by R V Branham
(once) “There are only three stories in the series.”
“The Wall of Death.”
“Oh, that.” Toyboy had just put his clothes back on and Boyo had packed away the vidcam. “It’s cold in here. Turn the heater on.”
“I don’t want to run the battery down.”
Toyboy climbed into the shotgun seat. “That’s nearly as stupid as your saying there are only three stories.”
Toyboy and Boyo waited in a leprous minivan with halfshot stereo speakers and shittyass radio reception, waited adjacent to an alley under the east end of the Burnside Bridge, waited for the latest storm front coming over from the coast to pass on through the Gorge.
“Your fly’s open.”
The two watched sheets of rain, rain starkly lit by fluorescent street and billboard lights above and theatrically framed by the proscenium of bridge. The radio was tuned to KBOO and attempting to broadcast Sid Vicious’s take on I Did It My Way but the Eagles’ Hotel California kept interfering from an adjacent classic rock station. “White people cannot play music.”
“That is racist bullshit, Boyo.”
“No it is not, black people are incapable of racism. Tis a fact.”
“Like your three stories —”
“Three stories: the story about the story, the story of the life lived, and the story of love.”
“You are so full of shit, Boyo.”
“Look, that’s what Beausoleil said he’s aiming to illustrate with the installation. And if he’s full of shit, well, he’s making beaucoup buckarinos. Money talks and bullshit walks.”
“Money talks and pretentious trustafarian art gallery bullshit sells.”
“…’S not what you said when you got one of those grants his family hands out.”
The rain had stopped and the absence of torrential din was becoming as oppressive as its former presence.
“Always change the subject, Boyo.”
Boyo grabbed the bucket of wallpaper paste and the photocopied sheets. “Time to give the sponsors a new message.”
“Should we do a before-after tape…?”
“Ummm. Beausoleil said he just wanted one bit from each contributor.”
“…So? Consider this an extension of the bit, then.”
The two hauled a yellow dumpster to a fire escape and climbed up onto the dumpster and pulled themselves up to the first rung, zagzigging upward and onward to the giant billboard atop the warehouse.
“Check it out,” said Toyboy, pointing to the cul de sac alley below: “I hope we don’t meet any skinheads tonight.”
“The fuck you worried about skinheads, Toyboy?, it’s my ass they’d want. Let’s get it done so we can dropkick the camcorder to the next contributor.” (diez) John Triplette, in a cab, was heading downtown from his condo just north of Mt. Tabor.
Headed to the Heathman Hotel.
Jag in the garage. Just two days, they had told him.
New timing belt and water pump.
At this rate the auto shop had sent someone to mine the ore and coal, then smelt the ore, cast the parts, and someone else to grow and harvest the rubber.
An altered billboard ahead came into sharp focus with each pass of the cab’s windshield wipers.
It was a microwbrew ad — only the text read: Pop a McCain. He didn’t entirely approve, especially since that particular parent corp was one of his firm’s clients, but all the same he hoped the authorities never caught the kids.
His cellphone rang; he answered.
“Gretchen.” The oldest.
“No can do, you know that.”
“Your mom’s got a restraining order.”
He sighed. “…Yes?”
“I think I broke her jaw.”
John Triplette spoke into the cellphone, spoke firmly to his daughter.
“Call an ambulance and get her into Providence Portland emergency, got that?”
“All of you have coverage, I know you do, I pay the premiums, so call Providence and get an ambulance or a cab to take her there.” Then: “And what about your sisters? Where are they?”
“They’re still hitting her.”
“…Get your sisters to stop hitting your mom and call Providence. I’m meeting important clients. Goodbye, good night. Call my pager tomorrow.”
He turned the cellphone’s talk button off, and as he flipped the cellphone shut, it rang again. He flipped it open again, saw his boss’s number, then pressed talk: “John Triplette here, in transit.”
“…We’re all waiting for you, John. Legal’s got to catch a redeye to D.C., remember —”
“I’ll be there in about fifteen, twenty minutes. Maybe sooner.”
John Triplette felt in his jacket pockets for a breath mint, couldn’t find one.
“Excuse me,” he said to the cabdriver, “Do you have any breath mints?”
“Sorry, mon. No.”
A convenience store sign was visible ahead, bleary then sharp and then bleary again. Plaid Pantry.
“Do you mind stopping at the store a second?”
“No problem, mon.” The cabdriver laughed. “Dragon breath is not good, whether for business or pleasure.”
John Triplette unbuckled and got out of the car before the driver had fully stopped.
