September 21, 2008
“Father was busy reading and did not notice that the house was being filled with strange Indians until Mother spoke about it.”
-Narcissa Cornwall, 1846
Ideological branding aside, most Lesbians she knew and admired had less problem with the penis as a fact than with the word Lesbian, that cardboard word, so dry, so nothing brown, redolent of the 1950s and the suppressed longings of whiskered librarians with scalp-torturingly tight buns streaked with grey. O’Sirus can even smell the book rot. The brambled grey heart of the librarian’s talcumed vadge. She nods to herself and goes on thinking, under the deafening blast of the barge horn, how the real problem with the bipedal male mammal is not its penis but its head, face, smirk, leer, glower, the swaggering grin. Imagine putting your tongue in that. The general problem of the whole male head is for her insurmountable and here she has to think of her dad when it dawns on her she’s been thinking of her dad all along, her dad had triggered the reverie, her dad and his mustache, that time they’d stood and watched some sort of regatta. The barge had triggered her dad.
She couldn’t have been older than five and also, now that she really thinks about it, can’t really be remembering him from that particular day. Must have been a photo in her mom’s treasured album she stole the image from, spliced with an impression of pointless boats on a body of water, frivolous boutique boats, toys of the nearly rich, gleaming white weddingcakes on a filthygreen body of water. She likes the phrase body of water. She sees her father clearly, a dead ringer for Anwar Sadat, dressed in that embarrassing faux-commodore’s outfit, smoothing his mustache, sweating profusely, flirting with the waitress, the flamehaired waitress dressed like a sailor and circulating amongst the guests with a tray of what Kimberly, at the time, had taken to be glasses of colored water. The redheaded waitress who looked like his wife. Kim’s mom.
Come to think of it. Before she was famous, O’Sirus sucked a dick once and actually liked it. Mostly. She’d liked the quickness. Plenty of room for improvement in the bouquet, though. Like the pulse of a wingless hummingbird on her tongue, the cock she’d once sucked was the encapsulated heartbeat of a Queer who worked at her data consultant’s, a cute little Queer with a mustache and a worryingly red rash on his belly. Rodney. Nothing like her father at all. Her father would’ve eaten the twink for breakfast. Her father and his macho Egyptian aphorisms, delivered in a cigarry nimbus with the voice of Maurice Chevalier: A faggot is the poor man’s woman.
A woman is the poor man’s what?
Whenever she happens, by accident, to see Rodney Redrash (sneaking out of Woodbridges, say), she winks and he blushes, making her feel like Frank Sinatra. Whenever O’Sirus remembers her father, he appears in that commodore’s outfit, sweating profusely, smoothing his mustache, flirting, and feeling, no doubt, like Frank Sinatra, though with a balding brown head and a pencil-thin mustache. The flirting he did on excursions, the glowering he did in his bathrobe at home. She feels like her father looked whenever she sits at the kitchen table in her bathrobe. Glowering, as Katryn once noted. Glowering like her Egyptian pater with his overall problem of having a male head in its bigness, its hardness, the whiskery roughpatches and off-putting repertoire of crazed expressions. The vagina dentata of the hairy male mouth.
O’Sirus tells herself to snap out of it.
She tells herself O’Sirus, you’re having a Kimberly moment again. Look at the pretty barge. The troutpool sky with its puffs of pink putti. The Saint Lawrence Seaway below. You are semi-famous. Your father is dead, probably. You are not, you are no longer, Kimberly Mahfouz. The pretty barge is angling in from the horizon and you racked up two point something million downloads last year. Remember your mantel full of Asimovs. Your triumphant gig at the Khyber. The endless ovations. Your pampered white goddess in the rumpled warm bed of the presidential suite of the hotel overlooking this body of water. Turn. Wave to her. She’s probably watching.
Drooping in the blue are crippled crosses. Seagulls snagged on the wind. O’Sirus is standing in Duluth at land’s end filming a barge as long as a jumbojet’s runway rolling through choppy March waters, blasting its Wagner-horn at the liftbridge and thrilling her, inexplicably (as though she was watching some natural wonder like whales fucking), when this lady ajog on the walkpath behind her comes up to comment, hands on hips in pearshaped hotpink sweatwear, amiably out of breath, going I can tell you’re a tourist. The jarringly gothic presentation had hooked her, no doubt: the long black high-collared coat plus regal auras of remoteness. The curly hair, the olive skin, the freckles, and, of course, of course, the accent. In telling the story to Katryn, O’Sirus will refer to the jogging housewife as Marge.
So how do they end up having a blazing row about China? Out of the blue, Marge offers her sanctimonious two cents about mass executions of Chinese drug addicts. It’s a sickness, not a crime plus all those other smiley-faced, hug-the-world liberal white upper-middleclass orthodoxies that set O’Sirus’s teeth on edge as she passes through this part of the country so thick with them. Must have been an item in the morning paper. Americans like reading about hellish conditions in other countries over breakfast. Makes the ham taste better. O’Sirus points out the historical fact of the Opium Wars. England-enforced drug addiction had diminished China from an imperial power in the early 19th century to a decimated landmass of whiskered junkies a century later, as detailed by an ex-girlfriend with two published books on the topic, thankyouverymuch. A ginger ex with a bright red vadge I called Trotsky.
Lesbians cannot have strong opinions because when they do (the assumption persists) said strong opinions are merely a symptom of Lesbianism. Overdosed on toxic vadge. We keep trying to get rid of that word but it always comes back. She’d even sponsored a contest, recently, with her merged mega-fan club, to come up with a replacement, but none of the terms, clever as they were, had managed to stick. Katryn, dumb as milk, beautiful as water, had suggested Lesbianoids. You can tell she’s a straight at heart. She says she wants kids.
Go buy goats.
“My husband Mr. Chalfont and I run quite a successful little import business that specializes in printed Chinese textiles and we’re on the phone with these people at least once a week so I think we know a thing or two about China.”
O’Sirus is thinking I earn my living writing stories and singing songs about dysfunctional shrews, deluded cunts and in-your-face-American loonies, so I think I know a thing or two about you. She interrupts Marge’s rant, which has already managed to incorporate both Nixon and Tiananmen Square and points a sleekly gloved finger at the azure chop:
“How cold do you suppose that water is?”
“Excuse me?” Red faced. Non plussed.
“The water in the seaway there. How cold?”
“Well it can’t be much above freezing, this time of year, obviously. Why?”
“Because why don’t you jump in it?”
Marge takes a step towards O’Sirus and O’Sirus assumes a very cool but proficient-looking Karate stance and Marge fucks off. Running backwards.
What a lovely spring day.
“I still can’t believe you’ve never fucked a person of color.”
“Neither had you, before me.”
“But that’s just it.”
“What’s just it?”
“You’re a person of color.”
“So, it’s stranger when a person of color hasn’t fucked a person of color than when a person of non-color hasn’t.”
“Katryn, dear, go back to your Vogue and leave me to the important task of ordering breakfast. What put your tiny train on that short track, anyway? Or will I be sorry I asked?” O’Sirus has a still-gloved hand over the mouthpiece of the phone. Katryn dutifully holds the magazine up to scrutiny, folded open to a full page photo of some black North American celebrity who looks just as stupid as they like their black celebrities to look. With murder in those bedroom eyes.
“Hullo, this is room 802. We’d like to have something sent up. Yes. The eggs, again, too, but a little less salty this time, if that’s possible. Sorry? Whole grain. Buckwheat? Sure, buckwheat. Whatever you say. Really? Well, whichever strain of buckwheat you suggest, then. Yes. Yes. Because I trust you. Okay? I’m ringing off now. Seriously. Have one yourself. Cheers.” She’d been this close to ordering something even more horrendously tasty. Every day, in America, one enters the pitched battle between god and the devil, sanity and self-indulgence, sincerity and being nice. She turns back to Katryn. “Let’s not go there, dah-link. I fuck who I want to fuck.”
“That would be me.”
“That would be you.”
Splay-legged on the red satin sheets, gushing blonde all over everything and white as chrome on a snowscape, Katryn is the purest vision of the Western (Eastern, Northern, Southern, global) ideal of the unattainable. Yet here she is, fully attained, The Goddess of whipped cream on cherry tarts, hers. O’Sirus’s. How soon after O’Sirus had attained Katryn had O’Sirus noticed that Katryn wasn’t Susan Sontag? She finds herself re-revising the downward reappraisal of her lover’s intellectual capacities by the hour, of late. The minute. Nevertheless…
Katryn rolls over on her belly as instructed, elevating her marble ass to a proper azimuth of prayer. What a marvel, the proportion of narrow waist to plump behind; the detailed articulation of ribcage flexing with life. In, out, in, out, in, out… a mindless argument that always wins. Katryn covers an embarrassing fusillade of thrust-syncopated vadgey flatus with a passion-simulating (or mocking?) scream as the abashed Roomservice Guatamalen knocks timidly, hoping most of all not to be heard. But the pancakes are coveted and the knockings are heard. O’Sirus bounds to the door. Moments later:
“These are so good it’s awful,” groans Katryn, legs crossed. Orrful.
“Be advised that if you gain so much as a kilo…”
The awning over the front entrance of the hotel is windwhipped as guests struggle in and out of shuttles and limos with whoops and shrieks at the sudden gusts, hands on hats on heads, fat old children at an amusement park of the elements, for Americans, lacking proper childhoods, never grow up. They wear those ballcaps and sneakers, mostly, ballcaps and running suits. Kids from six to sixty. Did O’Sirus just see a woman drive by in a black cap with widow’s veil? Katryn is a meter upwind with her camera, yet, still, wisps of her hair are tickling her lover’s glowering face. Why are we standing so far apart, K. wonders. What message is she trying to send and to whom?
“Will we be able to identify them?”
“They’ll be driving one of those horrendously large van thingies, apparently.”
“Now you’ve got me picturing two steering wheels.”
“That would be a pretty American thing. Co-driving.”
“A van! I hope we’re not expected to squat on gardening supplies or something. I’ve just had this suit cleaned.”
“No one told you to wear white satin to the provinces, dah-link.”
“They’re getting married, after all.”
“Not for a week.”
“I thought we should dress for the occasion.”
O’Sirus points here and there with her subtly hawkish nose. “Dressing up ain’t part of this culture, clearly.”
Two bellhops steer an expeditions’ worth of mod luggage out on two carts in response to which O’Sirus undertips them in a manner she thinks is extravagantly.
The wind gusts big and there are more amusement-park shrieks as an older woman traversing the lawn on the way to the driveway reaches so high to clamp both hands on her flapping blonde wig that her belly spills from under her Nike top like a clear plastic bag of cold milk. Both Katryn and O’Sirus frown away from the unsettling sight. The body of water. The body of clouded water.
“All the better for us. To make a statement, I mean.”
“A statement of what?”
“You’re the writer. Think of one.”
Katryn smirks in that way she has when she thinks she’s delivered a zinger. The stupidest problem with the stupid being that the stupid are too stupid to know how stupid they are. O’Sirus’s pert-cunted M’lady of High Saxon coloring obviously thinks of herself as a veritable fount of classically clever screwball comedy quips. A long-haired Carol Lombard to O’Sirus’s dusky, mustache-free William Powell. Maybe I’m just grumpy, muses O’Sirus, because I didn’t have time to come before the pancakes came. Or am I grumpy because we’ve flown all the way across the Atlantic in tourist-class seats to watch two American strangers get married in some kitsch-Wiccan travesty of a wedding ceremony, trapping ourselves in Yokelopolis for two weeks?
Not strangers, exactly. The two presidents of her biggest North American fan clubs, now merged. First they were rivals and then they were online friends and, then, after gods-knows-how-many thousands of dollars of phone sex and Fed-Exed panty samples, they are a dynastic match, merging two nationwide clans of O’Sirus fanatics. The upper Midwesterly O’Sirens plus the lower Midwesterly Phangasm. Now it’s just one super-regional entity called The O’Sirens of Phangasm or TOSOP. Well. Seth and Shem are each thirty, wide of neck, bleached-blonde and sport similar weightlifter haircuts. They take smiling very seriously, showing all of their many big teeth whenever they do so. Or so O’Sirus has gathered from the presskits. They could be three feet tall or human heads on millipede bodies for all she knows, for she’s only ever seen the photoshopped headshots.
When the van sails up the horse-shoe’d hotel drive, yellow foglights dim in the bright morning, it takes her a thought-cycle or two to grasp that the writhing, bulging, Bosch-like mural covering the body of the yacht-long vehicle is a graphic representation of various scenes and characters from her songs and her fictions; her mindcircus come to town. She recognizes the blue-haired protag of Inter Stella and the creepy-eyed dreamthief from The Sidereal Spinship and the clan of Vietnamese hermaphrodite warrior-poets from the song-cycle 23AD. There’s Corpuscle Christie and there’s a Weremaid (a sort of oceangoing werewolf) and there’s a Cockerpillar (don’t ask) and the singing white Communist spiders from Horror Scope. There’s the castrated, jet-black, light-eyed time-travelling Nigerian from the Dutch teleflick serial of From Near to Eternity…
I’m not climbing into that.
The earthship eases to its shuddering halt, eclipsing the sun, ticking and cooling and rocking on springs as doors swing open and slam shut and two vivid pink megaweights thud on the driveway. They commence rolling their shoulders and jerking their necks and grunting like carnival strongmen. What kind of eating could result in this kind of obesity? Eating as war… Total War. Neither of these two was ever not fat, clearly, and O’Sirus pictures lard-colored, tadpole-sized sperm and feels sick. She pictures nuked wombs and blown pussies and herniated nurses, groaning on cots of their own. Katryn is walking instinctively towards the marginally more enormous one with an outstretched hand so small, so finely articulated, in comparison, that it’s deeply and eerily moving. She could be walking bravely to her martyr’s death. O’Sirus feels a pang. A pang of almost-love at the thought.
Pang passes. She moves to greet her biggest fans.
“Kimbo!” cried mother Peg, with her deracinated Phillyish howl. Spelled “Kimbaud”. Emphasis on the second syllable. Mother’s joke. Kimbo was almost the age the poet was when he gave it all up to run guns in the jungle and Kimbo’s mother had been joking for months that Kimbo would do exactly the same. Only in Kim’s case she’d just hitch to New Jersey and get a job. Walk away from her gift in exchange for a life of middleclass riches untold.
Kim sorrowed over her mother’s lost accent. Sometimes, for a treat, a satirical treat, mother’d lay it on thick with a Faith ‘n Begorra! to get Kim out of the bed or the bathroom but that doesn’t count. Most of the time she sounds like a plain old Fildelfyan, carefully hiding both her Irish origins and the level of her education. Anything to be friendly. Anything to get along.
Kim was in bed with a picture of Kim Novak. Trying to calm herself. Cat Stevens emoting. The picture in the middle of a library book. The flames on her scented candles did the hula whenever Kim got out of bed to put the needle back to the beginning of her favorite song in a bedroom that, even then, in 1977, she could look around with detachment and think how it looked so much like the ‘70s. Cat Steven was singing in Latin. O Caritas, O Caritas, Nobis Semper Sit Amor. She had friends who would wait for the next Supertramp single to grace the radio. She had friends with bubble perms. The library card was a penciled-in record of the reading habits of a certain type of girl to be found sprinkled throughout the student body of her all-girl high school, the same handful of names, over and over again, in various sequences. The list was an accurate prediction of the girls who wouldn’t be attending the prom. The girls who wouldn’t be going through pregnancy scares. There was a butch chocolate thumbprint in the lower left corner of the picture of Ms. Novak (an old publicity still from Bell, Book and Candle) which Kim was pretty sure she recognized. The boorish thumb of the crewcut snack-addicted basketball coach Miss Yanni. Brillo Bush. She preyed on the skinny, bookish girls who couldn’t do chin-ups.
The year was 1977 and such issues were no longer an issue. For example, just recently. These two ladies. Out on Market Street, plain as day, holding hands after twirling out of the revolving doors of Wannamaker’s and Kimbo followed them for blocks and would have asked for their autographs if only she’d had the balls to. The only problem she had was with the word itself, the term, so evocative of some turn-of-the-century cure for hysteria just reeking of chalk in a brown glass bottle by the sink. The word was a total invasion of privacy, for one thing. And it claimed you were from an island called Lesbos. Aesthetic considerations aside. Were actual legal natives of the island of Lesbos called “Lesbians”?
One word and it’s supposed to be the summation of you and who you like and what you like doing with who you like and what the results will be. Only she didn’t like anyone, yet: not in that way. There was no object, it was all subject. Being what she was was thus far merely about knowing for sure what she wasn’t. It was an abstract, intellectual kind of gender she had got herself into, apparently. She wasn’t doing, she was not-doing…. all day long. All day and all night, like a fiend. There wasn’t an hour went by when she wasn’t not doing it. Oh, her mother would shit. Poor Peg, raised a good Catholic in some never-discussed corner bog of Oyurlan, would’ve shit and died.
“What?” the long-suffering, half-tone dipthong in descent, engineered for the staircase.
Sweetly. “Is Lyndsay still up there?”
“Lyndsay went home, mother!”
