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1 THE GOLDEN TICKET By SHARON LINTZ A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF MASTER OF FINE ARTS UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA 2009
2 2009 Sharon Lintz
3 To my Dad
4 Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Fine Arts THE GOLDEN TICKET By Sharon Lintz May 2009 Chair: Jill Ciment Major: Creative Writing The Golden Ticket follows three characters in Los Angeles whose lives wind up intersecting as a result of their connections (tangential or otherwise) with the pornography industry. One character is a teenage girl who lives in the San Fernando Valleythe capital of the porn industry. One is a 30-year-old woman who works at a failing, but once popular, porn magazine. One is a middle-aged, married man who has a secret porn habit.
5 TABLE OF CONTENTS page ABSTRACT . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4 CHAPTER 1 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6 CHAPTER 2 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15 CHAPTER 3 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23 CHAPTER 4 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 35 CHAPTER 5 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 50 CHAPTER 6 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 57 CHAPTER 7 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 72 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 83
6 CHAPTER 1 Monday. Mattie was standing under a palm tree in someones backyard, she didnt know whose: another stuccoed Valley home rented for the afternoon, this one in Canoga Park. Shed been taking notesor at least, she was supposed to be taking notes. But the sun was high and hot and it felt like Santa Ana weather. Limp oleander bushes surrounded the back of the yard. There were potted palms and white wicker furniture. The pool was big, and at the edge of it, on the lip of it, knelt a girl. Strawberry blonde, nineteen maybe, a little fleshy; the fleshiness of youth. The girl was sucking Otto, with long, slow, bored-looking strokes: Otto, with the calf implants, the surf or die tattoo, the Pauley Shore hair. A man with a blonde ponytail held a boom mike over the couple. A cameraman stood filming, hovering with his black digital Nikon like a fly. What was his name again? Willy, maybe? Will? Mattie had seen him around. I want some sloppy head, he was saying, I want to see drool. More drool! I want to see long. Strands. Of saliva. You got it. Willy was alone for the moment, alone and in charge: because the director David Allen had had a lot to drink. Film your own scene, hed said to Willy, his arm draped over his shoulder. Well make it an extra because I am a generous man, but Im from Oregon, people, and cant stand this fucking heat. If youll excuse me. Hed disappeared into the house. Mattie could see inside, through the sliding glass door. It looked dark in there, and cool. The TV was on. Cartoons. Mattie felt heavy and hot and damp; shed been here for hours. Mister Tibbs was late, over an hour now. Every other scene had been shot, except for his. Belladonna had left, after a double anal. So had Chico and Dude. There were no more Cheetos. The Corona was gone. A bottle of lube sat under a date palm, half-empty. On other side of the pool stood Clia, with her long-long legs, her back arched. She held up her nude, oiled breasts, proffering them for the camera. (How had Mattie described them in
7 print again? Two surreal spheres of implant-filled flesh) A man stood in front of Clia, taking pictures, stills for the box cover. Those long legs, those rock-hard tits, that vaginathat famous vagina, available in polyurethane molds in adult books stores across the country. At the moment, it was covered in a bright blue bikini. Up closeMattie very rarely saw her up closeClia looked like a cyborg. Shed had that special Porn Valley kind of plastic surgery, not designed to make you look younger, or fresher, or mysteriously well rested. Rather, it seemed intended to show off the fact shed had so much work done: too-high cheek implants, nuclear lips, an eye job that made her seem wideeyed at all times, thyroidy. She looked. futuristic, here on earth to visit, to impart wisdom, and today, to fuck Otto (which she already had), and in the finale, at the end of this almost all-anal show, Mister Tibbs. Shed had her labia trimmed, recently, and had auctioned the gossamer flesh-slices off, encased in a polymer paperweight. So at the end of the film would come the piece de rsistance Clia, and her rejuvenated vagina. Mattie worked at Hound magazine, so she knew Clia sort of, had a kind of working relationship with her. According to the Hound masthead, Clia published Hound, although she in fact had nothing to do with it. Her manager/boyfriend provided the magazine with free photos; Clia in turn got exposure; Mattie was sort of her ghostwriter, although she suspected that whether Clia knew thislikely notwas up for debate. Mattie wrote most of the copy for the magazine. The girl copy, the video reviews (all fakeno one ever watched them), and sometimes, she responded to mail. Clia got tons of mail. Clia, I wanna bust a nut in your hair!Troy, AZ Clia, when I saw in my tray I had an extra pancake this morning, I knew things would be all right. I dont care what that punk-ass guard says! Venom, Baltimore
8 Clia, my horse died today. I have an 8 1/2 inch cock. My ex-wife said I was no good because I wouldnt go down on her. Im sure you enjoy a good fucking and you can give head like nobodys business!!!!Jim, Idaho. Dear Jim, Thank you for the kind words. Indeed, I enjoy fucking and sucking every which way. Where Im from, in Salt Lake City, I once dated man who did not like cunnilingus. And I am sorry to report we did not last long! Officially, Mattie was here in this big backyard on this hot afternoon to cover the shoot, to write another on-the-set feature, although the truth is she rarely did anything on-theset. In fact she rarely did anything that involved leaving the office, let alone her desk, and neither did anyone else. Writing for Hound, they all joked at the office, was a lot like working some celebrity tabloid, something like In Touch: slap some copy on photos bought from other sources and done. Mattie had once met a girl who worked at The Star, and their production schedule was a lot like Hounds, so the parallel was pretty on point: only the stars at Hound were of the porn variety, and the movies Hound coveredusing slides sent to the magazinewere all filmed in The Valley. Which sucked today: it was too hot to be in a Valley backyard. But Mattie, like everyone else on set, was waiting for Mister Tibbs. He was her new pill connection. He sold only pills, and only to industry people. And he was late. Hey, Mattie heard a voice from behind, a deep male voice, like Moses-on-the-mount. She knew the voice: Alex Ponante, shaggy reddish hair, pale, skinnya blogger. Specifically, a porn-valley blogger. So, he said. Covering the shoot, are we? Got a big story to write?
9 Mattie shaded her eyes, looking up at him; he was smirking. He offered her a stick of gum. She took it Hey, she said. Alex had gone to Columbia J-school and had once worked for Reuters; now he exclusively blogged about pornanother over-educated porn pop-culture expertthe Valley was lousy with them. Mattie had seen him once on VH1, waxing cynical-philosophical, filmed in a spot just like this, another rent-a-porn-house backyard. Hed worn a collared shirt and jeans and wirerimmed glasses. Preppy, from Boston. Porn was like depraved folk art, he said, a kind of folk art indigenous to Southern California. The cheesy porn aesthetica lot of shag-carpet backdrops, fake-tans, bad music, worse hairdoswere honest expressions of life in the land of mini-malls and instant stardom. (Mattie had to admit she found the idea entertaining. Boyd, though, hated it. Boyd was Hounds art director. Boyd had thrown Skittles at the TV). Alex and Mattie occasionally ran into each other after work: Alexs officehis homewas in Studio City, not far from Hound and sometimes theyd see each other in the deep red of the Bierstein, one of Matties favorite Studio City dives (they had really good root beer and the place was dark and cool). Last time theyd seen each otherthree months ago, maybe?Mattie had been drinking with Boyd. Or at least Boyd had been drinking; Mattie didnt drink, and yet she had stupidly mentioned heryes, her screenplay. But why wouldnt she have mentioned it, she reminder herself? Shed finally completed a good horror screenplay (her second, called Death Tour), at least that shed thought at the time. Shed told Alex that she was definitely quitting, that shed gotten an agent (true), that there had been interest (true). In the end, though, nothing had happened, nothing had happened for six months and now, as Alex
10 stood over her, blotting out the sun, his T-shirt bunched over his bellyhe was still smirkingshe knew he was about to ask something likeso hows the writing? She wasnt in the mood. Frieze is in town, he said. FriezeWarren Friezewas Hounds editor/publisher, or as Boyd liked to say, our absentee boss, and we love him for it. Frieze had been fishing forever, it seemed, at least since Mattie been around: deep-sea fishing in Catalina and El Cortez. He lived semi-retired in his second home down in Baja, and as such Mattie had met him only twice in her two years at the office. The first time, he brought a box of Mexican wedding cakes and a nice bottle of tequila for Boyd: the only person he knew well at the office. He wore a hearing aid in both ears, and he was short, about 5 with a round belly and sticks for legs. He wore his gray hair back in a thinning ponytail. Once, he had asked Mattie for help downloading a Roy Orbison Mp3. His hands had shaken slightly and hed seemed tired and befuddled and impossible to reconcile with the photo of him hung in the reception area: grinning ear-to-ear with mutton chop sideburns and a widelapelled tux, fanning his magazines out in front of himhe used to publish four, from a huge office on Wilshirelike a winning hand. Mattie would look back at this very moment, hearing Frieze is in town, with a swelling soundtrack of minor-chord ominous-ness. But for now it seemed banal. So very banal. So? she saidand there was a loud crash. Through dark cool of the ranch home, through the sliding glass door, David Allen emerged, tripping loudly into a lawn chair. He wore a black dusterhe never removed it, in spite of the heatand black jeans. He was wiry and pale, a bluish tinge underneath it. His T-Shirt said: Eat the Rich. He his goatee was dyed black. He
11 looked at his watch. And then he nodded at Mattie. So hmmmmm, were still officially waiting for Mister Tibbs. Write that down, he said. I didnt. Alex did, or at least wrote something, keying it into his Blackberry. Call the story Waiting for Mister Tibbs. David Allen checked his cell phone. I could smell his drink: rum. You know if this were anyone but our wonderful Mister Tibbs, David Allen said, Id be pissed. Butand this is off the record okay, but lets just say Im finding myself. concerned and pissed. And bored. When normally Id just be pissed off and bored. Because Mister Tibbs is never late, am I right people? He looked around for confirmation. Clia was still posing. The girl was still sucking. He looked at Mattie. Right, she said. In fact, shed heard Tibbs was ber-professional, that he was always on time; shed heard he maintained said professionalism in spite of a nasty coke habit; Id heard that he once owned two mens clothing stores on Wilshire; shed heard he was in fact Blaxican (though he didnt look it); shed heard he spoke fluent Spanish and had pharmacist connections in Tijuana. This last one Id read on Alex Ponantes bloga blind item, but you could tell. Behind David Allen, the cameraman Willy said, okay okay, and waved at the couple: stop. Ottos hard-on hung. The girl massaged her jaw. Willy disappeared for a minute, then came back with a boom box. He pressed a button; something eighties came flooding out. What is this shit? David Allen asked. Poison? Some kind ofmetal ballad? Oh yeah, Willy said, perking up, smiling wide. He wore Lennon specs, a baggy UCLA T-shirt. He hit his chest with his fist, twice. Back to the classics, he said. The real homegrown stuff. Kinda tribal. I was
12 How retro, David Allen interrupted. How cute. I mean you kids. He walked to the blue lounge chair. He lay down slowly, as if in great pain, draping his right arm over his eyes. You get all nostalgic for the stupidest shit. Because I was around when this metal shit was big, he said. And it sucked, and it still sucks even if you listen to it fucking ironically, ok? Mattie felt heat seeping up through her flip-flops. She looked around. Backyards like these always reminded her of being a kid, hacienda-roofed, yellowed stucco, ice plant. The smell of chlorine and wet cement. The hitch in the sliding glass door. And the pool, that perfect cellophane blue. Like a snapshot, worn at the edges, the one she kept on her dresser: her dad, lifting her in the pool. A perfect before picture. Bulldog tattoo on his right pec ; so tan, a mofo. (Although arguably he was still a mofo. Just not sane anymore. Or tan.) Mattie liked remembering him the way he was: the two of them together, a pool, the potted palms in the background, just like heresometimes she liked these backyard shoots. In spite of the heat, backyards were much better than apartment shoots, scene after scene on the same beige sofa: couch porn, Boyd called it. One week ago, Mattie had driven to the set of Wiccaa variation on couch pornto place her order. Silver drapes covered the living room wall; a disco ball hung from the ceiling; a glittery purple bedspread was draped over the couch: another home in the Valley, this one in Woodland Hills. The girls wore rhinestone crowns, threaded with fake lilacs. They all had Spock ears. The movie had an actual plot: some loose take on Jack and the Beanstalk, something about a black wizard with magic seed. This was the first time Mattie had seen Tibbs in person. He had deep, blue-black skin, and was sort of shockingly good-lookingthe black stars, shed noticed, were always better looking than the white stars. White stars could get away with mediocre looks.
13 Mister Tibbs was in a Laz-y-Boy, on a break, alone. He nodded, hello; hed been expecting her. He wore a red silk robe, for which he was known throughout the Valley: hed wear it between scenes and before the shoot, like a boxer going to ring. And he was known, too, for being meticulously groomed, sober, dressed in Hermes, Italian shoes. Although today, his hair looked picked out, fro-ish. Ill have it within the week, he told her. He sold for three dollars a pillnot cheap. But there had been a citywide crackdown on illegal pharmaceuticals. Ill call you, he said. Im sure Boyd told youthats how it works. He looked deep in thought, staring at something behind her. Seconds passed Mattie felt awkward, like she should excuse myself politely. She pretended to stretch, looking back, but there was no one there, only the empty set, the dressed-up living room: like a grade-school production of Midsummer Nights Dream. She heard two girls talking in the kitchen. One said, that Russian bitch is getting fat. Mister Tibbs shook his head, now; he looked displeased. You know, Im starting my own production company, he said. Its going to be the best shit youve seen. Ever. Remember this term: head porn. Not like what you think. Not head head. And not like this nonsense here. Something with class. He stood up. His robe fell open. His penis was enormous. Although she had seen it before (obviously): Tibbs was frequently featured in Hound pictorials. In the last one, hed been dressed as an Indian; the woman hed been fucking was dressed like a cowgirl. His penis looked much bigger in person. It hung thickly against his left thigh; it seemed alien. The room smelled musty, amniotic. Mattie felt off, kind of. Remember, Mister Tibbs said, head porn.
14 Right.head porn. His voice was deep and rippling and it was really weirding her out, the way he spoke, like it was very important, like Luke, I am your father. Head porn. Head. Head. Head.