The rain was now mere drizzle, a mere stigmatic oozing from the sky. The unseasonably bitter and marrowfreezing cold, on the other hand, was fucking annoying. Halfway across the lot an unkempt man asked for change. Or something. Absence of teeth made the man’s speech hard to understand.
“Sorry, no,” John Triplette said. He was astonised that the poor bastard reeked so horribly even in the dank and pouring rain. He saw the man’s pet dog, a terrier, with a bowtie serving as collar.
The man repeated his request and John Triplette was tempted to tell the man with absence of teeth to get a job.
Inside the store were two clerks, huddled behind the counter with a tiny sputtering heater. One rattled away in Russian. He heard “video-camera” twice but everything else was Russian. The Russian-speaker’s badge said “Anastasia.” Anastasia reminded him of a Salomea in Tel Aviv who’d given him a dickburning clap dose. But this Anastasia was too young and could be Salomea’s daughter for all John knew. And for all John Triplette knew he was her father…it had been long enough ago. She had the same delicately carved Slavic features, the same porcelain skin, as Salomea. The other clerk’s badge said “Carla” and she looked like those campesinas around Cuernavaca selling slipshoddy terra cota Mesoamerican figurines that always looks more Ming dynasty than Azteca or anything else Pre-Columbian. Only Carla was much much taller than the campesinas and less dark. Still, Carla had to use a footstool to refill the cigarette display. This Carla had the legs of a model or pole dancer and her teeth looked like she had extorted the world’s finest dentist. What interested John Triplette most about this Carla was that she seemed to understand what Anastasia said. This Carla spoke to Anastasia in Spanish and Anastasia replied in Russian, and Carla rejoindered in Spanish.
John Triplette found the Certs on a shelf with cough drops and chewing gum and antacids, right next to the magazine rack. The Oregonian afternoon edition had its bright red screamer: OUR LADY OF I-99: VIRGIN MARY IN McMINVILLE! There were also the usual adult magazines and the sort of newspapers with yellow or pink stars strategically placed on crotch or nipple. He looked closely and saw the smirky slutty cover sucked into a field of tiny dots, a vortex of printer’s ink. John had recently placed another ad so he grabbed an issue. He was also tempted by a display of chocolate Easter bunnies in bright gold foil, tempted to buy a few for his daughters. To hell with the girls, who had become bigger cuntessas than their mother; besides, they’d just pummel their mother to death with the goldfoil choco-bunnies and then expect to move in with him while filing their court Appeals.
He set the paper and the Certs on the counter. He noticed newsprint on his fingers, his fingerprints on the paper. The Russian, Anastasia, kept talking.
“…Excuse me,” he said to the clerks behind the counter. “I have a taxicab waiting….”
The Russian turned to him.
“I am so sorry.”
He saw her glance at his adult paper, her barely concealed sneer. She said something to the other girl as she rang up his purchase.
John Triplette looked at the Russian.
“If you’re so offended, then you shouldn’t stock them.”
She looked back at him. “It is not my decision, sir.”
“No, but if your employer sells merchandise you find objectionable then you have the option of working for another employer.”
He gave her four one-dollar bills.
“Keep the change.”
“Oolala,” he heard Anastasia say as he went out the chiming door. (ocho) Toyboy hated Costco, hated the way they always moved the merchandise around.
He had just picked up two cases of microwbrewski and was looking for Healthy Valley Granola bars, which were usually with the other granola bars, near the coffee and spices, towards the back of the warehouse of forking and forklifting aisles. (The warehouse seemed a mirror of the labyrinthine rosecity outside with its oneway streets and switchbacks and fivecornered roundabouts, its northonly southonly freeway onramps, its divisions into North and Northeast and Southeast and Southwest and Northwest, that ensured you never returned by the way you came, and indeed might take a bridge over the Willamette and pass through a New Orleans Parish or New York borough along the way.) And no matter which forking aisle Toyboy pushed his yellow cart into, he found himself against the tallshort fatskinny flow of traffic.
He finally found the granola bars, now precariously stacked next to the peanuts and toffee and photocopy-cum-fax machines.
Toyboy hated shopping, actually, he loved the concept, loved the consumer goods grouped together in pyramids and ziggurats, each brand sitting side by side by side in commodified solidarity, but he absolutely hated the constant shifting and moving of displays, of departments reorganized constantly, made leaner and meaner, and the untrained staff.
The peanuts and toffee made him think of his uncle’s ad agency and the fax machines made him think of Tien A Min Square.
When he was in junior high school he hung out at his uncle’s agency, pigged out on toffee and cashews — picked from the mixed nuts, bantered with the screaming queen photo researcher.
Toyboy’s uncle insisted that if he was hanging around then he should at the very least tend to the photocopier and the fax.
