The Bad Czech (a novel)

photo by SG 

Too bad it was always the men who were strong enough to leave her who always left her! Too bad it was always the men who were wise enough to resist her who always resisted her! Why did it always have to be the type who fell in love with her who…fell in love with her? She wanted for once to be wanted by a man who didn’t want her. Left by a man who would stay

1.

Lola was smiling. It still hurt to.

On the way to the airport, waiting for the taxi in front of the apartment building I would never see again (fuck you, and goodbye forever, 3e, with your salsa music… 3b, with your phony orgasms), I had seen a dead bird on the sidewalk. A sparrow. A breeze  ruffled the frizz of its breast.

I pointed it out to her but she rolled her eyes and looked away. But my point… or the point I was going to make… was that this dead bird was maybe the third I’d seen, inert on the sidewalk, since moving to California a few years before. And yet the trees and the sky are full of birds, millions of them, and they aren’t immortal. What’s the average life span of a sparrow, anyway? A few years? Shouldn’t the streets and sidewalks be thick with dead birdies? It doesn’t add up.

Just a thought. An airport thought, apropos of nothing. What does your mind get up to when faced with the higher-than-usual probability of Death? Imagine making a reservation, a month in advance, to play fifteen hours of Russian roulette. I was scared.

“What do you call these?”

Lola offered me half of a bear claw with a quizzical pout. She held it out at arm’s length and shook it at me, but I shook my head as well, and she retracted it. But I reached for it and tore it in half and stuffed it in my mouth.

She’s only offering what she doesn’t want, I was thinking. Food she was really interested in she usually started on quickly, insurance against sharing more than half of it, a habit I diagnosed as stemming from her foreign childhood. A childhood of the rationed and the ersatz. Self-sacrifice, even in a mild snack-related form, was not one of her moves. Her food in ‘our’ refrigerator had always been protected by red Ls of nail polish. Especially the chunky peanut butter; that was off limits. That was her lieblings snack. If you’ve never ejaculated in a jar of chunky peanut butter…

She said, “You said…”

“I said what?”

“Forget it.”

“How can I forget what I haven’t heard yet?”

Sigh. “Let’s not fight, baby, okay? Let’s just try to be nice…” she looked at the wall clock, “…for twenty minutes.”

“If you say so,” I said, but I was thinking two things. First: you can’t wait, can you? Second: when did you start calling me ‘baby’? Was that one of Harry’s words? Was she going to be running back to Harry as soon as I left the country? Harry the video game pornographer with racial dysmorphia. At least he’s rich. At least he isn’t a loser like me.

I expected the worst. I didn’t expect Lola to be satisfied until she’d utterly ruined both of us. That’s how bad things had gotten with my Lola and me, but I was jumpy anyway, jumpy and fearful and therefore not very hungry at all, though I put away that bear claw quickly enough, holding my sugar-cursed hands at face-level afterwards.  Loath to touch anything.

Not long ago, Lola would have tended to them briskly, with a kleenex. Without us needing to exchange a word. Now, as I sat there, sticky-fingered and mildly wretched, there was nothing, no response, her once-taut sensors had gone slack. She was reading something of great interest and just… kept reading… as I sat there like a post-scrub neurosurgeon. She licked a thumb and turned a page and I finally wiped my hands on my thighs. The machine of our love, as we both already knew, was broken.

I turned my mind to other thoughts. I had fifteen hours of flight to get through, involving two connections and the monstrous underlying threat of the North Atlantic in November. The bottom of the North Atlantic is littered with travelers, both ancient and new. Lola was checking her lips in a little mirror.

There’s something so dispassionately technical about the way a woman looks at her own mouth, I was thinking. If only I could learn to look at a woman’s mouth that way. I licked a still-sticky finger pleasurelessly. Lola patted my arm. A plane took off.

“It’s only fifteen hours,” she said. “The first part is nothing.”

She gave me a thumbs-up and a wink: another Americanism she’d only recently added to her collection, like ‘baby.’ I watched a mustached businessman in a seat at the far end of the lounge staring at her, and his eyes went back to his Financial Times when he saw me see him see her do it to me.

Be my guest, sucker,  I wanted to shout across the lounge at him.

I looked at her as a stranger would…I looked at her as if I were graying in a distinguished fashion, paunching a little, unlovably (but reliably) mustached, peeking at a woman over the tremulous hedge of a Financial Times. A tall blonde with a fabulous body, a strikingly pretty face. Yes of course. I’ll call my accountant. She would be easily worth the added expense.

Only fifteen hours?” I said, after a very long pause during which Lola put down and picked up again our copy of Vogue magazine, the one we’d just gotten in the mail that morning. A potent symbol of life. I intended to use it to ward off any existential panics that were sure to bedevil me in flight. She wiped her hands of her own bear claw gunk and folded the Vogue open and held up a page to me, frowning.

“Do you think she’s pretty?”

The first part of my journey was the thirty minute flight from Lindberg Field to LAX, in a propeller-driven airplane that looked like a good vehicle for a cheap cinematic death when I first saw it waiting for me on the landing field. There were dings in the shiny fuselage from decades of rolling staircases being shoved by careless members of the ground crew against it. It was a sunny, windy day. Black gusts of jet exhaust blew across the airfield like windblown widows’ veils.

My fellow passengers that day were of two types: the ones who make the quick hop to L.A. routinely, with Wall Street Journals rolled in the nooks of their blazered arms, and the ones like me who were disconcerted to find themselves about to take a sweaty hike across a dusty landing field towards a thirty-year old propeller airplane with a hole in it. A hole.

There was a little round portal under the cockpit window, about the size of the hole in the ticket-seller’s window at a cinema, and the pilot was handing something to, or receiving something from, a member of the ground crew through it. It looked like a Magritte painting, the sight of that uniformed arm, with its gold-trimmed cuff, sticking out of that hole under the cockpit window of the little plane; or like a plane with an arm in a kid’s book. But that was a comfort, because what kind of kid’s book would tell the story of a plane with an arm and then let it crash?

Lola had her back to me, staring out the glass wall of the terminal. With the same mysterious part of her brain that she used in order to finish most of my sentences, or to retract her mouth and close her eyes with impeccable timing the very instant before I’d ejaculate, she managed to turn to face me the exact moment that I stood up, coat slung over my arm, ready to leave.

I said “Lola…” and she backed away with a detached smile. I took a step towards her and she backed away again. I sang, softly, “Lola,” and she shook her head, a finger over her lips to shush me, and waved me away, as though with the force of the breeze from her hand to push me through the terminal door and out across the patches of raw sunlight and oily shadows of the tarmac towards the plane.

The more I thought on it, blasted with grit and exhaust as I followed my fellow passengers up the rolling staircase into the fuselage, the more I realized that Lola’s goodbye had been perfect. And so the more I wondered why I was leaving her.

But there was no time to dwell on that, because my mind was busy shutting itself down with mortal fear. Before I knew it, I was compressing my eyelids with terror, sailing out over the Pacific Ocean in an exotic curve that I was sure would end with a sputter of the engines, a magical spate of silence and weightlessness and then death. Instead, we slammed softly through a few boulders of cold dense air before leveling off over the little white waves that scalloped the coastline. Seagulls glittered over the Pacific like confetti.

I had the Vogue on my lap, my hands palm-down on it. The cover was already puckered and warped with sweat, just fifteen minutes into the flight. The guy in the seat next to me, who bore an uncanny resemblance to George Harrison, was casually flipping his way through Screen Writer’s Monthly. A very tall, white-haired, George Harrison with heavy black eyebrows.

“I see you don’t agree with flying,” he said in a voice that wasn’t George Harrison’s at all. It was absurdly deep, and he ornamented the end of the heavily-accented sentence with a hacking cough that I correctly placed as Eastern-European in origin. He was dressed in a modish suit with thin lapels, and a dark shirt with a strange collar, which added to the Beatle-esque aura he managed to project.

He was obviously too tall to sit comfortably on the airplane; his knees were not far from his chin; but he didn’t seem to be inclined to complain about it. My immediate thought was: He’s so glad to be in America, there could be a spike up his ass and he’d be saying ‘Please! Thank You! Make it a rustier spike, if you prefer!’’

He stuck out a hand and identified himself. His hand was hairy and bony-wristed and huge…I was hesitant to put my fingers in it. But he smiled when he said his name, and his too-white teeth were traced in black… a cheap or very old cap job… which for whatever reason made him seem less likely to crush my fingers. It’s funny how some forms of ugliness are seen as nice, and some as sinister, and likewise with beauty.

“Miro Pahnik. I’m in the Luck Business.”

I told him my name, shaking his hand, and added, “I’m a Starving Artist.” I gave him a look of what I considered to be hip resignation. “What do you mean by ‘the Luck Business’?”

He winked. “Movies. All of my filthy rich comrades… the directors and screenwriters and working actors… they all say, when explaining their fantastic success, ‘It was luck!’ Which is supposed to be taken as pure modesty,” said Miro Pahnik, leaning in towards me to make his point, “But really it’s the height of arrogance. Because what they’re saying by saying that all of their success comes from luck is that they are favored by God!” His eyes widened.

“Can you imagine? Favored by God! Likewise, when Oscar time comes and they get that statuette in their sweaty little well-manicured hands, who’s the first person they invariably thank? God! The same God who wouldn’t lift a finger to save an innocent Jew from being peeled like a banana in a Nazi experiment has bothered to help this movie star win an Oscar!”

I had never thought of it in that way before and told him so. He looked deeply satisfied to hear this. He touched a cigarette-yellowed fingertip to his temple. “How can one avoid eating shit if one doesn’t know exactly what it tastes like?”

I smiled and stared out of the window, slightly sick at the extreme plausibility of the sudden fantasy I was having… of Lola watching the news of my plane crash and hugging the television with demented grief, sobbing in German, looking sexy as hell with puffy red eyes and banshee hair and lips all glossy with snot and tears.

I was still rigid in my seat when the plane began lowering its belly like a dimwitted gull over Los Angeles, which looked like an entire country from the air, and I took the first deep breath that I’d taken in forty five minutes.

The journey across LAX, from one terminal to another, and then to the plane itself, was ordeal number two. I spent more time in a line for the check-in for my flight to Frankfurt, where I’d make the connection to Berlin, than I’d spent already in the air. It was an immense comfort to find myself strapped into my window seat in the Lufthansa jet, which was so full of people speaking German that I felt that I was already outside of the U.S. Both of the seats beside me remained empty as the plane taxied out on the runway, and I couldn’t believe my luck.

Which is why I was mildly surprised, and deeply disappointed, to feel someone lower himself into the seat beside me nearly an hour into the flight, as I lay my head against the chilly porthole with my eyes closed, trying to make time fly by ignoring it. The pilot had just announced, in three languages, that we were over the Grand Canyon. I opened my eyes and glanced to the right without moving my head, or uncrossing my arms from over my chest. It was George Harrison again.

“I had to get away from my first-class seat mates. I hope you don’t mind.”

I let a theatrically drowsy smile play across my face, hoping to discourage conversation by establishing, immediately, the ground rules for my version of the flight: reading; movie watching; sleep. “Not at all,” I said quietly. I yawned.

He peered at the Vogue, which was still in my lap and heavy as a Bible. “May I?”

I handed it over and he took it in his hands with relish. He was full of energy. He licked his thumb, the tic of inveterate readers of a certain age, and plowed into it.

“This is contraband stuff in my circle of friends, you see. Nothing is more puritanical than a repentant hedonist, and all of my friends are repentant hedonists. This includes my good friend the feminist with the breast implants. In her eyes, a man who reads a fashion magazine is just a tiny step above a pedophile.”

He paged through the issue…the decadently voluminous fall issue…with real pleasure, stopping to linger, now and then, on certain splayed-limbed poses, certain slack-jawed or pouty close-ups. He cocked an eyebrow at me, looking up from the magazine, though he was still rifling through it. “You subscribe?”

“Yes and no. It’s in my girlfriend’s name, but it’s for me.” I sat upright…the sleep-ruse was obviously pointless. I was blinking, looking around the cabin, orienting myself to the conversation.

“She must be quite secure in her looks.”

I held up a finger, meaning “hold that thought”, and unbuckled my seat belt. I then went through the foolish contortion required to dig my wallet out of my back left pocket. There was no money in it, but it was full of pictures of Lola: a telling metaphor. I handed him the wallet, and he slipped a picture (the picture of Lola at the nude beach in La Jolla) out of its hiding place behind a tamer photograph of the two of us together on a horse. As if he’d known it was there. I almost reached for it, the naked one, to save it from his fingers, but held my breath instead.

Her hair is boy-short and bright and sharp as metal in this picture. She’s squinting into the sun which is setting behind me as I aim the camera and my shadow is rippling over her like the diaphanous gray fabric of the most expensive dress in creation. Her unshadowed left breast seems to burst from the photo in contrast. It made me feel kind of provincial to feel so queer about letting him see that private image, private for reasons beyond the nudity of it, from back in the sweet days when Lola and I first enjoyed California together. The Czech studied the picture and nodded slowly, his mouth turned down at its corners.

“I can see you have problems with her,” he pronounced, like a Doctor thinking his way through a tricky prognosis. “She’s pretty, and you’re such a nice young fellow, so you can’t resist the unfortunate impulse to treat her like a princess,” he handed me back the photo and wallet separately, looking me directly in the eye as he finished his thought, “Which bores her to tears.”

I had a ridiculous smile on my face. “What?”

“She’s crying out for a little rough treatment, man…that’s obvious.” He went back to the Vogue, and turned the pages carefully, as though looking for an example in support of his argument. “Ha.” he said. “Look.”

He held up a picture of a doe-eyed blonde with a fat lower lip, posed between two po-faced Masai warriors, and she was as sleek and cool as a utensil in her vinyl dress and thigh-high white vinyl boots. “The first man who is man enough to fuck this girl in the ass will own her forever. He could be a cop or a garbage man, it wouldn’t matter. In fact, one of these big black gentlemen beside her in the picture would do nicely.” He chuckled deeply, blowing a raspy coalmine breeze on me from those dark lungs. He patted my knee. “I’ve offended you.”

“Not at all,” I said, clearing my throat, but I was thinking: you rude fucking refugee from a third world communist bloc country. “But you’re wrong. First off,” I began counting on my fingers, “She isn’t bored with me at all…in fact it’s quite the opposite, since I’m leaving her. Second, I’m not young…I’m thirty six. And third… ” I lowered my voice, “I’ve already fucked her in the ass,” I lied, “and it really wasn’t a big deal at all. For either of us.”

He bowed a bit… a subtle inclination of the head that Dukes and Barons were always doing in screwball Hollywood comedies of the ‘Thirties… conceding my point. He closed the Vogue and set it carefully on his lap, studying the cover during the awkward silence that followed. Awkward for me, at least, but clearly not for him. His follow-up question was:

“And so you’re leaving her?”

“Yes. Flying to Berlin.”

“May I ask why?”

“No, you may not.” I tried to make it sound playfully sarcastic, but it came out sounding…terse. He chuckled deeply. His leather-lunged chuckle.

“Look,” I said, “I’m not trying to be rude. I mean, I don’t want to seem… ”

Pahnik opened the Vogue again. “No need to apologize! You were only being frank. If only Americans, in general, would be so frank! As we say in Prague, ‘you can’t make a good soup with lukewarm water,’ and that’s all I get in L.A., day in and day out, on the beach, in the sauna, or at the sushi bar. Warm water! I miss burning my tongue a little, from time to time, in Europe. You Americans call it rudeness. ”

I yawned. I couldn’t help myself. “Pretty lucrative business, screen-writing?” The stupidity of the question was neutralized by the good will behind the gesture of asking, I felt.

“Oh, obscenely so, my friend.” He winked. “Obscenely so.” He patted the imaginary mound of a wallet in his jacket pocket.

“Do you have a writing credit on anything I’d know, like, er… ‘Heaven’s Gate’ or something?”

He shook his head. “Not at all, and that’s the trick. That’s the trick. I’m the author of well over one hundred paid-for scripts…I first arrived in Paradise in the early ‘80s, clinging desperately to the edge of Milos Forman’s flying carpet. He had done ‘Cuckoo’s Nest,’ and ‘Hair’, and was soon to have a major success with ‘Amadeus’. Anyway, as I was saying, I have written over one hundred paid-for scripts, and twice as many ‘treatments’, and the least I ever got for a script, counting the advance for the ‘treatment’, was $50,000.00, adjusting for inflation, which is peanuts, as you say. And not a one of those scripts became a movie! Not a one! And for that I thank my lucky stars and also a little skill on my part… but mostly it’s luck. As I told you earlier, I’m in the Luck Business.”

“But,” I said, “I don’t get it. You’ve written a hundred scripts in twenty years and not one became a movie. Isn’t that… I mean… wouldn’t some call that a kind of… how can I put this… ”

“Failure?”

“Yes.”

“No worries! Don’t be afraid of the word! You’re showing your stars and stripes again! But, no. A failure it’s not. For two reasons…for at least two reasons. First reason: in Follywood, what you want, even more than to have a so-called ‘hit’, is to not have a so-called ‘bomb’… not having a bomb is even better than having a hit. Because a ‘hit’ is something to live up to…and while two or three hits in a row may be reasonably called a success, one hit alone… followed by a resounding silence…”

He drew a jagged-nailed finger across his ropey red neck… figuratively decapitating himself… with a disturbingly skull-like grin. Those big white teeth, traced in black grout.

“As long as you’re not having a bomb, it is possible for everyone to believe that you will have a hit one day, and the safest way to not have a bomb is to not even have the script made into a picture! Not to mention the fact that the rights to a script that isn’t made into a movie at some point revert to me… that’s in my contract… and so I can feasibly then sell that very same script again… for more, usually, than I did the first time! In fact, yes, there’s one script of mine… ‘The Bad Czech’… that I have rewritten and sold more than three times already, in intervals of five years, doubling the price every time that I’ve re-sold it.”

He settled back into his seat, stroking a page in the Vogue (a vaselined black model with a shaved head and H-bomb tits was modeling for a line of clothing started by an aging rapper with a taste for rhinestoned panties) and looked quite deep in thought. He might have been Thomas Merton discussing an Augustinian paradox with me, or Enrico Fermi eulogizing the atom.

“I’m considered a hot-property as a screen-writer, because I’ve been on the scene for twenty years, longer than the Ice Age, and yet I’ve never had a bomb! That’s quite a track record! My asking price nowadays is quite phenomenal. Because I’ve never written an actual film that could do bad box office, and I’ve never had a so-called ‘hit’ to live up to, that means my perceived potential for writing blockbusters is… astronomical.”

“Still, of course, I’m not even in the top sixty percent. I’m little potatoes, as far as lunch in Tinsletown goes. But I might as well be Louis the bloody Sixteenth compared to some poor schlub of a college professor in Missouri, or some serf of a trauma specialist getting splashed with A.I.D.S.-infected blood on a daily basis in some roach-infested E.R. in the barrio.”

“Or some wretch of an artist living in a one bedroom apartment with a girlfriend he can’t afford in San Diego,” I offered, with a curled lip.

He waved my self-pity away jovially.

“And the beauty of this all is,” he concluded, in a lower tone, as if he really wanted me to understand the seriousness of his point, “is that I’ve been circulating the same scripts over and over again now for five years… I haven’t done a lick of work in all that time. And still, the money rolls in…these monstrous, sun-blotting waves…tidal waves of cash that I couldn’t stop if I wanted to.”

“Some life.”

He raised an instructive finger. I couldn’t avoid staring at that yellow, thick, and hacked-at nail on the end of it. It looked like something from an Egyptian tomb… the faded carapace of a scarab. “Though not, and you may well resent me for saying this… not as idyllic as you, having no money, might assume.”

“Oh really?” If there was one thing I was sick of, it was hearing rich people say that. Money can’t buy happiness? Fuck you. Try being poor. Resent him I did.

As it turned out, the finger he lifted was not instructive at all… he was signaling for the stewardess’ attention. While he was waiting for the tight-lipped girl to bring him a drink, he began to tell me a story that he swore was true.

2.

In the early part of the last decade, soon after the wall went down, Pahnik went to Berlin. He went, he says, out of curiosity and boredom. He had just pocketed a substantial wad of dough from the third rewrite of his perennially-rewritten (and re-sold) script “The Bad Czech,” and he was sick of L.A. Sick of sick palm trees, three-block limo rides, insincere blow jobs, and nouvelle cuisine. Without any pressing chores or relationships to hold him back, he hopped on a plane for Europe.

Why Berlin? In part because it still, after all those years, had somewhat of a reputation as a wild town, and also because he could get as close, in Berlin, to his Eastern European roots as possible without in fact running the risk of being in Prague or Warsaw when the Iron Curtain slammed shut again, something he always expected to happen in those days. So long after Glasnost it no longer seems as likely that the barbed wire and sentry towers will go up again, but just a couple of years after the Wall first came down, it was still by no means a certainty that the opening of the East was a permanent thing. It looked to some like a trick.

Pahnik was plagued back then with nightmares in fact. He’d dream that he’d flown back to visit his mother and brother in Prague (his only remaining relatives) and wake up the next day to sirens, and troops in square helmets marching ten abreast, and the police banging on his mother’s door to confiscate his luggage. And he couldn’t even remember how to speak Czech in this nightmare, but he’d wake up screaming in it.

Berlin had enough whiff of the East about it to satisfy his guilty need to “go home” without actually risking the real experience. He booked a room in the semi-posh Hotel Continental, on Budapester str, between the Tiergarten and the Zoo, and he lived there for a month.

He’d arrived in Berlin during the rainy season of its miserable winter, and so he rarely left the hotel, at first… his most adventurous attempt to do so saw him get as far as a block away, in a morning’s oblique drizzle of cloudy raindrops, before turning back. He did manage to travel much further afield than a block, eventually, but that was near the end of his stay, and is an important part of the story, and doesn’t need to be described in detail until later.

Stuck inside the hotel, he had to amuse himself with the materials at hand. What were the materials at hand? Television, fellow guests at the hotel, and the hotel staff. Those were his choices of amusement.

One day and night of television was enough to scratch it from the list of activities immediately, and forever. Television was dismal: dubbed re-runs of American sitcoms and cop shows; soccer, news; and the soft porn that German programming offered in the evening, which was beyond anything possible on American channels, but still not much more than interesting, once you’d made the comparison. In fact, if anything, watching television in Germany could have the adverse affect of making the sight of naked big breasts seem fairly boring, pretty quickly. And he didn’t want that.

He first turned his attentions to his fellow guests in the hotel. They were, for the most part, Americans, but there were a handful of Asians as well. The Asians were no fun… standoffish and unresponsive… they merely registered terrified smiles when he tried to spark conversations with them in the elevators, or at the front desk in the lobby. The fact that Pahnik was nearly twice the height of some of them may have been a factor.

The Americans, as advertised, were much more fun. They broke down into two groups… two distinct phenotypes: the easily offended, and the gregariously offensive. The former were intensely fun but only once; the latter were reliably entertaining if terribly predictable. He learned to identify the two types by their footwear. The gregariously offensive tended to stomp around the lobby in cowboy boots. Region was indicated by the style and condition of the boots. The further East, in America, that the businessman/cowpoke came from, the fancier and newer the boots looked.

“Howdy pardner!” Pahnik would call out, as he stepped off the elevator, spotting one of his Wyomingites, or Texans, or Michiganders, etc., collecting their mail at the front desk. But there was one in particular.

“Hey ho, Ivan!”

The most gregariously offensive American staying in the hotel that month was Charlie van der Roos. He was tall and fat and never once, during his stay in Berlin, removed his cowboy hat, a sure sign, in Pahnik’s opinion, that Charlie was going bald. His eyebrows were so blond that from the other side of the lobby it looked like he didn’t have any. His face was soft and pink and youthfully free of wrinkles, though he claimed to be old as Pahnik, who was a little older than forty then. His gleaming double chin, and the way he threw his head back when laughing, made Pahnik think of a huge pink seal.

He wore three-piece suits and bolo ties and hailed from Eden Prairie, Minnesota. He owned a chain of doughnut shops in Minneapolis, and its suburbs, called Le Dönut. Le Dönut, as Charlie put it, was a high-class doughnut bistro for people who liked croissant shops but didn’t necessarily like croissants. Business was so good he was thinking about going national. He foresaw a Le Dönut in every major airport.

He was working on “some tie-in synergy shit” in which he hoped to position the doughnut… as a concept… in a relationship with the Fourth of July the way that Turkeys were wedded to Thanksgiving. He’d complained jovially to Pahnik about it over the heads of three Japanese businessmen with hysterical smiles in the elevator one afternoon.

“Shit, Ivan, I’ve already dropped a quarter of a unit,” $250,000, “On an exploratory think tank on the goddamned concept and all I got so far is a new word for doughnut…a goddamned ‘freedom ring’! Would you eat a cinnamon-sprinkled freedom ring? But it’s gonna shit paydirt in the long run, you watch.”

Pahnik had singled Charlie out for companionship, out of all of the nouvelle rednecks available, because he was by far the most jovially rude of the lot, illogically referring to Pahnik as “Ivan,” while all the others called him “Mr. Miro” or “Mr. Pahnik” or “Sir”. Did Charlie think that Czechs were Russians? He once described his ideal girl, and in the same bold stroke identified himself as the soul of tolerance, by confessing to Pahnik that he dreamed of meeting a “chick with nigger lips, kike tits, jap hair, and a teen-age faggot’s ass,” and Pahnik had to admit that Charlie had a point. Who wouldn’t? Dream of such a girl.

