on the bed, smoke rocking in and out of my lungs. My shoulders pump to the
music, KLSX in L.A., playing my father’s kind of tune, “Beat me daddy, eight
to the bar.” Dad will be out late tonight, so I can sneak my cocktails.
I like my martinis with Darvon. Derived from the Greek word doron,
meaning “gift.” Or dartos, meaning “flayed.”
On the floor are moldy sinks brought home from a dump outside the city limits,
where they’d been lying useless and abandoned, along with junked cars, a
few dead bloated rats, and heaps of twist-tied plastic trash bags waiting
to be plundered. Sometimes I’d lie side-by-side with a particularly domestic
heap of garbage—broken appliances, tampons galore, sofas gouged wide and
their foam insides naked to the desert wind—and to make it work for me I’d
imagine someone watching. A sympathetic audience. Mothers. Gods. Horny heels
who’d humiliate me further. Usually, I left the trash there, but I’d felt
an attachment to the sinks, so here they are now, plugged and filled with
crumpled newspaper and old pay stubs. I pour in the kerosene, and strike
a match. Leaning forward, I breathe in the fumes, squint at the porcelain
bathed in smoke.
A hint of nausea, gastric fluid rushing up like high tide.
I swallow, steady myself, and douse the sinks again. The matches jump out,
wave at me, “Iphegenia!” pointing, anemone-like, “over here!” but the concentration
required for hitting the thin strike zone makes me dizzy. My hand wavers
somewhere away from my line of vision. I primp and preen like a winner,
a bride-to-be basking in the scent of heavy-duty Aqua Net. More hair spray.
More matches. And then my hair is on fire.
My first impulse is to reach for the sketch pad on my night stand, wanting
to capture the fountain of my head, a glorious blaze of a swan song. But
the intensity of the pain makes me dive and roll, tuck tight to protect
my scalp, somersault onto the floor. A greenish foam runs out of my mouth.
Not a single stroke makes it onto the page.
I’m swimming to some Greek tourist spot that I can’t remember the name
of; it’s been that long since I left. In my waterproof sack are 8”x10”
glossies of myself posed with a raised butcher knife, white toga curiously
clean. Upon my arrival, I start signing autographs for a pre-arranged
per capita sum, but my profits are considerably diminished when I throw
the requisite celebrity fit and start killing off fans.
“Wake up, Mouse.”
Dad walks in, shakes me from the self-pitying comfort of dreams, removes
my soiled clothes, and cleans my face and hands with a moist towelette.
I’m grateful for the attention.
You’re an amateur,” he says.
In the morning, I wipe out the sinks and strain to push them into the
closet. I lick out the last from the kerosene can—I can never punish myself
enough—and go down to breakfast.
“Well, Mouse,” says Dad. He has a
plate of scrambled eggs set out for me, something blue and powdery sprinkled
on top. “You’re not looking ship-shape.” He lays his hands on my forehead,
thumbs probing, pulling, one eyelid, then the other, giving my pupils
the once-over. “Not good,” he says, slapping my face, ruddying-up my cheeks.
“You’re a dead-ringer for a doped, duped sailor on a lotus binge.”
I back away, swallowing the aftertaste of
fuel, determined to snuff out the words igniting in my throat: Selfish
Bastard, Useless Human Being. Dad has a long reach, though. He tugs at
the strands of hair clenched between my teeth, all the hair I have left,
and pulls me toward his open mouth.
“Has-been!” His words blow into my
face like a gale force. Then gently, ponytail first, he guides me back
to my chair. “Eat.”
It’s true, I have to admit; ever since the
Hormel slaughterhouse closed down I’ve been at loose ends, one sputtering
dud. I take a bite of egg and run to the toilet.
“Mouse,” calls Dad, “have I taught
I slink back to the table where, instead
of my coffee, I take his. It could be worse, I think; at least he’s given
up matchmaking. And Dad is right—in terms of always hurting the one you
love, I’ve got a lot to learn.
“How’s the job hunting?” he asks.
My tongue is frothing. I swish the hot,
bitter liquid, whatever it is, from one side of my cheek to the other.
“I’ll be out of the house as soon as I’m back on my feet, so quit bugging
me.” I’ve already found the hidden microphone, pock-marked, small as a
pea, in the dresser, and another under the mouthpiece of the phone. Then
there are the insects, indoors, none of them native to L.A.: hemlock loopers,
eastern bloodsucking conenoses, and root bearers the size of limp dicks,
banging against the window panes.
