Dastardly by Lorraine Ray

Rodney hugs his beer bottle against his chest. This is his usual drinking posture. You get to know how people like to sit and drink when you sit and drink with them as much as Rod and I have over the years. Rodney likes his beer bottle tucked close to his ribs. It’s as if he thinks somebody’s gonna snatch it away and he has to protect it. Not me; I mean I’m not gonna snatch his beer, because I’ve got my salty sea, my margarita. Number two, or make that three. Okay, I admit it; I’ve lost track. I’m nervous. Tonight I’m planning to tell Rod something hella important.
Dastardly
Dastardly by Lorraine Ray
I’m observing Rod’s drinking habits while a blue streetcar goes screeching by. Outside on Fourth Avenue. A writer can observe several things simultaneously and note them even when he has something important to say and there’s horrible noise around him. For example, NBA highlights blast from a TV mounted in one high corner, and Doris Day and Rock Hudson yuk-it-up on the other TV in another corner. They’re in some obnoxious 50s fable. Do I think they have enough TVs in this damn bar? Yep, hella TVs. Then something of interest, but not the way it used to be. Someone female and super sexy walks in the door sans a gentleman at her side. Black jacket over a pink strapless dress. Woohoo. And Rod listens, halfheartedly, to the end of my latest terror tale. Yes, he’s seen the same female. This is probably a really bad time for what I’m planning in a minute. “Pow! Count Olaf cackles like a fiend and throws off his Santa Claus disguise, soaring into the sky, and this is where things get really exciting, and he does his best damn vampire loop-de-loop up there in the stars.” I say all this while shooting my arm out dramatically and swooping it toward Rod. Got to get his mind back on my story. People seated across from us at the horseshoe-shaped bar on a Friday night in January let their eyes linger on me longer than anyone would consider courteous. I wave at them. “The count’s black cape flutters in the desert wind,” I continue. My freckled hand twitches and quivers as Rod frowns at it. Jeez, my hand really is freckled. “Below him, the corpses of soldiers sprawl across the parade ground. The corpses of these soldier dudes are littered all over the place just like it’s infested with corpses, you know? A guy that’s dead hangs on a cannon. Blech. One is all crumpled up at the base of a ladder. Ugh. Here and there, there and here. The total number of dead are practically numberless in number…” I finish these last words and close my eyes. My arm still hovers in the air and the other hand fumbles about on the bar until it’s able to convey my sloshy lime green margarita to my lips. I drink copiously. Lovely stuff. “Vig,” Rodney sighs, “what you’ve got there is another damn vampire story.” Rodney likes to dis me. He seems to think that’s his purpose in life. I’m not really sure why I put up with it. “I thought you were done sticking vampires in every story. It’s becoming a cliché with you!” “Nope. I’m not done with vampires. I have barely begun to write vampires!” I open my eyes and say this, imitating John Paul Jones. My hand rests for a moment on the knee of my black jeans and then I gesture toward a napkin dispenser and some empty glasses. “Imagine a blood-drained body here, another body there. Lots of drained people draped around the fort. I need a word—” Rodney rolls his eyes. He teaches English and he’s not very patient with my inadequate vocabulary. “Slaughter. That’s the word you want. Like general mayhem and crap.” Rod tweaks his barstool so he faces me, and the cute girl, I might add, not that I’m offended. She’s somewhere over my shoulder. About five guys swarming her. “Yep. That’s useful. Thanks. ‘Everywhere slaughter…um?’” Rod sighs. “Reigned? Showed its ugly face?” “What? How would slaughter have a face, Rod? Ah, no. I’ll think of something later.” “Well,” says Rod, “make it a boffo ending.” Rod puts the beer bottle to his lips and tilts it to the ceiling. “Thank you. I shall, douchey.” “Get right on it. Write it right away.” Rod barks. Besides chastising me, Rod likes to order me around. “I shall.” I hate it when he starts ordering me around about writing though! This shuts me down. I don’t even want to tell him now what I was planning on telling him. It’s a disastrous idea! Tell Rod? What was I thinking? He’s not the right person to tell. The hands on a neon clock grind out the last minutes until midnight. When am I going to say it? I know I want to say it. I came out tonight to say it! Balls at the pool table clack and the vintage Doris Day movie ends with her singing in a pink negligee. Smokers flee the bar for the confines of an outdoor patio. No doubt they are sharing a few snide remarks about us, the two weird, inked patrons, who are not Empress Bar regulars and who remain on our stools, engrossed in our conversation. The blonde dude, me, somebody probably says, told a ridiculous tale about a vampire dressed as Santa battling soldiers at a western fort on Christmas Eve. I’m happy these patrons leave. It’s a prime moment when I sense an opening and turn toward Rod. I’m gonna struggle with admitting what’s been on his mind all night. “Sorry you didn’t like that story. Um, well, there’s something new I wanted to tell you anyway. Something besides a story.” “Good. No more vampires please.” “Yeah. So there’s this new thing, um, which I wanted to tell you about. It’s something new for me cuz I never thought it would happen. You might be the person who can advise me…I don’t know how to say it. Prepare for a shock.” The minute I finish speaking I regret it. What I’m planning to say would probably be better left inside my head, or maybe I should say left inside my heart, but anyway it should probably remain my own business. I don’t have the right kind of relationship with Rod, or anyone for that matter, to discuss such a thing, and what does it mean to know I don’t have the right kind of relationship with anyone for this? Clearly it means I’m a fucking failure; at least in the Interpersonal Relationship Department, Floor 3B, Room 9. I know I don’t have the kind of friendship in which I can openly blab about love with Rod. So what am I doing? “Go ahead, bro,” says Rod. “I’m listening.” Rodney’s puffy face, which resembles a perturbed otter, turns to me and he tries putting his hands in the pockets of his bright orange Chubbie shorts. When they wouldn’t fit, he brings them back to the bar and adjusts the cocktail napkin. He senses I’m going to say something hella weird, and he’s right. “Hit me with it.” “Oh, crap. I don’t know… it’s pretty damn…I don’t know…horrible or something. Blech.” I shiver and the creepy clown head on the front of my T-shirt winks and grimaces. Okay, I’m overplaying it, but it’s partially true that what I’m feeling is revulsion, but I don’t know why. The other part, strangely enough, has to be fascination. Or anticipation. Or rapture. What’s gonna be his take on this business? What will Rodney think? “Have you murdered someone?” “No. Um, okay. Here goes. Marsha, Marsha happens to be crushing on me. Uh, she loves me.” It makes me feel so fucking strange to hear those words coming out of my mouth! Have I said them before about other women? Sure, I guess. The minute I say them I want to take them back, but at the same time it sounds marvelous to hear them aloud. And I guess I have told people that a person loved me, but if I have, I can’t remember a fucking thing about it. It’s a strange thing to do, but being drunk is making it easier. Rodney draws back from me and raises his bushy brows in horror. “Whaaaat? Marsha? Loves who? Are you delusional again? Did you get some peyote from that girl with the greenhouse job?” That peyote crap once more! He’s obsessed with this greenhouse girl I once hooked up with. I sweep a section of my long blonde hair behind one ear. Tonight I’m sporting skull rings and hunks of turquoise on my fingers. The turquoise rings are a new thing. Rather fun. I direct my gray eyes at my friend. Rod has mentioned this girl from the greenhouse who was into drugs so many times I’m fed up with it. The truth is Rodney’s always trying to horn in on my girlfriends! “I wish you’d drop the fascination with the girl from the greenhouse. And I don’t plan to give you her number, by the way. And if I told you that she asked me to do anything indecent with a plant, I regret it, and it was a dirty lie. No such thing happened. What I said was ‘I think Marsha loves me.’ She just happens to practically love me. Practically. I know it’s astonishing, but she’s gone mad. For little old me. She’s obsessed with me. And I thought you’d say I was crazy.” I finish my margarita quickly after I offer this for his consideration. The more times I mention Marsha loving me, the better I feel. “Yeah, well, you thought right. You’re crazy. She doesn’t love you.” Rod looks down from the barstool at his deck shoes without socks. He’s paddling them in the air like an idiot. “I’m not surprised if you’re going crazy and if you’re fixated on Marsha. She’s been looking hot recently to me, too.” This news! Stunning me—and horrifying me. I now wish I was dead. I wish I hadn’t mentioned anything about Marsha. These are not facts I care to hear. When had Rodney noticed Marsha and why is he claiming the love attraction is flowing from me to her? “Okay, uh, let me tell you the whole thing happens to be fucking awkward for me. And I thought why not toss it about, bounce it off the wall, with my oldest friend. I should have known you’d be a douche about it. I’m not asking for your opinion of Marsha. I’m telling you she’s in love with me, not the other way around, and for what it’s worth I’ve got to be a gentleman and stop this madness, and I don’t know how to nip it in the bud. She’s got to stop caring for someone like me; I’d be terrible for her!” “And I don’t know how to tell you this—” Rod begins. “Yeah?” “—except to come right out with the fucking truth. You, sir, are correct. You are the most fucking obnoxious tool I’ve ever known. Everybody knows it for a fact. Jeez. And you lie. And you’re not good-looking. If Marsha humors you at all, it’s because you’ve got one good quality which is you’re a reliable babysitter for Bailey. She appreciates you for being a good, reliable babysitter. That’s it. There isn’t anything else. Everybody knows you’re a tool. Marsha especially.” A crowd reappears at the other side of the horseshoe bar. They shout and laugh at some dude’s late show. I can’t even recognize the host. I pull myself up on my barstool. “Everybody knows no such thing as my being an obnoxious tool who’s unattractive to women. I play regularly with many Little Miss Hotnesses. Witness that delectable young female who was drooling over me only a half hour ago. I know you were jealous.” I smirk, hopefully triumphantly, but that is very