The art director, the receptionist, and two account execs were Chinese and during the upheavals in China there had been a constant stream of ideograms spilling out of the fax machines, a constant stream of Mandarin conversation as the Chinese staff discussed the day’s events, or translated the faxes into English and sent them to local media.
And after the tanks in Beijing rolled into Tien A Min Square and rolled over the demonstrations and the demonstrators, after the clampdown, there was a mournfulness at the agency — an account exec had lost a cousin to the tanks.
As Toyboy made his way to the Costco checkout lines he passed through the CD and video aisle. Beatles Anthology and Babe ruled this aisle. Nothing on display interested him; musicwise, he only liked samba, industrial, tango, triphop and rap, and the only videos he enjoyed were foreign and indie films and porn. For those he depended on Music Millennium, Video Madness or the XXX video stores along 82nd. But the last time Toyboy went to Music Millennium — his first visit in six months, they had moved the used CD racks, and he looked and looked and went to the counter but he couldn’t abide that particular clerk so he just left. In the here of Costco was a gauntlet of big screens, each showing Babe or The Lion King.
The big screens made him think of the big screen at Boyo’s birthday party, and the video where a guy did another guy with a python, shoved the serpent’s tail up his sexual partner’s tail.
Toyboy wanted to get Boyo a python and saw a Petplanet ad, an ad boasting of a varied selection of reptiles, and when he got to the store all they had were garter snakes and small lizards.
Bait and switch.
He hated that.
The snakes were teensyweensy, and not advised for intimate play. Their teensyweensy serpent teeth were razorsharp, their bite only very slightly venomous.
Toyboy felt foolish and exploited, but bought a snake anyway. Along with an aquarium. He named the teensyweensy snake Mr. Big Ten Inch. And he found the situation to be more than a little ridiculous when he saw the snake observe him from its aquarium demesne. Observe him wank away, tongue darting in time as he spunked all over his unkempt futon.
He later moved Mr. Big Ten Inch to the kitchenette.
And one intermittently sunny day he found Mr. Big Ten Inch dead, fried by the combined sunlight, from the window, and the central heating’s rising heat. (siete) John Triplette woke up in a cold sweat.
In the dream he had been on the redeye to D.C. with Mark from Legal and smoke licked and flames curled while a porcelainskinned flight attendant who spoke Russian kept trying to give him foilwrapped Easter bunnies for his daughters and Mark whined about people talking during the movie and then the plane crashed, slowly, skidded into a wheatfield and shattered into bits and John Triplette himself felt as if each bone in his body had been broken.
And Mark from Legal, though decapitated, continued to bitch that he couldn’t see the movie now that his head was wedged under a seat.
And John’s daughters were there, too. Passing out paper spoons and silver plates.
The dream was a belated reaction to his second cousin Leslie’s jetcrash death. John never saw Leslie much but felt closer to her (and her dyke inamorata) than to his own brother and sister, whom he never saw at all. He didn’t need a licensed therapist to figure the dream.
John could smell the coffee and hear the gurgle from the kitchenette. He looked at the blinking digital clock. 6:00. 6:00. 6:00. It was going to ring anyway in five minutes so he got up and pressed the off button.
John staggered to the bathroom. Momentarily yanked down his boxers and approximately pissed into the toilet bowl. Then he turned on the shower…it took forever for the water in these condos to get sufficiently hot.
Then into the kitchenette for coffee. He winced as a few drops of java fell to the hot plate and sizzled. He hated the scent of scorched coffee.
John turned on the radio. OPB described a pileup on the Banfield that had caused traffic to back up to 205. He was halfway through his first cup when he heard the news item, which had the effect of making him splatter hothothot coffee down his thigh.
A convenience store clerk had been murdered last night. Stabbed during a robbery. He knew the name of the store and the name of the clerk before the announcer confirmed it.
A second clerk, on her lunch break, was in the bathroom when it happened and had not heard a thing.
The second clerk’s name was Carla Arrendondo.
John knew that name.
The last name.
He knew a Miguel Arrendondo.
A Mexican landscape gardener with an ulcer always got onto the Max tram at the same time as he did, then got off at the Convention Center stop, where civic banners hung from retro streetlamps promised a spring, three stops before his. The gardener worked at Palindrome Corp’s Beaverton demesne. But with all this downsizing shit, no one was really safe. Still, Miguel should be okay. Those topiaries were not going to be tortured by the CEO. John liked the gardener, he liked people who at least tried. This landscape gardener named Miguel invariably spoke to John in broken English, then invariably gave up and spoke in Spanish.