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” says
The cat curls around my ankles, managing
to trip me up as I rise to clear the dishes. “The devil finds work for
idle hands,” I answer, and pause while down on the ground to scrape a
chipped cup against the inside of my wrist.
“Mouse!” Dad hands me the dust pan
and broom. “Try!”
I walk to the corner liquor store, sip from a bottle of ouzo which I
then replace on the shelf, and buy a paper. Outside, I sit on the curb
and look through the want ads. “Auto Sales, Insurance Biller, Lens Consultant,
Managing Partner, Ambitious, We Want Only the Best, Margin Clerks, Unique
and Exciting Oppty, Psychiatrist Wanted, Sec’y For Really Nice Boss, Telemarketer,
Flex Hrs, Maturity A Plus, Comp Exp Req, People Person, Most Exciting
Retailer, Call Right Away, Don’t Wait.” There is nothing there that interests
Going home, I take the long way and detour through the Melrose shopping
blocks, once trendy, now just tawdry. It looks like rain, so I linger.
In front of a store with interiors dressed in black, I gaze at shelves
adorned with Mexican clay skeletons, lighted candles, silver dagger and
skull trinkets, burning hearts. These I feel an affinity for, the bric-a-brac
of a house in mourning. They’re more my style than the L.A. Times’ smeary
fine print hawkers’ blurbs. I step inside the store called La Luz.
A woman sits behind the counter, watches me, then turns slightly to stare
elsewhere. She hunches to hide a full-figure. I hunch a little too, so
as not to seem proud. Normally, I despise all strangers, but I realize
my circumstances are much reduced, and humility is my penance. I try to
fit in. I stare. At the back of the store, I take headphones from my purse,
plug in, and hum along with a Peruvian funeral dirge. The hours pass.
Near closing time, I stroll by displays, touching each “please do not
touch” item once for luck—beads, atomizers, carved wooden snakes, plaster
of Paris statuettes of Achilles, Athena, Artemis—telepathically updating
them on my situation.
It’s like this, I say. I spent centuries at work, killing one species
to please another, a link in the cyclical food chain, and I was a powerful
woman in my full-length wrap and rubber apron, day-in, day-out, doing
my job, the best in the plant at immobilization—mechanical, chemical,
electrical shock—equally skilled at the slaughter of hogs, lambs, cattle
and vealers, men, too, able to work all seasons, and in no small way responsible
for the invention of the portable, single-hand-operated compression stunner,
well-compensated, only to show up one day to find with my time card a
form letter, twentieth-century corporate management using phrases like,
“economic realities,” “California tax laws,” and “neighbors complaining
about the stench.” It was a shut-down, a massive lay-off. No relocation,
even. So, you see, I need help. Divine intervention.
I buy a candle embossed with “Turn your luck around,” and a bunch of Lucky
7 stickers. “How long do I have to wait for the magic to kick in?” I ask.
She looks me up and down. “The little breaks are on their way.”
That night I meet Dad for dinner, our weekly ritual of restaurant agitation.
He takes me out to make up for past neglect, wrongs wrought throughout
my adolescence. This means having to forgive him week after week, but
a free meal is a free meal. We begin by ordering guava cream pie.
The waitress glared down. Doe, her name
is. “Guavas are out of season,” she says.
We know. It’s a private joke between us:
we’ve been places, we’ve had guavas, we’re better than you.
“Doe, a deer,” says Dad. “Dear, sacred
Doe.” He’s salivating, getting ahead of the game.
“Allow me to recite the specials,”
says Doe, getting her hackles up.
“Not necessary,” says Dad.
We open our menus. Dad takes the waitress’
arm. “I admire you for working. Look at my daughter: a slob.”
I watch passersby out the window, drum my
fingers, a military roll to irk Navy man Dad.
In response, he doffs his cap to reveal
the sparse inlets where hair once grew. “Her fault,” he says. “Premature
Outside, I see a fountain where kids are
removing their sneakers to skim them like speedboats, big kids making
tidal waves, boots used for destroyers, fists punching bombs away, KE-SHOOO.