Conveniently enough, Charlie van der Roos was staying in a room just three doors down from Pahnik’s, on the fifth floor, and by the second week in Berlin, Charlie’s room became the first stop of the day on Pahnik’s way towards the Hotel Bar every morning, where breakfast was an untouched plate of scrambled eggs and a petrol tank’s worth of beer.

One morning Pahnik sauntered down the hall and rapped once on that door, pushing it after hearing Charlie yell “Open!,” and entered the room to find Charlie sitting on the toilet, the bathroom door ajar, smoking a cigar and clutching a mammoth cellular phone as if it were electrocuting him. With barely controllable disgust, Pahnik deflected his gaze, out the window, which the slate-gray drizzle seemed to be tapping with affection. The whole city, or what was visible from the window, was the color of the rain clouds that darkened it methodically with murky water. East Berlin’s famous television tower, looking like Sputnik’s father, speared the sky-sized wheel of the clouds, and loomed over the monochrome map with rude Soviet glamour.

Charlie put his hand over the telephone’s receiver and spoke from the corner of his mouth, pushing his cowboy hat back on his head and squinting on a finger of cigar smoke that rose to poke his eye when he spoke. “Grab yourself a beer, Ivan… be with ya in a Jew-York minute….”

He suddenly raised his voice, yanking the sodden cigar from his mouth, shouting “No shit, Sherlock!” into the phone. He finger-punched the off/on button like it was the eye of an enemy and smiled a painful smile at Pahnik and stared into the middle distance like a man about to make a philosophical remark, but grunted instead.

There was a pregnant pause, then a voluminous plop in the toilet bowl. Followed by a smaller one. Then Charlie’s sigh of relief. He winked, re-inserting the cigar in the corner of his mouth and settling back on the toilet seat in peace. With the puzzled expression of a man discovering an after-thought, he extended the phone towards Pahnik as far as he could reach without toppling from the toilet.

“You wanna make a call to anybody State-side? I can write it off on my taxes… ” but Miro gestured a “no” so Charlie set the phone down in his lap and kept talking.

“I can tell by the way you never talk about how much shit costs,” he observed, “That you have some money. Am I right?”

Pahnik shrugged, pinching his nose shut. Was Charlie planning on flushing any time soon?

“Oh,” guffawed Charlie, “I guess your shit don’t stank! I guess your shit smells like perfume! I guess you mail it out to friends and loved ones every X-mas like the rest of us send fruit cakes!”

“Charlie,” said Pahnik, after grabbing a Beck’s from the little refrigerator beside Charlie’s bed, “Charlie Charlie Charlie.” He just had to laugh. “That’s not entirely the point, my dear American friend.”

“Uh-uh, the point is,” countered Charlie van der Roos, wiping himself perfunctorily and flushing the toilet and hoisting his pants up and buttoning his shirt and tossing his saliva-blackened cigar in the wake of his cigar-shaped shit in the vortex of the toilet, “You’re still here talking to me.” He swatted the air in front of his nose, activated the toilet’s exhaust fan, and closed the bathroom door behind him with genteel discretion.

“But anyway. I wonder would you be interested in a little wager? I mean, like, involving some hefty cash. And not,” he raised a hand, along with his eyebrows, “no fucking nigger fortune of a hundred dollars. I’m talking, like, a white man’s wager. Cut-your-throat-if-you-lose-it money.” He stroked his double-chin, and it reddened responsively where he touched it. It was clearly a pleasure to touch. “A briefcase-full.”

Intrigued, Pahnik sat on the edge of van der Roos’ humidly unmade bed. The serious stare he gave the soft pink giant encouraged the giant to keep talking while he dressed, slipping one boot on, then the other, while leaning against the wide screen television in the corner of the room, adjacent to the window.

He said, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed the new chambermaid for our end of the floor,” Pahnik had indeed, “But she’s quite a piece. Gorgeous chunk of pussy.”

Miro had in fact already begun lazily rehearsing a speech about flying her out to L.A. for a screen test or some bullshit like that the morning he’d first seen her, emerging from the service elevator like a very tall Audrey Hepburn with bigger tits, long black hair, and the ridiculous disguise of a maid’s uniform. And something in the eyes too… some kind of cleverness, or hardness, or even a hint of cruelty that made him fancy her being some version of a soulmate or other. Or maybe these impressions had been added retroactively… it’s hard to sift memory into individuated particles that fine, sometimes. Miro grinned at Charlie, but he was seeing the chambermaid. “Nigger lips, kike tits, Jap hair….?”

Charlie crossed the room and slapped the palm of Miro’s hand with delight. “And a teen-age faggot’s ass!”

Then he got a very unpleasant look on his face, did Charlie van der Roos. Like a man smelling burning flesh and liking it.

“Fifty fucking thousand dollars to whichever one of us can slip her a hard one first, Ivan.” He grabbed Pahnik’s crotch affectionately, making Pahnik jump, and added, “The standard of proof will be extremely high, of course. I’m thinking hidden video camera. Do we have a game here or what, buddy?”

3.

Pahnik interrupted the telling of his tale to accept his tray of chicken dinner from the mysteriously surly stewardess, and I chose to have the same, and we sat there chewing a few minutes in relative silence. The stewardess was one of those women that a frown seems to make more attractive, but I noticed, or seemed to, the flicker of some softening in her grimace as she leaned over Pahnik to pass me my dinner. As though to highlight the fact that her displeasure was specific to Pahnik.

He skipped his little pale brick of chicken, and the sweaty bed of rice it was interred upon, and went straight for the apple cobbler, and when he finished it he asked for mine, and I gave it to him, wondering why I had, until the reason gradually dawned on me. I gave it to him because he asked for it. There was something profound in that fact that seemed to hint to me why I wasn’t “successful” in the world, but it was still too simple a lesson for me to comprehend.

I watched him with sidelong jealousy while he polished it off (he certainly made it seem tastier than I’d have expected it to be) and I looked up as our stewardess backed her empty food cart by our seat, and muttered, “This must be the first rude stewardess I’ve ever had to deal with on an international flight.”

Pahnik grinned while he was still chewing and waved the very thought of her away. “She probably just got some bad news today.’ He shrugged. ‘No worries!”

“Anyway,” I said.

“Anyway,” he nodded, and continued the story.

4.

He liked the idea of a little competition with Charlie van der Roos, chiefly because Charlie was a filthy American blister of money…a classless monster of capitalism…who needed to lose in a way that would hurt his hidebound ego the most. And all the more instructive to lose to a Czech. But Pahnik had no intention of lowering himself to Charlie’s level by going at this girl wink for wink, innuendo for innuendo, and champagne glass for champagne glass with that gelatinous pink cowboy, who even as Pahnik sat in his hotel room contemplating the wager, was undoubtedly marching out of some flower shop up the street with a ridiculous bouquet of red roses to shove at the poor girl the next time he caught her with a Hoover in the hallway.

Even a late model mercantile shark like Charlie van der Roos suffered from trite delusions of amerikanisch romance that neither Pahnik, nor the shockingly pretty German chamber maid who trembled at the heart of their wager, could ever share or bother to fathom.

Charlie was going to do his hulking damnedest to woo the girl by way of a protracted siege of symbol and cliché that would take at least a week to show some results, and Miro was going to use his brains and get her into bed, and on tape doing it with him in every arcane or disgusting arrangement of limb and sphincter possible, that very night. In fact he momentarily regretted that he hadn’t added a stipulation to the effect that a little bonus of ten percent would be awarded on top of the 50,000 in the event that the winner could bed the girl that quickly. But then, that might have sensitized Charlie’s antennae to the true depths of the game afoot, and crashed the whole program, so, no, things were better as they were. It’s not as though Miro actually needed the money, in any case.

He couldn’t wait for the evening… or the chambermaid’s shift… to begin, because he was so well equipped for it. Being a rich tourist was reason enough, but being part of the Hollywood creative community made it all the more likely that he would have a very expensive video camera at his disposal, even that long ago, before average people had them. He laughed to himself as he set the camera up on a tripod in a discreet corner of the room, peering through the view finder at the big white bed. Charlie had even offered him the use of his own camera (“Shit, I got two or three of ‘em,”) in case Pahnik needed it.

“Of course,” said Charlie, “You ain’t gonna need one ‘tall cause the closest she’s gonna get to fucking you my friend is making your bed and slippin a mint under the pillow afterwards but I believe in giving you a fightin’ chance, Ivan!” Along with the traditional slap on the back.

Miro doubted, with a smug grin to himself, if Charlie’s camera had a credit-card sized infra-red remote like Miro’s did. Miro even went and sat on the edge of the bed and clicked the remote to test it. The green light beside the lens went on. A second click and it turned red again, blinking. A third click and it winked entirely off.

And then what did he do? He fetched a rubber-banded wad of hundred dollar bills from the sock drawer of the dresser and began to peel them free and toss them out over the bed, doing his best to simulate disorder, which took some doing.

His plan, which he was fairly proud of, considering how quickly he’d improvised it, was to douse himself in liquor, hang the “service requested” sign on his door knob, and sprawl on the money-littered bed like a total drunk on the verge of passing out. Then, when the chambermaid came in to do whatever cleaning she expected to do, he would babble out something to the effect that he’d just won all of this money in a card game… so much money that he hadn’t even counted it all yet, and thereafter lapse into his theatrical coma. Sooner or later she’d be tempted to steal a few hundreds while she swept in and out of the room with her rags and buckets…who wouldn’t? A hundred dollars was worth twice as many Deutschmarks. Who wouldn’t?

Just at the moment she was stuffing the cash in her pockets, Pahnik would seize her by the arm and make quite a stink. He’d threaten to take her to the Hotel Manager; he’d threaten to call the police. Just when he’d have her on the verge of jumping out the window, he’d surreptitiously finger the wafer-thin remote hidden under his pillow, check that the video camera’s green light was on, and propose to her a way out of the very serious trouble that threatened to destroy her career (her career in toilet scrubbing) forever. He even had a condom on hand to make the whole thing as antiseptic a transaction as possible. Fuck me, dear chamber maid, and we’ll forget the whole thing ever happened…you can even keep the bills you’ve pilfered.

He prepared the scenario with real glee. Five thousand dollars worth of hundred dollar bills were heaped on the bed (he never went anywhere with less than that in cash…his American friends, with their Armani pockets full of plastic, always found that quaint). He dabbed some cognac behind his ears, rubbed it in his hair, and gargled with some as well. Then he made a minor mess with wet towels and two bags of potato chips in the bathroom, hung the “service requested” sign on the outer doorknob, left the door ajar, and sprawled on the bed, humming Beatles songs with a drunk’s toneless gusto.

He had to wait that way for twenty long minutes, and just as he was about to get up to take a quick piss (and leave it yellow and unflushed as a detail for verisimilitude), there came a rabbit-shy knock on the door, a significant pause, and then the ravishing chamber maid pushed softly into his view.

First Pahnik saw the intrepid prow of her hard young bustline, and then that face announced itself like an astronomical event in the stratosphere of his room, the reverse of a lunar eclipse, and he had to remember how drunk he was supposed to be, because her black-haired beauty had sobered him like two hard slaps.

She was easily the most delicious girl that he’d ever seen. She had the same long-limbed awkwardness about her, as though she’d been born on the moon and Earth gravity was just too much, that all the great models had… that even the aging ones never quite lose… a tentative way of walking, and positioning herself vis-à-vis other objects, that was poignant and intimidating as well. What are you?, the simplest part of him wanted to shout at her. What fucking planet are you from? She glanced at Pahnik where he lay on the money-leafed bed and deflected her gaze as he opened his mouth to deliver his little speech and her shy avoidance silenced him.

She was in the bathroom, fussing with cabinets and turning the tap in the tub on, before he’d recovered enough to try it again. Damn! This was not going to be nearly as easy as he thought it might be, if even just getting his opening lines out in time was costing him such effort! How was he ever going to find the guts to suggest that she suck him off in order to keep her job… especially since it wasn’t necessarily inevitable that she’d take the bait and steal any money in the first place.

Pahnik just wanted to quit; he wanted to stop lying there like an idiot pretending to be drunk and gather the money up and straighten his pants and go have a seat in the bar while she tidied his counterfeit mess for him… he suddenly was entertaining a very lazy and post-adolescent fantasy of merely worshipping this unapproachable girl from afar. He’d buy her something nice on his last day in Berlin and leave it for her at the front desk. Maybe write a little note; leave his phone number; suggest that she might want to visit him in L.A. one day? Like any American college boy, smitten but chicken, using his country as bait. But he felt certain he’d be better equipped to deal with her in his territory, with that vulgar California sun pouring over his craggy features like pot-warmed honey softening a rock. And starlets and studio heads and producers all in a row doing that trendy hand signal with thumb and pinkie and mouthing I’ll call you from glinting convertibles parallel to his on Ventura boulevard, two and three and four lanes over, and… and…

The problem was it was no longer just a matter of not winning $50,000 from that Midas pig Charlie van der Roos… the issue was more did Miro really feel like losing that much? Which would really be like losing $100,000…the money he wouldn’t win plus the money that Charlie would. And not a single of Pahnik’s Hollywood friends, even the ones so much richer than Miro by orders of magnitude that they considered Pahnik poor… not a one of them was so rich as to sneeze at that much money, to write it off as a lesson or forget about the whole thing as a mistake he was sure to never repeat.

That much money might seem like a pittance to some starving Artist who’s constantly busy shocking himself with the amounts of money that the undeserving rich spend on imported olives for their cocktail parties alone, every year, but to anyone who really had some money, $100,000 was still a chunk. The paradox being that the more money one had, the stingier one became: didn’t Edgar Bronfmann of Seagram’s carry a brown bag lunch to work every day? Or was that some other Croesus? It didn’t matter.

Miro lay there singing his slurry version of “Baby You’re a Rich Man” and the chambermaid was dragging the Hoover across the bedroom floor to plug it in and Miro said, before the Hoover was on and roaring too loud to allow him to deliver himself of the complicated exposition his fiendish script called for him to orate, he said, “Er…”

He propped himself on his elbows, eyes half-shut, and said “Look a tall dish munny I won… ” and she smiled at him, startled, and took a step back from the bed, “plane carz…hey doan be fray I woan by choo. Shit, I candeefin coundis high!”

Then he had a terrible thought: did she even speak English? Was she even comprehending a word of his script? Was she getting the exposition? To speak German with her at this point would seem too sober, too not-on-the-brink-of-a-coma, to risk it. All he could do was fall back with his arms akimbo and snore theatrically. His heart was thumping. The Hoover roared into greedy life again, huffing from the carpet his pubic hairs and dandruff and Charlie van der Roos’ stray cigar ashes and farting its ancient musk into the air in exchange.

The infernal thing droned on and on, roaring and wheezing, nearer and farther and nearer again, banging against the dresser, the bed legs, the wall in the corner. It sounded like a Soviet-era Hoover. It was a monster of boundless energy, and he wondered how long she would go on worrying the carpet in that particular area when he just happened to pop an eye open and saw that as she steered the vacuum cleaner past a corner of the bed, she very deftly fingered a hundred dollar bill from it (how long had that been going on?), with a facial expression so in every way different from the mask she’d first entered the room with, that two things happened: a) he found her far less beautiful and b) he fell completely in love with her.

He acted quickly, seizing her by the wrist. She yelped and stumbled into the bed, banging her shin and tripping over the Hoover’s cord and disconnecting it in the process. There was a dramatic silence, they stared into each other’s eyes, she struggled to wriggle out of his grip but he held fast. She looked very much like she was on the verge of bursting into a monsoon of desperate tears, while Pahnik himself was grinning like a pirate. Now, thought Pahnik, now.

The first sound she made was a high-pitched shrieking gasp that made him think she must be losing her mind; it startled him so that he jumped. It took him just a few seconds to realize that she was laughing. Laughing and laughing and laughing.

5.

We were over Greenland. I glanced at the little screen that was set into the back of the seat ahead of me when Pahnik took a break from the story, yawning and stretching as best as he could in his seat. He twisted to the left and to the right, and his spine made a noise like it was chewing itself. The little symbol of the airplane on the green and blue map was leaving a dotted line trail in the wake of its crawl above North America that was unnervingly un-straight.

“She was laughing!” repeated Pahnik, and he leaned back in his seat, eyes closed, and I could see him seeing it, his favorite scene from his favorite movie. “Cracking up! Tears were streaming down her face, her cheeks were red, and at some point I realized that she was laughing too hard to run anywhere, and I let her go. And she sat on the floor holding her sides and kept laughing.”

“She said, finally, ‘I can’t do it anymore!’ I had gone to the bathroom and gotten her a glass of water and handed it to her and she said ‘I can’t do it anymore!’ and then took a drink, which seemed to calm her down. She wiped her face off with the shoulder of her uniform and took another sip. I was very patient; I just sat there on the end of the bed and waited, because I suddenly realized that a new world was about to open itself to me. Intuition. My screen-writer’s intuition. Just as I can sit and watch a movie and tell you every plot twist before it happens… I can usually even guess most of the dialogue… I could feel a twist coming. A good one.”

“‘Most of them just come right out and offer me a few thousand Deutschmarks to sleep with them,’ she finally said when she was completely composed. She was staring at the floor with this lovely half-smile. ‘You were the first,” and here she looked at me, and I was really flattered for some reason, ‘You were the first to come up with such an elaborate plan.’ Those weren’t her exact words, you know, because her English wasn’t that good yet. It was half Deutsch, half English. I’m just translating now. How is your German, by the way?”

I shrugged. “Nicht so gut.“

He gave me a slyly reproachful look and went on.

“’What in the hell are you fucking talking about, bitch?’ I said. Of course I didn’t really call her a bitch. And she started smiling at the floor again. She said one word like it explained everything. ‘Pookie.’ I said What? She said it again. ‘Pookie made me do it.’

“So what she confessed I could hardly believe. It blew my mind, man… I’m not kidding. I thought, as I was listening to her: this really is a movie!”

“The whole thing was a con! A set up! And as she detailed it to me I was thinking: of course! It’s so fucking obvious. I mean, think about it. What a ridiculous bet to make. Who in his right mind…who with enough money to actually bet $50,000 … is going to wager with some guy that he can bed a chambermaid at a fucking hotel in a foreign country first? I mean, who’s going to dangle that kind of bait in front of a fucking capitalist? Think about it. It’s ridicu-fucking-lous. Of course the first thing I’m going to do is think of a way to cheat. Of course an American businessman…they were all American business men… of course an American business man is going to go straight to the girl and offer her a few thousand Deutchmarks… even dollars if she looks too intimidating… to fuck on film and win the bet.”

I was squinting at Pahnik. “You mean that the chambermaid and Charlie van der Roos were a team?”

“A team?” Pahnik grinned. “They were lovers.”

“I don’t get it, then,” I said, scratching my head just like some comic book character expressing confusion, “Why make a bet with some guy knowing that he’s going to cheat and then win it?”

“Well,” said Pahnik, as though to a dullard, “What do you suppose the value of a video cassette of a married rich businessman fucking a hotel maid…what do you think it’s worth?”

“Oh. Blackmail.”

“Exactly. Businessman offers Sinead two thousand bucks to screw on camera. Sinead…”

“Sinead?”

He made a gesture to shush me and continued, “Sinead at first acts very shocked and virginal and the businessman starts getting frightened she might call the Front Desk on him but then she says something to the effect of… I don’t know… like, ‘Well, my saintly old Turkish mother does need a heart operation… ’ and she dickers it up a little. Which is what Pookie called getting them coming and going…”

“‘Pookie.’ ”

Again he shushhhed me, “Because first our cheating businessman pays Sinead, the chambermaid, a few thousand dollars in hard currency to go through with the fucking. And later of course he gets hit for the blackmail. But here’s the brilliant detail: the whole time they do it… when they start the camera rolling and he starts screwing her she squirms and kind of acts like she’s fighting him off a bit… acts real virginal and shy and ashamed. She even says, so it’s audible, in her broken English, no! No, wait, stop, it is hurting me! Please stop, I am a virgin, wait… it is hurting me. But they never stop, never, nor even slow down, as she told me, it just eggs them on, it makes them hot to hear her whimper and cry, and often her pleading turned them a bit nasty; they got rougher, ruder.”

Then he gave me a look of theatrically pious sorrow and leaned in close with that enormous head, and tombstone teeth of his, and worried aloud, in basso profundo, “Are you ashamed to be a man yet?”

I shrugged and said “Anyway…” gesturing that he should continue. I was embarrassed to be sprouting an erection at that point of the story.

“Anyway, all this gets on tape. The tears, the crying, the hairy white business ass pumping away with flabby brutality.”

“It’s over in five minutes. Crying pitifully, and putting her uniform all the way back on quite easily, because it was never completely off, Sinead takes her money and flees the room in a well-acted counterfeit of shame. Her acting skills are impeccable. She’s every inch the deflowered virgin, though no blood is in evidence, but business man doesn’t notice or care!”

“He gets his pants back on in a sloppy hurry, grabs the video camera… the camera was often on loan from the diabolical Pookie himself…and runs gleefully down the hall to Pookie’s room. Knock knock! He’s ready to collect his $50,000 because he has videotaped evidence that he bedded this pretty maid first. There’s the day, the year, the hour right there in a corner of the screen. Hurray! He’s feeling like a pudgy little stud. This shit never happens to him in Kansas!”

“Pookie, aka Charlie, reviews the tape. He plays it back so the guy can watch the whole thing along with him…the gory details, as it were…the pleading, the crying, the clearly enunciated stuff about being a virgin…please stop, it hurts…he doesn’t remember it being that bad! Ouch! But yes, it’s clearly all there. ‘You win!’ says Charlie, ‘You did it you old hound dog! You sunnavabitch! You screwed her first! Shit, you practically raped that virginal little bitch, you super-stud! What is that between your legs, anyway, a chainsaw?’” And the Rube is nodding and grinning, proud of himself. Until Pookie says:

“ ‘But what would your wife think, not to mention the German police, about the fact that you just forcibly deflowered a Turkish virgin…and had the audacity to film it?’”

“Business man is standing there in Charlie van der Roos’s hotel room. He’s barefoot, red-faced, and cum is still running down his pant leg. He’s due to check out and fly back to America the next morning…Pookie has made sure of this…and suddenly this guy, this member of the Kiwanis Club, this Little League Coach, is facing rape charges in a foreign country! God knows what prison is like over here. There’s filmed evidence too…Christ, he filmed it himself!…and this guy…this big fucking guy who he doesn’t know from Adam…has got his hands on the very tape, because the culprit himself was jackass enough to deliver it to him!”

“Whatever empire-building venture he has come to sniff out in Berlin in the first place…and some of these speculative trips were funded by multi-national behemoths like International Harvester, or the 3M corporation…all of that is in fearful jeopardy. As is his life on earth. Holy Shit becomes his instant mantra. His heart, it’s pounding, his mind is racing. There’s a lot to consider. ”

“Then Pookie hits the poor sucker with a depth charge. An A-Bomb. Charlie is the fucking Enola Gay and the bay doors just swing open in his big belly and Little Boy comes tumbling out, whistling down through space, and it’s targeted for your balding head, Mr. Republican. Pookie reels off, from memory, the businessman’s home phone number! In other words, he, Pookie, has a direct hot line to the wife! To little wifey in her suburban nest. Little wifey and the kids! And how is this possible?”

Pahnik held up a yellow-tipped finger again, grinning fiendishly, clearly enjoying himself. “Because a day or two before, Pookie…I mean Charlie van der Roos…in a very friendly way, offered to let the businessman make a phone call, free of charge, on Charlie’s antediluvian cell phone. ‘By the way, any cawlls y’all wanna mayke? I kin rat it off in mah taxes, ya’ll.’”

“Free call? What greedy American could resist? It’s not so much that it will save the businessman money as it will cost Charlie an arm and a leg that they find so strangely irresistible. And because this free offer…this oh-so-casual free offer…was inevitably made in the morning, Berlin time, that would have made it late at night somewhere in the States. Between ten p.m. and one in the morning. Now, who is a decent American businessman gonna call, that late, Stateside, in front of a relative stranger and fellow American like Charlie van der Roos, but his wife? And yes indeed, they were always married…Charlie…Pookie…made sure of that. And it’s a simple matter to retrieve that number from his cell phone’s quaint little pre-pentium memory. And voila, Pookie has your home phone number. And he’s quoting it from memory to you as you stand there with a wet spot in your pants and your knees knocking together and your career and your marriage going up in flames before your very eyes! Whomp! Whoosh! Ker-Boooom!”

At which point a stewardess…not the one who seemed to dislike Pahnik so much…came down the aisle and leaned over us to remind us that some of the other passengers were trying to sleep. We apologized profusely…I’d never been reprimanded on an airplane before (I had visions of Federal Marshals waiting to arrest me at the Airport when we landed)…and Pahnik continued his story in a whisper.

6.

He sat there, on the edge of his bed, big hands on his knees, mouth hanging open, dumbfounded. The chambermaid, sitting on the floor with her legs folded up against her uniformed breasts and her arms around her short-skirted legs and her chin on her knees told him the unbelievable tale of her life with Pookie The Great.