John Triplette didn’t mind, he got to practice his Spanish. At least the poor bastard was trying to learn English, progressing a tiny bit further each time before bellyflopping out of a cold sea of English and back to his safe shore of Spanish.
This Miguel Arrendondo had an exwife and his exwife was giving him all sorts of grief about child visitation so John Triplette referred Miguel to a good bilingual lawyer who did pro bono for the Latino community.
Later Miguel offered to do landscape work for him. Offer hell, Miguel insisted. Machismo pride strikes again. Miguel was scheduled to cut down two cherry trees for John’s exwife Laura in a few days and put in flower beds. Exwife Laura had already hit him up to pay for a god damn woodchipper rental.
John wondered if this Carla Arrendondo was Miguel’s exwife.
Maybe his sister or sister-in-law.
Miguel spoke of brothers in Gresham and Vancouver.
There was something ineffably sad and hangdog about Miguel, something he couldn’t quite place. Not the sadness of a marital breakup. Something else.
The phone rang and switched over to the fax on the second ring. Before taking a shower he looked at the fax. Mark from Legal, faxing from D.C. and requesting that John email him the most recent microwave radiation studies.
A lot rode on this.
Their clients hoped to set up a microwave antenna network along I-5 (from San Diego to Seattle) so that cellphone users would never again worry about a skyscraper interrupting their cellphone chat. And the hypochondriacs at FCC had gerbil whiskers up their assholes about the effects of microwave radiation.
John noticed someone in the apartment across the footpath as he went out the door.
His neighbor was on vacation and had told him to call the NE Precinct Office and ask for Det. Cosacher if he saw anyone in or around her apartment.
John went back into the house and got the number and dialed on his cellphone. He reported this apparent breakin to the police as he walked down his budding street to the transit stop.
The precinct desk officer was telling him that he should contact Det. Cosacher at the downtown Justice Center but became very interested when he gave them the neighbor’s name.
The neighbor’s son had operated a methlab in Oregon City and caused three deaths in an accidental explosion at a Motel 6.
The neighbor had gotten a restraining order against her son, too, after he beat her up and robbed her.
Restraining orders and cellphones were two of the dominant modes of discourse these days.
A cellphone was used to say “definitely maybe” and a restraining order to say “maybe no.” (seis) Laura Triplette looked at herself in the bathroom mirror.
The sunglasses hid the black eyes and half a pound of foundation hid the bruise on her jaw.
She hadn’t broken it, just lost a tooth. Chipped a second. Fortunately the teeth weren’t front teeth.
The kids were now at school. Too bad there weren’t Carmelite penguins with rulers to slap their hands until they bled.
She could not even remember what she had said or done to set the kids off.
One minute she was in dispute with her children and the next thing she knew she was in an ambulance bound for the hospital. Her exhusband always said she had a genius for pissing people off.
She burst with laughter, she couldn’t help it. — Fuck him, fuck John’s lawyer ass, fuck John’s lawyer’s lawyer ass.
She had to organize tables and campaign workers for the President’s visit next week.
Move those buttons and bumperstickers, get the ball rolling.
She was a precinct committee member, in part due to her ability to bribe or goad her children into endless hours of envelope stuffing, in part due to her exhusband’s connections.
The cocksucking bastard.
Laura Triplette took another viletasting sip from the glass.
Ploplopfizzfizz oh what a relief it — “Is that all there is?” blared from the livingroom radio. Tuned to the jazz station.
She hadn’t heard that song in eons.
That song couldn’t even be carbondated, that song was older than carbon, probably even older than the Big Bang.
Talk about Big Bangs. She had been talking to Johanna half an hour ago, Johanna being a central committee member and union local president, when they were interrupted by the loud klaxon screech and then a booming voice:
“MAY I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION…MAY I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION…”
Laura heard it clearly, too clearly.
Then Johanna said, “Gotta go. Bomb squad found a box in the park across the street. They’re evacuating the whole building.”
“So much for getting volunteers committed to set up tables.”
“That’s not funny, Laura.”
“Okay. I’ll call you later, smartass. I’ve really got to go.”
Then the therapist had phoned her. Gretchen probably left a god damn voicemail or email with the therapist.
Master of the pre-emptive strike, that one.
The therapist wanted all of them in separate sessions next week. — Again, she couldn’t help it, she laughed. — The therapist said something about displacement anxiety as Laura hung up.
A thought occurred to her and she ran into Gretchen’s bedroom and looked for the camcorder Gretchen was using for some “project” or other.
Had Gretchen taken it to school?
Had she videotaped last night’s melee for showandtell?
Then a call from Sears, reminding her that they would be there to shampoo the carpet in two days.