“I’ll have the vegetable plate,” I say. “With sides of mashed potatoes,
macaroni and cheese, yellow squash casserole, and rice pudding.” Comfort
food. I want to go outside, becalm the kids, hold their faces in the water,
find out what their parents will do.
“God!” says Dad, and he bops me with
his menu. “She’ll have the all-you-can-eat quail special.”
“Quail is the state bird, Dad. Illegal.”
He smiles. “Has that ever stopped me?” When
I don’t answer, he gives Doe a wink and orders venison steak rare for
himself. I empty the sugar bowl into my water glass.
“Got it,” says Doe, stumbling in her
rush to get away. That kind of thing happens all the time around Dad.
I unfold my napkin, draw a pen-and-ink portrait
of myself: Dad’s Little Princess. I give it a lipstick kiss and slide
Dad holds it close. The picture is so tiny
he can barely make it out. “Always,” he says, handing it back.
I flick sugar water on the edges. “You can
“I have a present for you, too.” Dad
pats his breast pocket.
“Money?” I ask.
“Open it! Go on!”
I sit on my hands. “You liked my drawing,
He pushes the present toward me; it’s too
big and lumpy for cash. “The sentiment was unimpeachable.”
I shift a hand loose, and beat the package
back with tiny fingernail taps. “But you didn’t think it was good?”
“You wouldn’t call me an artist?”
“I call you my own daughter, whose
birth lit up my world and caused me to smile like I haven’t shown joy
on earth since.”
“I see.” I snatch the gift, ripping
to shreds the wrapping, and there: bunny socks, real rabbit fur inside
and out, stretch cotton cuffs embroidered with satin carrots, silken limp
rabbit ears draped down the sides, and on the ankles, genuine cottontails
to tickle my skin. I’m that baby once more, too young to disappoint. “Dad,
Dad, Dad!” I shriek.
“Watch the claws,” says Dad, and he
slips them onto my feet.
“Did you really buy?” I ask, “or did
you shoot them yourself?” I let him struggle with my pumps, fitting them
over the fluff. What a dad.
“Dance, birthday girl?”
It’s not my birthday, I think, unless he
lied about that, too. “My bunny valentine,” I croon.
We rise in unison and clasp hands. I step
onto his soft leather loafers, as for the children’s dance. We begin,
and he jolts me stiltingly, puppetish around the room, into annoyed customers,
down through aisles of grimy checkerboard tiles. I toss my locks and bare
my teeth, a signature flourish. He kicks up his heels and twists at the
waist. We sing our off-beat melodies:
“Thou knowest not, my dim-witted
The picture thou hast made.”
Then, on a too-quick turn, my stiletto spikes
go flying, I spin away blindly, falter, can’t balance on my own furred
feet, not fleet, a failure at complex maneuvers. “Where am I?” I ask,
and Dad rushes to my side, pounding the offending hares into submission.
“Can’t tarantella worth shit, can
you?” he asks.
I sit on the floor, on a piece of gum that
I see too late. “No spit-and-polish, Sir.” Not looking up, I feel my feet
and ankles for breaks and tears. Just as the store clerk at La Luz predicted,
my little toes are out of whack. “Sorry,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
Doe sees what has happened, and bucks, landing
a back-kick in my kidneys. She tries to scoot me out of the way, under
a table, not for my own good, or even for spite; she just doesn’t want
to lose her job, and it’s always the innocent ones who pay for commotion.
I find a stash of spoons, lost rattles, rancid pork. The meat makes me
Peeking out, I watch Dad as he springs out
of reach. Pitching from side to side, he sails for the exit.
I take off my socks and signal, trying to
flag Dad down. “Cornstarch and cold water will take the stains right out,”
I yell, but Dad ignores me. He disappears through a smoked-glass door.
Forlorn and left with the dirty dishes,
I can’t help but wonder if some cycles, too, are meant to be broken.
I know the routine: six o’clock and Dad
arrives home from the usual bad day at the Long Beach Naval Base—no real
challenges, a day of betrayals, boredom, stasis, apathy, lazy-drunken-pothead
mariners, insubordination. A day with too much time for him to think,
I can tell.
“Okay, okay,” I say, running down
the hall, knowing I have to outsmart him, never giving up, thinking that
luck will somehow intervene. It does, sometimes.