They’d been together four years, having met when she was nineteen and Pookie himself was twenty nine. She was working in a café in Mazahn, deep in East Berlin, and he was driving an American car that was as big as a boat…not his own as it turns out…and she climbed in the car and drove off with him when he finished his beer. The Wall had just come down the previous Fall and the possibilities seemed endless.

And girls like her…girls that pretty…are best compared to those silver toy helium balloons clutched pathetically by children in a daze in the parking lot after The Fair, just waiting for a strong breeze to come along. Pookie was that breeze. Pookie was that hurricane.

Pahnik listened to her story squirmingly…he noticed that it was very much like enduring a crude punishment inflicted by a loved one, because she was, by now, he did, by now…he did love her. Listening to this tale, he was profoundly disturbed, transfixed by her face as it glowed like a funeral pyre ember with sexual nostalgia in the neutered gloom of his hotel room, disturbed to identify the agony of the jealousy that bit through his heart with its rancid red teeth as he learned about Pookie.

Jealous! This was a first! To be jealous of someone is to imply a frustrated yearning to exchange places with that person, and when had Miro Pahnik felt that about anybody? But now he was feeling it about that fat American slob Charlie van der Roos. Roos…ruse…very funny…

Pookie, explained Sinead, hadn’t always been fat, just as he hadn’t always been Charlie. He had once been lean and strong and beautiful, with a face like something on a thousand-year-old coin…the face of a hero, with fine blond wavy hair and cheekbones that cast shadows like shark’s fins, as from a titanic ‘Forties-era propaganda poster painted by Tamara deLempicka and plastered on the walls of an Ayn Rand metropolis. To hear Miro recalling Sinead’s telling of it, that is. Like she was eulogizing the Lost Continent of Atlantis in the form of a man.

“We live this time in B.A. pilot’s two bedroom flat in West Kensington London, on the Talgarth road,” she bragged. “It must normaleweise cost us nine hundreds pounds for month but we have ganze place for free for fucking year while pilot, Paki bastard, stay with tussi stewardess cause Pookie was give the guy guitar lessons, and saying him to think we can ficken when he play his cards so correct…by the time he cames with the nerve to leave note…a note he ask me do I sleep with him!…we move on.”

“Pookie make him falsch Russian religious ikonen and we sell this to wahnsin American tourist on Drotningsgatan in Stockolm cause I look me Russian with this too much eye shadow on; we standing on the steps of biggest cathedral in ‘old town’ but it’s Catholic shit church but how these crazy Yankees gonna know the shit difference? I wear me black velvet dress and biggest silver orthodox kreuz and say me the blah blah and Pookie ‘translate’ and we sell the ganze twelve…the all he paint that week. We staying with friend he got in Gamla stan and eating fruits and vegetables from clean garbage at day end at markt on Kungsgatan and we not us spend one shit nickel on a whole week we there; pure profit.”

Pookie the genius; Pookie the god. Oh he really hated Pookie; if Pahnik thought he’d disliked him as Charlie, he was moved to new heights of imaginary auto-de-fe-style violence contemplating this inexplicable new Pookie phenomenon. And then he had to hear about Pookie’s baguette-sized cock on top of it.

She detailed their sexual exploits…which took place in city parks, grocery stores, and cemeteries…with the same cool narrative intonation as she related the litany of cons and capers…couldn’t she see how far Miro had already fallen for her? Couldn’t she see Miro wincing?

And to hear about the silver liquid brilliancy of the orgasms that Pookie had induced in her by a certain counter-clockwise stirring movement of his genital cudgel in her little thing, along with a perfectly timed finger in her even littler other thing…but that wasn’t the worst. That wasn’t the killer. The killer was yet to come. A narrative morsel thus far withheld.

Because Charlie/Pookie was a Chinese box of identities…shapes within shapes…layers under layers. Every face had another face preceding it. Every name an antecedent. And it was the deepest layer that was grinning like a death’s head under the “Pookie” persona that had Miro Pahnik, successful Hollywood screen-writer, seriously contemplating the taking of a human life when he found out about it. Had him rehearsing, very carefully, with mannequins as props, the quick and Zen-smooth chopping off of a head with an axe. A real head, with a brain in it.

7.

Miro looked at me. His eyes were bloodshot; he voice was hoarse from whispering. He suddenly told me that he wanted to sleep, and I let him. He reached up and clicked off our over-head light, wrapped himself in the pathetically small blanket the airline gave him for the purpose (of course he could have been sleeping like a Duke back up in First Class where he belonged) and he was snoring within minutes.

I was ready about then for a break…you can only be overwhelmed with the details of someone else’ life for so long before you become eager to return to the business of dwelling on your self for a while again. I had my own twists and turns and losses to dwell on; I looked at my watch, still set to California time, and thought of Lola, just then probably drifting off to sleep with the television on, some soothing re-run of a show that it was our habit to drift off to together. Was she keeping to the left side of the futon, and therefore mourning my loss, or was she sprawled extravagantly across the full diagonal width of it…celebrating?

I was stricken with a sense of mistake that felt like a mild form of food poisoning. Why is it so hard to succeed; so easy to fuck up? Like the difference between flying, and falling down a hill. In a just world, wouldn’t it be as easy to glide over the tree tops as to trip down a staircase and break your neck? The fact that it isn’t speaks volumes.

Oh I was feeling sick; the kind of sick that says to you how badly you’ve fucked up. I was feeling like a little boy who had run away from home to prove his point, only to lose his nerve and decide to turn back at sunset, when the scenery gets weird and the chill sets in, only to suddenly notice that he’s a grown man, not a little boy, and that he can’t turn back because he’s trapped in an airplane headed for Europe. And whose idea was that? Is this, I mean. Proving a point is one thing; leaving the country is another. Which illustrates the primary pitfall of adult life: the ability to do things. It’s so much safer; so much wiser; to do nothing in most cases. Take a deep breath; take five; sit it out. Isn’t that Buddha’s gimmick?

Lola!

With the clear-mindedness of a man who has just swan-dived from the roof of a thirty-six story building, I could see that I had fucked up, I could see how essential she was. How I thought I’d ever come across a girl like that again in this life, I’ll never know. I even almost felt like crying, but found a strange pleasure in the suffering that turned my trembling lower lip into a smile. I guess you might say it was rue. I sat there for the better part of an hour doing nothing, in the half-light of a snoozing jetful of strangers, but looking rueful. Which is not, I eventually realized, with a shudder, a young man’s facial expression.

With Pahnik asleep, I was finally able to turn the full force of an appropriate facial expression on him for the first time since he first invaded the airspace beside me. I frowned at him. The frown meant: you obnoxiously entertaining lunatic. And as though the frown was the sharp slap on Pahnik’s cheek that I might have wished that it really could be, he woke up, one eye first and then the other, and started talking again.

8.

“Have you ever killed anyone?” he whispered, grinning. “No, don’t answer that, the answer’s too obvious. The question should be, have you ever wanted to kill someone so badly that it frightened you?” He nodded gravely and looked down his long nose and big teeth at me, reclining in his tortured-posture of sleep; the posture of a giant’s skeleton jammed into the smaller corner of a catacomb.

“Anyway, this is the part of the story where I become what we call in literature an unreliable narrator. You’ll have to decide for yourself, as the reader…or, the audience, I guess it would be…how much of what I’m about to say is strictly true. Or what I hope to gain, or what point I hope to make, by misleading you. If I am.”

9.

Pahnik sat on the edge of his hotel bed. He had listened to Sinead’s complete confession; felt himself wounded with jealousy to watch her perfect lips form words of praise for this Pookie character who had bamboozled the great Miro Pahnik into believing that he was a crass entrepreneur from Minnesota named Charlie van der Roos who had struck it rich with a chain of doughnut bistros. Le Dönut! Shit.

She was scrunched up in the corner, her toes digging into the plush white carpet (at what point had she kicked off her crepe-soled shoes?), and doing a kind of Eastern Bloc Scheherezade, spinning this fantastical tale and causing Pahnik to fall in love with her, one cubic centimeter at a time.

So it bugged the shit out of him to know how every bump and pore of her had been so gratefully marked by that chubby-fingered American grifter…as brilliant as he admittedly was. Still, if Pahnik had to have a rival, better it be an American than a German…he could just about stomach being bamboozled by a Yankee. It would have killed him to have been hoodwinked by some lead-footed, square-headed, tight-assed Kraut.

For the longest time she just sat there in the dimly lit room, giving off her own light like a magical child, and she smiled into the middle distance. Without speaking, so as not to break the spell, Miro offered her a bottle to drink from, and she did. And then the second half of the story commenced; the part that Pahnik enjoyed, up until a crucial point.

Yes, he enjoyed it, perversely; despite himself; only because it brought Pookie down from the mountaintop. Down from the mountaintop and into the cesspool! She vomited it all out, speaking rapidly, as if in fear that Pookie himself might break into the room and silence her.

She told, sadly, of how Pookie got bored, in time, with his little diversions…his scams, and with Sinead herself…how he grew bored, and disgusted with existence, somehow. Perhaps it was her fault: perhaps there was something inside of her that somehow depleted the joy in him, but it was sometime after the second year that it all went bad.

He drank more, drank harder; ate indiscriminately, gained weight….would come home from a bar after drinking all night and half rape her, whatever the hour, smothering her under his sweaty carcass, making her sick with his breath.

And if the rape was uncompleted, due to booze-induced impotence, he’d shove the dead thing between her legs for a while, cursing, and then beat her instead for not being pretty enough to get him hard. But really he preferred a kind of sexual torture…the only thing that excited him anymore…a sense of shame wouldn’t allow her to describe it. But suffice it to say it was an atrocity…war crime stuff.

She rolled up the sleeve on a skinny arm and stuck it out and showed Pahnik what appeared to be…cigarette burns. And she mentioned, too, in a round-about way, how much damage that big cock of Pookie’s could do if forced without lubricant into a situation in which it didn’t quite belong…and to add insult to injury (quite literally) he usually…grabbed her by the hair at the nape of her neck and forced her, afterwards…you know…he held her in place in order to finish in her mouth. And pinched her nose until she was forced to swallow it.

Here for the first time Sinead made direct eye contact with Miro as she talked, and her face had darkened, and cooled…a blue shadow seemed to pass over it…her irises glowing from the dark of some cave. She looked older, sadder, though still beautiful…but Pahnik could see how even telling this part of the story affected her.

But the Screenwriter in him couldn’t help thinking how sequence is everything. If the happy part comes first, and the sad part comes last: the story is a tragedy. But reverse it, and put the sad part first, and finish up with the happy part, and you have…Cinderella. Though the facts in both cases are exactly the same.

Take for example a widely-revered writer like Henry Miller, who not only, after years of obscure struggle in the chilly damp gulag of Art, found a world-wide audience in his sixth decade, but plenty of sexual attention too. He’d endured forty years of colorful struggle in New York and Paris, then basked in the reward of twenty years of money and fame in the idyllic setting of Big Sur, California…and finally, just at the very end…a few years before his death, he starts making a fool of himself by writing pathetically horny love letters to twenty-year old gimlet-eyed gold diggers who in turn humiliated him in public.

And it was those handful of years at the end that rendered Miller’s life a tragic one. Because he ended badly. Everything is a rehearsal for that last year…those last weeks. That terminal minute. Pahnik looked up from this fleeting reverie in time to see a flesh-colored tear…tear mixed with makeup…sliding down the eggshell of the chambermaid’s cheek.

The Pookie she’d originally known and fallen in love with…the chiseled Satyr whose tricks and cons were really just a kind of Olympian expression of the Genius of the Spirit of Play…this beautiful creature had disappeared from the face of the Earth. To be replaced by the chubby, money-mad ogre who nightly forced himself on her; forced her, even, from time to time, to sell her own ass (or mouth) for money so Pookie could have his nights in the local Kneipe…a seedy bar full of leather-clad trolls he kept thoroughly entertained with drinks on the house, and shameless tales of his woman’s decline.

They’d park on Joachimsthaler strasse. He’d sidle up to an American business man in line to buy a cheeseburger at MacDonald’s there across the street from the Bahnhof Zoo and say a few discreet words and then they would both come out, like old friends, laughing and talking, and get in the car…Pookie in the front seat and the business guy in the back with Sinead, who got right to business, no pun intended, unzipping his pants like she was shelling an oyster.

Down she’d go, holding her breath so she wouldn’t actually smell it, the thing she was taking into her mouth. Once, even, while the trick was wolfing down his burger, and using her hair (why should this; but it is; be the worst part of the story?)…as a napkin. While Pookie drove around the block to avoid a parking ticket. And what were her thanks?

“You’re just a slut anyway, and deserve it!”

That’s how Pookie put it. “A woman with any morals left at all would refuse to do this for me! Sell her cunt for a few dirty dollars? Just so I can drink?” That’s what Pookie had to say about it. She deserved it. “To think I ever fucked you!” But then he’d come around later that night himself, demanding his percentage…his freebie.

“It’s wirklich schrecklich…horrible…” she said, to Miro Pahnik, smiling, absurdly. “Machmal denk ich…sometimes I think…” and here she mimed, with her graceful fingers, putting a gun to her head. Closing her eyes. Pulling the trigger. Still smiling.

Pahnik cleared his throat. “Well,” he said to her, because he didn’t know what to say, but he had to say something, to break the evil spell of the dirge of silence that followed, “I must admit I never expected an American to be so damn…I mean, yes, of course, he’s very bad…but…so…damn…clever…”

At which point Sinead-the-chambermaid released her second big torrent of laughter for the night; her facial expression went from requiem to… cartoon…so quickly that he thought he saw two beautiful women in the corner, briefly: one haunted, the other on the verge of mirthful hysterics.

“American?” She gasped. “American? Pookie, American? Pookie isn’t American…” and here Pahnik felt his hackles rising…his mind jumped ahead a millisecond and came to the word she was coming to exactly one half of an eye-blink before she actually said it, and landing on the word was like having a rough-hewn spear driven up through his ass-hole and directly into the base of the stiff chunk of his brain, where the spear-tip lodged so firmly that it was clear that the spear would never come back out of the rectum again without removing the brain as well, with a liquid pop, or the onomatopoeiac sound-effect of… ‘Czech!’

10.

Pahnik looked at me, eyes narrowed.

“Czech.”

11.

In fact he was born in a little town not far from the little town in which Miro himself had been born. The two towns, Pookie’s and Miro’s, Prostĕjov and Blansko, were the Minneapolis and Saint Paul of Czechoslovakia, in more ways than one.

There was a rivalry between the two in which Minneapolis-like Prostĕjov considered itself more worldly, more hip and cosmopolitan, than Blansko, which was quiet, low key…Saint Paulish. Blansko, of course, considered Prostĕjov to be godless and crass in return. Choosing between Morality and Modernity, which way does a little boy’s heart incline? Especially if he has Artistic inclinations? Miro had often accompanied his father on shopping trips (on their horse-drawn cart!) to Prostĕjov, and felt the sting of the bemused gaze of those modern Prostĕjov boys and girls as Pahnik fils et pere, from the narrow roads and stone farm houses of Blansko, shambled up their main street in a humiliated parade of rural goodness. Sometimes, with cheeky grins, the well-dressed kids on the curb (in buckle shoes, and the girls in wide-brimmed hats) would toss coins in the cart as Miro and his father (and the nameless horse) clopped by. And now the thought…and now the thought. That among those smug little pigs had been a Pookie…

Was that a glaze of almost-tears in Pahnik’s bruise-blue eyes as he fixed them on me? Between his misting eyes and his manic, outraged grin, I suddenly felt the most sickening shock wave of…intimacy …it hit me, for the first time, that I was hearing something private. This story I’d been listening to all night: I was being shown a foot-long scar on some old man’s milk-white belly; I was watching a newlywed trying to cover her black eye with makeup; I was smelling the booze on the breath of a middle-aged priest.

Pahnik was staring at me, and then through me, expecting a response to this latest twist in the narrative. I cleared my throat.

“He was Czech?” I asked, politely.

12.

Sinead was still laughing as Miro crossed the room and kicked a stool in front of the dresser; the stool hit the bathroom door with a sharp crack. Then he turned and headed back towards the corner of the room where Sinead had folded herself, as if she were next, and her knees drew up and she lowered her head, in preparation for the blow. But of course Miro Pahnik wouldn’t have, couldn’t have, kicked a woman. Not even a female dog, or a cow. He wasn’t that kind of Czech; he wasn’t that kind of screenwriter.

“I want to kill him,” said Miro, wringing his hands like a fishwife, “I really want to kill him now.”

“I want you to.”

“I want to kill him painfully. I want to cut his…cut his ass off and choke him with it.”

“I want you to.”

“Or skin him alive and toss his wiggling raw body into a bathtub of salt. Or nail his tongue to one knee cap and his cock to the other.”

“I’d love that.”

Pahnik, who had been busy gathering his hundred dollar bills (with trembling hands) off of the bed while ranting, as if preparing to storm out of his own hotel room, suddenly stopped, sat himself on the edge of the bed, and stared at her for a long little time.

“Wait a minute. Are you…”

She nodded before replying. “Of course I am. I’m serious. I want him dead as much as you do. What has he done to you, compared to what he’s done to me?” Of course this was all said in German, the language of complaint, and therefore more moving to Pahnik than if he’d heard it in English.

First, he bit a fingernail. Then: “Say again.”

“I said,” she said, with patient bemused over-enunciated clarity, but softly, so he had to lean towards the sentence to make sure that he heard it, “ I-want-you-to-kill-him.”

13.

The plan they concocted together went like this.

Or, no, let’s cut to the chase: Pahnik is standing smoothly naked in a 19th Century wardrobe with an axe. He has shaved his body of all hairs so as not to leave forensic evidence; not even an eyebrow, not even a follicle: nothing will place him there. He was thinking: A moment comes…a moment in your life that reveals to you, finally, the meaning of your life…it tells you what your life was leading to, and therefore what it meant. Which you will never know until the moment arrives…whether it comes at fifteen, or eighty six. Or now.

It was a nice apartment in a bourgeoisie part of town; only someone with money and taste could have lived there. The high ceilings, ornamented in wedding-cake detail of plaster filigree called stueck; the parquet floors; the marbled bathroom. Pahnik liked being there…it was like acting in a Kubrick film.

He felt the dusty poisonous flutterings of evil butterflies in his stomach, but had learned long ago, the veteran of many a faux-impromptu speech at many a life-or-death Hollywood brunch, where a wrong word or a poorly chosen facial expression or spinach between your teeth could finish your career forever, how to turn that kind of terror into the most attractive breed of confidence.

The trick was adopting an inner pose of humbled arrogance and letting it soak out through your skin, making you shine with the rarest oil of Destiny. See, the trick was becoming a Vessel. As in: I’m deeply flattered that God has chosen me as the. It amazes me to think that The Almighty deems me worthy of. I’m pleased to know that The Creator has put me here to. Which was one of the lost secrets of the Old Religion, re-discovered with gusto in the late 20th century by Show Biz Luminaries and New Age Book of the Month Housewives and Muslim fanatics alike: blaming God for everything. This ‘Free Will’ bullshit was out. The other important secret of the Old Religion being something to do with killing.

And so that’s what Pahnik was thinking to calm himself, hiding in a priceless Restoration-era wardrobe in a good neighborhood on a tree-lined street in Berlin, optically naked in a clear vinyl rain coat, hefting an expensive birch-handled titanium axe featuring a blade he could have sliced bread with.

I’m so flattered that God has chosen me to lop your head off for you, he was thinking as he visualized Pookie with his fat pink back to the bedroom. And let’s face it, too: the situation was giving Pahnik an atavistic erection. Something good and acrid and a million years old in him had been triggered and it was thumping on the vinyl, demanding its due, potent as a bearded Nun. Gasping like a fish in the raincoat. Plus he’d stood there in his raincoat in the dry-rotted darkness and listened to Sinead being fucked badly by Pookie; her groans of bored discomfort and, at the very end, her gaggings and sniffles and gulps of disgust. Now he just had to wait for her to get her clothes back on and leave the room.

Sinead had prepared him for the scenario he could expect to face upon kicking the wardrobe door open. There wouldn’t be time to think; Pahnik would have to kick the door open and cross the room in two long steps swinging and do the job in one graceful unhesitant Samurai home-run swoosh if he expected to succeed (success being defined as a clean cut and a quick but leisurely and undetected exit from the crime scene), so Sinead had painted the picture for him with great care but also giddy frightened relish.

She walked him through it a dozen times. The bed is here, Pookie sits this way, the upstairs neighbor she don’t get home until after supper time, the church bell always starts ringing a few minutes after the fucking stops, etc. Then they practiced with scarecrows and mannequins. Scarecrows with melon heads, propped on the edge of a mattress-less bed frame in her run-down flat on Reichenberger strasse. It took 2 weeks of practice; thirty dollars in melons; Pahnik’s forearms and biceps started aching chronically in the good way of muscle development but also his wrists began to pain him and he worried he was suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome and he might have to go to a doctor and get silicone injections but then it cleared up the day before the Big Day and he felt he was ready.

And there he was, standing in that wardrobe, listening to Sinead ease her badly used body off of the badly squeaking bed, wordlessly grabbing the heap of her clothing and slipping out of the room, the whole time with post-coital Pookie seated contemptuously on the edge of the bed with his fat naked back to her (as Sinead had reassured Pahnik that Pookie always always always did), lighting a cigarette, staring out the window, and the bells of the too-close church would begin their deafening pealing (perfect for covering whatever noise)…and now they were pealing and God it was loud…Pahnik had a ridiculous vision of ten little Quasimodoes dangling up and down on the bell ropes with feet kicking and monstrous idiot glee…and Pahnik kicking the wardrobe door open and stepping into a long swing with a chin-up all-business Joe DiMaggio grimace…

14.

It was at this point in the story that I lost all interest in it, because we hit turbulence.

15.

It was bad turbulence, too. First a mild hiccup (it could have been a soccer hooligan seated behind me, unaccountably head-butting my chair back) followed by that portentously innocuous elevator bell that accompanies the understated on-blink of the seat belt hieroglyphic and then suddenly the plane lurched and bucked like it was being top-fucked by something very big and viciously horny, or having a seizure, or falling apart. Airborne earthquake.

A stewardess came and instructed Pahnik in a confidential tone to please return to his proper seat up front and secure his carry-on and buckle himself in quickly for his and everyone else’ safety. He rose wobblingly and saluted me and said ‘No worries!’ before climbing the aisle, but I was already gone at that point…taking the slippery slide-chute down into a cold white secret place of spiritual rage and nausea…and couldn’t be expected to interrupt the demanding work of owning and operating my terror just to do something trivial like acknowledge the nightclub’s worth of strangers with whom I was suddenly contemplating a massacre-messy death.

Basic turbulence is always more than enough, and here we were starting several notches above that, with an initial jolt that inspired an isolated scream (soprano) and a shy spate of embarrassed giggles and then a second jolt that got a chorus of screams (alto, soprano, tenor, bass) and no laughter at all. And a third, fourth, fifth, etc., nudging us all to piss or shit our pants, or douse ourselves with warm parsleyed vomit. How many good stiff shakes would it take? Was not-befouling ourselves immediately a kind of hubris that we would pay for with our lives? Could we propitiate the gods by shitting and puking en masse very quickly, and thereby avert disaster?

And I was thinking: what do they not tell you about plane crashes? What is it that the news (special report or update) won’t even handle with the latex glove of euphemism? They’ll show the catapulted loafer; the orphaned teddy; at a crash site…these were the videoclichés that the TV news thrived on (to such an extent that you had to suspect that any good reporter kept a couple of dolls or teddies in the trunk of his or her car just in the wildly improbable case that the tenement or trailer park or jumbo had been under-equipped with these details when the fire/tornado/impact had decided to make the news). The camera will close-up the dinky scatter of personal effects in the aftermath of a crash, but what about the shit everywhere? There must be shit everywhere.

With five hundred passengers on a good sized jet and ten pounds, on average, of compacted fecal material in each passenger (two pounds in some and eighteen pounds in others) that would be five thousand pounds of shit flying through the cabin as we snapped the tree tops off. Do crash sites stink? Is there every kind of shit all over everything when the euphemistically-named rescue crews arrive on the scene, slipping on it as they climb through the smoke-filled cabin? When they scoop the passengers up in twenty five gallon rescue bags, do they have to scoop all the shit up, too? After all, the shit is part of you…the shit was part of the transaction…a considerable part of the client who purchased the ticket in the first place. It was as much a human material as whatever brains had left the container, too.

16.

‘You’re disgusting.’

‘Sorry.’

‘Shit at the crash site!’

‘Well?!!’

‘Well, it would all have burned up in the explosion!’

‘French fried shit! Think so? Apropos shit, know what Doktor Effenkuhl greeted me with when I rang the doorbell? First thing he said was ‘welcome to Scatopolis’ which is the same as saying ‘welcome to Shitville,’ basically. Because of all the dogshit thawing out now after being frozen all winter I guess. I must admit I noticed an odor when I got out the taxi. The streets are covered with it, aren’t they, the dogshit, plus all of the buildings are shit-gray and shit-brown, and the coal-burning ovens reek of fart, blue farts. Like Kentucky. And the way these toilets are designed! These toilets! They don’t tell you about that in the travel guides do they?’

‘You’re so lurid. You are one lurid mother-fucker, pardon my French.’