“That’s good, then. It’s getting late.”
As if. She was tormented by niggling, semi-formed suspicions, is what really happened. O, mother, lamented Kim. If only your conscious mind knew what your subconscious fears the most. She put away the library book and scooted up in the bed with her back on the headboard and handled poor Lyndsay’s manuscript again. Kyth and Kynna it was called. Kyth and Kynna, by Lyndsay Weissman. The only copy of the thing in existence. Lyndsay had wanted her to read it. Handed it over with weird casualness. Tell me what you think. Two chapters into it she tried a kiss.
The bedroom door swung open. A pretty woman walked in with humblingly humble grace.
“I just didn’t want her walking all the way back through Germantown after ten, Kimbo, is all. It’s dangerous. The under-privileged…”
Kim produced a patient smile.
A flash of pornographic doodle before the manuscript dived under the bedcovers. “Nothing.”
“Fair enough. Can I get you anything, dear?”
Why has she been treating me like this? Like I have a fever or brain damage?
“Hm?” Eyebrows lifted like wings. Plucked as thin as Anais Nin’s, as a line from one of Kim’s silly poems goes. She still looks fairly young, though, having been only a month more than eighteen when the mustached progenitor knocked her up.
“We need to talk.”
“We talk all the time, Kimbo.”
“About a certain thing, I mean.”
“Should I sit down first?”
“Perhaps.” She nodded her mother down to the edge of the bed. “Mother.”
She detected a glimmer of hope in the eye that was turned to her. The vain hope that Kimbo had reconsidered about college and all. No, mother, it’s about cuntlicking, actually. Lots and lots of theoretical cuntlicking. Cuntlicking and nipplenuzzling and biting at softsloppygirlmouth. To be honest she has also fantasized about having a finger in her bottom but that’s faux-phallic and ideologically inappropriate, isn’t it?
“You remember, last Christmas…”
…but she has fantasized it…
…a finger up there…
“…you sort of set me up on this little date situation with that awful nose-picking would-be rapist son of those people you kind of half-know from the book store?”
…tweedling her to a cathartic bowel movement…
…digging and twisting…
“Remember how fatally disgusted I was when I got home later? So disgusted I was literally sick? You had to take my temperature? I threw up? Remember?” Kim stared mother down beseechingly.
She was feeling terribly self-conscious. The timing was wrong. She didn’t want to come out (“come out”) to her mother while her hair was looking like that, like the dancing discharge from a van de graff generator due to the hatefully humid weather; didn’t want to come out while dealing with the thing that had happened with Lyndsay. She thought of bowlcut Lyndsay out there in the foaming drizzle night, hands in the pockets of her new red unbuttonable raincoat, droplets beading her cheeks, moving towards the sights and sounds of a Friday night in an integrated swath of Philly with that top-heavy lope, those chugging tits, spine-bending tits, Hall and Oats on a car radio, Friday a black mirror encompassing tawdry tavern come-ons of saturated color in mysterious patterns of smalltime money and bigtime sex, devastated by the rejection. Eyes jammed shut and face extended with lips almost comically puckered. And Kim had just sort of cleared her throat after a terrible terrible silence.
Lyndsay was supposed to call when she got home and she didn’t. She was supposed to announce her safe arrival and didn’t.
The door bangs open.
“Hey, where’s the camera? The phone, I mean. The camera.” Katryn tilts her head. “And why are you in bed? I thought you were writing.”
“I am writing.”
“Ah. That even-when-I’m-lying-on-top-of-a-fully-made-bed-with-my coat-still-on-sort-of-staring-at-the-ceiling-like-a-grumpy-zombie, I’m-still-writing, in-my-head kind of writing.”
“Aren’t your new best friends going to miss you?”
“I just have to get a picture of that pool.” Darts into the little room. Calls out from it digging through suitcases: “Can you set up the thingy so we can, erm, send out some tacky tourist shots tonight?”
“Well, do they have a wireless hub…?”
Katryn darts back in, just a bit, just the head, horizontal, the head and a gripping hand, hair flowing down in a perfect blonde vertical that almost touches the floor. Lowered voice plus exaggerated pantomime lips. “A wireless hub? Are you kidding? There’s a flatscreen on the wall over the Jacuzzi in our guest bathroom. And a refrigerator next to the…”
“Have you found out what they do, yet?”
“Crass to bring it up so soon, don’t you think?”
O’Sirus turns on her side. Fetal. Coated back to Katryn’s disembodied head. Collar turned up. “Just curious.”
“Have to be corporate law or something. Or property. Don’t strike me as doctor types. Drug dealers…?”
“Vulgarly fucking lucrative, whatever it is. I’ll feel a whole lot better if it’s illegal. Isn’t it rather cold outside for a dip in the pool?”
Sigh. “Go away, Katryn.”
Katryn makes an affectionate detour around the bed to run her fingers through O’Sirus’s hair before leaving. Even Katryn assumes it’s a gender-political statement, the short-ish hair. Once upon a time O’s hair had been, theoretically, when combed out, combed out and pressed, long enough to half-cover her shoulder blades, if. On dry fall days she could tame the stuff with sweaty efforts into stiffly lustrous waves but let the relative humidity hit a certain dread figure and she became Medusa Garfunkle. Give her so-called black hair any day. Densely kinky hair is nice and sculptural like topiary and can be trimmed into stable shapes and straight hair is controllable enough but her hair is fuzzy and floppy and really only sorts itself out underwater. Underwater, she is an astonishing sloe-eye siren floating in the languid nimbus of sultry slo-mo hair.
It was Medusa Garfunkle who regarded, with loving resentment, satin-haired mother Peg with the curious tilt to her head. She could see what the progenitor had seen in her.
They could smell Unca Mundee’s awful cooking odors gurgling through the wall. Much of the meal had obviously died on the premises. His cooking, his stereotypically black jovial laughter and monotonous untuned major-key guitar twangings: entertaining some white woman.
In Africa we were Kings and Queens was Unca Mundee’s favorite non-sequitur of a valediction, at which Kim would always lamely smile as he limped off with shaggy shakes of his head but to which she always thought:
Kings and Queens of other Africans. So what?
The weirdest thing about Kim and her mother is the fact that they’re two distinct races. Kim’s reaction to Unca Mundee differed from her mother’s along racial lines. Mother found him charming. She over-appreciated the other black neighbors, too; always found something valid in them; yet viewed the whites with contempt, suspicion or a cold tolerance verging on species hatred.
“O, Mother,” sighed Medusa Garfunkle.
She shook out her hair and hid her face behind it. She blew a note through her nose. With Lyndsay’s manuscript under the covers and mother perched on the end of the bed, she felt herself caught between the rock of a friend’s greater talent and the hard place of her mother’s unconditional love. Who was she? What was she? Which was more impossible to ignore? Medusa got up, switched the record player off wearing frilly pyjamas she pretended to wear ironically and climbed back in bed.
Mother vanishes. Bear with me for a moment here.
Kimbo in her frilly pyjamas, O’Sirus in her gothic coat.
“You’re silly,” says the one to the other.
“You’re old,” says the other to the one. “Dyke hair.”
“I’m silly? You’re talking with an English accent?”
“You haven’t written anything in over a year.”
“You haven’t written anything. Ever. Period.”
O’Sirus snorts and rolls off the bed and smooths her coat and crosses over to Kimbo’s side of the room, where the air has that dark, familial, sweet Philly rot to it. The smell of the Upper Nile rephrased as rotten roofs and turnpike puddlewater and sheep-based Quaker cooking. The aural twinkle of evening rain through the breeze-blown blinds. On the rickety wicker table beside Kim’s bed is a silver tray (from Lyndsay) over which O’s fingers hover tremblingly. On it are arranged with talismanic precision a tiny leather pouch containing an Israeli penpal’s uncurled charcoal cunt clippings; I-Ching coins; a silver dollar from 1902; a pinkish cowrie shell from the Jersey shore she suddenly remembers she saved as a souvenir from the day her father squired her in her too-big-hat to some regatta. She pockets the cowrie.
They blanch as one at Unca Mundee’s muffled orgasm.
“Not dead yet, if that’s what you mean. You know that little talk you keep trying to have with her?”
“World War Fucking Three.” But not in the way you think, she thinks. “You’ll wish you’d never brought it up.” But not for the reason you think.
Kimbo has shuffled warily around O’Sirus to the muted high-ceilinged glow of the mammoth guest room on the other side. She fingers gadgets with hands trembling. Sunshine saturates the curtains in hot butter squares and playful poolsounds soak in from behind like a Club Med Polonius behind the arras. Shrieks and splashings. The whoosh of blue water as big white mammals spin down through the spray. The sounds of my future family? My future lover? My future friends?
“What’s this supposed to be? A Tricorder?”
O’Sirus raises her voice. “Computerized typewriter capable of storing and playing thousands of hours of music, movies and, yeah. You communicate with, erm, communicate instantaneously in audio or audio-visual or print functionality with people, literally, all over the planet. Use ‘em in cars, cafes, airplanes. Wherever.” Lowers her voice again. “And so forth.”
Kimbo is impressed but O’Sirus is grief-stricken. She wants to trade. There is so much to say that can’t be said. Messages from the past’s definite future to the future’s improbable past. And this burning thick-black buckling wall of affectionate hostility between them, exponentially more rageful than anything conceivable between a too-close mother and daughter of similar age gap. Thirty years.
O’Sirus chuckles. Doesn’t mean to sound mean. But. “Cat Stevens.”
“He’s a Mullah now, dipshit. Like father.” Blows a note through her nose. “You don’t even know what a Mullah is.”
There’s a thickish unbound manuscript; foxed, yellowing; divided in piles. One pile face-up and one pile face-down beside the magical laptop thingy. The faded ink outline of an erect fat penis with luscious tits for testes is visible on the back of the larger pile. Lyndsay always claimed with her clothes off and bowl-cut hair and receding chin and big knockers she looked like an old man’s big-balled hardon. She would doodle this cartoon she called the Mammophallus everywhere. Like on the back of her manuscript. Kimbo is staring at the faint drawing and O’Sirus looks up from the stuff she’s staring at to stare at Kimbo’s back as she stares at the thing she shouldn’t be seeing.
Kimbo yodels Oh my fucking G-
–before O’Sirus lunges and grabs a fisty knot of Kim’s hair at the roots and pulls hard. It’s tough hair; durable hair. Feels sharp tingles in her own scalp as she tugs and bends and waggles her other self away from the laptop like a tooth. Like a loose tooth. O’Sirus feels how every yank she gives whimpering Kim to the left, a powerful counter-force jerks her right. Kim is a paler, softer, toneless scribbler of pretentious Pound-pastiching poetry and it’s no contest. Kim is physically soft and forceless and lacks the conviction of inveterate rage. O’Sirus has a personal trainer and a competitive edge and a smouldering litany of grownup slights and grudges to work off. One outweighs the other by twenty five pounds of muscle and ten pounds of wisdom’s hard-won fat and it’s a massacre. It’s a three-legged tango on the wildly tilting floor of the Titanic. Or a scene from that episode of Star Trek. Matter and anti-matter in an endless struggle in a tumbling cube. They crash into stuff and knock things over to the agonsong of whimpers, curses, growls and grunts. Most un-ladylike.
“You plagiarism bitch,” thinks Kimbo and O’Sirus hears it.
Katryn comes bounding up the ankle-deep carpet on the stairs and into the dim room in a comically-cute bathrobe many orders of magnitude too large, hair slicked back like fresh paint. She beams at O’Sirus hunched over her laptop on a chair by the curtain-drawn bedroom window, slips into the bathroom and calls out. “Well, how’s it coming?”
“Not fast. Not slow. So so.”
“I like it!”
“You haven’t read it yet.”
“Well at least that horrible old writer’s block situation is a thing of the past, knock on wood. Right?”
Katryn sidesteps confection-white bouncy-naked into the bathroom’s gilt doorway with the world’s dumbest ingénue grin.
You, reading this: you’re a silly cunt. I’m a silly cunt.
The house is understated wealth pushed to a giddy limit of near-bad taste. Triumphalist decorum. They don’t call it a “villa” but the term is evoked. The word is asserted as a pressure in the eyeballs as pupils dilate at all that just-right stuff. The word asserted in the curving climb of china-smooth driveway and asserted over brunch in the trattoria-sized kitchen and asserted deftly, softly, wetly somewhere in the finesprung nightwork of acres of cricket-blessed imported white heather. The word asserted in the synchronized sprinklers weaving silver quilts of programmed permuting design. Asserted in the steadystate Japanese mindfullness of rock gardens and Koi ponds as well as there being something earthily Tuscan in the texture of the monogrammed toilet paper one perceives the shared initials asserted like Braille upon the wide blind eye of one’s perineum with. The spoken initials S.A. are so close to the word assert. To assert without assertion is the awshucks Zen of politically correct American pussy-sucking money.
The villa is on a hill overlooking the cold cold water you could paddle to Canada upon. Atop a goodly patch of dollar-green terraced land, built around three atriums, of fragile beauty and nuclear-blast-proof materials. A three-looped mutant rhomboid figure-eight. What do Americans do to earn money like this? And still have time to organize some silly fucking national fan club? Americans with a Ponderosa-like spread like this? Money like this couldn’t possibly be earned. That’s why it makes you mad.
They’re gathered in the smallest of the three atriums under a souvenir-blue sky. The sun stops at a waterline of shadow a foot above O’Sirus’s head on the stucco wall close behind and she’s all dressed and madeup and haired-up and on-camera. Shem Astaire is interviewing her for the edification of nationwide fans. Off camera and a distance of a dozen meters to her right, seated at a café-style table near the sliding glass doors of the kitchen, Seth Atkins and O’Sirus’s ladyfair can be seen (but not heard) chit-chatting over cinnamon buns so radioactively fragrant that O’Sirus fears a sympathetic gastrointestinal response will be picked up by Shem’s invisible microphone, rendering O’Sirus human, suddenly, in the eyes of a few hundred thousand disciples watching the webcast over breakfast. Like a distant barge or a zoo noise or whalesong, or, worse, a string of bathtub farts. Clearly professional people, her fans, she thinks proudly: what other demographic could be expected to be up at 7:30 am (Central Liberal Time) for a webcast? The air is nippy and little brown sneezes of mendicant sparrows are at it again in the undulant limbs overhead. Attenuating limbs like dark veins in the blue sac of the atrium’s sky. Those sparrows. Never stop fussing about fucking and breadcrumbs, do they? This petty bitch called Nature.
It hits O’Sirus that she’s gazing upon a new type of human, or a member of what can properly be called, for the first time, finally, the American Race. Very fat but, yeah, kinda healthy, seemingly. Ruddy-glow healthy. Strong in her very-fatness. Very fat but confident, with the self-possession of a tango instructor, or a waterborne polar bear, in her occasional straight-backed bearing and her occasionally casual grace. Very fat but sort of attractive, really, in that silken fuscia tracksuit and a dewy glaze of makeup and hairspray. O’Sirus has never seen breasts that size on anything outside of a cinema screen. Surprisingly jutty. And there are two jutty pairs of the hefty things in this menage. Poor Lyndsay called them jiggly baldies. Four white soft-shelled pumpkins for two avid mouths plus megatons of vadge and O’Sirus imagines a groaning, stress-tested bedroom built for it. A gym-sized mat for the conjugal bed. A circle inscribed on the mat and deafening wet impacts. The odor of stomped salmon. It’s over in seconds. Sumosex.
O’Sirus is wearing her cruellest shades.
S.A.: We want to welcome you to Duluth, America, and thank you sincerely for agreeing to appear in our Saturday Breakfast Omnicast.
O’S.: My pleasure on both counts.
S.A.: This is your first visit to our country?
O’S: It is, Shem.
S.A.: Your impressions?
O’S: As a child of five I made a morning’s journey with my mother, from our provincial village, for the first time, to the city of London. Looking at the size of everything, I assumed that giants must live there and I was afraid. I clung to my mother’s side the whole day. Multiply those childish impressions of mine by a factor of ten and you’ll come close. We flew from Heathrow to JFK and spent an afternoon in Manhattan. The change of scale is disorienting.
S.A.: A good thing?
O’Sirus: For an artist, yes. For a human… I’m not so sure. But if it’s a bad thing at all, it’s one of those bad things that feels far too good to do only once.
S.A.: So we can expect more visits in the future?
O’S: Without question.
S.A.: One of the themes you deal with is how far we can fall from our goals and challenges. I’m thinking, in particular, of the Nigerian character, in your short story From Near To Eternity, which you later developed into a screenplay for Dutch television?
O’S: Siegfried Olubodon. Yes. I thought it was a well-done production, with surprisingly good special effects. I like…
S.A.: Yes. He time-travels back back to the days of North American slavery, equipped with this, like, mind-boggling scientific knowledge, doesn’t he? With this kind of wonderful secret plan to break the rules of time travel and change the course of history in a major way. What I remember is that the plan is to give these 18th century African slaves this 24th century technology. But in the end…
O’S: Yes. He’s seduced by the unbridled sexuality of the plantation. It’s a Caligulan orgy of torches and whips and he’s dropped right in the middle of it and the intensity overwhelms him. He’s hooked, in a word. He gives up his revolutionary vision for an S&M fetishist’s super-dream, basically. But I’m not so sure that’s my comment on our tendency to fall short of our goals as much as it’s a comment on male sexuality. [laughs]
O’S: Do we have “goals”, even, really? I’m not so sure. I see them more as habits; default programming. How can creatures with such limited lifespans be said to have “goals”, in the end?
