it directly. He scans the wall for a panel, a concealed doorknob. Nothing. He brushes past Dartie and strides out around the corner and into the cashier’s back office. The registers have been cleaned out. He keeps to starboard and walks into a room identical in size to the collection space but devoid of furniture. A black dinophone hangs on a wall, the cord unplugged.
Peter: OK. No terminal in here, no vid set-up. No jacks or outlets. This carpet hasn’t even been walked on recently.
He moves to a square of inset glass, undoubtedly on the other side of the mirror, but doesn’t see the terminal chair. Instead he sees an ashen, mustachioed man luridly petrified by his self-perception. Peter thinks it is worse than any mug shot ever of a man in rapid decline. From the front entrance come clicks and sliding sounds and static from a vidcom.
They run past the pit—Dartie actually hurdles an amputated stool—as the sentry enters and barks monosyllables. Hey. Stop. Freeze. His bouncing flashlight beam alights on the rear door, facilitating their rushed exit and descent. Peter strains to suppress a coughing jag and in so doing halts his circulation for a few beats, leaving him giddy and breathless in an aisle of bothered dragons. Another round of barks from the top of the stairs. Wide-eyed, the guard evaluates the room and runs toward them. Peter looks ahead at Dartie by the egress, the view interrupted by Strom's head, now protruding entirely through the pen. The lizard jerks his cowl from the mesh’s teeth. Dashing past the opposite pens of lesser carnivores, Peter flees the champion who tore so fiercely into his credit rating earlier. He reaches Dartie at the final stairs when a section of the ceiling crashes down. Strom writhes free in tangled metal, shaking off a beam and plaster shards. Stranded in the center of the aisle, the guard drops his flashlight and clutches at his belt for a weapon that does not reside there. Peter thinks to yell, “Rule Number One When Entering the Dragon’s Lair: Make Sure You Are Heavily Armed.”
Dartie drops the outer doors flat to the ground, severing the cry of the prey. The two trot down the alley in crepuscular haze, Peter longing for his bed in The Shallows like never before. When he awakes in the early afternoon, he resolves, he will alert Melissa tactfully but firmly of the situation. Now that the Death card has turned over, self-preservation trumps shame.
Parched and groggy, Melissa jumps off the sultan and dons a robe. Tawdra’s door is open; the bed is vacant. The mounted cam pointed at the ripped couch evokes the profane diva dismissing her flashers. In the living room rays from the east pour through open blinds, assaulting Frothy, asleep and sweaty on the floor, one hand on his breast and the other outstretched plaintively. Mouth agape, he looks about to serenade her. Instead, he opens his eyes and croaks guttural nonsense.
Melissa: Didn’t hear you let yourself in.
Frothy: Quiet. Like a panther.
Melissa: Thought you were hooking up last night. Did you?
Melissa: With those two—
Frothy: Full Frontal.
Melissa: What about him?
Frothy: Cut in on me on the dance floor. Outgrooved me.
Melissa: You were working it. I saw you.
Frothy: It was like, us, and then Full Frontal showed up and it was like, them. Happened so fast. Alone again, naturally.
Melissa: Poor baby.
Frothy: Am I still On? Can’t tell down here.
A cold glass pressed gently then firmly to a bare foot. Tumult in the distance by the headboard.
Melissa: Thirsty, sweetheart?
Jomo: Mm mm.
Melissa: May I wash your feet?
Jomo: Damn that’s cold! Behave, teeny. Gotta zee some more.
Melissa: Mr. Frontal spoiled Mr. Frothy’s fun last night.
Melissa: Mr. Frontal absconded with Mr. Frothy’s dance partners. Those vamps.
Jomo: Both? What a day he had.
Melissa: Tawdra never came back. Guess she’s out with Kwirt. Probably still at the Koil in an empty rung. I can imagine the music they’re making.
Jomo: Kwirt. Kwirt? That kid with the screen on his apron—that was Kwirt?
Melissa: The DJ. Nice guy. On the grim side.
Jomo: Why didn’t you tell me, petit poi? I was looking for him all night! Damn!
Melissa: We were grooving. How was I supposed to know you didn’t know him? You know everyone!
Jomo: I need that kid—he can hook me up with Prep Boy. Wake me up when the cue ball rolls in.
Coming down off camaraderie makes Melissa’s morning in the sultan disjointed and migraineful. She caresses the slumbering Jomo but can’t shake her detachment. She misses him even as she holds him, hot like a furnace, smoldering under a sheet and her arms. She studies each member of the petroleum jelly series, eyes flitting out of sequence despite her efforts. She returns to frames of a continual dream consisting of her scolding her father (as Mindy would want, but with less venom) to eat right, to stop gambling, to switch off mustard so as not to smell like a wiener, to pull up his anchor in The Shallows and fly to Colorado. I am self-righteous in my dreams... The central air hisses and the blank, white ceiling hangs low during these episodes. I’m better now, she thinks, I can get up finally, so she does. She pulls up boxers and a surplus Quantico T and returns to the swansdown. Frothy has flipped over, cheek implanted in the shag. A card swooshes outside and Tawdra walks in, her Saran wrap noticeably less clingy. She heads straight for the kitchen and fixes an iced North Sea Brent. Melissa is about to ask if she’s in love but Tawdra shakes her head telepathically and presses down her ragged edges. Through the diaphanous layers her nipples are gray.
Frothy flips over, mumbles that he’s still On and makes like a snow angel in the shag. Tawdra’s silence, such a rarity, is especially welcome so Melissa waves up a Quantico holo and indulges herself in a review of her monthly commissions. Not bad for the summer and not surprising; parents opting for the full-year term tend to be good payers on top of the vouchers. Melissa has read reports on this phenomenon that have examined both “positive” (pro-education) and “negative” (guilt) motivational factors.
Tawdra: You think I hate men.
Tawdra: You suspect my dysfunctional family history is behind my behavior. I mean, you’re a teacher, so you would suspect my father and mother.
Melissa: I really don’t know anything about your parents. You’ve never discussed them.
Tawdra: I’ve alluded to them many times.
Melissa: Not many.
Tawdra: I have.
Melissa: Maybe, but I don’t know anything about them besides their existence.
Tawdra: No. Besides their existence, you don’t know.
Frothy sits up abruptly as though he’s been awake for hours and stretches a saccharine smile.
Frothy: Ladies, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to lie myself down and try to finish up half of a decent night’s sleep. Your cooperation by piping the fuck down would be greatly appreciated.
He lies himself back down as foretold. Tawdra reaches over and slams Love Is Enough into his solar plexus, prompting a clumsy, clutching reflex. Eyes shut, he mimes What Is This Object On My Belly? and, discovering it’s a pillow, slides it happily under his matted head.
Melissa: I think Jomo’s mother is coming by soon.
Melissa: I don’t remember.
Tawdra: Why don’t you wake her son.
Melissa: Why don’t you slip into something opaque.
Tawdra examines the limp wrap around her arms: several new bruises publicize her encounter with Kwirt. Melissa pulls up her boxers and rubs the week-old blemish on her own thigh. Human boxers press meat to shiners, don’t they, and she revisits momentarily Jomo as Ali/Rocky doing imaginary speedwork for his entourage of manic chicos in Alphabet City.
Looking at her screen, a pleasant figure enters her head: 25%. Bebel, the puta, promised her the commission hike on top of the base raise. With private pomp Melissa drags the cursor deliberately but directly up the spreadsheet to the head of the Rate column. She enters the date at the top, which effects a shimmering of change below as new ordinals crowd to the right. At the bottom, where the eyes dwell most, sits a proud new sum for Payroll to process at the end of the week. This nut should be retroactive, shouldn’t it, but the puta won’t report her raise and commission hike till the subsequent pay period. Forget that: she’ll hold Bebel to the minute she made her final offer, for sneering at her honest negotiations! Melissa calculates the fraction of July to which the increases apply and pastes the result into the spreadsheet. More shimmering and crowding and voilà—Quantico commission magic.
Tawdra: Or maybe it’s that I hate myself.
Melissa: I’m sorry?
Tawdra: I hate myself, you’re convinced.
Melissa: You think?
Tawdra: Oh, that goddamn expression! “You think?!” You say that all the fucking time, all disingenuous or ingenuous—whichever the fuck it is. You’re asking me if I think? Of course I think! And I fucking articulate my thoughts and walk and chew gum, too!
Vidcom: You have a guest, Miss Matasava.
Melissa moves her hand dismissively, which, oddly enough, signals that it’s OK to enter.
Melissa: That’s Jomo’s mom and you’re way out of line. You haven’t slept and you’re projecting some sort of inner therapy on to me. For what it’s worth, I don’t think you hate men or yourself. I do think you should change your clothes pronto.
Tawdra: Don’t talk down to me. It’s my apartment and I’m staying put and sipping my Saturday morning Brent.
Frothy: Should I get up, Melissa, and make myself more presentable?
Melissa: Oh, please don’t. The flophouse motif is fabulous.
Jomo enters, shirtless, scratching his shortening through a scarlet silk sarong Melissa bought him during a fit of mischief at the Chappa Student Union’s apparel section.
Jomo: Peace, my peoples.
The doorbell says Hello? and Melissa throws her tiny hands a short distance above her wee head, goes to the door and opens it before any of the decadent can budge. For a second they are all thrown by the vacancy outside. In fact Jomo’s mother squats over her briefcase, marking this the first time Melissa has blocked the view of another adult.
Jomo: Mom, get up! Get up, Mom!
She rises with a sheet of paper in her hand.
Jomo: I told you getting down like that isn’t proper.
Jomo’s Mom: I was just—
Jomo: Come on in, Mom, and give me a kiss. Damn!
Jomo’s Mom: I was simply fetching the list of appointments we discussed yesterday. Oh my, I forgot, my manners. Good morning, everyone.
Melissa: Good morning! Can I get you some hot water?
Jomo’s Mom: Please, thank you so much.
Jomo: Do you know everyone here, Mom?
Melissa walks past Tawdra on her stool, smiling during her introduction. Tawdra leans toward her.
Tawdra: Hot water? Why not whip up some gruel while you’re playing hostess. I think there’s some humus in the trash from last night, to boot.
Jomo: Mom, have a seat over there on the sofa, why don’t you.
Jomo’s Mom: Did you just wake up, Jomo? I can tell.
Frothy: Well I was just meditating down here. It—
Jomo: Yeah, Mom, you know I can’t keep your kind of hours. All that dawn watching and whatnot isn’t for me.
Jomo’s Mom: Truly, it’s the magnificent hour and, what’s more, it will be so when you need it most.
Frothy: I was in more of like a trance—
Jomo’s Mom: My, this is an impressive computer. Melissa is quite the programmer.
Melissa: Here we are, one water to stay. Actually, most of the apps came with that unit. This is just bookkeeping.
She waves it off, embarrassed.
Jomo’s Mom: Impressive nonetheless. Do you teach Jomo how to use it? He was always more communicative and creative than technical.
Jomo: I was always acting up, wasn’t I, Mom?
Jomo’s Mom: Oh, I wouldn’t characterize it as “acting up,” but more as “entertaining.” Like your father in that respect: open-hearted.
Frothy: I’m an entertainer, too, mother of Jomo, I’m so open-hearted they named a blood bank after me!
Jomo’s Mom: Really? Which one?
Tawdra: Just ignore him, he’s like a bouncing terrier that tries too hard.
Frothy: I reshingle that remark.
Melissa: So, honey, are you and your mom going to have an important tête-à-tête? If so, the rest of us can leave.
Tawdra: I have work to do. Fan flash, etcetera.
Jomo: Actually, Mom, I have good news. I can’t talk strategy right now with you—I have Smirk business. I—
Jomo’s Mom: That’s quite all right, I understand.
Jomo: Listen—I made a few flashes and hooked you up with an appointment! It’s with a content provider.
Jomo’s Mom: Who is the employer?
Jomo: The content provider is, Mom. The content provider needs an assistant for research or whatever, I guess. Basic content-providing assistance.
Jomo’s Mom: I don’t have any experience in that line of work.
Jomo: It’s not about experience, it’s about… organization and enthusiasm!
Jomo: Mom, you’re going to the damn meeting. It’s perfect for you.
Jomo’s Mom: What kind of content provider is she?
Tawdra: Wait! Can we guess?
Tawdra: Neo-gnostic revelry and revelation? You know, airport lit.
Frothy: Android politics, passion and punishment? That’s cutting edge—they love it in Japan, my fans tell me.
Jomo: I don’t know the cat’s bag. I got all the info in the bedroom.
He exits. Jomo’s mom sips her water and sits at the edge of the swansdown, turning into the wooden statue that Melissa knows Jomo tries so hard to keep animated. So easily overwhelmed, this woman. She simply freezes up when the world of humanity spins around her closely, which it never stops doing in this city. So unlike her son. Tawdra sneers, sensing the woman’s paralysis. Frothy remains supine, oblivious. Friends.
Tawdra: Maybe she’s an old-school Western Euro provider. You know, cultural implosion and machine-gun mean-spiritedness.
Frothy: Interprovinical virus warfare!
Jomo returns with a napkin rolled around chopsticks.
Jomo: Mom, at the sushi bar last night I happened to tell my man Kenji, who rolls a kickin’ tuna, about your between-employment status.
Melissa: You had sushi last night?
Jomo: Yeah, Itty. I’m sorry you missed. We’ll gulp some next week, I promise.
Tawdra: I like my flesh twitching.
Jomo: Anyway, Mom, Kenji said this dude Sheppard Lane is a provider lookin’ for, like I said, assistance.
Frothy: Lane. Don’t know him. But hey, he doesn’t know me either.
Tawdra: A real nobody, no doubt.
Jomo’s Mom: What is the salary of this post?
Jomo: Mom, you’re way past that type of consideration. It’s a job and that’s all you need to know. Kenji didn’t know the specifics—the cat just sits at his bar every now and then.
Melissa: I know Sheppard Lane.
Tawdra: How? You don’t read or play much for pleasure around here.
Melissa: He’s an old friend of Mindy’s. Was a friend. I mean, they were still friends when she died. I met him once or twice.
Jomo: What’s his game?
Melissa: I never played anything by him.
Tawdra: I called that.
Melissa: Personally, he’s… I guess I really don’t know what he’s like.
Tawdra: Oh, there’s an astute observation.
Jomo: You drinking vinegar over there, cue ball? Lighten up.
Melissa: I’d like to see him again. Tell you what, I’ll go along with you if that’s all right.
Jomo’s Mom: Will that be appropriate?
Jomo: Oh, hell yeah! You got a golden reference in the flesh from a Chappa. Just bring a pen to sign on the dotted line!
Melissa: I’ll go change.
Frothy: Don’t ever, ever change, Mel. Ever.
Melissa barefoots it down the hall and slams the door. As she slips on a skirt and steps into her Frito’s, she hears a feeble complaint followed by a firm retort from Jomo. She’s Going And So Are You. How such a meekly obstinate woman, devoid of talent and ambition, actually manages to live and breathe daily… Jomo opens the door.
Jomo: Hey. I really appreciate your going and all. You don’t have to, you know. Mom’s in one of her moods.
Melissa: Well, I’d like to see Shep. Plus, I’ve gotta get the hell out of this apartment.
Jomo: What’s with your roomie? I thought she hooked last night.
Melissa: I don’t know, I don’t know. She just went off on me, all bitter. I’m not her therapist, I mean, I don’t feel the need to channel the aggression of someone who owes me back rent.
Melissa: You know, Mindy had a fling with Shep.
Melissa: Well, I think so. You can tell the way people interact. Or maybe you can’t.
Jomo: Yeah. You know, I’ll pay some rent if you want it. Or I’ll buy some groceries or something.
Melissa: Honey, I don’t want your rent.
Jomo: You want nine feet of love?
Melissa: And then some, baby. Will you be here when I come back?
Jomo: Oh, uh, you know the appointment’s not till two.
Jomo: Yeah, so you got some time. Should we waste a few hours in here?
Melissa: Your mother’s outside waiting.
Melissa: I’ll take her somewhere. We’ll go eat.
Jomo: She won’t eat.
Melissa: She can watch me.
Jomo: Hah! You’re the best.
Melissa: I really need to get out, anyway.
Jomo: Hey, I’ll see you later, baby.
Melissa: Bye, baby. See you.
From a gliding aerial view, tiny extras pack the Shallows riverwalk and harbortown, filling up the benches and paddleboats. We swoop by Liberty, overclad for the weather, and track unis wending their way from gated community to mall and vice versa. Most of the residents are Down or Out At the Shore, but not George, whom we zoom in on as he mops his brow under his cap and waves in another new owner at Residential Zone 113.
12:33 the red rectangles form. The kid’s probably gone. Peter sits up in bed then stops himself, wanting to see it turn 12:34—one digit short of a straight in time. Turning left to look triggers a stinger down his nape, the hot tingle bouncing down the nerve and back up into the left side of his tongue. As always he slaps and rubs the origin and wonders why it’s never traumatized his right. There is, apparently, inside his neck a minor asymmetry. He slips on a T and leaves the room without looking back at the clock, knowing he missed the change.
Of course Dartie is gone. The sheet on the sofa is bunched up on one side and the pillow on the other. Two mysteries here: when did he present the linen in the first place, and why hadn’t common decency kicked the punk in the ass to tidy up before he left. Standing ragged in harsh sunlight, he buckles subtly in déjà vu (rising late in Phoenix, his parents long escaped to their errands, feeling hopeless in their condo’s living room and listening to the AC, feeling angry and antsy and regretful for flying in his lazy ass in the first place). It doesn’t matter what prints you hang, what throws you lie, every condo in summer is Phoenix. Well, maybe not. Look out the window, linger on the balcony, and take in the Little Hudson and its brick promenade and gas lamps. Not Phoenix out there but San Diego, Baltimore, Cleveland…
Knock knock and he lets in the kid, who brought back breakfast food. How sweet, he still has some of those winnings. Peter goes for the gas and takes his time with it to show he doesn’t want to talk. Dartie gets the message: none of that Last Night Frat Boy Recap bullshit. Amazingly the kid found the good deli, two blocks past the bad one, the one with the stubborn rolls. When Peter finishes his gas he’s going to announce that he will take a shower and adios amigo blanco. He’s going to put on a pair of slacks, a crisp white shirt, a blue blazer and his beloved weekend bolo, then fix a few drinks like so many Saturdays before.
In the elevator and out on the avenue they exchanged only tight smiles and glances. She doesn’t speak but she sure walks fast, this inscrutable woman, mother of a giant, her only child. Hours to kill… Rigid, she hadn’t been fazed one bit by the news of the actual appointment time. She’d just packed up the ratty briefcase and headed out the door. Now here they are and Melissa, irritated, has to double her pace to keep up with a woman with no destination. Something is happening and Jomo’s mother stops and grabs her arm.
Jomo’s Mom: Look.
A taxi idles at the curb. A woman’s beaming face sticking out the rear window at them. Hillary, behind sunglasses.
Hillary: Aloha, Melissa! I thought that was you, you web star!
Melissa: What are you doing?
Hillary: I was at my IFA! seminar. What are you doing?
Melissa: Strolling. Thinking about lunch vs. brunch. This is Jomo’s mother.
Hillary: Aloha! Well, I could certainly use a bite. God, it’s been ages, like how many years? Let’s catch up over lunch, how about it?
Melissa: Sounds great.
Hillary: Why don’t you come back to my place and I’ll fix something? It’ll be easier to chat.
Melissa: Well, the two of us have an engagement this afternoon.
Hillary: That’s perfect. Both of you jump in and we’ll whiz right over!
They get in, Melissa first, over the hump and next to Hillary, whose fragrance is strong, both appealing and un. Keep mother by the window and lock the door for her. The cab jumps ahead, jangling Hillary’s multitude of beaded necklaces and polymetallic armwear.
Hillary: God, I haven’t seen a Chappa chick in ages. Did I say that already? You look great! How’s teaching—I heard you started at Quantico.
Melissa: Still there. It’s only been a little more than a year. I think I’ll be there for a while. How about you?
Hillary: Oh, I’m at a little bit of a crossroads, but it’s fine! I’m following the steps of my seminar and I’ll present my project in about a month. So, you’re still with Jomo! I see him around town every now and then. He’s so visible!
Melissa: He is that. Some of us see less of him than others. I mean, he works on his music all the time.
Hillary: I bet. So you’re a star now, too. Loved the show. What magazine did you buy? I buy so many but never read them. They’re too… I don’t know. How did you get on that show, anyways? I always wondered how that worked.
Melissa: It’s a short story.
Jomo’s Mom: My, that is an adorable elephant.
On the front dash a miniature elephant stands and braces for the starts, stops and turns.
Hillary: Oh, look! I never even noticed! Hello, little trunky wunky!
Melissa: That’s the second one I’ve seen in two days.
Hillary: The third’s the charm—I have that on good information. Here we are! Stop, driver!
Exiting the elevator at Penthouse, Hillary leads them through a firewalled corridor. They pass glossy doors that open into discrete apartments recently demised out of the former palace. Hillary chatters about the flight to The Shallows, and the resulting availability of these whimsically captivating spaces in Manhattan, to be had for a song by those inclined to accept municipal instabilities and public insecurities. She opens her door and, upon entering, her guests are blinded. Melissa shields her eyes and waits for the adjustment, then sees she stands in a glass-enclosed rooftop cabana and pool.
Hillary: It’s not always this sunny but it has been rather bright lately.
They walk past the dry Olympic-size basin. Rows of potted pale green rosettes fill two-thirds, worktables the remainder. High up, at the edge of the ten-foot diving board, a ceramic likeness of Hillary crouches, toes extending out in space, powerfully poised to spring into an aerial series of maneuvers with a high degree of difficulty.
Melissa: I like that.
Hillary: Oh yes, it’s very dramatic! Of course, I don’t swim.
Melissa: Me neither.
Hillary: The swim cap is real, as is the one-piece. I removed the goggles—you couldn’t tell it was me.
The cabana offers a sizable lounging area. The guests ensconce themselves creakily in white wicker as their host prepares a tray of iced gas and iced water. Melissa thinks to jar Jomo’s mother from her dumbness with an innocuous remark like Some Place Huh? but realizes there is a formidable hum around them. Chilled, she rubs her forearms, the conspicuous, black hairs at attention. What must be a gang of air conditioners pumps icy currents underneath the sun-excited atmosphere. Coloring the machine-driven jets blue, green and orange, say, would paint a Jovian scene of restless, conflicting etheria. Pleased that her imagination can wax visual, she lights up currants and watches the fag burn quickly in the draft.
Hillary presents her liquid offerings and plates of chic pea salad, humus, sesame-tinged zwieback, and red, yellow and green pepper curls. While the Chappas commence their finger nosh, Jomo’s mother refrains, gazing at Hillary As A Diver. Melissa sees in her transfixion a devout’s awe under a Pieta. Let her be…
Hillary: This humus is divine, don’t you think. I get it at an Italian gourmet deli, of all places.
Melissa: Tasty. So what’s with the plants in the pool?
