HOME ARCHIVE [previous][next]
What the Matter Is by Innocente Fontana

11/01/2009

Jean Harlow bought a ticket for the train. She was in disguise. She had cut her hair short, darkened her lashes and brows, put on a brunette wig. She was wearing a cheap pink flowered dress, a cloth coat, a demure hat with a veil. Carrying a small suitcase and a beaded purse.
     As the train clickety-clacked north, she looked through a Photoplay, almost against her will looking for something there about her late, ill-begotten marriage to Paul Bern and his suicide, but the issue was already stale. The words he had written, “You understand last night was only a comedy" had been widely circulated, leaked by MGM hand-in-hand with the LAPD, interpreted by almost everyone to mean Bern was impotent and so had killed himself in shame. Well, it was all old news by now. This was December, 1932.
     A salesman, perhaps noticing the bad memory passing through her eyes, was talking to her about his product. “I know times are tough,” he said, “but wouldn’t you think that people would always have a need for soap? Myself, I think you can’t beat keeping clean.” And he held out his hands as though she might like to inspect his nails.
     “That what you sell?” she said, falling into her flirtatious screen voice, “Soap?”
     “Handsoap and bathsoap, shampoo, tooth-powder, hair oil, all that kind of stuff.”
     He was down on his luck, he said, but he didn’t seem depressed. He told Jean (who was calling herself, for the moment, Jane) that he was an incurable optimist.
     She said, “Oh, I think it’s always curable.”
     Hank the salesman laughed and said, well, she might be right.
     When they got off the train in San Francisco, Harlow bought him a T-bone steak with all the trimmings, and then (a little nervous, since she’d never, despite her reputation, done this sort of thing before) she paid for their room at the Broadman Hotel. The drinks she’d had at dinner helped with the fear.
     She said that she had had typhoid fever as a child and it had left her bald: she would appreciate it if he wouldn’t try to remove her wig. He promised her he’d leave it alone.
     They took off their clothes and went to bed. She’d planned this adventure for awhile, and thus had had the foresight to dye her pubic hair chestnut brown. All the same, she would have preferred to be in the dark. Hank wanted the lights on, he wanted to “feast his eyes.” Now that he was naked, he wasn’t so clean after all.
     “Honey, you just relax,” he said, and she sighed, steeling herself.
     Sometimes, at home, she used her finger to help get to sleep, listening to her mother wail in the night, down the hall in the big house that Jean had bought for them all. Crying out wildly with ecstasy, driven crazy by her Latin lover, the somewhat worse-for-wear but dapper bigmouth, Marino Bello. There was something in those wild cries she knew was real and moreover knew she herself had never known.
     The salesman rearranged the mirror and adjusted the shade.
     “I don’t mean no offense,” he said, “but, you know, being bald could make you a lot of money. I know some houses back east would give a girl with your kind of body and no hair a pretty damn good job. A lot of guys would go for something like that.”
     “Back east?”
     “Well, hell... here too I suppose.” He came back for some more.
     Before he left he gave her some perfumed soap and a bottle of cologne. She wanted to know how she’d been, but when he said something she didn’t pay attention, smoking a cigarette and looking in the mirror to see her breasts. She liked to touch herself, she was always caressing herself, drawing attention to her breasts, they weren’t that big but they were perfectly shaped, the nipples sensitive and alert. She liked having people look at her, feeling the reflected heat (from the sun? solar flares?) in their eyes.
     They must be looking at something, she supposed.
     Outside, the theater down the street was playing Red Dust, her most recent film, Clark Gable as her leading man. Beneath the marquee, as the audience came out, Jean met some guy. He had some patter and style. They walked over to his battered automobile to have a drink of hooch. He had a silver flask.
     She felt frivolous and aroused. There was a full moon. Her sensitive “button” was still engorged from the touch of the salesman, faintly throbbing at her nerves. She felt an enormous sense of adventure as the car pulled away from the curb into the night. Although she’d played the slut in all of her films (only twenty-one, she had already been a star for three-and-a-half years), and had learned to talk tough while fending off all of the pimps who’d been after her since she was an extra, promising her the world if she would set up a bed on one of the scene docks, there was so much traffic... some part of her was curious what such total abandon would be like. Who would you be afterwards?
     She’d been married twice: the first at sixteen, an elopement from boarding school that lasted little more than one night; the second time to forty-year-old producer Paul Bern... who then turned out to be so strange, with such complicated problems. Neither of these forays seemed really to count.
     “Enjoy the movie?”
     “Yeah,” she said. “What about you?”
     “It was okay.” They each had a drink. “What’s your name, anyway?”
     “Jane Johnson. What’s yours?”
     “Can you keep a secret?”
     “Sure.”