hard to manage when you’ve had three margaritas. Women do approach me more than Rod. That’s why Rod is giving me a hard time and trying to horn in on my girlfriends. Rodney snorts. “Well, the Little Miss Hotness you are referring to who just came by to talk to you, looked about fifty-two and had varicose veins. On her arms.” “Oh.” “Arms which also happened to have a lot of needle tracks and scabs dotting the veins.” Rodney says this while gesturing on his own arm and with his eyebrows rising with further disbelief that I didn’t notice anything about the woman. “She was hideous. That, my friend, is putting it kindly. I think she’s a regular here, so we might not be able to come back for a while now that she wants you so badly.” “You thought she wanted me. She seemed to like you better. And besides, obnoxious, my old dummy, is the personality trait which happens to be the most sought after personality by persons of the female persuasion. Speaking of personalities. Which I was.” “Ho ho!” “Speaking of personalities.” A vague unease alerts me to the fact that I might be repeating myself. I’m gonna have to go home soon; the bar bill is rising too quickly. This place is not as cheap as Rodney advertised and I’m slurring my words. It’s definitely time to leave and something about that bothers me. Did I ask to go home with Rodney? Did I come to Rodney’s house and walk to this damn expensive bar where I spilled my heart (I mean Marsha’s heart) and was humiliated? Yes, on reflection, I realize I had. “Pah! Women like obnoxious men? That’s your idea?” Rod dismisses my theory and finishes his beer. He signs to the bartender for another round for both of us. I think about cutting off this last drink, but then I give in to temptation. “Well, you may go ‘pah’ all you like, but let me tell you confidentially as a man of the world, women, women, also are so into these ear gauges and my little dragons,” I say, touching one of the fancy wooden dragons dangling from the hole of my ear gauge. I can feel the dragon begin waggling as though it’s a rocking horse. “Unbelievable,” says Rodney, raising his eyebrows. “Dragons, man. The tassels can’t get enough of em. You know? They like em and therefore they like me. It’s all those dumb fantasy books they read as kids.” “What the—” “And thrones and games and crap. That stuff, too. Dragons are like a key, a key to a woman’s bedroom and her heart, you know? You have to pretend to love dragons. Is that margarita mine?” I ask a passing waitress. “No,” she says, turning sharply away when I lunge at her drinks tray. Not a smart move. I could have upset all those drinks and been forced to pay for them. What am I doing? “Who thinks crap like that? Dragons in your ear gauges attract women who read fantasy?” Rod asks. “I mean besides a crazy fucker like you. I don’t even want to listen to you, but what’s making you think Marsha loves you? You’ve known each other for years. People don’t just suddenly reconsider each other like that.” “Ah! Now you want to know! What makes me think Marsha has developed a soft spot for me, you ask so inquisitively that it is fucking driving me crazy so shut up already and I’ll give you the answer?” “Yeah.” “Very well. I knew you’d be interested eventually. I’ve been working it out all afternoon. I shall deliver the goods.” I feel happy to discuss the signs of love I’ve detected. These things have been bothering me and I want to get them off my chest, even with someone who is as big a douche as Rod. “Okay. Proceed, dumbass.” “The answer, my friend, happens to be subtle. Subtle. For many moons she’s been giving me things. Lots of things. Buying me drinks, for example.” I smile smugly. “Because you’re a drunk! And you never have enough to pay your bar bill! And she doesn’t want to get banned from her favorite places!” I frown. Ignoring this and continuing makes me the better man like the fucking superior man that I am possibly becoming. “And giving me a blanket when I said I was cold in my apartment. I only mentioned it in passing and she gave me a blanket.” “Uh…are you, are you talking about the Christmas blanket?” “Yeah.” “Sheesh. She gave everyone blankets this year for Christmas for fuck’s sake! Every good friend she knew got a fancy-ass Pendleton blanket this Christmas! I went with her to the department store and helped her pick them out. We talked about it for weeks before we decided on Pendleton blankets. Yours was nothing special, douchebag. She had me pick yours myself. It was on sale at Hillards. Black Friday special. Ta-de-da. I was with her, with her when she bought it.” I consider this horrid fact for more than a whole, horrid moment. I hadn’t known that Marsha and Rod ever did anything together, especially buying Christmas presents. This news bothers me strangely. If I’m trying to get rid of Marsha, should this bug me? No, frankly, no. What else had I wanted to tell Rod? This blanket thing rattles me so badly I can’t remember the other incidents I thought prove Marsha loves me. “Um, well, baking me a cake for my last birthday! She had them put my name and twenty-seven on it, too. That’s a case in point. That’s important. And she never did it before.” I point a finger at Rod and grin. “And I’ve got you there.” “I got one of those cakes! Every year she does that for me and about five other people, including other men,” says Rod. “I’m only surprised she never gave you one earlier.” Shit! I plow ahead. “It’s these creepy little things that she does for me. That’s what. That’s what she’s been doing and together they all add up to big creepiness which is telling me she’s obsessed with me, in love with me.” Rodney smirks. “Cweepy? I think I know what, or I should say who, is cweepy here.” I may be drunker than I think. “And,” I continue, “I detected her emotional interest and connection with me using my writer’s detective senses, and my ability to notice and record small details,” I burp, “of every situation like a fucking detective of details. Perhaps you have never realized that every emotion that passes in front of me happens to be fodder for the grist mill, my friend…” Rodney groans. “Fodder? For the grist mill? Why are you even thinking of a career in writing? You are the stup...” “Wait. Is that it? Is that what I meant? I think I got my obsolete sayings mixed up.” I slide my phone out of my back pocket. I begin swiping and cursing. “Dah? Ya thinks?” The bartender, snatching away the empties and the wet napkins, delivers Rodney’s beer and our tab. “Your margarita’s up next,” he says to me. “We’re a little behind on the barware. Soon as there’s a clean glass.” Tap, tap on the bar in front of me. “Thanks,” I say. “Well,” I continue to Rod, swiping and typing quickly on the screen of my phone, “I was always slightly lame at those idiom things. It’s a failing. You see, I do recognize my failings.” “Barely.” “I seem to get a kick out of getting idioms wrong. I’m googling that immed-jetly. Grist for the mill. Let me see….Sermon of Calvin Dumbass, 1585: “There is no lykelihoode that those thinges will bring gryst to the mill.’” I read my phone’s screen in a singsong English accent. “Thank you. Get something right, will ya?” says Rodney, downing his new beer aggressively. “Anyway, back to the point, in Marsha I happened to detect some small blurry tearing in both her eyes today.” “Rhinitis,” answers Rodney swiftly, placing the new beer on its napkin for a change. He does this when he’s going to tell me something even more smart-ass than usual! “She’s seeing a doctor about it. She wants European cures, not shots or pills. Europeans drink their allergy cures.” I stare at Rod. Since when has Rodney known stuff like that about Marsha? For how long has she been sharing health concerns and theories of how to get over allergies? European cures! She’s never mentioned those to me. I find this to be fucking depressing. “No, not an allergy sort of thing, smart ass, or a sneezing sort of thing, but a real emotional outlay of real emotions, a kinda welling up of personal things in those big baby blue eyes of hers when she handed me the money in actual hundred dollar bills across the counter at the middle school like I had to ask for, because Major Tight-Ass Fernandez does not want checks from me ever again, fuck him to hell. He has a deadline of four at the pharmacy tomorrow for me to bring in the cash and hand it to him personally or he was saying his ex-wife would evict me, but maybe he’s punking me; I can never tell.” “Probably not. I would think he’s not kidding. From the number of times you’ve been evicted from other apartment complexes, I want to tell you that it would be safe to assume he’s not punking you.” “He said this afternoon when I told him I had the money that he texted his ex-wife right then and there and told her to stop the eviction order going through. Oh hell, who cares?” I sigh and put the phone in my back pocket and get out my wallet. “Be forewarned. You can’t live with me. I can’t stand you for more than a few hours. Also, I’m very stressed about my teaching assignment this semester and tenure worries are a bitch right now and I can’t take your shit. Be forewarned.” “Whatever, dude. Anyway. Honestly I thought that the whole thing would end badly and Marsha would turn on me and rend me or something biblical. Instead I walked into her office and she forked over the fucking dough to me when I wanted it and needed it and in cash consisting of crisp hundred dollar bills, which I carried away in my wallet. ‘How’s a thousand dinero sounding, huh?’ I bragged to myself when I got past the school monitors and was dashing to my car. ‘You had no faith in yourself, dude. What a lame way to treat yourself and have no faith in what you can do.’ I know I’m awesome when I have to do something.” “One margarita,” says the bartender dully. The salt-rimmed glass sloshes through the air and lands on a new napkin in front of me. “Keep the change.” I hand the bartender fifty-four dollars to cover all our rounds. The annoying evening is rapidly drawing to an annoying close. “Oh, thank you kindly, sir,” says the bartender. “A thirty cent tip?” Rodney says in disgust, stopping the bartender long enough to glance at the tab. He pulls his wallet out of his jacket. “Here’s a five,” he says to the bartender who takes it with a smile and an “ahem” thrown in my direction. “Oh, you’re awesome,” Rod says drolly to me. “Cheap, but awesome.” “Yeah, well, raising a couple month’s rent was hella necessary or else I’d have been a homeless fuck squirreling away my sleeping bag under the interstate or burrowing into the bank of an arroyo for some shelter. But those tears which I saw in Marsha’s eyes (I did, dammit) were tears for me. That was no punk. Marsha knows not how to punk. Or Yoda talk. How to punk Marsha knows not. And it never happened before, her bawling like a baby, I mean.” “Maybe she was crying to think she was taking the money from Bailey? Have you ever thought of that, you jerk?” Rodney snatches up his new beer again and nearly drains it. I turn my face toward Rodney in what I hope is a scathing expression. ‘“Have I ever thought…’ Oh, that hurts me in a very, very sensitive place. You have wounded me…” “I hope so. What I said oughta wound you. For Christ’s sake, I thought you liked the kid.” Rodney emphasizes his disgust with me by spreading his arms in disbelief and swatting the air in front of him. This action sends Rod lurching on his barstool and he has to grab the edge of the bar to stay seated. The cute girl glances our way and giggles. “Of course. I do like her. She is very sweet and calls me her Uncle Viggy. Bailey is possibly the only nice thing in my life currently.” I surprise myself by saying that aloud to Rodney, because it’s something I barely acknowledge ever. Is it true? Yes, it feels very true to say that. “You’re killing me with this crap.” “She’s a very nice kid. I don’t want to think of myself stealing from mere infants, whom I have raised to be mere third graders, no matter what. Nor do I want to steal money from Marsha’s fund for her big dream of attending a ‘women only’ writers’ retreat in Boise.” “So why don’t you get off your ass and earn some money? Pay Marsha back. How ‘bout a second job, huh?” “A second job! Are you crazy? I can’t stand the one I have. No…I think it’s a very smart move of hers to try to get out of here when it’s 110 degrees and the asphalt is fucking melting under your flip-flops. I should live in a swimming pool all summer or go to Boise with her.” “Vig, somehow I don’t think she’s gonna invite you. And going on vacation? That’s gonna earn you a lot of money. You feel bad about stuff, but you don’t do anything about it. You are a fucking tool to take their money. And you took the money from her happily, didn’t you? You had no compunctions about robbing Bailey.” “Oh, that makes me feel like a twenty ton pile of ripe, stinking shit when I’m already depressed and mortified, frankly, mortified by all the non-results and failures I’ve endured from everything I’ve done recently, so to speak, and I don’t want to think of her imagining that she was going to attend this grand writers’ retreat when now she isn’t because I took her precious saved-up savings. Ah, crap. The whole thing is crap.” “You said ‘I’ and ‘me’ about six fucking times in two sentences. All about you, isn’t it?” “Mostly.” “Can I ask something?” “Sure.” “What lie did you tell her to get the money?” “Oh, yeah? Moi? Lie?” Rodney persists. “Spit it out, douche monster.” “I may have mentioned a cough. A persistent cough.” “I knew it!” Rodney slams his palm on the bar. “You told her you had pneumonia. You did it again.” Oblivious to everything. I must become oblivious to everything. I slurp my margarita eagerly and come up from the salt rim to resume my conversation. “I did have a cough…it’s not my fault if she thought I was only released from the hospital. I’d disappeared with a certain Little Miss Hotness so she hadn’t heard from me…” “Oh my God. Don’t tell me this. Please, don’t go on. I can’t stand to hear these stories of your stupid affairs.” Rodney collapses onto his folded arms. His muffled voice repeats, “I can’t stand the way you profit from dishonesty.” “Marsha must have misunderstood me when I said I was with a nurse from St. Mary’s Hospital. And now let me consume my Caca Cocktail in peace.” “Haaaaa, ha ha. Sheesh.” “Rodney? Are you all right?” “Oh god. Yeah. Caca Cocktail?” Rodney still speaks from his collapsed position. “What? Why do I call it that? I like the amusing alliteration, and you seem to be saying I should feel like shit for what I did. Tequila offers a great gift from the Agave God above: oblivion. You have succeeded in making me feel like a piece of human refuse, but this Caca Cocktail will help me forget.” “You deserve it. Oh, you do.” Rodney comes up from his collapsed position on the bar long enough to say this. “I love women and I’ve been with plenty of them, but I never make up crazy lies to fool them. I have too much self-respect and you have none.” “Maybe so. Maybe I don’t have any self-respect. Anyway, you know, I’ve always wanted to use that expression, Caca Cocktail, in a novel on the first page or perhaps the second. I haven’t been able to think about how to use it in a vampire novel, but, ah ha! It came. Today. It struck my brain stem and the idea is amazing. And I’m getting more ideas from this marvelous briny sea, this margarita, right now. Let me go ahead and slurp it once more. A big gulp of my Caca Cocktail is warranted.” “Not another vampire. No, please, no.” Rodney sucks on his beer until the last dribble disappears. “When I thought of Caca Cocktail,” I explain, wiping my lips on a napkin after gulping an inch of my drink, “I was driving to work. ‘Hold it,’ I say to myself. ‘Pull this ratchet-ass carriage of yours to the side of the road and write that caca thing.’ Think I was barreling through the south side of town on 32nd or something and I listened to myself and I yanked the car to the fucking side of the road. Right there. Turns out I stopped in front of this teeny bungalow and this old lady wearing a mu-mu in her front yard thinks, (and you’ve got to see her the way I did with water flowing out of the hose and a steady stream of glares also flowing at me above her gritted teeth): ‘Motherfucker, stop your car in front of my precious pot of aphid-plagued gladiolas and my beautiful brick fifties southwestern ranch-style tiny bungalow with its large brick barbeque and open car port, will you?’ And I was thinking: ‘If I have to be arrested by this paranoid woman, so be it, but write that caca thing down right now! Use Caca Cocktail somewhere on the first fucking pages of some book of yours, because it’s so damn funny.’ So I wrote that in one of my notebooks.” “Aren’t you the most special little thing?” says Rodney in a lilting lisp. “Oh shut up,” I say, laughing, “But I had to think more, which is the case when you collect all this interesting crap and write it on slips of paper and in notebooks. So today I thought the way to use Caca Cocktail is have this dude leaving a bar late at night, you know, and texting someone, his girlfriend I decided, about feeling badly about something he did to her, maybe stealing her dough, and he’s going to drink a Caca Cocktail and he says it aloud in the alley and texts it to his girlfriend and this vampire who is lurking above, laughs at the alliterative joke, and leaps from the top of a tall adobe wall and Pow!, you know. He’s sucking his victim’s neck. And after the vampire is done the head of the guy sort of falls by the wayside, plop, rolls to the foot of some cactus because, you see, the vampire sucks his neck until it withers up next to nothing. Kind of all puckered up at the shoulder like the roots of a cactus, if you’ve ever seen them? I don’t know if that is too many cactuses in one scene….” “No, no, don’t fret about that. You can’t have too many cactuses. It’s brilliant,” says Rodney. “As an English teacher I can say that what you have there is brilliant.” “Yeah, you, compadre, are a person who gets the impact of images immed-jetly, which is why I keep you around. Well, the girlfriend texts back ‘Caca Cocktail, ha ha,’ to the headless body of her boyfriend. The headless body is still holding the phone, see? Boy, the readers will eat it up!” “Oh yeah.” That stops me. I appraise Rod coolly. “That’s your best comment? ‘Oh yeah?’ What is this now? What’s the problem? You wanted me to talk about, blah, blah, blah, you getting tenure at the junior college and cutting someone else off from a better office? Congratulations. You got the better office nearer the important people in the department and now you’ll have a better chance to get tenure and others will have a worse chance. However you did it, don’t feel guilty about it; don’t beat yourself up about what you did. The point is to learn from your mistakes, and if you walked all over somebody at work to get your fucking better office, as you told me you did, you’ve at least recognized the blatant nature of your own goddamned crappiness. And besides, it’s nothing compared to what I did to Marsha and Bailey. What’s done is done, said the cranky old philosopher who never did anything. On the way here tonight I was thinking, ‘tonight I shall have to drink a Caca Cocktail.’” I down my drink entirely. “Sometimes you truly make me sick,” Rodney says. “There are times when I doubt I’m as charming as I used to be.” At that, I’m rather amazed to discover my butt sliding off the barstool. And my damn feet hold me upright! Another triumph. And I told Rodney about Marsha, which was a terrible mistake in light of the fact that they are much more intimate than I’ve ever imagined. Bravo! Boy, what a screw-up. In my whole life, I’ve managed a lot of fucking screw-ups. Especially in the romance department. “Oh God, have mercy on me. I’m drunk and I’m going home and I remembered I offered you a place to stay tonight. I can’t take that back.” Rod slides off his barstool and stumbles toward the door. “Come on, buddy.” He tries to hug the cute girl, but she just giggles. Besides, the guys around her push him away. “Aren’t you a great dude, dude?” say I, following Rodney out and clamping one hand on my friend’s shoulder. We have a nice little dark stroll ahead of us through a few cold desert streets. Rod lives right behind Fourth Avenue. “Dude, why are you always wearing those hella weird shorts in January? I’m pretty sure they’ve gone out of style.” CHAPTER TWO I wake up the next morning. Pounding head and dry tongue. The whole deal. I’ve been in this condition many times. Believe me. But today I’m knowing I’m hundreds of dollars ahead this month, so it’s time to live like there’s no tomorrow, a date when I figure I will find I’m lacking fine Danish ale and money enough to pay for a lot of margaritas. And soon enough I suppose I will be eating my last fancy frozen breakfast burrito which I wish I had this morning, frankly, instead of the soggy piece of bread I find in Rod’s refrigerator and am about to toast. I blunder around in Rod’s kitchen with the bread dangling from one numb hand. But why does Rodney have such a dirty and disgusting toaster? Has he never heard of cleaning the crumbs out of the bottom tray? I yank the crumb tray out of the toaster and carry it to the sink; I don’t dare try to put the crumbs in Rod’s garbage, which is overflowing in a massive pile of filth the likes of which I have not seen in years of seeing messy, fucking apartments. As I shake the tray, a curtain of brown crumbs dump over the porcelain sink and several dirty plates, knives and glasses. I run the water and try to send the crumbs down the drain, but now a glass is a sea of wet crumbs. I dump that out. After crossing the small kitchen again, I shove the crumb tray back in the bottom of the toaster and drop the limp bread in. My thumb plunges the toaster control. A trip to Rod’s refrigerator for something to put on the toast results in a small amount of very stinky goat butter. Goat butter! When had Rod developed a taste for that? I test a morsel of it and decide, though it tastes vaguely of cow paddies and soured milk, it will have to do. Rodney has a weird mix of cheap bread and expensive, out-of-date food. Perhaps some of this is the food left from that pretentious lady accountant he’d lived with last summer. If so, this goat butter is very old. I will have to force myself to eat it. The toast pops and I grab it quickly. I smash the entire piece of butter on half the bread and fold it over like a sandwich. On the way out I think better of leaving without saying anything to Rod. I head back toward the bedroom as I finish the toast. “I’m leaving for work,” I call. “Oh, you still do that?” mutters Rod from his dark bedroom. “Very funny. Douchebag. Why don’t you ever dump your fucking garbage?” “You do it for me. Goodbye.” “Oh sure. Sayonara.” I hang over the messy garbage, chewing the nail of my index finger. It shocks me to realize I enjoy that old habit again. Nerves. This Marsha thing and now Rod in the picture has thrown me for a loop. When had they become buddies? And didn’t I introduce them in the first place? I glance at the green digits on Rod’s microwave. 