The rooming house smelled of bug spray and trapped air.
"Get a window open in here. That's the ticket."
He threw open the large bay window overlooking the surf. Outside, he could hear the rumble of the water against the rocks. It felt the way his heart felt right now, hammering in his chest with maleficent energy.
He was ALL OF NATURE...
"Get me some coffee," she groaned. She rolled around in the covers. She was pale and skinny, with not a few bruises. He had her pegged for a whore, a dope fiend, or some kind of crazy runaway. Come out here to the land of sand and surf, looking for stardom.
"Get your pretty face in the pictures. Is that what you thought?"
She peeped open one bleary red eye. It looked as if her gaze was swelling shut to protest her squinting, grey eyes. So unappealing. He might squash one like a conveniently-placed grape.
"Why would you care? You got what you paid for."
He was standing in his underwear, white undershirt, black socks, garters. A big man was he, with an immense waxed mustache, a greased mane of coiffed black hair, and a square jaw. His eyes burned with the pale fury of an aeons-dead celestial object.
His muscles were immense, his body a miniature hulking mass that marked him out as either a man use to heavy labor, or one that had been putting in many hours at the gymnasium. His hands were huge, powerful engines of force, his legs and biceps equally impressive manifestations of living iron. Yet, for all that, he had a certain delicacy of movement, a gentle way of walking, handling common objects, making love...
"I just wanted to know a little bit about you. I was just curious, is all."
He looked at her quizzically.
"Really? I thought everybody always said 'apple sauce.'"
She laughed, rolled over, hoisted up her brassier. She kicked her legs over the side of the bed, said, "No, I mean, mashed potatoes sound pretty good right now. I'm starving. You want to buy a working girl breakfast?"
He smiled. His front teeth were very even, straight. He had a certain disquieting gap between the upper two, but, otherwise, the casual observer might almost be fooled into thinking the man wore dentures.
"Downstairs? Sure. And then maybe later we can't take a ride up the beach, drink the rest of that hooch. Maybe have some more fun, huh?"
She sighed, smiled, looked up at his white, well-carved bulk, and said, "Hey, you're the paying customer."
She lit a cigarette. He hated them. Made him cough and gag so he could barely breathe.
"Say, that's an awful habit. Why don't you put that out?"
Downstairs, in the dive restaurant, they sat at a greasy table waiting for the boy to bring their menus. He was a thin Japanese, very young. Maybe his folks owned the place.
"I'll have coffee, two eggs, scrambled, lemme see. Toast. Jelly. Gimmie some grits. A side of bacon. And whatever she wants."
He tossed the paper menu across the table. She ordered flapjacks and eggs, asked, curiously, if she could get a side of mashed potatoes, and was informed that at this ungodly hour of the morning that the only spuds readily available were hash rounds.
Which she refused.
She ate greedily. He was more circumspect, slowly shoveling the stuff inside, chewing in consideration, trying to savor every morsel, to really know what it was he was eating. To experience it in a way that would make this moment come alive, later, when he looked backward, when he was alone...
"From childhood's hour I have not been, as others were I have not seen..."
He started quoting the poem by Poe. She looked at him as if he might have gone slightly mad, said, "Huh? Do what?"
He smiled, threw down his napkin, leaned back, stifled a belch.
"Just an old poem. I don't know why it should have come back to me all of a sudden. Maybe it's the peculiar lighting in here or something. It seems sort of beautiful and natural."
She made a little sound as if to say, "Goodness gracious you're a peculiar duck," and bent her head back down to finish her plate. As she was doing this, another woman came into the restaurant, a handbag clutched tightly to her chest. She could have passed for the current "It" girl if she had looked a tad younger, had a few less lines around the eye, less dust in the creases of her face.
She had large, dark eyes, a floppy hat that covered her ears and almost occluded her eyes; it was rimmed in fake flowers. She was wearing long beads.
She sat down at the counter. Her gloved hands twitched nervously, her fingers moving and playing games with themselves as the young Japanese walked slowly up to her, asked her if she needed a menu.
She put out one hand. Refused.
"No. No food. Just coffee. Really, I'm in a bit of a hurry."