Hillary: Oh, I’m so glad you asked! That’s my project!
Melissa: The project for your IFA! Seminar.
Melissa: You’re studying horticulture?
Hillary: Oh, no. It’s a self-actualization path. You know me, I’ve done vibration therapy, aromatherapy, past-life recovery
Melissa: I didn’t know that.
Hillary: That’s right, you haven’t seen me in a while. Well, I was always the unhappy pilgrim, even as a Chappa. You remember that!
Melissa: I always thought you were pretty rounded, or square, or, uh, balanced.
Hillary: I hid my pain well!
Melissa: And now?
Hillary: No pain! I mean, I’m an eternal searcher. Did you know that in one of my past lives I rounded up glass and gave it to Galileo to grind the prototypes of his telescopic lens?
Melissa: That’s something.
Hillary: The penalty was death or excommunication. As a female tarot reader at the time, my concerns were justifiably with the former.
Melissa: So, this seminar?
Hillary: It’s a traditional you-know-how-to-help-yourself-so-why-not-apply-yourself-to-helping-others program. The mentor is folksy and charismatic. A very compelling, emotional man—you always want to hug him or something. He has a cute red nose, too, the kind you want to tweak.
Melissa: How’s the class?
Hillary: Very interesting people! We meet on the side and network. You should take it next semester!
Melissa: You think?
Hillary: I’m not saying you need it. I’m saying you deserve it.
Melissa: So, how do the plants fit in to all this? I thought cannabis was done with.
Hillary: Ah, my little wise friend, that is not grass but aloe vera. It’s my project!
Melissa: Enlighten us.
Hillary: Aloe vera originated in Africa—
Melissa: What didn’t?
Hillary: Its soothing magic was discovered by Saharans and eventually Egyptian and Hellenic warriors. Today we exploit its multitudinous properties: anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, dilatory, diuretic... No wonder aloe vera finds it way into all sorts of therapeutic, medicinal and cosmetic products—this balm is the bomb!
Melissa: I do see it mentioned everywhere. I never thought about it.
Hillary: Well, I have, obviously. It started when I was jogging frequently and my nipples got swollen and chafed for days. Have you ever had that?
Melissa: No. Guess I don’t run enough.
Hillary: Maybe you don’t have pert, bud-sized nipples like I do. Oh, it’s painful and annoying! I mean, you’re sitting at dinner somewhere and your nipples are on fire and you can’t do anything about it! Sometimes they bleed, too!
Melissa: Oh no.
Hillary: So, at the first step of the seminar when we each opened up about something we desperately wanted to change, I raised the nipple issue and you know what?
Hillary: It happens to men, too! Several of my classmates shared humiliating stories of cutting short blind dates or wearing sweaters every day—all because of bleeding, chafing nipples! They’re everywhere!
Melissa: Who knew?
Hillary: You really should take the seminar—you learn important things like this. You do deserve it. Anyways, you see those small strips on the worktables down there in the pool?
Melissa: The green rectangles?
Hillary: Yes. They will come in many other fashionable colors eventually.
Melissa: What will?
Hillary: My project, my invention—the Nip Tip!
Hillary: The Nip Tip is an easily applied and removed bandage treated with long-lasting, soothing aloe vera that keeps your headlights happy!
Melissa: Does it work?
Hillary: It not only works, it works wonders! Let me tell you about my revelation. First, let me clean up here. Are we all done?
Melissa: Yes, I don’t eat the green peppers. Let me help.
At the counter, in front of Matisse-licensed glazed tiles, Hillary bends over and whispers under the AC’s whoosh.
Melissa: I can’t hear you.
Hillary: She doesn’t say much.
Hillary: Either she’s very sad or very smart.
Melissa: You think?
Hillary: She doesn’t eat, either.
Melissa: Not much in, not much out.
Hillary: I was like that, I went through one of those periods. Then I had some others.
Hillary: But it’s OK, it’s fine, I have my Nip Tips.
Melissa: Let’s go back to the wicker. I don’t like to leave her sitting by herself, especially since she has an appointment soon.
They walk back and sit. Jomo’s mother is lost in the Hillary Diver.
Melissa: Your revelation.
Hillary: Which one?
Melissa: The Nip Tip.
Hillary: Right, my second revelation! During a past-life session shortly after I conceived of the Nip Tip, I discovered I was a handmaiden on Cleopatra’s barge!
Melissa: No kidding.
Hillary: I loved all the little kitties and the scarabs and the cosmetics. It was very sensual! And the Queen, my Queen! She had a certain… she had a –
Melissa: Je ne sais quoi.
Hillary: Yes, but in Egyptian! So one ominous Nile morning I was attending to my Queen, who was particularly distressed about Antony and the imminent war with Octavian—
Melissa: She saw the hieroglyphics on the wall.
Hillary: It was tearing her apart. She commanded me to bring a pitcher to her. Do you know what was in the pitcher?
Melissa: Iced North African crude?
Hillary: Aloe! She bade me rub the unguent over her and into her and, as I did, she became appeased.
Melissa: You were quite the masseuse.
Hillary: No, it wasn’t me, it was the aloe! Cleopatra lay still and looked at me and said, “For a woman such as I, at a time such as this, there is no elixir more welcome.”
Hillary: Then she shut her eyes and smiled.
Hillary: I knew then that if I used aloe I would never chafe. In this life, through the Nip Tip, I will protect everyone from chafing and burning.
Melissa: When they’re jogging.
Hillary: No, you misunderstand. Cleopatra didn’t jog, she rarely even walked. Her discomfort that morning was profound, internal. Aloe provides the Mmmm against a harsh world. Don’t you yourself need that?
Melissa: Me? I’m having a less-than-great day, but otherwise…
Hillary: Let’s go for a walk in the pool.
She stands. Melissa touches Jomo’s mother’s shoulder and indicates she should rise. She does silently, following them down the inset ladder. Hillary takes them past the table of Nip Tips to another table covered with broad and longer glistening strips.
Melissa: It’s hot down here. The AC doesn’t reach.
Hillary: Aloe requires a desert climate. You see those there?
Hillary: The sister of the Nip Tip, my second invention—Thigh-Gli!
Melissa: Let me guess: that would prevent chafing along your inner thighs when you jog.
Hillary: It’s not only about jogging, Melissa! When I first wore the Nip Tip and Thigh-Gli I began to sense, actually sense, the flow of blood though my breasts and throughout my legs and genital region. It wasn’t a cheap stimulant, I felt Cleopatra’s Mmmm at my psychosexual core! I became more comfortable, more confident, more forgiving. Aloe isn’t a cosmetic film, it’s rainwater for your soul!
Melissa: Confident? Forgiving?
They stroll between rows of rosettes, each presenting twelve fronds, Melissa counts to herself.
Hillary: In the spring yellow flowers will bloom. Remember how magnetic I said my guide is?
Melissa: I thought you said he has a red nose.
Hillary: It’s not that red. Anyways, we started dating early on in the program.
Melissa: Is there a significant age difference?
Hillary: Not as significant as the height difference between you and Jomo.
Hillary: It was very passionate and invigorating and intoxicating—all the clichés—for several weeks. I helped him with the syllabus, actually proposed some dramatic changes. He turned to me for advice in dealing with some of the students, my classmates, who were underperforming. Between his charm and my goal-setting and commitment to measurable results, we share a very special synergy.
Melissa: Sounds great.
Hillary: It is but it wasn’t always! Shortly after our relationship began, I found out it wasn’t based on mutual monogamy.
Melissa: That’s an interesting way of putting it.
Hillary: He allowed himself to succumb to the aggressive advances of several of my classmates!
Melissa: Several as in two or three or several as in more than ten?
Hillary: I brushed aside those types of painful details and moved past the betrayal and do you know how?
Melissa: He apologized and you forgave him?
Hillary: Aloe! Serendipitously, I had initiated testing of the Nip Tip during our scandal. I prevailed like Cleopatra and our love remains as vibrant as ever today!
Melissa: How many people have used the Nip Tip and Thigh-Gli besides you?
Hillary: I haven’t introduced it to the public yet. That’s levels away.
Melissa: So what happens till then?
Hillary: Well, for one, I’m continuing to blend the two primary strains of Aloe, aborescens and barbadensis Miller, with their more distant cousins from the Outback, Thar, Atacama and other mystical drylands. Cultivating the perfect hybrid is my personal quest. But it won’t be personal for long!
Melissa: Did I mention that it’s hot as hell down here?
Hillary: It feels great!
Melissa: Just before you said, “For one…” when I asked you what you’re doing before your… unveiling. What’s “for two?”
Hillary: Come on, guess. You’re a Curie—I remember you acing every oral and spot quiz at Chappaquiddick.
Melissa: You need a guinea pig beside yourself.
Hillary: Guinea pigs would be better, more measurable. You know you want to try it. More than that—
Melissa: I deserve it.
Hillary: Oh, you do!
Melissa walks over to the Nip Tip bench and holds out two strips in front of her.
Melissa: I just stick them on?
Hillary: Easy on, easy off.
Melissa applies each and proceeds to the Thigh-Gli station.
Melissa: How do you say “Mmmm” in Egyptian?
Hillary: It doesn’t require translation, chickadee.
She presses on the longer strips, which encircle her legs twice.
Hillary: Oh my. They’re not supposed to overlap so much. You’re so petite. I hadn’t thought of producing different sizes.
Melissa: So, do I take these off when I shower.
Hillary: You won’t want to.
Melissa: How about at night.
Hillary: You definitely won’t want to.
Melissa: How about ever.
Hillary: I have three words for Nip Tip and Thigh-Gli wearers: leave ‘em on!
Melissa looks down the aisle, where Jomo’s mother has applied the product. The silent woman approaches, drops trou and adheres two Thigh-Gli’s.
Jomo’s Mom: I’ve occasionally suffered the discomfort and irritation you described before.
Melissa: Who knew.
Hillary: No one should chafe!
A Quicken watch is consulted and the guests climb out of the pool to leave for their appointment. Hillary chucks Melissa’s derriere at the door, where they exchange parting pleasantries of the kind that poses questions.
Liberty’s shadow hugs her base and Peter stares at her robe up through the atrium ceiling until his eyes succumb to the glare. He knows no one who has gone blind looking at her or at the sun, for that matter, when confronting an eclipse. Urban legend and mind/eye control... Lolling here in the main Shallows gravitrain terminal, hub for interprovince slides and shuttles to conventional air and rail, he breathes freely over a Bloody Mary. All these extras, bustling at paces unrelated to the heft of their luggage, their murmuring and clutching diasporal in this cavern. There, a cur’s conjugal leave-taking… There, a troop of ruddy roos on walkabout (Peter espies a jalapeño pin on a jeans jacket—a symbol of Tawdra’s fan club)… There, a shiatsu master beckoning two grade-school teachers on their Saturday off… And everywhere, interstitial, a piped-in processional of wind chimes. Dartie returns from the latrine and Peter finds himself affectionate.
Peter: You’re back! After all these days!
Dartie: Had to go over to that far corner and down some stairs. I took a wrong turn and had to ask at the Mongolian barbecue.
Peter: Did any of them have only one name?
Peter: Many Mongolians go by a single name. I’ve always enjoyed that.
Dartie: I didn’t see any Mongolians there.
Peter: That’s all right! You’re back!
Dartie: Genghis Khan had two names.
Peter: That’s a perfect reason to have a second Bloody.
Dartie: The food they served had a lot of names. I mean, each dish was called, like, something, something and something, I think, or just something with something else.
Peter: Move off it, kid, we’ve got brunch to consider.
Frothy awakes again, his left cheek planted in the shag tendrils. He usually sleeps on the left side to avoid gastroesophogeal reflux, which he has never experienced but his mother has often. In the bathroom mirror behind specks of toothpaste spittle (some cleaning lady Melissa has) there is an imprint of many eccentric arms on his cheek. He pours himself a cold gas out in the kitchen and sits on a director’s chair next to Tawdra, who scrolls over her email.
Tawdra: This one’s offering me a million.
Frothy: Take it.
Tawdra: He just says “a million,” he doesn’t say what.
Frothy: A million anything, a million grapefruit is still worth something. You could have a grapefruit party, offer grapefruit rubdowns, grapefruit seed-spitting contests, grapefruit craftworks, and grapefruit mouth-to-mouth juice swapping. Puckers, everyone, puckers!
Tawdra: Jomo went back to sleep after he scolded me for disrespecting his baby doll. You have to like that in a man.
Frothy: What was the million offered for?
Tawdra: The jalapeño. Are you going to stay and stink this place up all day?
Frothy: I have an engagement.
Tawdra: What is that on your face?
Frothy: I’d rather not say.
Tawdra: Is that a tattoo from sleeping on the rug? Hah, hah! That’s the first time you’ve ever made me laugh! You look so fucking stupid!
Frothy: Yes, but madam, I will look fucking stupid at a splendid engagement this afternoon while you will be sitting here contemplating grapefruit.
Tawdra: It’s like half your face was burned by acid or something!
Frothy: I reinvent that remark. Charmed and On, as always, I’m off.
Tawdra: OK, so where are you going? I can’t believe I just asked that.
The vidcom glows and Full Frontal holos up. Tawdra hauls herself to the swansdown, her Saran wilting as she sighs.
Tawdra: Where are you?
Full Frontal: My boy there?
Tawdra: Where are you? Still in that cave?
Full Frontal: I’m all gothic and freaky whatnot. Get Jomo.
Next to him Az and Zix’s heads holo up siamese into one field.
Tawdra: Hey, hey! How’s everything hanging?
Text oozes below Az/Zix: FULL FRONTAL HAS A DOUBLE SOUL.
Full Frontal: Where’s Jomo?
Tawdra: He’s hibernating.
Az/Zix: ONE OF HIS SOULS IS VERY STRONG AND ONE IS VERY WEAK. WE ENJOYED BOTH. IS THAT THE NEWBIE FROM LAST NIGHT?
Frothy: It’s me all right. Young, fresh and On. But hey, that doesn’t appeal to everyone.
Full Frontal: Go wake up Jomo.
Tawdra: Do what?
Full Frontal: We got tickets to the Sirocco game. I gotta talk to him.
Tawdra: Sorry, we were just leaving. Flash back later.
She waves them off, their text dripping into nothing.
Tawdra: Hell if I’m Frontal’s bitch. And I didn’t hear an invitation for me to go to the Sirocco match. Roxanna absolutely glows!
Frothy: In a previous life I caulked tubs in tract housing.
Tawdra: So where are we going?
Frothy: This was after I tried to be a sod farmer and failed.
Tawdra: Should I change?
Frothy: I would say no, since we’re about to the play the game that separates the wheat from the chaff, the head from the dregs, the heroes from the shamefully vanquished. Plus, costumes will be provided.
Tawdra: We’re going to play a game. I’m definitely bringing my vid.
Frothy: It’s not just a game, Tawdra. It’s Hot Limo.
Melissa thanks her lucky stars for the frigid cab uptown to Sheppard Lane’s. Invigorated somehow, Jomo’s mother prompted the hack into a Czech-ered monologue about his Prague roots. The content provider resides on a shady block cut short by Broadway, where an oil boutique and a simulation volleyball arcade (for the kids) discourage thru pedestrian traffic.
There are the silk robe, espadrilles and a tiki pipe stuffed with betel. Introductions and explanations and a cheek peck and they all sit down. There is an arsenal of mounted automatics, semi’s and pocket pieces, as well as a stash of manuals, pastes, cylinders halved like citrus, and nails. Lane, appearing anywhere between 35 and 65 due to a set of taut, sunken cheeks, holds court recumbent on a lounge chair acquired via barter from The Blue Room, a beachfront family-style Italian restaurant outside Destin, FL. His beverage sparkles on an umbrella-table set he outright lifted from The Breakers in Palm Beach, FL. His eyes jump when he mumbles or listens. When he does neither they are small and hard.
Melissa: Looking at you, I get Hefner, Thompson and Buffet.
Melissa: I guess I soaked up some of Mindy’s analogies.
Lane: Yes, your mother. Should I say, “Damn shame about that?” Should I say it?
Melissa: I don’t think she felt comfortable with “shame.”
Lane: She wasn’t a very comfortable person at all, was she?
Lane: She wasn’t, was she.
Lane: Do you know why I told Kenji I finally need an assistant?
Jomo’s Mom: I presumed I would be replacing someone who left the position.
Lane: Shut up. It’s a new gig, doing time with the Shepper!
Jomo’s Mom: Well, may I inquire about the particulars?
Lane: See that box over there, the one with wrapping still taped to the sides? It contains shit. Literally. One of my admirers took the time to go through the motions and have it messengered. The note said something to the effect that I don’t think mine stinks so maybe I’ll think his does. See that picture? My daughter handed me that work from her Third Grade 2-D Art class. See that figure—the one with the head bigger than Canada? There are others in the scene, mainly herself and her sniveling mother, but I’m the one she selects to be acutely hydrocephalic!
Jomo’s Mom: How large is your family?
Lane: I have at least six children by at least four women. And I’m not a musician and I don’t play volleyball.
Jomo’s Mom: I have only one son. Jomo.
Lane: Your name was, again?
Jomo’s Mom: Katharine.
Lane: You’re lying—your eyes moved up and to the left. Up. And to the left.
Jomo’s Mom: I’m not lying. My father called me Kitty. Everyone did.
Lane: What does your husband call you?
Jomo’s Mom: Jomo and I called him Baba. He called me Kat.
Lane: And where is he?
Jomo’s Mom: In the summer he goes to his ranch in Kenya.
Lane: Does he have many other wives and children there?
Jomo’s Mom: Yes.
Lane: You’re not divorced, are you?
Jomo’s Mom: Yes, but he sends me some money.
Lane: I provide for mine. You understand—it’s all I can do.
Lane: My childhood sweetheart flashed me last week. After all these years. Do you know what she said? Should I say it? She said she always thought I was arrogant!
Jomo’s Mom: I’m sure that’s not all she said.
Lane: Oh, she told me she smokes hearts of palm and listens to opera. But that comment, it left me—
Jomo’s Mom: Yes?
Lane: I want you to arrange for her to attend my next site-specific upload so I can properly respond to her undiplomatic reminiscence. I’ve begun formulating a cordial exchange to be followed by an allow-me-to-inscribe-your-disk flourish which, it will turn out, when she finally reads it in her condo as I’ve instructed her, put her fucking flat in her place!
Melissa: You could just give her that box over there. Shit for shat, or something like that.
Lane: When I’m on a roll, your input is unwelcome, as was your mother’s. Why is it that women invariably interrupt my ranting with two-bit toot-toots? This is why the mothers of my offspring are off-limits.
Jomo’s Mom: About your childhood sweetheart.
Lane: I’m cooking up a bittersweet epigram, something that makes me more of a man and her less of a woman. She’s earned that. What could be more arrogant than telling the character that pops up with bangs in all your birthday home vids that you always thought he was arrogant?
Jomo’s Mom: May I ask how the relationship ended?
Jomo’s Mom: May I ask that?
Lane: God, I don’t remember. Years. What did I have for dinner last night? Who knows and is it important?
Lane: I enlisted. Went to Asia. And I never returned her flashes. Ah… Maybe there’s something to that. The spurned returns to wreak revenge. You’re good.
Lane: Do you know what happened to me at a luncheon last week? My esteemed publisher hosted her talent—myself and several of my cantankerous counterparts—and presented each of us with an award dreamt up by her underlings. She even let them sit amongst us with their unmade faces and penny Wachovias. I called it “The Esnes.” Should I tell you how I was lauded? Do you see that golden shovel there in the corner? I was presented that for perfecting the art of bullshitting!
Melissa: How apt.
Lane: No input from the peanut gallery for God’s sake! This is what I’m up against: the very peons who rely on my sales to patch together two paychecks to rent thirds of dark studios somehow muster the gall to tip the cash cow! They gave me the golden shovel!
Jomo’s Mom: May we discuss the duties and terms of the post this interview concerns?
Lane: You said your father called you Kitty and your husband called you Kat. Is that emblematic of a conflict?
Jomo’s Mom: When I married my husband, my father and the rest of my family disowned me.
Melissa: I, I didn’t know that.
Lane: That’s enough. Let’s get started, Kitty Kat.
On the walk downtown Frothy stops in at an Angolan deli, where he picks up a half-dozen deviled eggs overly dusted with paprika, and a recyclable bottle of Ponds Stagnant. Outside, he swallows each treat wholly and starts swilling. Tawdra foresmells trouble and checks the cam in her sack without looking. Tourist extras abound on the streets in small or large groups, idling in a stunned manner whether guided or not. Frothy takes it upon his public self to accost many of them in question form.
The Obvious: Where is the Empire State Building?
Tourist: Empire State Building! Iss ri’ dere!
The Intrusive: Are you still having those issues with your mother?
Tourist: You know her?
The Phony: Do you like it here?
Tourist: Oh yes! Very much so!
The Genuine: Have you been spending more than you anticipated?
Tourist: It’s great!
The Self-Revealing: Am I still On?
Tourist: That depends on what you were Off!
Tawdra regrets none of this because it’s Saturday and she’s eager for any exterior filler she can get.
The black limo waits in front of the Sony Hotel. Next door, at the Procter & Gamble Building, young boy extras stand near the glass, gasping at a tiger gorging on clone chum. Frothy drains his bottle, belches “So-ny,” and hurls it into a public receptacle for recycled paper. It all goes to the same place—everyone knows that. Frothy kicks the car’s right rear tire and merely glances at the tinted panes, choosing to survey the hotel’s grand entrance, bustling with valet, bellhop and guest extras. He’s feeling his oats, Tawdra sees, and she knows he’s about to tell her to wait in the car while he stands guard for his posse, so she jumps in before he can have the pleasure.
Frothy: Good idea. I’ll round up the bro’s.
To her surprise, Tawdra sits next to three muscular studs—a guitarist, drummer and singer—who have just begun an acoustic rendition of “Lady Marmalade.” She reclines, lets the leather of the seats stick to her Saran, and eats the scene all up.
It kicked in after the summer oysters, or between bites of the Cajun corned beef hash littered with torn poached eggs, or after the third mimosa, or maybe just now behind the mustard, this mild reflux or just plain flux of phlegm at the top of his throat. Peter swallows repeatedly but the clotting holds, manageable and rather tasty. The station traffic whirls among the chimes and he continues to work his epiglottis. He has an intimation of benign bodily mistreatment and dysfunction: this is an internal, sensual form of navel-gazing, not to be discussed. Dartie is babbling and there are all these strangers out there plus the insurgence of fear and acute inconvenience inside where he has, for now, his mucus. He swallows and pulls a draft of mustard down to his toes.
Dartie knocks off his third mug of light sweet crude and wipes his mouth with the back of his blocky hand. The corners of his broad lips are caked dark from the drafts. He looks all around the scene.
Dartie: Everybody. All these people. Coming and going—they’re en route!
Peter: That’s French.
Dartie: You ever, you know, put yourself into one of them, you know—
Peter: I was just sitting here, having a moment.
An extra strides by under a backpack with an HIV decal.