15 CHAPTER 2 Dena was going to take a long bath. She had her bag of stuff with her; she wanted to make sure the coast was clear and that her mother was duly occupied: so she walked down the hallway, towards her mothers bedroom. Her moms door was cracked open a little; Dena could hear her inside, hear the DVD, hear her mother talking with it: Don't feel bad about losing your virtue. I sort of knew you would. Everybody always does Dena could picture her (shed seen in plenty of times)mom in front of her dresser, holding a glass of Kahlua, a lit cigarette perched on the lip of a Styrofoam cup, a mess of lotions and perfumes, vanilla candle lit to cover the dog smell; old wax stuck on the top of the dresser. Dena peaked in, and yes, there she was: staring into the dresser mirror, working toward some perfect disaffection in the eyes. Shed been recently Botoxed. Her lips were parted. She wore black eyeliner. Her lean, implanted frame was tucked in a tight mock-turtle, to show off her armsas a dog groomer, she had killer armsbut also, Dena guessed, because the sweater seemed early-70s-chic, like something the star might wear. The star of the DVD, Klute, o ne of her moms all-time favorite movies. The star was Jane Fonda, playing Bree Danielsa thwarted actress; a hooker in 1970s NYC, from a million years ago, from before Dena was born. Klute was part her moms fucked day collection (Mom, how was your day? With a cigarette: fucked). The collection had never been updated and included a just a few films, Bonnie and Clyde Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Coming Home; movies starring beautiful, angular women (like her mother), the release dates coinciding roughly to when her mom first came to Los Angelesshe started dog-grooming back then, to make ends meet between auditions. Now she ran her own dog spa. Her clients were a West Hollywood mix: MILFs, fags, the occasional actress, in fact one had come in that morning. Dena had glimpsed her from one of the shampoo stations. Dena did grooming only in the summer; usually she did computer work for her momshed built her moms website. But today
16 her mom had been especially understaffed; and so she was grooming a double-shift, washing a retriever with the house oatmeal organic shampoo (which wasnt actually organicher mom got it in Mexico). The actress looked about her mothers age; she played a kind of aging-hookerwith-a-heart-of-gold-type on an FX cop show. She dressed bohemian in the role, in tights Ts with Indian prints and beaded earrings and perfectly weathered, obviously expensive jeans; in person, though, she looked dowdy. She wore pink sweats. She walked in carrying her car keys and Starbucks in one hand; and as her mother handed her back her gland-expressed Chow, some well-dressed man, a client waiting for his greyhound, had asked the actress for her autograph. Even from where Dena stood, in the back, she could feel her mother tense; knew her mother was smiling through gritted teeth, as she said, being utterly professional, Here you go. You take care now. We always love to see Malloy. Her mom excused herself for a cigarette, after the actress had gone. And now: she was doing her Klute thing. She picked up her glass. Still looking in the mirror, she swirled it around. She cocked her head; raising the glass, toasting herself. With a snarl, she said: Tell me, Klute. Did we get you a little? Huh? Just a little bit? Us city folk? The sin, the glitter, the wickedness? Huh? Dena tiptoed away from her mothers room; the movie was only half over; Dena had hour to relax. Dean had had a fucked day too. She hated dog grooming. And she hated those people: people who took their dogs to a dog groomer. The one thing she liked about working for her mom was the website. Denad recently built her mom a website, but that was mostly done, and it was back to grooming. And smelling like dog. She walked to the bathroom and placed her digital camera on a folding chair, pointing towards the bathtub. She began running a bath. She poured
17 some Mr. Bubbles in; bubbles were good; they went with the hookahThe Bubbler, she called it. She took it out of her bag. Shed recently unearthed it from the back of her closet; shed bought it a few months ago at the Pasadena Flea, but for whatever reason, shed almost forgotten about it, its weird, octopus shape, its blown-glass body, those big brown tubes extending from its core. The seller had called it authentic real Egyptian. It was spooky-looking, Dena thought. It was cool. She looked at herself in the mirror: in the light of the bathroom, her hair looked dirty brown, greasy, streaked with LA chemical sun; shed cut it recently, so she had bangs, a boxy faux mullet. Outside, the day looked gauzy and white and everything felt still. She heard the automatic pool sweeper in the yard next door; she could see two houses down, where the Swedish dentist-couple lived, the Jurgns. The Jurgns lived in the only mock-Tudor house on the block. Other homes were ranch or Spanish-style, white and sun-baked with flat, tiled roofs; but the Jurgns lived in a two-story. It was big and dark with gloomy knots of roses out front; the front door was heavy and wooden, carved ornatelylike out of a bad fairy tale, Dena used to think when she was little, scary and exciting: and now it felt that way again. She looked at the house now; she felt the voluptuous thrill of a secret. She opened her baggie and took a deep whiffthe last of what she and Jackie called their porno weed. Jackie rarely came over these days, and she barely smoked weed anymore, but she had done both last Thursday, come over and smoked weed: it was then they had christened the weed. Theyd holed up in the bathroom, dying Denas bangs, getting stoned, when theyd seen something, seen it : three women, walking down the street. Dena had seen Jehovahs witnesses walking her block, before, always two women in matronly dresses, but the women outside wore high, heavy mules. They walked weirdly in formation. One wore pink fishnets; one wore a white
18 mini; one had a long tattoo snaking down the front of her arm. Their skin looked hard and waxy in the sun; there was no one else out; the street, as usual, was deserted. Man, Dena said, passing the pipe to Jackie. This is some good weed. They cracked up, then hushed each other ( shhhhh), Denas mom was home. They stood huddled in the window. Outside, the women advanced closer. The tattooed one held a small suitcase. Her hair was in curlers. There were no cars, no other people, only the sound of their shoesmules on sidewalkthen they stopped. The one in white pulled out a small notebook; opened it; read it. She looked up at the Jurgn house, nodded, then stepped onto their stone-step walkway. The other two followed, single file. I mean, has to be, right? Jackie said. Got to be. Jackie passed the pipe back to Dena. She knew a couple in her own neighborhood, she saidshe lived in Sherman Oaks now, but had grown up down the streetwho did this same thing, rented their house out for porn shoots. This old physicist guy from JP Morgan and his wife, she whispered. They do it anytime they go to Catalina. My moms seen it, seen the whole crew show up. It was some Latin-black thing though. Like, ghetto in the Valley. Mom says she wants to figure out what the name of the DVDs are so she can rent them and finally see what the inside of their house looks like. Is that Clia? Dena asked, I think it is. Shed seen the old True Hollywood Story a few years ago. The show had detailed Clias rise to fame. Clia had been a meth addict as a teen; she kept a spiral bound notebooks of poetry; shed been raped in a desert campground. Shed taken in several mangy dogs, nursing them back to health. She grew up in The Valley, in Van Nuys around a lot of Mormons, although she wasnt Mormon. Her dad was a cop. The show featured
19 before and after shots of her. Before, she had baby fat and a pug nose and wore black spandex pants and in the photo she looked Denas age, with lips pursed like she was play-acting sexy. Dena liked the before pictures. Slutty and dark and soaked with some secret. You would know who that is, Jackie said. Dena ignored this and watched the women and felt tripped out. She thought of Shaman Your Life Up, a birthday present from her aunt last summer, a cool, witchy book about symbols and synchronicity and spirit animals that her mom had made fun of; she watched the women, nearly nudewildright here on this block. Right here in Canoga Parkkind of thrilling, except for one thing. Those roided-out tits, Dena said. Its just wrong. Ooooohjealous much? No way. Besides, anyone can have tits that big. Some of us have them naturally, Jackie said. She walked to the mirror, lifting her breasts with her hands. She made a mock kissy-face. Then: Sucks for track though, I gotta say. Dena felt a pang in her chest, or somewhere she couldnt locate; the fact Jackie ran track bugged hershe knew what Jackie must have been like during school hours: perky, upbeat, blonde. Jackie went to Mission and Dena went to Taft: if theyd attended the same school, Dena knew, they would no longer be friends. Over the years Dena had evolved differently than Jackie: she preferred things in the dark and inside, hunched in front of a computer, or the TV, or over the hookah in the dim light of the bathroom. Jackie liked things outside. She was tan. She went to the beach with friends. She ran track. She wore tank tops. Denas hair was unkempt and she wanted to dye her bangs black. Her standard attire was a green army jacket and too-long jeans
20 and no make-up. But in Denas bathroom, closed off from the outside world, they could still be friends. Sometimes. Jackie sat down on the closed toilet. Outside, the women rang the Jurgens doorbell; the door opened; all three disappeared. Dude, Dena said. We should get some kind of map business going. Would that be awesome? My mom says I dont focus enough. Like a map of Valley homes rented for porn. We could sell it. Right? Holy shit. Thats actually a good idea, and it seemed brilliant, for a moment. Dena entertained telling her mother (a porn map of the Valley, her mother had a sick mind for business, it seemed doable), but then the conversation drifted. Would we match homes to movies or what? Like star maps? How would we find the homes? Wont that be totally impossible? Are those ranch Doritos still around? Did we actually see what we think we saw? Maybe it was the weed. Like, a special hydroponic strain. No, hydro porno strain Dena had kept her eyes peeled since then; shed seen nothing since. Like today: there was nothing. Only the Mexican gardener across the street. Dena sat on the lip of the tub; it was almost full. She pictured the women from last week: she hated that made-up, caked-over look, but still. She looked at the Jurgn house now, drapes closed, the SUV and the hybrid gone, the roses trimmed; she felt thrilled to know of a secret going on, right here on her block. Her phone beeped: a text from Davies, a fellow junior at Taft. The two had met during CompSci II/New Media. Both sat in the back and never participated in class discussion. Davies hair hung in his face like a girls, like Denas. Dena had taken the class for an easy A. Now Davies sold her weed. Yes have what u need, read the text, plusplus. Call ASAP Perfect timing: she was almost out.
21 Dena loaded the Bubbler. She pulled the hookah tube to her mouth, lit the bowl, and took a deep hit. FLASH the camera got her mid-toke, her first hit of the dayalways the best, her chest filling, expanding, that sweet rot-smell of weed; smoke rolling over her; and then she exhaled out the window. She slipped out of her jeanstoo long, they always scraped on the ground. (Her mom was always like, Honey youre so pretty, why dress like trash?) She took off her flojos and big green jacket. She kept on her white cotton panties and also her necklace: a long, leather string with a pewter D charm dangling between her breasts. Her dad had sent it to her from Hawaii. She took another hit, and held it, longer this time; she wanted to get a pic midexhale; finally, she blew out the smoke, a long, thick stream ( FLASH), mixing with the steam from the tub. She leered a little as she exhaled, like shed seen all the retro movie stars do on AMC, in faded black and white, these women with thick eyebrows, severe makeup and matching skirts and jackets andwomen really dressed like that?black boas and hats tipped over the eyes; but then, she also thought of Klute There was a good weed-smoking scene in that movie: Dena had finally, a few years ago, slipped into her mothers DVDs (it almost felt creepy) and watched the film. She was surprised to find that she liked it. She liked the yellowy way it was filmed. Shed seen TV movies like that, yellowy and faded, those teens-in-trouble, pre-Lifetime films they showed midnights, sometimes, on channel 13. Moms buddy Jim came over those nightshe managed the dog spawith microwave popcorn and ice cream and both Dena and her mom loved it; theyd make a night of it in front of the TV. Jim would howl: Jan Brady in a fur coat. Excellent. Shes fifteen in D-cups, hitch-hiking on Ventura. Nice. I love seventies interiors. And everyone is so fugly but with that Dena quietly disagreed. She liked the long hair, the weirdness, the dark, dreamy way everything looked, and she especially loved Klute. She loved
22 that vision of New York: it looked, to Dena, like the greatest place on earth. In fact, the movie seemed the projection of a dream Dena must have had, some afternoon at Taft with its sunblasted outdoor hallways; the tans, the perk, more girls like Jackie. Boyfriends who drove beamers. New York, on the other hand, looked greenish with heat, a place with dark, crumbling crevices; nothing well lit, nothing clean; no Formicajust dark, weathered apartments, filled with draped scarves, filled with secrets. A spooky place. Dena liked spooky. FLASH. She Cheshire-smiled for the camera. She slipped out of her panties and into the water, into the bubbles, washing off the dog smell. The bubbles smelled like bubble gum. She was getting hungry. She thought ahead, for the weekupdating her moms site, some quick HTML fixes. She felt high beyond the weed, a kind of floating delicious excitement filling her lungs, body, the room as she took one more toke (just a small one, but too fast, she started hacking). She grabbed a Vitamin Water, drank, stopped coughing. One more quick pose, sitting, holding the hooka, grinning widea stony smileher eyes half-hooded, her breasts dripping And then she turned off the camera.
23 CHAPTER 3 Mattie looked at her monitor, at a picture of a man being examined by a woman in a nurses hat and black thigh-high boots and nothing else. The man had dark circles under his eyes. An anatomy chart hung above on the wall, in Cyrillic. She had written: If you know anything about cuties you know they almost always crave cock. Aside from cuties always craving cock and thus rendering the title a tautalogy, there is something interesting going on here, with this apparently Russian cutie. Two ohs, Mel said. Together, they comprised Hound editorial. Mattie wrote everything for the magazine. Mel proofread, flowed text into the Quark docs, managed copy flow from editorial to production. Mattie checked her phone. Wednesday, and still no word from Tibbs: getting her hands on some Vicodin, or Klonopin, any downer really (it was for her dad anyway and he wasnt picky) had been getting more and more difficult. Just about any downer kept him calm: in fact it was the only thing that kept him calm, and although his court-appointed doctor didnt believe in excessive sedation, Mattie hardly considered keeping her dad happy excessive and because she couldnt get Klonopin legally, she bought it around town. Which used to be easy. She used to have dealers lined up like sharks teeth. But the pharmaceutical rivers were running dry. A girl she went to college with had married an engineer and stopped dealing. The Israeli hippie guy who sold out of his crappy Dodge van (and sometimes delivered) had moved back to Israel. Mattie had two other occasional connects in little Serbiawomen who looked like Russian prostitutes, or porn starsbut there had been a warehouse crackdown on illegal everything in little Serbia and the two had closed up shop. She had ten more pills for dad. And maybe shed use one or two for herself: she had a date coming up. She generally considered herself a
24 teetotaler: no alcohol, no weed, nothing that made you sloppy. But a pill here and there, as long as she used them sparingly, as long as she used them with precision, was acceptable. In tautology, Mel said. Two ohs. Mattie ignored him. She slid down in her chair, tapped her desk with her pen. On her desk sat a layout of Kira, star of Stuffin Young Muffins, hairless except for that sweeping mane of synthetic blonde, piles of it like an old country star. Her desk flanked a sliding glass door, so they looked out on the parking lot: a small black expanse with a few cars, a defunct train track, a dumpster and a fence curling with jasmine. Beyond that, a yawing stucco expanse: Chatsworth. It was exactly noon. She knew without looking at a clock: she could tell from the sunthat hard car glareand the drag in the air. And she could tell because a Taco Loco delivery boy was just stepping in the door. Every day for two years now Mel had his Taco Loco burrito delivered at noon: so it was noon: which meant she still had an hour before she could go see Boyd, the art director. Boyd had a rule about mornings (and early afternoons): he was never decent/civilized/properly caffeinated until one, at which time Mattie would walk to his office, order power-lite nachos and do nothing. They liked to do nothing together. They also liked to do things together. Like last week, Boyd and Mattie had gone to the Damien Hirst show, which was awesome, which looked like the motherboard of a computer: a 5x5 matrix of criss-crossing thread-thin wires; but at each intersection sat a pill, diminutive marvels of geometry and design: a pink smooth rectangle with rounded edges; a five-sided mintgreen crosstop; a perfect yellow sphere with a mysterious d stamped into it; a red diamondshaped pill; one like a teeny flattened egg. This one Mattie recognized. Adderoll; and she recognized Seroquelone of her dads pills. An anti-psychotic.