‘I am, aren’t I? I am pretty lurid. I was a lurid kid. Being lurid was probably compensation for being poor. Although poverty itself is lurid. But I’m not even sure of the definition of ‘lurid,’ now that I think of it. Funny word, really, isn’t it? Lurid. I have to look it up when we get home. Are you sure ‘lurid’ is a word? I won’t know if I agree that I’m lurid until I look it up. At least I’m not boring.’

Studying her finger nails. Biting one. ‘Am I boring?’

‘You’re too young to be boring.’

‘Not much of a compliment, is it?’

‘What do you need compliments for? You have your youth.’

‘You make it sound like it’s everything. Being young.’

‘Only to the extent that Time is everything.’

‘Time is everything?’

‘Only to the extent that nothing is possible without it.’

‘Okay, so, and then what happened?’

‘Then what happened when?’

‘On the airplane.’

‘It obviously didn’t crash, if that’s what you’re worried about.’

‘No, I mean, with Pahnik. What did Pahnik say next?’

I shrugged. ‘Nothing, really. I didn’t see him for the rest of the flight. He stayed put in First Class. I saw him briefly when I made my connection at Frankfurt. I was going one way and he was going another and he kind of looked over the heads of some Japanese that were between us and said something stupid to me and that was the last I saw of him. I don’t even know if he continued on to Berlin. Maybe he stayed in Frankfurt. Who knows?’

‘What was the stupid thing he said?’

‘It doesn’t matter.’

‘Yeah, but what was it?’

‘I’m telling you, it won’t make a bit of sense.’

‘So? I’m curious! You know I’m going to drive you fucking crazy until…’

‘He said the wrong guy. Or something like that. The wrong guy or the wrong one. I’m not sure. I couldn’t hear him over the airport noise. I said what? And he just laughed and saluted me and disappeared. He was a nut. But a special kind of nut. I have to write about him one day, now that I’ve quit painting. But I’d change the story a little. You know, make it meaningful. That’s the thing about True Stories, isn’t it? They don’t mean anything. That’s the difference. Fiction means something. Or tries to. When are you going to make us both unspeakably happy and sleep with me again? Like the good old days? You used to love it.’

She laughed, squinting and blushing. The blush soaked down to her breastbone, like a litmus test, where the laughter made her boobs bob. She wagged a finger at me. ‘I used to like it.’

‘Lola, you know you’re dying to.’

‘I’ll let you know when the time comes.’

‘Well, just don’t hold back informing me about that for too long. Okay? Promise?’

‘Promise.’

The fantasy-Lola looked so…looked so sane. So clear. And we were so cute together; we said such witty things. She reached and we held hands. The Lola of seventeen years old, the Lola I never knew, the Lola before too many men had gotten to her.

It was a daydream I kept having. Over and over again. Polished with repetition, the script was becoming more and more complicated. More and more convincing. If. Only.

Reality is so… I don’t know. Awful?

17.

This was my second trip to Berlin, but the first in broad daylight. Riding into the city from Tegel International Airport, I had felt that I was entering a city in mourning, like it must have felt driving across Dallas the day after J.F.K. quit his human form to become a deity, his essence on the tips of two bullets. The Berliners I saw in their cars and along the streets weren’t wearing black arm bands, but they might as well have been, ashen and dour and eyes-averted, scowling, with drawstring mouths and labyrinth foreheads and gravity-degraded shoulders.

And of course it was kind of nice, but disconcerting, that cars passing or being passed weren’t massaging our kidneys with bass signal, but were, rather, as meek as cars in an old celebrity’s funeral cortege; that wild-eyed people weren’t fussing and fooling in crowds on the sidewalks or crossing the streets at anywhere other than the designated crossings; that the police were a sparse, utilitarian, introspective presence. That the Berlin police, even in their army-green uniforms and square-jawed enormity, seemed more like librarians than centurions. There to shusssh you, with a glance, from time to time, but not much else. What is it that William Burroughs said about a functioning police state? Not needing police?

‘Hey, you know what you were thinking, but were too ashamed of yourself to admit you were thinking, even as you were thinking it?,’ said Doktor Effenkuhl, one eyebrow like a circumflex, ‘You were thinking: this is what the U.S. would be like without the blacks!’ Ziss is vat ze Oooh Ess vood be like…’

‘I was thinking that? If you say so…’

‘Yes, and what you would have qualified that thought with, had you the permission to articulate it, would have been: for better or worse. Because not only have the kidnapped West Africans that you now call ‘blacks’ raised the temperature in the U.S. beyond anything possible in marble-cool Europe…and this heat is where Hollywood, and rock-n-roll, and the general concept of the great American export called ‘Cool,’ ironically, come from,…but they will also, these blacks, be the moral, intellectual, and political downfall of your country.’

He grabbed my very large trunk and hefted it out of the hallway and into the doorway of the little room, to the right of the flat’s entrance, which would be mine. It was a queer little room, long and narrow and high-ceilinged like a monk’s cell. It featured a normal-sized window at an abnormal height, too high for me to see anything but sky (and the black needle of a church steeple) out of, and a chain contraption for opening and closing it.

(Far) under the window was a desk with a brass lamp on it; along the wall to the right of the desk was a plain little pillow-less four-poster bed, mattress wrapped in a rough woolen blanket, a very large key on top of the mattress.

I had tossed my carry-on luggage on top of the bed, and Doktor Effenkuhl shoved my trunk into the room behind me, continuing his speech with his hands on his hips, huffing and puffing and purple-cheeked from the effort.

‘Cold-blooded Europe, with her baggy, blood-shot, old-woman eyes of a tortoise…will long out-live the virile American hare, with his racing heart. And that is why.’ Und zat iss vye. ‘It is all in the pulse rate.’ He pointed east. ‘Looking at China, the oldest one there is. The pulse rate is zero! I trust the accommodations are amenable, young man?’

‘Oh yeah. Perfect space to get a little thinking done,’ I said, pantomiming a panoramic glance of genuine assessment, and making myself look pleased as a result. I mean, I was pleased, if only to be out of California. Pleased also that Lola had known someone in Berlin I could stay with; an intellectual; a doctor.

I was still trying to work out if Lola had kicked me out, or if I’d left of my own free will. Had she pushed or had I jumped? Answers to these questions were crucial details for my love life’s CV, even though it’s common knowledge that everyone lies on these, padding the successes and understating the humiliations.

The lecture on ‘blecks in ze Oooh-Ess’ was the first lecture I had ever received from Doktor Effenkuhl, and I couldn’t have known at the time how relatively brief of an Effenkuhl lecture it was. I had simply pressed his door bell, the door had swung open, he had said ‘Welcome to Scatopolis; not my flat, I mean, Berlin itself,’ bade me enter with a huge gesture, and treated me to this lecture, in response to my ice-breaking comment about the funereal taxi ride from the airport. I had merely said, ‘Hey, the ride here was like driving through a ghost town…’

And he had replied, ‘Hey,’ (smiling to show that the mockery intended was gentle), ‘you know what you were thinking, but were too ashamed of yourself to admit you were thinking, even as you were thinking it?’ etc.

He also noticed that I say ‘If you say so’ a lot. He was enthusiastic about idiomatic American expression, excited to pick my brain for new nuggets. No Way Jose, Take a Hike, From Soup to Nuts, Spic and Span, Bug Off, and Holy Cow he knew already. But when I introduced him to the urbanesque ‘Baby Mamma Drama,’ he reacted as though I’d presented him with something wrapped in a fancy red ribbon. I was confident that I could come up with even richer locutions for him in the weeks or months (my very expensive round-trip ticket…how had Lola managed to afford it?…was open-ended) to come.

It was clear to me on that first day that Doktor Effenkuhl was a bit of an eccentric. He was funny.

He asked me: ‘How much do you weigh?’ and when I told him, he nodded, stroking his chin, and said, ‘Good.’

He said, ‘Name a place in North America that you have never been to, but always wanted to live,’ and I thought a while and answered ‘Manhattan?’ and he frowned with amusement and waved my answer away, deciding, ‘Out of the question.’

I was glad that Doktor Effenkuhl’s English was excellent, if heavily accented, since my German is nil…the closest I can come to speaking German, in fact, is speaking a comedic, heavily-accented English, like Doktor Effenkuhl’s, and there was a terrible temptation to do so. I was immediately ready to change all of my Ws into Vs, and make that cow-kissing face that Germans can’t seem to get through a sentence without. But the last thing I wanted to do was to offend my host, who I liked so much, immediately, in part because he reminded me of myself. And he smelled very good…an expensive cologne that hinted at vast, cold cities of stone.

Despite his professorial manner, he looked like he could have cleaned the kitchen floor with me, with his big hands and broad shoulders; evidence of Viking intervention in early Germanic breeding schedules. But his face belonged to the same family as mine. It was a little like looking in a warped mirror.

He couldn’t have been more than five years my senior, but he managed, with his Continental air (and adult furniture), to make me feel very young, and I assumed the aura of pupil while he lectured me with good-natured arrogance about the contents of my own mind, the meaning of my own thoughts, and even on the implications of my reactions to these observations of his.

Lola told me that Doktot Effenkuhl was a respected Psychotherapist who’d invented a new kind of treatment for something or other, but she’d forgotten what. Even such vague praise impressed me, because what had I done but spend my life preparing to do something? Doktor Effenkuhl and I shook hands, and his big red mitt was smooth and hot to the touch.

‘I’m Salter,’ I said. And he answered, again, that he was Doktor Effenkuhl. I handed him the package that Lola had given to me to give him and he looked pleased. In fact, he hugged me.

18.

My experience is that the dirty dishes will multiply to match your capacity to keep them clean. In other words, people can get pretty extravagant using the kitchenware, when they aren’t expected to keep it all clean themselves. A cup-a-day usage expands to a new cup for every drink; one plate and one fork for dinner every day turns into a plate and cutlery for every little snack, and suddenly the olive forks, cheese graters, and teaspoons are all in use again, and water glasses are being tossed into the dirty dishes pile in the sink after only one drink of water…but that’s okay.

In exchange for washing the dishes every evening (Doktor Effenkuhl liked to meet the morning in an immaculate kitchen), I was allowed to live in that peculiar spare bedroom in Doktor Effenkuhl’s large flat, rent-free. He usually saw three or four patients a week (patients I never met, but who I sometimes heard); his sessions occurring in a room at the other end of the flat while I slept.

My window was so high off the floor that I couldn’t even look out of it by standing on top of the desk under it. All I could see, from a low angle, was the sky, and the black needle of the church, and the occasional bird or cloud, traversing the window like a trivial thought.

I asked about this architectural eccentricity one night…my second or third night there…while washing the dishes. Doktor Effenkuhl informed me that the building housing his flat had once been a private residence, a one-family house for aristocrats, and that my room had been the room belonging to the autistic youngest child of the noble family the house had been built for.

This was an 18th century story, he said, and autism wasn’t treated then as now. There used to be shackles chained to the wall along which your bed is now, he elaborated. In fact, added Doktor Effenkuhl, grinning over his reading glasses at me, you can still see, if you look carefully, in the part of the wall that is now hidden by your bed…the dents in the wall where the screws for the shackles were secured.

Was it a girl or a boy, I wondered, but did not ask, afraid that such a question would sound too ‘American.’ But I soon found out without asking. My imagination then involuntarily projected Lola into the lead role of the story.

‘Sometime during her sixteenth or seventeenth year,’ intoned Effenkuhl, smiling into a middle distance as though recalling a personal memory, ‘this autistic daughter became pregnant. But how is this possible? the family wondered. No man had ever been closer to her than standing on the other side of the very thick door of her/your room, having no idea that there lay on the other side of it a beautiful half-nude teen age girl with the mind of a dragonfly, shackled by her ankle to the wall. This would have been something like the year 1790 or so, if you know what I mean.’

The Doktor gestured at me twice with the succulent thumbs of a tangerine before I realized he was offering me some. It was delicious, and the pleasure of it became a part of the story he told, along with the Bach, a suite of works for unaccompanied cello, that his kitchen radio was playing in the background as he talked. I stopped washing the dishes long enough to enjoy the tangerine, pieces of which he kept handing me, and listen.

‘Now,’ said Effenkuhl, ‘This floor of the building, where we are now, the ground level, was where the laundry and cooking were all done…here, the servants were most active. As you can see, there is not so much of sunlight. There was actually an Italian system of mirrors, derived from the camera obscura, rigged up in order to channel some sunlight from the tower to this lower level…terribly high-tech and expensive by the standards of the day.’

‘The autistic daughter’s cell was adjacent to a pantry, down the hall from the kitchen, in a part of the house that saw little noble traffic. The family was rarely down here…they did their living in the upper four levels of the building, and, as you have noticed, on the other side of the building, facing the walk that leads to the old church, the ground is higher, and there is an entrance on what to us is the second level, and this is the entrance that the family used, along with their proper guests, to come and go through.’

‘The three older children weren’t even aware that a younger sister existed. The parents themselves only made their appearance to her, in the presence of a priest, during the Christmas holidays, and it was on one such visit that they noticed the daughter was displaying a somewhat protuberant belly, which caused, as legend has it, the mother to faint when she felt a kick after placing a curious hand on it, thinking at first that the belly must be a gas bubble as a result of the poor child having possibly eaten apples intended for the horses. You know, they didn’t put it past someone to substitute horse food for the two daily aristocratic meals, including French wine, that were rightfully hers…they didn’t put it past some servant that she might eat these fine meals herself and let the strange poor child eat the worm-ridden horse apples instead.’

‘But that some galoot of a serf had seduced and impregnated this idiot savant of a virgin daughter? This taxed their ability to conceive of such a sin. Surely the Devil was at work, even in the mundane guise of a house servant.’

‘The priest and the father quizzed the old nurse in charge, who kept her bed in the scholars’ dormitory on the grounds of the adjacent church (the same church whose bells we hear so often) and was by day responsible for the child’s bathing, feeding, and toilet-making; only the old nurse was in possession of the big iron key to the girl’s door…the key you found on your bed, by the way, the very same historical key, in case you should ever want to lock your door for privacy one night…’ he winked at me ‘…and not even the father, the lord of the mansion, a former officer in the Prussian cavalry, with the saber scar and monocle and extravagant mustache to prove it…not even he had a key to his beautiful autistic daughter’s jail cell.’

I fantasized a barefoot Lola with shaved eyebrows and straw-littered hair, half into a dirndl and chained to the wall. I fantasized a saber-scarred father for her, creeping downstairs in a hooded cloak, letting himself quietly into his daughter’s cell with a frown of philosophical self-loathing.

Effenkuhl had paused to smirk wryly, as though enjoying the same fantasy. ‘No, not even the father had a key. Much to his relief, as it turns out. His wife would have put him first on the suspect’s list, no doubt. Anyway, the authorities tortured the old nurse energetically, to try to get a confession out of her…they were sure she’d been selling the shackled services of the daughter to craftsmen or seminarians or mercenary Prussian soldiers or whomever. But she never confessed. In fact, the old girl died of a heart attack on the fourth or fifth day of interrogations…by then it seemed quite obvious that she’d been telling the truth…whatever truth she could have mumbled, with her tongue crimped and branded, and all her bloody teeth yanked out.’

At that moment, the phone began ringing, and Effenkuhl excused himself and backed out of the room with a bow. It was 10 pm. I washed the remaining dishes while I waited for him to return and finish the story, but he didn’t, so I dried my hands, switched off the kitchen radio (enough Bach), put on my jacket and slipped out into the German night.

19.

Jet-lag reversed my sleep-logic, producing a photo-negative of the snapshot of my life as it had been in Southern California. Back there, I was up every morning, out on the daily walk to fetch Lola’s and my bakery breakfast, blinking at the bright marquee of the sorbet-and-acetylene dawn. And seventeen hours later, in bed again, back-to-back with Lola, tired and giving off a day’s worth of heat, re-converting quest into sleep as the moon pursued its parallel journey through the Pacific midnight’s absinthe.

I had a friend who liked to refer to So Cal sunsets as ‘Tijuana dinners,’ evoking the spice and splash of border town diarrhea. He’s an unpublished poet, living in an attic room in the house owned by his ex-girlfriend’s mother, and I was suddenly inspired to call him. The time difference would put it at about two in the afternoon in San Diego. Good old Ray. He always got a kick out of my adventures; he also had always wanted to fuck Lola, but how could I blame him for that? And thinking that made me want to call not Ray, of course, but Lola.

I walked up Uhland strasse in search of a pay phone. Uhland strasse is a wide long street of shops and cafes and bakeries, all closed at this hour, plus a handful of open-doored bars (kneipen), dark with leather upholstery and smoke and old denim and facial hair, and body-temp gallons of blood-colored beer. I walked by one every two or three blocks; I could hear the patrons barking and hacking over jukebox kraut-rock accordions, trying to make sense of the world by glugging a penny-flavored version of it. These are the real Germans, I was thinking. And I will never know one. They were frightening.

Just as I had never known a real American, because real Americans are frightening. The Americans I had known were all faux Europeans, faux Indians, faux Jamaicans, etc. And the Germans I would bother to know would be faux Americans; look at Doktor Effenkuhl, with his collection of Yankee catch-phrases.

Six blocks along, where Uhland Strasse crosses Berliner strasse, I found a pay phone…not in a booth, but on an aluminum post, under a flickering sign advertising the company that the equipment belonged to. Phone booths are on their way out, I guess; another obsolete corporate courtesy, like Customer Service. Fuck you in a rain-or-snow storm, is what Telekom seemed to be saying. Did I really want to use this thing? Then I noticed that the coin slot was jammed with backed-up pennies and the phone was unusable anyway.

I hurried up the street in search of the next one. The further I went without finding a pay phone, the more urgent my need to make that call, to hear Lola’s voice.

I became almost frantic, imagining that the call I might not make in time would have prevented Lola, for example, from answering a knock at the door from a handsome Mexican delivery boy with a box cutter in the back pocket of his too-tight jeans, who would find her alone in a bathrobe and seduce, then rape, then kill her.

Or, less horribly but more realistically, that my call would help her decide against falling in love with someone handsome, domineering and better than me who had begun already, in my absence, to insinuate himself into all the new gaps in her life…and if I didn’t make that call in the next few minutes…

The first time I ever saw Lola, it was a moment of déjà vu, because I had been expecting it for so long. She was sitting on the steps of the Opera house at Covent Garden, in London, smoking, and throwing bread at the pigeons. She wasn’t feeding the pigeons…she was throwing huge chunks of a hard baguette at them. She hit one and it staggered sideways, flapping with shock, and took off, and she cheered. She was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen, with a boy-short platinum haircut, and big cracked lips. She was wearing a McDonald’s uniform. Then she took careful aim and hit another one.

I had been in Europe for three weeks at that point…still reeking of The States, but starting to get the hang of Europe, which struck me as one very large Bohemian neighborhood, after the suburbs of Minneapolis, or the open-air malls of Southern California. I had started by flying to Stockholm, hanging out there two weeks, then taking a ferry across The Baltic, to Germany. From Germany I flew to London.

Crossing the Baltic in a train was a thrill. The train, an old Czech monster, was loaded into the belly of the ferry at the port in Malmo late in the evening. I watched the loading with my head stuck out of a window in the sleeper car’s corridor. Flags were snapping and rippling from various masts and flagpoles that towered and teetered around the port. Stadium lights glared. We rolled on groaning wheels into the ferry.

I stood in the corridor and watched the procedure like a kid on his first train trip. I hadn’t expected this at all. I naively…Americanly…expected a bridge or a tunnel. But this: a train in a ferry. I was too surprised to be afraid. I didn’t think once of all the ferry sinkings I’d read about, or seen on World News. I just stood there in the narrow corridor with my head out the window, feeling free and alive for the first time in years. Everything seemed possible, and I had the feeling that sometime soon, I’d be meeting someone important. I can still remember the sense that the Future was rapidly approaching.

My compartment mate was out in the corridor with me. He was tall and thin, with the close-set eyes and beaky nose of a 40’s-era aristocrat; his mustache added to this impression; but there was something politely downtrodden, or washed-out, about him, that reeked of East German flat-bloc dweller. We never exchanged names, but made pleasant chit chat in a comradely fashion. He resembled the English actor Ralph Fiennes.

‘And how are you finding Europa?’

‘I’m finding the women sexy as Hell. You European guys are lucky.’

‘Lucky?’ He shrugged. ‘They aren’t interested in us.’

Our little sleeper compartment, equipped with dingy beds no longer than children, and with no efficient way for me to climb into my bunk without stepping on his, was a challenge that we faced together in good spirits. There was a tiny writing desk beside the curtained window that opened to reveal a sink (along with a stern warning in five non-English languages to avoid drinking the recycled water).

We stuck our heads out of the corridor window and breathed the eggy air of the Baltic, and I whispered a goodbye to Sweden, and a goodbye as well to the affair that had ruined the city for me. I purged my mind of the only Swedish I’d bothered to learn (“Jag pratar inte Svenska,” I don’t speak Swedish) and we rolled into the belly of the ferry and were swallowed by it, and its metallic groans and echoes, and the bluish odor of diesel fuel, and I was glad.

It was a good crisp night; I had been sweltering from Stockholm until Malmo, stuck in a sun-baked wagon with sixty other passengers and no air conditioning. I was relieved to change at Malmo, despite the burden of having to heave my large trunk off one train, and across the station, and onto the next. I left behind a Dane I’d been flirting with; a tall, young, bespectacled librarian with a razor-sharp wheat-blonde bob and a very pretty face that surprised me with the flattest profile I’d ever seen on a European. From the side she looked like a flaxen-haired Chinese giant. Was she The One I had come to Europe to meet?

We got off the train together and made our idle chatter, which shaded quickly into flirtatious adieu’s, when I was suddenly seized by an uncool panic because we were a hundred meters from the train and it dawned on me that I’d left my ticket on it. I stuck her there guarding my trunk while I dashed back through the crowd along the platform towards wagon number 2, seat number 17, which killed that fledgling romance. And it really struck me how easy a fledging romance it was to kill…one misstep on my part was enough to change the expression on her face. It was as though I had sneezed and left a translucent green web draped over my lips.

But then I felt fine, as I made my connection and rolled out of Malmo while hefting my trunk onto an overhead rack with help from Ralph Fiennes. I was now on a Czech-made renovated German-owned Mitropa train. I was suddenly infinitely more comfortable…I had stopped sweating and stinking of it…I felt more in control of my destiny; and the night, as I said, was crisp and clear and lit like a casino. We rolled into the ferry and could see only the industrial paint job of the belly of the ship, and the rivets in its seams, and stenciled specs and warnings.

I withdrew my head to avoid having it thunked by a girder we inched by and I ducked into the sleeping compartment to have a look at a brochure that had been placed on the little desk by the window. It was a menu, and I briefly considered spending Dm 7.90 on Sechs Nürnberger Rostbratwürstchen (mit Antioxidationsmittel und Geschmackverstärker) but thought better of it.

Ralph suggested we look for the toilets on an upper deck of the ship since the toilets on a train of this type are unusable if the train isn’t in motion over open track. We waited for the orange-vested brakemen to secure the train, and for the ship to slide into the Baltic, and then we stepped out into the floodlit container along a narrow walk beside the train. Everything was painted beige or red or black, and the ferry throbbed bone-jitteringly as the engines strained against the waves. There was nothing of the wobbly ride I had come to expect from using the little ferries that connect one neighborhood to another in Stockholm.

My bunk mate led the way, and shouldered through a heavy door that was stenciled with hieroglyphics referring to gift shops and casino’s and toilets, and I followed him up three or four flights of painted metal stair steps, and we let ourselves in to an upper deck that was full of people in casual clothing, strolling back and forth on dull red carpeting. We mingled with these people; the other passengers on the ferry.

Peculiar that I felt like a trespasser from steerage, since I’d crept up from the belly of the ship, when in fact I’d paid more for the ride then most of the passengers who’d boarded the ferry right there at the port. They were merely crossing the Baltic, whereas I had already covered a third of Sweden, and my journey was due to continue for hours after the ferry docked in Rostock. I was headed for Berlin, and had the rest of the night to go before the train was scheduled to ease into the Zoological Gardens, or Zoo Station, at around seven in the morning. From the Zoo Station I would have to find Tegel, where I was to catch a flight bound for London.

We found the toilet and separated with politely embarrassed smiles and vented our bladders. Outside the toilet again, we shook hands (a post-penis-handling shake, mind you) and I let him return to our sleeping compartment alone. He wanted to sleep through the crossing, but sleep was the last thing on my mind. I trusted him enough to let him alone for hours in that room with my backpack and trunk and most of my money, and I resolved to investigate the ship. It was unlikely I’d be crossing the Baltic again in the foreseeable future, so I wanted to make the most of my little adventure. It was funny that I should be coming from a state in America that was larger than most of the countries that my fellow passengers hailed from, and yet this ferry ride was my idea of a wild experience, while for them it was little more than an inconvenience of dreadful banality.

There were banks and banks of slot machines arranged along the promenade of deck seven, welded there cleverly to siphon off their coins, and heal their trans-Baltic boredom with simulations of Vegas.

In fact I sat there for a bit, in a row of chairs facing the slots, and watched some Polish auto worker in a pale gray track suit go from machine to machine, dumping in coins and winning jackpots. If he was a shill for the management I was the only audience to the spectacle, and I remained untempted to gamble, so the show was wasted on me. I just watched him pull the levers, set off the jingles of the jackpots, and slide on over to the next machine, with nothing more than raised eyebrows on his part to register the windfalls. It was either a miraculous night for him, or the jackpots are paid in pennies. I suppose I should have gotten a closer look.