She was loud enough for an eavesdropper not to have to exert much in the way of any effort to hear her. The whore looked up from her plate, lit a cigarette, said, "Brother, get a load of her. I never seen someone screamed 'runaway' so loud in all my born days. Humph. Husband probably too free with his fists."
He looked back over his shoulder, his attention suddenly split between imagining what he was going to do with the rest of today, and the new prospect. The little It Girl slurped her coffee with jailhouse aplomb, her dark, cosmetic eyes peering into empty space.
"Sure. Or maybe she stole some money so something. What do you think?" He placed a toothpick in his mouth, leaned back in his chair.
She looked sheepish.
"Well, to be perfectly honest," she said, "I think I see something I like."
He felt the tick of excitement in his chest crank up a knot. He smiled an embarrassed smile, as if he were just catching on to a private joke they were sharing.
"Really?" Pause. "You a dyke, honey?"
She didn't answer him. She was apparently going to let him draw his own conclusions.
A moment later he was up and crossing the restaurant.
She sat, unsuspecting that her whole day was about to radically change.
He had a certain way about him. A certain finesse. He was natural, easy, a charmer. He was a Snake Inside.
"Hey," he approached her gentle and soft. She started, sat down her coffee cup, turned from where she was hunched over the lunch counter.
"Oh? Can I help you?"
It was an odd introduction. He said, still so soft spoken and gentle, such a soothing little voice, "Hey, my wife and I couldn't help but notice you were all alone here. And you look so...troubled. We just wanted to know if there was anything we could do to help."
The girl revolved on her seat, looked genuinely surprised, but seemed unwary for all that. Maybe she was a dope fiend, he thought excitedly. Beyond the thick smattering of pancake makeup, she was obviously quite young. Maybe not even twenty.
"Say, Irene and I are going down to the beach to have a picnic. You want to come have a picnic with us?"
He realized how absurd it sounded, but apparently the odd flavor of his remark did nothing to unsettle her. She grabbed a hold of her little bag with both hands, holding tightly, nervously.
"Oh, you know that sounds like it would be wonderful. I haven't had a bite to eat all day."
He looked at her quizzically.
"This...is a restaurant." He said it as if he were dealing with a mentally-impaired child. Apparently, she took no notice of this either, smiled, looked sideways in embarrassment.
"Well, to tell you the truth,' she began, "I'm finding myself temporarily with a cash flow problem."
He laughed a little, something he found was easier and easier for him to do as time dragged on. (One had to laugh at life, after all, correct? The sheer tragedy of it, the pointlessness of it, the unalterable end of it in pain and regret and grief? One had to laugh.)
"Where did you learn to talk like that?"
He realized the conversation was stilted, was going nowhere. She realized he was a meal ticket, at the very least. He ambled back to the table with her in tow.
"This is Irene, my wife. Say hi, Irene."
The girl giggled.
"Oh, you two! I just know we're going to have a good time together."
They drove down to the beach, her sitting in back devouring a sandwich as if she hadn't eaten in three days. Beside her, resting in the middle of the seat was the Victrola, belting out the "Maple Leaf Rag." She looked as if she had never before seen a Victrola, curiously twisting the hand crank until he feared she might break it.
"Hey, be careful. Don't break it."
She seemed perturbed at this, looked at him with a little mui of personal disgust. She gave a final, petulant yank ot the crank before settling back and folding her arms.
"Oh," she began, trying to make her voice sound as normal and cheery as possible, "I wasn't trying to break it, silly. I just never seen a record player like that before. Strange music. What do they call this sort of music, anyway."
"Jazz, toots. They call it jazz."
"Yep. 'Sufficient unto today is the evil thereof'."
Neither of them knew how to respond to this, and neither of them did.
He parked under the slope of a jagged cliff, got out, walked ahead of them as they began to leave the car more slowly.
"I'll bring the picnic basket, okay? Okay?"
She was already starting to grate on his nerves. She said it one more time, as if the preceding lack of acknowledgement would be corrected upon recognition. The mulatto turned, smiled, said, "We hear you, baby! You bring that basket up, okay?"