Dartie: Like that dude! You ever look at someone like him and wonder where he came from and where he’s going?
Peter: Right now we need the check primarily on account of my not wanting to be here. Anymore.
Dartie: I should carry a notepad like a content provider and imagine—realistically—what that guy’s deal is!
Peter: We don’t need to do that. Anymore.
Dartie: Providers? How do you know? You’re not a provider.
Peter: I don’t. We don’t. And we don’t care to.
Dartie: I’ve never done it.
Peter: This is what I’m telling you.
Dartie: Sometimes I want to get in someone else’s skin. Not because of mine—just because.
Peter: Look around, just look.
Peter: We are termites in a mound and our roles keep shifting.
Dartie: So what are we supposed to do?
Peter: Take our crumbs and run like hell. Away from the queen, toward the light.
The crowd by the jungle dispersed when Frothy wasn’t looking. The tiger disappeared into the trees. Despite Frothy’s patent stance of belonging to the limo, the outside help hasn’t even acknowledged him. The deviled eggs are percolating in the Ponds when, just as the recurring doubts related to his On-ness begin to buzz, Triff the bassist teeters through a revolving door. The comic’s aura contracts and clarifies. High and low fives and shit-eating grins are exchanged.
Frothy: T-Riff! There he is, a big star in no time! Look at you! Just look at you!
Triff sports neo-alternative machine-dipped braids and vegan cutoffs under a vintage leather biker jacket enhanced with holos blinking “The Sod Farmerz” (his band’s current name) graphics and liner notes for their first disc, tour info, and, along the sleeves in microtext, esoteric notes toward a communal synergy of qualities. Triff is loaded, peaked and helpless, aptly manifesting The Sod Farmerz’ vertiginous position in the music business. Healthily funded by an upstart label through production and style-focus, the group now awaits the launch to be bankrolled by the distributor. Everyone who has seen The Sod Farmerz during their hardscrabble, earlier years—mostly friends like Frothy—attests to their destiny for mass appeal. All that remains is the mass appeal.
Frothy: You look a bit shaky there, kid. You need something?
Triff: I need—
He breaks off and stares up the Sony to the suite from whence he came. There is a curling of the lips—disdain and pleasure.
Frothy: I’ll go back and get it, son. What is it, what do you need?
Triff: I need—a woman.
Frothy: Well, that’s no problem, my brother! Look, I brought you one!
He opens the door with a flourish on Tawdra slobbering in a jam sandwich.
Jomo lost his link to the DJ’s trip what must have been an hour before, whenever the real pain kicked in. Close in tight on his grrr then track right along his length, shirtless and prone on two draped gurneys. Gangs of slugs and leeches preliminarily sear and suck the partial acreage between his deltoids and below. Pull back: throughout the garage tense extras spasm in similar positions. The light is white and intense and the fans whir perpetually at Inktomi’s. The arachnoid master herself wields the colors in syringes, squatting over a patron when the pattern is complete and the pores are enraged and dilated sufficiently to accept her input. The sources of her pigments remain secret; their ultravibrancy and resilience renowned up and down the former island and out in The Shallows—where fresh-faced wannabe bangers compare the artist’s esoteric rainbows—and beyond to gated and ungated communities everywhere. Very rarely does Inktomi etch on commission. She has progressed through her private encyclopedia of love and death on the geography of the populace, her opus never to be assembled due to displacement, death, and all the other things that keep men and women apart. Daily new canvasses ponied up, stripped, squirmed, then marveled. Weeks later most returned for more adornment but were rejected: one Inktomi to a subject. Her democratic aesthetics loop disjointedly among random stills of her completed work on a plasma screen by the DJ, who spins not for the patrons but for her. When Jomo walked in Inktomi recognized and loved him, the way all the kids at This Mortal Koil glowed in awe at the giant who smiled and shook with them. He handed over a holo file of Melissa and asked for her exact likeness indelible and exquisite on his skin, so all the kids from now to the Apocalypse would view her perfection and, simultaneously, Inktomi’s masterwork. Grrr, Jomo tightens more. Syringes precisely discharge microshades from the celebrated pallet.
Jomo: She’s gonna. Be exactly true. To life. Right?
Inktomi: The measurements were exact. Curious as they were.
Jomo: She’s my. Doll. She is. The most gorgeous. Doll. Ever.
Inktomi: In proportion despite her stature, I see. What a delight she is—for you and me.
Jomo: I scanned her. So many. Times. God I. Love. To look. Ahhh. At her.
Inktomi: This is my first full-size head-to-toe portrait. You’ve honored me with your visit. She will stand among my most memorable performances.
Inktomi: Now just chill out to the beats and don’t squirm until I return.
She drapes a shroud of algae over the work.
Tawdra’s delight at the aggressively male cover, which she spontaneously forged into a petting session, has led to a round of forehead slapping. Her cam sat in the sack and the opportunity for a sustained musical interlude for her next episode—not to mention the potential windfall a few years out from an archived performance of The Sod Farmerz When They Were Younger—was lost. She forgot to shoot but she didn’t forget herself: she had stroked her way through the moment and would someday tell her clone all about it. The six of them huddle in the rear of the car, drinks already distributed. Frothy yuks it up to the genuine enjoyment of the band and the double dismay of Tawdra. She looks at the partition concealing the driver’s quarters.
Tawdra: So this is “Hot Limo?” Is this it—or do we actually do something?
Frothy is demonstrating the meandering part in his hair while referencing Mary Joseph’s inattentiveness. He provokes tears of laughter—how quickly this has turned into a boy thing, a regular sausage party. She takes out the cam and tripod and sets up for an intro as the one called Triff looks at the porta-flash in the teak wall unit and says to it, “We’re in.”
Liberty’s profile in shadow casts narrowly into the expansive quasi-marble floor of the depot. Peter feels vague and not unpleasant about the word “depot,” corny to his childhood ears when his own father said it with a short e. He resolves to employ this pronunciation in a conversation with Melissa to see if it will irk her. Then again, he has other fish for her to fry and hand over quickly to him on a plate. Dartie has gotten up and returned several times, conspicuously bored yet drawn to his new role model, his partner in criminal escapades. Peter successfully represses a mild hack and smiles into his myst. Thankfully, a new waitress and busboy took over and cleared the table and changed the jaundiced ashtray during one of the kid’s reconnoiterings. There was all this silly yearning in his eyes when he came back—he wanted to report to Peter about the arcade or the holos or some other new attraction Peter assumed paled next to Hollywood’s recent sci-fi portrayals of the future. Peter hadn’t uttered a word, preferring his stance of aloofness while drifting with the chimes.
Dartie: Hey, here he comes!
Dartie: That old bald eagle over there. I was watching him downstairs by the Game Sphere.
Salt and pepper features, ruffled more than some, and a nicked beak well past honing or striking bespeak the physiognomy of a scavenger on the wane, but the eyes don’t blink and transfix the two from a distance. The bird trundles an oversize luggage unit, its wobble and world-weary gray casing suggesting the contents consist of much more than the owner’s selected wardrobe and toiletries for a brief slide in or out of The Shallows. He stops and rests amid the throng.
Dartie: Now, that’s the kind I’m talking about!
Peter: That’s the kind.
Dartie: You know, one whose skin I’d like to get under.
Peter: The bird with all the baggage, the bald eagle there.
Dartie: How old do you think he is?
Peter: Old enough to despise the gravitrain yet take it just the same.
Dartie: I wish I had a cam or a hand-unit—something. Hey! He’s looking at me!
A still shot of Tawdra, clavicles up, and drained glassware on the corner of the wet bar pulled in for atmosphere. She smiles and starts to declaim for a byte when a commotion outside aborts the take. She activates the sky roof and pops up with the cam. Behind her and unseen, the uniformed driver pounds on the rear door, next to several large sacks marked Hazardous Medical Waste. She pops back down as black livery gloves hand over distended parkas, zippable overalls, turtlenecks, singlets, longjohns, assorted goggles and facegear, and caps laden with pompoms. The passengers quickly separate the unders and tousle over the garish outers. The door is closed from the outside. Gratuitous close-up of Mag the guitarist’s crotch as he hikes up his gear over his skivvies.
Tawdra’s: Are we going skiing?
Laughter and continued mild mayhem. The limo’s engine starts and revs in neutral.
Frothy: Dress up, pepperpot.
He pushes the empty set toward her.
Tawdra’s: Where are we going?
With an astronaut’s measured pace, Stupe the singer zips and snaps his jacket, then drags his hat to his eyebrows.
Stupe: It’s not where we’re going. It’s Hot Limo: last man inside.
There is a whoosh behind—pan and close in on a vent. Tawdra’s hand touches it and recoils.
Tawdra’s: Hey, the heat is on!
Peter envisions Melissa’s judgmental gaze as he relates the bit about how the Death Card has turned up. During every comment he’s made to her since way back, she’s sized him up squarely behind his moustache. Everyone knew the progenitor of that look. Then again, Mindy measured him for only a year before excusing herself from his domestic presence to cavort in money-hungry higher academia. Here, in this central vault and its interstitial chimes, currency hides in bar codes in clothing, accessories and skin. Many of these homeowning sliders enjoy major clout and access on account of those encrypted rectangles…
Dartie: Coming or going—I mean, departing or arriving? Hmm, I have to start somewhere with this bird. This bird…
As though distilled by Dartie’s concentration, the eagle drags his luggage away from a Perdue tour group and stands in a vacant space in Liberty’s shadow. He stops, glares defiantly about and up into the sunlight, then expectorates profusely on the delineated armpit by his feet. Peter’s mood shifts from irritation to gratitude. He smiles.
Peter: There it is.
Tawdra stashed the tripod in a paneled compartment under the bench. The cam passes among the bundled-up, sweating in a U. In maize goggles the diva is shrewdly positioned next to the bar’s open fridge, however the freon chill is offset by the recirculated Santa Ana whoosh from the vents on her other side. Frothy and The Sod Farmerz are more than steeled by their self-imposed challenge, in fact they are growing boisterously defiant. The Berbers and the desert dwellers invented myriad methods of coping with heat and conserving energy—Tawdra knows they would be confounded by these shenanigans. The Berbers and the desert dwellers would definitely frown on Frothy’s paltry stabs at purported humor, yet the Farmerz act as though they haven’t copped a cheap laugh since their mid-teens. The rhythm section—Triff and the drummer, who was not introduced to Tawdra—is breathless as Frothy contorts his bones under his parka and sticks both hands out of one sleeve. Amazing. Underneath their clamor there is a sliding, mechanical sound, Tawdra registers, but when she turns the partition closes up. Stupe has received something: he holds a case of unmarked, murky 40-ounce bottles.
Stupe: Farmerz, our guide and mentor has proffered a sweet nectar for our trek. Happy Birthday and let us lap up and chug down a goodly quaff of Chivalry!
Morphed into Viking pre-teens, they slobber and pass around the 40’s. Tawdra huddles closer to the freon and grabs a complimentary mini myst. She looks out through the tint at the uphill mouth of the Long Island Expressway past the Midtown Tunnel and the reclaimed East River. An overhead ticker issues a traffic warning: Construction…Heavy Delays Ahead... Frothy kicks the fridge door shut.
Melissa recognized her presence wasn’t required and then Lane called the old woman Kitty Kat. Prior to that Jomo’s mother, whose aura and skin exuded age well past her actual years (as anyone, not just the Son’s Girlfriend, would attest), had shelved her insufferable, ascetic posture and interrogated the crotchety bastard about his past with the assertive air of a board-certified couples counselor. And Lane had thrown that dart about his unquantifiable offspring… That Mindy much more than tolerated his company for who knew how long was a tart lemon to suck. These mothers! In the new millennium they wove a multitude of quilts intricately patterned and hued, many of them continually unsettling their swaddled daughters years after they quit their childhood beds. Melissa had decamped from Lane’s and headed to Central Park. She’d flashed Payroll at Quantico to confirm her commission bump when this replay of the visit to the content provider began.
Not knowing why, she flashed Hillary for a thank-you and maybe an impromptu re-encounter, but the Chappa chick was already out. Probably off to the red-nosed reindeer’s for an afternoon roll in the sleigh—she deserved it. Melissa deserved it too but Jomo was either downtown snoozing or running with Full Frontal. Mmmm. There it was, Cleopatra’s close-mouthed purr of encompassing centeredness, osmosing from the bandages into her breast and thighs, now vibrating her interior monologue. Mmmm. Melissa finds herself near Strawberry Fields, turning right down a path to a gazebo, gazing at the rowboats floating on The Lake under July’s dense muster.
Tawdra: I’m miles ahead of menopause but I’m gonna have to fix myself something for these hot flashes. I mean, this is something I don’t care for!
She unsnaps a chinwarmer and, before her hands reach her lap, Frothy tackles her to the floor and snaps it back.
Frothy: It’s Hot Limo! Every snap and zipper remains engaged!
Tawdra: What the—?
Stupe yanks the comic and shakes him.
Stupe: Check yourself, dude! Hands off the fem!
Triff: Dude, it’s Hot Limo—you gotsta stay snappy!
Stupe: Happy Birthday to you, brothers, and respect the appropriate forms of imparting the rules to a nongamer!
Frothy: I’m staying true to the Hot Limo spirit—if a nongamer unsnaps then we are all unsnapped!
Tawdra: I’m not a nongamer, I’m in this microwave too! Frothy, if you front on me again—
Stupe: You will be fronted upon!
Frothy: Then you’re responsible for her chin, brother, cuz if I spy her Eve’s apple you’re huffing back through the tunnel. Happy Birthday!
Stupe: Happy Birthday!
Tawdra: Whatever! I get it—we have to stay locked up tight.
She swigs from the nearest 40.
Tawdra: While we boil, why don’t you give Tawdra’s rebels some audio to consider. You got the tools out—let’s hear something from The Sod Farmerz!
Mag: How can we refuse? I say we rip up “Weatherman.”
Stupe: Ugh—that new shit you’ve been working up? I told you that was weak.
Mag: You said my lyrics were weak. The licks are meaty enough—why don’t you stick to your job and enlighten us with some vocals? Happy Birthday.
Stupe: Kick it, Farmerz, I’m all prickly.
Triff fumbles with the dented bass guitar in his mitts.
Triff: Uh, Happy Birthday, but I can’t pick with these puffies.
The drummer slaps a debauched tambourine with open and closed paws. He shakes it too—no problem.
Frothy: Nobody unsnaps, nobody removes any goose down!
Mag: Shit, I sure can’t strum a lick without my fingers five. This is quite the dilemma: to rock or to Hot Limo?
Tawdra: It’s the Old Lesbian Standoff!
Frothy: How’s that?
Tawdra: You know, when two gay boys both prefer giving over receiving or vice versa—it’s the Old Lesbian Standoff!
Frothy: I don’t about know that. This is Hot Limo. Boys, go a cappella under your masks.
Stupe knocks down a 40. He looks out past a cement mixer at a series of staggered sound barriers.
Stupe: That’s prime billboard country, Farmerz. Those walls should shout our names to the locals—our people, our initial market. Happy Birthday.
Mag: Tell it to the label. Are we gonna rock out or what?
Stupe: This dilemma about rocking, this dilemma seems solvable.
Triff: Teach us.
Stupe: Would anyone dispute that when the Farmerz rock we actually cook?
Triff: Dude, we cook. Happy Birthday!
Stupe: What I mean is, jamming under any circumstances gets us sweaty—doesn’t it?
Triff: Hell yeah, S, like when it got so hot during that gig in Cascade that the audience’s sweat started raining down from the ceiling!
Stupe: Exactly! My point is, we did that gig when we were nongamers. We weren’t doing Hot Limo, we were just gigging—and we cooked.
Stupe: So even if we deglove right now, we’re going to get hotter because we’re going to rock. The Farmerz will cook and therefore the spirit of Hot Limo will not be violated—Happy Birthday!
Triff & Mag: Happy Birthday!
Frothy: Then I get to deglove too.
Tawdra: So do I.
In an instant there is a heap of pied, empty hands on the limo floor. Tawdra aims her cam at gloves that seem to ask each other for a clasp, then others that are upturned and curled as though begging. Mag and Triff have hooked up pocket amps into a power strip in the wall. The Sod Farmerz tune for ten seconds. Tawdra turns the cam on herself.
Tawdra: You know this is a rocker’s stretch, rebels—it’s wired for a gig!
Mag and Triff count off and begin a steady four-four, the guitarist bending half-notes for quirky effect. Drumsticks click the vacant 40’s for eighth-notes then find the padded palms of the discarded on the downbeat. Stupe, always a friend to percussion, zips and unzips his parka syncopatedly, drawing a rise out of Frothy, defender of the game, but the comedian frowns only until his first musical epiphany ever prompts him to pull his goggles away then release them so they smack his face with authority. This produces no noticeable bump to the groove but gets laughs from the band. Stupe lets fly:
If you’re planning a sudden vacation
Better think about precipitation
Consider all the highs and lows
The hurricanes and tornadoes.
Tawdra’s cam catches a glance between the singer and Mag. The composer loves his lyricist.
Cuz I’m your weatherman
So don’t be afraid
Watch me control
Your sun and your shade
Yeah I’m your weatherman
So don’t be afraid
I won’t let it rain
On your victory parade.
Mag wheels into a bridge; Triff follows him a half-measure later, pulling the drummer along with. Stupe feels it and cries out, confronting Tawdra behind her cam:
You think Death Valley’s hot?
Don’t leave my heart in a knot.
You think Chicago’s breezy?
Don’t let me down nice and easy.
You think Seattle’s rainy?
Don’t ignore and disdain me.
You think the Sahara’s dry?
No, don’t bring tears to my eyes.
Tawdra, newfound Farmerz muse, shoots her face and moons her viewers. The authenticity of the poppy groove impels her to play Amateur Vid Director, and she tilts and aims the cam ambitiously for angles while pulling back and zooming. Mag leads everyone back and Stupe is ready to welcome them home.
Watch me name all the tropical storms
And stroke the orange, spiraling forms
“mostly” and “partly” are my favorite words
Like fish in a school darting and stopping as one, the Farmerz intuitively halt to showcase the next line.
My forecast is better than the flight of the birds!
They come back on the four, each smiling except Stupe, who has a mission to fulfill, and a smitten camgirl to serenade.
Cuz I’m your weatherman
So don’t you forget
I can move my right hand
Make you work up a sweat
Yeah I’m your weatherman
So don’t you forget
I’m the one on the air
Who can make you get wet
Yeah I’m your weatherman.
Mag echoes this line faintly but earnestly. Triff jumps in with a bluster—he doesn’t do backup vocals typically. Mag takes it down and hammers on the fret. But Stupe wants more and alters the refrain, morphing it into an admonition.
Girl, love your weatherman.
Girl, love your weatherman.
Lemmings, Mag and Triff follow the leader and echo him.
Girl, love your weatherman.
Girl, love your weatherman.
Finally, the Farmerz break off to a round of self-adulation and whoops. Tawdra embraces Stupe first, then the others. Frothy massages his traumatized brow and cheekbones, then kicks the handgear on the floor back to the owners—time to suit back up and gird their loins for the more stultifying ride ahead.
I don’t want to be here anymore with these eagles and sliders and this shadow of Liberty and this albino around, Peter thinks. Today is their sequel, and if the kid has his way the two newfound accomplices will live out a series of sequels ad infinitum. Shrimp cocktail and myst and today is the sequel. Craftcroft is dead. Monsieur Deng and Mundo Modo and a desperado out there among the wind chimes on their way to exact their due or more before he hacks up a monster lung slug and sunders his innards. Hack, hack, hack. Hack! Still no one comes for him—all the extras have slid or will slide or have business attendant on sliding this afternoon. Dartie went off again and the extras move by and never seem to repeat though they must and he isn’t noticing. He’s not himself because there had been no morning constitutional due to the episode with the dragon, nor had there been one the day before on account of the pod fiasco. And all the developments between had precluded any make-up. Sure enough, the kid returns with that Cheshire smeared on his pasty face.
Peter: All I want—
Dartie: You wanna get out of here? There’s a kick-ass parade in Central Park. I heard it’s tera-cool.
Peter: Well, it’s time to leave. Look around.
Dartie: Let’s go to this parade. We can check it out.
Chivalric and glandular fetor pervades the vehicle. Tawdra lays down the cam and leans back in a momentary lapse of heat prostration. Frothy chugs a 40 and gargles. The limo rolls in traffic merging into one lane due to construction that may well go on past Montauk to Europe. Jackhammerers convene to aggravate the travelers’ frustration. East of Manhattan, at the Queens-Nassau border, there are no audio cloaks or other resident-friendly devices like those found in The Shallows, where the municipal weal is substantially more robust. Propped against or stuck to the wall, Tawdra uses her feet to swivel the cam toward her.
Tawdra: This is a swoon, rebels. You know this…Hot Limo is a bitch because I don’t swoon easy.
She pedipulates the cam toward The Sod Farmerz, who pass around a new bottle. Stupe stands up, hunched, and sits next to the actor/director. His gortex faceguard moves at the jawline. Tawdra looks at the mask blankly. Movement again, by the airholes over the mouth.
Stupe: I said, are you all right?
Tawdra: He’s asking me, rebels. He’s asking the pepper monster if she’s all right. Which Farmer are you, under all that down, anyway?
Stupe: Why, it’s the champ-een Hot Limo rider his-self.
Rustling of nylon. Mag scrunches between the bar and Tawdra and looks into the cam through strawberry goggles.
Mag: Allow me to correct that mis-statement. At end of the last Hot Limo session, I was the last inside. I am the reigning king, Happy Birthday!
Stupe reaches out and implants a mitten into Mag’s puff-encased bicep.
Stupe: Happy Birthday but that session was an anomaly. I was already dehydrated from all those anti’s the night before. Who’s the usual winner? You can’t even count my notches.
Mag retaliates with his own mitten and a scuffle breaks out over Tawdra’s limp body. Frothy looks on with all the complacency of an immobile man garbed in skiwear.
Frothy: I’ve never won Hot Limo. Not once. Guess that’s why I’m just a Friend of The Sod Farmerz.
Stupe and Mag roll to the floor. On the back bench the drummer keels over. Triff pokes the fallen gladiator and gets no response.
Triff: Frothy, Hot Limo ain’t why you ain’t a Farmer. It’s cuz you can’t play a lick! I tell you bros, I’m feeling fine and dandy for the ride today!
He mounts the drummer and humps away. Stupe and Mag stop to check out the action.
Triff: I can take it all the way to Montauk! Happy Birthday! Hot Limo to the end of the Island!
Frothy: Do we have toast there, for real? Is he done?
He reaches over and pulls back goggles and scarf to examine the drummer’s beet-red cheeks.
Frothy: He’s done!
Stupe: He’s toast?
Mag: He’s done!
Frothy: One is done! Is it time?
Stupe: It’s time!
Mag: Eject! Now, I think we’re stopped.