     “You positive?”
     “Yeah. Sure.” She looked at him in the darkness as he drove.
     “Well, I’m Dillinger.”
     “No you’re not.”
     “I might be. You don’t know.”
     “You don’t even look like him.”
     “I’m not very photogenic, that’s all. In my business, it’s an advantage. Lots of those movie stars don’t look much like their pictures either; if you met them on the street they might as well be Joe Blow.”
     “So where are you taking me, tough guy?”
     “To a speak. And call me Rex. That’s my name while I’m here in California.”
     “Okay, Rex.”
     The place was filled with smoke. A Negro jazz band, high on reefer, was playing wide-eyed, like mad. Rex took Jane Johnson around to meet his friends. He still didn’t look like Dillinger. They danced and drank more gin, until Rex seemed to have had maybe a little too much to be entertaining. Rex the Wonder-Dog. He was staggering, and his words were all slurred. Harlow wasn’t nearly as affected, and she wasn’t unhappy when he went away (to look for the bathroom) and another guy, a little older, tougher and slicker, with a malicious grin, asked her to dance. He lit up a funny-smelling cigarette, took a puff and passed it to her, sly smile stuck fast on his mug.
     “What is this?” she asked, inhaling. “Dope?”
     “If it’s good enough for the niggers,” he said, “it’s sure good enough for me.”
     “Yeah, sure. And I bet you like to pick cotton and shine shoes.”
     “That’s me,” he grinned. “Eddie the Shade.”
     “Gee, you can almost pass.”
     “No fooling you, though, is there? Can’t get one past a Southern belle. Let me guess: southern Iowa, right?”
     “How’d you know?” she said (a Kansas blonde).
     “I grow corn up in my room,” he said. “I work for the government; I’m some kind of an agricultural wizard or something. I could feed the city of New York from my backyard.” He was high.
     “Yeah,” Jean said, “but how many ways can you eat corn?”
     Rex returned from oblivion, pale as a ghost, his hair all combed down wet, and he didn’t like Eddie dancing with his girl. He jostled Eddie and Eddie just laughed, saying Wait until they’re done with this song. Jean said Take your hand off my arm, and then Rex got mad. He picked up a stranger’s iced drink and threw it at Jean, who saw it coming and jerked away so that she only got a little wet on one arm.
     Eddie hit Rex in the stomach, on the shoulder, then on the nose and in the eye. He pulled Rex’s jacket up over his head inside out and gave him the bum’s rush into the hall. Nobody stopped dancing or paid too much attention. The bouncers took Rex outside to get some exercise and fresh air. It gave them something to do.
     Jean kissed Eddie on his smile and he took her with him into the back room, a cardroom in disuse. He didn’t even want her to undress; he pulled the dress up over her hips and tore off her lacy panties—leaving in place her garter belt and tan stockings. He tested her temperature with a finger, found her sufficiently wet, then spread her thighs and moved in, leaning against her, guiding himself into her with an intelligent hand.
     “Come on,” he said. “Move it. Move it around.”
     She liked him less all the time but felt powerless to resist. She thought: “Maybe this is how it is, how it has to be for it to work.” She rocked her pelvis, feeling clumsy and uncomfortable. Eddie was pinching her with his fingers, squeezing her buttocks when they relaxed. His face was glazed and cruel. It crossed her mind that he might bite her or beat her up. He was in a hurry, sticking her with jerky little movements like a dog. Bright, hot tears rolled down her rouged and blushing cheeks. She was starting to feel something though.
     Gunfire broke out, immensely loud, in the club beyond the door. The noise scorched them. Eddie withdrew his penis abruptly and Harlow yelped. Eddie moved away from her.
     Blam blam blam!
     Jean adjusted her clothing, the sex-sweat still on her, and sought to escape. There were more explosions, shouts, and breaking glass. She wasn’t even that curious about what was really going on. It just seemed like a lot of noise on a nearby sound-stage.
     She was... in an alley in the gray-blue moonlight. It seemed like she was on the other side of the building, away from the commotion, but she didn’t know which way to go now. She watched the Negro band members disperse into the night. They knew how to disappear.
     A skinny, limping young colored musician emerged from the back door. He was hanging on to his cornet, so scared he didn’t even want to talk with her, he wouldn’t answer any of her questions as she followed him down the alley in the dark.
     “Wait,” she said, emotionally. “You’ve got to show me where to go.”
     The cornet-player turned, regarding her with mistrust, his eyes still big—and then he seemed to change his mind. “Come on then, girl, we ain’t got no time to lose.”
     He was the one who was slow. Jean didn’t know if he had twisted an ankle or if he was just naturally lame, but he did most of his running on one foot, throwing out the arm with the cornet to keep his balance.