It was, altogether, picture perfect out here. Gulls swooping lazily overhead, blue sky dotted by fluffy white cotton balls, and a churning surf that disappeared into the orange brush fire of sunset. He fancied himself, for a moment, a wanderer in some happy picture valley, a little oilspeck denizen of some portrait world wherein time stopped and was perfect in the moment.
But he knew that wasn't quite right.
The girls followed him, blotting out his footprints in the sand.
"It's as if I was carrying you both. As if we were all of one form."
Neither of them knew how to respond, but the mullato said, "Huh? You think so, huh? Gosh."
She smiled at him, tolerantly. She figured he was crazier than a shithouse rat, but he was pretty free with his cash, so she would play along.
Behind them, carrying that immense picnic basket, the young girl looked as guileless and trusting as a small child. Her eyes opened up wide as she fully drank in the smell and sight and sound of the surf.
You can feel the salt sting your skin, he thought as he stared out at the steadily churning tide, coming in grasping, with a slow and implacable grip, the rocky coast and sweeping it back out into the mouths of fishes. Behind him, the Mullato (It was now capitalized and lit up in his mind, a hundred feet tall, as if it were fashioned from neon lights) kicked little dust clouds of sand forward with the pointed toe tips of her scuffed black pumps.
"Golly. Sure is peaceful out here, ain't it mister?"
"Sure. 'As peaceful as a painted ship upon a painted ocean'."
She whistled low and slow between the gap in her teeth.
"You a strange man. That's okay, though."
The way she said it made it sound like she said Thass okay. She could pass for white or Italian, but the black accent, he thought, would often slip through.
He followed her out of the corner of his eye. She was handsome, not really what you could call beautiful; a line or two around the eye, a too-wide grin, destroyed any illusions of beauty. Dope lines, he thought. Jazz joint junkies.
Flanking her side, carrying the immense basket like some wobegone character out of a popular bedtime story, the dopey runaway came up silently, softly, too perplexed by her own sudden swell of stifled grief to realize, in embarrassment, that tears were streaked down her too-puffy face. Misses her daddy, he thought, in a manner that was half-detachment, half amusement.
Overhead, seeming to float above them, looming like some fairy tale castle penetrating the vault of the sky, the ruins of Beachfront Amusements reared upward, the old wooden coaster rotting like the bones of some unearthed prehistoric monster.
"Dying like a rose in the sun. Well, it's my castle, like it or not."
He had been here before, worked here, roused himself before dawn with the hammering thud of gin still coursing through his skull, and the high, cloying stink of animal waste and fried food mingling with the sawdust, sweat, and wafting odors blown in across the flat earth. He had worked the Mitt Camp, the Blow-off, the gaffed games. It was all the same to him, whether he was bawling out some little monster for running into him on the Midway, or trying to make another bunch of little bastards laugh dressed as a clown or in an animal costume. Big deal. The money all went in the same place.
And later, there were dames a plenty. Always later, and always in the dark.
Right now, they were in the blaring sunlight.
"Come on you two," he said. He felt the first few stirrings of a white hot flame burn brightly in his chest.
Approaching the gates, he could see that they had closed a few seasons ago, never to open up again. Who owned the property now? He had no idea. The gate was a wrought iron affair topped by a huge carved gremlin face, flanked by tragedy and comedy masks from Greek drama...which he thought was a nice touch somehow, but darn strange.
The sweat was dripping down his arms, dampening the inside of his coat, and little beads doted his forehead and cheeks. He turned back, saw the girls trudging up the walkway, across the lot, through the sand. To his forlorn paradise; his castle-like "kingdom."
"Looks like the ride stops here, said the Mullato (whose name, incidentally, was Ayrin, but pronounced "Irene").
She had a wide, fetching mouth, made his mouth pucker up. Behind her, following paces as if she were some sort of Oriental mistress, the young chippy they had picked up still tugged the ridiculous basket, the silent tears on her face having dried there in the salty air, to be replaced by cold beads of sweat.
"Gee. Looks like a swell place for a picnic."
She didn't sound convincing. He reached out, put one horny hand on the gate, pulled. Rusted squeals of pain shot forth from the creaking metal frame, but he noted the padlock and chain fell quite easily.
"Should have put a boarded fence up around the old place. Keep the punks from coming in, vandalizing."
She considered a moment before following him across.
"Does that make us punks, baby?"