Triff opens the rear door slightly. The limo is still stationary at the Queens-Nassau border as the team of jackhammerers assaults the former shoulder of the expressway—New Lanes Coming Soon. Triff drags the drummer by the shoulders of his parka and hurls him out onto the pavement. Ahead the traffic begins to adjust. Triff slams the door and the limo moves on. Tawdra managed via footsy to shoot the eviction.
Tawdra: What just happened?
Frothy: Last man inside wins Hot Limo.
Tawdra: But what about him out there?
Stupe: He’ll get back. Eventually. We always do.
Maybe she’d been insightful, maybe quizzical, or maybe just buzzing curious when she glimpsed Jomo looming across the packed Nu house that evening at Chappaquiddick. Then a rising junior (with enough credits to graduate), Melissa was perched on the bar above a clutch of attendant pledges, each of whom later confirmed the sister’s love struck, mischievous expression on seeing the giant for the first time. He was a fourth-year junior and the pledges already knew him by sight or better even though it was early in the second semester. It was the Nu-Om Ego mixer, an auspicious event on the calendar for many, and Melissa assumed the punch had been spiked accordingly by at least one of the social directors. Nonetheless, the vision of him hit her petite being with breathtaking force. In the years since, she could go back there in her mind and in her being and recapture the adrenaline during those seconds and then his return of her stare. And he’d turned away, embarrassed and smitten. This Jomo—his name shaped on the lips of pledges—would be hers. It was the last time she saw him embarrassed.
Frothy polishes off another 40 and belches behind his faceshield. Outside the procession of autos crawls into Nassau County. The HOV lanes to the left have been coned off. Two unattended steamrollers idle with engines running and rows of fresh asphalt leading backward like trains on black wedding dresses. Tawdra is improving but she doesn’t speak to the cam. Instead, she opens the fridge and finds the ice tray.
She jabs her mitten and rattles the cubes.
Tawdra: I can’t even feel them through these things!
Frothy: No coolants whatsover—it’s Hot Limo. Close the door now!
She hurls ice at the friend of the Farmerz and slams the door. It pops back open, as so often do its brethren around the world, and she shuts it again.
Tawdra: Your 40’s aren’t cool?
Frothy: They’re at room temp.
Stupe: That makes them zestier.
Triff: Happy Birthday.
Stupe: You know something, Miss T, this is the first time we’ve done Hot Limo chivalrous.
Frothy: Dude, I’ve had to piss like an orca for an hour—who selected these 40’s anyways?
Tawdra: Orcas piss a lot?
Frothy: They’re in the water, those orcas—they have to drink and piss all day long, no doubt.
Frothy: Regardless, they’re black, white, shiny and fierce. Orcas, Happy Birthday!
Stupe & Mag: Happy Birthday!
Stupe: How you holding up, Miss T? We’ve only lost one and that was back in Queens. Someone’s got to roll soon.
Mag: Happy Birthday to you, brother.
Stupe: You’re starting in again? You’re feeling good, champ?
He swats him lamely.
Mag: My mojo’s cruising, slick. Triff, you still gonna take it all the way to Montauk? Triff?
Stupe: Uh oh! I think an exam is in order. Frothy, kick him.
Frothy nudges Triff, who sits upright against the back bench.
Triff: Happy. Birth—
Frothy: What was that, Triff, you say something?
Triff: Happy Bir—
Stupe: That doesn’t qualify as a suitable response in Hot Limo, does it?
Mag: He’s toast.
Tawdra: But he’s talking!
Frothy: He’s done. Eject.
Tawdra: But we’re moving!
Frothy: Sorry, buddy, but you acted up before and used up all your juice.
He opens the door and, straining, rolls out the limp bassist, who tumbles away near some pylons.
Stupe: Bowling for Hot Limo, baby.
Tawdra: He was still in the game, he was talking!
Frothy: Hot Limo demands more.
Tawdra: He bounced on the road!
Stupe: Skiwear is padded. It’s a side benefit for the losers.
The surprise of the scene elated her as they first conversed and traded quips under the considerable clucking in the commons room. Melissa stood on a cushion on a couch and Jomo sat against its arm, openly honored to receive her attention. The Nus enjoyed paramount prestige on campus; Om Ego, not a proper fraternity, elicited substantial coital interest as a shadowy, loose union of students and civilians who presented themselves publicly as initiates only rarely, during those robed happenings alfresco. Jomo later confided that the brothers beyond college would have censured the local chapter for its very participation in the mixer. He also later confided that his admiration of Melissa’s beauty and charm had been almost equaled by the pain in his buttocks from the insufficient support. Of course he hadn’t budged off the arm for at least an hour as they mutually effused and absorbed elation while imbibing punches delivered by the prospective Nus.
Melissa did not exalt the sorority. Mindy had bequeathed its legacy but advised her daughter to assume it for herself or not—more worthwhile cadres waited in professional academia. (Bebel, it turned out, was a Nu, and Melissa sensed this bond would prove fortuitous now that the negotiations were concluded and she carried more clout at Quantico.) Freshman year, Melissa’s indifference toward pledging Nu had counterintuitively accelerated its process. This indifference extended throughout her Chappa career, elevated her status in the house among many, and explained why she began every formal and mixer with bemused lassitude. (Later, Tawdra would attribute this comportment to all that money.) Melissa therefore was surprised to be falling head over heels in an instant for any boy attending the party. And their exaggerated dimorphism added to her surprise.
The three Ritalins in Melissa’s pre-Chappa and Chappa past and present also contributed. Ritalin 1, her boarding school main squeeze, favored sweatshirts with hoods he made use of in public and private. Solemnity dwelled under his partial purdah and Melissa did not mind the challenge of uncovering him, which she accomplished on only a few precious occasions during their summer visit to Long Island, to the lapping of the Sound. His mother served as headmaster at an American School in Panama, then Cuba—Melissa got on with her extremely well, as did Mindy (who habla’d)—and his father was a laconic ne’er-do-well. Early on at Chappaquiddick Melissa daydreamed about the foreign circuit for herself, but the visions petered out with the coupling, and then Mindy passed. During one of his road trips to campus, Ritalin 1 met Ritalin 3 at a volleyball pep rally, however Melissa doubted they spoke and that either one bothered to remember. She liked to refer slyly and possessively to Ritalin 3 as her Sex Buddy during her late sophomore and early junior campaigns, although their periodic trysts consisted mainly of blindfolded taste tests, Elvis Costello vs. Tori Amos debates, and Raise the Cadaver. He wore aqua hair and a tongue spike and was finally escaping the significant, slick wake of Kruder and Dorfmeister and creeping into the faux-random Surreptition Scene, which rendered the aforementioned intimacies dispassionate. His mother was a private tutor of the Internet in The Shallows and his father was a histrionic ne’er-do-well. Before engaging with him there had been Ritalin 2, an erratic parasailer from Hawaii whose tics outnumbered his mood swings. Frequently his every appendage quaked in such pandemonium he would dislocate a shoulder or kneecap as Melissa escorted him to the Infirmary for a correction. She’d met him in the Library on one of his more tranquil days; he skimmed Kerouac standing lonesome in the stacks. Lavishly blond with prodigious teeth and taut legs under a waspish waistline, he captivated Melissa by guffawing as soon as she opened her mouth. Ritalin 2’s spasmodic spectacles were highly anticipated and witnessed around Chappaquiddick, and he reveled in his notoriety, chanting wildly in his throes and hurling himself against furniture and humans if he were capable. Melissa acted the nurse with delight. Inexplicably and sadly, he did not return for his junior year and Melissa had no contact information for the beach. He lived on the sunny Kona side of the Big Island, away from his parents, who dwelled separately or together in the Waipio Valley, or so he’d said. Ritalin 2 never met his namesakes, yet they all brooded, shook and licked together for Melissa’s consciousness: three quirky birds she’d hatched, in a way, nested and plucked. And this giant, this Jomo presented to her, this Jomo was not named Ritalin…
Stalled next to more sound barriers, Hot Limo is down to four for forced languor and hazy contemplation. On some kind of second wind, Tawdra calmly pivots the cam to take in the roasting cabin. The players and empty 40’s remain immobile until Frothy raises his elbows and deliberately beats his breast, gorilla style. Stupe nods, ostensibly with Birthday wishes. He opens a new 40, instigating Mag and Frothy to follow, then offers Tawdra the bottle. Before she can lay a mitten on it, Mag tugs back her arm and offers his. The actor/director turns the cam on herself.
Tawdra: And here’s another dilemma, rebels.
The rival tenderers goggle at each other menacingly under their pompoms. Ever the conciliator, Frothy pats the window for attention.
Frothy: Who brought the 40’s? Didn’t someone ask that before? I didn’t get the response email.
Stupe: The chauffeur’s idea.
Mag: I like the way the cat thinks. I definitely grooved on “Weatherman.”
Stupe: Axman… Just check yourself.
Stupe: I offered my lady a drink and you interceded. Happy Birthday, put your arm down, and check yourself.
Mag: She likes my guitar, she’ll like my drink.
Tawdra: We ate up that tune, didn’t we, rebels?
Frothy: The Sod Farmerz gonna smash-hit big-celeb stuff and whatnot.
Stupe: She likes my pipes, all of them. She’ll have my drink.
He re-presents his 40 and Mag knocks it to the back bench, where it gurgles out where the rhythm section once humped. The remaining Farmerz set in on each other and Tawdra whisks the cam and herself to Frothy’s side.
Frothy: Do you see how this will end?
Sliding on the gravitrain through the metallic and ceramic copse at the island’s bottom, Peter fingers his lighter and mustard pack in the left pocket of his capacious chinos. Melissa would know this zone well and be welcomed in its money-changing cells, what with the inheritance and her burgeoning career. There has to be that conversation, he knows, but he feels the ancient stoic as well, indifferent to succeeding or failing at twisting his daughter’s little limb in order to assuage his creditors. Fleeing to the Rockies to rake the zen garden with the sensei seems out of the question. But then, so does everything except the very present. He glances at his fellow commuters, many of whom eschewed a seat belt—not he. Inbound, the curs seem less many, the hens plumper and firmer, the bunnies apt to sit still. Across from him Dartie stares blankly, slack-jawed. Dance with the horse you rode in on—or whatever. Peter managed to jockey in the crowd while boarding so they couldn’t sit together. He values his space. There had been the momentary dread that Dartie would stand close and above him, always an uncomfortable perspective for one sensitive party out of two, but everything worked out. Maybe the ghost was picking up on his preferences. Maybe their train was cruising toward an air raid, maybe Ray was interviewing D'Angel… Peter pssts to no avail then claps.
Peter: Are you with us?
Dartie: Thinking about the parade?
Peter: Was I or you were?
Cackling from a hyena yoked with beads over a T that asks, “How Ya Beads Hangin?” Peter gathers the young gent is traveling to the same event, a stop on the krewe circuit. He recalls his early online binges on streaming porn feeds from the balconies and alleys of New Orleans, when Mardi Gras took place there on the lewdest scale but only once a year.
Dartie: Man, I’m beat.
Peter: Life in the big city.
Dartie: Last night—
Peter: Yeah, yeah. We’re almost in. Where we going when we get there, anyway?
Mercifully the kid swallows the segue and babbles about Central Park while Peter measures the hyena again—the source or target of his amusement remains unclear, but wasn’t that the way with every new generation. A public rehash with Dartie, no matter how condensed, would not have been copacetic. Let’s just move forward, out into the streets and uptown into the collective will to party. As the train docks a teenage Travolta holo welcomes the sliders, hustling and pointing to connection possibilities and nearby attractions. Ground Zero. The South Street Dryport. The Amazing Jungle at the Procter & Gamble Building. Peter releases the seat belt and packs a mustard blunt, ready to Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah the second his feet cross the gap.
In western Suffolk County not far from Jayne’s Hill, Long Island’s 400-foot apex of glacial detritus, not far from the re-renovated Walt Whitman Mall on Route 110, the limo putters along the expressway. Somewhere over a rise the traffic will merge down to three lanes and then, somewhere beyond, open up and gush east through the Pine Barrens to Riverhead, then turn south, then start and stop east again toward Montauk Point, more than 100 miles from Tawdra’s bedroom-cum-studio. Flush with heat and beginner’s luck, the starlet thumbs-up the cam while Frothy looks out at a squirrel behind the wheel of a convertible. Henna-enhanced, her tail twitches up between the bucket seats and reminds the comedian of a girl he saw at This Mortal Koil. A bulbous eye peers back at him, but the look signifies nothing on account of the tinted windows, not to mention his concealing gamewear. Tawdra spins the cam and plunks down next to him, following his eyes.
Tawdra: Oh, she’s a piece, that one. You boys like chasing those bushy tails, don’t you?
Frothy: I like them all shapes and colors. I potentially like everybody.
Tawdra: You have any idea how much maintenance goes into those? Me personally, I invest my time into the perfection of my craft, isn’t that right, rebels? Not that I don’t look desirable anyways—you saw those hunky musicians battling for my love!
Frothy: They were all messed up and Hot Limo got away from them.
Tawdra: My womanly sense tells me they had a memorable game nonetheless. They may never talk to you again, after that double-eject maneuver. You used one foot for each!
Frothy: The Farmerz will laud my dexterity.
Tawdra: They’ll more than laud me. I brought an extra dimension today.
Frothy: You and the 40’s did.
Tawdra: Why don’t you do the right thing right now?
Frothy: That would be.
Tawdra: Get your ass out of the car and let the dominatrix revel in victory.
Tawdra: You can get right back in. Then we can strip and ride home with the AC.
Frothy: I’m waiting.
Tawdra: You’re on fire under there. Sizzle, sizzle. Come on, open the door.
Frothy: I’m still waiting. For motivation.
Tawdra: How about a private jalapeño party? All the way back to NYC. I’ve got the ammo in one of these pockets.
Tawdra: I’ll turn the cam off. Or leave it on if you want to go global.
Tawdra: You can tell The Sod Farmerz you won—I’ll never see those punks again.
Frothy looks outside. The Long Island squirrel leans on her horn along with a number of her fellow expressway frustrati. He moves to insert his mitten behind the door handle but the mass jams. He takes back his appendage.
Frothy: All the way to NYC? The pepper?
Tawdra: Looks like there’s traffic that way too…
He jams the handle and clumsily jiggles it. The door opens and he steps out. Tawdra rips off her mitten, leans forward and shuts the door and locks it. Frothy looks in at her from behind his goggles. His faceshield moves once.
Tawdra: Driver, I won! Driver!
She slams the porta-flash. Frothy stands still.
Tawdra: Driver, get us out of here now! I won! Get on the damn shoulder and get us off this falsely named expressway!
The limo maneuvers back and forth at angles. Frothy pounds on the glass. The horns of the frustrati multiply. Tawdra removes all of her headgear and laughs through the tinting, where Frothy has pressed his insulated head. The limo lurches out onto the shoulder and cruises toward an exit ramp. Tawdra points the cam at her wan features.
Tawdra: I’m the champion, rebels! I won Hot Limo! I am Hot Limo! I have amazed even myself with all my wiles. Absolutely perfect! Rebels, you know I would never compromise the pepper the way those boys compromised their precious contest.
She presses the porta-flash again.
Tawdra: Driver, what do you have to say to Ms. Hot Limo?
Tawdra: So, it was your idea for the players to down those 40’s, wasn’t it? One of the boy losers said that. The chivalry was your idea, isn’t that right?
Tawdra: What’s your name, anyways?
Porta-flash: Prep Boy.
Tawdra: Prep Boy, crank up the AC, take me back to Manhattan—and don’t be a stranger! Happy Birthday, rebels!
When Peter was a kid his father hailed the dinosaur, a lime-green checker, during one of their infrequent city sojourns from the island. There was a lecture about smell, nostalgia and holding onto what too shall pass. Now, this balmy hour, waiting on line for three blunts, Peter espies his own generation’s outmoded transport: a banana-peel sedan. Jaysprinting, with Dartie huffing behind, Peter half-thinks about shaking whoever might be on their tail. But the goal is the cab and he attains it, entering through the right rear door after learning the left is inoperable—the driver gesticulated as much through the window. He crawls across the seat and Dartie gets in behind him. It’s a veritable blast from the past: the rear compartment stifles. The AC is on the fritz; a pocket fan clipped to the dash aims at the hack. Peter’s and Dartie’s knees and shins bang against the partition, so they sit sidesaddle, each toward his window. Peter regards the cab’s original tourist’s map of Manhattan glued to the scratched plastic. The familiars highlighted and the Hudson and East rivers limned ambitiously in ocean blue—once they joined the Harlem to surround the island for sightseeing cruises. This tidbit springs from Peter’s memory, as the north end of the map cuts the old island off at 86th Street.
Peter: Uptown, the Park!
Dartie: I can’t believe every taxi used to be like this.
Peter: Life in the big city.
Driver: I’m gonna take FDR.
Peter: Are you insane? Why would we want to go ten miles east?
Dartie: The FDR is ten miles away?
Peter: On your planet do they have figures of speech?
Peter: Don’t give me that nonsense! Head straight up Eighth! It’s a fine goddamn avenue!
Driver: Not as fast as FDR!
Peter: Well, we don’t have four terms to prove you right! You like that historical—
Peter: I knew you weren’t going to say that. I should be gambling on your bafflement—but Deng wouldn’t take that bet.
And the sweat sets in—a Fundy bore out through his pores. Peter checks the inner and outer pockets of his blazer. Nothing. Back in the condo a box of monogrammed silk hankies sits on the dresser next to the monogrammed sterling-silver mustard tin—both gifts from Monsieur Deng’s during his salad days as a preferred patron. He hadn’t taken one of the rags as usual because he’d been utterly cattywampus. He wipes his brow with a jacket sleeve. The heat and sweat join with the starch in his collar, eliciting the wrath of Pseudofolliculitis barbae. Let’s just reach this parade. Of course, they could hang a right and drop in on Melissa or even on his office but his interior monologue assumes a phantom mantra: not now, not yet. Anyhow, the driver is leaning on the horn, cursing all save himself and the FDR.
Dartie: I heard some stuff about the parade.
Peter: I would really enjoy getting the fuck there.
Dartie: You know about Miysis? I’ve been on their sites and stuff. Crazy shit.
Peter: Getting there is my current battle.
Dartie: You’re really sweaty. And your neck is red.
Peter: When you were a child and you were sulking because your Mom didn’t let you do something, did she ask you, “Are you sulking?”
Dartie: I don’t know.
Peter: Well, picture yourself as a child sulking and imagine how you feel when the source of your consternation confronts you in a treacly maternal tone.
Peter: One feels similarly when one is sweating profusely and one’s discomfort is directly noted.
Dartie: I picked up some hard currency back at the Gravitrain Terminal. We’re going to need some serious bead action at the parade. I bet we can change for them in the Park.
Peter: Your bets are good. Better than mine.
Lane ohs a smoke ring and aims at it with a dartgun. Bullseye. The projectile sticks next to many others on a vintage map of The New World. Kitty Kat sits on a lawn chair, hands free.
Lane: Where did that no good so-and-so land?
Kitty Kat: Right there on the wall.
Lane: That’s where our next challenger hails from.
Kitty Kat: Do you track your children’s movements there?
Lane: You’re— You’re not doing the assistant thing! Have you never watched a sitcom? You’re not sorting! You’re not shuffling! You’re not affording the big bossman the opportunity to scream “Stop sorting!”
Kitty Kat: We’re adjusting to each other.
Lane: You’ve been sipping hot water for hours and you haven’t hit the latrine once.
Lane: Step to the map, Girl Thursday, and announce the hometown of Sheppard Lane’s latest antagonist!
She walks between a bullwhip and a blender of margarita slush and peers at the faded cartography. She noses up to the parchment and shrugs.
Kitty Kat: I can’t read it.
Lane: Well, it’s the King’s English longhand, when that meant something prideful. Proclaim the village name, sweet Kitty Kat!
Kitty Kat: You’ve damaged the source so much with your arrows—
Lane: Of outrageous fortune—you should see my off-shore accounts.
Kitty Kat: That your quest for divination has been negated. I suspect this is a recurring theme for you.
Lane: Lane will drink to recurring themes and thematic curs. Do you know what I’m smoking, Kitty Kat, do you know? This is the kindest Maui Wowie!
Kitty Kat: Hawaii isn’t on this map.
Lane: Then I’ll sandwich it in!
He rummages through his lunch plate, jumps to the wall, and slaps a cut of olive loaf in the lower left quadrant. The processed meat product adheres.
Lane: Read what was pricked!
She removes a dart and processes the script.
Kitty Kat: L. Island. Is that Long Island?
Lane: No, no! Wrong dart! It was the one way over here!
Kitty Kat: My, how large Louisiana once was!
Lane: Oh, that’s good stuff! I’ve been waiting for a corrupted Cajun crawdad—or a tormented creole octaroon. Who will make the weight and face the Bawlin’ Brawler?!
Kitty Kat: And who might that be?
Lane: He’s my content. The one who provides for me.
The rolling blast-from-the-past jockeys on Eighth Avenue for negligible gains in the vehicular sandwich between Madison Square Garden (Roxanna And The Sirocco Take On Your Amazons On The Sand!) and the Post Office’s James A. Farley Building (Neither Rain Nor Snow…). Underneath the pavement Pennsylvania Station sends forth and welcomes its noisy worms. Despite the confluence of these notable venues the block itself lacks any grandeur due to the thoroughfare. Peter remembers this was always so. Odd he’d pulled out that bit about sulking and his mother. Another truth from the Matasavage house near Walt Whitman’s birthplace. The backyard: dogwood, oak and Japanese maple, a ramshackle shed next to a thicket of bamboo, and a horse path from days when the grounds belonged to the manse of Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War under FDR. His mother flipped or snapped or did the reverse of either sometime during the early years of the consultancy, when he couldn’t place enough tiny classified ads for his Needy Kidz. She became aloof and his father alluded over the phone to SETI and its noble but common-sensical precepts. Peter had interpreted his father’s persistent if somewhat defensive remarks on the topic as indicating this was Mother’s New Hobby, to be enabled to Make Mother Happy. One day his father floored him with the news the house was sold and the two were heading for Phoenix. After they were settled there, Peter visited to find his mother incommunicado and his father entrenched as the enabler. Back in New York Peter began receiving the binary dispatches—he soon deleted them without activating the decoder attachment. He would not play an Other People’s game when one of the Other People was his mother who no longer spoke to him. Here was an element of his own game: women in his intimate circle not or rarely speaking to him without cause, without a definite schism over something he’d done or not, said or not… There is no relief on his brow or under his clothes—his surface area boils like a wayward asteroid’s inside Mercury’s orbit.
Peter: Forget it.
Peter: What do you mean?
Dartie: Just forget it.
Dartie: You said it first.
This ignites a bronchial catharsis. Peter’s retinas flare.
Peter: Until we get there, let’s play Name the Asshole.
Dartie: How does it go?
Peter: Like Twenty Questions. Name the Asshole.
Peter: Come on! It’s like Twenty Questions. Name the Asshole.
Dartie: Who is it?
Peter: Exactly. Guess.
Peter: No reptiles. No fauna or flora. Just humans. Guess.