S.A.: Which brings us to another theme in your work. Immortality.
O’S: I touch on it here and there, yes.
S.A.: Do you think it’s possible?
O’S: Oh, most definitely. Perhaps not “immortality” in the strictest sense of living forever. But I certainly believe in the existence of extremely extended human lifespans.
S.A.: The existence of it, or the possibility?
O’S: Well, how shall I put this without sounding rather loony… [laughs]
S.A.: [laughs] So it’s not a metaphor…
O’S: Ask yourself: if the very powerful and rich, after centuries, or, even, millennia, of concentrating all their efforts on only two things, really: A) getting richer and B) living long enough to enjoy the wealth…would they tell anyone about it once they’d achieved it?
S.A.: Intriguing question.
O’S: Of course extended longevity would only be for the very, very rich. And if the masses found out, there’d be very bloody, very bloody, riots. World-wide. I guarantee it. Such riots would make the storming of the Bastille look like a Quaker barn-raising party. Certainly, there’d be steps taken to keep it all very, very quiet. Which I believe is what we’re seeing. Or not seeing. The quietness, I mean. If you follow me.
S.A.: I think so.
O’S: There’s a shop, an expensive tobacconist, called Woodbridges, no apostrophe, which also sells fine chocolates, gourmet biscuits, assorted exotic delicacies from the continent. It’s a dark, dank little place, located on one of those intestinal little streets off the West End and it’s almost two hundred years in the same location. It’s not even the oldest such shop in London. There was a summer I was addicted to these Italian biscuits; I’d go there at least twice a week. That was where I first got the idea. I’d started recognizing certain vintage limousines and certain vintage customers and I realized that a very old shop, or a very old library, and so forth, in a very old city, is where’d you find them. I mean, past, what, one hundred and fifty years old, you’d be a creature of pure nostalgia, wouldn’t you? All of your human connections and accomplishments would be far behind you, buried with dust.
S.A.: Interesting. So how do you think this kind of ties in with, you know, the idea of achieving immortality as an Artist?
O’S: Well, it’s a bit of a misnomer, the way the word “immortality” is applied to the Artist’s dream of prolonged longevity, isn’t it? As though we all just want people talking about us after we’re gone. Yes, I confess, I want something of myself to survive my body’s extinction, preserved in my work, but it’s not my reputation, or gossip about me, that I’m working so hard to preserve: it’s the very shape of my thoughts. The rhythm and structure of my thoughts, which is my essence. Remember when it was in vogue to think that science would one day be able to transfer the mind into a deathless housing? Well, think about it, writers have already been pulling that one off since the beginning of papyrus. That’s what the Artist sends into the future without her… hopefully a few centuries into the future, at least…
O’S: (cont’d)… her mind.
A sparrow in the undulant birch branch cocks its head and hops down off the branch to swoop through the shot, followed by a chain of others, aiming at the wastrel bun crumbs that Katryn, out of shot, stage right, is tossing from her plate upon the interlocking terracotta tiles of the atrium floor (tiles shaped in the Chinese ideograph meaning conjugal bliss) unaware of the strict don’t-feed-the-sparrows policy in effect at Villa Vadge that Seth, the edict’s architect, being too enamored of the silky Brit bombshell who laughs at all her jokes and even blushes at some of her jockish innuendo, won’t mention.
S.A.: What a beautiful thought to end part one, of three parts, of this historical omnicast. Thank you.
O’S: My pleasure.
Shem does a sudden half-turn right and stares, smiling, at an elevated phantom presence for an unnerving long beat or two. She squeezes, off-camera, a black wafer remote that resembles a scale model of the alien dildo in 2001: A Space Odyssey and turns back to her guest. She asks, in a new tone, a new face, a worried face, “Can we talk?”
We weren’t in the hypertrophied van thingy. We were in a mauve-colored jeep thingy that reeked of new car. Rolling between my feet was a metallic green-aerosol called Nu Car. Descending from Duluth’s Olympus and heading west in a wavy diagonal. There was a bulbous screen in the middle of the dashboard that Shem explained was technically illegal but they got away with because it was also part of the GPS. Perfect for checking email in traffic jams. Shem smiled at the road and said, “Can I be completely honest?”
“That’s up to you.”
“You really really really intimidate me.”
“Okay, maybe it’s the British thing. But it’s like you talk like a book and I really admire that. You know? While we were doing the interview back there? I was thinking, man, I can’t keep up. If I’d read a transcript of what you were saying I’d think it was, like, heavily edited. You know? But it just popped right out of your mouth, as is: boom. Americans don’t have that.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say Brits do, either. Have you been there?”
“No, but we’re planning.”
“The Zeitgeist seems to be this mad dash to make up for lost time in the race to steal America’s crown of illiteracy. No offense intended. Because of course there are exceptions. In both… ”
“Did you go to Oxford or something like that? Here I am the CEO of your only official product-enhancing tribute organization and even I don’t know.”
Aha, I think. The Bio Hazard. As in Biography.
“No one knows, to be quite honest. That’s a deliberate policy and it’s far from an easy policy to maintain. I suppose you’d be astonished to find out that even Katryn, my partner…”
“She’s so pretty I can’t even look at her…”
“…thank you…even Katryn doesn’t know anything about the life that was prior to… O’Sirus. But I feel… always felt… will always feel… that the Artist’s personal details are not merely irrelevant but actually dangerous… ”
“You think the biographical stuff…”
“I think it erodes the Art. Destroys, it gradually. Like water and sandcastles…”
“Like matter and anti-matter.”
We both laughed too hard and long and I let the laughter stand as the natural end of that branch of the conversation. Before Shem could try again, I said, “By the way, where was the camera? For the interview. I’m curious. I couldn’t see one anywhere.”
She turned a new smile (with a vulgar edge to it) on me and held up a splay-fingered hand. “Five cameras. You can’t get a broadcast-quality recording otherwise, unless, okay, you have two handhelds, but two operators with handhelds would be way intrusive. I learned you improve the product by sort of, you know, minimizing the people in the process. There’s an editor, she’s doing it realtime, she’s so good it’s scary. And that’s it. Okay, beside the people at the IP. She’s in a remote location at the multi-media lab of the University and she’s very very good. The editor.”
“We’re all about the tech. I read somewhere they’re working on putting spy cameras in cat hairs. Wouldn’t that be cool?”
In profile, Shem didn’t look quite as graceful-yet-titanic as she’d seemed while interviewing me. It must have been the lighting. Scrunched up behind the steering wheel she was just a slumping stack of several overlapping hundred-pound sacks of cobblestones, steering the jeep with her breasts. The jeep was moving so slowly that I realized we were meant to take note of the area we were driving through. A treeless street of shabby woodframe houses with fenceless, muddy lawns. One of the lawns featured a washing machine turned on a diagonal to the sidewalk. But for the lack of trees, and the upper-Midwestern architecture, we could’ve been driving through Dogtown in Philly.
There was one tree, spreading its branches in an uninterpretable gesture over the intersection as we approached it. Shem saw where I was looking. “Oldest thing in the area. It’s, like, really hard to climb because the trunk is so huge and the lowest branches are about six feet up. You had to be a jock to climb it.” I envisioned a dozen bodies dangling from it, twitching like silkworms. The convulsive death throe as 19th century porno.
Shem said, “Right here, last week, a guy was shot, standing right in the intersection, middle of the day, with a fat roll of hundred dollar bills in his mouth like a cigar. African-American.”
She pressed a button and a nuclear-launch-style warning-beep preceded the convulsive retraction of half the Jeep’s roof while we waited for the traffic light. Shem pointed up without looking.
“Those running shoes dangling from the power lines? Okay. That’s a signal that happiness is for sale in this neighborhood. The style of shoe indicates the type of drug, but I’m not really up on the latest hieroglyphics so I couldn’t tell you. But I’ve read there’s a new form of crack out called Clit.” Smacked her lips. “Because you lick it.”
What had she been so anxious to “talk” about?
Someone with places to go and things to do leaned on the horn behind us and enormous, self-confident, managerial Shem sailed sheepishly left through the intersection without flipping-off the horn-honker or even just centering a scowl in the rearview. When a community is known to be heavily armed, I reflected, everyone is accorded unthinking respect. You’d have to be mad to run afoul of even a seven year old’s sensibilities in the new reality, for, never, in human history, had so many nobodies commanded such genuine firepower, the power of minor gods, to erase the million, billion ramifying branches of a future history with little more than a gesture. Looking back I saw that the honker, driving straight-on, was just some old white woman with an orangey-blond perm, low in her seat, and that Shem had wasted the opportunity to block the intersection, climb out of the jeep, kick dents in the woman’s thirty-year-old car and tell her to go fuck herself on a dirty speed bump. Unless Shem knew what I didn’t.
“People think of America as kind of a violent culture and I guess you’d have to agree with them.”
“Actually, I’m put in mind of those old horror movies where some spooky house is a hotbed of poltergeist activity because, ooops, it was built on Indian Burial Grounds. Well, as it turns out, the whole of North America is built on Indian Burial Grounds, isn’t it? Which would seem to explain everything.”
Shem nodded, too caught up in her own seriousness to give in to my frivolous wit. If only she knew I am far from shocked, I kept thinking, by the poverty-porno tour she is dutifully driving us through. This is either Shem’s pedantically instructive guilt trip or a pre-emptive strike against the fancy foreigner’s sanctimonious grin on the topic of American Haves and Have-Nots. But I’d grown up in a neighborhood bordering a neighborhood very much like this: a zombie-factory. Philly in the 1970s was not much better than the untidiest corner of 21st century, otherwise-white, Duluth… although. The quality of the raw human material the zombie-factories are working with now has degraded considerably from the days of my youth in which normal people, who were kneaded, battered, blasted and broken down on the conveyor belt of the process, were the base ingredient in the mass production of subhumans. Now, it seems, the machines are busy turning subhumans into super-subhumans. Subhominids. Shambling half-gibbon and chimp zombies. I knew better than to work this indelicate observation into the conversation.
Shem said, “Feel like breakfast?” Her breath like a seashore.
I said, “Sure.”
She said, “Are you a teetotaltarian? Just curious. Seth won’t touch a drop of alcohol. But Katryn drinks, right?”
As Shem drove she droned. We saw a Bible-quoting billboard with blue-eyed cartoon suburbans looking confident, yet humble… ie, “saved”… and I thought: nothing new under the sun?
Really? Nothing? Nothing new under the sun? Except for the fact the 90% of everything of any importance in the history of civilization happened after the phrase was first chiselled or scrawled, in whichever dusty half-dead language, you silly Christo-Semitic cunts. I was thinking about facial expressions. How there are certainly new ones. Facial expressions are evolving. That face that everyone under a certain age makes in their MeBook or I-Face or My-Face profiles; the new face that recent generations honed over the arc of the disco era, mugging in photobooths and peeling polaroids, until Duran Duran came forth to bring this facial expression to its early-late Twentieth Century apotheosis: not just pouty but smug: that face: which, surely, never once occurred during the Middle Ages? I was thinking that and about the facial expressions of cartoons. I’ve seen facial expressions on cartoon characters that I have not only never seen on humans, but that would be physically impossible for human faces to perform… and yet I grasped, instantly, the emotions they were meant to convey (though I’d be hard-pressed to name them) , as though…dunno…
Let it be said that Americans display a genuine genius for doing things like converting abandoned petrol stations into Lesbian Pancake Houses. I call it a Lesbian Pancake House because Shem referred to it as such: she militarized, medicalized, or bureaucratized it by calling it an LPH. I said what’s that? In this particular case, the building had been one of those petrol stations doubling as a 24-hour workingclass junkfood/porno grocery. Through the fingerprintfree glass walls of the LPH we glimpsed perhaps a dozen free-standing tables and that many wall-lining banquette-booths packed with fat, well-off, middle-aged rosy-cheeked socially-liberal white women of every possible description, talking with their mouths full. And all managing to smile, of course, at the same time. Except one.
We were shown to a reserved table by a pear-shaped minor fatty of medium height with a winning, dimpled smile, owlish glasses and freckles so dense it was hard to tell what race she was diverging from. A red bandana hid her hair entirely. The hair would’ve told us. Her boobtag claimed she was Gwynneth. Gwynneth’s lips were full but not very and her nose was broad but not very and both effects could well have been a result of too much food rather than ounces of African blood. Was she a half-breed like me? Big black nipples on buttermilk tits? Strangely-configured intrauterine walls? Does shtetl meet veldt in her bootie?
“Wonderful interview,” said Gwynneth to Shem, and then, quite shyly, to me, pulling our seats out for us. “Really smart and wonderful.”
“Oh, you saw it?”
Gwynneth and Shem smiled.
“Everyone in this room saw it,” said Shem, and I followed her gesture down, to the table, inlaid with a videoscreen, which we were very slowly being seated at. The screen was a rounded rectangle set lengthwise across the width of the table where the table was nearest the wall, so parties on both sides of the table could watch it while eating. Every table in the room featured such a screen, I realized, and then noticed, as we finally planted asses on our cushioned seats, that the clientèle was watching us closely, their synchronized chew-rates decelerating. Most showed intensely unreadable smiles. Except one. A dotted brown bitch, smile-frowning as if something crucial were at stake.
“You’re the guest of honor,” said Gwynneth, blushingly, fetchingly, winningly soft. Treacle-brown eyes averted with a deference I found to be making me wet. “We’ve been waiting for you…”
Aha. So everyone had gathered here today for the communal pleasure of woofing fair-trade pancakes whilst watching Shem Astaire’s blunt interrogative instrument probe the swollen folds of the mind of the half-caste faux-British vadge enthusiast with money problems.
Would they have been so interested in my thoughts if they’d known I spent my first twenty years in a shabbily integrated neighborhood of Philly? The Saturday Breakfast Omnicast, brought to you by the O’Sirens of Phangasm, had signed off just minutes before we walked in. First one diner, then another, then several clusters of them, until the whole restaurant entered the ridiculous act of applauding. Let it be noted that nowhere, in America, do applause not lead, and very quickly, to a standing ovation. Ever. We found ourselves pressured into standing in order to acknowledge the tribute. I could feel, literally feel, Shem soaking up a goodly portion of the ovation as her own, a black hole slurpping greedy and hard at the light. Maybe it was all hers to slurp up, anyway. I didn’t care. I am immune to praise.
I let Shem order for us. When one tapped the tablescreen one got an overhead image of the diners. If one placed one finger on a fixed point on the screen and dragged another across it, the camera panned the room. In the ten minutes it took for the food to arrive, I had figured out how to get an extreme close-up of anyone in the restaurant, from any angle, including myself, using these finger commands. A playful lesson in the quaint obsolescence of privacy. Privacy is such a 19th century concept, don’t you think? Big Sister with that bearded eye between her fat legs. I tapped and dragged my fingers on the screen until I located Gwynneth in the lavender-walled employee WC to which she’d hurried after serving us, re-buckling her pants in the frosted-glass-walled stall with trembling hands.
Shem gestured with her fork that I should start eating, then did the first truly startling thing of the day, putting her fork down and closing her eyes and mouthing a breathlessly rapid prayer before spreading her fingers in an unnatural, almost Spock-like, configuration over her citadel of syrup-shellacked pancakes (which were surrounded by dolloped side-orders of high-calorie fruit-topped stuff ) in what was either a blessing or a bit of self-mocking dud magic I may or may not have been meant to laugh at. With one megamouthful she erased my headstart and took a sizeable lead, announcing, in richly food-coated language,
“Gwynneth likes you. I mean really likes you. I can tell. Not that she’s half as hot as your Katryn. Hey, is your thing with her committed or, you know… kinda funky like that?”
Before I could think of how to respond, Shem swallowed and asked me if she’d forgotten to thank me for coming to the wedding, whilst shovelling more fuel in. She had the distracting habit of raking her fingers through her bristling blond hair before every other forkful. That and other tics (leg joggling and lip chewing) I later learned were traceable to a rigorous schedule of antiagressives, antidepressants, hormone balancers and cholesterol blocks. “Anyway, wow, thankyou very much for taking time out of your busy schedule to attend the ceremony.”
“Well, thank you both for inviting us.”
“Not both, just me. Seth was kind of against it. At first she was totally against it. You wanna know what’s scary?”
“Samesex marriages are legally binding, in Duluth.”
We laughed knowingly.