25 Boyd hated Pharmacy. It was vulgar, he said. Cheap. But Mattie liked it, the clean matrix, each pill like the head of a stickpin. Mel slit the foil in his burrito. It crinkled. Mattie opened a letter. Clia, Im writing to tell you about something. About my wife, who will no longer have sex with me. She has become very religious and sometimes I dont feel right about it although I go along to church, which is like a massive stadium. In fact, it is a converted stadium. She was once a cool hippy but things changed at some point, and she home schools the kids but not in a hippy way, Sometimes I feel I am dreaming this. I am no longer sure how I feel about it, do you know, how it is to be cut off from your own body? I jack off on the way to work I have a two-hour commute but she insists on living where we do. I work checking the pipes at a nuclear reactor in San Onofre. Shed received a few letters from Blue Tim, all very similar. She threw it in the trash. She opened another, from D.T.: What is that in the bottom-left Hand on page 96? Something dark and moist, a strange tunnel, something very futuristic, a tunnel into another dimension of FUCK???? I prefer the seaanemone delicacy of the nicely photographed labia. Nice: a poetic one. Poetic letters were her favorite; sometimes she kept them. Shed had the fleeting idea maybe once maybe shed publish them as a kind of collection one day, do some kind ofproject, something writerly. Most recently, though, shed been thinking about a plot: a noirish Chinatown-like horror film, updated, larded with sex and crime. Shed had the premise for about two weeks. A porn writer receives a letter from a con named Venom, urging her to look closely at the photos shed published from the set of The Sighing of Slut 69.
26 Dismissing it as another deranged fan letter, she throws the letter away. Slowly, everyone from the set is killed. Next to Mattie, Mel started into his burrito. Mattie always looked forward to this moment, the fact of which she considered a secret triumphlike she was getting one over on Mel. She half-believed he ate so slllllllowly specifically to annoy her, but in fact this one part of his lunch ritual secretly thrilled her. In fact she used to hate Mels lunch habits: when she first started, Mel would carefully peel the foil back and eat his burrito with one hand, taking delicate little nibbles out of it, up and down, which was horrible, which was why she started bringing her iPod to work. But at some point he started eating differently, slitting it end-to-end like a gulletwhich he was doing nowand for a few moments, this always put Mattie in the mind of The ThrillKillers, one of the three movies her had dad starred in back in the day. In the late seventies and early eighties, her dad starred in three ultra-low budget horror films, The Boys of Chemical Beach Deathdream, and The Thrill-Killers and when she was feeling low or stressed or annoyedand she was usually annoyed sitting next to Melmemories of those movies bubbled up like refreshing little springs: crew tents in a gravel parking lot, dad in cheap corpse make-up (done from some womans eye shadow compact), a flipper-baby puppet in a Koreatown garage, an oversized buckskin jacket hed given her to wear over her own jacket, staving off the desert cold of the Mojave The Thrill-Killers was filmed in the Mojave. It featured a key scene in which a police horse was killed by two hippie-maniacs on the loose. They (they included Matties dad) slit the animals fake belly from end to end. She was five, and had actually helped with the special effects, squeezing out packets of viscous Chinese hot sauce over a bucket of actual cow-guts the
27 director had gotten from old-school butcher. The results were red and slimy and wonderfully ridiculous. Like Mels burrito. Also, a smudged T-light lighting a campfire scene in The Thrill-Killers Mattie remembered that. And how the Mojave seemed so black everything fell away. Beyond the frayed reach of the light there was nothing, like outer space. Shed inched as close to her dad as she could while the scene was shot: dads five hippie minions were listening to him deliver a kind of sermon, and Mattie would come to know the best lines of that sermon by heart. Years later, when he ran his own pool cleaning business, the two would be dangling they feet in a freshly cleaned pool. Hed unpack their lunchessalami sandwiches, usuallyand say: We must cast aside out middle-class pretensions, and feast upon the flesh of the man! Then hed laugh maniacally. Just like in the film. Mattie loved it. Mel was now dipping chips in the entrails. Every time he dipped she heard a crinkle, a soft damp sound, and his crunchingthis part, which she loathed. Mel chewing: the crappy fluorescent lighting: the flat beige carpet. Any outsider mightve wondered how a job at Hound was preferable to any other office-drone job, and sometimes, specifically during this part of Mels lunch, Mattie did too. Shed spent several years in office-drone jobs after college, proofreadingthe fine print in cell-phone ads, pharmaceutical direct mailers and accident legal briefs. She had found the work soul-crushingly dull. Not coincidentally shed been fired from just about every one of those jobs for not pulling your weight, for chronic lateness, for no reason (company-wide layoffs due to budget cuts). She hated the beige cubes, the flat fluorescent lighting, the speakerphones, chatting about the weather on the elevator, the orgy of flat gray carpet, the 3 pm quiet so pervasive you could hear a diet coke being opened with from eight cubes downPtssss and she hated the actual work.
28 At Hound, she reminded herself, she could work all day on Death Tourher new screenplayif she felt like it (though she rarely did). Or, she could do nothing. Her dad always told her work was for suckers anyway: you either work for yourself or you work as little as conceivably possible. He couched his anti-work stance in vague fuck-the-man socialist rhetoric, but in fact he had been a stoner, a partier, he liked beer and coke and weed and acid and women, and was lazystill, he managed ok for himself as a pool-cleaner, and even then he never really treated pool-cleaning as work. Hed tell stories about it: theyd be crossing L.A. by various chlorinated tributaries; they were modern day explorers, discovering anthropological wonders hidden in shaded backyards. Theyd cross Bel Air, cutting a chlorinated swathe through west Los Angeles. Covered in sunscreen. Smelling like coconut. It was an adventure. Mel had sour cream on his chin nowMattie could see it out of the corner of her eye. He wore glasses and had a pointy face and kind of a yellowy complexion; he wore his acid-wash jeans too high, like mom jeans. He was 42 and married to a nurse and spent the majority of his time at Hound very quietly running his own side-business, selling vintage watches on ebay. He was also, much to Matties chagrin, writing a screenplay. A smart romantic comedy, he called it. Hed been working on it for years. Working title: The Bluest Kiss. Mattie hated him. 12:45. Mattie looked at her monitor, a picture of a chunky woman, early twenties, bleached blonde with long set of faux pearls dangling between her breasts. Something looked familiar. The girls brow was shining; her whole face looked greasy and she wore heavy make-up. She
29 looked stoned. She had a star tattooed around her belly button. She held a sparkly dildo over her crotch. Mattie wrote: I love Dr. Seuss. Dont you? I mean Id love to fuck Dr. Seuss. I love star-bellied sneetches! Have you read that book? Its all about how racism is WRONG! A few more lines and Matties work for the day would be done. Along the wall above the girl, a floor-length bamboo mat hung, covering the entire length of the wall. A small white throw rug was on the floor. In the top right of the photo, partially cut offwhat was that?yes, a Klimt. Yes! Mattie would have to show Boyd. One of Boyds many office pastimes: mentally cataloguing porn set dcor, looking utterly bored past all the sex, decrying the utilitarian bits of decoration that made up a setwhat Boyd called bad Ikea. Although rarely did bad Ikea in fact look like Ikea (hed coined the term long ago, the origins had been lost); in fact bad Ikea referred to all kinds of items placed in sets with no rhyme or reason, lookingif you were looking with Boydhorrifying, pathetic, or hilarious, depending on his mood. Recent examples had included an old Spanish guitar on the floor in the corner of a room (in the foreground, a woman slid a lollypop into herself), a room divider painted with the face of a sad clown (while a man in a tux fucked a woman), a white trellis fence presumably there to look outside, although it was in front of a cement warehouse wall; wed received one set recently in which a woman posed nude in front of a old yellowfringed coat-of-arms flag from Hungary slowly sitting down onto a huge realistic dildo, suctioned onto the floor. Oh, my god, completely hideous Ikea, he said of that one, his tone dripping with irony and deep disdain and exquisite pleasurehed examined the slide over the light table before
30 making this pronouncement; hed used his loup with considerable concentration, as though examining a jewel. Boyd had a thick head of black hair with sideburns. He was pudgy. He wore thick-rimmed glasses, black T-shirts and black jeans every day, his fashion sense having been formed (it seemed) in the crucible of eighties punk somewhere on the gay side of Sunset; plus, black was slimming. Hed been at Hound for yearslike a million yearshe was a Hound fixture: everyone (including Mattie she hated to admit) was secretly relieved there was someone at the office who had been there the longest; most times, he had the estimable swagger of someone who lived on the other side, the terrifying superiority of someone whod given up the struggle long ago without regret or bitterness. Hed gone to art school in the distant past, but nownowhe was an art director at a porn magazine (rag is the word he preferred; and he preferred whore for porn women and abortion for men, terms he delivered with casual affection. Whats that blonde abortions name again? The one with the Gumby tattoo? I cant find his photos). Boyd had been at Hound for over fourteen years, back when it was still big, back when it was a three-floor office, three zip codes over. But when she showed it to him, when she ordered power lite for the two of us and finally went down to his office, at 1:01, he did not say Bad Ikea. Mmmm, he said. Staring at his monitor. As usual, his office smelled faintly of weed. He had it delivered to the office. He kept a pipe that looked like a cigarette in his desk drawer. An a little stash box by his monitor. A bad habit, he always said, picked up in the 70s. Even fags smoked weed back then. She leaned over his desk: he had on a movie. On mute. Specifically, Stayin Alive Oh no, she said. Why? You know why.
31 Yes: she had heard the litany. Besides the fact Travolta is super fagged up in this, Stayin Alive came out in 1986, Boyds best year. Hed been working at a cool frame shop in Pasadena; AIDS was barely around that year; he was so so young that year; he had a great boyfriend that year; his boyfriend had thrown him an awesome birthday party that year; his boyfriend had spelled happy birthday in coke on his grandmothers beveled mirror. Um, she said, I know watching it makes you feel like total shit? No Mattie what makes me feel like shit is my entire life after 1986. I dont like change. Unless change is some Mexican man-whore, in which case his name is pronounced chahn-gay. You know what? Boyd said. Maybe you could write a screenplay about how humanoid aliens have come to Earth, and these humanoid aliens all have gargantuan cocks? And one comes down here to research for some reason, I dont know why they all come down here for research but they do, and of course he finds immediate employment in Porn Valley? And he doesnt realize that porn is retarded? And he thinks hes an actual movie star because hes been intercepting static-y television wavelengths in his brain back on his planet or something? Which is why he calls himself Mr. Tibbs? Because he channeled In The Heat of the Night in his own brain waves? And then he starts impregnating women and spawning kids who can turn invisible? And then he meets me and realizes hes really a big faggot after all and we fall in love? Its like a romance. Boyd put his head in his hands. So your date last night? Mattie said. A no-show. He looked crushed. Mattie hated Boy looking crushed. You know Id do you if I was 20 and a guy, Mattie said. People are such fucks.
32 Thanks, Boyd said, but may I point out, at least your fuck had the decency to show up a few times and actually have sex with you. He was talking about Chip. Mattie had recently been dumped by Chip, a not-quiteboyfriend. She was still obsessively conducting a post-mortem on the brief courtship, going over every nuance, every interaction, every subtle gesture. She was still going over how she met him: though a craigslist ad. Caitlin, Matties cousin, had forwarded it to Mattie: Caitlin was often trying to set Mattie up. The ad had said: Looking for smart FWB. Do you know what thirdspace is? Do you like Googie signs? Mattie didnt know what a thirdspace was, but she did like Googie signs. Her dad had pointed them out when she was little. Mattie was endeared to see Googie in an ad. She was still going over their first meeting. The two met for the first time for Kool-aid drinks at the Bonaventure hotel: his idea, which Mattie loved: her father used to take her here for her birthday when she was little. Chip was pudgy, sweater-wearing, with a prematurely receding hairline. He was as pale as Mattie. He was a grad student. She was still going over their first conversation. Over drinks, she told him about Death Tour, her new screenplay. Key L.A. death sites figured prominently in Death Tour: many of them were now tourist hotels and bed-andbreakfasts. His area of expertise, he told herwhat he was writing his dissertation aboutwas Marxist architectural theory. He liked places with post-war architectural significance, he had said; he especially loved Orange Country. An orgy of simulacra, he called it, a thirdspace a cityspace that hadnt grown organically, but was designed to embody a kind of cinematic SoCal ideal with faux sun-blasted hacienda-roofed neighborhoods and malls and Spanish-tiled
33 walkways and frilly palms in a row imported from Indonesia. Also, lots of Spanish beige, which was better than just beige, and in general lots of Mexican-y details, but no Mexicans or Mexicanowned businesses (which would mean the potential for cars on blocks and hence the guts of cars, and in Orange Country you were only supposed to see the outsides of things. Even if you were inside it was like another gleaming outside). He seemed great. Mattie was still going over that: how he had seemed great. And she was still going over what he had suggested. He had suggested they meet in hotels across the L.A. basin, ones they would alternately find inspiring: O.J. Simpsons home, a death site, now a bed and breakfast; The Surf Motel in Malibuuntouched from the 60s; various places in Orange County. Mattie was thrilled by the idea. Brilliant she thought, how perfect, how cool But then, at the Space Mission in Orange County, things had seemed a bit off. She was still going over the sex that night. The sex was off. Matties arm had cramped beneath her; there was a little pain, a squeaking condom; a dab of lube like greasing a piston. Still, after sex they commenced writing: after four dates it felt, to Mattie, like they were settling into a lovely routine. He worked quietly on his dissertation, she on Death Tour. The two seemed perched on the delicate edge of becoming a couple. She hadnt had a boyfriend in years. She was still going over how he ended itby text. Was fun, it read, but I neglected to mention Im married, tethered to conventional morality un4tunatley. Over the course of two exciting months, she never did see his apartment. She had never wondered why, not once. She was till going over that. Stop, Boyd said. Stop thinking about it.