8:42. Crap. I need to get my ass to work at the parade museum by nine on Saturday mornings. The parade museum is the crappy job of mine—rodeo museum attendance clerk, one of two with the job, which pays barely above minimum wage. Chump change. That’s all I get for that stinking job of mine which I still can’t afford to quit. I ease the overflowing garbage bag out of its plastic bin. Out the door of the apartment and down the wooden steps slowly, my clomp, clomp, clomp echoing in the quiet desert January morning. I drop the garbage in the dumpster and find my beaten up, Bondo-smeared Subaru in a state of collapse outside at the curb under a barren black mesquite tree where I left it the day before. Must have some heat this morning. I crank the key and flip the heater switch to high. I let some speeding truck pass and then head for the rising disc of the sun. Past apartments and vast lots of evenly spaced creosote bushes. Then the usual assortment of crumbling adobes mixed with fast food joints and derelict shopping centers. I thump the steering wheel with my thumbs. Come on, come on. Slow cars seem to mass in front of me at traffic lights. At the rodeo museum, I park where I usually do. At the back of the dirt lot in the far corner. The museum is housed in a large Quonset hut which had been painted tan with watered-down paint that you can see through. All the bolts in the Quonset hut are rusted and the stain runs on the sides of the building in long streaks. There’s very little signage so visitors are few and far between and that’s the way I like it; I use my time at the museum for writing. I step out of my car and immediately notice a grubby man stumbling around the back of the lot. I recognize him as a vagrant who enjoys visiting businesses on the street. It’s nine o’clock and the old man has awakened; at least that’s the way I figure it. Several times in the last months I’ve noticed him walking toward the feeding station at St. Augustine Cathedral and I know the man stops in at places occasionally to hassle shopkeepers or wander around their parking lots, or so our fellow businesses tell Chet, the museum’s guard. The old vagrant times his wanderings so that he arrives at St. Augustine at lunch when he eats his peanut butter choke sandwich, and continues walking, scaring people who unwittingly give him money he hasn’t asked for. “Good morning,” I call to Chet, as knock on the glass of the museum door. Chet wakes and unlocks the door. “The old guy is out there jerking off near the dumpster again.” “Oh, hell,” says the guard. “Not asleep again, were we?” I ask. “No, resting my eyes.” “Well, that same old guy is wandering around the parking lot. Hope he doesn’t take a fall. He’s hella drunk.” I head for my desk at the far end of the entry. “Oh no. I hope he doesn’t try to come in. He always tries to come in and he never pays and I hafta argue with him for hours to keep him out,” says Chet. “I don’t know where he came from. He wasn’t here till a month ago. Now he’s here all the damn time. He fell asleep against the fence and I had trouble getting him out of the parking lot before closing last Thursday.” “Oh, is that what happens? He never comes in when I’m here. I hope he doesn’t hassle us.” As I said, I never want people to try to view the museum while I’m here because I have editing and writing to do on my vampire stories and I can only do it if the public leaves me alone. Don’t look for me here, is what I want to say to the patrons who show up sporadically and gaze in abject boredom at the collection of wormy carriages the museum curators have parked all over that dark Quonset hut. “What story you working on?” asks Chet, stretching and taking another seat next to the desk where I stay. Chet flicks some lint off his uniform pants and yawns. “Maybe the story of a poisoned well,” I answer importantly. “Yes, I think that is what is calling out to me today. I was thinking about it on the way over here.” “Hmm,” replies Chet. “Poisoned wells…” That is, I will write it if I can get into the flow of the words. Yes, my latest story, the one I guess will be about the desert well, has a lot of potential, and as I sit myself at the desk, bring my notebook out of my satchel and arrange everything in front of me in a comfortable fashion, I’m thinking the visitors walking in cannot see me lurking at this desk surrounded by flags on one side, he he, and Chet on the other. Things fucking slow anyway in the old dumb rodeo museum business, not much of a business, and so I will sit with all the carriages going nowhere and do my writing all alone, since I doubt the attendance will pick up at all today and therefore I’ll be free to write on my own. Hallelujah. “Are you ready to write? Ready to go at it?” Chet asks. This is a kind of routine that he has with me. Chet as my writing cheerleader, always upbeat and enthused about what I say I’m writing. “Well, I admit I’m a bit bothered by something and it might slow me down today. An affair of the heart.” Here I am talking about my feelings again! And now to Chet whom I don’t even know as well as I know Rod. What is going on? And I’m chewing a fingernail again. Dammit. My nails are starting to look as ragged as the hems of a long and sloppy pair of jeans. “Oh, anything interesting?” “Frightening. No, distressing. I have come to the conclusion that this woman I’ve known for years might be in love with me now.” “Is that good?” “Eh….well, maybe not. She is overweight. More friend material, if you get my drift. I don’t think I want a relationship with her, but she might be obsessed with me, you see. It’s so absurd. I never gave her any reason to hope that we might hook up or anything. At least I don’t think I did.” “That’s too bad. Tell her the truth.” “I may do that. Last night I told a guy I know about it. He’s friends with both of us and he said I was imagining the whole thing.” “Well, that’s good, right? You’re off the hook. He’d know since he’s friends with both of you.” “Yes and no. He seems to be attracted to her himself. That’s what I’m thinking. And he said she was looking hot to him.” “Better yet.” “Yes. Do you still think I’d better tell this woman? That I’m not attracted?” “Er, that’s kinda tough. Ah, maybe not. I told a chick I wasn’t into her once and she threw a plate of Thai food on me. If you do tell her, you’ll feel better, even with Thai food on your lap. But this other guy might move in on her, and she might drop you and you won’t need to tell her, so, all in all, I’d say sit on the information for the moment. Now, you ready to write?” “Yes, well, but what if I know the other guy is a worse character than me. I mean I know he won’t be good for her. And her daughter. She has a daughter. She’s nice. I should tell her he’s no good, right?” “Ah, that’s a little different, but I still wouldn’t tell her. Nobody wants to hear that some dude would be bad for them. Shit like that doesn’t go over well. This other guy might cure her of her crush on you. So you shouldn’t do anything, even if he’s bad.” “I’m not agreeing there, Chet. You see, I don’t trust him. I don’t want her with him. It would be terrible for the kid. I babysit the kid, he doesn’t.” “Is she attracted to him?” “She isn’t. She doesn’t care for him. Right now she’s attracted to me.” “I think I’m confused. Anyway, I’m not any help. Are you ready to write, though?” “As ready as I’ll ever be,” I say grimly. “Good.” “I’ll take a break at about ten and make some Mexican coffee in the microwave with the package I’ve got left. Today I think I’ll be free with my writing and let it come as it will, willy nilly, so to speak. Nothing’s gonna hold me back. I feel kind of freed up, but I shouldn’t have gone drinking with that buddy of mine last night. I think it didn’t help me. I got that romance stuff on my brain, you know?” “Sure, but now you talked to me and it’s gonna be better. How’s this story go?” “Well, um, the scene I’m gonna open with is a group of people, um, from the past walking in the desert after being robbed.” “Okay.” “I think it’s gonna be a stagecoach robbery.” “Okay.” “They’re headed for a lonely desert well, and I’ll write that they know where the well is because…” “Maybe it’s marked on a map!” Chet suggests. “Yes, shit. Great idea, Chet. I’ll jot that down in the margin. And they plan a way to get there traveling at night, resting in the day. Their thinking is that the well will give them clean water and save their miserable hides and they walk and crawl dramatically across the page, ha ha, across the desert at the very painful end of their allotted time on earth and their allotted time in my story, journeying to this well that is going to save them, and that promises to revive them, but the thing is…the well is…well, the well is….um… poisoned! Shazam!” Chet’s eyes, which had been drooping as I nattered on, widen and he flinches a little at the shazam. “It seems,” I say, “some unknown evil somebody poisoned the well with a carcass of something. Maybe a dead mule, a mule deer, deer, no…someone, a human body, ugh. They pull up part of a body, in the bottom of the pail. It can’t be a big part because…” “It wouldn’t fit in the pail,” Chet says. “If it was a leg, it wouldn’t fit!” Chet logics out the plot defects for me and grows excited. The slightest use of his imagination causes him immeasurable joy; I stifle a smile. This guard’s innocent pleasure amuses me. He’s kinda sweet. I humor him by letting him think up things which are obvious for my