She had a mellow, doped, easygoing way about her that made him smile. He turned, gave her one of his inscrutable looks. The three of them disappeared into the abandoned amusement park, shadows trailing behind them in the sunlight wash as empty echoes of their voices and footfalls created ghosts in odd nooks and corners and crevices where human sounds had not penetrated for many months.
"It's desolation. Like a dream I had once."
All of a sudden Ayrin was as reflective as a dime store poet, he thought madly. Chippy, on the other hand, seemed content to merely follow along, apparently liking her decision to join them less and less as time wore on.
The midway was a low, dusty, garbage-strewn back alley of blowing leaves and paper sacks, old bottles, and fallen signs. The concession stands stood vacant and eyeless, no pitchmen goading passing marks into stepping up to take a turn at the Ball and Basket, Duck Shoot, or Test Your Strength.
Instead, tumbleweed might as well have been blowing down the center of the street. Somewhere, he thought he could hear the high, manic laughter of little children, the hurly-burly of poor families moving down the midway, looking for a little fun, a little escape. He could give them all an escape, the thought ruefully.
Ahead, amidst the desolation and loneliness of this spot, a great fat woman perched atop a crumbling sign that announced "Dr. Marvel's Mansion of Mystery," or some damn thing. Her face was cracked, the color having chipped and blown away in the hot breeze. She looked as if the rusted wires holding her up might snap, drop her fat wooden body to the dust and grime below.
Chippy was busy examining a crumpled handbill for an old prize fight between two erstwhile pugilists, long forgotten.
Ayrin sauntered behind him.
"Baby, where you goin'?"
"Inside. I use to work here. This place is a gasser."
"Sure. But it don't look safe. Lord, I don't want to end up in the hospital yet."
But he paid her little mind. He stumbled up the wooden steps to the crazy, warped boards of the walkway, made his way inside the Fun House.
You went in and were greeted by the reflection of yourself, multiplied a thousand times in a hall of mirrors. Even with the thick coat of dust over them, the effect was brilliant, unsettling; the image of himself was as stretched and as warped as he felt inside, and as multifaceted. He remembered what Whitman had once said, "I am Infinite; I contain multitudes." It was remarkable in its accuracy.
"Oh look, they ain't never carted this stuff out. My, you could get lost in here, never find your way out. Oh look, I gained fifty pounds and lost a foot!"
She twisted in front of the glass, grown dwarf-like and fat in the lying reflection. He said, "Funny to think how your eyes can deceive you, how your mind can be tricked by a little illusion, the surface of polished glass and the fading light."
"Baby, you sure is deep."
He smiled. She might well think that. He could sense their conversation so far had been at cross-purposes, that they would always be on two different wavelengths, that their conversation together would always seem like dialog lifted from two different characters in two different stories.
Of course, "always" could be a very short time, too.
The chippy stood outside uncertainly, the picnic basket held like a huge wooden anchor in her uncertain hands. She didn't, for some reason, want to venture into the open mouth of that cavernous, dark funhouse. Maybe it was the fat old witch perched atop the crumbling facade.
She reflected grimly that, most likely, she would end up such a monstrous grotesque herself; fat and living in a shack with a bastard she tried desperately to pass off as "shanty Irish." And living on beans and handouts from local churches, darning socks and doing whatnot amidst the filth and dogs and crime and shit.
Was this what the future held in store for her?
She pattered uncertain feet onto the creaking wooden steps, stepped over the cracked and faded floor boards on the old platform. The door was painted to look like the mouth of an enormous clown, something to swallow you whole.
Just like she was being swallowed, little by little.
But hadn't she come here to find her fortune? Or maybe she had married just to escape her stepfather, who was more and more leering at her with a knowing grin. The whole situation made her sick.
She entered the clown's mouth. Inside, she could smell must and oil, and sawdust, and darkness enfolded her. On the walls, peeling like the yellow skin of some lizard, were posters of various freak attractions. Jo-Jo the Lion-Faced, The One-Armed Wonder, the Bearded Lassie...that sort of thing. Garish images accompanied these descriptions, and exhortations to "See!", "Thrill!" and that "You Won't Believe Your Eyes!"