34 But she couldnt stop, not until her phone beepeda text. Not from Chip. From Tibbs? She didnt recognize the number. Hey I assume this is Mattie. Call me!
35 CHAPTER 4 Hey. I assume this is Mattie. Call me! Mattie with her cousin Caitlin at a bar. She read the text again and again. It was not from Tibbs. It was from Sheila. Sheila had been one of dads plush run clients: plush run clients owned homes throughout Hancock Park, Bel Air and Brentwood. He always cleaned those pools himself even when he had enough men working under him, his eventual crew of five. A lot of plush run clients left summers, sometimes winters, always long vacations and Mattie and her father would water plants, feed whatever pets needed feeding, and they would cleanand swimin the pools. Sheila had had a great backyard. Mattie loved it as a little girl, especially her pool. Black-bottom. Huge. Lined with Fred Flinstone-style granite stones. There was a gazebo in the backyard. Plants with huge primordial leaves. By the time her dad landed Sheila as a client (actually her husband paid the bill), Mattie was already cleaning pools with him, and Sheila used to leave funky toys on the bottom of the shallow end, where they were easy for her to scoop with the net. A Rubiks cube, once. A bag of jawbreakers. Hey there Charlie, she would say, grinning and standing just inside her house. Hair bleached, spiked on top. Deeply tan. Fleshy, with big hips. She was always smiling, always alone with her maid, Inez. And she always called Matties dad Charliethe name of his character in Deathdreamshed actually seen it as a teen when there were a few drive-ins left in L.A. Hey. I assume this is Mattie. Call me! Caitlin read the text. Wow, Caitlin said. So what are you going to do? I dont know. Not call?
36 How long has it been? Like since you were twelve? How does she even have your phone number? No, I actually ran into her at Whole Foods like I dont know, five years ago. Oh right I remember. She was all I beat cancer here me roar. That chance meeting had been pretty awkward, in the produce aisle, amongst a bounty of pomegranates and oranges. Theyd literally run into each other the mango barrel. Mattie in fact had barely recognized Sheila: every part of her was rippling sinew, when she used to be fleshy with Marilyn-Monroe type curves. Between her breasts Mattie could see flat, pulled-taut muscles, like some kind of taut fungi spread over rock. Like something shed seen on the Nature Channel. Sheilas hair was long and dishwater, the fact it was natural also unusual. She wore a wife beater and expensive jeans. The two had the requisite hi/hi/how are you/long time no see/am fine exchange. Sheilas breasts were significantly bigger and as Mattie was noticing this, Sheila had said: I just finished breast reconstruction. Breast cancer last year. But I kicked serious cancer and Ive really transformed, post-cancer. Check this out. She flexed an arm. Her bicep bulged. Veins popped. They give you steroids during chemo. To help with the side effects. But after chemo I kept on with it, she said. She did yoga now with light steroids, she explained, this kind of newish body building yoga, and indeed every bit of her body was weird sinew; shed been reborn, she said. Umsounds good, Mattie said. Actually shed tried not to look right at Sheila. Her veins were creepy. Plus. Sheila The last time Mattie had seen Sheila, Sheila was crying. Matties dad had pretty much fucked her over, insofar as you can fuck over a married woman. (The last thing he said to her, waving his hand like he was shooing a fly: Youre spoiled, and
37 myopic, and capitalist scum; and worse, you dont even know it. Sheila had covered her nose and mouth with her hands and shook her head and said, What? and started to cry. Mattie was in an inner tube, wading in her pool; shed sort of wanted to hug herbut she was also wickedhappy: no more being left alone in the yard with the maids eight-year-old son who didnt speak English.) Neither mentioned Matties dad, or anything of any import. Thanks god. And now she was texting Mattie? Wanting Mattie to call? You know what I think? Caitlin said. I seriously think you should call her. You never know. Maybe this is all supposed to happen. I mean, could be synchronicity. Which basically means like no such thing as coincidence. I mean sometimes people come into your life for a reason. Like take Geena. Geena was someone Caitlin had just started dating, a girl who brewed her own beer. Didnt I just last summer, Caitlin said, talk about wanting to do that? To make my own beer? Cj had grown up a dyke in enemy territoryKansasthe torment of which she insisted made her more wired to the real and spiritual than Mattie. Okbut I mean shouldnt this no coincidence stuff involve deep life lessons? Mattie said. Like, if I hadnt met X person, I never would have learned to love, kind of thing? I mean not how to brew lager in your closet or whatever? She sipped her virgin mango margarita. They made them here with fresh mangos. Not necessarily. Famous story, okay? French writer mile Deschamps was treated to some plum pudding by a stranger named Monsieur de Forgebeau, and had been looking for it ever since. Ten years later, he finds plum pudding on the menu of a Paris restaurant, and wanted to order some, but the waiter told him the last dish had already been served to another customer,
38 who turned out to be de Forgebeau. Years later, Deschamps was at a diner, and was once found plum pudding on the menu and ordered it. But they told him the last bit had just been served. To guess who? His friend. Right. How do you know this story? Its a famous story. Yeah but how do you know its a famous story? Wikipedia. Okay but how does anyone coming into anyones life in that story have to do with any identifiable reason? I mean plum pudding, so what? And by the way how is your nothings a coincidence idea different than like Calvinist predestination or something? Isnt everything happens for a reason like the same thing as Gods plan? Caitlin winced at the words Gods plan. Caitlin and Mattie hadnt really known each other as kids, not well anyway: she was Matties moms sisters daughter: Matties mom died when Mattie was two: Caitlins side of the family had mostly fallen away. They were religious; they lived in Kansas. And while they only visited L.A. twice, Mattie remembered the second visit: in particular Caitlins dad. Uncle Rick. He wore a flannel shirt and crisp jeans even though it was late summer, and he had prematurely white hair, swooped up in an almost flamboyant manner, almost Elvis-y: the only shred of ostentation in him, reallywhich mightve looked cool had he lived in L.A. (Mattie was dimly aware of this, somehow, even at age seven). But in fact there was no irony in him. He was dour, quiet at their burgers-on-paper-plates dinner, Matties dads specialty, quiet in a warning way, so
39 that everyone else was quiet too, so that dinner was just chewing and scraping and swallowingMatties dad shot a cross-eyed smirk at herand she especially remembered grace, hearing about Gods plan from my uncle. Life would go according to Gods plan, he said. Then after dinner, after drinks, my dad suggested they go the Crystal Park Indian casino; though they didnt go, Uncle Rick seemed almost amenable to the idea. He almost, almost cracked a smile, and told my dad he had once been a decent poker player, God willing. Later, Caitlin and Mattie slept in a couch-cushion fort covered by a sheet my dad had thrown together: he was trying to make us friends. But they were dubious. Caitlin had long blonde hair in pigtails, and she slept in her pigtails, and wore knee socks and slept in her knee socks. She took out a folded up piece of paper, carefully unfolded it and showed it to Mattie: a drawing of a hand with big sausage fingers, like a cartoon hand. She told Mattie it was a drawing of Jesuss hand. And then she squinted at Mattie and in a half-whisper said, You know what? Im even smarter than Jesus Christ, but Mattie wasnt sure about Jesus Christ. Indeed, her vague knowledge of Christianity was primarily based on claymation Christmas specials, plus the few old Bible picture books shed seen at the doctors office here and there. Even reading those, though, she never really understood. When Mattie looked at those picture booksat, say, a drawing of a long-haired man in a robe, holding a staff in one hand and shouting something to the skyshes think go dad (She was on the set of The Boys of Chemical Beach when she was like fiveyoung, yes, but she remembered: her dad played a hippie cult-leader named Feastus who looked just like a man out of one of those Bible books: long hair, robe, always shouting). Anyway, Mattie thought, so what if she was smarter that Jesus Christ? She doubted Jesus Christ or anyone else was smarter than her dad, she felt sorry, even a little embarrassed for Caitlin that she didnt know this.
40 Wow, She said. I know. Caitlin seemed pleased. She folded the drawing back up with great purpose, neatly creasing it at the edges. Then she told Mattie a story in a school-teachery way that involved four horse-riders in the sky, each a different color. The story had a spooky-cool campfire quality to it. They each decided which color they would want their own horses to be; and now Caitlin called that story part of the bankrupt mythology of Christianity. Mattie loved getting her going about this. It often didnt take much: just a brief mention of her dad. In the right kind of bad mood, especially drunk, Caitlin could espouse at length about how Christianity had simply borrowed everything from older religions, especially any redeemable conceptsdo unto others, etc.which she said actually came from Zoroastrianism Gods plan? Mattie said again. Gods plan? Going once, going twice? But Caitlin and Mattie were outside at their favorite bar; Caitlin was in a good mood; there was no getting her going. Dont get me going, she said. Im in a good mood. She held her non-virgin mango margarita up, swirled it a little. Like wine. And anyway Mat she said, you know Einstein believed in a Unified Field Theory. He never proved it, but he believed it, he spent the past 20 years of his life essentially trying to prove that everything was ultimately connected. So perhaps theres a secular precedence? But anyway even Einstein believed in forces unknown. And anyway, whos to say theres no great life lesson in brewing lager or whatever? Or eating plum pudding? And besides if Sheila was into steroids, maybe she was doing other shit too? Wasnt she a big coke fiend when she was screwing your dad? Yeah.
41 So shes rich, shes got good doctors, she likes drugs, shes gotta get the steroids from somewhere. Sosee where Im going with this? Caitlin had a point. What could it hurt? One phone call. But before anything happened, though, Mattie was going to make pancake dinner at her dads. Dad lived in a subsidized SSI apartment on the outskirts of Compton, a mental health halfway house called Tobey House. Hed won a housing lottery a few years ago, and now had his own unit. Tobey House looked a lot like Matties old Hollywood apartment building: the motel-like two-story, the hacienda-roof, the cottage cheeses ceilings, the lone palm out front. Dads complex, though, was surrounded by a fence topped with razor wire, and his apartment never seemed quite light; his flat blinds had been around since the 70s, a kind of yellowy-burntparchment. Mattie met Caitlin there every Thursday; the two would chill, eat, week and, inevitably and foreverinto infinitytheyd watch TV. Tonight Mattie was hoping for The Boys of Chemical Beach. Of the three films her dad starred in, Beach was her favorite. Feastus, a societal dropout/cult leader, lived with his posse on the condemned shore along Imperial Beach, just north of Tijuana. (Or rather, thats where the film was shot: the actual beach was unspecified in the movie; we only know its on the California coast after an unspecified biological disaster, and the area has been condemned). Feastus and his posse lived in toxic waste, while the rest of the world carried on as normal: Normals he called them. The Normals! Normals will never understand! Normals have stunted brains!
42 Feastus had a philosophy: breeding in toxic rot would bring about what he called post-human mutations; life in toxic-waste would accelerate evolution. Like: one boy on The Compound was born with fly-eyes. Another girl was born with six-fingers on each hand. Both were the next steps in evolution: Triumphs! (Feastus even bought the girl an old upright piano: the piano sounds creepy and out of tune and twangy, like an old music box). The monstrous mutations, on the other hand, the non-triumphs were kept out of the way, albeit in comfort. The heads-and-ahalf, the flipper babies, the cauliflower bodies: they lived on velvet cushions in what was actually a corner of a garage of a crappy little bungalow in Long Beach. They lived under heatlamps. That whole scene was short, like ten seconds, quiet while the camera panned over the useless mutations as theyre caressed and fed grapes by their hippie nurse, actually Mattie dads girlfriend at the time. One of them. This scene is actually creepy. Mattie was there; she remembered some of it. The garage had smelled like oil. Dad still watched Beach now and again: it was released on VHS a long time ago by this tiny little cult-film outlet in Medford, Oregon. Her dad in fact had two TVs (plus a DVD and VHS player), and for years now, hed been spending marathon hoursdays on the couch sunk in jeans and a flannel with his two remotes, watching his TVs. The hours of creepy laugh tracks. The endless murder documentaries. The sitcom offices. The chipper banter. The Law & Order reruns. The QVC. Last week hed been watching Beach: his habits came in waves. As she walked in, though, she heard a shrill shriek, then someone goingshit nyuk nyuk nyuk. Beneath the nyuk nyuk she heard laughingdads laugh, a sharp, tense creak, like gears being forced. The Three Stooges.