stories. “Exactly. So it has to be a human body part a drippy hand, kinda greenish-gray and stinky! Or maybe a foot. Kinda fits with them walking, see? Why did an evil person do it? I mean poison the well. And the answer is: to kill people for corpses. But why? For fun, for evil, what?” Chet’s eyes were getting big listening to my poisoned well story. “I’ll leave you to figure that out. Save that coffee packet. I’ll get you something. I’m moseying over to Hungry Hannah’s after I check around the perimeter a coupla times.” “Pan dulce and a cup of Mexican coffee then,” I reply. “Very considerate of you to offer me a snack.” “Okay. Which pan?” “Doesn’t matter. They’re all good. Maybe the horn one is best.” “Okay, horn it is.” Chet strolls out and leans back in to add. “The old coot is still there. He’s pawing around in our dumpster. Should I talk to him?” “No, doesn’t look like we’re getting any customers. He won’t bother anyone today. There’s nothing in the dumpster that can hurt him, is there?” Chet shakes his head. “Nah,” he says. He lets the door close behind him. Now, how were they robbed? How? Well, I don’t have to explain it. Boy, it’s weird to hear my voice echoing in this dark museum. All the carriages just sitting around listening to me. My audience. Well, I can leave the robbery business mysterious, yeah, the back story of the robbery is left in the background. So they drink the water and they find all these body parts in the bottom of the pail and they know—with horror—that the well water is poisoned and they sicken. Vomiting will kill them. That’s because they’ve had no fluids for hours before they arrived at the well. I need to jot that down. Vomiting is their death. Yeah, so good. The one hope they have is the water…and it’s rotten. Rotten water. How does rotten water taste? Can you taste if water is rotten? I think I should google that. If a well has gone bad? Shit, that is something I have to know to make this thing realistic. If they can taste it right away, well, they would stop drinking and spit it out, but they still would die of thirst so I get what I want for the story, death eventually, and if they can’t taste it right away I still get what I want because they keep drinking and die immediately. Hey, maybe they get rescued and they drink poisoned well water so they keel over. Oh, the irony of it. Maybe that is a little too ironic, though. Well, yes and no. I think I’ll write it both ways and do my best work and at the end see which I like better. At that point, one of the endings probably will appeal to me more than the other, and that will make it easier to choose. To try to make the decision now without sufficient information would be silly. I love the way it’s like an open-ended world when I write. I become the ruler of a universe I create and I put the ending I want on my stories. So, to work! I write alone in the museum. The door opens. Fuck! Ten measly minutes alone! The first patron shows up, damn them. The curiously stinky, dried-up old specimen, who I’d seen in the parking lot, appears at the glass of the museum door and shuffles in. Heaven help me. “Howdy,” says the coot. “Can I see this here museum?” “Sure—” I begin. The door opens again and Chet walks in. “Sorry, Vig. He got past me. Here’s your stuff.” He leaves me a Mexican roll and coffee in a Styrofoam cup. And speaking to the old man, “Listen, sir, you can’t come in without paying. I explained that before. This guy is busy, too.” Chet is always there to defend my writing, bless him. This old dude, this old-time weather-beaten grizzly-bearded resident of the creosote flats, a friend to every friendly Western hobo, who has shambled up South 6th Avenue, a fake leg in urine-soaked jeans swinging at his side, interests me for his potential as a story source. It won’t hurt to have the old fool as an ally, will it? “I’ll put the money in the till, Chet. He’s okay for today.” “Okay, you’re in charge,” says Chet, returning to patrol the parking lot. “Thanks, friend!” says the old man to me. “I won’t forget this kindness. You’re a real nice fellow. I’m Oliver. Oliver Jones.” The old man sticks out his grimy hand in the general direction of me, still seated at my desk. “My name is Marc Viglietti, but everyone calls me Vig. Glad to meet you, Oliver. Go on in. I’ll put the money in the till for you.” I know Chet says Oliver gives different shopkeepers a big pain in the ass several times a week as some sort of mission from one old nutcase to any person he happens upon. It’s because they’re tight-asses. I don’t know why the old coot wants to see the dilapidated carriages and tack, but I figure he ought to be able to if he wants to. What’s a few dollars lost now that I have Marsha’s money? Oh, that makes me feel like crap. I take a look at the back of the old man as he walks away toward the carriages. The lights of the museum, on motion detection, spring to life as Oliver blunders forward into the hall. Saggy, baggy old jeans with a shot-out seat. Holy Hell. There is so much mud at the bottom of his bell-bottom jeans I’m surprised he isn’t sprouting a garden there. He sure doesn’t look rich, looks like a crazy nut. But maybe you can’t tell about money with old nutty guys. No point in jumping to bad conclusions. Maybe he happens to have a hundred Indian head gold coins stuffed in a tin can in his sock drawer. And the contents of that sock drawer might land in my hands if the old guy decides to gift me with them. The gold, not the socks. I hope Oliver doesn’t have relatives because I don’t like the thought of robbing kids of their inheritance. But he might have some great assets and no heirs or he just might want to be my patron. You can’t tell with these old poopy pants dudes. I worry about being an old poopy pants dude someday. Without heirs? Maybe so. That is a depressing thought. Perhaps Oliver had made a fortune when he was a young man, but now he doesn’t like to live like it? Think of Howard Hughes, I’ve heard about him. Now Hughes didn’t strike a fine figure in his old age, did he? Long finger nails. Matted hair. Pissing into jars and filling a room with them. Maybe this nut is like that, in which case it might do me some good to get to know the old codger, if there’s a chance he’ll give me some of his fortune. This is how I’m thinking. Very cagey. Looking to get something off him, but sympathetic a little bit too. And interested in his stories. His stories might be valuable. After old poopy pants comes in, a serious young man arrives! Crap! He is the type who likes history and wants to know actual shit about the carriages. Double crap! I feel despondent at his arrival, because right away the visitor wants to talk and doesn’t approve of me working there. I’m not very knowledgeable about carriages. Anyway, this serious guy is asking me some questions about the Maximillian coach and I try to bullshit him a bit. “Is this coach of Maximillian’s a type of barouche?” asks the serious dude. “Yes, that is, no. It is on the card in front and the way to tell is um, well, the card explains.” The serious dude glares at me. “Is there anyone here who knows about antique vehicles?” “I’m too busy to help you,” I reply. The man sighs loudly. “I want to have a friend of mine who is an expert on old carriages come and take a look at it, but he doesn’t get off till five every day.” “The museum closes at three,” I say happily. “What time do you open in the morning?” “Nine. Tuesday through Saturday.” “Oh,” says the man vaguely. “No Sundays.” That discouraged the pest! “No Sunday hours. Why don’t you take a picture and send it to him?” I suggest. “I’d like him to see it in person.” “Maybe he’ll get a day off?” I give him the bum’s rush so I can get back to work on my poison story about the well. I know if I tried I could remember something about barouches, but I don’t even want to make an effort with that guy. The dude can come by some day with his expert friend, anyway. Finally the intense young man leaves and I have a chance to read my work aloud in the old empty Quonset hut. That is, after poopy-pants, Oliver Jones, leaves too. “Won’t forget you for being so kind to me,” says Oliver, limping out. Looks like he has a fake leg. “Okay, old timer,” I say. “Come back another day.” “Well, thanks! Thank you for the offer.” I begin wasting time on my phone instead of writing new scenes or description for my poisoned well tale. Hmmm…old postcard someone posted on a blog…shows that a sand souvenir is a horned toad. Heloderma horridum. Gila monster. I like the horridum part. Smells bad. Looks like a beef tamale vomited up. With a deep sea turtle head. Orange and black beaded coat. Grooved teeth ready to inject poison into something that blunders almost inside its mouth. Fat sluggish lizard. In legend it is a thirty foot long monster demolishing adobes, mad about rains in Arizona, heading for Mexico where it is warmer. Hundreds of them on the move. All souls perish. God, wouldn’t that be fun to write? I will make a note of it. “A sort of 1960s horror movie with goofy characters and a giant Gila monster.” I write that in my little notebook of story snippets. The only thing I like about my job is I can hide out at my desk at work for a very long time and write and write and write… So the lonely young writer arrives home in the afternoon, a day after robbing his best friend, Marsha, and telling his next best friend, Rodney, all about it. Key in the door. Wave at the crazy lady from Apartment 5. “Hello, hello there? Marc? Oh Marc. Is that you?” calls one of the old lady Canasta nuts who plague me, who swarm around the outside of my apartment building looking for young people to invite to their tourneys. She and all the other old ladies insist on calling me Marc, which no one else does, and I’ve corrected them so many times. I made the mistake of joining them in a game a few weeks ago and they won’t let up on me. That’s what I get for feeling sorry for them. At least I didn’t tell them about Marsha. Yet. “Oh crap,” I say quietly. “It is you! I see you.” Index finger pointing shakily in my direction, the pouncing neighbor trots in a crooked line like a listing ship toward me from the bottom of the stairs. Disintegrating black sweater, orthopedic shoes and loose purple nylon slacks. “Goody, at last. I’ve caught you when you’re coming home. Yes, oh, I’m so glad I caught you. Relief!” The thin palms clap three times. “Relief. You see, I thought something had happened to you, mijo. Heavens, I kept looking for you all this weekend. I haven’t seen you in days, dear. Not hide nor hair of you and…I’ve been looking out the front window to see…wondering if…perhaps…you’d liked some more of our candy? We’re still cooking it and selling it, you know. And we finished a big batch this weekend. Divinity. More than we’ve ever made. The type you like…” Her painfully thin arm holds out a paper plate of sickly white bars wrapped