The girls would have to make themselves remotely useful and help move the diningroom table and the Hepplewhite side chairs out to the patio before the carpet shampooers arrived.
Tommy, a neighbor, could be counted on to help, but she didn’t want to take advantage of him, have him do all of it.
Maybe his gay son the art student and his boyfriend “Toyboy” would help.
They had to take great care with the furniture. A favorite aunt had left her those six Hepplewhite mahogany side chairs, with vase-shaped splats, molded back uprights, and upholstered seats. Along with a Hepplewhite dining table and ladies desk — ditto — they were her most valued and heavily-insured possessions.
Everything had been shipped from her aunt’s Vermont house — the house itself and most of the furniture had been left to one of her cousins.
But another reason she so loved that furniture was how it daily brought back to her so many idyllically illicit New England summer nights of her youth, nights spent greedily in a nearby barn or lakeside boathouse.
She didn’t want to dwell on her uncle and the way he winked at her one night as she sneaked back from the boathouse or how later her aunt asked if her uncle had said or done anything to her, and how she just laughed, she had to, she couldn’t help it, she just burst with laughter until her aunt told her that, just wait, some day she wouldn’t laugh.
Some day, her aunt had said, and that was the last anyone ever said of it. — They would have to be so very careful with that desk and dining table, those chairs.
Other furniture was not so favored.
Half the den was done in red death-in-the-afternoon Hemingway leather, which she hated and would get around to changing some day.
Her exhusband’s office was in basic Peckinpah black. That, too, would go.
So much to do.
Laura finished the glass off, almost gagging as she got to the seltzer and aspirin dregs. (cinco) “Mami!”
Carla was in the middle of straining pasta, trying not to get splattered by the boiling water and olive oil. A drainboard tile had just come loose and she dreaded having to tell the hijo de culo of a landlord.
“Mira. En teevee!”
Carla ran into the livingroom. Her son had channelsurfed to the All Local News Channel™. She saw herself, she was on the News. Being interviewed.
Carla was embarrassed to see herself.
She looked like mierda — all zebrastriped due to the usually crappy Parable Cable reception.
She hoped Miguel didn’t see the interview, he’d get his cheap ass lawyer to try and make an issue of it, saying any mother who worked in a dangerous place was an unsuitable parent, or get her to quit there and then use that against her.
But Miguel’s vote didn’t count.
His lawyer didn’t count.
His asshole car mechanic brothers didn’t count.
And let Palindrome downsize Miguel’s skinny ass when it moved everyone to Indonesia or Hong Kong or wherever the fuck —
“Put Nickelodeon back on, Manny.”
“What happened to Anastasia.”
“Then porque en el News?”
“Put Nickelodeon on.”
“Now. I have to finish the spaghetti.”
“I like pisketti.”
“I know why you like spaghetti, that’s why I’m making it. So put the cartoons back on, okay? I’ll call you when the spaghetti’s ready.”
The phone rang. “Get it, Manny. Ask who it is.”
“Hello,” she heard her son say from the livingroom.
Then, to her: “It’s a man, mami. About an ad. He said you called.”
“Bring the phone, Manny.”
“Please wait,” her son said as he brought the phone to her.
Carla had been perusing the nudie paper.
Anastasia caught her and hit the ceiling.
And again when Carla wrote a phone number down and then called and left a voice mail.
Anastasia swore in Russian and Carla swore back in Spanish. Their mutual language lessons had gone well over the last six months. Too well. That Russian holy roller had been as bad as Miguel, her ex-. But she was dead now.
Still, Miguel would be furious if he found out. He claimed that nude dancing was dangerous and when she told him the clubs she worked were better-guarded than a bank he said that it was still puta’s money.
The pendejo’d rather she risk being knifed or shot for five bucks an hour than run risk of getting her fanny pinched or slapped for three or four hundred a night.
Miguel didn’t nearly break his neck by sliding into a lake of murdered coworker’s blood and then have to call 911 and be asked a bunch of estupido questions by pendejo cops and friegado sin madre News At 9 Ken-and-Barbdolls.
Miguel wasn’t chewed out by the pinchi puto supervisor for not being there when the murder happened.
It was all so unreal.
And then there was the vidcam that Anastasia brought to work, saying her film student brother wanted her to shoot strange scenes for this “project” this weird puto of a photographer was doing, that she’d get to be a Spielberg for a day. — What was that photographer’s name?
Beausoleil or something like that…Carla read about him in a Rocket To Uranus article, how he did photos and videos of naked guys. — So Anastasia started aiming the vidcam at the toothless bum who hung out in the parking lot to hit up people for change.