43 CAITLIN: when she got here before Mattie, and she was stoned, she put on The Three Stooges. Mattie had never seen dad pick it out on his own: Caitlin always suggested it. She was sitting on the far end of the couch eating some of dads Cheetos, next to a handful of balled-up Cheetos bags, which her dad always just threw anywhere and CAITLIN never bothered to pick up unless I told her to. Her dad had developed an intractable junk food habit over the years, always empty chips bags and boxes here and there: CAITLIN and Mattie liked to joke that his apparently altered brain chemistry had resulted in a hunger for anything artificially orange, Cheetos, Cheezits, Doritosmostly Cheetos; although really she knew it wasnt the color he liked, just the ease of junk foodno cookingplus it tasted good. (Although Mattie sometimes did wonder if the packaging caught his eye: she wondered if he responded to loud colorful packaging in some sensory animal way, like a raccoon to shiny objects). Years ago, shed tried buying him healthy junk food. BBQ soy chips. Ranch rice cakes. He never went for it. She stood at the edge of the living room. Nyuk Nyuk Nyuk. Seriously? she said. We just saw this like two weeks ago? Sorry Mat, CAITLIN said. Cant fuck with the classics. Caitlin looked at her dad, balled her hand into a fist and tapped his hand, which he sort of perpetually kept in a half-fist on the armrest of his ratty easy chair. He didnt look at her, just nodded a little, and said right, smiling. He was looking at the TV, with that facethat look of weird dreamy delight, at least thats how Mattie had come to think of it: as delight. His hair was long, always had been. Hed remained unrepentant about it throughout the years: hed grown it past his shoulders when he was young, in the 70s, and had kept it long ever since. Now it was dreaded up, thick semi-dreads framed his face no matter what Mattie tried; you cant force a grown man to comb. But he let
44 Mattie trim the dreads, at least, so she chopped bits off when necessary: like chopping chunks off a coarse wool rug. She kept the dreads neat; so out in public he looked normal (that word again), passable as an aging hippie; and although his hair had remained longa hint of the old dadhis face had changed considerably over the years. It used to be hard, tanned, creased, but here in his apartment, in the shade of his crappy beige blinds, hed become fat and pale-bluish, like a Midwestern tourist. A man on the TV screen wore a top hat and a tux. He got slapped. In the kitchen, Caitlin and Mattie unloaded groceries: whole-wheat pancake mix with various farmers market additions, this week hazelnuts and raisins. Bananas. Organic syrup. Bring me anything? Caitlin asked. In my bag. She unzipped Matties bag: inside were three DVDs. She picked each one up, brow furrowed, looking, looking; she flipped each one, front cover to back cover. A slow smile crept across her face as she held one up, Girls Gone Anal; a girl named Kayla Agave; half Mexican, with pigtails. Beautiful, Caitlin said. Oh and this girl last night, like legs to her eyes. Like she was a spider with lips, Mat. Serious. Caitlin was in her work uniformpink tank top with mens black slacks, like slacks youd see on the Sopranos. Shed met the girl at work. She was always meeting girls at work. Caitlin ran her own tiny bus-tour company: she and her friend Tina had recently bought two buses at a local police auction in Compton, painted them, filed the appropriate tax forms, advertised in two gay weekly rags: and now they were in business. Good business. Their tour was a gossipy queer revisionist trip through a lot of the standard tour-bus spots, but they offered alternative histories,
45 obscure innuendo and old confidential gossip-rag bits about dykes and fagslike, say, about how Lana Tuner was in fact a dyke etc [more detail here]. Tina had the research experience: she was an English PhD and had diligently researched the gossip in various university magazine archives. Caitlin had the driving-and-speaking experience: shed started with Hollyweird Deathn-Crime tours, hitting all the legendary death siteslike OJ Simpsons house, or the site of the Sharon Tate murdersand she was great at ad-libbing. Shed riff easily about, say, what Tibetan monks believed about the soul after death, what Aztecs did to honor murder victims. Mattie had taken her tours more than a few times, and in fact got her idea from Death Tour on one of Caitlins tours. Mattie handed Caitlin the pancake mix. So anyway Mat this girl last night was telling me about her Buddhist practice right? Caitlin went on. But before she became a Buddhist she was some roadie in this hardcore band like a million years ago, but then band called themselves Krishna-core, because the leader had become a Krishnaoh and you know Krishnas believe the whole world was created by this boycowherd with blue skin and that if youre lucky, when you die, you wind up in this cowpatch that goes off into infinity. That parts ridiculous. BUT, heres the good part, if youre really, really good when you die you get to be one of the thousands of women who dance around with Krishna in the cowpatch. I mean awesome, right? Surrounded by thousands of sweaty young Indian girls? I mean if Id been raised Krishna, instead of a fucking CalvinistI mean in junior high at least I wouldve known I had something to look forward to. Wouldve saved me all those nightmare years of will I ever get sex. I mean junior highfuck. You were worried about sex in junior high, like actual sex? she said, chopping nuts. I thought it was supposed to be all I love my best friend but she doesnt love me back.
46 That too. Caitlin poured water into the bowl and began stirring. Actually I think if Id known about the Indian girls I wouldve killed myself. On the TV, Curly was saying, Im tryin to think, but nothin happens. Everyone was deep in a food coma, TV trays in front of them. Her dad was smiling, sunk deep into his easy chair. His eyes were bright: alert: his eyes were different than the rest of him. The rest of him had become softbut his eyes had become flintier, a deeper blue, the one aspect of him that stood out in his now-slack body. His body had been a drag for him for a long time now, a second or third or fourth thought. Mattie sometimes wondered if being mentally ill meant hed simply forgotten he had a body. Basic grooming habits, like changing clothes, say, ranged from nuisances to onerous tasks; in fact he would rarely think to do them if it werent for Mattie and his weekly health care drop-in, courtesy his halfway house. All of his current interests (whatever they were, she wasnt sure, he no longer talked about them), all his needs had somehow curled deep into his brainhe got no pleasure anymore out of anything physical, like eating, sun, or women; from what she could tell, his only enjoyment in life, the only pleasure he experienced happened in some remote area of his brain. Schizophrenia was the catchall diagnosis hed been given over the years. Mattie had done diligent research about it. It was diagnosed in Sweden and Iceland more than anywhere else. Men were afflicted more than women. Anyone born in spring had a slightly elevated chance of getting it, and it was possibly recorded at far back as 1000 BC: the Mesopotamians kept meticulous records in cuneiform tablets (including records of people hallucinating and generally acting weirdly).
47 And there were theories. Some hypothesized schizophrenia was a kind of by-product of human evolution: that certain symptoms were really just too-intense versions of early adaptive human qualities that helped people evolve. That, say, schizophrenic-style paranoia might have originally helped early humans develop advanced civilizations: that paranoia helped in countrybuilding, kind of, in taking/guarding/protecting territory, and therefore protecting oneself from enemy invasion, making a civilization strong. (Like the way her dad wouldnt move from his chair, let her open his blinds or let anyone he didnt know inside his apartment: this was his territory and everyone else was undesirablesort of the enemydepending on if hed had his Klonopin or not). Mattie liked this evolution theory: she liked thinking of her father as someone, had he been born like 1000 year earlier, with an excess of potential greatness. Like Hannibal invading Rome. An aggressive paranoid nation-taker. Shed even cobbled together her own evolution theory: like maybe, instead of being a cracked example of early evolving man, her dad was in fact evolving into something different. Maybe was an example of new man. She came up with this idea after watching Robocop. Peter Weller played a cop who is reconstructed as 80% cyborg: hes mostly circuitry, but he does maintain part of a brain, some synaptic ability buried deep within his motherboard. Theres one scene in particular that gave her an a-ha moment. In the scene, Robocop is brought to the house he once shared with his wife (who was murdered). Robocop walks from room to room, and as he does visuals/pictures crackle from the past as if being delivered down a faulty wire. You see the memories, his wife, shes cooking, shes dancing. Robocop only sort of understands. These are poignant memories. He cant quite process these imageseven the idea of memoriesin strictly human terms, because he is no longer strictly, normally human. Hes something different. Kind of post-human.
48 Like Feastus said. Her fathers body, his whole life in the physical world had atrophied; but he still was alive in the mindwhere?eyes flickering weirdly. Mattie liked to imagine that wherever he waswherever that bit of the brain hed curled intorepresented the next step in human evolution, that her dad was a faulty first-generation version of something people might all one day become. Maybe in a hundred years people would look back and realize that schizophrenics were the first step to new humanity: that her dads brain was an evolutionary mutation, it just happened too soon to be viable. Maybe were all destined to go there, she thought. Maybe there was incredible: the only problem being the onerous task of living in the world, showering, eating, paying bills. Maybe one day were all destined to shed our bodies and become heads with glowing eyes. She liked the idea of heads with glowing eyes. She liked the idea of post-human. (The Normals! The Normals will never understand!) She liked thinking about this; she liked being lost in her own evolution theory. But then she would look over her dad, as she did now. Something about Stooges and Cheetos never seemed evolutionary. Her theory would crack: she would remember how upset he could get, head between his knees, TVs both on high, on static, plus a radio, plus blinds closed with newspapers over the windows, and how he heard voices that told him to smear Bondo on himself in order stop his thoughts from being broadcast; how his voices told him he was worthless; how he would seem like he was desperately looking for something but he wasnt; how he would walk around the room in random squares, in jerky motions the way a fly flies; and how this agony seemed only to abate after taking a kind of large dose of Klonopin. He was also on Seroquel, an anti-psychotic; he was on Prolixin, another anti-psychotic, but it was only the Klonopin, a basic
49 housewife sedative, that truly eased his suffering. And, she remembered all at once, she was running low. But she also remembered: Sheila.
50 CHAPTER 5 Tim took his laundry out of the courtyard dryer. Hed done all of it together, his whites, brights, his one black-T-shirt (his wife would cringe if she were here). It was an old shirt from his youth, from before hed married Marnie, had kids, moved to Oxnard. Hed found it bunched up in the garage back at homeor as he forced himself to think now, his former home. Hed unwadded the shirt, packed it with him here, to his sublet; here hed thrown it in the wash. He carried his finished laundry into his apartment and slipped on the black shirt. It still fit. It made him feel young for a moment, gave him a surge, a spark. He exited the cool of his Silver Lake sublet, his temporary respite after his marriage, all of it, hit the fan. The sun was still high. The old fountain was cracked. Dried palm fronds skittered in the wind and as he approached his car he heard someone wailit was the church from down the street, Mexican Pentecostal: a faux-adobe box, hacienda-roofed, two barred windows decorated with streamerstissue-y, colorfuland that wall-sized painting of Mary, her blue eyes upturned, praying. He would drive cross-town tonight, take surface streets in his old Saab, over La Cienega. Hed cut a long, slow path through the city, though downtown and Silver Lake, through the traffic and a thick orange dusk and then Compton and, finally, then, to Culver City, past his old childhood church, past the bungalows of Santa Granita. The light of Culver City would be yellowed by then, dusk falling, and the marquee, he knew, would be lit up: the marquee at The Flick, the theater, his theater; the last adult theater left in the L.A. Basin. Hed been young man at the theater, growing up near there. And then suddenly, it seemed, he was middle-aged, stopping over after work, stealing an hour Tuesday, an hour Thursday on his almost two-hour commute from San Onofre, where he was a level two equipment operator, with a good pension, and after twenty years, a good salary.
51 Tonight, he would go The Flick. The theater was closing in a matter of days, long maligned by the neighborhood. It would be bulldozed, turned into a mall parking lot. It had been dubbed an eyesore, a relic with that faded marquee, the smudged ticket window like a check cashing place, the old, gray man with Brill-creamed hair sitting behind it, smoking. Details were memorized, etched in his brain. The red walls in the lobby. The air-conditioned darkness, a kind of sweet-ish smell coming off the floors, underneath it all ammonia, and something rank. And the vistasof bodies, of women, nude and towering and open and a hard-shining pink, and also a deep maroon, in black eyeliner, black fishnets. What was the last one he had seen? RightFuck Tales and Cockstruction Movies with Aurora Snow, Jill Kelly, Clia. Tim wondered if places, if buildings, left any residue behind, something weird and ghostly. He felt unmoored. He turned left on El Oso, a street he knew well. Stucco strip malls and nail shops and the painted-over La Raza mural. The sky was getting hazy now. He turned down Cabrillohe didnt need to, but turned down anyway, just to see, yes, he could see it was still there, up ahead a few blocks: the small Moroccan place, Marrakesh, he used to take Marnie back when theyd first dated. She was a vegetarian then, favoring nut loafs, salads, rich olive dishes, and wine. Back then, they drank a lot of wine. Back then, he spent his days in a pleasant haze, making ends meet through various jobs, laying carpet, doing cabinet carpentry, watching TV, baseball and football and eating sunflower seeds, hording The Times crosswords and Hound and various skin rags, spending years with beer and weed in his Laz-y-Boy. Hed met Marnie, then, with her interest in meditation, and yoga, and loosely in vague spiritual matters. They would come to Marrakesh, to eat dates and oily hummus on fake velveteen pillows, to hang out, to fall in love.
52 As he passed Marrakesh, noweventually, theyd shared a small duplex blocks awayhe thought back to her conversion. Their life in Los Angeles had started to scared her, shed announced one night, and looking back he imagined a hairline crack in her that had opened, lubricated with hormones of that first pregnancy (with Jimmy) as the world poured in through the TV, the newspaper account of the Hillside Strangler, and a local tabloid showthe Stanley Seagal Show, which theyd watched as a jokeabout teenage hookers and male strippers and pimps. At some point the show had ceased to become a joke to Marnie; and then came her mothers sudden death, by pancreatic cancer. He began to sense, then, a static overtaking her as the seventies, the diffuse, mellow promise of it all became something else, something black and dark and crackling. His wife had seemed afraid as her belly had grown: as if the world had begun speaking a new, aggressive, incomprehensible language. Religion had translated for her; theyd moved north to Oxnard; and she seemed, for a time, less afraid. When her conversion occurred, finally, slowly, he was surprised to find that he welcomedor at least, didnt pull away, didnt resistthe rules, the long Sunday afternoons. He liked the structure at first: hed been feeling adrift in the world, having dropped out of community college after one semester with no goals in mind (much to his fathers dissatisfaction), other than to live quietly, to smoke weed and to make ends meet however he could. It was an aimlessness that, as he turned twenty-eight and then twenty-nine, had seemed harder to sustain, to feel good about. That life, the life of his youth, that loose way he had seemed like a weird dream now as he drove, a yellowy veil of snapshots in his mind, he with longish hair and sideburns, his wife in a gauzy blouse, sharing a joint, driving down to Baja one weekend to drink Mexican beer and eat cheap lobster: he had a photo of that trip still clipped to his cars sun visor.
53 He looked at it now. Theyd been living together a year, by then. Shed been a claims adjusterand she was good, the primary breadwinner and proud of it. But looking back he thought the daily grind of the job might have hastened her religious conversion, all the uncertainty, processing paper work surrounding the horror of something as commonplace as a car wreck. He recalled one just prior to their Baja trip, one that had bothered her in particular. A mother and son had been on their way to Safeway, driving with one slightly bald tire, after a light rain, on 1-5, a brutal and deadly wreckalthough the son had lain in limbo for a week, in a full-body stint, before dying. He and Marnie had gone to Baja after that, a weekend vacation. Shed needed to get away. As turned left on Stockton, Tim thought back on that trip, remembered the haze of beer and Mexican sun, remembered vultures circling far off to the south. Something had begun stirring in Marnies mind, in Baja: she began talking about, with greater reverie, her youth. Shed grown up in Oxnard, with everything the clich dictates. The white fence. The station wagon. A loquat tree in the front yard, piano lessons, camp in the Cuya Macca mountains, pink huffy bike with white fringe on the handles (hed sent the photo, Marnie in pigtails), a simple life, sunburn peeling off her shoulders, eating fish tacos her mom had made for lunch. At some pointwhen? Tim thought back, in Mexico? After her first trimester?she began to wonder if in fact what had made her childhood so good, so untouched by pain or death or anything bad, if the through-line connecting everything, was church. Theyd conceived Jimmy during that Baja trip, and after they were back home, as Jimmy grew within her and they got married, this church-idea congealed, eventually hardening into inscrutable truth. (Although the truth is, her parents never seemed that religious, to him, outside of saying grace for dinnerunlike his own upbringing, by devout Catholics.)