in plastic wrap and tied with a faded green ribbon. “Hmmm, my,” I say despairingly. I plaster a smile on my face. “Oh, a new leather coat! Isn’t that nice on you, mijo.” The old woman pinches the leather at my elbow as though she’s testing its quality. She grips the lapel playfully and smiles up at me. “Thanks. Goodwill’s best,” I reply, hoping she will get the hint that I’m poor. Terribly poor and without prospects. “And you’ve been grocery shopping, too.” “Yes. Yes I have.” I transfer the bag to the arm farther away from her. Hard sell. She tempts me with that hideous homemade candy again. The stuff with all the salt that destroyed my taste buds for several days. Ick. What the fuck. The last batch had so much salt I drank a gallon of water later that night and I still felt thirsty. “I have some money now. I’ve been a little low on funds. I had to make some emergency arrangements from friends.” But I ought to save my money and not buy crazy old lady candy! Don’t want to be preserved in brine, ma’am. “Oh, that’s too bad. I didn’t realize…maybe you still want some…candy? Now that you have the money?” She hangs onto me like a fucking Gila monster. Hey, that would be a great story! Old persistent lady turns into a Gila monster. No letting up on me! “Um, sure. I guess I can…” “You like your candy. I can see that.” “Oh yes.” “Didn’t you like this type? Divinity? You took it last time?” asks the desperate lady, thrusting the plate closer to me. “Sure, sure, Mrs. Hernandez, that white stuff of yours looks pretty good. I need Divinity. More than most. I need it a lot today.” “Oh, I think you do.” “More than you know. More than you can imagine. Four dollars, isn’t it?” “Six. I had to raise the price. We’re playing Canasta Thursday. You’re welcome to join us, mijo.” “Ahhh, you’re tempting me.” CHAPTER THREE My dipshit of a landlord is a retired Air Farce nutcase, Major Tight-ass Roman Fernandez, overly proud co-owner of the dilapidated Don Francisco Apartments. With those hundred dollar bills of Marsha’s at the ready, I know Tight-ass will soon be off my case. I review my happy money situation and think about how I shared with Rodney the facts about Marsha loving me, however Rodney had not been convinced. In fact, Rodney had said some very upsetting things later, after we got home to Rodney’s place. At some point he’d intimated Marsha might be in love with someone else. I knew that was false; nobody’s interested in Marsha because she’s overweight and unattractive, except for her blonde hair, blue eyes and cute feet. She also has a good personality. Nothing else about her would appeal to another man and she has a kid, which is a liability to most men. I like Bailey, but I’m fairly certain nobody else would. The kid is precocious and too energetic. Groceries now cram the counter of my crummy little kitchenette, the interior of my refrigerator and a cardboard box which serves me as a larder. I can’t remember when I’ve had that much food in the apartment, and a lot of it is ramen and rice and beans, which will last forever. A shopping trip late yesterday for a coat had used up forty of the remaining cash, and I got a needed car repair booked. That would cost plenty, maybe three hundred, but I’m flush now. After I pay Roman the overdue rent, I plan to stock up on expensive Danish ales, the only extravagance I allow myself. I might even have some money left after all that. At a quarter-to-three, I pull my Subaru beside the curb in front of El Pueblo Drugs; I walk the hundred paces or so to the back of the ratty little pharmacy, which Tight-ass Fernandez runs. He’d paid for a bizarre mural on the side of the pharmacy which showed a scary curado cooking herbs for a bunch of sickly kids gathered in a circle. Sliding my wallet out of the front pocket of my black jeans while walking, I count out the six hundred dollar bills before I knock on the rear door. If I have it ready that will be less time talking to my landlord. Well, that day I know Roman will have to get out of my face with his goddamned smart-ass remarks about my late rent, month after month, which he calls chronic, because he is a pharmacist, and I think: I’ll give him chronic all right, right in his tight ass if he doesn’t be careful around me, the ridonkulous swag. But I know I have to pay up soon or face eviction and at least I got more money than I needed from Marsha and as a consequence I’ll be able to eat tamales and bean burritos and good crap for another month at which time my goddamn tax refund will be winging its way to my checking account, thank you kindly Uncle Samuel and Mister Earnest Income. And all this dough lumped together will be providing me with sufficient dinero for another couple month’s fucking rent or possibly three. Shazam! I hadn’t fucking thought of the possibility of having three months’ rent ahead of time! It’s all true and that meant adios troubles and torments, and I hope, perhaps, I’m actually free and clear, God willing, but I don’t happen to believe in him much. Roman Fernandez appears at the door. “Vig, my son.” Mr. Fernandez holds out a dry and cracked gray palm where I lay the six hundred dollar bills. Ugh, I think for the millionth time, why doesn’t he get himself some hand cream from that pharmacy of his and smear it on good and thick? That palm is like wood left in the desert sun for ten years. “Very good, excellent, Vig. You’ve got it all here in time,” says my landlord, stuffing the bills in his white coat pocket and writing out a receipt for me, “and so I guess I’ll have to tell my ex-wife to stop the eviction. I hated to evict you, because you’ve been a good tenant and no one complains about noise from your apartment at all. The old ladies have nothing but praise for you and say you’re so friendly. You joined them in Canasta last week?” “Yeah, once. Twice. I try,” I answer sanctimoniously. But I’m awfully tired of buying that foul homemade Divinity candy which Mrs. H. and her Canasta crowd are constantly foisting in my direction. They may be poor dears, but I cannot be sponsoring their culinary catastrophes anymore. Perhaps I’m the only person buying it! “I hope this means you are going to be prompt with your rent in the future, huh?” asks the good tight-ass pharmacist in his deep baritone and with his sunken eyes staring at me. “But I know what it’s like not to have enough money, once in a while. I was poor once, too, you know. How about taking a second job? That rodeo museum gig seems low-paying.” Sure, Tight-ass, sure. You were poor a long time ago and remember fuck-all about it. You wouldn’t give a starving man the time of day. The rodeo museum job is perfect for a writer; I do fuck-all there and nobody bothers me for hours because the museum is full of worthless old carriages with torn up interiors and stinky saddles and tack from the last century. What more could a guy want in a job, huh? Responsibility? That’s for idiots. I’m not taking a second job! That was the second person to suggest that shit to me. “Ah, listen, you went to college, right?” asks Tight-ass. “Yes,” I intone solemnly. Oh here it comes, the old, I-went-to-college-routine, huh. It worked a charm on some who had and some who hadn’t. Of course, Mr. Fernandez is a pharmacist, so I suppose he went to college, for many more years than I did and in a more difficult subject. “Lemme buy you dinner,” Tight-ass says, “I want to talk to you about something. I’ll text my ex and tell her I’ve got the rent from you. My pharmacist’s assistant can finish out the day for me. We close at five, anyway. I don’t see why he can’t assume more responsibility.” A few minutes later Tight-ass emerges in a pair of slacks and a black turtleneck sweater. I, thoroughly merry to be treated to a free dinner, stroll in the cool January afternoon with my landlord to the neighborhood restaurant, Baja Diner. Fate was on my side and now I was about to get a free dinner! This place is not as nice as the place I was at with Rodney the night before, but serviceable, in its own sleazy way. The chrome tables need wiping and someone in the kitchen plays country music too loud. Mr. Fernandez sits in a booth, and I join him. We order two beers and two hamburgers and fries with both orders and hand the dirty paper menus to the waitress when Tight-ass jumps in by saying, “So what do you happen to know about the possibility of man ever understanding the absolute infinite of Spinoza’s God and Ethics?” Well, I think I heard some horrifying question like that. Blah, blah, blah, ethics, blah, blah, you know. Spinoza, blah, blah. I sit there like a frozen stooge for a moment after Tight-ass stops talking, while I try to remember who the fuck Spinoza is and what he fucking promoted. After he says this, my landlord locks his fingers together across his turtleneck sweater with one elbow on the table and one on the back of the booth seat. It looks like he is planning to leave soon since he’s stumped me with the Spinoza crap. Ostensibly I did go to college, although as a practical matter I spent the majority of my time ogling and bedding women. It was going to take some heavy-duty searching in my brain to remember anything at all about Spinoza or God or Ethics. And then I think of it: the perfect, miraculous reply. It comes to me out of the blue and I intone: “Spinoza’s ethical construct has been effectively destroyed by the proliferation of Internet porn.” If anyone gets pseudo-intellectual with me, I always resort to an answer which incorporates Internet porn. In my experience it works a treat. You can try this yourself. “Exactly!” agrees Tight-ass. Several waitresses and diners in the restaurant stare at our booth because Roman exclaims this so loudly. “My God! I’m going to give you a month’s free rent for that. Two! Two months. Forget about your overdue rent. Here, take your money back! I’m so glad I thought of taking you to dinner. I could tell you were a very well educated man with an interesting perspective on life. Spinoza’s ethical construct. Internet porn. Wow, I mean, wow!” It’s funny because the first thing I think about, after Tight-ass hands back the six hundred dollar bills, is Marsha and Bailey and how I’d gone through all that rigmarole, begging for rent money from Marsha, for nothing. I swear to God, my luck was turning, and yet I feel disgusted by what I’ve done to Marsha now that the need is removed. It shocks me to realize how I feel about it. I ought to be happy, so what’s causing all the disgust I feel at myself? Here is Mr. Fernandez, excusing me the late rent and the next two months’ rent and I’m feeling guilty! It’s so fucking weird! It’s like I’m stupid or something. After our orders arrive, I sit across the booth for an hour eating my hamburger and fries and listening to all the ramifications of Spinoza’s ethics and Internet porn as my landlord sees these things. I contribute little to the weird conversation we are