Anastasia felt sorry for the man’s pet dog, a terrier, with a bowtie. Anastasia had warmed to the old bum, too.
So when Carla stumbled on Anastasia’s dead body she took the vidcam, thinking it would be best to give it to Anastasia’s brother so that the “Spielberg For A Day” video would not gather dust in a police evidence room.
“What sort of experience do you have?”
“I danced at EJ’s for a year. And a year at Henry The VIII down in Ellay….” She didn’t tell him that was over five years ago.
“Well, it’s a retirement party.” She recognized the man’s voice but could not quite place it. “Our vice president’s retiring and we want to send him off with an idiot smile on his face.”
“Oh,” she said and listened, and said, “Oh,” a few more times. Then, finally she said: “I’ll send the gentleman off in style.” A bunch of lawyers and politicians. Easy money.
“What’s ‘Whitewater,’ mami? What’s ‘bailout’?” her son Manny asked her during dinner. (cuatro) “What strange beast is that?”
Toyboy pointed to a bunch of kids hanging out by the bus shelter, kids whacking away at the plexiglass with blunt objects. A feeble streetlamp gave more shadow than light, and the cast shadows made it hard to gauge their number. The plexiglass gave way.
“Let’s go.” Toyboy turned to run.
“Fuck ‘em.” Boyo drew an exactoblade from his pack. “We have an assignment.” A supermodel waif looked down on them from a well-lit billboard. The waif had a milk mustache and above her the print asked where your mustache was.
“Woo-woo-woo-woo!” The kids whooped as if part of a teevee talk show audience. One of the kids called: “We have us a spearchucker!”
“Let’s run for the van,” Toyboy whispered.
“Let’s kick their —”
The kids were in motion, closing in from across the street. There were seven. Three had bats. One had a twobyfour.
Boyo stood his ground.
Toyboy backed away and hardly registered that he’d dropped the bucket of wallpaper paste and the photocopied sheets were blowing across the street. What Toyboy registered was that each of their seven assailants had hair cropped to the skull. That each had intricate whitepower lightning bolt insignias and symbols silkscreened onto his tshirt.
“Say what —”
“Niggah thinks he’s a Ninja!”
“Hey Nazis, fuck off!”
Two of the seven stepped forward.
Boyo held the exacto blade.
And the three with bats and the one with a twobyfour did just that. They bashed into him while three others chased Toyboy into the sociopathic night.
Toyboy saw the bright lights of an approaching emergency vehicle, now several blocks distant.
He turned back to see one of the whitepower seven stab Boyo in the chest with his own exactoknife. (tres) Carla Arrendondo wiped a small bit of dried semen off her leg before counting her tips.
Her skin had turned red when she wiped it so she knew it was semen.
She was allergic to semen.
Her doctor blushed before telling her that that was not uncommon.
Boys would be boys, whether young turks or oldfarts.
The crowd wasn’t any different from any other. Better dressed, more polite. But she expected no less when told to go to a suite at the Heathman.
Still, there was always a dollop or three of ejaculate. Kept them from dragging a girl into an alley. Three hundred and two dollars. Not bad. But it was beyond weird dealing with that John Triplette. He was the creep who came into the store the night Anastasia got killed. Carla had not quite connected the voice when making the arrangements. But when he gave her a ride back home in his Jag he was decent enough not to hit on her. (In fact he gave of the vibe of no-vibe, which sometimes, to her reckoning, was the best vibe of all.)
After a mysterious car parked across the street from her apartment hauled off all banshee llorona-like he offered to walk Carla to her door and when Carla said she could take care of herself he said he’d wait until she got to her apartment door before he left.
It was sweet, sort of, for him to be so paranoid on her behalf. She found people treated her with more respect after paying her to take it all off and shake her bootie.
“How’d it go?” the babysitter asked.
“Same old same old.”
“Oh. Your ex- called —”
Aha. The strange car across the street. “What’d you tell him?”
“I said you had a dancing gig —”
Miguel had probably borrowed the car from his bastard car mechanic brothers. “Ah, mierda de dios —”
“It’s not your fault. I should’ve told you. He always freaked bigtime when I danced in Ellay.”
“He probably freaked that you earned more money than him.”
“Exactamente. How’d you guess?” Then: “What’d he say?”
“He said he’d pick up Manny an hour later than usual next week, then he just hung up.”
“Look, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t sweat it.”
After the babysitter left she checked in on her son. Manny had a habit of throwing his blanket off and then waking up with a bad cold — or worse.
She made sure Manny was covered before shutting the door. (dos) “Mi sister,” Miguel had said so long ago.
It had all happened so long ago.
Long before his mechanic brothers married Chicanas in East Ellay and sent for him and his mother.