     He led the way up some rickety back stairs of what was evidently a kind of chop house. He reached the landing and went up another flight of wooden, badly-nailed stairs, then used a key to open a door, holding his finger up to his lips when she tried to ask him what was going on.
     They went inside without turning on a light, and he locked the door and set the bolt. This was his room. All he had for a bed was a mattress on the floor. They lay down there together and cowered (after a fashion), listening to more gunshots and then some voices, an ambulance siren... until eventually, gradually, all became still.
     “I must be crazy,” he said, in a low, half-whispery voice. “They’d kill me if they knew I had a white girl up here in my room.”
     “What’s your name?” she asked.
     “Hush yourself.”
     She obeyed. And as she relaxed, she realized the extent of her intoxication; the darkness was full of moving colors, tiny darting wraiths.
     They lay there for a long time, warming each other. To lie more comfortably, she took off the wig, laying it down on the floor next to an old banjo.
     “I’m a rich girl,” she said whispering, thinking of the movies. “I ran away from home.”
     He was listening, she knew it. In a few moments he proved it by saying, “Why’d you do a fool thing like that?”
     “My father was too strict.”
     “He probably knew what’s best. You oughta be thankful you got family care what you do. You oughta go back home and pray to God all you get’s a good whipping: you be lucky if they still take you back.”
     “It’s sweet of you to care what happens to me,” she said, playacting, snuggling up to him. “Won’t you tell me your name?”
     “Why you wanna know it? I don’t want to know yours. What difference it make? And don’t do that. I don’t wanna get no disease.”
     “I’m clean. Really. You think I’m a whore?”
     “Don’t make no difference what I think. Just don’t fool with me. I don’t like it. Leave your hands off me.”
     “I won’t touch you if you don’t like it.”
     “Don’t make no difference if I like it or not,” he said. “I ain’t fooling with you and that’s that.”
     And, as that seemed indeed to be his last word on the subject, Harlow tried to go to sleep. But although she was weary, her eyes wouldn’t stay stuck shut.
     Her bladder was full. She asked the musician where to go: he told her to use the bucket over there by the wall. She crouched over the metal bucket and let loose with a clatter, a warm hiss, getting some of the pee on the floor and on her thigh. She thought about telling him who she was, but knew he’d never believe it. In fact, it was possible he wouldn’t even recognize her name.
     It wasn’t her real name, anyway. She had been born Harlean Carpenter. Her mother just called her “Baby.”
     The nigger woke her before it was light. It was time for her to leave, he said, and told her where she could find a trolley-car. Very seriously, he asked her if she needed any money. He said he could give her 50 cents. She said no thanks. He told her to be quiet going down the stairs.
     She still felt high or something, hungover, she didn’t know... The air outside was misty and cool. She shivered for awhile before the walking warmed her up. Going past some broken glass, garbage cans, a slinking, ugly gray cat, and then some Chinese men in a hurry, their hands in their pockets... They scared her, she thought of white slavery and was glad she had on the wig, her usual extreme blondeness would have made her seem more of a prize. As it was, they scarcely looked at her, having their own business to conduct between themselves, talking together at sing-song high speed.
     It was light. She got on a trolley-car. Counting the money in her purse, she had the ungracious suspicion that the cornet-player might have robbed her while she slept. It seemed like she was missing thirty or forty dollars from her wad. Funny then that he should have asked her if she needed 50 cents.
     Jean Harlow walked through a green park with dew on the grass located a few blocks from her hotel. Some kids dressed in identical uniforms were exercising under the supervision of a tall man who looked sort of like a less-handsome Gary Cooper type. He blew a whistle and they all ran off, in orderly lines, over the knoll and down the hill.
     “Hi,” said Jean, friendly and ingenuous. “What’s going on?”
     “Technocracy,” he said. He avoided looking at her directly, glancing at her and then gazing down the hill after the boys.
     “What’s that? I thought you were Boy Scouts.”
     “No... This is a Technocracy Youth Brigade. The world’s being taken over by machines, you know; we’re trying to get ready for it.”
     “Are you sure? I mean, about the machines.”
     “It’s been scientifically proven. The machine is making human labor obsolete. Pretty soon all anyone will have to know is how to push the right buttons. Salaries will be based on how many ergs of energy each worker can produce; everything will be fair because everything will be counted out and measured, no more trickery or exploitation.”
     “You’re a Communist?
     “Oh no,” he exclaimed, really dismayed to be so misunderstood. He was wearing a gray jacket, gray shirt, darker gray tie, gray hat with charcoal band, black shoes... He started to explain some more, using numbers, but Harlow broke his concentration by reaching down and picking up something from the half-wet grass.