54 And so when it came, when her mandate camethat she believedit felt natural for Tim, like an old, rigid shoe, a dress shoe he thought hed discarded for something else, but there it was again, and he so slipped it on, and it felt deeply familiar. And as the shift came, as he looked for a steady job (at his wifes insistence he become the breadwinner), as he became the man of the house he felt a kind of relief. He would not be making the rules up as he went along. Things would be planned from then on, and he went with it, as he always did: went with the path of least resistance. And as he did he felt a kind ofrelief. Even if he didnt believe, really. Not in the way Marnie did. But his Catholic upbringing served him well, here: he had been an altar boy, steeped in all the mystery of ritual, the candles, the vestments, the somber pouring of the wine, so that at some point ritualjust going about something repetitively, and with concentrationseemed enough to him, seemed enough like believing. And indeed, when he went to Harvest Covenant with Marnie on Sundays (and later, as she became more steeped in belief, every Wednesday night), he would find himself, surprisingly, thinking back to his Catholic upbringing with something approaching nostalgia. The mere act of sitting in communion with so many others would jog Tims memory. He recalled the dark church he grew up in, in Torrance, a cool, cavernous placea respite in the summerpews worn smooth and that rote, murmured call and response. He had no idea what it meant when he was young, but it had lulled him, sometimes, into a pleasant half-sleep as a boy, feeling something rich surround him, a soft, dark comfort, listening quietly at his mothers arm. Harvest Covenant, on the other hand, was light and sunny, a huge, slant-roofed ministadium with a cheerful beige interior. The Harvest minister used a headset microphone and a large video projection. The quiet among the congregation there felt bright and flinty, not soft, not strange or rich, the way it had as a boy. And the altar at Harvest, too, was bright and lightwhile
55 as a boy, hed spent Sundays in front of that life-sized statue of Christ, that drama, that body, that mock flesh hanging. He recalled the Eucharist, the talk of blood and flesh and wine (sneaking wine as an altar boy). He recalled the stained glass windows depicting Daniel and the Lion, pouring hard candy colors onto the altar, all shot through with an airy, whispered shame, lingering feelings expunged to dark corners, in hushed tones, in the corner confessionals. There was something he missed about that. A strangeness. Mystery. The sun was beginning its descent, a dark, orange ball, streaking through the smog. He turned right on El Sereno. As he waited at a red light, two young, blonde women, both in low jeans, both with large, high breasts in midriff T-shirts, walked across the street. He thought ahead, to The Flick. Hed seen Deep Throat there, and he well remembered the excitement of the time, the sexual promise, the couples in the theater, all of them there together, watching, open and unashamed. But that openness never sat well with him, exactly, never seemed quite right. It thrilled him, yes, seeing what he saw, flickering images of his own thoughts (a girl giving a blowjob, enjoying it, dropping to her knees with no provocation, no subtle pleading) and even more than hed dreamed. But it had seemed weird, wrong, somehow, all of it being so open, so overt. He in fact preferred The Flick now, this past decadetwo, three decadesas it had slipped into decline, the darkness, the decayed wallpaper, the solitary men averting their eyes, that unified hush as the terrible soundtrack kicked in, and then came the bodies, the open bodies. Tonight, theyd show something with Clia. Tim had asked the projectionist just yesterday, a young man with earrings, spiky red hair. He sat in a folding chair, reading.
56 Cockstar, for the last night? Tim had offered softlypolitely. Hed stood just outside the projection room. Or Girlvert, maybe? Something with Clia, with Clia swallowing her own hand, her mascara running after whomeverNacho, Mr. Marcushad released on her face. The projectionist had recognized Tim. He didnt look up from his book, exactly, but acknowledged Tim with a sideways look, a slight nod. Yes. And so, Tim would see Clia tonight, for the last time in that dark, cavernous roomhushed, with a smattering of other men. Clia would be 30 feet high, wide open, Tim peering deep into her body, her holes like a murky well, quenching, terrifying. Clia-scenes flickered in his mind. Clia on a beige leather couch, legs contorted. Clia draped over a white lounge chair, taking in two men, somewhere high over the Valley. Birds of paradise in the background, a pool. Her hard breasts, her rock-hard breasts were oiled up in his mind, a deep, weird tan.
57 CHAPTER 6 Dena stood mid-soap aisle at the Chatsworth Vons, smiling. Smiling because she had a secret: she was in business, or rather she would be soon. Thanks to Davies. Turns out he had been calling about weed: he had some for her. But hed also called about something else. You know the girl who supplies me is looking for someone to build her a website, he said, like for business. She wants to be like the Martha Stewart of weed or some shit. Now she was on her way to meet them: just a few more errands to go, then over to Krissys house, Davies boss. Tonight they would finalize the deal (Davies words). Dena looked down at her phone, her moms texted list. Soy chips, Diet Coke, toilet paper, tampons: check. Still needed: Paul Newman salsa, tabouli mix, tomatoes, low-fat feta, Kashi heart-safe cereal. Dena fantasized for a second her mom might actually approve of her upcoming job, in spite of the fact this business, this possible job involved marijuana. So okay she rehearsed in her mind yeah mom, it is technically illegal in Denas mind, though, her mom overlooked this one glitch, its only weed anyway, didnt her mom smoke weed back in the day? Okay, business is business, her Mom would say (did say, in Denas mind). My girl is in business. Shed brush Denas hair away from her face, beaming. With her perfect make-up. Cheekbones. Dena would swat her hand away. Mom. Dena turned down the produce aisle. She hadnt been to this Vons in years. The last time she was here, shed been stonedit was one of the first times she and Jackie had gotten stoned. Theyd ridden their bikes in the caked Valley heat and the swish of the doors and glacial interior had been an exquisite relief; once in, though, the supermarket lights had throbbed like a headache. The two had moved from detergent to cereal, and although theyd walked normally, Dena felt like they were doing something deeply undercover and exciting and mission impossible. Theyd moved past the fake wine-barrels of scotch tape, past the 2-for-1 mangoes
58 and over to the cereal aisle. The cereal aisle had seemed like the Vegas strip. Garish, pink, brightly lit, somehow festive. Theyd paused at a row of orange boxes: CapnCrunch. Jackie had pointed at one, pulling lightly on her chin as if she had a beard. Nodding. Vot iz this? she said in a mock German accenttheyd recently seen Cabaret before dropping the cereal into her handcart. Dena had laughed. Dena had doubled over laughing. That waswhen? Right, three years ago. She remembered with a kind of pang, a kind of phantom pain: it was back when she and Jackie still rode bikes weekends past the Galera and Old Town through the eerie maze of the industrial park, where Jackies mom worked as an industrial designer. Dena had seen footage of East Berlin housing blocks on The History Channel and the park reminded her of those; beige rectangle buildings, rows of them with long, perfectly aligned windows, everything identical and nondescript in a spooky way. Except the ones in Chatsworth were landscaped with date palms, and the East Berlin sky had looked gray, while the sky here was white, an endless draining white, like today. Wow, she thought, what a coincidence, the last time I was here I was stoned like the first time I ever got stoned, kind of like synchronicity since now Im on my way to this girl Krissys. She was thinking about this when she turned the produce aisleshe was thinking about this as she picked up an apple, she was thinking about this aswaityes: there Jamie stood, his back to her, holding a Lunchable. Inspecting it. He put it back on the shelf. Picked up another one. Fuck. It had been just two months since their break-up, so of course he looked the same: shaggy dishwater hair to his shoulders. Tall, stocky, sunk in jeans. Billabong shirt, square jaw, almost a celebrity jaw, one of those cut-glass jawsperfectly offset by his nose, which was sort of bulbous, a little big, making him look off-center, skewed, not quite cute, like if hed gotten a
59 nose job hed be officially handsome. Dena liked him skewed. Theyd gone out ten months, almost. Afterwards, Dena had told anyone who would listen that he was an asshole, and while there was some truth to this asshole storyhed ended it abruptly for his ex, Jenit wasnt the whole truth, not really; in fact really it was just a sliver of truth, such a tiny sliver it had felt like a lie. The truth was more complicated than that. The truth felt like a deep dark festering secret. The truth was she didnt like sex. And maybe, in spite of her best efforts, deep down Jamie always knew. Denad been having sex for two years; shed lost her virginity the summer she turned 15, lost it with a friend of friend, a 20-year-old guy named Peter who worked as a valet for Lubachs. Details were etched in her brain but she wished they werent; she wished she could reboot and start over. Hed taken her on a picnic. Hed known of a nice place, a deserted country stretch, quiet, romantic, off the Canoga Park golf course. He brought veggie sandwiches and beer and at some pointshe was totally game, she wanted the mystery solvedtheyd stripped down halfway, pants off and she felt chilled, suddenly, a long slab of white flesh with openings. It wasnt painful, really. Not awful. Justuncomfortable. Hed thrust furiously, stoked by some internal, frantic motor that had remained, to Denas growing dismay, a mystery. She had the feeling she wasnt actually participating, more like she was watching: watching him doing something deeply private, or maybe watching an animal dig, frantically, blindly; she felt embarrassed for him a little. Above her in the tree, a plastic bag was caught on a branch. It whipped in the wind, making a sssssshhhh-sssshhhh sound. She moved her hips a little; she knew to do this but wasnt sure how she knew, but she was gladit sped everything up: his motor kicked up a notch, and then another notch, and then he flopped down onto her, breathing hotly
60 into her neck. It was over. She didnt feel much, really: just disappointment. They did it five times while he was in town. Nothing exciting. More disappointment. There was another guy, briefly. An Israeli guy she met at the beach; hed driven crosscountry and settled here. He drove an old tricked 70s Dodge Van; hed had it painted in Watts with three black panthers on the side. And then she met Jamie. Dena liked him straight off. He was 19 and worked for his father setting jewelry. His father ownedinherited from his grandfathera dusty old jewelry shop in the Echo Park corridor, a last old-world hold-out along a new clean business corridor featuring paper stores and organic-product beauty boutiques. Jamies dad had refused to sell or change the dusty old neon sign; he held out long enough the store began gathering retro appeal; he hired two young designers schooled in setting old styles. Now the store was thriving, and Jamie helped his dad sometimes in the back of the shop, though he didnt love it. They each had disdain and respect in equal measure: Dena wanted to go into business, like her mom, wanted to be her own man, like her mom: but she wanted nothing to do with dog grooming. To not following in the family footsteps, Dena said on their second date, eating roundthe-world shish-ka-bob. Hell fucking yeah, Jamie said. They tapped kabobs like swords. On the wall, at the head of Jamies bed hung a pair of his-and-hers marionettes, two delicate, intricate skeletons, Day of the Dead marionettes. A boy skeleton with a black sombrero, a girl skeleton a red peasant skirt: a gift from his ex from some trip to Tijuana (Dena was sorry she asked). The marionettes rattled and scratched when they were having sex. When they had sex Jamie whispered things, like, are you okay? and do you like that? over and over, different
61 times, different months; the first time, the twentieth time, every time her answers were lies, always yes, yes coming from the other end of a long, dark tube. Yes. Yes cut everything short. She had a weird feelingthis nagging feeling their bodies were actually in the way somehow. (But how could that be? That didnt make sense.) She felt like they were clapping. Like sex was glorified clapping. It would get better, wouldnt it? She told herself it would. She wondered if it would, Jamie on top, Dena half-naked on her stomach listening to his TV: a report on a legless man scaling a large mountain: Jamie liked Discovery channel. Her mind wandered during sex. She would catalogue positives: Jaime was cute, she could see that. She liked feeling wanted, sure, feeling attractive. And that look he got when they were having sex, she liked that too. Marveled at it, envied itthat frightened look, his eyes glazed, eyes wide like something terrible was about to happen. The way mediums look in movies, sitting at a table about to channel the dead. Or in a slasher film: the way a camp counselor looks spotting the killer behind an unsuspecting friend. The counselor freezes, eyes wide: that look: the way Jamie looked, like Omigod! What the fuck is happening?? Nooooo! Then collapse. On top of her, breathing, sweating. Drama that was lost on her. It would get better, though, right? Keep at it she told herself. In his car, at the park, on his bed in Canoga. His sort of lumpy mattress. Fake it till you make it She felt faulty. She had a short somewhere. Fake it till you make it was her aunts favorite 12-step aphorism, and Dena understood, sort of, hoped it would work for her too, her arm dangling off the side of Jamies bed after sex, ashing a joint into a crusted coffee cup, Jamie sitting Indian-style on the bed in his underwear, eating ice cream, watching a documentary on
62 Rome. She liked a post-sex joint at Jamies, inhaling, holding it for a few tokes like a cigarette, between the V of her index and middle fingers. She felt sexy when she was stoned; she looked sexy when she was stoned, she had the pics to prove it, looking like Marlene, or Jane Fonda, or Clia, someone else besides herself. She felt sexy with a post-sex joint, buoyed up as if on a huge cushion, the opposite of how she felt fucking: compressed, a slab. She felt sexy exhaling like Marlene Dietrich, Marlene who smoked, her eyes hooded, exudingwhat, exactly? Sex, or something like sex: something viscous that happened in dark rooms, some exquisite bit of knowledge; knowledge Dena had yet to discoverwhat the hell was so great about sex? Marlene knew. Clia knew. Jamies ex knew. But now Dena was on her way to Krissys and that was good, focus on that, she told herself, quit looking at Jamie, fuck Jamie, Jamie buying Lunchables, Jamie with his perfect life, with his fucking Mini-Cooper, he got that Mini-Cooper when he was 16, stop thinking about that, hes back with his old girlfriend, Jen, blonde, tan, perky, Jen who likes to fuck but is she as good at head as I am? Dena could handle a blowjob. That was something she could do. Shed gone fishing, once, with her aunt down at Joshua Tree and shed held a mediumsized bass in her hand, hooked and dying. It felt thick and alive, and strange, and a little creepy, and the first time she gave a blowjob it was like that: thick muscle in her mouth, alive, strange, a little creepy. She bobbed up and down and wasnt sure if that was right, but she tried to act like she knew what she was doing, her eyes closed, like yeah. Cool. She heard the guy moan a little and felt him thrust up. He smelled like something damp that had been closed up too long. He began jerking, like a fish-twitch. She choked a little. He slid out and came on himself; then he lay there stupid with his eyes open; and that was it.