Dartie: If you think someone’s an asshole, why don’t you just tell me. I mean, I probably don’t know him.
Peter: Because we’re not there yet.
Peter: Guess a category first and try to narrow things down before you name names.
Dartie: Is it FDR?
Peter: Don’t listen to him.
Dartie: Is it an American asshole?
Peter: No, we don’t use Americans. Too obvious.
Dartie: Is it a Nigerian fraud asshole?
Peter: You get those emails, too, the ones requesting your bank account number? Anyway, no, too apt.
Dartie: Is it a Chinese top-government asshole?
Peter: Too easy. We try to challenge you, take you off the beaten path of assholes. No insurance carrier execs, no accredited film editors, no celebrity chefs.
Dartie: No volleyball commentators?
Peter: Nope. Guess again.
Dartie: I didn’t start yet—we were going through the rules.
Peter: You know, sometimes your mind doesn’t work just the way I like.
Full Frontal: She is the shit, bro!
Jomo remains still and prone though the algae’s been discarded into a sanitary receptacle and the Inktomi attendant had sashayed off to the groove. Jomo had flinched when his boy barged in and now the two cots underneath him are unaligned.
Full Frontal: Why don’t ya rush the mirror, son? Admire your new stripes.
Jomo: I’ve been musing on Smirk USA, cooking up freshness for the people.
This was his discipline, he liked to think, delaying delivery of the much anticipated. His mother and his baba independently related that as a child he never prematurely opened presents. In fact he’d required goading to attack the ribbon and paper. Everything in its time and all the best is savored. Then Melissa entered his life and his habit became a frequent ritual. One week after their encounter at the mixer, she’d given him a felt sack and whispered he was special. He took his time discovering the snakeskin belt. Accessories, jewelry, gadgets ensued—it was no hardship to date a 20-year-old with means. She never shook her astonishment at his procrastinated unwrappings, which pleased him. Was it discipline or an inherent trait? Regardless, the carrot for staying true to the behavior would be the eventual epidemic of The Herky Jerk.
Full Frontal: Get ya ass off the tables.
Jomo: Country, this horse rides when it wants to.
Full Frontal: That reminds me—we’re blowing off the rodeo. We got ourselves a better engagement. While you were here, Astrid flashed me from the sand—we’re hooking up at the Miysis gig in the Park tonight!
Jomo: She flashed you?
Full Frontal: During the match, between games!
Jomo: No shit!
Full Frontal: No shit!
Jomo: Roxanna too?
Full Frontal: No man, she’s all biz during their matches, but she’ll be there. They were crushing the Amazons and it was all good on their bench.
Jomo: That is damn good work, bro! I knew you had the power!
Inktomi appears next to a screen depicting herself beaming technicolor to the masses below. She assesses the imagery’s take.
Inktomi: Enough chattering. It’s important to me that you accept your skin.
She 180’s the screen, which rests on rollers. Mirrors cover its reverse side. She folds the panels before her client. Jomo doesn’t move yet—he stares at his clean head, shoulders and arms. He flexes instinctively. Full Frontal stands in the reflection like a recently staked traffic sign. Inktomi beckons and Jomo tentatively takes himself to meet—
Inktomi: Born from the sea’s spume à la Sandy Botticelli’s vision.
Full Frontal: Damn, that shit looks fine!
Full Frontal: She’s standing on that little shell, covering up her little—
Jomo: Shush. I mean it, Country.
Inktomi: Resplendent as she appears this minute, your canvas is raw. As you age, she will, becoming subtler but never requiring restoration.
Jomo: I am so thankful. Thank you. All I can say is thank you so much.
Inktomi: Fantastic. That is what I hoped to hear. Alors, excusez-moi, ma tour humaine. Adieu.
She exits. Jomo plays perspectives on the art, pivoting and closing in on the glass. The hair, the eyes entrance him.
Full Frontal: I should get me one of those. Not a Melissa, I mean, just one of them tats.
Jomo: She’s a dream. Everything is in proportion right down to her toes.
Full Frontal: You got plenty more space for signage. How about some Smirk action jumping off back there?
Jomo grrs at himself and pulls a series of lat poses.
Full Frontal: Oh there you go, man. There you go!
Jomo spins and works a pec-and-washboard rip.
Full Frontal: Feel it, bro!
Jomo: You know what’s comin’!?
Fill Frontal: What’s comin’!?
Jomo: You know what’s comin’, don’t ya Fronty!?
Full Frontal: Give it to me, what’s comin’!?
Jomo: My girl gets to jerk right here with me!
He pops and shudders into a Herky Jerk on the spot. The house grind makes boogie sense to the dervish and Full Frontal joins in on the session while the rendered Melissa, tilted with erotic equipoise, whirls in the mirrors at Inktomi’s garage.
Peter shoves Dartie then hauls himself out of the cramped sweatbox, keeping his back turned as the kid handles the transaction with the barking driver. Brunch, the gravitrain, now this fare, and he has himself a sugar albino. They stand on 86th and Columbus and look east down the street. Behind barricades, hundreds of revelers creep between stalls on the sidewalks. Arching overhead, an Egyptian character fashioned of wire, paper and lights—a lion-headed man brandishing a small sword—reigns in profile. They join the herd and Peter lets himself get shunted away from the center. He looks at the nearest stalls, expecting the customary shills of bottle-tossing contests for cuddlies, sock bargains, zeppolies and grilled corn-on-the-cob. Instead he finds dancing bears, veganwear, and vials, sticks and swatches of incenses and perfumes beyond pungent. He is reminded of his only Grateful Dead show in Memphis, TN one fine day in the 90’s: in the Pyramid’s parking lot there had been a makeshift mall for alternative wares. A young thing in a lioness’s mask encroaches on his person. Shirtless and painted tawny, she hands him a cup of fluorescent grog—sweet and packing triple-digit proof. Her companion, done up in whiskers, mane and tail, roars as Peter finishes off the gift. The roaring multiplies down the way.
Peter: This is San Gennaro on Mulberry gone epic and wrong.
Dartie: No, it’s the French Quarter come here! Don’t you watch those Mardi Gras webcasts?
Peter: I used to, decades ago when I recognized what turned me on.
Jostled by rambunctious cubs, he slips curbside into chunky, florid spillage. From above, the lioness dumps pink into his mouth. Dartie gulps and sputters, laughing.
Dartie: This is just the pre-party!
Trombones accompanied by percussion to the north shake Melissa out of her reverie. A middle-aged priggish man cracks a paper newspaper to turn a paper page in the gazebo. One empty rowboat drifts away out on The Lake, taking with it something from her, perhaps. The air she draws bakes her sinuses; her mouth is cottony. She evaluates her system and detects little if anything of the aloe vera. So it has wavelengths, does it, or maybe Hillary’s strips lack staying power. The oompah broadens with dozens of shouting trumpets and ranting saxophones, now joined by clarinets flitting around the sonic beast like pilot fish. Apparently the route includes Park Drive. She has to find a vendor fast for any form of hydration, so she proceeds toward the parade.
Avenue blocks can stretch exceedingly long, notwithstanding a temp in the high 90’s, a horde of touchy-feely lion heads, and unlicensed incenses trumping all the mustard one can blow. There was the added daze from more grogs Dartie handed over during their promenade. Peter couldn’t see the Park through the manes while caught in the crunch, but he anticipated relief when they got through. They got through to find Central Park West and the other side besieged. Another cup in clammy hand, Peter surveys the intense, protracted merging into the Park’s proper access, flanked on either side by a few dozen cops in retro NYPD riot gear.
Peter: Follow me.
He breaks wide left out of the crowd, leading Dartie to a stretch of the outer wall between unshielded sentries in standard blues. Gripping the plastic container in his teeth, he hits the stone (a head extra yells, Go Home You Goddamn Lawyer!) and is over the wall—glug, glug, glug. Dartie drops at his side. Up and forward, dodging roots and stones and discarded inhalers to Park Drive, melding into more heads awaiting the parade.
Dartie: Hanging out with you is fun, lawyer!
Hacking out the incense.
Peter: What was that guy talking about?
Dartie: You’re the only Miysis cat in a coat and tie!
The wombat serves up a couple of dogs with the works to three Miysis goers in front of Melissa. She gazes at the backs of their identical T’s: a lion’s head, crowned with a sun-disc entwined by a cobra, glares down at her, a bloody dagger held in its snarl. She feels faint though not from the krewe’s iconography. At last she stands in front of the vendor and orders two Pop Tart lemonades. She chugs one and leaves the bottle on the cart. Turning, she bumps into the waist of the prig, who doesn’t respond to her Sorry. Startled, hurrying, she retraces her path to the gazebo. He no longer carried the paper newspaper. He might be the one who shot her at the magazine kiosk. Frail, wan—a voyeur prototype. Or not. Maybe a burly, bronzed perv had just shot her again for another segment. What kind of men do we have in this town—nervous nellies or macho misogynists. For the second time she sits in the same seat. The Lake is clear of rowboats. A cumulonimbus appears in the east as though conjured for drama, conjuring up high its own broad, black anvil aiming at Manhattan. They’re indoors on Long Island. She checks for flashes—no I See You from the perv, no I Love You from Jomo—and hydrates some more.
Jomo could feel latent lightning before a storm although he couldn’t describe the vibe precisely. Sometimes he could smell pregnancy on a woman; they had discussed this at some length on several occasions. He enjoyed bragging about his gifts, deeming them shamanistic rather than dubious. Conversely, he never knew when a stranger was lying, as Melissa did. She considered herself perceptive socially with just cause, but had found nothing supersensory in her makeup. For her, mainly an acute grasp of the less than obvious to the hoi polloi, and she knew whom to thank for that. The late afternoon’s atmosphere has browned. A gust starts the leaves murmuring behind her and on The Ramble’s slope beyond the water, which remains limpid. The Pop Tart leaves her throat viscous but her little body had required fluid, sweetened artificially or not. Her father should be flashing or visiting the apartment soon—it has been too long. As though pressed by an invisible hand, she reclines suddenly against the bench. Her adrenaline revs, her nipples itch, and her mind addles. The strips, the aloe vera… Tongue dancing on her soft palate, hands reciprocating inchoate messages, she cruises off a wave’s lip down its steep wall, shredding for kicks, teetering in the pit, crouching through impact, then balancing and grinning in the roiling white water. Her external sight returns and she pictures herself towed on an inner tube across The Lake then along a side street on the Upper East and out to Long Island where all her grandparents used to live. A gust cools her damp forehead. If this is the deal she wants her man with her. She flashes Jomo but he’s Out Of Service. She thinks she should be irritated and listing the reasons for this. She should have her man’s arms around her waist. She returns to the surfing reverie (unlike her to sustain a visual for so long) and bails into a cerulean bay, bobbing, then boarding up again and paddling out with a gang of faceless grommets.
Kitty Kat sits in a beach chair, briefcase on her lap and bargain-basement summer jacket donned for departure. After submerging in a susurrant stew induced by Maui buds, Lane crescendos into a fury for no evident reason.
Lane: Big head, big head! I don’t need that! When my correspondence arrives tomorrow I want you to screen it for turds and lick it for poison—I want toxicology run on every sheaf! And you collate and parse every goddamn missive from every mother of my children and every mistress and ex so that I only read what I’m entitled to! An artist’s authority, a father’s respect. “Thanks for your seed, Dad, and your name to boot so that I may bandy about in my skull the possibility of one day achieving a reasonable state of humanity!”
He juggles three, then four grenades.
Kitty Kat: Tomorrow is Sunday. There won’t be any mail.
Lane: You better be sure of that, Assistant KK! I don’t want any big-head sketches pushed under my door, debasing me and tearing me down when I’m training with the Brawler!
Kitty Kat: I’ll come tomorrow, but later in the morning.
Lane: You will?
He stops juggling and the duds drop.
Lane: Well, when we scrimmage on Sunday you best bring your A-Game! Kitty Kat, you better be staunch! The Bawlin’ Brawler’s got a N’Awlins nemesis to confront.
Kitty Kat: Why is he called the Bawling Brawler?
Lane picks up a crossbow, draws it, and strums it as a minstrel.
Lane: Because he weeps in the ring, Kitty Kat. Some fighters cut easily. Some swell up. But the Bawling Brawler cries like a jilted prom date when he gets hurt. As his devotees and haters know, the tears signal a comic-book-hero resurgence of his pugilistic invincibility!
Kitty Kat: He actually cries when he boxes?
Lane: Right up to the knockout every bout! The formula is inevitable, though I mess with the timing and introduce in each episode a modicum of fresh context and subplot. The pricking of New Orleans bodes positively: I sense possibilities as plentiful as beignets at Café du Monde for the users.
Kitty Kat: You call your readers “users.”
He strums with flair.
Lane: What do you think is going on here, Kitty Kat? I’m a fried piper leading online gamers out of La-La Land!
Peter fidgets, crushing the go cup with his tasseled Wachovia. It’s a young, bridge-and-tunnel crowd on the route and he shares its buzz as they all await the parade, heard from over the hill. Dartie had slipped out to change for beads in the event they didn’t catch enough—they’d need them for later, he’d explained, when they traveled further into the Park for the real festivities. Peter isn’t concerned about what that might entail; youngsters inveterately talked up Later, Next and Real while he himself has always been hunky dory with Right Now and Here. Once, in high school, he took part in the Columbus Day parade in Manhattan and his attention was devoted to tooting the correct notes on his saxophone while keeping in step. He hadn’t looked up at the skyscrapers or to the sides at the onlookers. As a result, he has no visual record of the experience; it’s another autobiographical anecdote that could just as well belong to someone else. During his sophomore year he quit Band because he felt like it, never to march in spats again.
Waiting for the parade, waiting for the parade among scantily clad grog gulpers and quality users. If he knew anyone he might watch out for familiar heads or tails—for decades Manhattan had teased him with this very musing yet he never ran into anybody he knew. In his ears comes a high-pitched tone, shrill and steady, unrelated to the onrushing din. It’s recurred at random throughout his life. As a child he fancied it had to do with signaling spies; later, with invisible aliens; later, with parental SETI code; later, with spies. No need to panic because it never lasts. Something cool nudges his hand, which he brings up to his moustache for a smoothing. Across the drive a couple sucks face, egged on by their neighbors. They cease, abashed maybe 20%, excited 80%. They swap beads—they’re strangers. Peter finds his testostometer spiking. Let’s get this march On. The coolness inserts itself into his palm. Irritated, he glances down, triggering a stinger. His neck and tongue sizzle.
Peter: Agh. What. The hell!
Left hand occupied with another cup, he massages his nape awkwardly with the right.
Dartie: I’ve been trying to give you a drink! Yo, here they come!
At the hill’s crest a torch appears, carried by a boy drenched in beadery. He proceeds solemnly and stiffly past the watchers’ adulation. Older, demonstrative flambeaux-bearers follow—enough of them that Peter recoils from the heat. He sips electric blue grog that tastes identical to the others, then Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah’s some mustard. Dartie is beside himself with ants in his pants and sneakers. Gaudy rays of light swing up the Drive. The sky has darkened; Peter had no idea heavy weather was in store, but forecasts had never occupied him. Here it comes, here comes the float. For a breathtaking stretch the pageant’s vibrancy and eccentricity overwhelms his sight. Headdressed shimmiers, flagellators and posers occupy every flat surface of the rolling leviathan. On the top deck nubile princesses fibrillate sequined skin. Elsewhere, lighted eerily from below, krewe members in oversize, fiercely fanged lion-heads toss necklaces. Next to Peter two cubs strip and present themselves, whooping at the avatars of Miysis worship. The chains hail down all around them. Peter snatches one on the fly, impressed with his dexterity, as older men more likely are. Between the beads are rubber genitalia, knives, eyes, and angled glyphs. Dartie leaps out of a scrum with an unwieldy trove. Rather then set upon him, the empty-handed peel and prance again for another shower.
The float halts for a revue. From raucous Dixieland, the music turns into a funky clap-and-stomp stew, bringing the scroungers to their toes with gleeful recognition.
Dartie: The Miysis theme song! The Lions of Mardi Gras!
The float’s royalty, peerage and attendants lead in song.
You know I party still, just half as much—
My little sweetie likes my sober touch.
She keeps me driving straight, hands on the wheel—
I’m designated Hers, that’s how I feel.
Dartie bounces like a kid on his parents’ bed after a good report card.
She’s upstairs fussin’ round, with rag and gloves—
Don’t laugh I helped before, cleaned my old stuff.
So let the lion yawn, blink, roll and roar
About my wilder days, stiff drinks galore.
Peter finds he is the only non-bouncer off the float.
Went down to Mardi Gras, not once or twice—
New Orleans hooked me on hot Cajun spice.
My sweetie caught my grin about dares and deeds—
Held up both hands and asked, “Wha’d ya do for beads?”
The mob stays grounded for a women-only chorus.
And she sang,
How ya beads hangin?
Do they needs janglin?
If you ain’t careful
They’ll fall down to the floor.
The male cubs are performing an accompanying show-and-grin.
Swing em back behind ya
Let’s see how I find ya
And we’ll act like we’re
At Bourbon once more!
Over percussion only, all the members chant:
You know what Greek Revival means? Big columns!
Peter grabs his belt buckle like a modest bachelor foisted up into the chair on a strip-joint stage, though no one looks for candy behind the counter when there’s plenty in view. Most of the dropped trous are righted as another round kicks up.
The biggest lions boast long, heavy manes—
My krewe of lions earned neckfuls of chains.
We rode St. Charles and Chartres and Calliope—
Green, gold and purple blazed our masks and rope.
Grenades and hurricanes crazed our parade—
Without a float to ride, our krewe was made
By giving back what beads were called by name—
The Crescent City strips sweet girls of shame!
Dartie has linked arms with fellow bouncers. Peter recognizes youthful abandon and might wax wistful if he weren’t soused.
We weren’t Bacchus, Rex, Muses or gods
But man our beads sure did increase the odds
Of seeing visions hell or heaven sent—
We blew them kisses full of best intent.
Now the girls perform inside rings of boys.
And we sang,
How ya beads hangin?
Do they needs janglin?
If you ain’t careful
They’ll fall down to the floor.
Swing em back behind ya
Let’s see how I find ya
And we’ll come back
Down to Bourbon once more.
And the chant:
Just look at all that gingerbread—i’n’t ‘at purty!
Peter remembers this sort of display from his early Websurfing Cuckold period, but so much flesh in the flesh elates him more than he ever could have clicked up with his mouse. His testostometer nears 100. Dartie has himself a faceful of bosom, bringing Peter to chortle as a sax man rasps amid the tiaras on the top tier.
Andouille sausage burns streetcar desire—
Jambalaya makes my hands perspire—
Po’boys of shrimp and porkchops batter-fried—
Bananas Foster smoothe out what’s inside.
Perhaps Dartie’s found a new friend.
I thought to fix up some Big Easy snack—
Under the kitchen sink—sheer heart attack!
Behind the pots and pans, down on my knees
I yelled, “Hey sweetie, now whose beads are these?”
She’ll be a doting mother from what Peter can tell of her cradling bounce.
You know she giggled, clapped, danced, smiled too—
She’d been to Mardi Gras with her own krewe—
Marie Laveau saw all what they would do.
My sweetie said, “I always pictured you!”
Now the revelers pair off rather than ring up. Peter looks away from the kid and his companion, preferring the dishabillement of strangers.
And I sang,
How ya beads hangin?
Do they needs janglin?
If you ain’t careful
They’ll fall down to the floor
Swing em back behind ya
Let’s see how I find ya
And we’ll act like
We’re at Bourbon once more!
Peter is downright giddy over the bawdry. The jam disintegrates over a drum roll and the float lurches forward as the cubs shout the last chant at themselves:
I know where you gotchya shoes—on ya feet!
Brief lightning and gusts from the east. Peter stamps out his blunt and doubts Dartie and all the cubs will protest rain on this parade.
Miysis had solicited Melissa. The krewe’s pre-event marketing, including growling holos and doubloons with the doorman, successfully planted awareness of the evening, though she hadn’t intended to attend, much less join (at the associate’s reduced fee). She wanted to keep her options plentiful and continually forthcoming, and krewes, with their exclusivity and their notoriety, could bring in’s and out’s with other cliques. She is young, already Nu, and not in haste.
Over decades “Mardi Gras” had sprung up in urban party-pockets designated by Chambers of Commerce. Mainly beer-garden parties, the bastardized festivities lacked for a long time many of the basic trappings of the New Orleans annual, as well as its sociological complexity. Then krewe expansionism metastasized around these established nodes. Melissa studied krewes at Chappaquiddick under an avowed Revolutionary Materialist, who linked their spread to that of Southern unionism in defiance of the Provincial movement fracturing the Northeast, Rust Belt, and other dissatisfied regions. Publicly apolitical, the krewes offered much desired community and insidious clout, as the prof (who often prematurely ended a lecture to catch a Star Trek rerun) demonstrated with lists of Boards of Directors and candid next-to-the-dais pics pasted on oak-tag displays. That had been one of those Chappa seminars in which Melissa conceded a soi-disant radical’s argument but easily brushed off its alarmist tenor. Who knows? she may end up associate-Miysis herself (its priests, the full members, were male), she muses as she passes Park signage she’s never seen before, announcing the proximity of a pinetum. Or joining Miysis might be a social decision for Jomo to make one day for the both of them. She checks for a flash and reads a text message: Found you on the GPS…Meet you soon…Something to show you!…J. Such a cutie. She shakes the hand-held and wonders why the flash didn’t engage. Maybe the storm clouds have brewed interference. Would Jomo feel it? She better find cover soon.
The dimming above becomes the flambeaux, accentuating their antediluvian ceremonialism. Melissa steers starboard off the Drive and stands on an exposed rock for a vantage of the bearers, who appear silly as they prance for the crowd. It has been her lot in life to view parades, concerts and such from afar due to her stature. Fortuitously farsighted, she has never minded this physical detachment and has smugly considered it a blessing to take in the Big Picture of human spectacles. Down below at the base of the incline the first float appears, lurid as all get out, with the Miysis theme in mid-gallop (she’d downloaded the song off one of the pre-event spams). Shameless crudeness transpires predictably on the pavement, rather incongruous with the mock majesty of the exotic Ptolemaic-inspired procession. From the banks of the Nile’s maw, Mardi Gras transported deities and esoterica to the New World’s own delta, garnished them with Gallic and Creole, and now here comes Miysis rolling near the termination of the once-proud Hudson (reduced by man to a tame flume ride). Maybe there is something in a great river, spending its silt and apparently expiring through its mouth into a greater entity, that breeds scheduled bacchanalia. With its inaugural Gotham parade far removed from the Lenten calendar, Miysis has seized the city, Melissa sees in her Big Picture, and the krewe will root and thrive here as long as it chooses to. A hefty raindrop startles her foot in its Frito’s. The remaining flambeaux pass out of sight before she can assess their endurance in a squall. She turns and races along a gravel bridle path to shelter under a bridge.