Shem lowered her voice and, with some urgency, said, “Best warn you that Senator Cindy is on her way over to the table to make a connection. She’ll take her time, pressing the flesh and whatnot on the way over, so I have, like, thirty seconds to fill you in on her Lifestory so you’ll know where she’s coming from when she springs her really weird shit on you. Divorced. Kinda wealthy. Ran for a Senate seat in Texas a few years back and lost to a Gay guy named Ron Smart. She lost but we call her Senator Cindy anyway. Okay: she’s Indian? I don’t mean like Native American or anything cool like that, I mean, you know, Bollywood and Karma etc. Which is all great in the proper context but kinda freaky when it’s coming out of somebody who reminds you of the most obnoxiously snooty Tupperware lady in a ton of makeup you ever tried to chase away from your doorstep. Like, you’ll notice that her face is about three shades lighter than her neck situation. And she’s one of us but won’t actually come out and say it. Loves Country Western music. Lives with her girlfriend in a loft over-looking the harbour, it’s full of statues of Kali and framed signed photographs of her with Barbara Streisand and Elizabeth Taylor. Michael Jackson is the only black man she speaks well of. Finds PDA and frank discussions of sexuality disgusting. You know the type. Looks down on Koreans, Mexicans, real Indians… Native Americans… and blacks. Especially blacks. Probably can’t stand that someone more rich, famous and powerful than she is is sharing the room with her right now but she’s forced to make a connection. She’s going to come over here and ask you to donate your time to one of her projects. Mostly saving historic landmarks and crap like that. As in, there’s this hundred-and-twenty year old brewery downtown that they’re talking about tearing down. Okay? It’s on the ugliest block in Duluth. If they can tear the crappy thing down, they can flatten the whole block and put something cool there like a… I don’t know. Whatever. Something useful that’ll help elevate the property values in the area. But she’s got this thing about these old buildings. She likes the word heritage. Can’t pronounce it but likes it a lot. Adds a fourth syllable like some people do with erudite. Always talking about the so-called American heritage we’re supposedly selling-out by tearing these roach hotels down. Okay? You just want to slap her and say, what’s it to you? You’re from Calcutta or somewhere, bitch. The important thing to remember is never promise her anything, but if you make the mistake of promising, because she’s good at getting people to make that mistake, be vague about it, at least, and never never ever sign stuff. Not even a postcard. Okay? Her girlfriend is a lawyer.”
Shem whispered that last bit with a million-watt smile so sudden I recoiled from the huddle we’d fallen inexorably into. A shadow fell across the table. A face loomed dark in the tablescreen. Totalitarian black eyes.
“I would like to congratulate you on a marvelously informative and stimulating program, which I am looking forward to the continuance of,” said Senator Cindy, loudly sing-songy, extending a pudgy brown hand with black knuckles and various gold bands on its spiderthigh fingers, “I am Sindra Prabhalawrjidaraj-Tyler, but my friends call me Senator Cindy.”
The kind of woman who would fart and be disgusted with you for smelling it.
I thought: Senator Cinder is more apt. Racoon circles around those avaricious eyes. I could just see her fussing and fawning over pimplepink baby blondes in a Humvee Pram blocking the entrance to some Neiman Marcus in a garish mall in Texas. Took one look at my semi-Negroid curly hair, weighed it against the mitigating factor that I am three point five shades lighter than her, did the quick racial algebra and gave herself the slight Eugenic advantage.
Contrary to what I’d been led to expect, however, Senator Cinder handed me a card after a demur flurry of purse, said she’d like very much, at my convenience, to talk about something I’d mentioned during the interview, made her excuses and left.
“Weird,” said Shem, who, once started, hadn’t stopped chewing and was already finished and daubing her glossy chins and neck with a napkin. Americans eat as though the food’s in danger of being snatched from them. Which, perhaps, in a broader sense, it is. My plate was still full but I begged off cleaning it. No appetite. Despite the children starving in Bangladesh and Chicago. We simply stood up and left. Like many wealthy Americans, Shem had about her the aura of a lottery winner, charming and uncouth, with her hickish need to deserve all that money by displaying petty goodness: she held the door for me.
“Don’t we need to pay now, Shem?”
Held up her wrist and its lilac scar, no larger than a cartoon butterfly’s smile.
“Subcutaneous chip. Lotta places won’t handle cash anymore.” She waved me through the door, outside, to the ghetto.
Creamy clouds. A piping-hot bananamuffin sun. I had to shield my eyes as we crossed the asphalt lot, putting the Lesbian Pancake House behind us. We got in the Jeep. We drove. Shifting gears, Shem said, with feigned casualness, with barely contained hope and greed, “Katryn mentions you’re working on kind of a new book, maybe?”
“Oh, we don’t talk about that.”
“Hey, I’m just a nosey Dyke.”
“I think I forgot my sunglasses.”
“No prob. We’ll have them send ‘em over. Gwynneth can bring ‘em.” Leering.
A mere corner or two and then we parked again, suddenly, (even the jeep must have been surprised) and Shem gazed, in a trance, from behind the low hedge of a “bittersweet” smile. Gazing at a rotten, rumpled, whisper-grey, three-storey woodframe house across the street from where we idled. I was thinking don’t tell me this is the house in which Bella Abzug was born. Or the place Shem first discovered pussy. Or pussy discovered her. The street was on an incline steep as a roofer’s nap and the house strained in a tilt against the angle. Skateboard Valhalla except this wasn’t the neighborhood for conspicuous exuberance in the honkie style. Shem shut off the engine and exhaled long and loudly.
“That’s where I grew up.”
She performed a face-washing gesture with both hands.
“Can you believe that? Just a thirty minute walk, on foot, down the hill from where we live now. Kinda hard to comprehend.”
She turned to face me.
“See, thing is, I’m not like Seth. That’s the first thing you have to understand about us. Seth is, like, the most self-confident person I ever knew. People think I’m the ‘top’ in this relationship but that’s far, far from the truth. Seth is a big beautiful woman because that’s what she wants. I’ve seen pictures of her at four and I swear she looked exactly the same. Just ready to eat the world and spit out the seeds. But I’m different. I wasn’t always like this. I may carry the weight well but I wasn’t always accepting of it. And all my changes have reasons that have nothing to do with who I am or wanted to be.”
Self-administered platonic hug.
“You won’t believe this, but I was a skinny kid. Real pretty, too. Okay, I hate the phrase, it’s basically insulting, but I was what you’d call All American in my appearance. Tall, lanky blonde, kinda big boobs for my age, blue eyes, big smile, the whole package. Developed. I was a tomboy and the only girl who could climb that tree back there, the big old one I pointed out to you? Most of the boys couldn’t even climb that monster.
“I come from what they call a bi-racial family. My step-brother, Juan, he was two years older than me and, okay, he was black. Skinny adolescent black kid with this sad round face and we shared a bedroom about six months while they were renovating the house. He was just a kid and I was just a kid. It wasn’t so unusual back then, a bi-racial family, but it was unusual enough in Duluth.
“Down in Minneapolis it would’ve been old news, a half-white family living in the ‘hood. For a ten year old All American girl it was kind of a shock to the system, though. We had lived in the suburbs before that, so, it was kind of what you’d call a step down. To this day it’s kind of hard not to blame my father… my real father, Randolph Astaire, the white one… for kicking us out.
“So Juan’s father was my step-dad. I called him Mr. Calvin the whole time I lived there. Mr. Juan Calvin Sr. Loyal employee of the Federal Government. The kind of black guy ironed his handkerchiefs and never said a rude word. He’d say cheese and rice instead of Jesus Christ if he stubbed his toe. Stamp collector. That kind of guy. You know? I was nine when mom and me left the suburbs and ten when my mom married Mr. Calvin. He was a really nice man; I’m still in contact with him to this day. Still lives here. White hair. All stooped over. He’s at work now; still works for the Post Office. I send him cheques and all on all the major holidays and his birthday.
“Juan had stolen this bad book from his father’s library and he would read it at night, under the covers, you know, with a flash light, like adolescent boys will do. Only this book wasn’t about dinosaurs or anything good like that. Listen, I have to be honest, to this day I hate the sight of that book like nothing on earth. I’m against book-burning in general but I’d make an exception in this case. Juan would read it and masturbate down there in the lower bunk of our beds. I had no idea what he was doing. I was just ten, remember. How would I?
“Grownups had introduced the topic of Sex Education and whatnot already at that point. So we had Sex Ed from an early age. But I had no idea that all that talk about semen and stamen and fallopian tubes had anything to do with Juan playing with himself. You know, I had no idea all this stuff had anything, potentially, to do with me. You know? Like the math you learn. Right? I assumed this miracle of life stuff was more of the same. You’d never use it.
“This frigging book was called ManTan in Lily Land and it was one of those bestsellers from the ‘60s. A black man writing about the rapes he’s committed as a revolutionary act… he’s raping and stealing in this cross-country journey of self-discovery kinda thing. Can you imagine someone getting away with a book like that now?
“This frigging racist, lookist, misogynist book was a must-have for liberal intellectuals who would, like, you know, dispassionately discuss the fucker at hoity-toity cocktail parties across the nation. To be offended by it would get you labeled bourgeois so fast your head would spin. Rapist, fine, bourgeois bad. You know? There were high school English departments with this book on the curriculum. I’m not even sure what it was doing in my step-father’s library. He was a good man, O’Sirus. But Juan junior, he reached the magic age and he homed right in on that sucker. He kept it under his comics or whatever. I was basically on my own, with Juan and that book. Defenseless lily-white Shaunna Astaire. You can imagine.
“Every night, my African-American stepbrother would read this book and pleasure himself. Got bolder and bolder about causing a little commotion to get my attention without, you know, alerting our parents that this thing is going on that it shouldn’t be. And it worked. It got my attention. I was sticking my head under the railing to see what all the fuss was about. Pretty soon he’s doing it without the covers on. The first time I saw that I giggled, let me tell you. Funniest thing I ever saw. I thought he was trying to stick something into his belly button or maybe it was his belly button and he’d stretched it out like rubber. This long black belly button. Looked like the inner tube on the bicycle I got for Christmas. My step-father promised to fix that flat but he never got around to it. I had this brand new bike I couldn’t even use. Just another one of those little resentments.
“Juan used this lotion. God, I can still smell it. I mean Goddess. Blue plastic bottle with a brown label and a white cap. Dr. Caliban’s Caribbean Cocoa Butter. Pretty soon he’s using it on me. Rubbing this lotion on my little parts so he can…you know.”
Her step-brother Juan Calvin Jr, smart enough at all times to avoid the use of stepsister Shaunna’s vagina while fully utilizing everything else of interest on her body, had bamboozled, cajoled, bullied and, finally, blackmailed her into sex play, a full-on X-rated sexlife starting when she was about ten and he was about twelve and continuing, even after he’d been given his own room upstairs a short while later, until she was fourteen, by which she time she was as tall and skinny and blonde and sexually developed as she was ever going to be, which was as developed as anyone could get: her step-brother’s secret treasure, his on-call sex toy, or sex tool, never safe from his attention when they were home from school alone together, never knowing when he’d find an excuse to slip into whatever bathroom she was already in (the bathrooms in that house had no locks as a safety precaution; no locks on the bathrooms or guns in the house) and hit her up for something quick or sometimes more baroque, according to his urges and the window of opportunity, all of which had been harmless enough when he was twelve and under-developed, but by the time, four years later, she put a stop to it by finally running away from home, he’d become muscular deadpan looming black guy with somewhat of a swagger and an oversized penis to match, too large for just about anything he did to her to be anything other than a form of torture, even with Dr. Caliban’s Caribbean Cocoa Butter as a lubricant, a torture she never confessed to anyone because he’d convinced her, over the years, that to do so would spark the race war to end all race wars. Blood flooding the gutters and the storm drains. Blood on the flowers and the leaves of the trees.
Shem smiled compassionately, as though the story had been mine and not hers; or as though I were Juan, not O’Sirus, and now found myself forgiven. With slow emphasis she reached and turned the key in the Jeep’s ignition. Closure. Well, almost:
“I ran away from home, got involved with the usual assortment of, like, seriously bad guys… some black, some white, you name it… I even dated a Boat Person for a week…next thing you know I’m, you know. Blah blah blah. Doing what you’d pretty much expect. Down in Minneapolis, the Vegas of Duluth. Earning some lucky guy with a fifth grade education a lot of money. All this before I’m old enough to shave my legs. Can you picture me being delivered to the client in a Rolls Royce? My speciality was sodomy and baby talk. It would’ve gone on forever or until I couldn’t walk anymore, like, rolling around in a damn wheelchair at twenty five or whatever. Only two things saved my life.”
She gunned the engine and we did a dramatic u-turn and surged back up the bumpy hill in dolphin leaps towards the Villa Vadge. The disturbing coincidence, from a psychological standpoint (mine, not hers, though it’s difficult to concentrate on one’s own neurosis with an American within shouting distance), was that I thought I saw a man who was a dead-ringer for my father, dressed in a flowing white kaftan and a lacy white skullcap, brandishing a gnarled walking stick like a desert nomad, ascending the hill as we drove by. Shem shouted over the Jeep’s macho-feminist roar,
“Over-eating saved my life! Over-eating and Science Fiction!”
Corniche: a One-Act Radio Play
by O’Sirus’s Writer’s Block
-Is it me or are you getting fat?
-So that’s an imaginary box of Ho Ho’s, no pun intended, I just saw you inhale.
-Not to mention the greasey-assed crumbs you just casually scattered all over our brand new custom-made kidskin upholstery. Bitch, you lose your shape and you deprive us of a sizable income. I’m assuming you know that, right?
-Query. You have any idea how much that nigger just paid to have you walk all up there in his hotel room wearing a dirty diaper and let him do what he did?
-That man wasn’t a nigger; he was white as Elmer’s Glue!
-Whatever. Same difference. Guess.
-Seven hundred U.S. dollars. Seven hundred. Okay? Can you grasp the magnitude of the financial operation I’m talking about?
-That’s just sick. All the things you could do with that money! That’s six months of college! Why would anyone pay that much money to do to somebody what they could do to themselves for free?
-I see your juvenile grasp of human psychology is far from motherfucking amazing. Here. I want you to read this, cover to cover, and write me a long-assed book report by next Friday. And that shit better be legible.
-What is this?
-Robert Heinlein, bitch. Don’t you know anything? Nigger’s a genius. Everything you need to Grok about this planet, it’s in there, guaranteed.
-Are you joking?
-My fist look like a joke?
When O’Sirus enters the bedroom, Katryn, on the bed, back to the door, says, without turning, “I was afraid you’d been kidnapped.”
“In a way, that’s exactly what happened. I was being held hostage to the shameless American compulsion to tell all.”
“Our Shem was once skinny and beautiful and young.”
“And what were you up to?”
“In other words, watching television. Or eating. Or floating pointlessly in the pool.”
“Or, D) all of the above, simultaneously, with immense pleasure bordering on….”
“Ready to fly home to a proper civilization yet? Had enough?”
“If I can float in a heated pool under a sky-blue sky while watching a poolside widescreen television with several bowls of delicious snacks bobbing around me in the healing waters when I’m back there. Sure.”
O’Sirus walks straight into the bathroom, crosses the allwhite sepulchral gloom in a dozen strides, opens the first marble-fronted cabinet she comes to, finds what she knew she would. Several unopened blue plastic bottles of Dr. Caliban’s Caribbean Cocoa Butter. As advertized. Brown labels and white caps and all. She imagines a fun new game that she and Katty can play. Called Step-Brother. O’Sirus will be Calvin, obviously… Calvin or the Heinlein-loving pimp. Katryn in diapers. Time will fly. They’ll be out of Duluth in the blink of an eye and never look back; never fall back to America. Katryn calls out, wearily, warily:
“I certainly hope this Brotherland book is a hit. We are honestly starting to need the money.”
“I said I hope it’s a hit.”
O’Sirus is hanging her coat on the back of the bedroom door. With a secret naughty gloatiness about the gesture. Don’t know why but she feels empowered by the discovery of the cocoa butter.
“It’s all a question of scale, innit? This money stuff. You’re seeing things a bit skewed at the moment because of all this… this overwhelming…Caligulan… tackiness. Give yourself time to acclimate.”
Katryn turns slowly on the bed like something savoury and shiny on a spit. Has she been crying?
“I found out what they do.”
“What who do? Oh, aha, I see. Good. Okay. What?”
“Seth told me.”
“Great. White slavery?”
“No. You won’t like it at all.”
O’Sirus rubs her hands together. “Wait. Something so heinous that even I won’t approve? This I’ve got to hear. Don’t tease, Katryn. Speak.”
“Promise you won’t kill yourself?”
Okay. “They run a fan club is what they do.”
“I know that. And…?”
“No and. That’s all. They do it for money. Your fan club. All this…” she gestures with misery, broadly. With misery and glee. “All this stuff…”
“Indeed. When it comes to fucking…”
“…when it comes to fucking money…”
“Merchandise. Conventions. Seminars. Omnicasts…”
“For fuck’s sake, don’t you… can’t you…?”
August 21, 2008
Katryn releases, that night, for the first time in their relationship, a detectable fart. In bed, while pretending to sleep, or maybe she is sleeping, a noiseless fart. Like a prelapsarian self-defense philtre, purchased at a Renaissance Fair and stored in a greenglass atomizer, which perhaps she’d been carrying around in her purse a few years, waiting for the chance to use it. O’Sirus imagines a Clara Bow-style silent picture title card with a fleur-de-lis in each corner and inscribed with ornately cursive script: a fart. A fart is the ultimate passive-aggressive gesture, conjugally speaking, and a symbol of contempt, i.e., who cares what you think of me? I am what I am. Only thing more significant is shitting with the bathroom door open, unless your inamorata has done time in prison. O’Sirus smells trouble.