Never having been on an Ocean Ferry before, I must admit I was uncertain about how to behave on one. I’d walk right up to the smudged glass doors that opened out onto the wind-washed deck but I’d content myself with merely peering through them at the blackness that seemed to rise up in an infinitely gentle curve above the ferry. Then I’d pace the concourse, and cross to the other side of the ship, and peer again, as tantalized by the outside elements as an insect in a jar. I was troubled by the fear that opening a set of these large double doors would set off an alarm, but then some sloppily dressed Russians with a moon-faced child in a slick red raincoat pushed through these very doors, squeezing by me, sauntering in from the prow of the ship, and set off no (audible) alarm.

It was fantastic out there. I was in California-style shorts, but bundled in a rubberized rain jacket, which features a hood, and it was perfect in the chilly weather of the Baltic. I had sweltered in the train from Stockholm wearing this jacket, and felt like a fool to have even brought it, but now I was vindicated. I was cozy and self-contained.

I had with me a British magazine…style and music and movies…and I found a deck chair beside a pair of teen age girls and settled in under the flood lights, and I began reading, or pretending to, running my fingers over the pictures but being too distracted to pay attention to the text. We were the only ones out there, the teen-aged girls and I. They were singing perfectly foreign pop songs in touchingly high and imperfect voices, and I couldn’t have been more delighted.

One was blonde and sweetly unremarkable and the other had her hair pinned-up and cheaply dyed a beet-red color that had been some kind of proletariat fashion statement in this part of Europe for fifteen years, and I relished the naïve energy that they blessed the prow of the ferry with. A thread-thin line of lights were dimly apparent on the German side of the water, looking like a hairline crack in the black flesh of the sky. The stars above us, unfortunately, were as invisible as anything at the bottom of the Baltic. But that didn’t keep me from being exhilarated.

In fact, there was another moment coming in which hand-made music and the night and bright lights would blend similarly to thrill me with a sense of life’s possibilities: a night in London, a week later, when I was crossing Leicester square on a Saturday night and I happened upon a combo of bryl-creamed street musicians…a sax and an upright bass and a guy thwacking a snare drum with brushes…playing the theme from A Hard Day’s Night in 5/4 time with un-ironic verve. Couples in white dinner jackets and evening gowns were flowing over the cobble-stoned square in droves, with British pomp-and-shyness, and London suddenly swung for me, if only for five minutes, but what a five minutes it was. I stayed up all night. I could feel it: I was getting closer. I was getting closer to whatever I had come to Europe for.

And now, here I was, watching this cruelly beautiful blond pelting pigeons with rock-hard bread. I felt it in my shortness of breath…the unsteadyness of the earth under me: this was Ground Zero. Fate rolled back the curtains with a drum roll.

She was It.

‘Now, that wasn’t very nice,’ I said, with a hungry grin, as I approached her. I had all the courage of a tourist. Pundits rarely cite that as the chief lure of travel, but I found it to be a powerful kick: the people in a foreign city don’t count, because they don’t know me, so I become fearless. And Trans-Atlantic travel is the world’s easiest acting job; just being there implies that you have the time to; that you have the money.

‘Nice is crap,’ she retorted, shading her eyes from the sun as she looked up at me. She spoke very slowly, with a voice as deep as my own, and an accent as thick and white as marzipan. ‘You are reminding me of someone.’

‘I am reminding you of someone good or bad?’

‘Bad. Very bad.’ She shot a chunk of baguette with a vicious flick of her wrist, ‘But I loved him.’ Wap. A pigeon slid sideways across the paving stones, blinking.

I sat down, reaching for some of her ammo, and tried my hand at hitting the pigeons. I wasn’t good at it, and soon wasted all of her bread, but it was a thrill, a nasty treat, just trying to hit one. I was born in Minneapolis. Minneapolis is the World capitol of Have a Nice Day. They’re nice to animals there. I sensed that she had something to teach me.

She stood up and excused herself, grinding out her cigarette, and ran down the stairs, disappearing around a corner before I could ask her her name. I thought: shit. Lunch break is over. I was paralyzed with disappointment until she reappeared five minutes later, another baguette tucked under her arm.

‘Fresh baguette,’ I observed.

‘Wrong. Day old. Cheaper! Harder.’ She broke it into brittle fifths, and stacked them in a pile beside her. Then she fastidiously swept the crumbs from the lap of her uniform. She was incredibly beautiful, even in that uniform. ‘I do this every day for the lunch break.’

I said, with a hint of incredulity: McDonald’s. She said, with a hint of incredulity: yup.

I watched her hit another pigeon, like kicking an old valise, raising dust. A very tall woman in a pink pant suit, stooping to hold the hand of what appeared to be a day-care-age albino in miniature Jesus sandals and overalls and over-sized cartoon sunglasses, was watching, too, from the other side of the square. Then she started crossing towards us with a frown, slowed in her progress by the rubber-legged child.

I said, while staring at the grown-up who drew inexorably nearer, ‘You’re not British. Why are you working at a McDonald’s in London?’

She shrugged and squinted. ‘Escaping.’

‘From?’

She closed her eyes. ‘Germany.’

‘You didn’t escape very far.’

‘Not finished yet.’

‘Escaping can be a life-long occupation.’

‘Escaping can be a life.’

‘That was a deeper philosophical remark than I would have expected from a girl wearing a MacDonald’s uniform.’

‘Yup.’

‘Do you understand it when I say complicated things to you in English?’

‘Don’t have to.’

‘You just say ‘yup.’’

‘Yup.’

‘Saying ‘yup’ to everything could get you into a lot of trouble, miss.’

‘I am aware what sentences not to say ‘yup’ to, sir.’ She grunted and the heavy crust she then flicked made a whiffling sound like an arcane Chinese weapon and hit a pigeon so hard that it flopped over, pedaling, like it was doing the back-stroke. ‘Any sentence with the words fuck, suck, horny, or we in it, I don’t say ‘yup’ to. Alles klar?’

I shrugged: seems reasonable! I said: I’m Salter. She said: Me Lola.

I’d never felt so free, and confident, and careless about consequences. I’d never even spoken with such a beautiful girl before, and she was making it easy for me because I was American, and could offer her The Grand Canyon, or Honolulu, or Hollywood, and I was naively up to the challenge. I cleared my throat and looked her dead in the eye and steeled myself against blinking. I somehow knew that if I blinked, all was lost. I said, loud enough for her to hear me at that distance, ‘Wanna get married?’

A couple of large plaid tourists were just then ambling by, and mistook my proposal for a romantic moment, a memory they could impose themselves on, so they stopped to gawk at us. Nosy Nebraskans. Bangor-based busy-bodies.

‘Come on now, honey, say yes to the man!’ urged the fattest of the two, the male, with a big-lensed camera slung from his neck like a Japanese dream penis. He hefted the camera and stroked the lens with a cajoling twist of his wrist as he aimed it first at Lola, then me. His wife in her tartan mu-mu had her hands on her hips, smiling with a frown of impatience. They were both wearing green sun visors. He gestured for Lola and me to sit closer together.

I flipped them a two-handed bird, and Lola pelted them with baguette, until they backed off and waddled away in a thigh-banging rush, hands up, making sounds like things with blow-holes, with shocked looks on their faces. Lola spat and said ‘I fed those two couch-killers a bucket of French fries already this morning’ and unpinned her McDonald’s name tag and tossed it at me.

Catching it, I impaled myself on its open pin; it was stuck. I pulled it out and a berry swelled in the palm of my right hand. I tossed the name tag away. I scooted up close to Lola and showed her my wound in a childish pantomime of suffering, like a test to call forth in her either the Virgin Mary, or the Magdalene, and it was the Magdalene that I got. The Magdalene took my hand, glanced at its stigmata, and let it fall. She lit a cigarette. She said:

‘That’s nothing, husband,’ and blew the smoke in my face. ‘Just wait.’

20.

She had such boyish hips that it made me feel homosexual, fucking her, especially with the low octave of her smoke-flavored moans, and also as I found myself fantasizing in a black fever that our doggie positions were penetratively anal in execution, rather than vaginal, though I didn’t have the courage to try that, stroking and clutching and shuddering over the pink missile of her soft body as I bumped my way into her. I fucked her the way the poor behave at a fancy banquet, stuffing their faces and coat pockets; never straying too far from the buffet; looking asinine with gratitude, guilt, avarice, fear.

Lola loved California, and California loved Lola.

Her breasts were so big, in comparison to the gamine circumference of her waist, that they embarrassed me, as though by just being a part of our sex life they had exposed something trite and crude and bovine in me, in my libido. I stared at those breasts, and, catching me staring, they accused me.

They accused me in a lather through the faceted glass of the shower when I took my long arcing piss every morning; they accused me on Black’s beach, the nudist Gay spot in San Diego where we spent most weekends sunning; they accused me from under one of her ragged t-shirts at the breakfast table, while also eroticizing the gray milk in her cereal bowl, and everything else in the room. Those swollen, dark, wide-apart and accusing eyes; the milky tears they would never cry. They accused me while Lola slept and I stealthily uncovered her. Leave me be! They pleaded. Stop staring! Those big unblinking eyes on her chest. Those touchy masses. Counter-weights.

It’s too much for a human to bear. Humans should be ideas, not objects. There’s a terrible tension between the human dream of being just that, an idea, a principle, and the terrible reality: that a human is really just a thing, a mass and a volume, perfectly described with handfuls of trivial measurements. A structure, with features; with systems and mechanisms; with equipment. What were Lola’s tits but equipment? Where did they end, and Lola begin?

I hadn’t at first even noticed them as she was wearing that over-sized McDonald’s smock when we met. Maybe I wouldn’t have had the courage to approach her if they’d been clear to me from the beginning. It was her face that mesmerized me initially; but then, when I knew her, the teats took over. Yes, I’m ashamed! Not of myself, but of them. Those inertial, alabaster, lavender-eye’d, blue-veined things. They were and are, literally, galactic.

I’ve always doubted the science behind the theory that men fancy big breasts because of an Evolutionary imperative (nursing copiously at the apparatus of a large-breasted woman, her offspring has a greater chance of survival, is how the reasoning goes): if preferring larger breasts is an Evolutionary strategy, why are large-breasted women the exception, rather than the rule? How could the gene for medium-to-smaller-sized breasts enjoy such overwhelming dominance, still, if higher survival rates rested, from time immemorial, on the side of mammoth knockers? (Though it’s true that human females have the largest breast-to-body-mass ratio in the entire mammal family).

The explanation for the Canonical Fantasy Dominance of the D-cup in contemporary Western Civilization, I think, is simpler: people always want what they can’t have. They dream what they don’t know. Most men are with women with medium-to-small breasts, because most women have medium-to-small breasts; therefore, most men want women with large breasts. Likewise, men with large-breasted women dream of small-breasted women; however, they don’t, in every case, act on the fantasy of exchanging the one for the other, most probably because of the status they enjoy in the eyes of men who have small-breasted women. It’s a vicious circle.

Or it could be that men didn’t start hankering after dirigible-class mammaries until the advent of color photography; of the mass-market glossy magazine; of sophisticated slo-mo effects in video.

I wish there were equally frivolous female aesthetical prejudices deforming a man’s ‘value’ in the mating game, but there aren’t. Women prefer men with money, which makes perfect sense, unfortunately. It’s a wonder that poor men ever get to fuck at all. And, of course, until the middle of the 20th century, they didn’t.

It’s fashionable for people these days to treat ‘The Sixties’ as a delightful but ridiculous era that ended up changing nothing…a mere glitch in the data stream of history. But The Sixties changed everything for the Poor Man…The Sixties was the Era in which the Poor Man was given the right to Fuck.

But wait.

An important detail that will surprise you. Two important details.

It took me two years to see Lola’s boobs naked; two years before I could fuck her. It took me that long before I hefted and harried and chafed and boxed and coddled and nursed and teased and wrestled and nuzzled her…them. The time span between the day Lola and I first met, when I proposed marriage on the steps of the Opera house at Convent Garden, and the day we met again, in America, was two years. A few weeks short of two. And until the day I saw her again, I’d heard nothing, not a post card, not a peep, and the very night of the day I saw her again, we were lovers. Before that, I’d almost forgotten about her. ‘Almost’ meaning not at all.

It was that gray-haired bitch in the pink pant suit; the bitch with the hemophiliac son; Mrs. Fortney, who fucked me up. Fucked us up. It was her fault. She’d seen Lola blasting the pigeons and so she’d crossed the square, I presumed, in order to give us a righteous tongue lashing on behalf of her son and the animals and all things helpless and innocent. Instead:

‘Not to be a frightful bother, but have you ever considered modeling professionally?’ Completely ignoring me.

Lola, shaking her head: ‘Are you the lesbian, lady?’

‘No, I’m not,’ she said, without anger, impressively unruffled, and added, ‘This is my son Roderick,’ and skinless pink Roderick ducked in pinker terror behind his mother’s pink pantaloons, ‘And my husband Simon and I own and run Black Forest Furs, on Oxford Street. Do you know it?’

Without waiting for a polite affirmative she continued ‘And the point is, it’s a frightful chore, really, trying to find a decent model willing to wear fur these days; the silly tits all suddenly think they’re animal rights activists! It’s such a bore, and I couldn’t help noticing…with those filthy birds you were tormenting just now…’

Lola coughed out several hacked-up lung-sized zephyrs of nicotine, laughing, ‘You saw me hurting the doves and thought, this girl, she don’t give a shit!’

‘Well, yes, quite,’ said Mrs. Fortney, stooping to scoop up her squirming little Roderick, ‘I mean to say, you’re hardly a card carrying member of PETA, now, are you?’ With her free hand, she handed Lola a silver business card. ‘Anyone who tells you it’s a ‘career’ is taking the piss, and no mistake. You enter at the middle and stay there; there’s absolutely no future in it. It’s money; piles of it, that’s all. It’s pots of cash for practically no work. That’s why it attracts the worst sorts, you see. Do it for five years and you can retire, if you’re smart. We need a new girl for our Fall campaign and you’ll do nicely.’ She nodded appraisingly at Lola, going hmmmmm and hmmmm, and then, to herself: ‘Oh, yes, this one will come up a treat.’

Mrs. Fortney stood straight, smoothing the wisps of her Roderick’s staticky white dandelion of hair, and prepared to say ta ta. ‘One thing: Simon, my husband. You will meet him, and the poor dear will try to make a pass at you. You’re his type. Just tell him no. It’s easy! I promise you he’s incredibly resistible. All men are.’ And here I could say that she smiled at me wickedly, but she never once bothered to glance my way.

‘Ta ta.’

And off she went, in a whirlwind of no-nonsense, bearing her Roderick away like an expensive bouquet of recessive traits.

Lola was busy methodically ripping the pockets off of her McDonald’s smock after Mrs. Fortney made her exit. Growling as she ripped the cloth. She boasted to me, grunting with effort, ‘Now I don’t…must to work…at McDonalds…or marry you, neither, so…I’m the lucky…girl,’ offering me a conciliatory cigarette from her box of Camels, which I declined, ‘But anyway leave your address in The States on the back here, just in case you never know.’ (Hard to believe this happened five years ago!)

She handed me Mrs. Fortney’s card; I took it obediently and printed my address in California on the back. I just happened to have a pen in my pocket, because that’s what I was doing at Covent Garden in the first place, trying to pick up girls.

And what was the second? The second surprising detail…about Lola…when she finally came to California to be with me, two years later?

She was a virgin.

21.

Three pay phones in four square miles, and all of them broken. By the time I found one, a phone booth, containing a phone that actually worked (apparently), I was lost, it was nearly midnight, and the booth was already occupied…by a black man. Which explains why I stood there, outside the booth, for the longest time, glancing at my watch and coughing, waiting. Though the man in the booth wasn’t even using the phone, but was standing there with his back to me, reading under a ditsy galaxy of gnats.

When he finally turned and noticed me, I had been standing there for ten minutes, feeling desperate. He swung the booth door open. ‘Waiting for the phone, man? Shit! I’m sorry! How long you been standing there?’

He was laughing. He was wearing what looked like a billowy dark pirate shirt, open to the navel, and a car key for an ear ring. Why is it that men who wear pirate shirts, open to the navel, always stand a certain way, with their hands on their hips, and their feet spread wide, like Gene Kelly?

He said ‘Sorry!’

I shrugged that it was okay and we exchanged places. He asked me if I’d be long (‘Gonna be a long one, he he he?’) because he was waiting for a call and I said, no, just a few minutes; I was calling The States and couldn’t afford to talk for very long anyway.

The States? He asked, with a hungry look on his face. Whereabouts? I told him California and he whistled, like I’d quoted an impossible sum. I closed the door and noticed that the booth was deep in his not unpleasant odor: sweat and roses.

After all that trouble, all I got was Lola’s answering machine, which needled me with a brand new me-less message, the outgoing message of a beguiling single woman, nobody’s doormat, grouching ‘I’m probably here but I don’t want to talk. Take your chances.’ Beeeeeep.

At least she didn’t sound happy.

‘That was a quickee, he he he,’ said my new black friend when I backed out of the booth. ‘No news is good news, right?’

‘I got the answering machine. Do you know Berlin pretty well?’

‘I uh got the path I always take to avoid the shit I always uh avoid, he he he.’

‘Because I’m lost.’

‘Hello, Lost, he he he.’’

He was very black, with a shaved head that gleamed like state of the art equipment, reflecting every single one of a row of street lights that hung over the dark little street we were standing on, a curving meridian of pearls in his skull, and he had hands like graceful birds. He was small but his gestures made him seem big. I could see that women would find him attractive without him having to work at it; that smooth vinyl chest to lie on; those graceful black birds to tease you. I assumed of course that his penis made mine look useless in comparison. He had the nerve to tell me that his name was Lord Johnson.

‘Don’t look at me, man, blame my parents. L-o-r-d Johnson! It’s on my passport; check it out! Not the uh freakiest name! But uh try being black and going through…Heathrow Airport with it! He he he.’

‘Ok, uh, the story behind the name. Pops told it to me when I was a kid and like I still don’t know if he was joking? Man, that dude was always joking. Hey, jokes are a form of abuse, too! What’s a joke but a funny lie?’

He shook his head sadly. Then he brightened up again; his eyes were like headlights.

‘Like, I was a natural child birth, with, uh, a Mexican midwife. Okay? I took my time coming out…I wasn’t stupid, he he he. Thirty six hours, man! My parents were black hippies who kinda hung out on the fringe of a, like, celebrity crowd in Santa Monica. Pops was what you’d call a black-light artist. Black light paintings of Bruce Lee and Hendrix and Pam Grier naked and whatnot. He trucked his masterpieces to headshops all along the coast in his, like, royal chariot, a VW Beetle van! What you’d call a cottage industry, he he he. Pops tried his hand at uh an underground comic which he financed with his own bread featuring this freaky uh Super Hero called ‘Not Quite Gigantic Man!’ Which, like, never caught on.’

‘My Moms was like a professional topless extra in various drive-in flicks of the 70s. She was in a big movie called ‘Cotton Comes to Harlem.’ Yeah? Plus stuff on television with all her clothes on after they started putting lots and lots of black folks on TV. She even made regular appearances on this show called ‘Mannix?’

‘Okay. ‘Not Quite Gigantic Man’ flops and uh Pops loses his grip. Accuses Moms of sleeping with ‘Mannix’!’, check it out! Pops goes AWOL, I guess I’m glad he didn’t, you know, honor kill her like a Muslim brother or some shit he he he. Five solid years, man, Pops was a no-show. I’m like, Mommy, where’s Daddy? And she’s like all, you are not to mention that word around this house, boy. Then, uh. He, uh. Comes back. Right? New walk, new haircut, new everything! Shit! We didn’t even recognize him!’

‘Anyway, my name. The story! It goes…drum roll…Moms is in labor, I’m preparing for my debut, the big entrance! And now, straight from a successful sold-out engagement in the womb…My mother screamed. You know: tight pussy; big head. Everybody just…uh…used to call my Daddy by his last you know…name. Johnson this, Johnson that. Like ‘Lenin.’ Dig? So I’m like squeezing through and she’s screaming and cussing…’

He tilted his head back and changed his face to imitate his mother howling on her back as she delivered him:

‘Lord, Johnson, what have you done to me!?’

Then he shrugged and winked.

‘And it…uh…stuck.’

22.

That morning I had a terrible dream that Lord Johnson was fucking Lola with a special method that everyone knew about but me, a technique from China that involved exotic spices, and specially applied steaming-hot towels, and if it was done exactly right, this method, then a woman’s arms, or her legs, would fall off. But the orgasm would be intense. It was obvious, in the dream, that Lord Johnson was collecting the arms and legs of white women.

I was pleading with Lola not to go through with this dangerous and crippling procedure, but she was adamant, completely under Lord Johnson’s sinister power, and she made me feel bothersome and ridiculous to be worrying them with my sad little nigglings while she and Lord Johnson, a real man, were in pursuit of this once-in-a-lifetime ecstasy together. Every objection to this grisly sexual procedure I came up with she mocked with baby talk, and I woke in tears, groping for her in the daylit room where the autistic daughter of 18th century German aristocrats had once been chained to the wall, pregnant.

23.

Every day in Berlin that went by uneventfully felt like a criticism; every week added to a mounting debt that I’d never be able to repay. Repay to whom? My own sense of self? A vacation is one thing, because it starts with a known limit, a terminus; the end-point gives it a shape, the shape makes it a pleasure. But here I was, in a foreign country, open-ended, floating. What was the point, the plan, the method? Did I have any goals in mind? What was my story? All I had was the pain in my chest over Lola. I wanted her ‘back,’ but had I ever had her? And my wanting her, I saw, was like any dirt poor American living in a rent-it-by-the-week hotel near a bus station and dreaming of hitting the big time one day. A flop.

I once sat on a bus in Minneapolis behind a grizzled scratchy couple who spent the whole ride describing what they’d spend the fortune on if they won the lottery, and the conversation ended in a nasty fight when the guy finally announced, with his nose up, that with his last million he’d buy a yacht that no one else, not even she, was allowed on. And now I felt like one of them, a pathetic dreamer, fretting over unavailable options.

I woke every day around six pm, thrummed like iron myself by the evening church bells, and went to bed again at ten the next morning, and rarely spoke to anyone but Doktor Effenkuhl, who was not always talkative after a day of administering his Psychotherapy. I did nothing but eat, walk, sleep, excrete, and wash the dishes.

Something seemed broken. Something was wrong with Time; it felt as though existence could only be discussed in the past tense, and that the world was a difficult memory exercise, or a jumble of old stories in the care of a halting, stuttering narrator.

What had once seemed like just one of an almost infinite variety of emotions or activities to choose from now struck me as being the only option: Nostalgia.

Memories were no longer being manufactured freshly, but only recycled. Nostalgia was a musty veil over everything. I couldn’t breathe. The permanent twilight and musty air and airless gasps of Nostalgia. Had this awful feeling been triggered entirely by my break-up with Lola? Was this an idiosyncratic misery, or a Cardinal Glitch?

I was on this particular dismal train of thought while washing the dishes one night. Doktor Effenkuhl was sitting at the kitchen table, reading a very old newspaper (his policy was never to read any newspaper that was less than ‘cured’ of the news, that is: at least six months old), when we both heard a terrible noise. It seemed to be coming from the upstairs neighbor’s apartment. Doktor Effenkuhl put down his paper and scowled at the ceiling, as though reading particularly offensive graffiti on it, until the noise repeated itself.

‘Frau Schivelbeiner,’ said Doktor Effenkuhl, disgusted. ‘Have you ever known a woman with more than one cat…who didn’t have a sexual problem?’

‘Was that sound Frau Schivelbeiner, or one of her cats?’

We both waited for the awful sound to repeat itself, and when it did, Doktor Effenkuhl nodded, but I was the one who spoke.

‘New boyfriend?’

‘Ah, but it’s always the same one, you see,’ he said, resuming with his paper. ‘And that’s why it’s so monotonous, although his name, height, color and age may vary. He does what he wants with her for two weeks and then leaves. Then he comes back, after a polite interval, with a new face, a new voice, a new joke, and starts all over again. And she doesn’t even have the imagination, or the decency, to invent a new name for him! She always calls him Schnecke!’

He said: ‘There’s an old joke. Women are shallow and cruel when they’re young, and clinging and bitter when old…and men are just the reverse.’

I picked up the dish towel. ‘Well, I hope she’s in love, at least…’

Doktor Effenkuhl stared at me over the hedge of his paper for a good long time before saying ‘That’s exactly like hoping she’s insane.’

He continued, ‘Using sex to express ‘love’ is like using a Porsche for a nutcracker.’

He said ‘Why do you suppose it is that the average woman has three times more reason to fear physical harm at the hands of her lover, in her own home, than from a complete stranger? A lover thinks: I want to own and control what you are, and what you do. A passionate lover thinks: as long as you are useful to me, I’ll let you live.’

I had my back to him, scrubbing an expensive pot. ‘Do you really see it that way, Doktor Effenkuhl?’

The Doktor ignored this question and continued, ‘Love is just a secular replacement for God. First, it was Secular Humanist Love, and then it was Romantic Love, and, now, Total Freedom is already gradually replacing both of those. Do you believe for one moment that human emotions are immutable? There were emotions available twenty generations ago that we no longer even have words for. A reptile climbs on a rock and looks at the sun: what ‘emotion’ is it experiencing?’