The effigy of the lion-god amazes Peter. Through the downpour he gawks as intimations of the occult tingle his nerves and strike him with dumb respect, quelling his drink-and-smoke reflex. Revered with light, Miysis alone commands this float, towed briskly by priestly figures robed and masked in white. The torrent prevents Peter from ascertaining the material, fabric or flower of the god-image, towering barefoot in a white tunic with a stupendous, ornate sword held perpendicular to his left forearm, a glowing ankh carried low in his right hand. Bejeweled anklets and armlets embrace tawny, human limbs. The mane is black; the lion-visage serenely regal under an opulent crown. Once nearly an Art History minor, Peter senses the flat rigidity of the Egyptian iconography struggling with its three-dimensional incarnation—this struggle magnified and glorified by the titanic scale. The groundlings have quit their games to pay worship through shrieks, whistles and applause. Peter almost thinks to grovel on his knees: the man-hours, the acumen, the artifice required in creating such a wonderful monument boggle the mind as incalculably Egyptian.
Dartie: It’s so true! It’s so good!
Peter: I couldn’t have built that. Of course, I never built anything except my pod.
Dartie: The wind, the storm! Miysis is the god of winds and storms! And he’s the god of heat in summer! It’s perfect!
Peter watches the robed characters begin to tug their prize up a straight incline that must last two hundred yards. He wants to yell out, then he wants to run and take up a rope, bear his fraction of the burden, fulfill the strain of a time-old birthright.
Inktomi had assured Jomo his cotton tank top would not spoil nor sop up her indelible design—in restoring the insulted dermis the nutriceutical algae effectively sealed the introduced pigmentation. So he wears the tank but his dorsal region crawls with surface tension. He wants to scratch though it doesn’t itch; he wants to rub his art, caress Melissa. They ascend from the subway into a deluge that rose up out of nowhere during the train ride. Full Frontal stops mid-flight in the stairwell and smiles.
Jomo: Oh, I see that. That old varsity cornerback look.
Full Frontal takes off and Jomo bounds after him, past co-ops, flower shops and brasseries, over the hump of Park Avenue, and past embassies, medical offices and co-ops. Past Fifth they attain the Museum steps in a heat, then Jomo stretches out and takes them by the half-dozen for another victory. They shake it out in the lobby.
Full Frontal: Just like. A goddamn. Giraffe.
Jomo: Can’t touch me at my distance. Yo, let’s get artistic in here while the storm is on.
Full Frontal reads the signage.
Full Frontal: I’m not coughing up my hard-earned for this nonsense.
Jomo: It says “suggested” admission price, Country. You give these cats a dime for their endowment and you get the same badge and all that goes with.
Full Frontal: Right about now I want to hang with the Sirocco babes. I’m not feeling the ancient business and whatnot.
Jomo: I’m not gonna lecture you about your heritage, Fronty. But Smirk USA can always grab inspiration from wherever, you know what I’m saying?
Inevitably the sideman trails the MC, who tosses a dime for each and strides down a hall eye-level with elevated sculpture of yore. They arrive in the hall of a temple. The visitor extras in attendance are thinning out ahead of closing time. Full Frontal eyes reliefs.
Full Frontal: I can’t read these Egyptian tags.
Jomo: This is our house today. Chill a bit.
Full Frontal: The message is all up-and-down.
Jomo: Then drop and give me fifty.
They fall to the stone. Push-ups never hurt a stymied guest at Dendur.
The limo sits double-parked in the low 90’s on the Upper East. No doorman has ventured out to confirm or protest the appropriateness of its position or to offer to escort in the unseen occupants under umbrellas. No megastrollers chug along the sidewalk. The local animal kingdom is on hiatus indoors after a mad dash or hasty retreat. Close-up of the rear side window and drag into slo-mo. Down slides the pane. Out pops Tawdra’s head. Up she faces the rain—we know this scene, but from how many movies? She can’t count the raindrops but out protrudes the tongue. She wears no mascara to bleed. Up slides the pane. Inside she rejoins this Prep Boy, this cipher who, if he hadn’t briefed her about his gig on the back bench, might be a master mole for nefarious Entertainment and Government hydras in her dreams. This Prep Boy firmly declined the pepper with thanks from Suffolk through the Tunnel and insisted the vid remain shut down.
The rain ends for a number of minutes during which the cubs have dispersed mainly to the Great Lawn. Peter’s system has leveled off, thanks to fresh grog from Dartie and a mustard whopper. The question of hunger intrigues him a bit—if the Lawn summons the flock at this dusky hour then nourishment must await there. Just two floats had constituted Miysis; Peter rates it with thumbs and other appendages stoutly up. The kid haggles with stragglers, swapping beads, tchotchkes and redundant commentaries on the parade. From the latter Peter gleans the Next this evening involves a temple and festivities. Food: solved. The denouement of the shower resounds in the trees, where raindrops descend among the clinging leaves then reluctantly discharge in the grass and on the Drive. Peter finds his garments sodden and himself uncomfortable. On cue, his blazer is tugged at the shoulders and stripped away behind him. A mandrill hussy sneers behind florid cosmetics.
Mandrill: I said, “Hey, Big Guy.”
Peter: Give me my coat.
She plays the matador, topless and improbably buxom.
Mandrill: No jacket required for Miysis, Big Guy.
She pivots her shoulders and nothing jiggles.
Peter: Give it.
Mandrill: Anyways, it’s a dishrag now.
She wrings it out and hands it over. Peter locates his wallet and stuffs it in the squishy front pocket of his chinos.
Mandrill: I want that necklace.
Peter ignores her and examines the disgruntled heap. With drink and smoke to occupy him, it proves needless ballast over his arm, so he chucks it to the curb.
Mandrill: I want that necklace, I told you.
Her implants stretch the skin so much that Peter studies the blue schematics of veins prominently arrayed. He thinks of the network of metropolitan lights seen from a plane at night. Tangent: her breasts resemble distended testicles. Back from the agora, Dartie hands Peter the discarded blazer.
Peter: Does this goddamn thing have nine lives? Don’t pick up after me.
He hurls it again disgustedly with the utmost effort, effecting a twinge in his seldom-rotated rotator cuff. He rubs the shoulder and glances at his probing digits, which triggers a neck-and-tongue stinger.
Next to Dartie, inured now to his mentor’s unexplained lapses, his doting mother gawks at the self-masseur. Peter notes her bedraggled locks then looks back at the mandrill, who is similarly bedraggled. From their leers and their age discrepancy, the mother is the daughter and the hussy is the mother—or maybe the rain draggles all folk common. A voice inside asks what his wallet contains these days that merits jealous safeguarding.
Mandrill: I told him I want that.
Dartie: The necklace with the serious doodads?
Mandrill: Oh yeah.
She bares her teeth. Peter winces. Dartie grasps the chain and shakes it.
Dartie: Peter, you caught this from the float, didn’t you? It’s real nice.
The mandrill spins and the mother-daughter giggles.
Peter: We have to get to the food before it’s gone.
Peter: I just said. Something. Whatever.
Dartie: Whatever? For these beads, what’ll it be?
The mandrill leans over and whispers to Dartie and the snickering mother-daughter, who’s crowded into the colloquy.
Peter: You’re not my agent or pimp, kid! These beads stay put!
He storms off, yanking on his bolo for expressive closure and picking at his soaked shirt. He shakes his head to dispel the retinal stain of looming testicles. Up ahead struts a tail he knows.
The weather passes before them through the paned wall of glass and a denied sunset pushes above them second-hand incandescence. Jomo jauntily takes them out across the East Drive, anticipating his showing for his peanut. He double-takes to his left and leads Full Frontal to a knoll topped with a walkway, benches, and a broad but vacant pedestal. Signage lectures on the history of Cleopatra’s Needle.
Jomo: You like shellfish?
He points to crabs at each pedestal corner defensively extending their pincers.
Jomo: So where’s the tower?
Full Frontal doesn’t respond. He’s skimming incomplete translations and dry verbiage about the obelisk’s dual relocations: to Alexandria under Roman auspices after 1500 years of eminence in situ; then to New York some 1800 years later.
Full Frontal: I wonder where it’s going to stand in the year 4000.
Jomo: Whoever took the thing might know.
Full Frontal: Mars. It’ll probably go to Mars. It would look pretty all right on the red desert, giving Rameses the Son of Ra props on another planet. Hah, there’s something for Smirk to represent!
Jomo doesn’t catch the sideman’s rare lyrical fever—he’s express up the road to the water.
Coming in the Park on the East Side… Meet at the Res… J. The text sparkles and gladdens Melissa in the bridge’s shadow, where a mischievous, amorous bunch has joined her. With the rain ending and ending soon, there is no need for shelter in the company of quality scratchers, not that she experiences unease or fear. She checks her person—Nip Tips and Thigh-Gli’s have passed the rainproof test. Memo that to Hillary, she punches into her hand-held. Steam rises into the gloaming and she tentatively sets out toward the Reservoir.
Tambourines chatter with husky, repetitive wooden flutes along the water’s edge. Spread out down the joggers’ track and joined by curious onlookers, the krewe members intone an unintelligible paean to Miysis that contrasts sharply in Melissa’s ears with the amplified jambalaya for the uninitiated swept down the street with the rain. Habitually passive in the presence of live music, she almost claps her hands to the rhythm, moved by her first spotting of the worshippers’ object shimmering in the twilight past hundreds of bobbing candles, the barque of Miysis. Gold, turquoise and lapis lazuli—or their approximations in paste and paper-mache—decorate the stern and bow of the longboat, rowed languidly to remain sufficiently offshore at the curtain of reality visually beheld. Three stand-ins for deities deliberately partake in a staged, violent pantomime—Melissa recognizes this ritual as a reenactment of Miysis seconding Ra, the hawk-headed creator, in battle with the serpentine ruler of chaos and death, Apep. She delves into herself for the source of this recognition; the conspiracy-obsessed declarations of the Trekkie and the sales-y exhortations from the krewe seemed unlikely fonts. A nearby tambourinist pauses to give her a cup then quaff from her own. Melissa finds the wine bitterly resinous and silently opines that, however mitigated, sap belongs contained in pinetums, never to be coaxed into the guise of a purported potable. She opts to engage in communality and gulps the contents with overt gratitude, but its provider is pushing off with her cohorts in a dinghy. All along the shore this action is multiplied, yet the rasp-and-rattle does not suffer much. What a splendid sight as the beggars’ armada contracts into a loose ring around the barque. Overcome with this unanticipated delight and an odd rush that she stands there an agnostic poseur, Melissa turns and faces, of all people in the night-resisting, night-welcoming world, herself.
Peter huffs and puffs mustard as he canters uphill belaboredly, the kid rushing behind, barking irritated inquiries. Off road, into the dimming, the tail evanesced toward the Great Lawn. Mayhem emanates through the conifers, punctuated with exclamatory concert-lighting in the sky.
Dartie: What set you off, man? Peter, why did you leave just when—
Peter: I wasn’t jumping that grenade for you, brother.
Peter: That mandrill—she was gruesome. Anyway, you didn’t have to ditch your cute, young thing on my account.
Thunder reverberates in his cortex at the self-invocation of “account” and he mentally hurtles from the deadbeat status of his accounts at Monsieur Deng’s and Mundo Modo, to its dire ramifications, to the impending, desperate groveling before his wealthy runt. For the first time there is a split-second flash, from another interior region, that he will not expedite this encounter. Maybe his course is the doomed stoic’s, after all.
Dartie: My thing? She’s meeting us at the Temple. It’s gonna be awesome, what Miysis will put on! I heard some crazy stuff!
Peter: Why sell ourselves an event we’re moments from attending? Let’s just crash the motherfucker, get some booze and chow, and enjoy it when we’re there.
Dartie: I hope there isn’t a long line for the liquor—you got a bad attitude that needs adjustment.
Peter: That sounds like office jargon—is that where you heard it?
Dartie: The attitude adjustment? I don’t know. Maybe somebody told me that there once.
Peter: Well, why don’t we ask D’Angel? She’s just ahead of us with a suave friend of mine.
Prep Boy had flipped a pass, intoned the magic words of krewe membership or propinquity or, most likely, been simply recognized as a VIP by the Miysis security. Tawdra couldn’t make out much with nightfall and the attention-grabbing details of cam diagnostics. The chip requires replacement and she gropes in her satchel, concerned the Hot Limo footage might be corrupted or lost—you don’t know till you download. Her driver and escort wends through listless, robed extras in the open-air space under linked tents. It’s a backstage of sorts but their swift entrance from the north precluded a revelatory peek at the main structure and any appointments the krewe had raised on the Lawn for the event. Her webcast audience, those rebels, never referenced any krewes, even with all the naughty hoopla. Tawdra prided her allure and artifice for obviating superfluous chatter and yanking out direct, primal pleas. It’s all about the pepper. She pops and clicks the new chip and listens closely to the automated whir when she bangs her head against a bar. The cam drops to the grass, out of any flame’s luminescent throw. On her knees and indignant, she fingers a basic precautionary run. The system is good and she looks through the vid at the offending bar, which belongs to a series, past which she focuses on a lion lounging on his side, savoring the gore in his jaws.
Jomo turns his head and grins at her mesmerized gaze. When he snuck behind her he’d faced away and knelt to bring the reflection down to her level. Full Frontal looms on the side, chuckling and caught up in the presentation.
Melissa: I love you.
Jomo: The finest I could find for my sweet pea. You got my back. Always.
Melissa: Yeah. Yeah. I. Feel a rush of questions.
Jomo: We’ll take them later, baby, every one. So whatcha think? You like?
Melissa: Oh yeah.
Full Frontal: You look mighty good buck-naked, Melissa.
Full Frontal: I had no idea you had—
Jomo: Shush, bumpkin. You know what—go scout the Lawn for the v-ballers and we’ll catch up with you in a few.
The sideman trundles off. Jomo rises and embraces Melissa. Teary, she pulls away, scoops up a floating candle, then beckons him from the Reservoir and the naval masque to a bench, which she climbs to turn her man and marvel more at what he has done.
Intently chasing tail, Peter bursts onto the Great Lawn, yet again taken aback at the scale of Miysis erections—the temple and obelisk stand at the north end—and the krewe’s impressive draw, numbering in the hundreds of thousands across the expanse. Extras gravitate to prudently spaced server stations announced by tall, anchored flambeaux. Far off at the South End the floats have moored. A techno orison inspires the trancers.
Peter: Wow, this is a big deal.
Dartie: I told you!
Peter: This is bigger than the Earth Day concert on this spot years ago. That was an exercise in bladder retention and aural disappointment. I never understood the herd mentality.
Dartie: Miysis rules!
Peter: There she is—quick!
They scoot to a station at the edge of leaf and lea where D’Angel stands. She saw them first.
D’Angel: I saw you first.
Dartie: Nah, we saw you at the parade! Peter was following you.
D’Angel: You still moping about your dead friend?
Peter: Who’s that.
D’Angel: The foreigner.
The tail seems agitated and there’s quality in those dilated pupils. Fantastically nubile in the torchlight, she is talking about his man in Phnom Penh, Peter realizes—it’s a heavy dredge at the moment.
Peter: Can we get you a drink—Dartie’s got beads.
Dartie: Yeah, check them out! Whaddaya want?
Peter: Ditto. Get some food with meat, too.
The kid enters the station’s swarm. D’Angel arches her tail.
D’Angel: How about you two good buddies! When did this office romance blossom?
Peter: The fire, the light from the fire, really—. You really look—
D’Angel: As cute as chalk-head?
Someone horns in on the exchange and gives D’Angel a go cup.
Ray: There you go. Salud.
D’Angel: Sa-loood to you, dude!
She drinks heartily and flicks her tail.
Peter: Hey, Ray! Good to see you!
He shifts his weight to join the reflexive greeting with his third-party-endorsement back-slap, but he flinches. D’Angel’s flick had traveled familiarly within Ray’s aura—no endorsement is required here. The whores hustle, the hustlers whore, character is fate, and he stands stag with mustard in front of the debtor’s pendulum, shaking off shell shock from mastoid varicosity.
Ray: Señor Matasavage! I didn’t know you took in live entertainment.
Peter: You know me—can’t pass up a party. Did you come here straight from Monsieur Deng’s?
Ray: You know me—and you know D’Angel here too, isn’t that right?—I had to interview this afternoon.
D’Angel: Hah, yeah.
And the flaunters flaunt and the pendulum whooshes by Peter’s soul as he looks wildly around for the desperado or some other costumed minion of menace.
Ray: I’m meeting clients here in a few.
D’Angel: You are?
Ray: They need upgrades—that new footage I told you about, Peter.
Peter: Oh, right. Right. My clients are—. Business would be great if we didn’t have to deal with clients—isn’t that what they say?
Ray: If you say so.
D’Angel: How are you gonna do business here? You didn’t know about Miysis until I told you about it this afternoon!
Ray: Of course you did, sweetheart. You told me about it and I flashed with my clients, who happen to be Miysissippians or whatever you call them. What do you call them here, Peter?
Peter: Balls-for-boobs, that’s what.
D’Angel: When did you flash this afternoon? I never saw you.
Here comes Dartie, juggling the fare that Peter no longer craves. He snatches it nonetheless and slurps and scarfs himself into an oblivious black hole while these galaxies known to him flare and banter in their convergence.
Scuttling away from the beast and his meal, Tawdra hastily shifts to a forward gear, proceeding crablike with hands behind. She retrieves the cam and reverses again until she is stopped by a wicket of legs. Discombobulated, she lies back and appraises the towers: Prep Boy, another krewe priest in a white robe, a redheaded man with the sign of infinity attached to his headband and quivering overhead, and Roxanna Laminay, garlanded with stars.
Ether: That’s a fine wig.
Tawdra pats the Harpo to remember what she has on her head. She recently took to once-famous wigs for her exterior shoots. When she runs through the set in her closet she’ll move on—that was the beauty of producing and directing herself. She gawks at Roxanna, the brightest star of any circuit going, and moves to shoot her but the v-baller’s celebrated right hand wrests the cam away in a nano.
Roxanna: Not now. Maybe later.
She smiles and Tawdra tingles, beatified. Roxanna, Rox. RL, Miss Laminay. Who could touch her prowess on the sand or her presence off of it? Riding back through Nassau and Queens, gloating alone behind the partition before Prep Boy sang, Tawdra took in two sets of the St. Paul-New York match on the vid. Soused chivalrous, she’d succumbed to heroine-worship, adoring each kill and block, blessing each slo-mo, and insisting to herself she must acquire any aspect of the athlete’s fiber or Qi. Among all the pros and ams across nets around the globe, Roxanna elicited a pact between herself and the viewer through what was insipidly labeled power, grace, quickness and will. With every spike, victory and championship she elevated everyday existence. All this in Tawdra, who seldom watched sports. Roxanna stands taller than she thought in a shapeless one-piece embroidered with pomegranates and Sirocco volleyballs—a pharaonic avatar come to grace the Great Lawn for a night. The redhead addresses the priest.
Ether: When exactly is her king selected?
Priest: First, the lions are hurdled. Then Miysis is consulted. Then all is clear.
Ether: I want her highness comfortable in the meantime.
The priest motions down a grassy passage through more cages. Tawdra trails the retinue, passing handler extras who toss slabs of hided carcass at innumerable lions too het up to be mascots.
Peter holds his breath in the dank chamber. When his time runs out, he pants in eighth-notes then resumes his atmospheric abstinence. In his days he’s had more occasion to practice this retention when crossing a Manhattan street directly behind a flatulent dinobus—a defensive health-maneuver, as he likes to fancy it. In portapotties as offensive as the present, one of his motives is olfactory comfort or lack thereof; the other is the ulterior physiological benefit: the sustained abdominal tautening often prompts and facilitates the matter at hand. Naughty giggling, rustling and bumping next door. Years before, the cuckold-surfer was puzzled at such defiance of reason and decency during several cremaster-twanging forays into scatological sites. Knocking on his door.
Dartie: Hey, Peter? Are you in this one, Peter?
Peter: Don’t talk to me when I’m in here.
The neighbors rev it up over the rank, maxed cloaca.
Dartie: Just let me know if you’re going to be much longer, cuz we’re gonna head over to the festivities.
Peter: I refuse to converse with you. Situated. As I. Am.
Dartie: OK, we’ll be where we were.
Pant-pant-pant-pant, hold. What did the Chinese sages say—this too shall pass.
Melissa’s currants and Jomo’s eggplant curdle into an intimate traveling cloud. The two skirt the temporary temple to forge a route into the Lawn. Melissa gapes at the profile of Leontopolis. Abundant security and select krewe members guard a concealed sanctuary and visible apses where priests mill about and perform preliminary ceremonies, separated from the public by a dense though roofless hypostyle. Among the many big columns of renown and song sits a Miysis colossus on his throne. Twin colonnades extend for hundreds of yards, flanking a processional hall that appears to be krewe-only as well. A strong contingent of Miysis regulars stands on one side of the velvet rope and on the other the earliest or pushiest of the immense gathering, fortunate to party-hearty in the courtyard laid with replicated sandstone. On the Lawn the multitudes seem boisterous, inquisitive and respectful in degrees that counterbalance—Leontopolis has wowed and cowed them. Above, where lightning ghosted earlier, lasers and spotlights (from extensive rigs among the peripheral trees) plot ephemeral geometries and isolate statues and stelae. Underfoot the terrain is alternately muddy and squishy and her Frito’s are overmatched. Yes, the rendered Melissa, the epidermal fresco, elicits gasps and approbations. Jomo high-fives the admirers, some of whom of course recognize him from around the way.
Jomo: There she is!
Hand-in-hand, he and Melissa dodge extras sprawled on lawn chairs and blankets or neither to attain the center of the Great Lawn, where Cleopatra’s Needle has been rolled or metaphysically blinked from her launching pad by the Museum. Full Frontal awaits with his pimp-swagger on, Astrid and Xunta at his sides.
Jomo: Look at my man with his company!
Melissa says hey to the athletes and, from the exchanged smiles all around, guesses that she wants no part in this conversation. Tellingly, the v-ballers have not pulled any Sirocco fans or Amazon hooters. Known as two of Roxanna’s satellites, they are eclipsed in attractiveness, charisma and magnetism, especially when the spectators jack into their emitters. Roxanna sweats the sweetest vibes; the others buzz with fractiousness. Melissa caresses her easel’s hamstring under his shorts, wishing they were back in the conifers trysting again with urgency.
D’Angel: What happened to you? You’re sweating bullets!
She guffaws, spilling her nog and not caring. Ray stares in querulous disbelief. Dartie snorts. Peter mops his brow and gingerly probes under his collar.
Peter: Just get a move-on, girlie. Lead me to the hub of iniquity—the old Peter is back in business.
Ether told her to wait outside as Roxanna was ensconced in a saffron tent serving as the green room. The redhead appeared to be the étoile’s special friend, though Tawdra can’t pin down if there were a conjugal bond and, if so, if it were past or present. With new acquaintances she typically didn’t guess smoke; she assumed fire, confronting either or both with the appraisal. It made for conversation. Prep Boy’s relation to the couple and to the priest and Miysis remained enigmatic. She fiddles with the cam—filler time.