     “Zap!” she exclaimed, laughing, pointing it at him. “What’s this?”
     “I don’t know,” he said reluctantly. “It’s not mine, and I know it can’t belong to anyone in the Youth Brigade.”
     “It’s a Buck Rogers Disintegrator Ray Gun,” said Jean. “If it’s not yours then I guess it’s mine. Finders keepers.”
     “Wait. It might be...”
     “So long. Zzzzap!”
     She walked away, swinging her hips, highly pleased with her new toy. It was becoming morning in the city. Birds were calling, dogs were barking far away, some cars were honking their horns.
     In Red Dust there’d been a scene in which she had taken a bath in a rain-barrel, covering up her breasts with her hands. She had been offered the use of a flesh-covered bathing suit, but she hadn’t liked it, it got too tight when it was wet. Paul Bern had not yet gotten around to dying: he was, in the meantime, in the absence of real sexual exploits over which to be jealous, taking things out on her in other ways, such as criticizing her in public (her clothes or choice of jewelry, correcting her diction or her manners, treating her as if she was stupid, etc.); and, naturally, when he found out that she was going into the rain-barrel for retake after retake, totally nude, he was furious, it drove him wild. He threatened (absurdly) to come down to the studio and sock Gable in the mouth: Jean dared him to, knowing full well he’d be scared to death to come anywhere near that set.
     Taking a hot, luxurious bath in the hotel, she spilled some water onto the floor. She made her breasts slick with her new soap. Her nipples stood erect. For some reason she got the feeling someone was watching her, spying on her in the bath. She looked around meticulously, more out of form than out of a real hope of finding anything out. On the sets, it wasn’t unusual to discover that peepholes had been drilled in the walls of her dressing room, until the place was like swiss cheese. She didn’t ever feel safe in the bathroom, for instance, but she’d got kind of to the point where she figured there was nothing she could do, they all wanted to see everything she had.
     Languorous in her robe, wig back in place (although she was getting tired of it), she called Room Service. She wanted a ham sandwich, a piece of apple pie, and a cold glass of milk. She was really hungry.
     The bellboy knocked on the door, then came in with her lunch. He was a teenaged Latin lover, his hair slicked down like they’d all been doing ever since Rudy Valentino... not bad-looking, but with an attempt at a mustache that just didn’t have enough individual hairs.
     She gave him his tip, and he smiled as if he knew more than he should, saying, “Thank you very much, Miss Jones.”
     “It’s Johnson, not Jones.”
     “Oh, excuse me. I thought it was Jones.”
     “Well, it isn’t.”
     He was openly leering. “Not much difference, though, is there? Hey, it might as well be Smith. I know what you’re up to.”
     “Oh you do, do you?”
     “I saw you when you came in this morning, and my friend told me about what went on last night.”
     “Why don’t you mind your own business, kid, and just get out of here?”
     “I don’t think I want to.”
     “I’ll call the manager.”
     “I don’t think you really want to be doing that,” he said, shaking his head in mock-gravity, playing out the part of ‘knowing the score.’ “There’s no reason for you to get sore at me. We could be good friends, help each other out. You’re on the loose here, you don’t know anybody—it’s dangerous trying to go solo in a town like this. You need protection. You need some friends who could get you out of a jam.”
     So he thought she was really a professional. Jean found this amusing. He was so smalltime it was unbelievable.
     “I got a bottle of good gin stashed in the linen closet down the hall,” he said, and underneath the patter he was uncertain, ready to break into a sweat. “Why don’t I go get it, come back, and we’ll have a nice discussion, figure things out. Oh, my name’s Rodrigo.” And he almost gave her a genuine smile. He went to get the booze.
     Jean thought: Why not? Maybe there was something, after all, about these Latins. She was eating the ham sandwich when he came back.
     Her robe fell open as she reached for a cigarette, and Rodrigo said, “You got nice boobs,” like he was some kind of a connoisseur. She kept wanting to laugh at him. She zapped him with the Ray Gun as he took off his jacket. He kissed her clumsily, his hands going after the tenderness of her body like jaguars in the jungle after meat.
     “I bruise very easily,” she told him. “Don’t be so rough.”
     The ceiling was ordinary and old. Rodrigo sucked in big gasps of air, as if he was drowning while he swam. There was friction, friction and squeezing... something was almost on the way.
     The bed rocked like it was might go through the floor. Jean had finally shut her eyes, preferring the darkness there to the ceiling or the progress of a daddy longlegs spider on the wall. It was starting to feel real good: the motion was starting to drive her crazy—and then, too soon, Rodrigo went rigid and shot his wad in hot feeble jets, groaning like he’d been stabbed in his sleep.
     “Get off me,” she said, when he continued to lie there, as if on the shore of a desert island, a castaway. She had to push him with her hands.