He put his year-old newspaper away, folding and replacing it in a stack on the cabinet under the kitchen window behind him. ‘That is the kind of purity I am interested in, ja?’

He glanced at his watch impatiently, and, within seconds, as though prompted, the phone rang, and he left the room to answer it.

24.

Coincidentally, when I let myself out of the flat for my nightly walk (my nightly attempt to phone Lola), clutching a sack of garbage, I met Frau Schivelbeiner in the stairwell. She was a tiny handsome gray-haired German woman with a wide, high-cheek-boned face, in black silk Pyjamas and stiletto heels. A rhinestone crucifix sparkled coolingly on the brown-to-pink papyrus of her breastbone. The freckles on her over-tanned skin looked like pepper. It looked like it would burn my tongue if I licked her.

I was twisting the key in Doktor Effenkuhl’s front door lock (he was out for the night) when she surprised me by speaking, clomping towards me down the stairs. German neighbors rarely speak to each other in the stairwell, is what I had gathered. But here she was, speaking! Unfortunately, her overture was in German, and I had to pantomime my perfect ignorance with a frown and a shrug. So she repeated herself in English.

‘Oh, excuse me. I did not realize that we had an American in the building! I only wanted to apologize just now for my cat. She is making an awful racket these days…’

Before thinking, I said, ‘That noise was your cat?’

She frowned. ‘Yes.’ She purred, fingering her crucifix. ‘Schnecke.’

25.

Frau Schivelbeiner’s daughter was home for awhile from college; back from an exchange program in The States; and Schnecke, a fourteen year old thirty-five pound Siamese with a bald spot on her shoulders (from squeezing under a low cabinet in the master bathroom for all those years), was jealous.

I said, because it was a safe thing to say: Yes: cats are like people.

Frau Schivelbeiner asked after Doktor Effenkuhl: was he okay? He’d lost so much weight, she said.

‘Really?’

‘Oh yes, he used to be quite heavy. Well, not fat, of course. But large. Larger than you.’ She looked at me closely. ‘Are you the brother in America?’

‘No. He has a brother in America?’

‘He said so once, yes. A brother, and a sister, in America. The brother is a writer, I think.’

Frau Schivelbeiner was standing beside me in front of the big blue dumpster in the back courtyard, her arms folded over her sparrow-like, elegant chest. She was a very fast talker.

‘But he’s lost quite a bit of weight. I was afraid that he was very sick. Not that we are friends, so much….’ She lowered her voice. ‘The people in this building are not so friendly. It is quite okay, of course, because everyone here is respectful. But I have lived in Philadelphia, with my ex-husband, Jenny’s father. He was American. And I became accustomed to the American way. One’s neighbors knew a certain amount of one’s business, and one knew a certain amount of theirs. It was friendlier, but sometimes awkward.’

‘For example, our upstairs neighbor, a Puerto Rican woman named Glenda Velasquez, knocked on our door at ten one night and asked to use the telephone. Hers had been shut off because of a big long distance bill from calling her father in Puerto Rico all the time that she hadn’t paid for in over three months. She said, very casually, that she just needed to make a quick call to a Recovered Memory Hotline because she had just remembered that her father had sexually abused her as a child, and then she offered me a quarter for the call! The memory had been triggered by a special report on the six o’clock news! What could I say? I must admit, at this moment I began to admire the German policy of respectful distances.’

Frau Schivelbeiner raised her eyebrows at me. She put a hand on my arm. ‘She told me that her elderly father had put things in her! A pickle! A Barbie Doll! Can you imagine confessing that to a stranger?’

‘I knew more about my American neighbors in Philadelphia after a few months living there than my own mother ever knew about my father the forty years they were married together! But that didn’t slow them down. On the contrary, it probably helped. I’m here, aren’t I? And I’m the youngest of ten children.’ She winked at me. She had conjured, in one innocent sentence, a montage of ten simultaneous tight-lipped fuckings. ‘Ten!’

I must have looked at her without blinking for ten seconds too long, because she looked right back at me.

I said, ‘Is your daughter upstairs?’

‘No.’ She kissed the crucifix. ‘She is staying with friends tonight.’

26.

Is self-awareness a form of insanity? Is culture an altar to madness? Animals are proto-rational, in that what they do always makes sense, unless they are badly damaged, mentally…and I wonder if animals who exhibit strong signs of neurosis are therefore, like man, self-aware?

Schnecke was growling and popping and hissing, from her vantage point at the top of a very tall chest of drawers, the whole time I was having intercourse with her friend Frau Schivelbeiner, who was sitting as straight-spined as a Yogi on me, gasping. We were balanced on the edge of her giant red bed.

Consequently, Frau Schivelbeiner frequently shouted ‘Schnecke!’ during the act, to admonish the cat, but her complaints sounded like cries of amorous abandon instead, punctuated with her gasps. I could see the top edge of the electrified black outline of the beast in the shadow just under the ceiling, but Frau Shivelbeiner’s back was to her, so her face was turned half away from me as she bounced on my lap, calling out ‘Schnecke!’ until it felt not a little like a menage-a-trois. And the raking red scratches in neat diagonal stripes down my back I finally walked out of her flat in the middle of the night with only added to this impression.

Despite her claws, she was a tiny, fragile, lovely thing in my lap. Her skin was smooth; she was fifty! Strangely, and grotesque in a sexy way, all of her wrinkles had furled to her groin, as though smoothed down from the top of her forehead with an iron, until her groin was as brown and hairless and wrinkled as a dune. Her breasts were just welts, and I bit them, and she bit mine; she tipped me back and rode me with her hair on my face like a veil, and I stuck my thumb in her arse, and she monkey-see, monkey-do’d this hospitable gesture until I cried out for her to stop. Or not to. Until I.

‘I’m sorry you couldn’t come,’ I whispered, while she ground my squashed penis into my belly with her sopping pelvis. I cupped her narrow waist between my hands, and her muscles shifted under her skin, under my fingertips, as though I was holding a snake.

‘But I was coming the entire time!’ she whispered back, biting my ear, and I loved this poetic lie.

‘May I spend the night?’ I asked gallantly.

‘No; my husband will be back in a while!’

‘Your husband! I thought you were divorced!’

‘I am…from my first two husbands. My third is still around. He won’t like this.’

I thought: Doktor Effenkuhl doesn’t know a thing about this woman!

27.

One night as I lay in Frau Schivelbeiner’s arms I could hear, under us, muffled shouting.

‘Almost every night,’ she whispered. ‘He is for hours on the phone…shouting, laughing…some times he weeps!’ She was talking about Doktor Effenkuhl. ‘And Always in English. This is what puzzles me.’

All we could hear of Effenkuhl’s shouting was the carrier-wave of anger…the words were smooth hot blurs that rose to his ceiling and squeezed, dissipating, through Frau Schivelbeiner’s floor. I couldn’t have said what language he was raving in.

‘How can you tell it’s in English?’ I asked, before lowering my mouth to a breast. She slid from under me and slinked across the moon-blue bedroom like a naked show girl, her silver bob seeming to float, a magician’s corny trick, and then she kneeled in a corner, pushing a chair, from which Schnecke had been glowering, to the side. Scnhecke pulsed out of the room as though yanked by a string. Schivelbeiner (she asked me to call her that…I still don’t know her first name) fussed with something that sounded like Velcro for a moment and then told me to join her on the floor. I followed in a crouch, dragging my snoozing penis.

In the baseboard was an opening, a rough-hewn rectangle the size of a post card, that had been covered with cardboard and duct tape. Schivelbeiner pressed her lips to my ear, holding my head with gentle hands, and explained.

‘A very long time ago, in another century, this building was all one house…a one-family dwelling for the rich. Downstairs, where your Doktor Effenkuhl has his flat, were the servant quarters…in Dokotor Effenkuhl’s bedroom especially it is very dark. In the old days, to channel sunlight to the lower floors…’

‘I know,’ I whispered back. ‘Camera obscura.’

‘Precisely. And the tunnels in this building which once carried sunlight, they now carry sound.’

‘And so you kneel some nights by this hole in the hall and listen?’ I said with a chuckle.

I could feel her turn red in the darkness…the spreading heat of it near my cheek. ‘One is curious,’ she smiled back. Then she put a finger across my lips.

‘Who is he?’ we could hear Effenkuhl shouting. ‘Tell me who he is so I can kill him!’

‘Don’t give me that bullshit!’

‘Oh, really?’

‘Yes, of course! Certainly!’

Then, after a long interval, ‘SPARE ME YOUR FAIRYTALES! DO YOU TAKE ME FOR ONE OF YOUR FOOLS?’

It was a turn-on, his rage…my penis stirred and stiffened to it. Having just finished fucking Schivelbeiner, I undertook to commence a second helping of her. I slipped behind her like a college wrestler, a hand on her shoulder, the other clutching her waist, and found new moisture under what at first seemed dry as an old river bed. Warm silt gradually gave way to the river Styx. The side of Schivelbeiner’s face was pressed to the cold wall, and the profile I could see looked almost alien with pleasure. But still I wondered, as I churned my steady beat in her, my slow blues, mining endorphins, if sex wasn’t really just something that women generously provided to the addicted gender, as opposed to a craving men wanted to believe we all shared.

Fucking her was like swimming upstream against all the years that were packed in her body…packed so dense that plugging and unplugging her the way I was doing…my cock in her pussy; my thumb in her ass; caused them to explode out over us. In the dark room I hallucinated a swirling stream of heat and color hissing out of her. In the dark her profile against the wall…with her eyes shut, her mouth open… looked so much softer, younger…more valuable. Any man who doesn’t feel at least a little love for a woman who does this for him, at least while she’s doing it, I was thinking…

Her ass was a fat fist at my groin, a fist with one knuckle, a fist with two holes in it. I pulled out of the lower hole and held her firm while adjusting, and then I tucked myself into the other hole, forcing my head with the flat of my thumb. Met with a sandy resistance initially. Deep in, I didn’t last five seconds before the shocking heat and her involuntary writhing slammed me with a stabbing orgasm that made us both howl, Schivelbeiner’s mouth just inches from the hole in her baseboard, a blended howl that sounded like a radical political slogan with all of the consonants sucked out, until Doktor Effenkuhl banged his ceiling with a broom handle.

Afterwards, back in bed (after I took a discreet trip to her WC to rinse two streaks of her shit off of my still-hard penis), we were talking, in chastened tones, about this and that.

Of course, I wanted to talk about Lola, who had become my great subject, but I couldn’t think of an easy way of broaching it; I couldn’t think of a polite or at least a smooth way to introduce another female into the conversation I was having with this naked woman with whom I’d just done so much. Where would I find the nerve to begin? But I was dying to.

I must have been leaving clues as we chatted, significant sighs and pauses, because, at some point, in the middle of an abstract philosophical conversation about ‘relationships,’ Frau Schivelbeiner suddenly said, in a didactic tone, ‘The day I crossed the line of becoming an ‘older woman,’ it became clear to me that a big part of my sex life would involve lying post-coitally in the arms of younger men, discussing younger women.’

She got up on one elbow.

‘It’s okay if one sees it as a natural law, I suppose. If one doesn’t take it any more personally than one would take the fact that exposure to air inevitably turns a sliced apple brown.’

‘An older woman is invariably a second choice, like a handsome man is the second choice for a woman who would have preferred a rich one, or a kind man is the second choice for a woman who would have preferred a handsome one.’

She thought awhile.

‘Or, honestly put, a kind man is always the third choice. My current husband, for example, is a kind man! My third husband is my third choice: this is very neat, and logical, because my first husband was rich, and when that didn’t work out, I tried my second husband, who was handsome. But I don’t feel cursed, because most women never do any better than to begin and end with the fourth choice, which is a man who is at least a man, and not a woman! So we all know what the fifth choice is…’

Here she laughed.

‘But I’m getting off the point. My point is, if you feel like talking about some young woman in your life for whom sex with me is the best substitute at the moment, feel free to; I have only one restriction, one demand.’

‘You can talk about her all you want, but you can’t say a damn thing about her looks, or anything physical about her. Only her personality. Nothing about her face or her body or even the smell of her hair in the morning! Nothing about the eyes or the voice, which men, feeling crafty, believe counts as somehow more spiritual features of the female to get horny about!’

‘Talk about your absentee goddess all you want, but restrict herself to what counts, which is her soul, her dreams, her special personality features, and I’ll be happy to listen.’

She lay back, flat on her back beside me, and said, ‘I’m all ears.’

After the extremely long silence that intervened, I got dressed, we hugged, and I tip-toed out of her apartment.

28.

I was beginning to hate Berlin, and I hadn’t seen a thing of it. The night was a cage, the bars of which were the German language. I never went shopping: Doktor Effenkuhl provided the food. I rarely saw daylight: I was sleeping through it. I never met people, but only shared dark side streets with nervous strangers who coughed as they passed me.

I needed desperately to speak with Lola, if only for a few minutes, but she never answered the phone. Worse: I didn’t even have the option of leaving a message anymore, because her answering machine had been disconnected. When I dialed her number, her phone just rang and rang and rang.

29.

I spent a week writing a story, a short story about Lola, and I mailed the result to her. Slightly more than a week after posting it, I began anticipating the arrival of the mail every day, waking to the postman’s heavy boots in the stairwell, the tumult of bills and catalogues through the slot, the sound of Effenkuhl lumbering out from the kitchen to nose a shoe-tip through the pile before stooping for the best pieces. And everyday the same awful news, announced in a merciless silence: nothing for me.

I went back to sleeping through the day.

30.

One evening I awoke slightly later than usual to find the flat empty, the kitchen radio on and playing Bach again. I entered the kitchen to turn off the radio and wash the dishes when I noticed, on the table, what looked like pages from a manuscript, with binder-ring holes along the left margin. Beside this document on the table was an almost-full cup of coffee with a cloud of cream floating in it, and a dish on which several cookies were stacked, as though Doktor Effenkuhl had left in a hurry, without having planned to, in the midst of enjoying a snack with his reading. On top of the first page, printed by hand in block letters, which I could read despite the fact that it was upside down to me, was: LOLA BAEDO.

Of course I was curious. And of course my curiosity was stronger than my civilized aversion to reading words that I obviously hadn’t been intended to read. I had a closer look.

Under ‘LOLA BAEDO’ it said, in a hurried scrawl: ‘police?’ And then, in another (very angry) hand altogether: Falsch! Falsch! Falsch! It had never occurred to me before that Lola’s acquaintance with Doktor Effenkuhl had been anything other than friendly and casual. Most of the text had been crossed out.

From her fifteenth year the patient (L.) has been subject to fainting spells. By
all accounts they come on usually after quarrels, disagreements or
disappointments. They are not accompanied by blanching, by clonic or tonic
movements of any kind, they last for uncertain periods ranging from five
minutes to an hour or more, and consciousness does not seem to be totally
lost. In addition she has vomiting spells, these likewise occurring when
balked in her desires. She is subject to headaches, usually on one half of
the head, but frequently frontal. There is no regular period of occurrence
of these headaches except that there is also some relation to quarrels, etc.
On several occasions the patient has lost her voice for short periods
ranging from a few minutes to several hours following particularly stormy
domestic scenes.

Physical Examination Aug. 20—L.–A well-developed, extremely ‘attractive,’ woman,
appearing to be about 20 years of age. Face wears an anxious
expression and she shuns the examiner’s direct gaze. Movements of the right
hand and arm are now fairly free. There is no appreciable difficulty in any
of its functions according to tests made for ataxia, strength, recognition
of form, finer movements, etc., in fact, she uses this hand to write with,
as she cannot talk at all. Such writing is free, unaccompanied by errors in
spelling, there is no elision of syllables and no difficulty in finding the
words desired. The face is symmetrical on the two sides. There is no
evidence of paralysis of the facial muscles. In fact, the cranial nerves, by
detailed examination, are intact, except in so far as respiration and speech
are concerned. The right leg is held entirely spastic, the muscles on both
sides of the joints, that is, flexors and extensors, being equally
contracted. It is impossible to bend this leg at any joint except by the use
of very great force.

Speech–There is complete loss of the ability to make any sound, either
voiced or whispered; that is to say, there is complete aphonia,– there is
loss of all voice. The patient understands everything, however, and writes
her answers to questions rapidly and correctly. She can read whatever is
written, there is no difficulty in the recognition of objects, no evidence
of any aphasia whatever.

The diagnosis–hysteria–can hardly be doubted. The history of headaches,
fainting spells without marked impairment of consciousness, vomiting spells,
hemianaesthesia, hemianalgesia, complete aphonia and an exaggerated
paralysis, not only of the right leg, but of the ability to thrust out the
tongue, while at the same time all other cranial functions were unimpaired
together with the apparent health of the individual in every other respect,
make up a syndrome hardly to pass unrecognized…

When Doktor Effenkuhl returned later, I was just finishing the dishes. He entered the room and stood behind me while I scrubbed a pot and he said ‘This is very awkward.’

He said ‘This was so careless, that I left this report on the table like so. You have no idea how disappointed I am in myself! You can’t be blamed for giving in to the most human of temptations and reading it, but, on the other hand, you must appreciate the gravity of the situation I find myself in.’

‘You know too much now, and I’m afraid I will have to kill you.’

The way he delivered this last line was so convincing that it made my heart race, despite the fact that it was clearly a joke. And how was I so sure that it was a joke? Because that line of dialogue was so bad that it had to be intentionally so, and therefore comedic. Still, it pays to reflect that in the entire History of the world, it’s safe to assume that almost exactly that sentence has been spoken more than once with absolutely no spirit of satire, and the objects of the sentence have died.

Effenkuhl smiled and gestured that I take a seat at the table and I did so. He cleared the untouched coffee and cookies from it and pulled a half-empty bottle of wine from the refrigerator, pouring us each a glass. He sipped his standing, leaning against the sink.

‘When Lola first came to me in the Fall of that year, almost ten years ago, she was in very bad shape. She was not at all the nearly perfect young woman you and I know and love today.’

‘Well,’ he asked, ‘did you always simply assume that she was born with a sturdy sense of self, and a rational system by which to make sense of the chaos of modern life? The Lola you knew was an effort.’

By the way he raised his eyebrows at the end of this sentence I took it to mean that the effort had been his.

‘What I’m about to reveal to you,’ he said, after pouring himself another glass of wine, ‘is of course not to be repeated to anyone…least of all to Lola herself. It will probably shock you. Possibly disgust you as well.’

‘When I first met Lola, introduced by a former patient, and began treating her, early in the last decade, she was suffering from a soul-destroying trauma.’

He nodded gravely at me. ‘Guilt,’ he said. ‘Terrible terrible guilt.’

Guilt over what? I asked.

He weighed the word a good long time before setting it down before me.

‘Murder.’

We both laughed. Another cliché!

And then, like the best comedians, he upped the ante.

‘And I was the victim!’ he added, with mock outrage. Yes, we laughed a good long time. Then he pulled his glasses off, wiping them on his shirt tails, and said, ‘But, seriously.’

He took one long step across the kitchen floor and back-handed me with a grunt, knocking me to the floor, chair and all. I saw stars, and then deep deep cherry-black space. I thought, just before the curtain came down:

This? This is it?

31.

At the age of 26, a year before she escaped Europe entirely and made it to America to join the American, Lola moved into a square room in Mrs. Fortney’s baronial flat on Talgarth road in West Kensington, a forty minute walk from ‘Black Forest Furs’ on Oxford Street. At 26, she was old for a model, but at the apex of her fragile powers as a Northern-European beauty, her naturally snow-blonde hair and eyebrows startling against her freckled ruddy cheeks and black irises, and perfectly offset by the mink or ermine or silver fox enwreathing her boyish shoulders, and lining her titanic cleavage, making Lola and not the fur itself seem to be the unaffordable product to die for.

In the brief bloom of opportunity before her Scandinavian attributes began wilting in the dry heat of Time, she had lucked into this job as the face of this almost invisibly exclusive furrier. Lola became Mrs. Fortney’s protégé, and a tacit ally in the metaphysical Cold War that Mrs. Fortney had been waging against her husband Simon since the birth of their son Roderick, as well as the mysterious face in a series of posters that had been plastered all over London to create what they still call a buzz.

Thankfully it was largely an absentee sub-population of American or Italian tourists who had known Lola as the best looking girl that anyone had ever seen selling French fries in a MacDonald’s. She had no History to pre-date the posters.

Some enterprising intern at the agency that Black Forest Furs used, in fact, had even placed the posters (tastefully, tastefully) in key locations around the Kensal Green, Kensington, Hammersmith, and Golder’s Green cemeteries. Like an angel on the monuments. And there was an amusing case that made the papers: a poster of Lola had appeared in the world famous London Zoo…on the rearmost wall of the lion’s compound.

Who is this half-naked stunner in furs?

London wanted to know. Without a word or even a logo (nor even fine print about copyright, etc) on the poster, the image became a puzzle, and the puzzle could only be solved if you happened to walk by the shop window at 23 Oxford Street and glance in at the gilt-framed twice-times larger than life photo of the same girl on an over-sized easle (purple velvet curtains as a back drop) in the otherwise bare display. By appointment only.

Lola became known, on the street, and then in trendy street-level mags and even on Channel Four (specifically the show ‘The Word’ as hosted by that Terry Whathisname prat), as ‘The Fur Girl,’ and then ‘Furry,’ until East End rhyming slang converted her smoothly into ‘No Worries’ and the sobriquet stuck like a stain.

She liked it! She liked her new name, her new identity, the alias that London had given her. Her escape from Berlin felt complete; she avoided speaking whenever possible, lest the sound of her own voice should remind her of Germany, and Germany remind her of all the horrible things she wanted to burn with a torch from her memory.

At night, in The Ball Club, a trendy disco just off Earl’s Court (walking distance from home), she was ‘No Worries,’ which was soon enough clipped to ‘Worries’ by the cooler blacker clientele. By day, after waking up in the afternoon in time to take a red-eyed tea with Mrs. Fortney, she was Miss Lola. Miss Lola was reeling, still.

‘Miss Lola,’ announced Mrs. Fortney, while handing Lola a dish of shortbread cookies, ‘Is not feeling well today, I see.’ Dryly. Mrs. Fortney knew all about The Ball Club. She sometimes went herself, in dark glasses. The thing about clubs, and this is why people like them so much, is that one’s presence on the premises is a tacit acceptance of the activities therein; walking through the doors is like signing a waiver. Which is to say: anyone seeing you there is just as guilty as you are. Of whatever it is. This is what Club Friendships are based on. And which is what marriages should be, but aren’t. Mrs. Fortney was frowning.

‘Simon,’ she continued, ‘Do stop standing there in the doorway like that and be of some use. Go polish the neighbors’ brass, or something.’

‘No need to be rude,’ grumbled Simon, as he slinked off, stoop-shouldered, with his hands in his pockets.

‘No,’ rebutted Mrs. Fortney in her most astringently disinfectant tone, ‘There is every need.’ She was saying it to Lola. She rarely addressed two remarks in a row to Simon, unless the second was a simple reiteration of the first, since the first remark was almost always a request for him to bugger off.

Lola was staring into her tea cup as if it were a television. Or as if she was a gypsy. She could still smell Split and other things on her upper lip, a smell she hoped the roof-colored tea would wash away as soon as it was cool enough to sip at. Someone, a concerned party, white, of course, had taken Lola aside…when was it? Three weeks ago. The very night she’d first met Split. Taken her aside, this jealous cheese-white ginger-haired purse snatcher with filed teeth and red-rimmed ass-holes for eyes, pulling her with his jagged smile off of Split’s arm for a moment and saying, ‘Ta. You do know why they call him Split, now, don’t you, Darlin’ ?’ And then miming, with his two hands, something as big as a good-sized fish. ‘Episiotomy, innit?’

Split. Lola let herself think about Split because she wouldn’t let herself think about the Other One, not yet; not until she’d had her tea. She looked up from the cup and saucer. She managed half a smile.

Mrs. Fortney was keeping a flinching Roderick in her lap, like a Bond Super villain stroking the pervy talisman of her mascot, and Roderick was doing his thing, personifying Fear, Nerves, Endangerment. Personifying Prey. He was the only child Lola had ever known who was afraid of her!

Other children; babies, even; had responded to her with the infallibly gullible eye that Innocence has for Beauty, grinning like old fools and reaching for her from the grocery trolley, from the stroller, from their grandmothers’ arms. But Roderick shrank from her; he shrank away in tachycardial terror when she sometimes reached to tousle his threadbare dental floss hair, or offered to put him to bed while Mrs. Fortney went out to the off-license for American videos and liquor. Lola would carry Roderick to his room like a tub drowning, his cheeks gone lapis with apoxia, his eyelids fluttering with fright. Or was it loathing?

She mulled that one over, now and again, with a secret thrill. She yearned for it…being loathed. Consequently, Roderick was the only child (Lola considered children to be nothing more enchanting or less useful than larvae) she could tolerate. Or even like. The way he shivered and sputtered and gasped and spasmed in his mother’s lap. Any minute, he’d go running from the room for the safety of the crawlspace under his bed, a hundred meters down the chandeliered corridor.