Tawdra: Rebels, this is Tawdra in case you forgot and if you did it’s a demerit the subcommandanté will scrrrrr-utinize severely. I’m backstage at the Miysis bash with my newest amiga, Roxanna Laminay. Oh yes, you heard me, rebels, but do you believe? Show us Roxanna! you demand from your sticky, ergonomic desk chair. In due time—boohaha! The scoop is: Roxanna’s the queen for the krewe and the king will be chosen from the partygoers! Whoever he will be, he’ll be the secondmost lucky fella tonight. Who’ll be firstmost? Oh rebels, can any of you miserable netscum doubt that Miss Tawdra failed to carry a go-pepper on her luscious person?
She pats her satchel.
Tawdra: I must say—. Must, rebels, courses through my being like—insert your own analogy here—and draws you closer to me with every episode, does it not? Do I not inject Must into your measly time on Earth? And I must say my Hot Limo triumph urges me to share my brimming post-game elation! Who do we have here?
Two robed handlers solemnly approach, toting pails. They pass by blankly and Tawdra follows them to the adjacent tent, the den of an extended pride.
Tawdra: Oh yeah, I forgot to mention all the lions in this joint. Rebels, some of them are ferocious!
She pans at the pacers and turns the cam on herself and growls. Softly singing, the handlers take out hunks of meat and hurl them into the cage, where they are descended upon.
Tawdra: Excuse me! Excuse me! What are you guys doing?
Handler 1: Feeding the lions.
Tawdra: I can see that, sir—since I had my eyesight corrected with nifty lasers I have a keen grasp of the obvious. What are you feeding them? It seems to be going over well!
Handler 1: Ox hearts.
Tawdra: How scrumptious!
Handler 2: They’ve been blessed.
Tawdra: Kosher ox! Where’s the lox?
Handler 2: We offer these humble sacrifices in honor of Miysis, Lord of Slaughter.
Handler 1: Avenger of Wrongs.
They toss more of the prodigious chum.
Tawdra: Can I throw them one?
Handler 1: Sure.
Handler 2: No, she can’t.
Tawdra: Well, that’s not very supportive of my investigative efforts here! How about giving me a taste?
Handler 1: Of the meat?
Tawdra: Yeah, break me off some off that Miysis cookin’!
Handler 2: It’s raw. We bless the sacrifice—we don’t grill it.
Tawdra: Like you guys haven’t eaten carpaccio!
Tawdra: Come on, gimme some.
Handler 1 gives her a piece. She sniffs it.
Tawdra: This does not remind me of Granny’s chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven.
She dangles the dripping mass over her mouth then stuffs it in, champing rapidly and swallowing. She gags and recovers, smiling sanguinarily at the handlers and then into the cam.
Tawdra: Oh, now I’m ready for something, rebels!
Handler 1: Hey, I know who you are!
Next to the Needle, in casual water, under the light show (no stars penetrate the urban blear), Melissa loiters. No quality glazes Jomo’s eyes nor tinges his voice but his adrenaline courses as he and Full Frontal chat and get chatted up. The Sirocco remain unaccosted by the public, portending or affirming their imminent exile to another franchise. Although the air is steamy, Melissa’s feet have chilled. Her Mediterranean tangle on top feels wild. Hiking up tie-dye wraps, extras dance to simple beat-strings. One, perhaps the one who jumped in the skiff on the Reservoir, hands her a go cup and plate of bread and meat. The wine is red and tastes thin but well meaning. Mmmm, she thinks, but not on account of her tongue—the intonation vibrates deep down with the aloe vera.
Dartie’s yoke of booty greased their way through the crowd up to Preferred status on the court. One necklace procured two rounds of rations each—Peter contented himself with a heap to which the others contributed generously. When he voiced aversion to the wine, another necklace fetched a sterling silver flask of myst, monogrammed no less. A gift for a groomsman once, maybe. He remembers browsing over such a suggestion on the web. Peter has never served in a wedding party, nor had he and Mindy rounded any troops into an inner circle for their ceremony in the restaurant in Little Italy. His parents had stood by, holding him in wary recognizance. They spoke to him then but disinterestedly, as though they dwelled in a pre-SETI purgatory. On Mindy’s side there were witnesses—haughty colleagues and unctuous associates, all of whom had doubtless had a taste. No use calling up those ghosts with this cool flask in hand and a full belly. To his chagrin the festivities have lost their raciness and flair, devolving into a will to shimmy or drum in place.
Dartie: How you doing?
Peter: Enjoying. Flowing. Whatever—in a good way.
A ward the kid takes him for. At one point, Peter was vaguely aware, Dartie had calculated that the beads were insufficient for all to advance, so he ditched the doting mother and the mandrill. Decisions get made just like that. Peter watches D’Angel slough off Ray’s half-embrace. The worm has turned for her, Peter sees from her tail’s arching stiffly as the vid-dealer exits, off to that improbable business appointment. Peter grabs the tail and shakes it, further irking the owner.
Peter: I’m still here.
D’Angel: That’s a fact.
Dartie: Me too! And I still have one last necklace.
From his pocket he pulls a strand with inscribed, flat stones.
Peter: What happened to mine?
Oh yeah, he shed it in the raucous portapotty.
Dartie: These are symbols.
D’Angel: No shit. That’s how Egyptians talked.
Dartie: Some cub back there told me this spells out a special Miysis message. I was offered more for these than any of the others—I bet they get us inside!
Peter looks at a few shimmiers—clad but attractive.
Peter: Let’s just hang out here. We can see everything.
Stirring up by the columns. A procession of krewe members carrying urns begins to march down the grand aisle.
D’Angel: I don’t wanna sit here like a putz—I want to see where they’re going. If you don’t use those beads, I will.
Dartie: We’ll all go!
They bolt ahead and Peter thinks to add a Let’s go! for the hell of it as he trails along to what comes Next.
Ether: Ennobling drinks and readings at The Hierophant, downtown, people. Now turn off the cam.
Tawdra obeys. Prep Boy, mute and immutable, brings out the pet in her. He has gravitas, she whispers in her head, pronouncing the last syllable to rhyme with ass. This prompts her to ogle her escort’s rear as he watches the ritual in front of the colossus. Small and tight—how Egyptian.
Ether: Where did you dine, the local abattoir?
She checks her face in the lens: odd chunks on her cheeks prove it’s much more than a lipstick/make-out disaster.
Tawdra: I ate with the lions. I’m thirst-y.
She picks and wipes off more evidence from her Saran, finger-painting a downward arrow in the smear. Ether looks on with Prep Boy.
Ether: There’s our fast friend.
The priest from before rates apparently Highest, as he now occupies a central dais, leading an incantation to Miysis. Due to the off-stage perspective, Tawdra picks up a school-play feel she wants to convey to her rebels. Pomp and circumstance turned pop irrelevance, they should know. The krewe’s supplication ends not quite in unison and she stifles a snort as she recognizes that English has been spoken. All attention falls on the priest, who brandishes an ornamented blade high over a lamb Tawdra had not previously noticed.
Priest: Scarlet Lord, Manifester of Will, Helper of the Wise Ones, we honor you in the East of the New World. The souls of the East are gathered for your Truth and no other’s.
Tawdra groans and presses Audio on the cam. Prep Boy looks over at her. She presses Off.
Priest: Lord of the Land of Daughters, we do not fear Death in your Protection. When our enemies rise you tear their arms and legs away so they will never rise again. Eternal Guard of the Astral Plane, we honor you.
He brings the blade down on the lamb and Tawdra gasps, along with many in the assembly who do so with elation. Ether turns away and scratches his temple, repulsed, inspired, or suddenly wondering what Roxanna has gotten herself into.
Jomo trailblazes through the thicket of extras, typically stilting unannounced over a peopled beach blanket then apologizing, joking and arranging the terrestrial advance of the Much Shorter. At some point the Sirocco were acknowledged, though they lagged far behind the tattoo in audience appreciation, to Melissa’s mellow mind. She has not mentioned the Nip Tips nor the Thigh-Gli’s—Jomo failed to find them during their expedited clinch in the pines. He’s clearly reveling in the company of the athletes, whereas Full Frontal is so smitten his pimp-roll rocks affectedly, ignored by any enjoined extras and his own party.
On the forecourt the traffic is less constrained and somewhat better mannered. From a buffet table Melissa takes a disk of cake and dips it in milk then honey, liking each taste equally and preferring them unquestionably to the viscous poi Ritalin 2 had once broken out of a care package from Waipio. She passes on the butcher’s table, where Jomo and Full Frontal indulge barehanded in beef haunches. The athletes only drink and conspire semi-privately. What krewe members march down the hall become alternately obscured and incandesced by the shadows and spotlights rigged among the colonnades. Jomo grins and picks flesh from his teeth, motioning with a bone for Melissa to snap out of her reverie and join the circle.
Full Frontal: Yeah, well, I can sip my wine right here for a bit, you know. We’ll head back there when it’s on—not before, you know what I’m saying.
Astrid: When it’s on? Like it won’t be on if I’m there?
Xunta: If you can’t make the scene, towel boy, them make like eggs and scramble your scrawny ass outa here!
The Sirocco high-five.
Jomo: Ladies, don’t pay much mind to Country here—he never saw a smorgasbord before.
Jomo: How’s my best girl? You ready for the private backstage nonsense?
Off they go to starboard.
One night at college Peter went with his buddy Valium to see Fellini’s Satyricon. The purpose was to meet women. Peter had eschewed the Greek system and, as he was exiled from organized nightly socials during that desultory sentence, he impulsively ventured out to events offering even glimmers of conjugal promise. If an evening’s slate lacked compelling poetry slams or acoustic guitar at the gashouse (bohemian doings predominated in his explorations, though he found artsy women contentious and intimidating), he simply watched TV or napped in his single. Never before or since had he slept like he had at that institution. In class by the radiator; behind the piano at the Student Center; lost in the Library stacks; riding on the jitney to Engineers Drive; but most often he snoozed on his unmade twin bed in the 10 x 20 he occupied all four years. After matriculation the hibernation ebbed, though Peter would grudingly admit at the consultancy he occasionally succumbed in the pod. Away from his closet there were Monsieur Deng’s and Mundo Modo and prurient websurfing and parenting to keep him going... Back to the cinema, where he’d nodded off repeatedly despite Valium’s prods. When his eyes were open, the film boggled him, intentionally it seemed, but there had been a sequence that lived with him: a trip through a bazaar of bacchanalia in which some participants stared directly, disconcertingly, into the camera. Now here he traipses in Central Park behind a box-jawed albino and a spurned skunk through an alley of a temple fabricated for one night only, observing a similar shop of perversities. Certain satyrs look up from their endeavors to stare back, and he is so flustered he speeds up to tailgrab D’Angel. She and Dartie share none of his compunction; they hoot and holler, exhorting as it suits them, even pausing to admire outré contortions undertaken in a miasma of incense. The youngsters’ ingenuousness shatters Peter’s embarrassment or whatever it was (he wouldn’t label it), freeing him up to again spectate with fuller attention to detail. Successfully averting eye contact, he finds his furnace stoked significantly with the measured browsing of each remaining chamber.
Shadows and collegial, robed movements in the behind-the-scenes hive. Installed in fatter years by the Park Conservancy (Melissa assumes), the sod underfoot feels prickly and plastic. The tents kept out most of the rain and her Frito’s have caked. Lions roar from indeterminate angles though decidedly nearby. Full Frontal jumps with fright then endures instant mocking from the nonjumpers. He breaks away from Jomo’s shoulder-clasp and yo’s a pair of Miysis pail carriers. Melissa overhears a reference to the Sirocco and to The List and, with hardly a confirmatory stare, the krewe members point to a perpendicular pathway. The pimp-roll returns.
Full Frontal: It’s on, yo. Follow me.
Jomo: Uncle Fronty, takin’ charge like a motherfucker!
He slams down a double clasp.
The high priest leads the not quite as exalted from the colossus and the sacrifice, toting excised innards in a chalice. Tawdra regards the heap exposed above the brim and envisions raspberry sorbet, the kind she finds on her roommate’s side of the fridge. Nervous humming at her side: Ether paces, agitated. Roaring back in the pens, stirred up by the handlers, she senses. The krewe passes down a grass alley. Tawdra falls in step with Prep Boy behind Ether, who anxiously looks to insert himself into the discussion among the robed.
High Priest: Bring the candidates to the large tent for their interrogation.
Another Priest: But Crank, they’re not ready!
Crank the High Priest: The interrogation will ready them. Bring them to the tent.
Yet Another Priest: They’re not ready to be brought!
Still Another Priest: The pool hasn’t been selected from the courtyard!
Crank the High Priest: Whose priestly duties included the selection!
All the Priests But Crank:
Crank the High Priest: Shit! What the fuck have you guys been doing?
Another Priest: Selection wasn’t in the memo I got.
Crank the High Priest: I fucking don’t give a fucking rat’s laboratory ass about the fucking memo! We’re on the clock here—get the fuck out and select some fucking candidates for our fucking krewe! Well, don’t just stand there!
They scatter. Tawdra leans over to Prep Boy and whispers.
Tawdra: I always wanted to say that—“Well, don’t just stand there!”
Prep Boy nods.
Two-D silhouettes, as in the third panel of Doonesbury comics, Peter and the young colleagues take in the sordid spectacle of the final chamber. Dartie’s hands flutter in his pockets though no coins clink. D’Angel’s tail is arched and rigid. Peter sucks pensively on a blunt that barely extends past his fingertips. He exhales a mere wisp of yellow smoke.
Peter: Why would you even try that?
Two priests round the corner hurriedly, bumping into the trio and each other.
First Priest: Hey! Were you selected?
Second Priest: Were you sent back here for the interrogation?
Second Priest: Then get going!
Dartie: Which way is it, again?
First Priest: Left then right to the big tent—where they’re choosing who vies for initiation.
Second Priest: Sorry, toots—men only in Miysis. But you can watch!
The robes race away.
Peter: So much to watch around here. It does my body good.
On Jomo’s back her hair is pictured much freer, appearing as it had to herself once at Chappaquiddick on a late spring day after a spell of vernal gusts had whisked away all humidity, when she had regarded herself in the mirror after her morning toilet and found her Mediterranean tangle luxuriously soft and loose. On his back her eyes appear a darker chocolate and more circular and flatter. Unlike Mindy but like her father, she will never require contacts or corrective surgery. She inherited farsightedness and most manifestations of his robustness, which she will never test as he has with erosive behaviors recurrent and long-lived as the tides. Whose chromosome endowed her with a toddler’s height—there was a question no doubt debated while she slept during the early angry years of their family. How her skin radiates on his—did Inktomi calibrate her pallet according to the tone of the canvas—was her olive lightened inversely to the melanin underneath? From nowhere Melissa recalls the burden of her day: the vid from the kiosk and the anonymous taunts. Jomo looks back and down at her and the currents inside her smoothen and merge into one stream, the one bearing their posse to the end of the alley and into a tent bustling with krewe members and guests in plain clothes. Full Frontal halts, unsure, with one team of extras barking directions and the other motley bunch mostly obeying. Incense sticks have fogged up the joint.
Jomo: Come on, Fronty, set us up!
Full Frontal: I’m just waiting for one these robes to break free.
The Sirocco case the space, which is filling up with at least a thousand, Melissa guesses.
Xunta: I can’t check the sausage under those robes.
Astrid: Then stick with the regular johns. Me, I like surprises. You, son, get over here!
A harried priest waddles over.
Waddler: Ten minutes to the interrogation.
Xunta: We’re asking the questions—don’t you know who we are?
Astrid: Yo, where is the par-tay at, anyhow? Cuz all we got up in here is a bunch of loiterers and I don’t see any turntables or nice couches and champagne.
Waddler: We’re interrogating candidates for Miysis initiation in here. You want drinks, go back outside. Men, are you candidates?
Full Frontal: Yeah man, we’re for real.
Waddler: Then step to the front. Ladies, you can hang to the side. Don’t clog this area.
He moves on to greet other arrivals.
Jomo: Bro, do you want to do this?
Full Frontal: What’s that?
Jomo: If we step up, we’re saying we want in to Miysis and whatnot.
Xunta: This is one of those boyz clubs. Are we gonna sit here and watch this nonsense?
Astrid: Well, the talent’s in here, so where we gonna go? We might catch a celebration later on, like that ceremony in Vegas when all the freaks got butt-ass naked.
Xunta: That was sweet! I couldn’t jump-serve the next day, my hammies were so fried!
Astrid: But we still closed them out 15-0 in the fourth!
Jomo: We’re not splitting up—this is a group thing. I don’t care what that cat meowed, let’s all just chill together and see what develops.
Full Frontal: Yeah man, everybody just chill.
Melissa concurs and gooses her man gratefully.
Peter enters the tent and chokes on the haze, rife with incense. He lights up mustard desperately to create an aromatic cocoon but his first drag aggravates the insult to his airway and bends him over, hacking. The spell continues, hammering him down to the grass, where he finally sits. Dartie and D’Angel would be out of sight were they not standing over him.
D’Angel: This is like heaven for you, nobody can see what an ugly ghost you are.
Dartie: Where’d your boyfriend go?
Her tail cracks, missing by a wide margin.
D’Angel: Lucky for you, you blend in in this whiteout.
Dartie: Where’s your boyfriend?
Another futile crack and on the follow-through the whip catches Peter along the side of his head, sending him into a wobble.
D’Angel: Shit, Peter, was that your ass? Sorry.
Peter: Just. Stand still. Both of you.
He tears up from the hurt or the incense. Conversations buzz all around, indicating a substantial gathering of confused extras. Once, as a teen on Long Island, he had practiced his pitching wedge on the small lawn next to the bamboo thicket. Eager to demonstrate newfound proficiency with the overlapping grip to his father, he had come inside and into the living-dining room. In slo-mo he had swung the club and followed through accidentally into a chandelier, shattering a bunch of globules and terminating his golf privileges, even outdoors, forever. Suburbia. He lights up again, hacking anew but less vigorously so that he almost takes comfort in the rhythm. A murky figure accosts the two upstairs.
Murky: Five minutes to the interrogation.
Tawdra stashed the cam away in light of the incense glut and ventilation absence, the latest subject of the High Priest’s consternation. He upbraids his lackeys then apparently makes an executive decision to hastily shuffle off and deliver his planned presentation. Prep Boy stood to her left before the fog overran everything.
Tawdra: This is some debacle. I mean, I can’t even see you.
Ether had stationed himself to her right, but for all she knows he’s departed to check on Roxanna. The crowd noise hushes upon requests from elsewhere in their gaseous nebula. After the requisite repeated efforts, the hush becomes silence.
High Priest: Greetings, friends. Miysis the Initiator welcomes you. The mist surrounding you represents everyday blindness. Miysis invites you to open the mahit, the eye that sees clearly in moonlight, where the dead tell their secrets. Miysis invites you to leave fear behind, for he will carry you on his powerful shoulders through all your life’s troubles and even after, over the abyss. Who in this city would walk with lions, without fear? Who here will hurdle the lion? Name your highest obstacle, your most formidable nemesis, your most public shortcoming—then confront it and leap over it. Who here will hurdle the lion tonight? If you land on the other side, your walk will be regal in our brotherhood.
Roaring outside from the pride.
High Priest: Miysis challenges you to hurdle the lion. For there is no healing without a wound, no protection without a threat, no justice without a crime, no truth without illusion.
The speech is concluded. Murmurs of all colors resound among the extras, soon drowned out by instigated but nonetheless bone-chilling roars. Tawdra leans over.
Tawdra: Prep Boy, did you already go through this? You jumped over those bad boys?
No response. The fog shifts so she can make out his silhouette, which does not jibe with her expectation.
Tawdra: Hey, where’d you get that cowboy hat?
If there were one thing about Jomo, this giant of flesh and feeling, that gives Melissa pause, it would be his unexpected gush of hilarity in a situation devoid of comedy. This is one such time: offstage the lions bellow in menacing concert, in the tent the extras trade heightened appraisals of the Miysis offer, and here he stands guffawing and gasping. Once, at a Minute Maid outlet store off the Long Island Expressway, a sassy squirrel had painstakingly botched Melissa’s basic blouse exchange while working in two separate snide comments about the couple’s unlikely pairing. Melissa had considered fetching a chain saw and Jomo had guffawed all the way to the car. And what should she say at these times—stop laughing? In this toxic millenium, is it ever appropriate to say that? Back in the present, Full Frontal, to his rare credit, glares at his MC’s peculiar paroxysm. The athletes don’t get it either, but they are disarmed and take a break from sausage-checking through the mist to smile upwards. Over at the open flap, Melissa sees the entrance has become an exit, as krewe members herd willing candidates out toward, presumably, a den of challenge. Mercifully, incense begins to follow them.
Astrid: Well, what are you towel boys standing here for? Getchya asses out the door!
Full Frontal: I couldn’t hear the dude. What exactly’s going on?
More roaring, which bugs his eyes. Jomo begins to get a hold of himself.
Xunta: Man, you gotta jump the hungry lions if you wanna be all Miysis.
Astrid: Make sure you get a running start, or you might lose your valuables!
High-five in silhouette.
Full Frontal: That’s what the dude said? I didn’t hear him with all the ruckus and whatnot. We gotta jump over the cats?
A dark figure now looms next to the group.
Dark Figure: That’s not exactly what was meant.
Full Frontal: You krewe? Are the lions, like, in cages and stuff?
Dark Figure: Clear your head for a second.
Full Frontal: We just, like, jump over the cages, right?
Dark Figure: A dare has been laid down—that’s all there is to it. If you accept and succeed, there is a reward—joining up with Miysis. The krewe is hot—global. Think of it as a distribution network for any services or products you might have. Could you benefit from belonging to an interconnected group of alphas invested in the individual success of krewe members?
Full Frontal: Uh.
Jomo sobers up.
Jomo: Smirk USA, Fronty! We could drop some tracks and disseminate them to Miysis movers and sha-ay-ay-kers all over! Grassroots from the get-go! Are you ready with the ignition, brother?
Full Frontal: Why are you asking me first, bro? Are you down?
Jomo: I’m down for anything if you’re with me!
Full Frontal: All right then. I’m down.
Jomo: Then let’s kick it! Ladies, we’ll see you in a few on the other side!
He scoops up Melissa and smooches her.
Jomo: I can do anything cuz you got my back. Always.
The boys exit. Melissa breathes in. Mmmm.
Dartie: Quick, let’s go!
He tries to pull up Peter, who wobbles now simply because it feels good.
Dartie: Get up! We gotta go!
From where Peter sits, the air hasn’t cleared. He fingers his traveling mustard case—running low. The cloying aftertaste of the nogs calls out for a few cleansing rounds of myst.
Peter: I heard talk about wounds. Threats. I never subscribed to pain and pleasure—only watch it out of curiosity. Whatever happened to pleasure and pleasure?
Extras continue to file out toward the roaring.
Peter: I’m not joining that death march.