     He finally roused himself from his trance, getting out of bed while pulling up his pants.
     “You’re pretty hot. I’ll call up my friend Diego to come check you out. He’s very big around here, he got connections to some of the big houses—he does some jobs for Johnny Cade.”
     “Forget it. I’m not putting out for your friends.”
     “Listen, sister...”
     “Get out of here. I need to take a nap. You had your chance.”
     “I buy and sell whores like you all the time, dime a dozen, so don’t give me any lip. I’ll pop you one.”
     “Where’d you get that dialogue? Public Enemy or Little Caesar? You can kiss my ass.”
     “Either you start minding, or I’ll show you how to mind.”
     “Go fuck yourself, greaseball. Don’t make faces at me, just blow. Get out of here, I mean it.”
     She was using the voice she used in fights with Marino Bello and which she had used a few times on Paul Bern. Pure young bitch. She stood up, seeking to hide fear that Rodrigo would try to hit her. He didn’t seem to know quite what to do, visibly searching through his mind for the proper pose, wandering despite himself towards the door—when suddenly he had a change of heart and turned back, taking off his brown leather belt.
     “I’m going to teach you who’s boss.”
     “Stay away from me,” she said, very loudly. “Stay away from me with that. I swear, if you make one mark on me I’ll kill you! I’ll get some guys I know to help me cut off your balls and shove ‘em down your throat. Stay away from me!”
     Her naked fear gave Rodrigo an illusion of power like he had when he shot up some hop. He enjoyed it when he snapped the belt at her, he liked hearing her little cries and the way she jerked away. This was better.
     “You’re going to kiss my ass,” he said, “and like doing it. You got to learn who’s boss. Little sluts should be seen and not heard.”
     Harlow was right by the bottle of gin. She picked it up by the neck. Rodrigo made the mistake of lunging at it too, arriving too late, his head suddenly in range. She hit him on the temple, but the bottle didn’t break; she hit him again, harder, and the glass shattered as he fell to the floor in a mess of broken glass and blood and cheap booze. He started to rise up on his hands and knees, cursing her in Spanish, and she hit him again, taking her time, with a brass-based lamp. Then Rodrigo was quiet as a mouse. Not even a squeak.
     Harlow got dressed, quickly packed her bag, went downstairs to pay her bill and checked out, leaving the Biltmore Hotel in Seattle as her forwarding address. She’d heard of it sometime. She took a cab to the train station, then walked a few blocks and took the trolley-car someplace else.
     By now she was calming down some, gathering her wits. She checked into the Hampstead Arms on Geary Street under the name of Rosemary Carpenter. For dinner she had chops and a baked potato, sliced tomatoes, and two cups of pretty good coffee with cream and two spoonfuls of sugar. She didn’t feel like having dessert. She didn’t want to get fat like Mama Jean.
     Wearing a robin’s egg blue print dress and beige high heels, blue hat with a pink carnation, seamed stockings, fur coat, pearls, a new application of makeup, she went out for the evening, asking the taxi driver to take her someplace where she could play blackjack and get something to drink.
     “Honey, nothing comes easy in this world, you must know that by now.”
     “Here you go,” she said, holding out a five dollar bill folded lengthwise, much more than she needed to pay.
     The narrow streets were lined with parked cars and signs that said NO PARKING AT ANY TIME. The taxi driver passed a street-car out on the left, giving Jean an exhilarating but not exactly pleasant feeling that gravity itself might be defied—and then the cab bounced, ending the illusion, continuing its way down the hill at top speed.
     “I seem to remember a place where you can lose all the money you want,” he said, unlit cigar clenched between yellow teeth. “But a woman like you going in by yourself, you know what they might think. They don’t like stray cats pawing their guests.”
     “I can take care of myself.”
     “Sure you can. No skin off my bones. Don’t blame me though if the next thing you know you’re on a slow boat to China, getting advanced lessons on how to play the flute.”
     “What’s that supposed to mean?”
     “Nothin’. Same as everything else.”
     “You taking me to Chinatown?”
     “Nope.”
     “Then let’s go.”
     “Sure, honey. You can take care of yourself.”
     The doorman let her in for another fiver. Remembering what she had heard about San Francisco, she figured the fix must be in with the local police.
     Everything inside was done up in shiny, glossy white and polished gold. Pillars and high ceilings and a Negro hot jazz band all dressed in white. What a good clarinet-player, she thought, very idly, while heading to the gaming tables. When she got into a game of blackjack she lost a hundred bucks in the first fifteen minutes.