Mrs. Fortney was glugging her tea and telling on Simon…another one of her anecdotes about how dumb/useless/vain/irritating/unfaithful men/Simon were. The afternoon-ish late-in-the-year sun was making a surprise visit at the blinds, as red-eyed as Lola, striping the book case, the wide-screen television, and the side of Mrs. Fortney’s face with candy-colored exhaustion. To punctuate her diatribe, she kept singing, ‘More tea, Dear?’ though Lola hadn’t even tasted her first cup yet, staring down through its sediment depths instead. It made her think of diabetic urine. Not that she could think. She kept seeing all that blood.

She was still. Her mind was still. Fucked. About the previous evening.

‘It’s a kind of enforced banality, marriage,’ Mrs. Fortney was saying. ‘Like American culture.’

Last night, Split had cleared a path towards Lola at the bar and said, with infinite delicacy, steadying her by the shoulder and folding himself down to her ear, ‘There’s a perv wants to pay us four figures to do it in front of him in his hotel room. Should I say yes? We’ll divide it 60-40, because it was my connection. Right? He specified oral. Are you for it? Loadsamoney reckons he’s your biggest fan, I guess. What should I tell him?’

Lola had looked around the smoke-veined dark of the room while Split held her head to his lips, whispering the proposition. Split’s voice was no less penetrating than his dick. In fact she liked to straddle him while he whispered what he was going to do to her and then it was like a double-penetration, voice and penis, the tips of the two large inserts meeting somewhere in the region of her solar plexus and bumping noses there. She looked around The Ball Club, smiling on the tickle of his breath, wondering which the rich Perv was.

As usual, most eyes were on them, so she narrowed it down to the paunchy pewter-haired waist-coated guy in a blousy white shirt (he looked like a Snooker champion) by the cigarette machine to the side of the coat check, since he was one of the few who didn’t appear to be looking, which is another way of saying he was looking very hard. He didn’t seem dangerous, and, anyway, Split would be there, bigger than anything in the entire Hotel.

32.

It was a very nice Hotel, Georgian façade, royal-red window shades, in Knightsbridge, with a knock-off Beefeater under the red awning and everything. Red carpet. Split had the key. Squash-court-sized Persian rugs on the butterscotch-smooth parquet in the foyer. Marble drinking fountains. Deco sconces. They just breezed by the Reception Desk at 2 in the morning, popped in the lift, and went up. Creaky old lift for such a posh hotel, though…as though the posh was all just a mask, hiding a grimy reality of devilish old London-town horrors. She imagined age-green gargoyles pulling the chains in the elevator shaft. She imagined Jack-the-Ripper tools in the sub-cellar, rusting away in an inch of 19th century water.

Following her up the corridor, Split said, reassuringly, ‘Right. This is the drill. I’m going to chain you to the bed, right? Geezer’s in the closet, peeping. After I chain you to the bed, just follow my lead. Nuffing we ain’t already done, like.’

Lola’s first night in The Ball Club…her first five minutes in The Ball Club…she’d been approached by an American pretty boy with spikey blonde hair, dressed in a pink t-shirt and a striped green tie, and he’d tapped her on the shoulder and pointed out another blonde pretty boy in a Paul Smith suit, standing nearby, pretending to be preoccupied. ‘His name’s Rich. Guess mine.’ Grinning at her. Lola just gave him her blankest look. Soon to shade into boredom, then revulsion, then…

‘Poor!’ he said, shouting over the music. ‘My name is Josh Poor, swear to God! His name is Rich Kroft. They call us Rich and Poor, and the funny thing, he’s really Rich, really! The dough he spends parking his car every month is more than I pay in rent, girlfriend! His Dad owns a fucking helicopter! Ever seen London from the air? It looks just like Chicago!’

And Lola scanned the room and just then, Split entered, high-fiving (or low-fiving…he was twice the height of some) a receiving line of Clubland dignitaries. He was the largest man in the vicinity, and black as tar, with a grin like the grill of not the fastest car on the road but the biggest, in a canary-yellow running suit.

‘Excuse me, my fiance just arrived,’ and she left Josh Poor standing there, blinking, mouth hung open, as she crossed the room to intercept this Yellow Clad Slab of a Jet-Black Man. She put her arms around his waist and bent her head back on her neck until it just about snapped, looking up at him, and said ‘Act like my boyfriend.’ He was already sweating; the small of the back of his running suit was damp. But he smelled good, like a Tea shop. ‘Act like my boyfriend for a little while.’

He’d said, ‘Fair enough. Who’s the audience?’

‘Those two little fuckers by the bar. One’s in a suit.’

‘Oh, you mean Oasis over there? Two think they’re rock stars? They’ve had a thumb in half the pie in this room. One’s a Yank, right? Fairies.’

He pulled back and got a good look at her and whistled. ‘But why pretend, heart-breaker? Try me out. Maybe you’re ready to switch to a better brand.’ He pulled her close again and folded down to her mouth and kissed her, stretching her lips around his heavy tongue. It was purple, and throbbed with its own heart. She could feel that he was tasting her. He pulled out and wiped his mouth. ‘You a vegetarian? They call me Split. As in banana. As in at home in me closet I got ten of these identical yellow suits hung up. Wicked.’

After having been fucked by Split the second time (in a photo booth in the Picadilly Arcade), Split had told her that by his system of reckoning she was worth about 5,000 pounds an hour. He had a system by which everyone could be indexed according to their hourly value. Some were worth as little as seven pounds an hour (but everyone is worth something, a system which would do much to restore a sense of dignity and proportion in the Developing World). Only one woman in Split’s life had ever been worth more (Shoko Crane), at 6050 pounds an hour, but that was because she’d been half-Asian and half-Caribbean black and that’s just worth more. Paul McCartney, whom Split had never met, was worth 17,999 pounds per hour, by Split’s system, so there’s the scale.

He’d said, ‘Most have taken umbrage at all I’m about to tell you, girl…it gets up their nose due mostly I think to their inflated view of themselves. Right? But take it as the highest compliment…’ and here he zipped up with a little jig of adjustment as they stepped to match the speed of the down escalator, ‘that I’d put your net worth at no less than 5,000 pounds an hour. Fact.’

And now they were gliding down this dowager’s boudoir of a hallway (floramorphic Edwardian light fixtures; cupids in the wall paper and putti in the tiramisu-colored carpet) in a posh Hotel in Knightsbridge, headed for the last big porno scenario of their ‘relationship’ (three weeks; she was raw from it; she felt like she’d been in a dozen Kentucky Derbies), and it was nice that they were getting paid. 60-40. Was it ever 50-50? All men are pimps.

She’d soon have to quit attending The Ball Club, which was a shame because it was so conveniently located (saved her a fortune in cab fare), but it was rapidly filling with men she had fucked at least twice.

The good thing about Split was she wouldn’t have to give him a speech. She just had to disappear. Or worry about him killing her. Not that he hadn’t been the gentlest fuck ever. But it was different when they owned you, wasn’t it? It’s an unspoken agreement that you fully intend to violate, and they’re completely aware that you do: if they can’t have you, nobody can. Universal. A woman ignores this at her own peril.

Split liked to talk while he worked.

‘My my my,’ he said. ‘Look at that. Look at that lovely thing. Lovely. Lovely. Look at it. Smiling at me. Lovely! I think it wants some. Do you want some? Lovely little thing. Let Split give you a taste. Try that. Ah, lovely. You like? I think she likes it. Lovely! Listen, try a bit more. Yes. Yes. Lovely. Ahhh, yes. That’s the way. That’s it. Lovely…’

He was talking down to her mouth. He had a finger under her chin, elevating it to a certain angle, and she was blind-folded. He’d cuffed her to the brass of the bed, and she was kneeling beside it, topless and unshod, on the side of the bed that was furthest from the closet, the door of which was just ever so slightly ajar, the dark stripe of said aperture dotted with a Watusi-high and bloodshot eye. Blinking.

Split liked to take his time, and he also had a thing about taking his penis out of a girl’s mouth every once in a while and wiping it on her face, drawing it along one side of the jaw and then the other, that long black pipe of glistening eel leaving its track of spit and pre-cum on the angles and planes of the beauty mask, like some kind of survey, like some kind of hoary African naming rite. And talking at it, about it, the whole time, in the Sunday morning tones of the voice-over on a televised darts or snooker or golf tournament.

‘Look at that. Isn’t that lovely? Oh isn’t it. Incredible. Yes. All right…all right there, in black and white, lovely. Oh my. What a picture. Yes. National Geographic. Yes. Around the….yes. And there. Yes. Alright…open up again. That’s it. Up…up! That’s it. Lovely. Ah…’

Then Lola heard a floor board creak. And Split, languorously: ‘Ah, yes. Mate. Mate. Welcome to the party. Here…’

Split commenced pulling his penis out of her mouth; a careful extraction. He was stroking her hair calmingly (Lola was a thoroughbred, likely to bite if spooked; Lola was a bomb you wouldn’t want to cross the wires in defusing). Even after Split was out like the army, the hot black ghost of his largeness was still a weight on her tongue. Her lips were still shaped to the fit of it and humming with its vital throb of blood-fat jazz. She heard Split zip (think of how rarely you hear a zip-up from close range; Lola heard it often and knew that nothing else sounds like zipping up; nothing sounds as dismissive), then, softly, slowly, as to a child about to go on her first train trip to Granny’s alone, ‘Change of scenery time, Love. Don’t you move, now. Keep on doing what you’re doing. Right? Tip top. That’s a good egg. Do what the gentleman says, like. We aim to please. For services rendered. Satisfaction guaranteed. Lovely.’

And then, ‘Good one, Mate.’ She heard the wadded slip and shuffle of a quick-thumbed paper transaction of some density. ‘Cheers.’ And then a new body heat blotted Split’s old airspace near her cheek, an aura tinted with expensive cologne giving way to the acrid humidity, the pickle and tickle, of crotch.

Split eased himself heavily out of the hotel room and whistled ‘Strangers in the Night’ down the hall, and she soon found that another penis had berthed itself with bobbing imprecision in her mouth. Not much smaller than Split’s, in fact, a derrick angling in from the same approximate height. This guy was another skyscraper like Split. Well, this was a lot more than watching. Not that she was complaining. For this much money…

And then she knew in a sudden flash of hotly illuminating Cosmic Awareness that Split would not be splitting the honorarium for this job, 60-40 or otherwise, and that he’d probably be scarce around The Ball Club for a season or two, and how hysterically funny to realize that she’d been fucked by a man for nearly a month without ever having seen where he actually lived.

They’d always somehow ended up in borrowed flats (or in derelict cinema foyers) and she had to admit to herself that she had admired Split for treating her that way: like nothing particularly special.

Too bad it was always the men who were strong enough to leave her who always left her! Too bad it was always the men who were wise enough to resist her who always resisted her! Why did it always have to be the type who fell in love with her who…fell in love with her? She wanted for once to be wanted by a man who didn’t want her. Left by a man who would stay.

There weren’t enough in the world like Split. First Konstantin, then Split. And here she was, blindfolded, chained to a bed in a strange hotel, sucking a white (she could taste it) cock for free. Konstantin. She hadn’t let herself even think the letter ‘K’ since him. Since Konstantin.

What Lola liked about giving head was that she didn’t have to pretend to like it. It was just a mildly inconvenient favor you did if you felt like it, like writing someone a letter of recommendation. No one could accuse you of getting anything out of it. You were always owed if you sucked a cock. You didn’t have to pretend to like it, you didn’t have to pretend to be grateful, you didn’t have to pretend to be impressed. Most beautifully of all, you weren’t, for a change, expected to say anything. No one ever asked ‘Are you alright?’ or ‘how do you like it?’ or ‘what are you thinking?’ while their cock was in your mouth. And eye contact was on waiver, too. Really, the perfect sex act.

Her mind wandered pleasantly, as it sometimes could when she was lunching wood; woofing johnson…a holiday drive along that inner winding road of her mind: the tall trees, leafshadow and sunlight. The dappled woodland stream of consciousness. A majestic white swan gliding upstream. In my thoughts I have seen. Hypnotic. Daydreams. Rings of smoke through the. The alpha-waved lull of repetitive tasking; Lola on a pornographic prayer rug, davining away, om-ing her brains out on a glistening staff of life. She was thinking: what is dirt made out of? Seriously, she mused: what is it made of? She’d always just assumed…dirt is made of The Earth, isn’t it? The Earth is made of dirt. But what’s. Where does it.

This is the kind of thing that Konstantin was good at talking about. Or through, or at. Even after he’d turned bad on her, Lola had often been able to deflect his abuse by distracting him with what he liked to call a Cardinal Question. Like that time. After that one trick had paid with a counterfeit hundred! Oh Konstantin had been in a real mood to hit something that time. Already had her by the hair when she’d said…thinking fast…what makes sleep? What makes us sleep? What is it made of, sleep…how does it work? And pondering that one had stopped his raging.

The fatter he’d gotten, the more he’d raged. But she remembered how he’d been before he threw away his looks with Existential contempt: he’d been Jaweh’s most beautiful and rebellious Archangel…a retinal throb of lumens that could burn a girl all the way down through her heart. The first time ever she saw his face. The minute that man had walked in the door of the café that she was an indentured servant in (the café’s owner and her step-father were ‘business’ partners) she’d thought: I want to put him in my power. Meaning, her mouth.

She’d seen him walk into that wretched burnt-toast-perfumed and fly-speck-upholstered and sour-mopped café she was working in at the time and she felt, looking at him, beholding him, a sudden shocking uncharacteristic surge of racial pride in being European…the truth of the sexual nature of fascism slapped her…a country full of guys like that would have been the terror of Europe, she sneered to herself, growing heavily wet. Scare the shit out of us fucking krauts. Imagine a good version of Nazi, without the nasty wasteful genocide part, just, you know, the stylish bits, like, Nazism as basically the ultimate Nightclub experience. Sharp outfits and a wicked fucking door policy.

A nation of patent leather and bleached hair and cruel cheekbones. Just enough atmospheric S&M to eradicate the bane of her existence, that most wretched of American inventions: politeness. Imagine a world un-tainted by please and thankyou and most of all I’m sorry. This is a prince, she remembered thinking…how old was she? nineteen?…when first that pathetic bell dangling over the Kafé Kundera’s door in Mahzahn in East Berlin had ding-a-linged Konstantin Mirek’s entrance with comedic understatement and signaled, also, the next three or four chapters of Lola Beedo’s semi-miserable life.

Oh. Oh. Oh.

The man screwed tightly to the weighty cock she was slurrping was not old, clearly, by evidence of the nearly upright teakwood table leg the cock was capably imitating, but he was wheezing so, either asthmatic or a serious-about-killing-himself smoker, and then gasping and snorting and whispering ‘oh’ a lot, soon to catapult his tablespoon of liquid self down her throat, but it was strange. Something. It was strange like a fire alarm going off underwater…which would take you a beat to recognize this elemental noise of warning, but, even after you did, you’d still be disoriented for a fatal interval trying to figure out where all the water had come from, and how everything had gotten submerged, and, if everything was submerged, what danger could fire possibly hold for you at this point anyway, since you were about to drown?

Lola gasped through her nose and gulpingly un-swallowed the slick hard dolphining dick with violent aversion and half-stood and stumbled backwards, yanked by the handcuff that bound her to the bed, wheeling against it and banging her shin badly on the frame while a thin finger of cum grazed her cheek, and some still squirting, shooting off in all directions, scalding her hair and her arm, while the shooter laughed the toneless hiccupped spasm laugh of naughty orgasm, the sound neither giggle nor sob, Lola flaming red and spitting his spunk out.

And yelling PAHNIK, YOU FUCKER MOTHERFUCKER and trying to get the blindfold off and shouting PAHNIK. And even then she was seeing the blood again, all that blood, while Pahnik stood back and milked the pearly dregs of his pleasure down a pant leg with a fleetingly serious look on his face, all concentration now, all focus, being that the overall quality of an orgasm (and its afterglow) is determined by the handling of the resolving paroxysms. With orgasms, as with Life itself, it’s the final moments that count for everything.

33.

Pahnik was having a hot post-coital leak in the bathroom sink (old habit from water-rationing days in Blansko) and speaking over his shoulder to the girl who was handcuffed to the frame of his hotel bed.

‘I must say, it wasn’t very hard tracking you down, Sinead,’ he sing-songed, pinching the last strong cider drops from his plump and ruddy dick, that two-liquid dispenser (and that’s where nature, famously efficient, fucked up, in Miro Pahnik’s oft-mused-upon but never-voiced opinion: why not the third liquid? Why not milk?)…‘not that I expected it to be, girl with your looks. Hard to keep a face and body like that a secret, isn’t it? I’ve been in London, what. Two weeks? Not even.’

He sauntered back towards the bed, zipping.

‘I once dated a stripper in L.A.,’ he continued, with one foot on the bed, his hands bracing the small of his back, ‘Are you listening to me?’ Lola had her back to him, unspeaking, mostly naked, handcuffed to the bed frame, her legs curled under.

‘Dinah Sore; she was about fifty. That was her stage name. Dinah Sore! Old school. Did I ever tell you what I like best about Americans? The names they come up with for themselves? Poor little Dinah had been doing the pole dance on the club circuit in West Hollywood for thirty years, I met her in ’82 or so, which would mean she started dancing in the 50s. She of course augmented her hourly wage as a dancer with under-the-table jobs of the hand and mouth variety…who wouldn’t, given those circumstances? And what I liked about her…I mean, why I liked fucking her, was because it was so easy to be nice to her.’ He paused to let this sink in. Also to stare at the perfect back of Lola’s perfect head and marvel. You can always spot a woman that beautiful from behind, without ever needing to see the front to verify. Her swan-like neck.

‘She was grateful for anything. Little compliments. You have beautiful eyes, Dinah. Dinah, you have the hands of a thirty year old woman! Or holding the door open for her, helping her with her coat, or sliding the chair out for her…it made her blush with joy. Anything. Kiss her on the cheek and tell her she smells good, for example…do this after coming between her tits in the back of a checker cab. It made her so fucking happy, and it made me feel like Fred Astaire, and it was so easy. It was so easy to be nice to poor old Dinah Sore.’

Despite herself, Lola could see the saggy-breasted, henna-haired Dinah, saucer-sized nipples and a cowboy hat, twining around a pole with her shit-eating grin…just begging to be put out of her misery. Dating ever more dangerous Tricks. Hitch-hiking in slums. Pahnik had been an early attempt at picking an executioner, probably…she’d recognized the potential in him. Too thick to see it himself, Pahnik was getting the story all wrong.

‘If I’d met her twenty years earlier, of course, it would have been another story entirely. Oh Jesus. Thirty years earlier, and I couldn’t have met her at all. Time, old age, humanized her. It put her in my league…in my ballpark.’

Pahnik grunted and walked bouncingly over the bed like a gigantic 12 year old in his boots and stepped down to the floor on the other side, so Lola could face him, but she turned stubbornly away, twisting her neck to look back over the bed (at a ghost? A big fat ghost?) so Pahnik sighed and smiled. He was still relishing the sunburn tingle of what he had done to her, just now; what he’d done in her mouth. How ecstatically not nice, how atavistically impolite…and the weird paradox of the transaction, how he’d paid a large sum in order to steal something.

‘Thirty years from now, Sinead, or should I call you ‘Worries’…or just plain Lola, little Lola Beedo…Baby, you’ll be just like poor old Dinah Sore. Lola Beedo will morph into Dinah Sore. Grateful for any compliment, hungry for hungry male stares, you’re gonna find yourself…’

‘Christ!’ shouted Lola, eyes shut tight. ‘Unchain me.’ Her eyes popped open and trained their deadly pink particle beams on Pahnik, who smirked involuntarily to shield himself. She pointed a thumb at her platinum muff, which was bristling up out of a luminously pink satin panty. ‘I need to pee.’

Pahnik rubbed a forearm as though she’d bit him there, although he was smiling. It wasn’t lost on him that although he was the one who was fully clothed, nearly seven feet tall, with a pocket full of money, and still tingling with a lordly orgasm he’d stolen in her mouth…she was the one, bearing the aforementioned in mind, with the power to either crush or beatify. With a word, a smile. ‘You haven’t uttered a peep about what I just said, Sinead. That’s rude. That’s…’

‘Miro, please, either call the police and turn us both in…you as a murderer, me as your accomplice…or unchain me and let me out of this room.’

‘I can’t do either. Won’t, I mean.’

‘I’ll scream.’

‘I’ll kick you.’ He showed her the wicked toe of his boot.

If she called his bluff it would cancel the points he acquired in the orgasm, he realized. He could no more kick her than slash the Mona Lisa. That’s where Pookie had had him. That’s why Pookie would always be Her Man: he’d kicked her, punched her, fucked her in the ass. The best that Pahnik could hope to be, in her pantheon, was Curator, and he knew it. The Curator who gets to sneak the masterpiece into his study and lean it against the wall for a few hours after closing time for surreptitious gloatings, calculating his pleasures by the fey exquisites of custodial privilege…every once in a blue moon. Godammit.

Pookie would always be granted direct experience of her soul, of her vitals, and Pahnik would always be just some dick-bearing etcetera. Even though (or especially because?) Pookie was dead now, dead and buried; his head in a hatbox at the bottom of a hole in The Grunewald, his fingertipless torso last seen in the trunk of a stolen car parked in Neukoln. What else am I supposed to do? Pahnik wanted to scream at Heaven. I killed him and he’s still The King!

A one hundred and fifty kilo body holds a lot of fluid. All that blood. Blood stinks; no one tells you that. It smells like shit and ozone. Funny there aren’t black market workshops in body disposal, considering how large a potential market there is. A sloshing bathtub full of blood is something to cope with; a headless torso in three inches of its own thick cherry-black bubble bath. Pookie’s corpse had farted undignified bubbles in its own blood! The horror! The horror! Mr. Kurtz, he daid. Write a scene like that and the audience would…

‘Miro,’ sighed Lola. ‘Come on. Enough’s enough.’ She lifted the handcuffed wrist.

‘Enough’s enough.’ Mocked Pahnik.

‘Is this about sex? Is that it?’ She sighed. ‘You want to fuck me?’

Pahnik almost fainted with the…from the…from the enormity of…’Do I want to fuck you?’ His eyes bulged squintingly. ‘Do I want to fuck you?’ He kicked the bed, making Lola flinch. ‘I just did, bitch! Or hadn’t you noticed? I fucked your fucking mouth! I stuck my big cock in it and I came like fucking Secretariat, bitch! Bitch, didn’t you even notice? What are you saying?’

Yes, the next thing would be to find out that Lola could reverse the flow of time, resurrect the dead, make soggy old dollar bills crisp and new. Look! She had nullified Pahnik’s sex act (and the corresponding orgasm) with attitude alone. It had never happened, according to the look on her face. He couldn’t believe it. The awe he felt despite himself was crushing.

There’s no way out but suicide or murder, he suddenly thought. I’m trapped in the shredded cage of my own sick heart…I have to kill my way out of it. A woman like this…

A man, a man like Miro Pahnik, who had thought of himself for all those years as a success, a winner…anointed, blessed, favored by The Gods. A man like that…was nothing, a blip, mere junk and protoplasm…to a woman like Lola Baedo. The only safe way to view her was through a magazine, or on a television, or in a higher-class porno video, or even on the screen of a movie theater. She was a Medusa safely gazed upon in a mirror only…an obliterating super-field at the core of which hummed Desire’s encrusted red sphincter source. Parallel to that loony thought he was also able to think quite clearly: I’m losing it…

To make matters worse he then felt a tear-track salt his cheek…and a twin, on the other side…what could he do but cuff them, pathetically? His eyes had burst like grapes. A real nut job would have started laughing at that moment, to hide the horrific Grammar School shame of it.

Lola pretended not to notice he was crying, she was miming absurd concern with her toenails just then…she was suddenly so afraid… that her fear generated its own subset of paranoia…the fear that Pahnik could hear the awful pounding of her heart. If he detected that she was afraid, it wouldn’t be long before he correctly identified and then became what it was she was afraid of. It was the ‘non-violent’ ones…the ones who hadn’t really made a buddy of dumb rage during the course of their lives…who had no idea what to do with it when it came. They tended to over-react. Look what she’d been able to trick him into doing to Effenkuhl. And now…

Sniffing, blinking, Pahnik kneeled down towards Lola where she pretended not to notice his tears…where she was cowering, really…knowing that men were most dangerous just exactly then, when the tears arrived to announce that something was very very over. A limit had been reached and faced…a decision made…the tears came out to mark it. Middle Aged Tears were rarely a river twice-crossed. They could mean an end had finally been come to. By which I mean. A torment. A life. They could mean: do it.

One of Miro’s enormous mitts would circumnavigate Lola’s throat, fingertips touching thumb, if it squeezed hard enough; she wouldn’t even have a chance to scream before he strangled her. She’d be found the next morning by the chambermaid, another unremarkably kinky sacrifice to big city life in London, a purple-necked hooker’s corpse handcuffed to one of thousands of the metropolis’ unslept-in beds, and it bothered Lola the most to know that no one would ever guess that she’d done it for free, she hadn’t even received payment for it, she’d done it for Split. But there was some satisfaction to be had knowing that Split would find out about it; he might even cringe at the news. She would perhaps live in Split’s heart as a mild spasm of guilt, or regret, even, for a year or two after her body had become one with the Earth’s great garbage.