Dad swings, mad punches flying my way, but
whatever I’ve done wrong now, whatever he thinks I’ve done, it will have
to wait. I can’t be bothered; I’ve got big plans. I dash ahead, making
for the storage room. Once inside, I slam the door, bolt the lock. I put
it in myself that afternoon.
The cat has beat me there. Dad’s cat. “Have
some Clorox,” he says.
“Get out, if you know what’s good,”
I say. “Things are about to change.” I am luminously optimistic. All doubts
and foresight must be quashed in order for the hunter to have a successful
kill. Minimum planning, maximum instinct.
I pull matches from my pocket and look around
the closet space. Most of the cleansers are marked “Drink me.” The rat
poison says “For Good Girls Only.” Dad thinks this is funny. I can hear
him now, tinkling out the “Danse Macabre” on the piano. Thanks, Dad. I
open bottles, one after another, dumping them out toward the door, swishing
the contents underneath, out to the hallway, recreating the killing floor,
slick with blood. Lubricious now with extra-strength liquid Wisk and All,
the trusted clean for your whole family. New non-stick surface. Eliminates
odors. Great value. I gloat to the cat, “The tables have turned, he’ll
see; the light will shine the moment before he slips and bashes his head
to a pulp, and I did it. It was all my doing.”
The cat shakes his head. “Big trial, small jail
“What choice do I have?” I ask. “Call him.
Do the dirty work.”
The cat yowls, then jumps to higher ground, his
claws getting in one last dig to my shoulders on the way.
The music stops. I wait. Through a crack in the
door, I see and my heart sinks. On rubber-tipped stilts, Dad stands in
the puddle. His balding head grazes the skylight.
“You hurt my feelings,” he says.
I’m out of the house now, and have been for a while. The Glendale Motel
is a bare-bones, rent-by-the-week joint, and I’m shacking up with my new
boyfriend, Jason. Jason’s a pizza fan, and that’s where he is now, going
for a slice. I check through the curtains, making sure he’s nowhere in
sight, then steal his Daytimer from under the mattress. I check the figures,
computing my share. I don’t know why, but he’s given me extra. Again.
It’s my job to run over the animals. Everyday
I take Jason’s Pathfinder and go for a drive, usually through the canyons,
and catch them: skunk, possum, stray dog, raccoon. Most freeze up and
wait, sometimes I chase them down. The tires stink, caked with entrails.
I never hose them down, because it’s the smell that keeps me going, gets
me high. Jason waits. When I get home, I give him directions, and he goes
to scoop them up, his work for L.A. County. Split the take.
At least once a night, on the darkest roads,
I stop the car short, cut the headlights, and fix my eyes wide on the
rear view mirror. Cars screech from behind. I don’t flinch. Smashed glass,
crushed bumpers, metal cut and twisted, bruises, scrapes, crazy, skidding
rides. I look and look for a safe place in the world.
“I’m sorry,” I always say to Jason,
later. “It won’t happen again.”
On channel five, the movie “Psycho” is on.
I put away Jason’s notebook, and turn the volume up. It’s the exciting
part now, in the shower. I flex my joints in time with the score, knees
spastic, fingers clenched. The discord of orchestrated shrieks brings
the memories flooding. The slaughterhouse was heaven for vermin when the
lights went out. “Yes, yes!” I shout, banging the telephone on the desk,
punching the air, fighting back for Janet Leigh who is leaking down the
Jason walks in, sets the food on a table.
“Try not to be late tonight, my baby.” He takes a can of Slice from a
cardboard tray, puts in on the carpet by my side of the bed, not too close,
so I’ll have to reach for it. “I’m lonely when you’re not around,” he
I look at him squatting there, and gauge
the professional trophy quality of his head. Unhealthy diet has resulted
in poor presentation: skin mottled, slack, marbled with ruined capillaries.
Old. Utility grade, at best. Maggot-bait, a home for bacteria. I flash
a few Polaroids. Red animal eyes. I mount the photos on the headboard.
“More art?” he asks.
“Gamesmanship,” I say.
“You’re a funny gal.” He cracks his
knuckles, checks in the mirror for nose hairs. “Cute, though.”
I close my eyes and hear the spring-trigger
of steel traps in darkness, firecracker pops like the Fourth of July.
I take the keys to the car, turn off the
“Goodnight now,” I say. Start small,
I think. Work up.