63 Jackie had asked: he came ? how did you do it? They were in the bathroom. Denas bathroom. Im not sure, Dena said. Relax your throat? I did. I thought I did but I mean Jim like moved me away when Id been doing it awhile? I feel really awkward like Im fumbling around, she said. Like Im trying to drive stick? And I dont know how? Dena liked doing it, liked that her body was barely involved; it was easy so she did it a lot. She once gave a guy head she met at the beachthe Israeli hippie guy, in his van. They had dated after that. They spent a lot of time in his van. Shed given a lot of head, no reciprocation. Not terribly feminist of you, Jackie had said. And gross. In his van? With Jamie, Dena became an expert. She worked at it. It became easygiving head seemed like a brisk hand-shake. So she did it a lot; and she was enthusiastic. She didnt feel faulty giving head, didnt feel that vague sense of embarrassment, of puzzlement and mystery like she did with her slab of a body, those marionettes scratching, Jamie whispering hows that? Do you like that? Yes? Dena looked at Jamie: he dropped a package of salami into his handcart. Dena couldnt stop conjuring images. Her mind had a mind of its own. His ex Jen in yellow sheets. And that one photo Dena found in Jamies nightstandthat one photo burned into her brain fuck with Jens head cocked a bit, cupping her nude breasts, eyes dull, eyes hooded but she was smiling a little: it reminded Dena of her own infant cousin, Dena thought of that now, the way her cousin looked after nursing, head lolling, eyes back, head heavyactually heavyas if filled with milk. So satisfied.
64 Why did she think of that? Dena hated babies. Dena felt chilled, wrong, alone, a fraud. The whole cold of the aisle seeped into her. Like an ice IV. Drip-drip. It was warm in Krissys room; the room closed around Dena like a warm gel. A girl with tight jeans and a lot of make-up was showing Dena in. She said her name was Marta; she looked Mexican. Dena squinted in the reddish dark. There was a built-in hutch, like this used to be a den. Scarves covered the windows, dark red scarves giving the room a reddish den-like leather-bound glow. Dena peeked out between scarves: an overgrown garden, with rosemary and tomatoes. Beyond that, arson-y looking woods: Krissy lived with her mom at the outer edge of Chatsworth and with this sliver of view, between the scarves, you could pretend you were in the country. On the floor, at the foot of the bed, someone was playing Xbox; long hair, slight, lean. Guy? Girl? Guy: Dena finally heard him mumble fuck. A guys voice. Davies. Krissy will be here in like two seconds, Marta said, shes picking shit up. She lay down on the bed and began flicking Davies hair with her bare foot. He swatted at it like a fly. Marta laughed. Oh, she said, and I believe you know this asshole on the floor. His back was to Dena. Without looking away from the game he raised his hand the air. Like, How. Like Indians. On the other side of the bed, a blonde girl sat in a beanbag. She had long, stringy hair. Alisa. Dena recognized Alisa; they hadnt seen each since middle school, where they hadnt really known each other to begin with. They nodded at each other. Alisa was concentrating on something she held near the floor. Something she was shaking. A Magic Eightball.
65 Alisa said, Marta ask me a yes or no question. Dena sat down in a serape-covered easy chair. Silence. Only the sound of the game, thudding techno. She felt like she was in a waiting room. Will my cousin become a millionaire? Marta asked. He just invented these gum molds. Like you put chewed gum in them to make the gum the shapes of wizards and fairies and stuff. Like for 10-year-olds. Sadly, Alisa read, Outlook no so good. Dena heard the wa-waaa sound of game over. Davies stood up. He seemed to fold and unfold like puzzle, tall and lean. He wore loose cords. He sat on the bed the edge of the bed. You so suck at that, Marta said. Yeah well this is my dads game, actually, he said. Not my favorite. He plays it more than me anyway. Says its good for surgery. How can blowing a mans head off be good for surgery? Hand-eye. Dad does microscopic surgery, hello? Its all teeny tiny cameras and computer screens. Ive seen him do it and I must say, its pretty cool. I mean, you know how it is when youre a little kid and you see what your dad does and you think its so cool. He turned to Dena. His face was Johnny-Deppish, almost pretty beneath all the acne. Know what I mean, Dena? Denas dad was M.I.A. Hed moved to Hawaii when she was two and her mother still had to fight him for child support. But shed watched her mother as a kid, a ball-buster at work. She could lift a full bull terrier, and calm him. Sometimes, she said.
66 A slam came from down the hall, then footsteps. The door opened and the room flooded with light: Krissy came inDena recognized her. Shed seen her once with Davies by the school parking lot. Long red hair, black eyeliner, black yoga-ish pants. Pale, sitting Indian style on the lot wall. Dena had walked up mid-conversation. Oh, and you know what else Davies? she was saying; Davies said hey; Krissy kept talking. Sometimes I think about flight attendant school, just for the travel? But I feel like flight attendant school would flatter my stepmother. Which is something to be avoided at all costs. And anyway those little stewardess suitcases? Those are enough for me to say no way. I mean I just hear hers squeaking down the hall and I know shes right there in the hall and I cringe. Its like Pavlovian. I hear ya, Davies said, rifling through his backpack; and then he found a quarter bag and slipped it to Dena. Now Krissy stood in this dim red room, a full trash bag over her shoulder like Santa Claus. Okay my little lambchops, she said. Ready for me? She took a mound of newspapers from the corner, opened them up and spread them on the floor. Carefully, she dumped out the bag, filled with branches of weed. Davies sat at the edge of the papers; Marta and Alisa did the same. Krissy turned on the overhead light and everyone groanedit was sort of blinding at firstthen Krissy handed out tiny scissor-sheers to each, like the kind used to trim bangs. Krissy lit some incense and wheeled a machine out from her closet. It looked like a humidifier. A de-atomizer, she said, without looking at Dena. Cuts the smell. She turned it on. Davies, Alisa and Marta began trimming the weed, cutting off buds from the branches, then stems and leaves from the buds.
67 Krissy sat on the bed, across from Dena. She sat like a man, legs wide. She held the Eightball now. Will I ever, ever make it to Peru? she asked. She shook it, and then without saying anything hi, who are you, my name is Krissy, nice to meet you she held up the answer-side of the Eightball to Dena. A second went by. Krissy had a look on her face, like, hello? Read it already? All signs point to yes, Dena read. So, Krissy said, Davies said you can build me a site. That you have experience. Etcetera. Yeah, Dena said. I built my moms site. Also, I did one of her friends sites, sort of a resume site, shes an actress, it has her reels on it. I did the community site for Mission and if it werent for me Davies wouldve failed CompSci. Yup, Davies said. Okay, Krissy said. Basically what I want is for people to order online. Were going to start delivering and I want to do it like ValleyMenu.com. You know that site? Yeah, Dena lied. But she could guess what it was. People ordered online from Valley restaurants. And had their food delivered. Yeah well weve already started delivering here and there, and I dont want phones involved anymore. I had some idiot call Davies the other day and ask blatantly for marijuana. He actually said thatHow much for the marijuana? Okay he didnt really say the but still no more phone, no orders unless a friend of a friend, unless you fill out my sites registration and youll need to be referred by someone else in the database. Once in they can place an order for X amount of something, like some fake product I dont know even what its going to be yet, but
68 theyre gonna pay through paypal, so no money changes hands. Im hoping to get some daytime office-worker orders. My friend Jamie does IT right here in Chatsworth, he said hed order at work, spread the word. And Alisa and Marta and Davies here are gonna be my street team. Anyway its summer and I finally want to be making some fucking money. Dena nodded. She knew from her mother: hold back. Be cool. Doable, she said. Very doable. So like I was thinking design-wise something that looks like shit, Krissy said. Like 1992 or something? Like some ancient geocities page. Like Im authentically some idiot, who cant do web shit. You are some idiot who cant do web shit, Marta said. Whatever, Krissy shrugged. Im a disgrace to my generation. So I was thinking maybe a badly cut-out graphic of some fat librarian-type, grinning, with list of prices for some fake product I dont even know yet. You know I just came up with this make-it-look cheap idea and my friends friend was going to do it but he kept saying a minimalist design takes the most effort of any kind of design, and you know when I hear the words minimalist or design, or especially minimalist design I feel like puking. Krissy hates her stepmother, Marta said. I dont hate her, Krissy said. I just hate it when she uses the term minimalist. Shes redecorating my dads house. In all gray. Oh and she brings me presents from her little stewardess layovers in Mexico like these incredibly stupid embroidered crosses that are actually made in China. She has no clue about, oh, I dont know, ancient civilizations? You know theres this total slum in Mexico City that was built basically right around ancient Aztec ruins they just
69 discovered. Like theres this insane shantytown around it spread out into infinity. She has no fucking clue. So? Marta said. Thats disgusting. Krissy just gets on these jags, Davies would tell Dena later; Like shell see something and decide its the shit. Like she Tivod this docu-week about ancient Mexico or some shit). Krissy turned to face Marta. Something about Krissyit seemed impossible, to Dena, that Krissy had ever been young, had ever worn faded cruddy cords, ever been gangly, flatchested, geek, like she and Jackie. No: she had to have emerged fully formed like this, with her short-jean-shorts, her clog-like sandals and the fact she looked like a chola, kind ofa white one, with heavy 40s-style eyeliner, red lipstick and tousled lengths of orange-red hair, streaked and falling just so. No it isnt, Krissy said. Its fucking for real. Arent you even interested like at all Marta? These are like your people. Your Aztec ancestors? Fuck my people, Marta said. Davies and Alisa were still trimming. They exchanged a nanosecond smirk. The deatomizer was humming. The incense smell was getting strongjasmine. The room felt still. If you like Aztec stuff, Dena said. Something thats kind of cool is the Tijuana Cultural Museum. They have this wax depiction of Aztec sacrifice. Krissy faced Dena. I mean its super touristy but really pretty detailed with this Aztec priest guy stabbing this virgin in the heart? It shows all the arteries and blood and everything. And heart-eating, it
70 shows the heart eating. Its kind of hilariously cheap-looking, Dena said. Like the faces are smooth, they dont look like full faces but the gore is all done up. The virgin is missing a hand. Shed gone with her mom when she was 13; shes been spooked and fascinated. I love cheap gory shit, Krissy said. She sat down and took a pink glass bong out of her nightstand. As she loaded it, she said: You go there down a lot? Yeah, Dena said. She knew parts of Tijuana well: since she was little, Tijuana meant hours of brain-draining boredom, shopping all day with her mom or sitting in multiple waiting rooms or both; it meant hauling bags of stuff back, sometimes in wheeled stewardess suitcases. They went down for Botox for her mom, plus clothes sometimes (theyd gone last month to buy Dena a Dolce knock-off dress for a wedding), to the dentist, for penicillin, for gifts, for paper basics, for cleaning supplies, for dog-grooming supplies, for make-up, and once a year for a cache of holiday gifts for choice clients: ice-clear top-shelf tequilaclean, sugarless, as light as vodkain frosted space-age bottles shaped like tear drops. $95 each in the States. $7 in Tijuana. Krissy was nodding a little. She lit the bong and took a deep toke. Totally weird shanty-town thing going on there too, Dena said. At least there used to be, walking in from the border. A trip over the border usually meant a whole day, down through San Diego a 20-minute trip on the trolley and a quarter-mile path over the border, which had been paved and re-paved, heading out to the first mall in a long line of malls, Agua Caliente. Dena would look to the right of the path and there it would beTijuanalike some whirring, self-generating machine, spreading and spreading; to the left, far away in the horizon there were factories, gray and squat,
71 more every year. Between Dena and the factories there would be nothing, just a desolate stretch of asphalt and weeds. But Dena remembered the makeshift neighborhoods that once sprawled along eyeshot of the path; like an entire lot of rusted trucks had been turned inside out, like her cousins Transformers: stairs made of tires, car seats like a dining set, garage door shelters, oil-drum stoves, corrugated roofs, funky rusted house-forts, she remembered thatit seemed cool when she was little, cool, spooky, disturbing but it had been razed at some point, she couldnt recall when. She heard new truck shanties now existed in the hills above the city, away from the tourists. Krissy exhaled, a hooded exhale, long, slow, like Marlene. Or Clia. How often do you go? Krissy asked. Like once a month, Dena said, But got to admit, I go with my mom who happens to be addicted to buying Clinique down there. Oh and she forces me to take along one of those wheeled stewardess suitcases. To haul back her crap. God, Krissy said. She threw her head back. I fucking hate those. You have no idea. I go down there too, a lot actually. But for different reasons. She handed the bong to Dena.
72 CHAPTER 7 The address Sheila had given Mattie was in WestwoodMattie took three rights off I-5, finally a pink building: a small upscale strip mall on an almost-residential street tucked off Wilshire. Across the street was UCLA hospital and a gleaming black-glass office park. The place, Mattie was told, was called ChemSpayes, there it was ChemSpa written in curly gold script. The blonde receptionist smiled serenely. She ushered Mattie to have a seat in the waiting area, then got on the phone to announce Matties arrival. The area rug was thick and white. A vase of fresh lilies sat on an end table. The place smelled lightly of vanilla. Ok, the receptionist said. Shes ready to see you. Just head back down that hallway, and take your second left. Mattie did, down the hallway, the second left and then into a rooma big, softly lit, oval room filled with pale-pink reclining chairs, like the kind you might find in an old-school beauty parlor. A few were occupied with people sleeping. This room also smelled of vanilla. The walls had recessed lighting. A fountain gurgled in the corner. The room reminded Mattie of the pedicure room CJ once took her to: the line of well-dressed women reading, the gurgling sound of a fountain, reclining chairs. There, it had smelled like jasmine. Sheila was in the back, waving at Mattie. She had a thick head of blonde-blonde hair now: it looked bleached. Mattie walked over and sat down next to her. Next to Sheilanext to everyone in the roomstood an IV stand at the top of which was 1) a bag of liquid dripping down a tube and into the persons arm and 2) a small machine that looked 70-sci-fi, something like R2D2. The machine made a whirring noise. And sometimes beeped. Sheila looked skinny and soft, very soft, not ripped like she had been.