Or maybe she’s reading too much into it and this intimately airborne toxic event is not a result of the latest revelation of how much of a breadwinner O’Sirus isn’t by comparison, it’s just the superfatty, digestion-dementing diet they’ve been on (not even a week, yet) since flying over. Old potato salad, meet burning rubber. O’Sirus tries breathing through her mouth a few seconds but realizes that that only means she’s eating it, but to smell something is to eat it, anyway, no?
Her trouble with money began in her own initial eggstate when mother Peg (lots more Irish then) allowed the phalloprogenitor to inseminate her beyond the framing device of a state-approved marriage contract in a cheap boarding house in New Jersey, one of those homey rundown places that ordinary people stay in for a weekend for access to the shore, bathed in the eggy exudia of a heavy, unwashed Atlantic. An inauspicious beginning that came this close (Peg’s refusal of anal sex) to not happening.
There she is in her high school career-guidance counselor’s propaganda-postered cubicle delivering the speech about not being the product of six billion years of planetary, then thirty million years of biological, evolution, just so she could get a so-called good job. To which Miss Brandischauer, fifty-ish and long-nosed and gray, though not bad looking in a lavender pantsuit, wearing those feline glasses bound with a chain to her neck, gave her a look like Here we are in the disco era and I’m still dealing with beatniks and said,
“Okay. So what was six billion years of planetary, plus thirty million years of biological, evolution, for?”
To which Kim had to admit to herself (if not to Miss Brandischauer) that she hadn’t the slightest fucking idea. But neither did Leonardo Da Vinci, Miss Brandischauer, she thought to say, nine hours later, in bed, eyes shining in the dark, ears keyed to the sound of Unca Mundee either fucking or midwifing or casually torturing a white woman next door. Kim tried to imagine a black woman, the direct descendant of slaves, coming out with a Thankyou! at the moment of orgasm.
So here’s O’Sirus, who pulled in, last year, tops, seventy-two thousand pounds, after taxes, from various downloads and royalties and appearance fees (and felt rich because of it) in bed in a room on a floor in a villa on an estate, not hers, worth something like forty times that amount, paid for by products and services derived, in the end, from the fruits of her own imagination.
Her disappointed trophy wife Katryn (O’Sirus often caught herself wondering if the dogs she’d seen partnered to various beggars in London were aware enough to curse the luck) doesn’t know the half of it, for not only is O’Sirus an unspectacular breadwinner, she’s ten years older than Katryn thinks she is, ten years closer to decrepitude, with its lowered iron ceiling on possible future earnings; ten years closer to needing a fulltime attendant to wipe the elasticity-depleted guardian of her small intestines and shave her chin whiskers and rub her legsores down with painful tonics. There’s a phase in every lower-class teenager’s life, resenting the parents for not being rich. O’Sirus is going through hers now, at 52, rigid with futile thoughts beside her loosely slumbering Katryn, who releases another skinless green blimp of biochemical sarcasm to dock with the larger one already floating nose-high above the ducal bed. O’Sirus is unaware of the fact that the bed, which costs more than the car she would have if she had one, comes with a wireless console featuring a button for a discreet ventilation technology that sucks bad farts through the mattress, replacing them with rose wind or lambent jasmine or subtle musk or the mysteriously-named neutral.
What was the meaning of her problem with money? What was the use and what was the severity of it? Could she be cured of it? Would she be rewarded for it? Was it a flaw in her DNA or a certain fine superiority in the fabric of her spirit? Was it time now to be proud of the extraordinary single-mindedness of her longterm avoidance of wealth or sick with shame and regret that she’d never owned a new car or paid for a vacation for two in the Bahamas?
Her first job.
Peg found it via a friend of a friend (Doctor Shamton) to get Kim’s mind off of Lyndsay’s suicide. Kim went to the address that mother Peg handed her on a piece of paper with hearts drawn all over it, went with eyes still wettish and vadge-red and found a storefront on Wayne Avenue, a bunch of strange hippies in green smocks, clean hippies who were the vanguard of what would soon be called the New Age, the confluence of hippie mysticism and the Yankee religion of Money, counter-intuitively associating goodness with wealth, a belief system/lifestyle festooned with crystals and perfumed with incense and soundtracked with the blandest piano or zither noodlings. Hookless piano aswim in reverb. Fascinating how reverb as an audio effect can connote the ineffable, due, no doubt, to primordial race-memories of all those spooky caves we used to cower in. Anyway: what these hippies with surprisingly professional demeanors and lyrical names (like the boss, a very attractive, vaguely Asiatic woman named Sylvan) were up to was subcontracting temp workers as nursing aides for Old Folks Homes.
Sylvan told Kim she had a beautiful energy that the senior spirits (as she referred to the aged) would respond to. There was no office furniture in the room they (the applicants and company officers) were gathered in: just wall-to-wall carpeting and large pillows everywhere and a shrine to Buddha and a filing cabinet. Sylvan took a stethoscope out of the filing cabinet. The company was called Selfless Servants. Sylvan explained to Kim and other trainees that Seva is the spiritual practice of selfless service. Seva is a Sanskrit word and the concept flows from two forms of the yoga (she called it the yoga), Karma Yoga which is the yoga of action and Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of worship inspired by what we call divine love… Seva is one of the simplest and yet most profoundest and life changingest ways that we can put our deepest spiritual knowledge into action useful to the community… and after a crashcourse in first aid and such basics as pulse-or-temperature-taking Kim got a nametag (Selfless Kim), a green hospital smock, crepe-soled slip-ons and instructions to report to a nursing home in Bryn Mawr, graveyard shift.
She put her army surplus coat over the smock and took a trolley and two buses in the cold November night to her first day ever of work. She wanted to cry but not, just then, because of Lyndsay, cold and weird-smelling in an ugly box with no air holes in it. Kim contained two competingly disparate urges to cry and the one guiding her as she approached her first job was selfish and more childishly abject. Why did she feel betrayed by Peg? She felt as though she’d been kicked out of the sweet cloud of the last lingering amnesties of childhood; shoved from the very edge of the nest. Final proof that she was no better than anyone else (though breathtakingly inferior to rich kids who didn’t need jobs even if they took them as character-building experiences or gestures of noblesse oblige to placate the masses from time to time). Kim had always assumed that she’d live, jobless but well-fed, encouraged in her unproductive passions, under her mother-Peg’s protection until one of them died. Kim had always assumed that their little family owned no car in order that Peg could afford to do this.
She walked three blocks after getting off at the end of the line of the last bus and came to a saucer-shaped building at the end of a long path on a very large lawn, like a UFO that had come to rest, for reasons of its own, on a golf course. She entered the building (after some difficulty finding the front door) a few minutes after nine. The receptionist told her she was three minutes late but that they dock you for the quarter hour, so it make more sense to be a quarter hour late, if you going to be late, and handed Kim her timecard. These were old people who had a little money, she’d been told; this nursing home was better than most and yet she arrived to find high-WASP bedlam in progress, as in drooling crones with Mayflower surnames shuffling in and out of the frame, blue arses exposed in backless pyjamas, and a freckle-pated duke in his boxers, bathrobe tied around his neck by its sleeves like superman’s cape, hurrying from po-faced aide to po-faced aide with an urgent message of nothing but spit and consonants. He seized upon Kim and cornered her near a utility closet and she tried sincerely with zero success to comprehend. A beefy, squat-headed aide, black (but they were all black, and their charges were all white, don’t-touch-me white), whisked her away. Keith, with his clipboard. Keith guided her by the elbow.That’s Ol’ Zack. He been sayin’ exactly the same thing since I got here, which is three years this November, don’t pay him no mind. We gotta get this lady in her pyjamas fast. We laggin’ the schedule.
They were in a private room with a fat little woman circled by aides. Very much like a half-hearted gang-rape in which no one wanted to be first. The old woman (a card on the door called her Lilly Shaw) was clutching a bathrobe to her chest but otherwise naked, a baggy profusion of time-bleached meat. Keith told Kim to get her in those backless pyjamas and he took the other aides with him to whatever pointless emergency was next on the list. Lilly Shaw’s eyes were frantic but not really, as though she kept forgetting what “frantic” meant. Next was a thin white spider missing most of his legs and afraid to budge from the corner behind the safety toilet and the aluminum handholds and everything else smeared with his shiny tar shits. Next was a force-feeding on the theme of pureèd corn. Second childhood is not an empty figure of speech, mused Kim. But children are learning things.
And every time she stepped into the curving, overlit hallway to approach the next task on the time-coded (in increments down to the second) checklist in her pocket, Ole Zack grabbed her into a loopy waltz, pleading into her eyes his transmission of chaos from the great beyond until Keith came jogging to separate them. Kim was assigned the task of bullying a lucid woman (in fact she looked strikingly like Kim’s career guidance counselor, Miss Brandischauer) into brushing her teeth before lights-out. Brushing-her-teeth as a euphemism for dealing with the dentures. The alternative-universe Miss Brandischauer was sitting in bed, reading Agatha Christie, peering down a long nose through her feline glasses when Keith ushered Kim into the book-filled room without knocking. Keith told Kim, in front of Miss Brandischauer 2, that the 75-year-old woman was a naughty girl who didn’t like to brush her teeth and that Kim shouldn’t take no for an answer, whatever excuses the old girl managed to cook up and don’t forget, now, you’re new, girl, so she’ll try to fool you.
Kim sat on a chair beside Miss Brandischauer’s bed and watched the old woman read for awhile, making note of the curious fact that her eyes didn’t so much march methodically from left to right across the page and back again as seem to leap in giant intervals up and down and right to left and diagonally, assembling a jigsaw puzzle of words. Kim was wondering how she’d make it through her shift, despite the fact that her hourly wage was a whopping (for the era) eight dollars per, when Miss Brandischauer placed her bookmark and lay the whodunnit aside and said, with a surprising, twangfully melon-rich Southern accent,
“We have maybe fifteen minutes before the S.S. come looking for you. What would you like to talk about, sugar?”
“Don’t be shy, now.”
“I’m not shy.”
“No offence intended.”
“I know. Ma’am, how long have you been here, if it’s okay to ask?”
“A week. Five years. My whole life? Listen, I wish I had something to offer. Refreshments. You’re so pretty and young. Skin like yours is a great gift. So why so down in the mouth?”
“Appearances are rarely deceiving, sugar. Tell.”
“My best friend… ”
“Stole your boyfriend.”
“Oh. Oh. Cut her wrists? Or jumped?”
“Pills. And strawberry ice cream.”
“Smart girl. Look what she avoided.”
Keith stuck his head in the room with such suddenness that they both jumped but Keith said not a word about Miss Brandischauer’s dentures, grinning horribly and beckoning Kim to follow him instead. She had to hurry to catch up as he jogged along the circular hall to the ever-so-slightly-ajar door to one of the two communal bathrooms. Kim entered behind him and without looking he told her to close the door and make sure it click shut and her first thought was panic that he was going to do something to her in the bathroom but then she watched him walk calmly around the far side of the water-filled tub in the center of the room. She approached the tub and saw with some surprise that there was a hairless blue potbellied man asleep underwater.
“I left him alone for a minute and I guess he slid under. On the count of three…”
Kim had his ankles and Keith hooked him under each arm and they lifted and lowered the body with a loud splash from the agitated tubwater on the tiles and rolled it over. What struck Kim was how Keith had appeared to be in no particular rush to get the man’s head out of water. His casual air had fooled her into believing for several moments that he must well know, from years of experience, that it’s better to leave them in a few minutes before yanking them out in case of shock or something. Keith straddled the body and seemed to be knuckledeep in the fat rolls of a frat house drunkslut shoulder massage when he told Kim to tell the receptionist to tell an ambulance to come. With an amused tone he added, detaining her for careless life-or-death eternities at the bathroom’s threshold, You shoulda seen the look on your face, Kim. You looked seriously freaked out, man, but you’ll get used to it.You and me’s a team.
So Kim went and told the receptionist to call the ambulance and when the receptionist had completed the call, Kim quit. She asked the receptionist to tell Selfless Servants not to contact her, she didn’t even (or especially didn’t) want her check for the night, she wanted nothing to do with them or this nursing home or the three hourse she’d spent in purgatory there. The receptionist, who resembled Diana Ross, said it’s not my job to deliver instructions to your boss, that’s one thing, okay, but are you serious about not wanting that check? Even if you only worked three hours that’s twenty five dollars before taxes. If it was me I’d sure enough take it. That’s a nice pair of shoes, but I ain’t your mama.
Kim put on her army surplus coat and left the building and crossed the black lawn panting and walked the wrong way and walked back and sat at the stop in the cold semi-rural November dark for forty minutes (during which she watched an ambulance with firework lights race towards the UFO and then the same ambulance with toplights extinguished roll with the silence of a deathbarge on still waters past her) but was lucky enough to get the last bus home out of Bryn Mawr. Six billion years of planetary, then thirty million years of biological, evolution, just so she could take this very long busride home.
That little blue man in the bathtub stayed with her for years.
O’Sirus rolls backwards down the incline of sleep. Katryn’s protest is done for the night.
The next morning they are awakened by Javanese Gamelan music. O’Sirus thinks to herself that surely this isn’t Javanese Gamelan music, but it is, piped in through the mattress. During the five minutes that Katryn sleeps while O’Sirus watches, Katryn dreams of a leafy, warmish, aromatic paradise populated with unusually beautiful rabbits with (proportionally) very large, human-shaped breasts that one sucked on for nourishment; an ultimate kind of veganism (no chewing of a life-structure) that the rabbits didn’t mind… in fact, they enjoyed it, and were easily coaxed, like frolicsome coconuts, to give sweet milk. It was only a matter of wiping the nipples first, as they were usually a bit muddy. Katryn was smiling very broadly in her sleep. O’Sirus will never forget how that smile faded as Katryn’s eyes opened on the real world.
“Javanese Gamelan music.”
“Why’d you put it on?”
“What time is it?”
“Early, I think.”
“Where are we?”
A whiff of syrup-hot pancakes comes up through the mattress and before either of them can comment, Shem’s cheerful voice follows. “Who’s ready for breakfast?!”
“I suppose there’s no opting out of it?” says O’Sirus, into the mattress.
“Breakfast is mandatory,” jokes slightly-muffled Shem. Half-jokes. “Would you prefer it in bed?”
Katryn’s smile comes back and she says, “Oooh, marvellous!”
“Any special requests?”
Katryn is playful. “Rabbit’s milk?”
“You got it,” booms Shem through the mattress. “Breakfast will be served in a jiffy!”
There’s a longish interval before O’Sirus whispers, “Is this thing off, now?”
Katryn makes a shrug face and climbs out of bed with a finger over her lips meaning silence. She gestures for O’Sirus to follow her into the bathroom. In the bathroom, Katryn turns on the shower full blast. She turns to O’Sirus and whispers,
“What shall we talk about?”
“I decided something after thinking long and hard last night.”
“From now on, I concentrate on making money.”
Relieved hugs. Grateful kisses. Katryn’s head in the crook of an olive elbow as O’Sirus reaches under Katryn’s frilly nightie and prods the drooled lips of a hot little animal’s smile. The moist click of separation and Katryn says ah. The cosmic YES of extremely wet. There’s a polite-but-energetic knucklerapping on the bedroom door and they hurry giddy back to bed and under the covers before sing-songing drunk, as one, “Come in!”
Much to Kim’s mitigated delight and surprise it’s Gwynneth, fleshy sweet, smoothly ripe and gobbleworthy Gwynneth, with her good-vibes-scented brown eyes and matching cinnamon freckles and big pink permasmile lips dressed in that eternal overalls-and-bandana uniform, backing through the self-opening door with a laden breakfast tray. This time, a bit of Gwynneth’s hair is visible from under the red bandana, but this glimpse of the hair doesn’t solve the racial puzzle, as the hair is a very curly, coloring-book yellow. Gwynneth gives O’Sirus a hello-again look that makes Katryn give O’Sirus a look (O’Sirus being triangulated perfectly to see and interpret both looks) of do you know this dyke from somewhere? Gwynneth gives Katryn a look meaning yes, she does know me from somewhere, but don’t feel threatened, I’m immensely attracted to both of you. Gwynneth sets down the two-tier tray and converts it into two separates, setting one before each of them as they look on (and back and forth between each other) and finally breaks the complexly-orchestrated silence while leaning over the bed, exposing the nested warmth of her cleavage, working on arranging the utensils .
“Is there anything else you want or need?” Looking at neither of them.
“The two of us can’t possibly eat all of this marvellous-looking food alone,” says Katryn. “Why not have some with us? What’s your name?”
“Gwynneth,” offers O’Sirus, elongating the “th” like she’s evaluating a flavour, wondering if anyone else can smell Katryn’s fresh cunt on her fingers.
“Gwynneth,” repeats Katryn with playful mimetic exaggeration.