Before the migrastroika amnestia allowed Miguel and his mother to become resident aliens.
Before his brothers migrated up to Oregon and sent for him again. Long before NAFTA, even.
“Not interested,” the gringo had said.
“Mi sister,” he had repeated to a gringo journalista in Mexicali, a journalist writing about the Mattel maquiladora.
Miguel was twelve years old. His older sister Flora helped support the family by working twelve hours a day six days a week at Mattel, where she checked the Barbie heads as they came off the assembly line and made sure their hair was all todo fino and that their eyes and lips were properly colored.
A pinchi puto supervisor had caught Flora stealing a Barbie. He didn’t care that it was for her cousin’s birthday.
The supervisor was a gringo who lived over the border in El Centro and drove the fourteen miles down to Mexicali and the fourteen miles back up to El Centro five days a week. The supervisor didn’t fire Miguel’s older sister. Just fucked her, got her pregnant.
Two months later Flora was missing.
She had been missing a week, and the brothers in Los Angeles hadn’t heard a thing.
It was late spring and the thermometer was taking up residence in the ninetyfive to hundredten degree range, where it would stay until October’s end. And when Miguel’s mother sent him to enquire with the police, well, the desk officer just barked with laughter.
The only reason the policemen did not beat Miguel senseless was that Miguel’s late uncle had once been a policeman.
“Mira en el Rio Nuevo.”
Look in Rio Nuevo, they had said.
El Rio Nuevo was a creek, really, a creek which filled with Mexicali’s untreated sewage to flow up north and empty out into a gringo canyon by the Calexico airport.
Sometimes bodies were found floating in the sewage. Bloated and broiled by the sun. Along the banks of El Rio Nuevo were billboards advertising Marlboro Country or the Frito bandito or cerveza Carta Blanca.
Sometimes the journalists and photographers who discovered and photographed the bodies were themselves later to be discovered floating there too.
Miguel next visited an amputee friend who shined shoes and over and over sold the same baggie of marijuana to about-to-be-arrested gringo touristas, over and over, day-in and -out. The amputee friend told him a prominent gringo journalista and his photographer were staying at the Mexicali Holiday Inn, that they would be interested in hearing about Miguel’s missing sister.
“Mi sister,” he’d said as they answered the door.
“No fuckee,” the gringo photographer butted in. The photographer had clutched a beer.
“Mi sister, she missing.”
“Come in.” The journalist had held the door open, admitted them to their airconditioned dreamscape.
And Miguel with his broken English and the journalist and photographer with their fractured Spanish had discussed his sister and her work at Mattel and her disappearance.
He had not been able to tell them of the gringo supervisor who had gotten her with child…some things were just not to be told to gringo journalistas.
The gringo journalistas had finally promised to do what they could.
He also had made the two gringos promise that they would not take a picture of her corpse if they found her. Or, if they did, that her corpse would not be naked. Miguel knew that his mother did not want to see her corpse on the front page of the newspaper.
The two gringos had indeed found Miguel’s sister, found her floating just a hundred feet short of the American border, and had written an article that was to appear in the San Diego Union and Los Angeles Times — Miguel’s brothers cut out and sent the articles to Miguel and his mother.
There were no corpse photos with the articles in the gringo papers.
But the Mexicali papers had the photo of his sister and gave her name and mentioned that she had been with child. And in the photo she had been bloated and naked and made a negrita by the sun and her teeth now looked all horse’s teethlike.
The gringo photographer’s name had been in tiny letters by the photo.
L. Smith. Lionel Smith.
Miguel would never forget that name.
At least the Mexicali police had beaten up the photographer.
Gringos were like that.
Offer to help. Make a promise. Then do something to your sister. Or even the mother of your child — even if she did earn puta money.
Miguel tore the letter up, the letter translated for him by his gringo supervisor, his gringo supervisor who’d gotten a letter just like his, a letter giving him three month’s notice; his gringo supervisor was on the phone and had another job lined up by noon, and by midafternoon had jobs lined up for everyone else but him.
His gringo supervisor said not to worry.
Gringos, all the same.
The gringo Miguel practiced his English with on the TriMet every day was no different.
The gringo who paid his ex- to take off her clothes for a roomful of other gringos.
John Triplette was no different than L. Smith or his gringo supervisor. (uno) “Gretchen,” Laura Triplette called up the stairs.
“Come down here now!”