Dartie: What are you talking about? It’s just an initiation ceremony for the coolest krewe on Earth!
Peter: Kid, my fraternal days are over, if I know Monsieur Deng. Go knock yourself out.
Dartie: By myself? I tell you what—I’ll meet you back here afterwards.
Peter: In this choke-soup? With no bar?
Dartie: Then I’ll meet you out front—in the VIP area.
Peter: Kid, just go. Be a man and sign up!
Dartie obeys. Peter taps D’Angel’s shin.
Peter: What do you think about that?
D’Angel: He’s toast and you’re a wimp. I’ll see you two losers in the office Monday.
Off she goes. A dark figure appears and stands over Peter. A new liter of myst thuds on the ground. Off he goes.
Mmmm-ing to herself, Melissa vaguely registers the jockish banter of the v-ballers and the presence of the dark figure. She may be waiting weeks before reporting to Hillary on the duration and potency of the tips and strips. This thought seems to ground her. Through the thinning haze she observes the tent has emptied by more than half, leaving mostly women, and there is a central powwow of priests, who sound disappointed. Snippets about an undersized interrogation pool and the low conversion rate outside the flap where an abnormal percentage of candidates turned coward and fled to the left. She grasps the krewe members’ underlying concern quickly because, after all, she’s a teacher at Quantico with the shimmering spreadsheets to show for it. So Miysis has a numbers problem. They had others, she’d thought back when breezing over its spam. Significant marketing resources had targeted her—for what goal? Some sort of associate membership into a men’s-only krewe? Did Miysis simply need babes to decorate the party? The High Priest barks and breaks the huddle, scattering the priests out among the remaining extras who seem largely poised to skedaddle rather than idle for an unknown period till the menfolk return. One priest approaches and stands between the Sirocco and the dark figure and faces Melissa.
Priest: Ladies, Miysis challenges you to hurdle the lion. Proceed immediately through the exit to the right.
Melissa: Gotta meet your quota, huh?
Priest: Excuse me? For women, you mean? Priestesses walked with Miysis three thousand years ago in Leontopolis. It is written so. We’re honored to recreate the full, worshipful constituency again.
Melissa: What a—
Priest: What a momentous occasion and opportunity for you?
Xunta: What is the fee, towel boy? Cuz my disposable is spoken for.
Astrid: Yeah, I got family and charities on my dole.
Priest: There is no monetary fee. The initiation often comes with a personal cost, of course, like a little death.
Zunta: Shit, we’re mid-season! I can’t let some non-performance injury mess with my playoff booty.
Astrid: There’s no jumping-over-lions clause in my contract—this doesn’t smell like it’s insured.
Priest: Then maybe after your season we can arrange for an exclusive initiation ceremony.
Astrid: Maybe you’ll give us a few reasons why we should entertain that. Time for us to fly, chiquita.
Xunta: Yeah, there are roosters pecking around somewhere, no doubt.
They depart. The priest turns away, apparently believing Melissa’s evening fate to be tied to the athletes’. She regards the dark figure.
Melissa: You’re not part of the krewe, are you?
Dark Figure: Do you want your footage? Do you want it to stop?
Enshrouded, the man and his questions stun her. She remains calm, remains calm with the specter of the voyeur brought so close. She sees herself at the kiosk with the magazine, isolated and broadcast without her permission. Would it be the only violation? She replays the questions in her mind’s ear and, from their tone, intuits that this figure is not the perp. Like the priest, he’s challenging her.
Melissa: I’m not going back there. Mmmm, I don’t need that. Not tonight.
The candidates’ path deposited them into a veritable circus. Krewe and lay extras commingle among gold-appearing leonine statues festooned with jewels or splendid paste. Flambeaux at one side eerily light up a tapestry (faded by time or chemicals) depicting Miysis carting a group of believers on his back, over a pit of animate and dangerous skeletons, toward a safe realm. From behind the tent the lions spill into a rear area cordoned by priests and flimsy ribbons. The humans’ mirror entry from the front disturbs them, resulting in an alarming crescendo throughout. Jomo slurps from a wineskin a priest handed him but Full Frontal only passes it on, licking his dry lips. Dancers from the float stand out in their sequins, thongs and tiaras; the musicians still sport improbable zoot suits, feathery masks, and untossed beads.
Jomo: Just check this scene out!
Behind him the latecomers include the once left-behind women. There is a rush of reunion and Jomo looks for Melissa. She has always found him in a crowd, as have all his friends all his life, but now he stands alone and the flap is closed.
Jomo: I guess Miysis just ain’t my doll’s thing. Fronty, you still up for the downstroke?
Full Frontal: I’m like, whatever. Why, you wanna cut out?
Jomo: Shh, check this out.
Like ants, priests converge to haul on wooden shafts an entirely canopied litter. They set it on a platform, adjacent to another soapbox for the High Priest. A reverent hush visits the crowd and the pride.
Full Frontal: Who do you think is in there?
Jomo: If you shut your yap, the cat will tell us.
High Priest: Friends, only the bold have elected to present themselves to Miysis. Indeed, many saw fit to flee and live on in fear they know rather than hurdle the lion they cannot bear. Each of you is bold to submit to your little death, but only the worthy will walk with Miysis forever after.
Full Frontal licks more.
High Priest: Some of you may question the necessity of gouging the mahit, the left eye.
Full Frontal: Oh shit.
High Priest: But when renewed and opened, the mahit sees all the glory of Miysis and the grandeur of the brotherhood—and sisterhood—of three thousand years. As proof, the king we choose from you will join our exalted friend, the Queen of Miysis for tonight’s celebration, the most leonine athlete in the world, Roxanna Laminay!
The canopies are furled and there she sits in a carved ebony chair, glinting armlets and emphatic eyeliner. The crowd erupts and Jomo’s jaw drops. He had not guessed she would be here—notwithstanding her teammates’ attendance earlier. The Queen smiles.
High Priest: Who comes forward for Misyis?
Jomo jostles forward in the rip tide.
Jomo: I’m your king! I’m your king!
For a savvy impresario, Ether is proving somewhat of a ninny, Tawdra finds, now that he’s off the turf of his hot boîte. She has never actually visited The Hierophant but she’s up on the hype via Melissa and Jomo and others, and she virtually toured the facility and even skimmed the proprietor’s bio. From tent to tent Ether has whined about Roxanna’s well-being to any krewe member in earshot, adding nasal concerns about the disorganized ad hoc maneuvers. He’s either banging the star, she figures, or he has another agenda. She’s had to turn a few rebels on to her business before, and she would consider turning him if he’d drop the stage mother’s pose. Ether had stuck his head under the canopy before the priests carried Roxanna off. Despite the electricity among the krewe and non-krewe, and the imposing presence of the lions, Tawdra’s interest flags as she follows Ether behind the procession. Prep Boy is her ticket for fun here—since he vanished in the haze she’s been moping too much to shoot anything. Maybe the trusty cam can bring her around. She reaches into the satchel and a firm hand latches onto her wrist. She turns with joy: he’s returned, her chauffeur agent has returned! He lets go and she submits to his vid ban concerning the initiation. The High Priest has enjoined both sexes to attempt it, but she’s a one-woman krewe, a black widow on her own small patch of gossamer. Between Ether and Prep Boy, she itches to dance with money or power, yet neither man evinces any carnal interest in her mood or machinations. Out in the crowd bustle countless stiffs, young and old, who would be honored to dance with the pepper. She catches herself—above them all looms a familiar tower striving forward like all the rest.
Tawdra: Jomo! Hey, Jomo!
He doesn’t hear her. His eyes are on the prize.
Glug, glug, the myst burns satisfyingly. Sure enough, the festivities rage on across the Lawn around the obelisk. With the krewe occupied inside Leontopolis, the million-strong have shed the pretense of participation in an exotic rite. Now they buzz and jiggle under the lasers to the grind of unseen DJ’s. Peter stands at the courtyard’s perimeter, not knowing how he fits in with the rave. No security personnel appear anywhere in the vicinity—he feels wise, seerlike, in foreseeing a riot. He should leave, but two fine cubs give him grog, so he forces the myst bottle in the waistline of his chinos for safekeeping. They dance and Peter reluctantly budges to join them, when they embrace clumsily, earnestly. They had not been inviting him; he is only their drink-holder. Their clutch entertains him for one of the go cups, then his stag status, not to mention his age, pollutes his surge. He moves away and surveys clusters of extras. Many times in his life he has observed big group fun without ever having immersed himself in it. He is not alone alone, however: a solitary person enters the court past an especially luscious scrum. This one stumbles in full winterwear. In the light of the flambeaux the gear is ripped and tarred as if the wearer were a casualty of a Siberian skirmish. Peter approaches him and holds out his hand.
Peter: Have a drink.
The mitten trembles but holds the cup. The goggles are fogged over. With great effort the figure takes a sip then presses the cool plastic to flushed cheeks.
Peter: Maybe you should go back there, inside. Take off your stuff and hang with the lions. You might even get in on the initiation.
Peter can’t tell if the man—it is a young man—registers these suggestions but he wanders away wordlessly to the aisle of columns, his pompom drooping defeatedly. The stag is left stag again. No destination announces itself in his head, but Peter accepts that his stay at Leontopolis has ended and the bars of Manhattan jeer with welcome.
She won’t wait for him. This is a decision made in the appropriate office of her gray matter, seconded in full by the aloe vera or, rather, its marked ebb. Exiting through the hypostyle, she feels leaden with fatigue. Miles to go, still, miles to go, and she summons the wherewithal to zigzag through the cubs toward the Pinetum. Under the needles the grind is dumbed down to a bass thump. Barks and giggles nearby: quality users taking more than five. With the lasers and controlled pyrotechnics aimed at the Great Lawn, the darkness here intrigues her and obviates identifying the tree of her and Jomo’s bliss. She fumbles her handheld and texts that she’ll be home between the sheets. Jomo had tattooed her life-size, an idealized icon, a decal he and the artist sublimated on transfer. What did the tribute bode for them, with promise and possibility whispering or shouting but always exhorting each individually to test another road? Park Drive lies deserted, closed to autos for the weekend. The hum of the streetlights signifies nothing. She attains Central Park West and immediately hails and enters a vacant cab. A female jogger passes, focused, arms akimbo—is she packing the tips and strips? The car races forward for a downhill tear through the synchronized traffic signals. Did she give her address? Can’t remember as enervation shuts her down. The driver will wake her when it’s time.
On quitting Central Park to the east, you typically traverse several avenues to find a bar scene. The liter of myst serves as a fuel tank, the mustard as a passenger. After the overload of humanity behind, Peter finds himself surprised at the abundant pedestrian and vehicular movements out here. Such a teeming (former) island, one gargantuan shindig can’t begin to suck all the oxygen from another Saturday night. Ahead an older, elegant couple exits an older, elegant co-op, tittering past the doorman without speaking to him. Guests at a soiree of teachers, notaries and osteopaths, perhaps. A lightweight raincoat hangs neatly folded over the woman’s forearm. The man carries a bound and snapped umbrella lengthy enough to tap the sidewalk with every other step. Her taking of his free arm occurs smoothly and naturally, and Peter finds himself, finds himself… He halts and sits on the nearest stool, an upright, forked pipe in front of a common firefighting sign that says Sprinkler Siamese. Odd that the word Siamese should appear so frequently outdoors in Manhattan. Across the street under the canopy of another co-op a doorman glances up then back down at his vid or paper newspaper as if he knows Peter is not a threat, just a deadbeat. The underlying issue remains that, regardless of the Siamese ubiquity, Peter continually, self-consciously finds himself lacking a sufficient condition. He blows mustard, swigs, and brings himself to look again down the dull block. A glow and a sign indicate that there may be a watering hole grandfathered long ago into this fusty zone. The yellow haze hangs around his person—the evening is now still and close—requiring a wave of his hand to better apprehend the establishment. The sign says Piano Bar and features a keyboard graphic. He smirks and rises, jamming the myst back into his chinos.
When the krewe tapped a wannabe for lion-hurdling a few priests hauled him out yet another flap. Tawdra the cinéaste soured profoundly on these private theatrics. Roxanna held court, which was cool, but a Miysis ring around the litter prevented any interaction other than shouts from the admiring throng and infrequent, terse replies. Ether hung near her like a toady and spoke often to the Queen behind his hand, but she only vaguely acknowledged him (which was cool), instead simply appearing in her chair as the Celebrity. Tawdra waited for the reemergence of the first initiate: would he have passed or failed? and how would he appear after the ordeal? The realization turned out to be a dud. The cur entered, grinned and exchanged high-fives with those on deck before the priests escorted him near the lions, where they gave him a robe, which he unceremoniously pulled over his tank top and spangled shorts. Disappointment with a dash of petulance set in, so she moved to the perimeter and considered her options. Prep Boy remained with the krewe entourage, faced away from her. She takes out the cam and whispers from under the limited cover of the Harpo.
Tawdra: I’m quiet like a sneaky mouse, rebels, cuz I’m not supposed to be shooting. We’re at the Miysis initiation thing—check out all the stiffs. Now, see that highchair—zoom in, Tawdra, like you know you can—that’s Roxanna. She might be Queen for Miysis tonight but I’m your Queen, rebels, always. Oops, see that dude near Roxanna looking at me and making the cut sign across his neck—that’s my—. Ooh, he’s coming over here. Time’s up, over and out.
She exits the tent, not interested in another rebuke or, worse, cam seizure. Besides, Prep Boy made it plain they wouldn’t hook and, with Ether consumed, she has no final interest in Miysis. From the side exit she considers the ripe cub spillover on the Lawn’s outskirts but she feels weary from Hot Limo and all the post-game festivities and decides to keep moving. So much to edit from the entire day, so much love to spread to her rebels. Home it is and so what.
Peter likes the place right away. Smart-and-casual patrons talk intimately over tables for two while others flirt stylishly at the bar. A fair sylph performs a cabaret number to the accompaniment of restrained drum and pastel piano. The voice sounds much younger than its owner, who overtly notices Peter as he takes a corner table. She can’t notice he’s broke, can she. He removes the myst and places it under the cloth. A light spell of nervous perspiration flares and he adjusts his bolo, then dabs at his brow with a napkin. A waitress leans over his shoulder, startling him.
Peter: Myst. Rocks. Hot out there. I’ll, uh, run a tab.
He watches her deliver the order to the bartender who looks over as though they’re conspiring. A ripple of applause—the song is over and Peter exhales. The drink appears. The sylph glides away from the piano, bantering with the audience over her wireless mike. No one here knows him, as if that were news, no one cares about his deeds and plight, which now creep back toward him. He knocks off his sham purchase and hunches over to futz with his tasseled Wachovia (pebble in there?) and blindly pour himself another. She fixes him, the singer does, and heads his way, prompting a hasty return to upright. The myst sloshes over his hand and on the table.
Sylph: Who have we here, a gentleman just come in from the sultry city streets?
She caresses his shoulder. His body temp spikes but he won’t mop his brow with all eyes on him. He smiles wanly.
Sylph: What’s your name, sir?
She holds the mike out to his mouth. He looks up into her hazel eyes then down at her faintly freckled shoulders and breastbone.
Peter: What’s yours?
The mike retracts.
Sylph: I changed my name when I first came to Manhattan. Maybe some of you here tonight did the same. But we’re all familiar strangers, aren’t we?
Back comes the mike.
Peter: If you say so.
Retraction. Another shoulder caress, now lingering.
Sylph: I sing so, stranger. But if you and I are to become familiar, you must observe our summer dress code. No ties allowed.
She nods to the musicians across the room and they commence a ballad. Peter reaches for the bolo but her free hand strokes his forearms away. The pseudofolliculitis rears up.
Sylph: This is a ditty crafted by Colin on the piano. I think it’s a handsome addition to our songbook. It’s called New Cliché.
Her hand brushes his hair and collar and he looks back up at her, triggering a stinger.
Sylph: A bird in hand will loudly peep,
The grass is greener walked beside,
The look before is worth the leap,
A friend indeed needs sanctified.
Loosening his collar.
Sylph: The less we know the fondest learned,
No stone unturned will roll away,
A penny saved, a dollar spurned,
Where there’s a will, no need to say.
Fumbling deliberately with the bolo. Key change and splashes from the piano.
Sylph: A new cliché distills
What we always knew
Again is true
As kissing you fulfills
How we’ve come this way
To love today.
She unclasps the silver oval inscribed with a coiled rattler and slides it down the cord. All eyes on him, the one with the sizzling tongue, raging neck and bootleg under the linen—paltry secrets. Back to the verses.
Sylph: Two points drawn beg for a line,
A miss is good but once a mile,
A stitch of time will lengthen mine,
Misery loves company a while.
Her lilt is conversational. She bends forward and Peter cannot locate composure.
Sylph: The witch prefers what she has warmed,
Standing saves both chair and seat,
Time will tell when passed forewarned,
Good news—no news with a treat.
Her hand undoes his top shirt buttons and slithers into his moist pectoral carpet. The testostometer surges.
Sylph: A new cliché inspires
Repeat truth through
Our children’s fresh desires
Seeking their own way
To love today.
Colin’s right hand tiptoes a solo over brushwork from the snare. His left walks with a newlywed’s bounce through the lower register. The needle, if there were one, of the testostometer, if there were one, stays pinned to the right. Peter can’t believe what is transpiring on his chest. He pivots carefully at the waist this time to look up at the sylph, whose hand by not moving now covers his breast. Behind the starched cloth she tweaks his nipple then disengages. Peter feels hormones racing up to virtually spew out of his mouth. Standing in front him, she holds the bolo cord, reeling it ever so patiently.
Sylph: A new cliché distills
What we always knew
Again is true
As kissing you fulfills
How we’ve come this way
To love today.
“Today” hovers, painted in preciousness, between her lips and his moustache as the music fades into applause. His nipple smarts. How inappropriate of her. Even if it’s only shtick, does she see something in him to rescue for one night? She plants a peck on his stunned cheek, sliding her hand across the broken desert terrain below. Abruptly she stands and glides away without looking back into his shallow, percolating soul.
Picture the Miysis self-congratulatory tableau from a pretentious high-angle, your cam perched on a crane, then swoop down to account for the jubilant In’s who bear-hug priests, dancers and trombonists. The troupe gathers around the litter, where Jomo stands next to Roxanna with his own headdress and ankh. Light shines on the couple from the cam of a priest responsible for the krewe’s publicity webcast. Triumph in the king-for-a-night’s face: his mahit gapes for all the world. Pan left past stolid Prep Boy and relieved Ether, to somber Full Frontal. Zoom in. He’s stirred, though not with the celebration of the others, and hot-eyed with remorse—and also pride—as he watches the coronation. He himself could not hurdle the lion, you see, yet he has stayed. He could never leave his friend, his MC, in his finest hour.
The shame of it: she’d run her hand under his chin and discovered his ravaged stubble. Repulsed, she’d halted the dulcet wooing and departed. The shame burns profanely. He reaches low for the hooch when a tapping on his shoulder startles him up into his seat. A broad bovine mug crowds him.
Bartender: Whatchya got down there, chief?
The sylph is gliding through the respectable, well-groomed regulars.
Peter: Gimme another myst, rocks.
Bartender: No prob—two-drink minimum per set here.
A black cowboy hat peaks above the bare, well-groomed heads.
Bartender: Two drinks per set.
Peter: So this round plus the previous makes me a law-abiding camper, doesn’t it?
Bartender: If you keep your hands above the table.
The Stetson wearer faces the piano. The sylph sidles up to him and leans close.
Peter: Why are you still here—don’t you have a job to do?
Bartender: Since our bouncer called in sick tonight, I collect the cover charge.
Peter: Cover? There was no appropriate signage out front! I’m drinking.
Bartender: I can see that and I require the cover charge right now unless there’s a problem.
They’re speaking, they’re speaking. She glances over at him, maybe.
Peter: There’s no problem if you just fill me up, why don’t you.
Bartender: Stand up, sir.
Heavy hands grab the shoulders of his shirt and yank him up. Peter quickly shrugs out of the grip and stoops to retrieve the myst. The closest patrons turn. Reddening, he stuffs the bottle back in his chinos.
Peter: I’m taking my business elsewhere!
Bartender: I’ll show you out.
He abuses the shoulders that the sylph only five minutes before treated as an erogenous zone. Peter catches her parting look across the room as he stumbles under duress through the door. The bovine pushes him gratuitously to the sidewalk then stands guard.
Peter: You—you will regret this! I’m gonna throw a brick through your window at three a.m.—watch the clock!
He walks away, quickening his pace after a few yards. The mental snapshot of the sylph includes the desperado turned toward him, face concealed under the brim’s shadow. She wanted him, rejected him, then conspired with the bounty hunter whose patience must be waning. Quite the rapid turn of fortune, he thinks, flustered from the exit. He turns left down the avenue in greater haste, unsheathing his fumpty bottle.
Hot water before retiring typically removes the day’s stains from her thoughts, but not tonight. She hunches forward on the cot and listens to a dinobus wheezing outside until its appointed departure down Broadway through the confusion of the island. She takes the same bus line to Jomo’s apartment, eschewing two transfers that would eliminate the twenty-minute walk she makes when visiting. How many times during that walk east has she considered herself an intruder or inconvenience. Such negativism shrinks next to the joyous presence of her only son. He will do great works. And it was kind of Melissa to abide her hesitancy and escort her to the ill-mannered Sheppard Lane. The vitriol of men has become a wall she sits by. She opens her briefcase next to the bed and pulls out a sheet of her scribbled job notes. Duties listed and epithets transcribed. Amanuensis she is, target not yet. The electrical system of the dinobus whirs a tenor over the engine’s churn. Her estranged husband pays only for this ground-floor studio—it was all she’d required when the legal paperwork shuttled. In the photo in the briefcase the former couple stares at the camera as young Jomo positively beams.
The mustard wafts above Peter’s head as he cruises down Fifth next to the Park where tree-cast shadows vie with the street light. He stops, chugs and listens to rustling over the wall in the dark. Tittering and a grunt. All the world indulging in lust and he finds himself… He looks back up the avenue. Five or six blocks behind, the black Stetson passes through whiteness from above. This is getting serious. A yellow thread floats by his face—puffing along like a tugboat he might as well be painting arrows on the sidewalk. Or dropping coins, if he had any. Melissa has coin. He stomps out the grinds. The sylph actually pinched his nipple, the way kids do. The myst and the activity have brought him to a boil. Jomo sticks his head in their freezer to cool down, Peter recalls vaguely. He starts off briskly with resolve and a goal. If the desperado is going to catch him this evening, although he appears to be simply tailing him thus far, it might as well go down at Peter’s private bank, so to speak. Walking, walking, he’ll walk to Melissa’s apartment but he’ll zigzag a bit to shake the tail. A bouncing chug and his vision blurs. You can run with the drink but it’ll catch up. The apartment, the apartment—many times before in this state he’s fixed a destination, only to be diverted by… what? The wacky bald roommate, what’s her name, might be awake. It’s with a firm resolve he strides now, a firm resolve. More stirrings in the Park…