“I am kinda starving,” says Gwynneth. Her nostrils flare. She smells it.
“What are you?” asks Katryn, with a child’s rude innocence.
Gwynneth, used to the question, says, “Black.”
“You’re a lot less ‘black’ than O’Sirus, and she calls herself ‘racially ambiguous’,” laughs Katryn, ladling hot syrup over her stack of dinkle-buckwheat/raspberry-pecan pancakes and deliberately avoiding O’Sirus’ consequent glare.
“’Black’ is the term Yanks use,” counters O’Sirus, looking at no one, laying on the accent, “When no other group will claim you.”
“‘Black’ is a pretty big church,” says Gwynneth, winningly, chewingly, with hot cake tumbling on her tongue. “How I see it, if everyone said they were black…”
“Like Spartacus,” says O’Sirus.
“Who?” say Gwynneth and Katryn, as Katryn feeds Gwynneth another forkfull. O’Sirus’ pancakes are dinkle-mocha, garnished with starfruit, and she feeds Gwynneth her next forkfull, with a feeling that she’s dabbling in a new kind of orgasmically-tasty-food-based sexuality. As if reading her mind, Gwynneth says, with a moistness of mouth that kills everyone else in the room,
“We’re having a mange-a-trois.”
Picture Gwynneth, her golden fat pussy sopping with syrup. But what paralyzes O’Sirus is uncertainty as to whether a groupfuck at this point will further, or hinder, the cause behind her brand new sacred oath to get ugly rich. She even forgets to ask Gwynneth for her sunglasses. Gwynneth doesn’t have them anyway. O’Sirus sees that butterfly smile on Gwynneth’s wrist and strokes it spontaneously with her flaking cunty finger and one thing leads to its other but O’Sirus still, for whatever reason, can’t come.
Down the spiralling drive they sail, smooth as a Haitian lawyer. All five in the land-galleon: Shem, Seth, Katryn, O’Sirus and Gwynneth, Gwynneth with her hands on her knees in the ergonometric circulating-gel-filled bucketseat between O’Sirus’s and Katryn’s, the sky so bright that only the van’s tinted, treated, polarized bubble windows can protect them. Shakuhachi music on the soundsystem. “Shakuhachi” means “one foot eight”, the standard length of a Shakuhachi. O’Sirus thinks wouldn’t it be embarrassing if our names were our measurements. The lavender sun is harsh on her arm despite the filtering window. Her arm is the color of an internal organ.
The landscaped estates at the top of the hill give way to large-but-crammed-together houses lower and then smaller, crammed-together houses intermingled with apartment buildings and transient-looking commercial spaces. The lower the van descends, the more pedestrians they see, like denizens of oceanic depths, colorful and cartoonish in their monstrousness, deceptively humorous-looking, weird in their movements, soundtracked by Shakuhachi.
O’Sirus is in a zone, watching but not seeing, hearing but not listening. Having to do with not coming, probably. She hasn’t come in weeks. Gwynneth is telling Katryn (quietly, in deference to the Japaneseness of the flute music) about her youth and how her life was changed immeasurably by personally meeting the most important unknown Civil Rights activist of the 21st century, Doctor Jonatha Shamton, who was in Duluth to give a series of lectures at the U. of D., where Gwynneth had a job in one of the campus bookstores, fifteen years old, ten years ago, stickering books when an exquisitely dark black woman of slight build, medium height, shiny shaved head, somewhere in the area of sixty years old, wearing those over-sized hoop earrings that black women with shaved heads favored, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, as an ornamental ersatz for hair and also wearing big round blackframed eyeglasses, making her look very much like a priestess of the circle or something, with her big round glinting lenses and swinging hoops and the perfectly curved back of her glistening skull… walked in.
-Good afternoon, Sister.
“I’d heard about black women calling each other sister, back in the day, but I’d never seen it happen before, especially not to me, because most people can’t even tell that I’m black, so that kind of threw me right there, but I was, I don’t know. I was flustered. I hadn’t even come out yet. All I knew was I didn’t like boys. It was like, greeting me that way, she was telling me things about myself I didn’t even know yet, and I was ready to listen.
“She said, Can you please direct me to your Jewish writers section. I told her we didn’t have one. She said, well, can you please direct me to your Polish writers section. I said we didn’t have one of those, either. She said, you mean Joseph Conrad and Philip Roth are just mixed in with all the other writers of literary fiction? With this, like, horrified look on her face. It was hysterical. I told her yes, that was the case. Then she took me by the hand… she actually grabbed my hand and it was the firmest, warmest, softest grip I ever felt… and she guided me to the African American Studies shelf in the back of the bookstore. She said, Then why are Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison and Langston Hughes and this Duke Ellington biography all crammed together in this little plantation over here?
“We walked back to the counter in front and she got her business card out and wrote down her room number at the hotel she was staying at and told me I should inform my manager at the bookstore that racial segregation was officially illegal in the United States of America, even in bookstores, and to call her and let her know how it went. So I called her after dinner. She said, hey, Gwynneth, thanks for calling, how did it go? I said, well, to make a long story short, I quit. She said, hmmm, I guess that means you’re working for me now.
“First, my job was showing her around Duluth while she was here, even though I didn’t have a driver’s license and couldn’t drive. We went by foot or public transportation. I showed her the lift bridge, our big tourist attraction, you know, the Statue of Liberty of Duluth, and she looked at me like I was a little dumb but kinda sweet and said, Why are you showing me this? I told her that it could be raised from 155 feet to 225 feet in under a minute and she laughed so hard I turned red. I didn’t know it, but my education had begun.
“How long did it take that old sharpie to get you?” asked Shem, physically unable to twist in her seat and therefore gloating at Gwynneth in the rearview. O’Sirus is not paying attention and did not happen to hear Doctor Shamton’s name. If she had she’d have considered the mention miraculous.
“Oh, I don’t know, a week or so,” answers Gwynneth, turning red. She flushes such delicate Japanese-like crushed-cherry-in-eggshell-colored-milk tints that Katryn wonders if Shem has triggered the appetizing blush on purpose. “But she was very respectful. No pressure or anything. You could kinda sense she was never what you’d call horny, so she kinda turned the whole thing into what I’d call an aesthetic experience.”
Everything’s a matter of scale. Chubby Gwynneth looks impossibly petite compared to the twin giants strapped in the front seats of the van. Katryn a trinket. Shem begins fiddling with a box full of bubble wrap and Seth begins what they all soon realize is some sort of presentation.
“Okay, because we’re on Sony’s early adopter VIP list, we got a cool toy in the mail the other day that I thought would be kinda kicky for us all to try out on this outing.”
Seth hands everyone in the back seats what appears to be retro-designed feline-style black horn-rimmed eyeglasses with smokey pink lenses. The galleon is steering itself, of course. Other than the fact that the stems of the glasses are a few millimeters thicker than the stems on normal glasses, and the lenses are smokey pink, and there are fine-mesh grilles on the stems near the ears, they look like normal glasses. Some new kind of phone? Everyone is tired of meeting new kinds of phones.
“They’re powered by movement and body heat; to keep them charged you just have to walk about thirty minutes a day. The average workout on a treadmill’ll do it.”
O’Sirus slips hers on. The lenses appear to have little or no magnifying power. “But what do they do?”
“The prototype name is Gyno-Encoded Reactive Telemetry. GERTY, for short. They might, like, change that after getting a little consumer feedback, but I hope not because I think it’s kinda cute.”
Katryn leans across Gwynneth’s lap towards O’Sirus and stage-whispers, “You look like a librarian named Edith in those.”
“They have to charge up for a while. Wait.”
They enter a tunnel fast and follow a spiral of recessed sodium lights upwards and upwards and round and round then heave into epiphany of virgin blue incandescence at such a drastic angle that O’Sirus suffers bellydrop vertigo. It’s like coming out of a long weird dream she immediately begins forgetting as they ring the roof of the lot looking for just the right place to park on, and as the galleon is finally parked and de-boarded and running through its checklist of function-altered adjustments, clicking and humming and off-gassing in microjets hissing through underside vents, the group gathers in a broad morning shadow at its side, all of them looking like librarians named Edith. They are standing on grid-painted asphalt overlooking Lake Superior; the top level of a parking complex filling, from the bottom up, since daybreak. The air is a spectacle of freshness; the gulls like feathers from a pillowfight; the moon a ghostly fingerprint on the invisible button that made the sun pop up. From the side of the roof they’re standing on it appears as though one could run fifty yards and hop off the opposite wall and land directly in the water. O’Sirus thinks that this is what this continent once had to offer, the vastness of unbroken vista, and now you only get it in slivers and flakes and soon enough not at all as everything goes interior, packed away in the space-saving storage of everyone’s sad little cell of private experience. What is an i-pod but a prison cell of music? What is a masturbation fantasy but a prison cell of sex? What is a snack but a prison cell of yummy?
…Where did that come from?
Seth is speaking. Now Shem adds something. They enter an express elevator that bears with unhuman grace the recordbreakingness of their party and drops with computered tolerance to earth. Modern elevators compared to their ancestors are like modern football players compared to those comically scrawny, middleaged guys in very little padding and leather helmets cavorting in newsreel footage of the ‘30s. Modern elevators are safe at roughly eight times the load. Never before have elevator engineers been tasked with imagining that eight people weighing a thousand pounds each are not unlikely to enter the same elevator all at once and expect a safe ride up or down. In fact, considering the upsurged flow of American tourists in various cities of Europe, the Society of German Elevator Engineers (Die Bundes-Genossenschaft der Fahrstuhltechniker) has convened a series of emergency symposia, all across the E.U., to address the problem. There’s even a convention, right there, in Duluth, in a building that happens to be along the route they will all be walking this morning, which is why I brought it up.
The elevator doors open and they file out. Shem and Katryn and Gwynneth up front, Seth trailing behind them, O’Sirus trailing behind everyone, the cool lotion of a shapely breeze mitigating the imposition of the sun’s male force. They are walking to the shop where Seth and Shem have ordered imported fabrics from a Muslim province of China. The fabric will go into the making of special garments to be worn by everyone in Shem and Seth’s wedding party. The fabric is so rare that it would be cheaper to tailor all 197 garments from twenty-dollar bills. O’Sirus is thinking about money.
She fed those fat behinds. Her mindfruits made these millionaires. She supposes it’s the same way it always was: Elvis and Colonel Tom both made their fortunes from the mindfruit of some poor black songsmith chained to a pipe in the basement, only O’Sirus is a combination of Elvis and the songsmith, minus Elvis’ money. Seth and Shem are Colonel Tom, minus Tom’s red shrivelled Croatian cock and Stetson. Or was he Romanian? It was always thus, regarding the exploitation of artists by sharpies far more mature than they. But it’s the traditional arrangements that are easiest to target and subvert and O’Sirus is going to be smart about it. She’s going to get rich.
The streets near the waterfront are gleaming with backed-up traffic, as early as it is. Most of the vehicles are sporting wind-whipped flags such as are given out free for the Fourth of July at gas stations and O’Sirus wants to remember to ask what the occasion can possibly be, so long before summer. National holiday? American Hostage crisis? Both? The double sensation of cool breeze and hot sun is one of the rapidly-multiplying modern paradoxes that add to O’Sirus’ overall anxiety, which she masks with bitchiness. The world was still the world when she was young and still herself. Shem and Seth and Katryn are nodding and humming their kneejerk assent to Gwynneth’s saying something about how a certain tribe in Africa has a “healthier” attitude towards Death and O’Sirus’s first impulse is to make a snide remark about well-adjusted corpses but she stops herself. Sarcastic clarity like that pisses off everyone. Like her show-stopper on the topic of the surprisingly evil, if you spend more than twenty seconds thinking about it, doctrine of Karma: in other words, those Holocaust Jews had it coming. Pissing off everyone is no way to get rich.
Just as she thinks this, a strange little something darts across the right corner of her peripheral vision. O’Sirus initially mistakes it for a child, but there’s a density there, the compact heft of wellfed grownup dwarf, with the added detail, clearer as the figure circles back in towards O’Sirus, that it’s glowing greenish in the hard bright sunlight. O’Sirus tries to be polite about it and acknowledge the being with a subtle nod and a tightlipped smile, trying not to stare as she walks by, assuming its an halucination, polite even in the face of her own possible psychosis, but the creature runs ahead again, with the playfullness of the child it really isn’t. It’s wearing a frumpy floral housesdress and looks very much like O’Sirus’ memory of jacket photos of Gertrude Stein and Shem, Seth, Katryn and Gwynneth have all seen it too, obviously. They’ve stopped walking and formed what looks like a circle of librarians named Edith around it on a little flagstone plaza in front of a bookstore with smile-enamelled images of memoir-writing sports celebrities shining in its display window.
“Hello hello my friends’ friends’ friends,” it says with an unplaceable accent and a helium voice. Hands clasped under the load of a stout old dame’s unarticulated bosom. Turning to each in turn it says, “You must, were and will always O’Sirus never not be, of course. Shem and Seth I know that I know that I knew already. And that is her Katryn beloved as plum cakes. But who are you when you are who you are when you who are you are?” Smiling at Gwynneth. With a hint of vadge avidity, O’Sirus would have said.
“Gwynneth,” blushes Gwynneth.
O’Sirus says, to Shem, a trifle too sharply, “Why is it talking like that?”
“The marketing engineers. Womyn are more comfortable with what they call indirect assertion. Men prefer aggressively simple kind of declarative sentences like, you know, Me hungry. Me angry. Me fuck. Bricks they build a wall of logic with. The marketing engineers did extensive testing to find the optimal oblique-to-men yet clear-to-women ratio and found that nothing drove the average man crazier, while being on the average pleasant or kinda delightful to the average over-educated woman, than Gertrude Stein’s style of writing. So they…”
O’Sirus refuses to address the hologram directly. “But it’s already driving me crazy…”
“Me too, at first. Now I love it. That’s just how brainwashed we are by living in the over-mind of the patriarchy,” says Shem, beaming at GERTY and O’Sirus bites her tongue, remembering her vow to get rich. The vow predecesses the plan. It’ll come to her soon enough.
“But you can get her into data mode by prefixing a question with ‘query’.”
Shem turns to GERTY.
“Query: what’s a good book?”
“The Book of Repulsive Women,” said GERTY, with the flat affect of someone pretending to be a talking machine. “Djuna Barnes. Shall I order it for you?”
“48 hour delivery.”
“How old is Djuna?”
“Her bones are 118 years old.”
“What does ‘Djuna’ mean?”
“‘Djuna’ is the Serbian word for dune.”
“How far away from us is she?”
“Can you contact her for us?”
“I can generate a plausible version of her part of a conversation based on the predictive totality of multimedia referencing stored as knowledge, personality and voice patterns.”
“I think we’ll save that for a treat later, GERTY. End query.”
Katryn reaches impulsively to touch GERTY but Shem says, “Not quite there yet. But they’re working on it.”
“Why’s it green?”
“There’s a law, I guess, that virtual creatures have to be easily…”
O’Sirus finishes the sentence. “Identifiable as such. But you can’t see it unless you’re wearing these glasses, no?”
“They’re working on that, too.” Shem hands O’Sirus a camera. “Can you get a picture of us all together?”
Shem beside Katryn beside Gwynneth beside Seth, all smiles, with impishly dignified GERTY on tiptoe in the camera’s viewfinder’s foreground. O’Sirus tips her glasses up and peers at the viewfinder glasslessly and still sees GERTY in the picture; the camera’s in on the joke. She snaps the picture and GERTY skips over to look at the results, standing on its tiptoes and clapping once and proclaiming,
“A look at the look of the look of the lookers!”
Shem calls over. “GERTY, can you lead us to Chalfont’s China Imports?”
“With arms, legs, eyes, lips, chins, skins, dreams, atoms and ghosts!”
GERTY runs ahead (as the light turns green at the crosswalk) and they follow. She bifurcates, and one of her slips into an Alternate Timebook in which O’Sirus’s girlhood friend Lyndsay Weissman never ate those pills and strawberry ice cream.
A rainy evening in the integrated neighborhood of Germantown, Philadelphia. Kim’s bedroom smells powerfully of a strawberry-scented candle. Which smells like no strawberry, hot or cold, on Earth. We accept the “strawberry” odor as a matter of faith because the advertizer instructs us to. The advertizer has been instructed by the vendor. The vendor by the manufacturer.
“Seriously. What else can I say? I’m blown away.”
Kimbo hefts the manuscript. Fans the pages with a wistful air. “Really.”
Encouraged by the vulnerable quality of Kimbo’s sincere praise, Lyndsay leans forward to give Kimbo a desperate shut-eyed kiss. A purely impulsive leap towards the far side of Horny Gorge. The infinite freefall walls of which are witness to an endless litter of airy teen skeletons from the great tradition of Loser history, whistling down. Lyndsay had been seated in her big-breasted slouch on a little rattan chair, so low-slung her legs were folded behind her, splayfooted, knees grazing the wood (a childish father-given chair that Kimbo could never bring herself to throw away), seated at breath-distance from a Kimbo perched on bed’s edge when the spirit suddenly moved her. Shoved her.