She could believe her eyes. The world was ugly. These freaks were just par for the course. What the hell; it was the only wisdom she felt she had ever accrued.
He touched the surface of the mirror. Fine red mist droplets had sprayed across the surface, making it a modern art visual of twisted image and dripping wet; he stared at himself as he ran his thick, idiot fingers across the streak, spreading it, like a slash of wet paint, across the dusty surface. So many little worlds-within-worlds; so many textures and surfaces.
She came up behind him, still carrying that ignorant basket.
Had he heard that correctly? No.
Her eyes questioned him for a moment, asking where his dusky companion was. Behind him, she could see the funny stuff running down the mirror, wondered if--
"Did she get a nosebleed? I wondered if maybe she was a coke fiend. First thing I thought, matter-of-fact, when I saw her. And she's a ni--"
"You talk too much."
Her lips made a little pout. It was dark in there, sunlight streaming through a few cracks in the rough, uneven boards. A few flies buzzed lazily about, making their little fly-music. She spread a blanket on the ground, made herself comfortable.
"Well, I hope she comes back soon. I'm starving. Hey, hey do you want to? Are we gonna?"
She lifted the hem of her skirt. She was wearing badly-darned lace stockings that reached up to her thighs. Her milk-white thighs. He spat in disgust.
He examined every line of her angular, plain face. Something in the flesh repulsed and fascinated him in equal measure. He began to unfasten his belt, creep forward.
She looked up at him with a saucy, knowing look.
Her mouth was large. Lips painted red over cracked teeth, twisting flesh in a grimace of ecstasy.
He fell before her on his knees.
"I had a dream last night. I was standing beneath a ladder, and I had to pick up all these scissors and cards, and the ceiling was too low to climb the ladder. And I had to pick the playing cards with my open palms. And I could have gotten my palms...punctured. By the scissors."
"You know," she said, as if coming in on a wavelength from a completely different conversation, "you look just like the strongman in that sideshow poster in the hall. He had the same mustache, curled-up, and the same hair. But he had on a sort of leopard skin leotard, and lace-up boots. But, you could be his twin or something."
Silence, broken by the occasional creak of boards, the rattle of the wind through the awning, and the buzzing of flies, reigned up and down the desolation of the amusement park midway.
He walked back to the car, hefting the basket in one meaty, dirty hand. He stopped for a moment to consider the sunset across the water. A sight that would have brought tears to the eyes of a lover. He felt cold and creeping inside.
Overhead, crucifix gulls violated the physics of the churning wind, as the tide swept memories and time back out into its drowning gape.
He hopped in the car, put the basket on the seat beside him. He reached back, cranked up the Vic, and let loose the squalid thump and caterwaul horns of his favorite jazz. The needle skipped and bounced as he rode back over the sandy, rough turf to the coastal road, considering:
"Nietzsche said the Jews were determined to survive 'at any cost.' I'm not a Jew. But I am, likewise, determined to survive...at any price."
A man such as himself had certain predilections, certain callings from nature it was impossible to forego.
No amount of rearing could have calmed the beast in his soul, his amazing inner-cascade of EMPTY; his need to ERASE.
He had stopped to consider the sign outside the park as he left, and it gave him an idea.
"Comedy and tragedy...the two great polarities of a strange, savage, meaningless existence."
He had taken the heads, one by one, out of the wicker picnic basket, had taken his great knife in hand, and had carved the mouth of one, then the other, into comic/grotesque grimaces.
The Mullatoe was "Comedy."
The Chippy was "Tragedy."
A frown and a grin. Seemed appropriate enough. He wished he could have photographed them. As it was, he put both of them on the ground at his feet to consider them a moment, before placing them back in the basket, and placing the basket in a culvert at the side of the road, several miles on. (He could just as easily have thrown them in the surf, but he wanted these to be found, he later realized. Perhaps a secret wish to be credited with so much work.)
Hadn't Nietzsche written a book called "The Birth of Tragedy"? Was Nietzsche referencing him, prophetically, in some cryptic manner? He wasn't sure.
He was sure of one thing. He was headed east.
He picked up the newspaper on the seat beside him, looked at several options in the WANT ADS he had circled. A prospect at a new hotel seemed promising.