Lola then had a sharper-than-television vision of her step-father strangling a swan. The primal scene. The swan’s huge red feet peddling the air, the swan’s mad wings beating a sphere around itself and its killer with a blizzard of feathers, the whole scene eerily silent because little Lola was jamming her ears with her fists, her mouth open on an airless scream, as though her step-father’s coal-black hand was crushing her esophagus instead of the poor big flapping blinkless bird’s.

He’d been working on the car, that’s why his hand was so black. They’d driven up to the lake on a Sunday and there had been motor trouble; she could see the dented hood propped up…her step-father’s shiny black hand. She could not for the life of her remember the events between the car’s stalling along the road over-looking that serenely glittering, sunset-orange body of water…and the execution of the swan. She remembered only that the helplessly flapping bird had made her think of her sweet old granny Holzfuss. Was that a clue?

According to that fat old foolish fuck Doktor Effenkuhl, the strangling of the swan was a primal clue to the shape of Lola’s entire adult life. Guilt about the innocent bird’s death had driven her to sacrifice herself, time and time again, in the arms of brutish men with big hands who reminded her of her step-father? Lola was the Swan.

For example, the psychosomatic Aphonia she’d been suffering when first she came to him as a patient…her speechlessness was that of the swan with her step-father’s hand on its neck. But then, how seriously could you take the professional opinion of a man who had started trying to fuck her less than a week after their first session together? Lola had a joke for that: psychotherapist = psycho the rapist. She’d never bothered to mention…because she just knew he’d make too much of this…how much Effenkuhl resembled her step-father.

‘Du bist mein Dietrich,’ he would gasp over her, with his brown breath. Making her want to puke. She would just lay there, rolling her eyes while he settled his therapeutic weight on her, dredging away in her, scraping the walls of her pussy with his chalky red fossilized digger…the sensation that he was laying a sticky string of eggs under her skin (inspiring a nightmare about thousands of greasy black grasshoppers). She would never forget his smell…the sour old skin and tobacco lungs and teeth. And the babbling…pouring his long brown breaths of rancid philosophical catshit on her, justifying the fucking as part of some kind of…what. Transcendental? Cure.

Well, he had, in a way, cured her…but not with the method he would have preferred, probably. A radical new methodology! The irony would not have been lost on him. The elegant patient-kills-her-doctor cure. Really, all of her symptoms…the nightmares, the episodes of paralysis…cleared up when Effenkuhl’s wet head blumped the floor. It bounced. Pahnik vomited.

Effenkuhl’s naked headless body stood straight up, as though a Duchess had entered the room, before falling to its knees. They kicked it over and rolled it onto a tarp and hurried it like grunting ER orderlies into the bathroom. Motherfucker had had the nerve to invoke Hegel while working two fingers up her corn hole. The Analist. What is it with men and rectums? Another month and he would have been trying a fist in there…why merely fuck a woman when you could coax her into letting you rip her insides out, right? Fucking was just a foot in the door. So to speak.

Lola had let Effenkuhl do things to her. How his liver-spotted hands had trembled the first time he tugged her panties off of her! And then that repulsive gesture of kissing his bunched fingers like a gourmet praising a meal, gazing upon her pussy. She’d let him do things to her twice a week for two months, long enough to justify what she ended up doing to him. Konstantin had been the mastermind but Lola had been the spark. Konstantin had worked out the plan, the craziest, most complicated scheme in the history of pointless murders…but Lola had been the plan’s inspiration. The Muse.

Ah, but wait. This micro-second of reflection was over. Pahnik’s hand was on her throat, positioning her. What was he babbling?

34.

‘You haven’t heard a word I’ve been saying,’ sighed Mrs Fortney, with mock grief. Every thing she did was mock something. Her life was bracketed by ironic inverted commas. Still, she was doing something right. She had power and money and only seemed to fuck when it suited her, which didn’t appear to be often. And certainly not with her husband, whose sole apparent function (providing Roderick) had been so long-ago accomplished that it was puzzling that he could still be found, hanging around the flat.

There had been a time…in the beginning, nearly a year before…when Lola had toyed with the idea of wanting to be Mrs. Fortney, to end up like her. To that end, Lola had studied her, but had come to the conclusion, soon enough, that Mrs. Fortney had always been Mrs. Fortney, and Lola had and would always be Lola…they were two separate archetypes, she realized, and one could not become, or develop from, the other. Lola was a wolf, and Mrs. Fortney was a heron. In the middle of one of Mrs. Fortney’s carefully sculpted sentences, Lola suddenly looked up from her tepid tea and said, ‘A man tried to kill me last night.’

Mrs Fortney put a hand to her throat. Mock terror.

‘I mean…I don’t mean he tried and failed. I mean he thought about it and came close to doing it, but he lost his nerve at the last minute.’ Lola finally brought the tea cup to her lips. ‘He had his hand on my throat. I’m only here…’

‘Oh God,’ said Mrs. Fortney. ‘I knew it. One of those jungle bunnies they export in abundance to The Ball Club.’

Lola sipped. “No,’ she smirked. ‘He’s whiter than you. Whiter than Roderick.’

Roderick whimpered: the monster had spoken his name.

’Someone you knew?’

Lola gave Mrs. Fortney a certain look.

‘Ah,’ nodded Mrs. Fortney. ‘An Ex.’

Lola frowned.

‘A pseudo Ex,…a man you’ve known for a while but have never slept with, despite his fondest wishes.’

Lola bit a lip.

‘And by whom you were fucked for the first time last night…’

Lola took another wide-eyed swallow of tea. Feeling no need to clarify.

‘…under less than ideal circumstances. Does he know where you live? Where you’re staying?’ Before Lola could think about that one, Mrs Fortney stood up, lifting Roderick like a sack over her shoulders, and said, ‘Probably. We’ll have to talk about that.’ She headed for the hallway. ‘It’s time for Roddy’s afternoon nap…wait here for me, darling. Won’t be a moment.’

A baby is the mouth-piece of a family. If you want to know about a family, ask the baby. Because a baby cannot talk, it also cannot lie. The baby is a pure little indicator, a strip of emotional litmus paper, the meter on a family’s health, wealth, happiness, and potential. What had Roderick, as a baby, said about The Fortneys?

Sometimes, it took hours to put batty Roddy to bed. Mrs. Fortney had the power and concomitant leisure to lavish on her queer albino offspring the ultimate luxury, that of time. Like the rich farmer who can afford to have all the windows open and all the heaters in the farm house on in the dead of winter, she could let the meters…the things we call clocks…run and run. Lola sat in the drawing room with the cup and saucer in her lap for forty minutes, in no particular rush to get on to the next thing, whatever it might be, especially not in her current state, but still. After forty minutes, the wallpaper (hand-made by Milanese artisans, the endless motif of silver snowflake on deep blue backing was hand-painted, no two snow flakes were painted alike) lost its ability to amuse her.

The long hall connecting all the second level rooms, chez Fortney, was a study in Mrs. Fortney…dozens of framed pictures of her, from wallet to museum sized…from girlhood to girlhood’s apotheosis. There was Mrs. Fortney at 14, even more titless than now, in her danskin, scissoring herself on the barre. To the left : a little older, in a Beefeater’s blazer and jodhpurs and one of those silly hats, sailing over a five bar gate on a Cadillac-sized horse. Next: Uni-age, with a boyish hair cut and a mannish frown, leaning on the fender of a Porsche. Then a life-sized black-and-white studio portrait, the creamy over-heated noir of a Hurrell, featuring a string of pearls and a hard set to her mouth, looking all too late-30s, above a framed magazine photo of Mrs. Fortney being handed a weapon-shaped ceremonial something by a house-coated Margaret Thatcher herself. Adjacent to a red-haired, freckled, pig-tailed Mrs. Fortney, two front teeth mithing, head cocked, milk-ad smile. And so on. Lola could hear Mrs. Fortney commenting on all of it in a mordant drawl in Lola’s head: ‘I’m nothing but a type, you see. A cat-a-gory.’

Through an empty room, and another, she found Roderick’s. Mrs. Fortney was on a leather couch beside his baronial crib, cradling him, who was half in his pyjamas, naked leg danging off of the couch, to her unbuttoned frilly blouse. He was sucking in his sleep, purposefully, on one of her hard little tits. Mrs. Fortney acknowledged Lola with a distant smile, as if engrossed in a complicated passage of her favorite piece by Beethoven. Lola became Fortney for a moment and put a finger on her own lips to shush herself, crossing the room. She knelt at the creche of the couch and stroked so lightly Roderick’s white dandelion hair while moving in closer between Fortney’s leather-panted legs with lips parted in unthinking anticipation. But something stopped her. This was a bit much even for Lola…

“Shouldn’t we…I mean…shouldn’t he…”

“Why?” said Fortney. “It’s perfectly natural.”

The sweet surprise of milk. Roderick twitching awake. That immemorial hack, London rain, typing diligently on the stain-glassed window of Roderick’s empty play room.

35.

Dusty Springfield was belting a torch-lighting weepy of a hurt-me-but-don’t-desert-me ballad to Lola as the clouds parted. Lola was nodding off. The clouds parted to reveal the indigo engraving that was the acid-etched sky under the cloud canopy over El Ay. Luxopolis. The lights of the city were sickly, they were brilliant, they were blinking and sizzling like a short-circuit, they were hula-dancing from smoke-stacks like the stacks were zippo lighters, it was all a warped grid of giga-watts and black-outs that rolled over the black horizon, dripping light into space from the sharp edge of the flat earth. Here it was, the Anglo-Latin capitol of America’s giddy fucked-up future…the cock fights and lo-fat and optical processors…the sleek suits and face transplants and world-conquering leisure time activities. The majority of minorities. America itself was a majority of minorities. The jet was banking, stretching and yawning after the long snooze of trans-continental flight, and the sun was a wedge of dirty fruit floating in the Pacific drink. The Pacific drink was sloshing with its shocking ingredients, its goodies, its kingdom of dumped evidence.

Dusty lifted the melody to a pleading fourth…G to C… in the middle eight, and a gospel choir kicked in to testify on her behalf before the pilot, Captain Richard B. Sievers, cut in suavely to announce the time and temperature and estimated moment of touch-down, along with his super-sincere hope that Lola’s flight had been so pleasant that she would consider doing it again, and real soon, y’all, y’hear? If there’d been a Talk Back button, Lola would have slammed it and said something about shutting the fuck up. But no, she remembered…no…take a deep breath. Count to ten. She pulled off her head phones and reached for the Customs Form a stewardess was handing her. She glanced at it and wanted to sleep again.

The glass of the port-hole was cool on her cheek. Then her forehead.

Fifteen hours before, on the tube to Heathrow International Airport, Lola had seen something of importance. Epiphany. With impeccable timing, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, entering the tube with a dozen other dour commuters, a middle aged woman, average height, a little wide, dressed like a clown. Totally done up as a clown, with the grease paint and red afro (crushed under a petunia-sprouting homburg); the cherry-tomato nose, the loony attire. Sat herself down on one of the long seats at the front of the wagon, scowling. Scowling like every other European on the tube, of course…that classical Beethoven scowl…that miserable fucking life-is-a-chore, don’t fuck with me facial expression…only here she was, in total clown regalia, scowling along with all of the others, down-turned mouth, without a trace of irony. Perfect. Goodbye to all that.

She was headed for the Land of Smiles.

There are two countries called The U.S.A., two nations in a state of dynamic superimposition, and the capitol of the one U.S.A. is L.A., and the capitol of the other U.S.A. is Manhattan, and trans-Atlantic refugees tend to have either one or the other in mind, depending on whether they are dreaming of Pleasure, or Romance, ultimately. Pleasure embodies within it also the selfish ideals of Power and Freedom, whereas Romance entails the worthless (in Lola’s felt but un-reasoned opinion) subsets of High Culture and Courtly Love. Refugees who miss both capitols and end up somewhere else in America (like Miami, the lo-tech L.A., or Chicago, the overweight Christian Manhattan) aren’t clear in themselves about the destiny they seek. Lola, whose will to live was distilled to a freakish intensity…for that of a Nihilist…was clear.

Her forehead pressed to cool glass under which El Lay seemed to be pinwheeling slowly on the axis of the tip of her nose, Lola saw her pale gold reflection stretched out over the sparkle and darkle of the megapolis…her face was a sky-sized mask of God. All those people down there, imperfect, broken, small, pathetic…clamoring. And Lola unblinking, gazing out over it, with the savage strength and ignorance of her young-ish thoughts, her Ayn Rand-ish thoughts and feelings, just smart enough to feel brilliant, not quite smart enough to wisely feel limited, incomplete, cautious in the claims she might make for herself…in separating herself…from all those inferior souls.

‘Do you have family down there?’

Lola looked and frowned.

‘In Los Angeles. Family. Do you have it? Is family a factor, or are you just doing the tourist thing? Sprekkin-zee English? Parlay Voo?’

It was Thing. Thing was talking to her.

For eleven hours, from Heathrow til now, the deeply tanned Asian male sitting in the seat next to the empty one next to her, the voodoo-doll guy with the tiny body and the big head, his hair like a Beatle Wig, wearing Roy-Orbison-styled sunglasses and a charcoal-colored three piece suit, hadn’t said a word to her. The three words he’d spoken at all, ‘Chicken’ and ‘No, thanks,’ had been adressed unlookingly to stewardesses.

He’d spent the whole trip hunched over a Gameboy thingy, or something beepingly similar, his thumbs dancing on it, its weird blue and violet christmas lights reflected in the ant-black mirrors of his shades. Lola had promptly classified him as Thing and forgotten about him. And now he was talking to her. Confusingly, his deep deep voice was coming out of a little girl’s mouth.

‘Hey,’ he purred, ‘Don’t worry. I’m definitely not hitting on you.’ Chuckling. ‘Anti-depressants. The little man is not a factor.’

He offered a little girl’s hand to her. His pinky was the size, appoximate color, and shape of a baby carrot (stewed). ‘Harry Chew.’

‘You’re not Chinese, ‘ scolded Lola.

‘Hey, I’m impressed! Good eye. And you’re not American. Americans can’t tell the difference between one kind of Asian and another. Americans think Bruce Lee did karate. The only Americans who can tell the difference between The Reverend Sun Yung Moon, and The Dalai Lama, are the ones who like sushi, and even they think Kuala Lampor is a cocktail.’ He spent a few seconds smiling at this.

‘Okay, my parents are Hmong. The have a restaurant in Orange County called Hmong Friends. It’s a great story. I was suffering from Racial Dysmorphia.’ He shook his head with amazed self-sympathy, a key American emotion. ‘See, I always felt like a Chinese trapped in the body of a Hmong, I don’t know why, it’s genetics. I changed my name, legally. It was like a flash bulb went off in my head, man! Name was definitely a factor…I never say my old name now…I’m living the dream, I’m prospering. Hey, my parents won’t speak to me, but I feel great. Or maybe I feel great because they won’t speak to me, huh? The anti-depressants don’t hurt, either.’ He covered his mouth, miming laughter.

‘Are you going to tell me your name or something, or do I have to keep babbling like this, like some kind of idiot? Not that I mind. Babbling. Hey, my babble makes more sense than most Harvard commencement addresses, if you ask me…but that’s just my opinion.’

After Lola said ‘Lola,’ Thing waved his thing, the little black tablet with silver buttons and a screen, in her face, saying, ‘Check it out.’

There, on the screen, was Thing, Harry, a Harry Chew video game character, Beatle Wig hair and Roy Orbison sunglasses and a three-piece charcoal-gray suit and everything, but two inches tall. In the background on the screen was a Post Apocalyptic urban filmscape not unlike the El Lay of Lola’s dreams, which was the one they were just then landing on.

36.

Thing had a pretty little face on that big head of his; you could see that when he took his sunglasses off. Impossible to guess his age, except to notice that his tar-black pudding bowl hair was probably a dye job, lacking a certain degree of lustre, hiding some possible gray. What would it be like to let a panting doll like this crawl on you? With his little girl hands and his cat-sized tongue? With his lipstick dick? Maybe not so bad. Anyway, Thing was perfectly sexless, and, therefore, no one for Lola to be worried about. Anti-depressants…the little man is not a factor. Good, because she needed a place to stay, at first, and why dip into the £27,000 she’d blackmailed from the Fortneys if dipping into it wasn’t absolutely necessary?

In Thing’s fancy car, it was like flying, all over again. Lola was already nostalgic for the days of standing still. Standing still, she grasped, was not going to be a common feature of her new life. Her new life was going to be all about movement or sleep, and she could imagine that there was going to be plenty of sleeping in cars and planes, too…movement plus sleep.

Whether they were really driving to Thing’s citrus-treed villa or not, the villa was obviously not where Thing lived. Maybe the villa was where Thing rested, but it was obvious that he lived in his vehicle, despite its fastidious upkeep. There were clues. Two or three sunflower seed shells on the carpet, for example. A lidless bottle of aspirin rolling around between her boot heels. Magazines in the door pouch and a pile of neatly folded clothing on the back seat. Lola didn’t know the half of it: there was a microwave oven in the glove compartment, too. Sometime during the course of the creative tension between freak mutation and Natural Selection, Kalifornium Erectus had adapted to his environment by evolving wheels. Homo Gyro.

But here they were again, flying.

The air conditioning had the stale hum of cabin air, and the road felt like it was 30,000 feet under them, with the occasional smoothed-over pot hole jolt no worse than the mild turbulence of skipping over a low pressure dent in the sky. This was not a car; it was a mothership. The street lights were a string of harsh moons against the outline of what looked like mountains in the great distance, but which were in reality flat clouds of pollution, back-lit by the low-watt stars. Thing had said he lived on a mountain. Lola mistook the jagged scrim of pollution on the horizon for the mountain Thing lived on: it looked like it was ten miles high.

They were sharing the road with trucks, mostly…horizontalized skyscrapers roaring on a town’s worth of wheels and lit like landing strips. Every trucker they sailed by, on Lola’s side, frowned down a tattooed bicep at her with the seriousness of a potential buyer. They were all either Stetsoned or ballcapped and every tenth was a woman. Or possibly the same woman, mischievously exploiting the interstate time warps that allow a driver to over-take, repeatedly, the same vehicle. With her poodle perm. With her chivalrous cap-doffing.

‘You know how they say the best way to get rich is to combine your job with your passion?’ Harry waved vaguely with his right hand, but it wasn’t a communicative gesture; it was a command. The car radio went on. ‘It’s only really true if your passion is making money.’ The Beach Boys were singing. Then The Byrds. What year was it, anyway? ‘See, even the slightest aversion to money-making will hold you back. If you’re not thinking about the stuff 24/7…right? If you don’t literally see dollar bills in your green salad, or feel a little tug whenever you walk by a fountain with a bunch of coins at the bottom of it…forget it; success is not for you.’

Lola was a little disappointed that she hadn’t arranged for a flight that would land her in California in daylight, in the middle of the molten belly of the mythic sun. Looking out over the sometimes low wall of the freeway that night, at the liquor store neighborhoods doing their best to hide their scuttling thoughts from the police helicopters that came and went overhead with the blasé regularity of taxis, she got the feeling of a kind of pre-show excitement, like it would feel in an empty auditorium in the early afternoon of the day of a Bruce Springsteen gig. The So Cal Sun would be taking the stage in less than five hours, for one of its legendary fourteen hour sets. Some die-hard fans were even camped outside in anticipation, curled up on bus stop benches, or in wide-screen television packing crates, sweating with unconscious excitement in the dog-mouth night.

‘Think about it,’ Harry looked directly at Lola, ‘Every interaction between living things on this planet is a transaction of some kind. Money, it just intangibilizes the degree of force involved, wouldn’t you say? And every transaction, in my philosophy, could be considered either a, let’s see. Pure, mediated, or, a, yeah. Conflicted…transaction.’

‘Say you’re hungry. Some guy with a hot dog stand wants a buck for a dog. He gets the buck he wanted, you get the dog you wanted, that’s a pure transaction. Okay, but say you want to be the prettiest girl at the ball. Bear with me…I know, I know…you are most definitely already the prettiest girl at the ball, no question. But for the sake of argument, you’re not. But you want to be. So, say you buy the same brand and color of lipstick you saw Cheryl Tiegs wearing…ooops. Showing my age. I mean…the same brand and color of lipstick you saw Gisele Bundchen wearing in Vogue. You buy it to look like her. Whether or not you end up eventually looking a little like her, that’s irrelevant, it’s still a mediated transaction. You’re not buying the thing itself, you’re buying a path to the thing. You’re putting a down payment on the possibility of having the thing you want. Not always a satisfying type of transaction…nothing is as satisfying as a pure transaction. But a mediated transaction is still not as bad as the third type of transaction. I can tell this is all deeply fascinating to you.’

A sudden break in the monologue. There was the breathy fizz of the air-conditioning and the jingle jangle of The Byrds shading into The Troggs on the radio and…some sniffing for a moment while Harry paused to sniff, pinching and wiping at his thumbnail-sized nose.

Harry was a Filibusterer, conversationally, but that was okay. Lola didn’t mind Harry’s exhaustive monologs, because A) she only understood every third word of them. And B) his deep deep voice was so relaxing…listening to it was like being a marshmallow afloat in the hot cocoa of his sound, or, no, like being a baby luxuriating in a velvet-black body-temperature poultice of figgy shit. That’s how good Harry’s larynx was. Even Harry was in love with it.

‘So. There’s this third kind of transaction, the least satisfying for all parties involved, the type of transaction most likely to end in disappointment, litigation, anger, violence, whatever. Which I call the Conflicted Transaction. The best every day example of a conflicted transaction I can think of? This’ll hardly shock you. Just think about it.’ He looked at her again, eyebrows up. A black word escaped his clinched teeth. ‘Sex.’

Sex? Lola knew that syllable. She stopped being relaxed and started paying attention. The stranger driving the car she was trapped in, on a freeway driving towards who knows where, really, had just said sex. Were there power tools in the trunk? Something heavy under his car seat to smack her with? Two rolls of duct tape and a postal sack with which to dispose…?

‘Jesus,’ he said. ‘Even I picked up on that.’

‘On what?’ Said Lola, surreptitiously feeling for the door handle. Then she started removing a black vinyl boot. It was thigh-high and massively wooden-heeled and she had to unzip it. ‘You picked up on what?’

‘How tensed you got when I just said the word sex. Look! You did it again! You tensed up…’

‘Ach, nein, it’s not…’

The smell of Lola’s warm sock, a smell like kittens, flooded the car.

‘No, but, listen…that just proves my point. You know? Conflicted transactions? It’s the very point I was making.’

Lola smiled, pretending to consider Thing’s theory while massaging a foot with her left hand, clutching a boot like a hammer in the right, thinking: if he reaches for you, smash his gott verdammt head in with this heel.

37.

On the way up to Harry’s palace in the mountains, they stopped at a roadside liquor store on the outskirts of a desolate town called Julian. To the right of the road was a widely spaced strip of video nooks, liquor stores, fast-food castles…all lit up like an open fridge in a dark kitchen after midnight. And on the left, away from the road shoulder, was scrub. Here and there, far out in the scrub, was an unlit billboard, or a ghostly shack or trailer. Plus millions and billions of unseen intelligences, of course, from e-coli to coyote in size, but they were not participants, they were outside the drama; they’d be surprised to get even this mention, since Life is voraciously inclusive and Art is the opposite. Emetically exclusive.

Climbing out of his matte-black mother ship, easing up from the busy cabin air of the mothership in order to be wrapped in the humid blanket of the night, Lola felt that she was finally setting foot on the North American continent; finally felt that she had landed. She stretched and yawned. It was too warm for even a light jacket at almost two in the morning, and the parking lot to the side of The Valley Spirit Depot had five evenly distributed neon-reflecting cars of radically varying value placed on it.

After the roar of Thing’s air-conditioner, the semi-circle of reddened light they walked across seemed resoundingly silent, an area of eerie absence, the effect exacerbated by the tense munch of gravel underfoot, and a cricket’s pining for his long-lost love from somewhere in the purple distance. One reason Americans shoot so much, she concluded…to fill up scary silences like these. How many American movies had she seen as a girl that contained the line I don’t like it…it’s almost too quiet.

I’m here, thought Lola. Here. Lola is here in America.

It was only when they entered The Valley Spirit Depot through an iron-barred side entrance five seconds later…that Lola adjusted her thoughts and the scale of her perceptions to think, after the shock wore off: okay, now I’m here. Now I’m. I’m in…

Jesus Fucking Christ. The dimension of the store was mood-altering. Outside had felt smaller than this. They could have driven up and down these aisles in the mothership, making u-turns where necessary, plenty of room for two-way traffic. Drive-through shopping. This was the first time Lola had ever been in a commercial structure that featured a visible vanishing point…the bottle-mad aisles were a study in Renaissance perspective. If this is what the small town road-side liquor stores look like here, what the fuck is a super-market? What the fuck is a mall?

For the first time since early adolescence, Lola smiled. She was seized with the giddy impulse to scream; do a cartwheel, smash something, but the sheer bigness of the New World didn’t horrify her…it didn’t vex or dwarf her…she felt, rather, her soul expand to fill the available volume, and like a rapidly expanding gas would, it cooled off…just a little. The change registered as a liquid click in her heart. Her smile stretched to its limit and twitched…the muscles involved were rusty. It hurt. It hurt a little to smile. She’d have to try again in a day or two.

‘Do some late night shopping,’ said Harry, rubbing an eye and walking away from her. ‘Want something?’

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