Kimbo’s mouth is a flattened O of surprise as Lyndsay forces upon her the presumptuous gift of tongue like a fat little warm spitty heart. Just stuffs it in there between Kimbo’s pink quasi-Negroid lips like a foundling. Kissing is without a doubt the strangest thing we do. Fisting makes more sense. Lyndsay follows through by shifting weight forward like an escalating gestural argument. Breasts-first. The prow of a rubbery ship. There is emotional momentum. The air of mammal inevitability.
Rising to a crouch and forcing Kim back by the mouth groaning deep in the back of both throats she wonders exactly who is groaning in whom? The sound could be coming from anywhere. She’s seeing this from a distance. This is an out of the body seduction. Shocked somewhat that Kim hasn’t dodged the contact with a deft feint and pained grimace that would’ve sent Lyndsay home, in the miserable rain, in a trance of self-loathing, to gorge on the What-If bowl of strawberry icecream garnished with cherry-red pills. Shocked, on the Akashic level, that in this re-telling of the story she gets to live. Lyndsay is unbuttoning Kimbo’s frilly pyjama top with fumbly haste when Kimbo’s mother singsongs an ascending major interval up the stairs,
“What?” the long-suffering, half-tone dipthong in descent.
Sweetly. “Is Lyndsay still up there?”
“Shouldn’t she be getting home soon? It’s very late.”
“Can she spend the night?”
“As long as she calls her grandmother to let her know where she is! I don’t see why not! I’m delighted to have her, in fact! Should I make some tea?”
Kimbo rolls her eyes at this but Lyndsay is far beyond generational exasperation by now. Her daydreams are taking over. Slowly, with monomaniacal calm, she unbuttons supine Kimbo’s pyjama top and bestows each melty nipple gracing each buttermilkpancakebreast with a soundless kiss. Funny thing is, after all this time of fantasizing the very event, Lyndsay hasn’t a clue as to what to do next, for this is the blind teaching the deaf to drive. Kimbo strokes Lyndsay’s thin blond puddingbowl hair with throaty coos, settling in against the pillow under Lyndsay’s spongey weight, shifting her spine for comfort in the anticipation of this taking all night. She’s totally aware of, and affectionately amused by, the irony that it’s her breasts and not Lyndsay’s H-bombs they’ve chosen to learn on.
The point is to wake earlier in the morning than Kim’s early-rising mother and to adjust things so it won’t appear that a bed has been shared. Not trusting herself to wake in time she decides to forego sleep entirely. She thinks about Lyndsay’s novel. She wakes with her mouth open, nose bent against a cold hard basketball breast, the sun leaking in with birds and early traffic under the blinds which waltz out and fall back on the rhythm of the morning’s radiant lung. Kim has known Lyndsay since Quaker toddler Swim Class but is only now, after all these years, in possession of the fragile fact that the girl whimpers and kicks in her sleep. Despite which she slumbers solid as trees. Unwakeable. Rooted deep in the red dirt of wyrd dreams.
Kim climbed over twice, without noticeably changing the sleeper’s level of consciousness, to take a pee in the sweet gloom spread in a paste on everything in the three-storey row-home. They are on the third floor. Mother way down there on the first and father’s dusty stuff still in storage on the second. Smears of alley streetlight in the curtains at the end of the hall. The grey meringue of moonlight through skylight surprised her (as she sat on the toilet tinkling) with hickies all over her tits. The smudges appeared to be moving in the gloom. She assumed, at first, they were lipstick, though Lyndsay doesn’t wear it. Trying to wipe them she found they hurt in a way that was almost pleasant.
She masturbated with mechanical violence on the toilet to bring some much-needed resolution to her jangled nerve-endings, each of which was alive to the beauty of her fuckup. Her technique was left-handed, with rotating thumb. Power thumb. Clockwise-then-counter-then-clockwise and so on. A technique she will forget in the fullness of time and big-butt maturity. Doing it is like clutching the nappy-haired skull of a difficult birth.
If only I’d dodged that desperate kiss. The kiss that waited eleven years to shouldn’t-have-happened. One deft feint would’ve fixed it. A deft feint and a joke to soften the rejection: I’m not a homosexual, Lyndsay, I’m Idiosexual, dah-link: I’m attracted to me. She squatted on the toilet beating off on the face of a movie star. Wacking to Novak. Poor Lyndsay down the hall, looking so incongruously half-naked in Kim’s bed. Lifting the deadweight of the mother of all bosoms on tire jacks of breath in plummeting trajectories of sleep.
The Quaker churchbell at nearby School House Lane says six with authority of the long, long dead. Kimbo eases the closet open, tugs a tumble of sheets and blankets and pillows out like textile guts. A bed takes shape on the floor near the rocking chair she hasn’t rocked in for years. Who has the patience in 1977 for working so hard to go nowhere? And other pre-mechanical technologies. A book of poems face-down beside the bed’s putative head. A water glass. In drama they call it dressing the set. Convincing precautions against mother having that dyke-inspired nervous breakdown or worse. Backing out the room screaming whores of Babylon, first thing in the morning.
As if it’s not bad enough I’m a Mulatto, she thinks, mussing a pillow and appraising her handiwork. Now I’m a Lesbian, too. The two dumbest words that she knows and she is now both. Kim is now officially a Mulatto Lesbian and Lyndsay is a Jew Dyke but there is a difference. Lyndsay is also a writer, which trumps everything. Wipes the slate clean. Lyndsay is a writer. The root of the word “Mulatto” is mule. Writer trumps everything.
Mother is insufferably cheerful at breakfast. Looks younger than either of the other two. The other two, the Jew and Mulatto, look tired. Kim’s denim hat. Lyndsay’s round head and weak chin. Looks like she’s melting into the pudding of her boobs. Mother is getting her Masters at Temple. She passes a laden plate. Her dimples, her mint-green eyes, her red satin hair. You’d never dream of fucking your mother but you’re forced to admit to seeing why others would want to. Those high hard tiny tits and perfect tan pancakes of hers. What is a pancake in the Linnean system of classification? Eggs and flour in the shape of a sand dollar: half animal, half plant. Plantimal. Having never lived, is it really dead? I can’t eat these undead things, thinks Kimbo, as Lyndsay chops and spears and shovels hers in. Disgusting. It doesn’t occur to Kim that Lyndsay would rather chew than talk just now. Or make eye contact.
Hunched over her plate, she forks the plantimal pancakes in. Mother is talking about a certain Doctor Shamton who leads the seminar called Psycho-Geographic Approaches to Folk Discourse and Literature 101 she’s so excited about auditing. It was three years ago to the day that Kim looked across the very breakfast table at her mother and was flattened by the realization that mother’s Caucasian. And I’m not.
“I just think it’s the most fascinating course. We were analyzing Jack and the Beanstalk? I’ll bet you never knew it’s an allegory about adultery as a tool of class oppression! You have to unravel the puzzle with what Doctor Shamton calls textual mirroring. More jam? Try this one, sweetie. You’ll love this on the pancakes. So. Jack’s beans: well, those are obviously semen, but not his. The beans are in exchange for money; reverse that and it means he’s achieving a social or economic advantage from turning a blind eye to his wife’s affair. Or forcing her to. The beanstalk is phallic but it doesn’t grow up, it grows down, into the earth, which is an obvious womb symbol, not only for the fertility thing but the notion of earth, of dirtiness. The giant is the opposite of a giant: a fetus. Jack smells the ‘blood of an Englishman’… the man from the ruling class who gets his wife pregnant. It’s really quite something. We ran through a reading of War of the Worlds, too, in which the aliens are crypto-white men. Drink your orange juice before the vitamins die, Kimbaud.”
“This Doctor Shamton wouldn’t happen to be black, would he?” asks Kim, finishing her orange juice with a hostile flourish.
“Kimbo, darling, what would that have to do with anything?”
That glow on mother’s face.
They are heading for the trolleystop on Wayne Avenue in a pico font drizzle of commas, periods, ellipsis and dashes when Lyndsay reaches for Kim’s hand. Like it’s natural. Fuck. And now their arms swing stiffly, falsely, hard against the rhythm of the stride. Lyndsay’s big-knuckled grip. Omnivorous bossy Jew tit rapist genius writer grip.
“You want to know the first time I noticed how beautiful you are?” asks Lyndsay. She speaks with the militantly naive tones of an adopted child. The Philly rain beads her face with dark soft glass and she is staring in shy triumph forward. Her neck stretches out over chugging breasts, comically intrepid. Human breasts are the largest, proportionally, of any mammal’s and Lyndsay’s are larger than most. Each is the size of an over-suckled infant; each breast is big enough to have its own tits. They clamour and kick under her oversized shirt and unbuttonable red raincoat and you could see how a caveman would think of himself as wealthy for owning them and how he’d be willing to put the energy into doing so. She would’ve been a hit on the primordial veldt. In fact she looked not unlike the Venus of Willendorf, that stoneage pinup, all dimple and bulge. With a longer neck.
Dressing for breakfast, matter-of-factly nude, Lyndsay had looked gravitybound and turtly and exactly like one of her trademark self-mocking mammophallus cartoons, sending a hot pang of pity through the skinny girl who was stealing a peek while pretending to do morning yoga. Kim hadn’t even sucked on one of them yet, unless she’d done it in her sleep. She doesn’t want to. She’d hefted one, though. Her own nipples are sore as cherries. Glancing from passersby to oncoming traffic and back again, expecting a hurled bottle or epithet or hail of bullets to come teach them a lesson. The raincoat is such a bright red vinyl that she might as well be wearing a helmet equipped with a turret light. The rain isn’t beading on Kim’s face (is it the Ph of mulatto skin?) but adhering like a clammy mask and she thinks how in yet another way am I different from the white women in my life.
“It was in the Quaker pool. We must have been seven or eight because your father was still around. I remember how he looked from the point of view of underwater. He was standing at the edge of the pool in his white suit like a celebrity in a funhouse mirror. We were both underwater, you and I, and, Kim, listen, I looked and saw you floating there near me with your hair like a cloud of ink and you just seemed like the most astonishing sloe-eye siren to me. I was so awe-struck to the degree that I almost drowned. That’s really truly when I noticed how beautiful you are, although I had already loved you for so many years.” Laughs. “Listen, I was never as innocent as I seemed.”
She squeezes Kim’s hand love-hard and then harder and Kim waits for the other shoe to fall. The red-hot penny to drop. For pedestrians to stop mid-stride and gawk and sneer or for some bluecollar super-ape with a pumping shoulder to crank down the driverside window on his beater in a clotted grey cloud (the exhaust traveling faster than the car itself) and shout what the whole street is already thinking. Kim expects it with such a force that when it comes it will be a relief, she figures. The tension is killing. Like being pregnant with a bomb set to detonate at the moment of birth.
“Oh, my love, I’m so glad you like the book, my love, because I think I would’ve died if you hadn’t, because, is it safe to confess now that I wrote it for you, about us? About my feelings for you and how beautiful you are. I’m Kith and you’re Kynna in the book, as you could probably guess. I’m the Kith character, the boy, sent away to Brotherland, writing letters to his beloved. And you’re Kynna, the beloved. Didn’t you recognize yourself in her description? Kith writes that his beloved is the color of moonlight on the pages of his precious old diary. The color of moonlight on inky paper. That’s you.”
Something about Philadelphia is so hideously apt when it’s wet.
Kim, eyes on the oily street, says, “The description of the Brotherland camp is pretty convincing. Does it all take place on an island or something? Kith’s part of it, I mean. Because that part wasn’t clear.”
“Listen, Kim, Kim, why are you ignoring the issue?”
“Fuck, man. What issue?”
A car is coming up behind them, two wheels on the curb, at the rough speed of an untalented hundred yard dasher, muffler sparking the stone.
When males in the world of Lyndsay’s novel, Kith and Kynna, reach thirteen, they are by law required to take a blood test. The test is called a Singh-Draper. The results are read in twenty columns, each column scored on a scale from one to twelve. Any value higher than six appearing in any of the twenty columns is considered a red flag; a “typical” male scores red flags across the board and is required by law to report to a Brotherland Transit Station within three months of receiving his test results. Therefrom to be transferred by secure federal transport to Brotherland, to remain for a period of no less than thirteen, and no more than twenty five, years. This is for the protection of Society, and it works. There is no rape, theft, bullying, battery, sexual harrassment, murder or graffitti in the cities or the villages. All of that has been moved to Brotherland. The most harmful of the immemorial patrimonies have been moved, en bloc, to Brotherland. The Arts flourish. An open sense of community and public space, to be utilized at zero risk at any time of day or night or season of the year, flourishes. Does every male who enters Brotherland return from it? This is a controversial question.
Studies have determined that even such physical violence as had been perpetrated by females of pre-Brotherland eras had been, without fail, a result of the proximity and influence of males. Male violence, like female materialism, is an outmoded trait that had been essential to early humanity’s survival on the neolithic African playing field. Male violence, like female materialism (the fascinating parallel being that each gender-specific trait was known to excite mimetically negative behaviour in susceptible members of the colleague gender), has no place in civilization. Female materialism, unlike male violence, has been shown to vanish when subjects are placed in an environment in which the trait proves irrelevant (ie, equal distribution of wealth). Conversely: destructive male violence is irremediable; intrinsic. That male violence wanes with age leads to the adjusted standardized scientific, legal and ethical guidelines defining the mature male, greatly more responsive to moderate chemo-therapeutic conditioning, as belonging to a fifth gender, official taxonomy pending. Colloquially, though: Softies, grampies, halfmen, euns, nomo’s, shufflers, danglers, bachelors, capotes, custards, doughcocks, sweeties, hardnots, deadballs, uncs, uncas, groanas…
Weissman imagines a suburban nationscape with its hi-tech hidden to the extent that it’s indistinguishable from magic. Blackbox super-tech. The houses are pseudo-woodframed but it’s a wood that can’t burn; the automobiles are lightweight and intelligent and can’t crash or pollute or exceed the modest speed limits; there are no guns; no cash to steal, no conspicuous wealth to envy: it’s a quasi-socialist, round-edged suburban culture devoted to peace and safety. Peace and Safety forming a sort of secular religion against a backdrop of unofficial, vaguely discouraged, nevertheless tolerated, vaguely animist spirituality for which the hieroglyph of a tree, bearing an unknown (almost human-shaped) fruit, is the accepted underground symbol.
There is no cash but there are two-piece notes and notational symbols called “Favor Credits”, a casual and personalized system of currency. There are Artisanal Malls where shops line both sides of a street and along which candles, books, honey, cutlery, textiles, decorative artworks, scented oils, recorded music, self-pleasure aids, and so forth, are bartered for Favor Credits. Acronymed as Facre. A good-faith system of barter which would be impossible in an aggressive, competitive (read: male-dominated) society.
The houses. They’re more rounded than what you’d know in patriarchies. Rounded so rain runs right off without the need for roof gutters and the faux-wood is flexible, like a very hard rubber if you were to kick it, but you never would. The material is cool in the summer and warm in the winter. You don’t paint them but they’re dyed. Indigo, Amarinth, Saffron, Bisque… the material is deep-dyed, subtle, lambent with color. The material is the color it is all the way through, which is what you’d discover if you cut it (though you wouldn’t). From an aerial vantage (commercial zeppelin travel: slow, sky-protecting, graceful) the neighborhoods look like stamp collections.
Adult sexuality is self-pleasuring. It’s okay to do it in public. Not while driving or teaching the young. The world that Kith was born into.
Kith and Kynna were lovers from a riverside neighborhood in the Midwest, before Kith took the Singh-Draper and the Singh-Draper said he was a man. Kynna, at sixteen, was three years the elder, a girl of great beauty, inside and out. Kith had fathered seven children (two male) in the three months before packing his things, in November, and setting out in Sara’s car for the transit station. Fathering these children was both his duty and his right, a coming-of-age thing. The losing-their-virginity rite. He was matched to the fertile women, two of which were the legal upper age limit of forty five, by lottery, and discharged his obligation in a comfortable, attractive facility run by the State.
The Brotherland Transit Station was an hour’s journey north and he was driven on a Monday morning by Sara, his housemother, as required by law. They left very early, to beat the rush hour traffic. He said his goodbyes to Kynna before getting in the car. There were tears, but no wailing. Wailing was not their style. Each inductee was allowed to bring as much as he could carry. Kith, being frail, nevertheless rose to the challenge of carrying Kynna’s gift: the sack of how many antique, creamy-paged journals in which to record the chronicle of his time away from her. That and packets of pencils and pens and tins of his favorite chocolate. The State will provide the rest.
The drive up to the BTS was beautiful. The drive was nice. The car was basically a wide, sleek, fully-enclosed, low-to-the-ground, steam-powered two-seater bicycle that sounded very much like a sewing machine as it ran. Sara had little to say, but sniffed a lot, sleeving her nose without taking her hands off the steering wheel. Fresh fall gusts and nice old songs on the radio. They switched back and forth between oldies and national volleyball: the loving group grunts and isolated joy-yelps and call and response of batsqueaking sneakers on gymnasium parquet with the sportscaster’s churchvoice a nice punctuation. Everything nice, all the time. Kith was weirdly, almost callously, calm. He pointed out the various kinds of trees in staggered rows like all the kings of history gathered to watch the procession resplendent in their mortal blood-and-gold robes by the sides of the thin white highway. The distant green hills like buried, voluptuous giants in sweet repose. Hilly green in all directions. The black galaxy of unseen life in its potent not-quite consciousness interlacing the hills like ramifyingly and sub-branchingly endless roots of Time.