     “Hit me,” she said, and got the Ace of Spades. She won. She got the Queen of Hearts. She won again. A handsome guy across the table was losing, at the same time giving her the eye. He looked like a highclass gangster, if there was such a thing—or no, more like a sharpie, a mouthpiece for some syndicate. He wasn’t muscle, he was brains. He had on a very nice pearl gray suit with a pale blue shirt and navy tie with diagonal red stripes. He was tall, with dark brown hair and a closely trimmed mustache. A cleft in his chin. Shrugging after another loss, he gave up his place at the table and left Jean’s range of sight.
     In about half an hour she was tired of playing. It was wearing her out. She left the table and cashed in her chips, coming out slightly ahead. She saw the man sitting at a table next to an overgrown fern. He was staring at her so unequivocally that she didn’t think it was out of place for her to walk over and say Hi. He got up to hold a chair for her and the waiter instantly materialized with a brand new drink.
     The gambler said his name was Kit McPherson. Jean said she was Susan Rose. Kit was the most magnetic of any of the men she’d met in San Francisco thus far. She felt like she could fall in love.
     “Well, Susan, as I was saying... What brings you to a place like this? Studying the natives in their natural habitat? Looking for hepcats?”
     “Actually,” said Jean, “I thought this was the Bamboo Room. I’m here by mistake.”
     Kit laughed. “Call it fate.”
     “You call it fate.”
     “Okay, I’ll call it fate. Why don’t we let fate guide us out of this dump and over to a place with a little more life? I’m supposed to meet a cousin of mine at The Lotus Club. What about it? Does that sound like it might swing?”
     Jean shrugged, gesturing indifferently with a cigarette in her hand, but she meant Yes and Kit knew it. Somehow it seemed like he just snapped his fingers and they were in a cab, he immediately started kissing her, sticking his tongue into her hot pliant mouth and his right hand up her dress between her legs. She didn’t fight it. Why should she? She liked it. She was ready for the works right there in the back of the cab.
     But Kit had more class. He put one knowing finger inside her, then stopped short of any further move. She was panting. The cab stopped in Chinatown and he said he’d be right back, he had to run into this restaurant and pick up a package from some Chink. The cabdriver stared cynically at Harlow in the rear-view mirror. In less than a minute, Kit was back—the cab then roared off.
     Kit now seemed elated. He laughed aloud, but when she asked him why he shook his head and changed the subject. They arrived at their destination. It was a confusing place to get into, two stories underground. They had to give passwords at three different ominous metal doors. Jean had had no idea such places existed. Her eyes grew wide; she was wondering what was going to happen to her.
     The smell of exotic incense, sandalwood and musk, mingled with reefer and sweat and perfume, as well as the smoke of burning opium and hashish. Some of the beautiful girls waiting on the tables seemed actually to be transvestites, delicate and cute, some even possessing breasts. Where did such hermaphrodites come from? The scenery was slurred blue pink and gold.
     “What do you think?” asked Kit, and Jean didn’t know what to say, all she could do was look around and marvel at what she saw. He led her to a table where they joined a muscular, brown-haired guy named Dirk, who had a slight German accent, and his date, Fawn, a redhaired, plumpish, pretty girl with freckles, who was wearing a thin, lemon-yellow silk dress which showed off her lovely, slightly sagging fleshy breasts.
     There were girls dancing in a line, all platinum blondes like Jean Harlow in Hell’s Angels. Again, it seemed that some of them were not really girls.
     Blue sequins and flashing sparkles of jewels made out of glass. Fawn passed “Susan” a sweet-smelling, perfumed cigarette. Jean smoked a little bit and got terrifically high. The platinum blondes made her giggle almost uncontrollably. Everyone in America was bleaching their hair to be like her; and here she was, wearing a brunette wig, trying to escape (even if not forever, even if only as a dangerous experiment). She thought of all the dirty pictures people sent her. She felt like a child. If MGM was sending detectives to find her they’d have a hell of a time following her down here.
     It was infernally hot down here. Reddish pink lights and spots cut through plumes of smoke. A Chinese dragon danced, all gold, to the accompaniment of cymbals and wailing flutes and clarinets.
     “Let’s go,” said Dirk, to Kit. “Let’s go someplace... where we can...” He raised his eyebrows and shrugged.
     In the backseat of Dirk’s car Kit started feeling Jean up again, exciting her, she was still telepathically receptive to his touch. He knew how to find the right spot. God. She moaned, shamelessly, knowing the others could hear and knew exactly what was going on. But this was who she was supposed to be!
     It didn’t take long to get to the hotel… but then, time was losing its normal relation to events. It was smoothing out, flashing with little subatomic suns and glares of light. Microscopic nebulae and mirrored moons that could have been streetlamps or reflections in the pupil of an eye floated, revolved.