73 I know what youre thinking, Sheila said. Ive lost some muscle. Ok, a lot of muscle. And then under her breath: I toned down the steroids. It made my clit grow out like a lizard tongue. Good God, really? Mattie said. Yes, it did No I mean did I REALLY have to hear that? Under the vanilla smell Mattie caught a scent of something elsesomething acrid? Medicinal, maybe? She looked at Sheilathe bagthe IV. Chemo, Sheila said. Im doing chemo. Mattie was going to saywhat does one say? It came back, Sheila said. In my bones. Wow. Mattie said. That. sucks. Yes it does, she said. At least thats how I used to think. But Im more in touch with it now. I had a realization, with the help of my new oncologist. Hes very cutting edge. Im thinking of myself as an oyster. You know when something foreign invades the oyster, a teeny tiny speck of sand, and the oyster coats it and coats it and the thing grows and becomes a pearl? And we extract that pearl and revere that pearl? As a thing of beauty? In fact we wear strings of them? Strings of little oyster cancers? Of course its not technically cancer, but. Im thinking of my new tumor that way. As something.pearlish. Well.. thats good. The fuck she thought. Im meeting her here?? Buying pills often came with awkward prepurchase chit-chat. But this!
74 Mattie looked over at the woman sitting in the chemo recliner next to her; 40s, with long luxurious black hair, immersed in her laptop. She wore a cocktail dress and heels. Sheila and the woman exchanged a smirk. Sheilas chemo-tube was hooked up to the metal port in her chest. Her pale-blue shirt was opened provocatively, exposing said port. She flipped her hair. Do you like the wig? Its synthetic, she said. Japanese fiber. Do you love it? It looks real, Mattie said. Black women love it. I got it at the black chick beauty store. In Compton. What was I doing there, you ask? Getting my life together. Experiencing things outside my self. A nurse walked upMattie assumed she was a nurse. Wearing a tasteful white smock. Onto carboplatin, she said. And she swapped out Sheilas neighbors IV bag. Sheila looked at Mattie, eyes dilated. And that loopy smile. She looked high. There was a tray in front of her, a long Tupperware container: she took the lid off: it was filled with a row of hot dogs in buns. Next to the Tupperware sat a bottle of Haines mustard. Which Mattie thought especially weird, since the Sheila she knew drank herb tea and ate vegan. She was having a picnic? Carboplatin, Sheila said. Comes from platinum. You know the Aztecs used to make this concoction, this corn-mash with flecks of platinum in it. Supposed to confer upon the drinker kingly qualities. And do you know how platinum became associated with royalty to begin with? Both her and Ritas eyes, Mattie could see, were dilated wide. Are you high? Mattie said. Have you met my friend Rita? Sheila said, and motioned to the woman getting the Carboplatin. Rita here is playing some weird online game with some Russian. She just had
75 brain surgery. They took this tumor out of her brain and they also cut out the depression section of her mind so now she feels great, dont you? Rita looked at Mattie. I do, she said. Smiling serenely. No eyebrows or eyelashes. I really do. But thats not the only reason. Sheila here has really helped me. There was trim along the wall, a decorative lacey trim. It looked like a winding vine. Mattie remembered decorative details like this from when her dad was in the hospital: in particular, decorative tin casings on the ceiling of the psyche ward common room. There, though, those details seemed forgotten, submerged under a thin layer of grime, what Mattie imagined to be a layer of decades-old cigarette ash. The walls there had looked yellowy. At ChemSpa, the walls were also yellowbut a soft vanilla as opposed to a sour yellow; everything ay ChemSpa felt soft, dark and clean. But beneath the vanilla of expensive oil-candles; beneath that there was the whiff of bodies, slack, wrong somehow. Rita and I go wig-shopping together, Sheila said. Among other things. Rita stared back at her laptop, tapping a mile a minute, her brow was furrowed. She was bone-thin and pale. Next to her, on her little chemo TV tray, was an open thermos. Her machine was going beep, beep. On the nurses desk sat a succulent. Mattie had read an article about succulents in an old National Geographic, in a doctors officedads last shrink, one of the last times Mattie had schlepped him there, one of the last times she thought doctors might do any fucking good or even knew what they were talking about. A nurse brought folding chairs over to Sheila; one, two, three. Setting them up in front of her. The articlewhat about the article?right, there were photos with the article. The
76 succulents looked mutant, desiccated, soaking in sun during the day. They become engorged, blooming at night. Within a one-mile radius in Arizona, according to the article, 18 species of succulents were thriving in bizarre-looking pockets of pinks and blues with blooms that looked like mutant ears, or in some cases the loose flesh of an old womans arm. Mattie was fascinatedhow to incorporate these succulent-fields into a screenplay? Sentient plants? Flesh remnants of aliens? An ancient race of humanoids evolved into succulents? A succulentworshipping cult, honoring a lost humanoid tribe? Orno. A cult who had discovered the secret of succulentsthey were once humanoidand were now growing themfarming themwith the purpose of making them humanoid again? Mattie felt hot suddenly. The beeping was freaking her out. Im so happy you came to visit me, Sheila said. She sipped something out of her thermos lid. Theres something I wanted you to hear. Ive been giving inspirational talks, really these are introductory talks to a seminar Ive been giving lately. And the nurse brought more folding chairs. What about.. you know. That thing? Mattie said. Sheila picked up her necklace, a tear-drop-shaped pendant. I got you under slightly false pretenses she said. Please stay. I want to help you. I know about your father. That he was hospitalized. It must be very hard. Mattie wasnt feeling quite right, not at all. Sheila was sitting primly in her recliner, legs crossed, one heel clinking on the marble floor. In Matties mind something bubbled upa sound, a click: Sheilas bathroom door being shut, over and over in a repeating loop, dad and Sheila huddled together, snorting something off Sheilas sink. (Which naturally she understood now. But at the time she didnt: she just knew they were sealed away from her in some
77 impenetrable adult pod, where all exciting things happened). The bathroom was huge and echo-y and seemed like a bank: Mattie remembered the sound of a bank. Marble floors. Sheila in heels, heels clinking on marble. As Sheila and dad huddled over the sink, Mattie was walking towards them down the hall; in her mind the floor felt like a conveyor belt going the other way. She was walking and walking. At some point dad looked up I need privacy, just like you do sometimes, honey. Had he leaned down, saying it eye-toeye? With the wickedest, widest smile ever? Or did he say anything at all? Sheila shut the door. And here the memory sputtered down: there was only the click of the bathroom door, a metallic sound. Like a vault closing. Over and over. Click. Bitch. Yeah I know a guy who did chemo at one of those, Boyd said. A big franchise now. Rich guy. He got a facial along with it. The place served these high-tech smoothies that are supposed to be easier on the stomach or some shit. Anyway what was her point exactly? He sat at the edge of the motel bed, remote in hand. Good god, were boring, he said. He brought Scrabble. They were at Holmes Breakfast, otherwise known as the site of the Wonderland murders, where seventies porn icon John Holmes had allegedly murderedbludgeoneda group of cokeand weed partakers; now this tacky two-story complex was a trashy tourist draw, not doing well, and cheap. Mattie had kept on with the hotels even after Chip: she liked the break, the feeling of being hidden or whisked away, even without a date, or rather a platonic date: these days, she
78 went with Boyd. Boyd didnt have cable and this was an opportunity to catch up on his favorite shows; and so the two sat, dateless, in a motel, watching TV. I dont know, Mattie said. Like the circle of life and death, something like that? Trite. Mattie had not staid for the whole of Sheilas introductory talk, as Sheila had called it. Sheila had given a kind of mini a lecture about chemo, surrounded by 15 rapt listeners. They had had funneled in, well-dressed, white-collar-looking, sitting in the empty folding chairs around her chemo-recliner. Sheila had waved each in like a beauty queen on a float. What Im being infused with right now? Sheila said. The poetically-titled Cytoxan? Ultimately, a synthetic derivation of something so simplemustard. Mustard is really a simple wisp of grass; and simply processed it becomes such a key ingredient in the best of French cuisine; or the humblest American hotdog, say. What would a picnic be without it? She opened the jar of Haines. What do we get from mustard? she said. Exquisite flavor. Also. mustard gas. Yes: a lovely piece of mustard grass is also the origin of chemical warfare. Deadly. Makes you bleed through your skin. Conversely, a mustard derivative is also a key chemotherapy drug. Specifically, the drug Im being infused with right now. Sheilas tone reminded her of Tibbs: very Luke I am your father. It was fucking weird, Mattie said. Weird as in how? Boyd said. Well I mean shes giving a fucking lecture to people while doing chemo. Yes, it was weird: that beeping, the acrid smell, that weird woman with the crooked wig, how Sheilas skin looked lambent, almost bluish in the recessed lighting, the way she
79 passed out hotdogs with mustard on them like giving the Eucharist. Right as Sheila began passing out the hotdogs, she pressed a bottle of pills in Matties handabout 20 Ativanand whispered, I really can help can help. Stay, and hear me out. Instead, Mattie left. Yeah, that is weird I guess, Boyd said, but he was distracted, now otherwise occupied, smashing two Provigils, his current drug of choice, with an old-looking mortar and pestle. Hed gotten the Provigil from Tibbs some time agohe was also almost out. Provigil was a drug for narcolepsy used off-label for mental alertness. A mild kind of speed that makes you smarter was how Boyd described it, claiming Provigil, weed, and wine increased ten-fold his ability to enjoy TV and look up actresses on imdb, google old boyfriends and art-school colleagues and recipes and check his email. His mortar-and-pestlehe used it to muddle herbs at home, being an excellent cookhad a stonish look to it, a kind of old-world, faux-rustic look. Next to the mortar sat a bottle of wine; Mattie had brought nice big wine goblets. Mattie thought, pleased, that with that faux-rustic pestle and the big goblets, the whole dresser had a kind of witchy-altar vibe. A witchy-altar vibe, like out of Deathdream. Matties dads character in Deathdream kept up a little witchy altar: he played a man who returns to his small-town Iowa family after being declared dead in Cambodia, another pointless 19-year-old soldiers death. As the family mourns, my dad returns. Mysteriously, he wears dandy-ish, 18th-century-ish suits, although hed been the high school quarterback, cleancut. A jock. A star. But he comes back from Cambodia with long hair, and is, as it turns out, undead. But not in a vampirish way, not exactly. He does rely on bloodbut doesnt drink it from necks. Instead, he keeps the blood of his victims in bottles, bottles of old hand-blownlooking glass; the kind youd expect to see in some Victorian-era laboratory. How he exactly gets
80 his victims blood into the bottles is never explained. (The killings are pre-slasher bloodless shock: a woman waits for the bus at night; shes startled by something rustling in the bushesOh! Just a kitten; she breaths a sigh of relief. Then a scream, then the camera cuts to a streak of blood on the sidewalk; then to dads stock of bottles in a cheap Frigidaire). Hes a kind of a modern healthy-ish vampire; at least modern for the time. He kept herbs and witchy ointments in various other tiny bottles. We even see him mixing up some kind of paste in an old pestlethe idea is he acquired witchy Cambodian powers that involve staying alive through the use of exotic herbs, chanting in Khmer and human blood. But instead of drinking blood, he actually shoots it up in a cartoonishly huge syringe. Boyd snorted the Provigil and they settled in to for a stretch of comfortable quiet. Mattie imagined they were an ancient married couple. Sexless, united in sedentary activities: sitting around, eating, googling and watching TV, sleeping until morning, heading, to their separate desks for work. Boyd called Mattie into his office early, well before noon. Can you explain to me, he said, agitated, how someone who owns two homes and a fucking yacht needs to rearrange assets. I dont even know what rearrange assets means. Boyd looked at Mattie. Jesse was in his office, too: Jesse was IT. And Angelika, the photo editor. I got an email, he said. From Frieze. He turned his monitor around to show her. Dear Boyd my nephew convinced me to finally relinquish the beloved reins of Hound. As you know were hovering at a circulation of 350,000 and Ive even needed to start rearranging some financial assets of my own and yes feel its time to pass the baton. I am in town at City of Hope where I will have surgery for tongue cancer. Im a child of the sixties. I believe
81 in fair treatment and labor and all that expect to keep your jobs and be treated with respect. Maybe youve heard of my nephews company, flagrags. He works as a VP. He is very smart but I should say also very clean cut he likes things ordered more later I am at a Kinkos, meanwhile I have some tasty chocolate for you I got in Oaxaca They had heard of the company, of course they had: a clothing company based in downtown L.A., an ubiquitous, way-hip label known for its no sweatshop made-in-USA policy. It was also known for its ad campaign, featuring sullen-looking non-models in wifebeaters and briefs, all shot in a porny, snapshot way. Mattie had read about the company in the Weekly: the company provided employees with catered vegan lunches and Kambucha tea, some kind of Russian mushroom tea purported to have extraordinary health benefits. Im getting fired, Boyd said. And whos gonna hire an old fat queen? He swiveled to face Mattie and as he did he knocked over an old Diet Coke Big Gulp with his elbow. Fuck! he said. He looked crushed. He grabbed some wadded napkins from a desk drawer and began mopping. Mattie hated Boyd looking crushed. Okay first of all youre not fat, she saidbut she felt a kind of panic seeping through her like a stain. She did not want to get a new job. And what about that sixties kumbaya stuff? He says youre not getting fired? Ive worked here for fourteen years, seen this rag through everything, and what? Im just put out to pasture? Like an old horse at a glue factory? Mixed metaphor, Mattie said. Fuck you.
82 Just then a tall young man with long hair and acne walked in: Boyds weed connect. As was his way, Boyd motioned for the guy to sit. Boyd would typically get him high as a kind of tip. Can you grab my money? Boyd said, sopping up soda that had dripped into his drawer. Mattie grabbed his wallet from his coat pocket, pulled out a wad of twenties and paid the delivery guy. The guy handed her a bag of weed. You know fucking what? Boyd said. Im buying weed for the entire office, weed and booze. I want us to have a real party. I want us to party the way people partied in the streets during the Bubonic plague. That plague shit was intense, the weed-guy said. I saw a thing about it on The History Channel. Whats your name again? Boyd asked him, still angrily sopping. Davies. Right, Davies. Yes indeed Davies, that plague shit was intense. Now lets imagine this new corporate fuck Warren is the plague. He will be reigning down his corporate plagueness upon us and as innocent bystanders we will either succumb or die. So, a party. Someone said: With weed? A little tame for an end of the world party. Mattie hadnt said it, Boyd hadnt said it, Davies hadnt said it. Someone standing in the door of Boyds office had said ita man with trim brown hair, khakis, a Ken-dollish square jaw, in his 40s, a crisp picture of strapping mid-40s health. He looked preppy-casual except for two diminutive hoops in his ears. Davies coughed. They all looked at the man. The man didnt smile. Hello, he said. Im Warren. Can I see that please? He motioned to the weed Mattie held. Mattie felt suddenly like she was in high school.
83 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH Sharon Lintz grew up in San Diego. She attended the University of California at Santa Cruz as an undergraduate and the University of Florida for her M.F.A. in creative writing.