Kim turns to see the car come upon them. It’s Unca Mundee and a woman who will introduce herself as Jonatha Shamton.
July 21, 2008
Bear with me for the next twenty pages. There’s a reason for doing this. I promise. Bear with me.
“Are you sure you can do this?”
“Are you sure you’ve got what it takes to do this right?”
“If we fucking fuck this up it’s totally fucked.”
“I paid a lot of fucking money to be here.”
“They charge by the fucking centimeter, you know.”
“It’s not by the fucking hour.”
“You would think…”
“I know. But it’s movement-calculated. When you fucking think about it. Fucking think about it: if you billed a timestripper by the fucking hour…”
Unca Mundee takes a hard right onto Wayne Avenue and his turbocharged ’68 Mercury Cougar stutter-pops over 19th century cobblestones behind a big old ramshackle spark-showering trolley in the rain. The phlegm-colored weather. The Cougar will have to get in front of the trolley within the next half block or abort the mission. They will have to get in front of the thing before the subjects get onto it. Mundee puts the pedal to the metal and rattle-bangs over the narrow space between curb and ramshackle municipal transport. An ad on the side of the trolley for a television show called The Jeffersons, 7pm on Sunday nights, a larger-than-life black woman in a wig with pearls waving a finger with bemused admonishment falling behind on the left as they g-force forward. With exquisite automotive mastery Mundee guns it wrenching the wheel over the low curb and half-onto sidewalk as the left-most subject swivels to look over her right shoulder at the rattle and bell of trolley against the roar of turbocharged Cougar so close that the grill-heat warms her ass. And then she is flying. She pinwheels over the fender like a mulatto rag doll, eyes jammed shut and holding her breath with the effort. You can just feel it won’t be a homerun and Shamton sinks inside. Mundee fucked up trying to impress her. Shamton has witnessed events of such eerie grace only in extra-lunar space before, the impossibly slowfast, baboon mechanics on extra-lunar cruise ships, usually. Red banana hardons in cloudy vinyl zoomsuits. The victim in realspeed slides and head-bounce-heaps on the sidewalk in the rearview.
“Fuck!” shouts Dr. Shamton. Mundee keeps the cool and he hits the brakes and he slams hard in reverse as the dreadlocks jerkswish and the trolley overshoots the Cougar in silent movie double-time. Ben Turpin driving.
The fat one is sort of paralyzed in a screamlessly open-mouthed crouch about twenty meters behind the supine body of her friend. Shamton swings her door out as the Mercury shoots back in a zigging screech and Shamton jumps as Mundee slows and she gets the rear right door open jogging. Mundee skid-brakes and hops out and grunts helping toss a pop-eyed Kim on the seat. On top of, incidentally, a yellow-paged paperback edition of Brotherland that’s fifty or sixty years old, right there, under her left shoulder, where she is in no state to feel it. Her hair is a mess. The humidity isn’t helping. Lyndsay has caught up to the car and dives in after her friend as the Cougar burns rubber, her legs thrashing out of the open door, howling,
“What are you doing?”
“We’re taking her to the hospital!”
“The finest that money can buy!”
“Why isn’t she saying something?”
“She’s in shock!”
“She can’t hear you! Close the door!”
“I can’t reach it!”
“You’re going to fall out of the car!”
“Who are you?”
“I’m from the future!”
Dr. Shamton reaches as far over the front seat as she can and gets a grip on the window of the door that is swinging in and out as they careen through traffic and she pulls the door mostly shut and gets a non-commital click or a cluck, more like. Mundee hits a hard right up a steep sidestreet and Shamton hands a fat envelope to the seriously freaked out Lyndsay, who assumes she’s dealing with drug addicts. Shamton says,
“I’m Dr. Jonatha Shamton and this is Kim’s neighbor, Unca Mundee, I’m sure you’ve heard Kim speak about him.”
“I am seriously freaking out! There’s foam on her lips!”
“Read what’s in the envelope, it’ll explain everything.”
There came another hard right with a screeching of tires and Lyndsay realizes they are headed for the East River drive, a major road that connects to the interstate. Weeping, and with trembling hands, she removes a folded smudged twenty-page Remington typescript from the sealed fat envelope and reads:
“What are you doing?”
“We’re taking her to the hospital!”
“The finest that money can buy!”
“Why isn’t she saying something?”
“She’s in shock!”
“She can’t hear you! Close the door!”
“I can’t reach it!”
“You’re going to fall out of the car!”
“Who are you?”
“I’m from the future!”
Dr. Shamton reached as far over the front seat as she could and got a grip on the window of the door that was swinging in and out as they careened through traffic and she pulled the door mostly shut and got a non-commital click or a cluck, more like. Mundee hit a hard right up a steep sidestreet and Shamton handed an envelope to the seriously freaked out Lyndsay, who assumed she was dealing with drug addicts. O’Shamton said,
“I’m Dr. Shamton and this is Kim’s neighbor, Unca Mundee, I’m sure you’ve heard Kim speak about him.”
“I am seriously freaking out! There’s foam on her lips!”
“Read what’s in the envelope and it’ll explain everything!”
There came another hard right with a screeching of tires and Lyndsay realized they were headed for the East River drive, a major road that connected to the interstate. Weeping, and with trembling hands, she removed a folded smudged twenty-page Remington typescript from the sealed envelope and read:
“What are you doing…”
Kim is conscious and semi-lucid but pretty obviously fucked up. She is mumbling about mama. Her head is lolling and brickheavy in Lyndsay’s lap and Mundee and Shamton are speaking quietly between themselves up front, inaudible under an 8-track’s performance of dolorously soothing jazz, breaking the speed limit. Lyndsay isn’t sure how to behave, having never met a time-traveler before, but she has no problem admitting to herself how intimidated she is. Intimidated and reassured, for, surely, a woman from the future would know how things will turn out and she doesn’t seem too worried about Kim. She is the most beautiful woman Lyndsay has ever seen. She looks like a very expensive chess set’s Queen, onyx black.
They are speeding into the Pennsylvanian countryside which is quilted vegetal army-greens and bruise-purples under the caul of the thickish runny sky and just driving this far they have time-travelled, so to speak, from 1977 to the 1950s and further back, at a glance, to the 18th century, even, seeing sheep and horse-powered buggies and huge Amish barns flamboyant with hex-signs. Even the banality of local effects mimics time-travel, with objects near to the Cougar (posts supporting a rail in a bridge the Cougar crosses) in a blur while things in the distance (in this case a mountain range) remain majestically detailed and fixed, the mountains a great analog for both the past and the future.
Dr. Shamton has already explained to Lyndsay that timespace in all the timestreams is infinite-yet-bound (the total possible past of a system decreases as the total possible future increases; time is a finitely oval spotlight moving along an infinite-and-unrelated and warping black background) and about family clusters in multiverses (the ones that this particular Dr. Shamton and that particular Lyndsay belong to are two out of a family of seven) and how the conservation of energy rule means you can’t timestrip within your own timestream but you can within any stream that belongs to your family probability cluster and that probability in this Lyndsay’s timestream is so-called weak-walled, meaning that slightly weirder stuff happens here, making it a popular destination for timetourists. The saucers are encased in measured flows of what’s called Quasi-Particulate Matter, or Menergy, which is why the saucers appear to glow. The universe doesn’t like the stuff and kicks the stuff, or any thing encased in the stuff, either forward or backward in the timestream in an attempt to be rid of it. Whether the timestrip is forward or backward is determined by certain factors in the flow of Menergy.
Shamton has also explained to Lyndsay about the Moral Autonomy Movement that will sweep North America roughly seventy years hence and the catchy acronym FIYOBIO (Farting In Your Own Bathroom Is Okay) that will embody it. She hasn’t mentioned the totalitarian Brotherland Movement that will then come about in the form of a backlash against FIYOBIO; she hasn’t mentioned how Lyndsay’s at-that-point unpublished manuscript will become, one hundred and twenty years hence, the veritable bible of a political movement that will bring about the greatest (and most damaging) social changes in human history (within this particular weak-walled timestream). But she toys with the notion of showing Lyndsay the medallion around her neck; the tri-bulge symbol (minimalized head as the apex of the curvy triangle with its bases formed by huge, head-sized boobs) that is loosely based on Lyndsay’s girlhood doodles of the so-called Mammophallus, a symbol, in one hundred twenty years to come, more fraught with signifiers than its brother the swastika had ever been.
After quietly consulting with Mundee for a spell she is now explaining how flying saucers are timeships from human history and that the only other intelligent life in this entire universe (within the family cluster of related universes), even in this weak-walled probability system, is less technically developed than earthborn humanity and far too far away to travel. In two hundred years they will be discovered by evidence of radio waves (television transmissions). All of the detected and decoded television shows from this far away planet will be commercials-free hermaphroditic pornography featuring hairless pinkish-brown breast-free creatures with huge male-female belly-level genital arrays for whom ideal penis-vagina correspondence is gender-inflected by the fact that in half the population the penis is situated at the top of the array and on the other half the penis is on the bottom. The copiously milk-secreting vaginas do double-duty as breasts.
Lyndsay experiences the sensation of floating. Dreams are being made to come true. It’s tragic, Kim’s accident, and Lyndsay hopes her friend and lover is going to be okay, in the end, but what is the suffering or even death of one human compared to revelations of this historical depth and potency? It’s as though a creature who has been bred and raised in a shoebox sees the lid lifted to have affirmed the improbable theory that the shoebox is in a closet, the closet attached to a bedroom, the bedroom in a mansion, the mansion on a vast estate, the estate on a mountain in a city on the seacoast of a tempestuous hemisphere.
The Brotherland Movement will lead to a violence-free society by gradually eradicating men. There will be eighty years of peace, sensual love and creative self-expression before the country is invaded and subjugated by a ruthlessly violent all-male insurgency from one hundred and fifty years in the country’s own Past. It will be the easiest and most brutal military success in the history of Man.
But forget all that. Forget it. What are the human dimensions of the local story? Kim is dying, while her best friend Lyndsay is falling in love.
(Pay particular attention to this passage…)
As ever, coming up out of a session, Kynna takes time, some time alone in her cabin becoming herself, becoming a self, the self, again. She bundles still wet in the oversized robe and her toes dig warm brown moss and her right hand braces in the warm brown moss of the curving cabin wall. The moss routes moisture back to the system. Tears, sweat, spit, piss, blood, soup, mist, puke, tea, wine, vaginal fluid, diarrhea, psyche-absorbent suspension bath, cocaine soda, banana smoothie whatever. Back home she was used to doing it in a leafpile behind the pit but up here you just drop your pants wherever and hug the wall and cut loose which explains why the whole fucking ship or at least the part she has been through savours faintly of piss. She crosses the cabin. Cheek on the gel of the porthole she keeps an eye on the dark broad African-matron face of the earth in the senseless monotony of her inertia. The muted boongs and per-thunkas of space junk and micrometeorites on the rubbacrete hull: they soothe Kynna. Like intermittent melons down a rubberized staircase in a distant ballroom.
The hull is thick as a road is wide at its thinnest and wide as the black forest at its thickest and most of the systems are buried in it, out of sight and mind. The firmy foam hull is a graveyard littered with crispy skeletons. There are the usual legends of tiny folk alive in the hull in a network of tunnels. There is a section. Off limits. Kilometers of the frozen dead, some more than four hundred years old… that’s true. But as for reports of faint and ancient melodies and/or woodland cooking odors seeping through the bulkhead in spots and suchlike quasi-mystical bullshit…
Kynna has her own quasi-mystical bullshit to worry about. Quasi-mystical bullshit of a terribly personal nature. She’s shaking because the roughest sessions leave after-tastes. Kynna can still see the pale-skinned people. Smell them. See the weird city laid out in a prehistoric hallucination of comical detail over layers of pseudo-memories of other cities, cultures, catch-phrases. Historical eras she could have no knowledge of, logically. Impossible details like clothes and music. The sessions can have a sensory after-taste. What Dokta Shamton calls gestalt echo.
First Kynna is famous for one thing and then she’s famous for another and the question is, are they related, the two things? If Dokta Shamton can establish a link then Dokta Shamton will be famous, too. Two Universal Celebrities of the New New Age, then. Fame in a Universe containing 937,568 humans, total, is always, wherever you are, strictly local. Wait: one of the humans just died…. 937, 567, then. Of natural causes. Kynna had nothing to do with it, as the joke would go.
Kynna has a violent coughing fit and spits up more psychebath and wipes it from her chin and sees it blood-pinked on her fingers. She leans against the wall and the wall sucks her fingers off as she curses Dokta Shamton.
“Don’t grip the sides of the tub.”
“You say you know but you…”
“I know. It’s just…”
“It feels like you’re drowning. We’ve been over this already. It feels like you’re drowning, even though…”
“Even though you know you won’t drown. How many times…?”
“I know. Thousands. I should…”
“You should be used to it by now. Do not grip the sides of the tub. Keep your hands at your sides. Close your eyes. Fill your lungs with the fluid s the level rises. It should be a calming…”
“It tastes like blood.”
“The flavor is neutral. You and I both know the flavor is neutral. It should be a calming…”
“I know. It should be. Sometimes it is. Most of the time it is. But…”
“Relax, Kynna. Close your eyes. Breathe it in like air…”
The Government is a midsized-town-sized teardrop, rubbery brown. Bulbous-bottom-first in the elongated groove between heaven and earth. The attenuating tail executes its perpetual inertial wiggle.
Dokta Prabhalawrjidaraj and Dokta Shamton are having lunch. The music playing in the background would be unrecognizable to you as such.
“Could the enigma you experience with Patient One… be some sort of deeply rooted, psychotic sort of … reaction…?”
Shamton gestures grandly with a hunk of bread. “To all this, you mean?”
“Well, the girl was born and raised in a village. They barely know what the moon is, down there. They think the indoor lighting is magic. The poor thing gets whisked up here…”
“What else could they do with her? She’s dangerous.”
“Or was, at any rate.”
“Oh, still is. Make no mistake. In a much larger sense. Make no mistake. When…”
“There is progress, at least?”
“What is ‘progress’?”
“What is ‘potato soup’? Yet, here we are…”
“I wasn’t being pseudo-philosophical, Sindra.” Dokta Shamton smiles and soaks another hunk of blackweet bread in her bowl. “I was being technically cautious. Every session we extract more material. Impossible volumes of it, in impossible detail, very few drop-outs, very little taint or distortion, like a direct…I don’t know. The quality is almost suspiciously high. But if you mean, by progress, are we. If we have a theory. If…”
“Not even rough?”
“Not even intuitions. But it would be extraordinary if the two things… if it’s not…”
“Related. Her almost hallucinatory bath results and the…”
“Obviously. The first human murder, in a legal sense, in three and a half centuries of perfectly-recorded history. And a probe of the killer’s mind turns up these…”
“Yes, they’re just like movies. Just like movies of the middle and distant past. That only a scholar…”
“Yet they barely make sense. You told me yourself, before, that the material you’re extracting now, it barely makes logical sense.”
Dokta Shamton laughs and Dokta Prabhalawrjidaraj looks perplexed and then looks irritated about being perplexed, drumming her fingers on the table.
“Maybe it’s Art,” says Shamton, finally.
Dokta Prabhalawrjidaraj laughs.
Shamton hasn’t done a moment of thought in years on what was, prior to all this, her life’s work, which being the gradual shift, a few centuries years back, from competitive to collaborative sports. Shamton is the finest Archeopsychologist of her era. Patient Number One isn’t ancient and she’s far from being dead. So why is Shamton even assigned to Patient One? Why must Shamton divert attention from the very good work she was doing in order to take on a case she isn’t, technically, qualified to handle? She often wonders.
Shamton wonders but Prabhalawrjidaraj knows.
Keeping it to herself.
“Would you be open to fucking a little later in the day?”
“You’re just trying to get my mind off my problems.”
Tribunal authorities promulgate the Freed Love doctrine on Government but people, stubbornly, keep pairing off. Prabhalawrjidaraj thinks it’s like any job you’re better at with experience and that every individual pussy is a very different job.
Crossing the vast unfluctuating twilight of the plaza of the Hall of Poets hand in hand with Sindra, Shamton thinks Which poets? Why poets? and the thought brings her a shame that inspires new resolve to be a right-thinking citizen so she frees her hand and adjusts her posture and feels a little better.
“Who is Kith?”
“What is Kith?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you do with Kith that you can’t do with humans?”
“Suck on a pipe that comes out of Kith’s belly.”
“Describe the pipe.”
“It sounds silly.”
“I said, it’ll sound silly.”
“It’s this long. About this big around. Round at the end with a little hole in it.”
“A hole like the hole in your pussy’s crown?”
“No.Yes. I don’t know.”
“You suck on this pipe.”