     The next thing she knew, in Room 421, the needle was dipping into her vein, waking her up in a hurry, the cocaine making her feel like she was going to die yet flooding her with a new electric life. Ooh... she felt so good... ummmmm...
     There was an arrangement of one couple on the bed, another on the floor. Kit was fucking Jean for awhile, but he seemed more interested in mathematically changing positions than in giving himself time to come. He had instructed her, while she was undressing, to leave on the garter belt, seamed stockings and high heels.
     Fawn had frizzy red pubic hair and freckles on her upper back and lower arms. The more intoxicated she got the more in evidence was her Southern drawl. She was from Vienna, she said. Vienna, Georgia.
     The radio was on. With the strains of an orchestra in the background, an announcer was saying, “Direct from the beautiful Bamboo Room in the Hotel Belton... in the heart of beautiful downtown Des Moines...”
     “The Bamboo Room?” exclaimed Harlow, laughing like a four-year-old, helplessly and unaffectedly, the cocaine giving her a feeling of indescribable giddiness and wellbeing. The wig had come off, and she told them a story about her head having been shaved a month ago in New York because she helped get some gangster out of town the local mob was looking to knock off... a few minutes later she said that she was married but her husband was in Sing Sing...
     “Giddy-up. Come on, horsey.”
     Jean rode around on Dirk’s back. He had a good body, something was said about him once having been a prize-fighter, he kept himself in good shape. He could maintain his erection, doing Harlow doggie-style while Kit sat in the green chair, watching, fondling the skull and hair of Fawn as she blew him, working like a pro.
     The needle... drawing up blood, the spurt of red... and then pushing it back down into the chemistry of the body, exciting the nervous system like a disease, white death... red and black inside the veins, a hundred miles an hour—faster, faster...
     Some kind of big swelling liquid warmth built within Harlow’s lower belly, her private parts, flooding her deepest reaches, the hole of love bleeding all through her sex and down through her legs, stiffening and straightening out her bones, making her cry out... she didn’t know what she was saying... speaking in tongues like a Baptist handling snakes... oh God… interior rush of a swift black sea. Cresting, foaming... submerging an entire continent... making it disappear just like that.
     It was Kit’s idea for the two women to get together. Actually, neither Fawn nor Jean were all that crazy about each other: Fawn was jealous, and Jean either sensed this or reacted to something else; perhaps, simply, in contrast to her relations with men, she was just a snob, stuck-up about her looks, in any case, Fawn knew what to do. Even if she didn’t care for Jean, she knew how to make her feel good. She got a feeling of power from what gave her pleasure in return.
     Harlow enjoyed being the star. When she was a child, raised by her doting, wealthy grandparents, they had called her “the Baby” until she was 11 or 12. She had been pampered and spoiled, protected from the world. Her hair and face and early development had set her apart, gave her the sense of being special, a soft-skinned princess living in Kansas like it was Oz.
     A cigarette with a long ash dangled from Kit’s fingers, virtually unsmoked. Dirk put his hand up between Fawn’s thighs, getting his fingers sticky and wet with syrup from a berry pie.
     Jean’s blonde hair was parted on the side, short and wavy but long enough to comb, and she wore dangly gold earrings and had on the typical amount of makeup, black-lined eyes and ruby-red kewpie-doll mouth... amidst so much warm sweating flesh.
     She saw lights, little white lights as though the ceiling had opened up and the sky descended, violet-black background for sharp-pointed, electric, dazzling stars. She saw three concentric circles of white girls on their backs, seen from above like in a musical, their platinum heads close together, legs stretched out, separating in rhythm, opening and closing in the contraction and expansion of a muscle being stimulated through sensitized nerves... diamonds and stalactites of unmeltable ice, glistening, gleaming, glinting silver and white, here and there a glint of blinding gold, beginning to melt or dissolve as the plum-black darkness folded away in the heat of throbbing lights.
     Kit looked at her, and she saw him, his features smearing, face falling apart, coming together again... and then he fucked her... like a killer... and then... or maybe later...
     Glimpses: Kit was combing his hair in front of the mirror, pants on but no shirt, a scar on his back... while somewhere else... somewhere else... something was happening, some kind of heat was being generated someplace soft, everything was so soft and moist and soft...
     Dark streets and cars. She dreamed that she was in the back of a speeding car, on the run from gangsters with machine-guns, she and her boyfriend the killer, looking out the rear window as the car sped down twisting, slanting hills of blue cement. It was all right, everything was excellent—even if they didn’t get away it would be perfectly fine. They were in the train station, hiding in the public restroom, and both the nasty gang and the mean stupid cops knew where they were. They kissed one last time, star-crossed lovers, then slit their wrists. It didn’t even hurt, it was a luxurious warm damp feeling like being a small child in the... endless dark.