Everything was moving too fast. The guy her exhusband had gotten to do the back yard, he was here early, John just dropped this wetback off at the corner and then took off. Of course, the restraining order had something to do with that. The wetback was trying to talk to her, only his English was awful. And he was a surly bastard, too, and he stank. Was it oppressive or something for third world people to use underarm deodorant? The Sears crew was early, too, and uncoiling their hoses. One of the Sears guys told her they might have to postpone if she wasn’t ready soon. He was rude, too, but at least he did not stink, at least he spoke English, sort of. — Better English than the god damn soldiers who were supposed to be on military manoeuvres last night and instead sat on her front porch smoking dope and drinking microbrews — and you bet you she took the bottles into Freddies.
And the kid next door wasn’t able to help out because he’d been killed two nights before by Aryan Neo-Nazi homophobe types, and she was sorry about that, really, but couldn’t he have waited until after she got her carpet shampooed? Laura couldn’t help it, really, as she felt the damn laughter coming again. — She had already set the chairs against a far wall, lined them up like a company of wooden soldiers. She took the wetback to the diningroom. She went to one side of the table and motioned to him.
“The other side.”
Laura remembered the word.
“La mesa, por favor.”
He understood Laura and went to the other side and, together, they removed the center leaves from the table.
“Gretchen,” she called again.
Laura took the leaves and set them in the winter closet, leaned them against two rolled up sleeping bags. Then to the diningroom again.
“La mesa,” she repeated and pointed to the kitchen.
They picked up the table and, tilting to the left, were able to clear the breakfast bar. They set the table in the center of the kitchen.
“Maybe I should keep it here,” she said, “I’ve always wanted an island.” Laura thought of her aunt and her winking uncle by the boathouse, and she couldn’t help it, she burst, she laughed again, and only stopped when the wetback cleared his throat.
Then to the diningroom again to pick up a chair and ask him to pick up a chair.
Which he did.
And then on through to the pantry door and the patio, where she set down a chair and he set down a chair.
She showed him the woodchipper and the old pine branches stacked behind the garage and then mimed feeding the branches into the machine.
“First,” she said, “let’s get the rest of the chairs.”
Then back into the diningroom, where each grabbed another chair.
Laura turned to see that the wetback had taken the chair out to the patio and returned for another.
“Come down here now!”
The shampooers were coming into the house with their miles of hoses. She turned to the diningroom. From the west window she could see out to the patio, where she and the wetback had set the Hepplewhite chairs, and where the wetback now stacked branches in front of the woodchipper.
“Gretchen, if you don’t come down here right now you are grounded! Do you hear me?”
Laura heard the click of a switch through the open window, just like that, a switch clicked on and then an engine’s horsepower roar and buzz and a grinding sound. And turned to see the wetback feed the woodchipper. Some day, her aunt had said, she wouldn’t laugh. So she screamed, she screamed at the wetback.
“I said the branches!”
Laura screamed again and rushed to the window and screamed yet again as the wetback continued to feed all that remained of her favorite aunt and all those illicitly idyllic New England boathouse summer nights into the rented woodchipper and she could not help it because she burst again and laughed again and screamed and screamed and laughed and laughed again.
for O. E. B.
R.V. Branham was born & raised on the California/Baja border, & as an adolescent wound up in El-lay. When not co-hosting a floating æther-den, R.V. attended U.S.C., El Camino College, Cal State Dominguez Hills, & Michigan State University. Day jobs have included: technical typist, photo-researcher, x-ray tech. intern, interpreter, social worker, & Treasury Dept. terrorist. His short fiction has been published in magazines such as 2 Gyrls Quarterly, Back Brain Recluse (UK), Téma (Croatia), Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Midnight Graffiti, & Red Lemonade (online), & have been collected in such anthologies as Red Lemonade’s Hybrid beasts (available as an e-book), Full Spectrum 3, Drawn to Words, Mother Sun, & several Gardner Dozois anthologies; many of his short stories have been translated into Croatian, German, Japanese, & Spanish; his plays, Bad Teeth, and Matt & Geof Go Flying, have been performed in staged readings in Los Angeles & Portland; he attended writing workshops run by Beyond Baroque, John Rechy, Sheila Finch, John Hill, & A.J. Budrys. He has translated Laura Esquivel into English & several of Croatian poet Tomica Bajsic’s poems into Spanish. Back in the day he co-hosted a floating æther-den (it was the 70’s). He is the founder & editor of Gobshite Quarterly—a Portland, Oregon-based multilingual en-face magazine of prose, poems, essays, reasoned rants, & etc.; & author of a 90-language dictionary of insult & invective, obscenity & blasphemy, Curse + Berate in 69+ Languages (published by Soft Skull); & edited & published a bilingual edition of Luisa Valenzuela’s Deathcats/El gato eficaz.
Painting: Luis Carlos – detail from CAMALEON DE ORO