     Harlow awoke to find she’d wet the bed.
     “Oh, God,” she said aloud, shading her eyes from the daylight. She didn’t know what time it was, what day, where she was exactly... She didn’t know anything. She didn’t move, lying there in her urine-soaked sheets as they gradually cooled and began to chafe.
     Flat on her stomach. Left knee slightly bent, right cheek pressed to the mattress. It was daytime and she was all alone.
     “Shit.”
     She was completely naked. Her thighs hurt. She had a headache and a sore jaw, and she felt like she’d bitten her tongue.
     After a while, still somewhat out of focus, she got up and washed her face. She looked out the window through the blinds, squinting to avoid the greenish dreary light. She wondered what time it was. Kit and the others were long gone.
     It looked like they’d cleaned her out. All of her money was gone, her empty purse thrown on the floor. Her jewelry was gone also—even to the paste pearl necklace and earrings. Her fur coat, her blue dress and shoes.
     She couldn’t cry. She wanted to, consciously, but her eyes stayed dry. She felt too much... too much like she’d anticipated the whole thing, like it had all been in the script.
     The smell of urine was pretty strong. She took the sheets off the bed, and, embarrassed to have the maid know she’d peed them, put them in the bathtub to rinse out. She could do nothing about the mattress, she realized, but at least she would do what she could.
     Getting the water running and doing something manual helped get her mind functioning, to some extent, even though she still felt under the influence of the residue of alcohol and drugs, she couldn’t clear her head...
     She looked around, not really knowing what she was looking for, and suddenly knew that they’d stolen her wig. She started laughing. She wondered if they knew who she was, or if they’d been too dumb to figure it out. They could try to blackmail her, she supposed, but she wasn’t very worried about it. After all, her reputation was that of a slut, a hot number and all of that... The revelations of some grifters wouldn’t mean much, even supposing that anyone would listen. She wouldn’t give them a dime.
     Jean washed herself, slowly and thoroughly, groaning gently at times, lost in basic animal life. The numbness was gradually wearing off, so that emotions came to her a little more directly than at second or third remove. She felt a kind of astonishment wrapped in gauze, a muffled or subdued fascination with what she had done with herself: she thought she ought to feel more different than she in fact did.
     And then, as she finally got up the nerve to call Arthur Landau, her agent, collect at his home—she felt somehow amused, she could hardly keep from laughing out loud as she put through the call.
     She wanted Landau to wire her $500 via Western Union. He said he’d send her the Pullman fare back to Los Angeles plus $50, no more. Jean asked to speak to his wife, Beatrice, who she thought would be a softer touch.
     “Of course,” she said to Arthur, “I guess if I really wanted to I could earn a couple hundred pretty easy, hardly working up a sweat.”
     Landau digested this, then said: “All right, I’ll send you a hundred. I give in, okay, but only to stop you from talking like that.”
     “Then make it the five,” she said, using her tough-girl voice. “Or do you want to hear about how much I’ve already given away for free?”
     “Christ, Jean, what’s got into you? Be reasonable. You hurt me when you talk like that. I don’t like to think of you doing these things to yourself.”
     “I know what I’m doing.”
     “No you don’t, but that’s not the point. Listen, I’ll have the ticket waiting for you at the Southern Pacific ticket office by this afternoon, all right? Beatrice and I will be here at the station when you get off.”
     “Arthur, you listen. I want three hundred, or else forget the whole thing. I’m not kidding. I know a Mexican guy who wants to take me down to Tijuana, introduce me to some people down there. I told him I don’t tan, but he says I’ll never have to go outside again.”
     “I’ll send you the money,” said Landau, and Jean felt bad about having pushed him but pleased he had given in. She tried to smooth things over. She promised to be good.
     When she got off the phone, her mouth was so dry it felt as if all of her bodily fluids had dried up. As soon as the money came, she needed to get something good to drink. In the meantime, she settled for some water.
     The Buck Rogers Disintegrator Ray Gun was on the floor next to the bed. She picked it up and pulled the trigger, aiming at the mirror, but the toy had been broken sometime during the night.
     She bruised easily. There were blue and violet marks on her skin, as if she had been roughly handled. Her thigh-muscles were sore.
     Now everything was gray. As it got darker, the gray would turn to black. Once vision became obsolete, the other senses would have to be developed to a higher level of sensitivity. Hearing, taste, touch, and smell. Eyes shut tight, groping about in the pitch black. A noise, a taste, a smell. The touch of the earth.

----------
I. Fontana has lived in Avignon, NYC and now is in Portland, Oregon. Other fiction has appeared in BOMB, Pindeldyboz, Bikini Girl, and others. A novel should finished in another couple of weeks.

[previous] [next]