having. Mr. Fernandez has some very strange interests in the porn line, I discover, to my distress, as I get wood listening to him. Ah well. This might have been a factor in Mr. Fernandez’s divorce. So as I listen to Tight-ass about Spinoza’s ethics and how much he personally likes Internet porn, in this boring time, I think about good old Marsha who has saved the day as is her want and custom, although now I didn’t needed her to save the day, but so be it, and that was the truth about her because she had come to my aid before, but mostly for minor swag such as a twenty dollar bill here or there or a ride to someplace when my car broke down, and I had forgotten the rides, and weren’t there an awfully lot of those? Oh, Rodney would say she gave everybody rides. Rodney would say she gave him a ride across the continent. Rodney was such a bullshit artist. But weren’t the rides truly more evidence on the side of her affection for me? The rides aren’t as large or as important as this loan of money is, and, that’s right, right at the grimy booth at the Baja Diner I suspect again, but don’t know for sure, that Marsha happens to be in love with Yours Truly, her oldest and dearest amigo, one of the members of the wild bunch, a fellow writer from way back when. When when was when, actually. Well, to be honest with myself, not that way back; five years isn’t that long; we graduated from college together in 2009, a year full of ridonkulous hope for me, now that I remember back to it through the fog of drunkenness and winsome southwestern nights of weed. Oh, ho, yeah, you know, that was a glorious time. “Ever hike to Sanchez Falls stoned?” I ask my landlord who is checking his texts. That is not a wise thing to do, but Mr. Fernandez and his porn obsession has made me suspect my landlord is not such a tight-ass after all. “Yes. Yes, I did once.” “No kidding? Crazy, right?” “Yes, it was. I believe I ended up naked in one of those mossy tanks with a very cute canyon frog sitting on my forehead or that might have been a girl. I hear there is a naked hiking club, by the way, but they won’t let anyone over thirty join, dammit. Listen, Vig, I have to pick up my girlfriend now. Her hot yoga session ended and she’s rung out. This conversation has been what I needed. I won’t forget the two free months of rent, don’t worry. Don’t think about rent until March, maybe April. I’ll be in touch.” I wave in my landlord’s direction as Mr. Fernandez leaves and I lose myself in memories of my undergraduate days, of getting so drunk and staying awake all night, of talking and smoking weed, wandering from one place to another, stumbling around this desert town under the stars, waking up in God-knows-whose yard to the sound of doves and woodpeckers in the saguaros. Those were heavenly times. Dreaming up my vampire novels, imagining vampires in their various day jobs as mechanics, accountants and mortgage brokers. “I am a vampire novelist,” I say, leaning backward to shake the hand of a large man who seems to be a trucker and who eased his bulk into the booth next to us while Tight-Ass Fernandez and I dined. “Oh wow! Successful?” “No, no.” “Oh, that’s too bad.” “Would you give me your opinion on a story idea?” “Glad to. Shoot.” “Um, how about this. A vampire pharmacist. Pretty good idea, huh?” “I’m hearing slushing sounds. I hope it’s not my pacemaker. Is that what you hear?” “It’s the icemaker at the back of the bar. Now, listen, picture the lonely pharmacy in an old run-down, pock-marked adobe…the name of this shack is El Pueblo Drugs. Someone approaches thinking…they are consulting…a Mexican herbalist, but instead it is…a vampire! The vampire’s name is like…Juan Dracula, or something. Wait. Maybe, Jose V. Piro. Get it? V. Piro standing for—vampiro! Cool, super cool. I’m thinking of some amazing shit today. I’ve had such good luck in the last couple of days.” “This is very interesting. You aren’t as entertaining as Antique Wars, but you’re a close second.” The man leans back for a moment while the waitress slides a plate in front of him. “Thank you, thank you kindly. To think, I’m almost as good as a reality TV show. That’s an achievement. Well, I have been saying as much to my friends. And you are an inspiration, dude. I hope to God that vampiro is Spanish for vampire. Let me google that…yep, vampiro is Spanish for vampire and it’s also Lithuanian for vampire. I must be getting drunk; I can’t say Lithuanian. Can you? No? Cool. Do you know how getting money frees you up, dude? What would it be like to have endless money and think up all the crazy crap you wanted and write it? That would be a dream.” “For you, a nightmare.” “What? Oh, you mean a nightmare because I write all these horror stories with vampires? I get it. But, you know, instant remorse comes too. Comes right alongside the getting of money in nefarious ways. You’ve noticed? Uh-huh.” “What are you feeling so bad about?” “Marsha.” “Who’s she, if you don’t mind my asking?” The trucker digs into a plate of chicken fried steak covered with salsa. “Oh, I don’t mind you asking. In fact I like to discuss her. You see, I’m pretty sure she’s in love with me and it’s taken me by surprise. I borrowed several months of my rent and she didn’t even say much to me when I came in for the money, rolled her chair over to her purse and took out the bills like it was all a big Nothing Burger.” “I have found women to be very cheap with money, unless it’s for their clothes or their makeup, therefore there could be some meaning in what happened to you.” The trucker wipes his mouth with a paper napkin and balls it up in his fist. He drinks some beer slowly. “Yeah. Exactly. I think so! I’m very glad to have run into you. I have found women to be cheap, too. This is a clue to the situation, isn’t it?” “I would tend to see it that way.” “Giving away her money. ‘Hi, Vig,’ she said, ‘Are you going to make it on time to your landlord? Good.’ Well, we’d already discussed the amount, but I wouldn’t say she looked unhappy or anything. It was so, so easy, too easy, to get that dinero from Marsha, who I figure I can use for dinero from now on when I want it, not that she’s got a lot more, dammit to hell, and I know Bailey’s shoes and clothes are going to take a lot of what she does get. Guilt is a terrible thing to have. I’d rather have the clap or something.” “I personally wouldn’t go that far, hombre. Who’s Bailey?” “Her kid. Wish I didn’t have the capacity to feel badly about things; I would get far ahead in life if I didn’t have a conscience.” “What you need, son, is a rich girlfriend who is without a kid.” I put my beer down fast. “Fuck, I’ve thought of that. Why do I keep hitting up tassels who are destitute and poor and have a bunch of babies already? Logic should tell an aspiring person like myself the destitute cannot help anyone, since they cannot help themselves.” “Exactly, buster.” “And the poor who have children on top of that? Damn, that is dumb. That is super stupid. I never thought of myself as stupid, but I am. I should make friends with the rich or better yet the childless rich and therefore have a wealthy benefactor eager to help me whenever I need dinero because for them money means nothing, a pittance, and therefore me as the leech will feel less guilt. I think in the balance of the world this is a net positive; the fact that artists leech off the rich. This is something lots of writers and artists had to go through, so what’s the big deal? They call them benefactors. As a writer you have to suck it up. I think I write vampire stories because of the need writers have to drain benefactors. Also, vampires are a symbol of the capitalist system as it drains the lifeblood of the people or something. I am a writer who drains the lifeblood from people I meet to get story ideas. Dude, I keep telling myself, though, to hang out where the hanging out is good. What can Marsha do for me? She’s broke. I have to be honest, at least to myself. I am making a major mistake there, and I can see it like the fucking writing detective that I am. Assets are limited there, bro. And besides that, I happen to know she is saving up her money for a writers’ retreat in Boise. But I repeat myself.” “I don’t believe you mentioned that. That this lady was a writer. No, you didn’t say that before.” “I wouldn’t go that far. Calling her a writer. She attempts modern romances. Those do not qualify as actual writing.” The trucker sits up for a moment and drinks his beer. “If you say shit like that a lot to her, I don’t know if she has the love thing going for you.” “Hmm, no, you mean she’d be offended?” “Exactly.” “Well, Marsha isn’t sensitive. Once, when we had a class together, Marsha made a stab at describing me to the class, which was an assignment we had to do. I never got to write one back at her. So to describe me…she wrote it up for Dumb-ass Writing 354 and she read it aloud for the whole class to hear. I keep it in my wallet.” “After all those years.” “Yeah. It’s a little tattered and torn, because I read it occasionally. Would you be so kind as to read it aloud to me?” I hand over the folded piece of notepaper I have always kept. I hate to even part with that thing. “All righty-o. Wait. I need my reading glasses.” He pats his pockets. “Ah, let’s pass it to this gentleman beside me and perhaps he’ll read it to you.” A lonely man at a nearby table perks up at being included in our conversation, which probably had interested him intensely, though he hadn’t wanted to show it. “Please read it loudly,” I say, as the trucker hands the piece of much-read, lined note paper over to the man. “Ah-hem,” says the little cooperative reader. “‘Marc Viglietti. The skinniest, meanest looking douchebag…you’ve ever had the misfortune to have ogle you. Creepy green eyes, bulging out of his head like a toad, and a jaw and teeth that are a gaping front loader. Short and soulless, with long blonde hair that he tints black on the ends. Where the black hair fades to blonde, the strands are kinda greenish. Wears a black T-shirt with something awful splattered across it usually, something like a Creepshow comic book cover with a guy screaming or fake bullet holes.’” “Are you crying?” asks the trucker. “Rhinitis. Gets way worse at dusk.” “‘He favors skinny black jeans (does he have only one pair!) and black cowboy boots. That’s Viglietti for you. His voice is high-pitched, a little nasal. Midwestern, he says, and his complexion is sickly white on his cheeks which are covered with moles, pimples, and deep pits.’ Fits you to a tee,” says the reader passing it back, “she’s a great writer.” “I know. If only she wouldn’t waste her talent on romances.” “I’ve changed my mind. The person who wrote that might love you,” says the trucker, downing his beer and belching. When I make it home, I try to concentrate my thoughts on my good luck, being excused from paying rent, but all I can manage to think about is this trucker’s opinion of Marsha’s emotional state. I keep reminding myself the trucker said Marsha loved me, and he gave me two reasons to believe that. First, the way she wrote about me years earlier and second, the fact that she’d given me money. Women were cheap, this man said, and Marsha had given me her dinero! I keep running those two facts through my head to check the reality of them. The trucker’s arguments make sense to me and I feel very happy. But why should I feel happy? This is going to be Marsha’s ruin. CHAPTER FOUR “She’s been wearing the kind of shoes she wanted, but they must have been too small. I don’t know what’s going on with her big toe on her left foot, but now it’s infected. Poor kid, she’s in agony and walking all funny on the side of her foot.” Blah, blah, blah is what I hear. Why does Marsha have to tell me about her daughter’s infected toe the very next time I see her? A man who has discovered that a woman with big blue eyes happens to love him is not the kind of man who is going to want to hear all about an infected toe of a child the very next time he sees this woman who loves him. Not that I remember the gory details of Bailey’s infected toe, with the wrong size shoes, especially in sneakers and her big toe being the color of a stop sign and so sore that she is limping. I am trying to forget it as soon as possible. Shit! What an unpleasant topic! Why is Marsha inflicting this upon me? Does she think being in love with me is going to mean she can inflict this kind of shit on me? If so, she better think again. I am not going to provide a shoulder to cry on! About infected toes! Just a week ago my landlord forgave my rent. Now I sit in torture beside Marsha at the shoved-together restaurant tables in a private room of the shabby Mi Hawaiiano Hawaiian/Mexican restaurant where the Writers’ Warehouse Get-Together Dinner is held once a month. The rambling brick home has nothing to suggest Hawaii about it except photos of volcanos cut from old National Geographic magazines and a mannequin dressed in a grass skirt and leis that stands in this banquet room. Out the sliding glass window a steep slope of saguaro cacti appear to be running toward ugly brown tract housing. I stuff my mouth with tortilla chips dipped in painfully hot salsa in order to keep from say anything rude in response to the disgusting crap Marsha is telling me while I’m eating. “She has to soak it every night in Epsom salts and dry it with my hair dryer and Q-tips dipped in alcohol. What do you think?” I’ve been dreading that part, the part when I have to talk. Time for me to give an opinion and I’m hella irritated. I stuff more chips in my mouth and pretend to be considering everything she’s said. “Maybe you ought to take her to a specialist,” I finally grumble. It’s the only decent thing I can think of to say. At least it’s a fact-oriented, helpful suggestion, although my voice sounds as though I wish a gaping hole in the earth would open and swallow me. “Oh, she doesn’t need a specialist,” Marsha retorts. “She already saw the G.P. and a nurse practitioner.” That spurs me. “Well, a fucking nurse practitioner is wonderful. All I am saying is you better take that kid and her bad toe to the fucking foot doctor. At least before her foot has to be amputated. Better safe than sorry, said the pain-in-the-ass.” Hoped I’ve left them enough money. Guilt, it’s a terrible thing to have. It makes you worry about stuff you have no business worrying about. It makes you blow your top at someone who might possibly love you when it’s fucking inconvenient. “Vig, are you drunk? You didn’t hear anything I said and it was you who asked about Bailey. You’re staring at the coconut bra on the mannequin. How did you get drunk this early? Did you talk Rodney into coming here ahead of everyone?” I hate it when Marsha asks me if I’ve been drinking with Rodney. It’s like she thinks I am corrupting someone better than me. She’ll find out; Rod is no better than me and in some ways a lot more superficial. And Rod never agrees to babysit Bailey; he always has an excuse to get out of it. Marsha told me this! I gloat to myself, imaging Marsha noticing that. I might mention it. How am I going to fit that in with all the infected toes she’s throwing at me? Boy, I’m drunk again. The mannequin stands with its coconut halves covering her breast, arms akimbo. A sad grass skirt doesn’t cover her one missing foot. How the hell did that mannequin happen to be there missing a foot when Marsha was talking about infected toes? The missing foot had made me think of Bailey’s foot rotting and that made Marsha flare up at me and it set us fighting! “Um, drunk, that is only a rumor.” In fact, I’d better find out what’s there for me in her savings account and how much she gets paid each month exactly, if I want to be a real creep about it and take as much as I can again soon. “Marsha, how much do you get paid every month? You never told me.” I sample more of the scorching sauce. “Are you planning to ask for more money? I told you what I gave you was it. The end. I’m not giving you a plug nickel more. That was a one-time thing, Vig. Maybe you can apply to be an English teacher. There’s an opening at Pistor Middle School.” “Ta! Pistor? He-he. They named a school that? What the fuck?” “Yes, Vig,” says Marsha wearily, “they did. It would be a place where you could work and earn actual money to pay your actual bills instead of hitting up old friends for cash.” “Marsha, this dumb-ass job of yours at swagsville as a fucking assistant middle school office ogre doesn’t pay you diddly or squat.” “Are you talking to me, Vig? I see your mouth moving, but the words are slurred.” The thousand I took had bled her dry of almost all her savings for a few months, whatever amount that was that she had, and to tell you the truth I don’t know what that was. Which explains the short temper. Of hers. Better talk her into taking a job as the top office ogre with a lot higher dinero and more responsibility and worries. I must be super evil and look after myself. “I think,” I say, addressing Marsha pedantically, “your money situation could improve substantially if you only thought of advancement for yourself. Firstly, you ought to be the main or major office ogre and not the assistant office ogre. That position is beneath you.” “Do you believe I would take career advice from you, Vig? You borrowed money from me. Does it make sense that you are now figuring out how I can earn more money? I have never met anyone with as much gall as you, dude. And that is not meant as a compliment. I’m not going to become the office manager. I don’t want the stress,” she says. “You know that. I have to write in my spare time and if I take a better-paying job I won’t have any quality spare time. For writing or for Bailey.” “Quality spare time, my ass. All you write are crappy romance novels with the same stupid plots over and over again and the same cold men and young vulnerable innocent girls as characters. You’re churning them out like they’re coming off a fucking assembly line.” “Hey, I heard that!” says Rod. “Shut up, Rodney. We’re not talking to you.” “Vig, you are drunk. And couldn’t the same thing be said about your vampire stories?” Marsha points out. “Horror is a respectable genre. Horror deals with life and death. When you write your dumb romances you build up all this drama into your lovers’ first kiss and you do nothing with the sex. Dude, it is so sad. Put some sex in those things and you might sell them,” I add. Marsha laughs. At Rodney. He’s pulling a shocked, puritanical face behind my back. “Sex sells when nothing else does; that’s what I say,” Rodney pipes up. I spin around and glare at Rod. Is he becoming a good-looking fucking jerk who is trying to move in on my Easy-Touch Marsha? First, there was the Easy-Bake Oven, and now there is the Easy-Touch Marsha. Crap! That’s a great line! I will have to remember it and use it somewhere. Where? I have no fucking idea. I can barely remember what I’m currently writing. Where’s my notebook? What crap am I turning out this week? Vampires and a mariachi band? No, the poisoned well story. No vampire for a change. “We aren’t talking to you, loser. We old, old friends are arguing, so buss out,” I hiss angrily at Rodney. Marsha cackles. I turn to her and my mouth begins speaking though inside my head my brain seems to be screaming “Shut the fuck up! Stop arguing with her! She is so beautiful, why don’t you tell her!” “Only the fucking settings of your novels are different, Marsha. Can’t you come up with another romance scenario? How about a woman with a child and the man who babysat that child for five fucking years. On demand. For no cash. Ever.” I flutter my nonexistent eyelashes at her. That has a very weird effect on the onlookers who have now become most of our portion of the shoved-together tables. I know I’m making a terrible scene, but I can’t stop myself. I notice the other writers smiling as they gobble tamales and enchiladas. Fools! Prying idiots! Finally, food arrives in front of me and I fall upon it ravenously. “Yes, Vig. I gave you the money you wanted because you babysat for years and didn’t ask for cash once. But don’t press your luck. So you aren’t going to be evicted?” “It appears I have escaped that fate, Marsha. Also, I discovered my landlord is obsessed with Internet porn. I have cast him as a vampire in my next horror story.” “Let us know when it gets published,” says Rodney, snickering evilly. “Oh, it’ll be soon. I’m hitting on all cylinders now. When I get published I will blow this horn I have, that is, a stagecoach horn. It’s a tin horn, you know...” “Hah!” cries Marsha, “That’s so fucking perfect.” She bites her taco and it cracks into pieces. Serves her right. I chuckle in satisfaction as the taco contents fall on her shirt. “Dude,” I say to Marsha, “keep laughing, but I’ll have the last laugh. I keep this tin horn from a stagecoach in my room on the wall. When I get one of my vampire stories published, I’ll take that horn down and I’ll blow it hard. Real hard. I’ll wake up all the little biddies who live upstairs. The ones who keep trying to sell me Divinity candy. They give me a pain in the ass. The way they looked at me when I first moved in was as though I wanted to attack them or something and a couple of them still haven’t figured out I happen to live downstairs from them.” “What is this horn you’re gonna blow?” asks Marsha. “Say again?” “A tin horn.” “A tin horn! Oh Vig, how very apt. How ridiculously apt!” Marsha cries. “You are charmingly clueless in some of the ridiculous things you say.” Rodney joins in, snorting loudly. “A tin fucking horn. That’s so perfect. Describes you perfectly.” “What the fuck do you mean?” I say suspiciously. “A tin horn! Oh, that’s rich! I suppose you don’t even know what’s so funny, dude,” says Marsha. I try to control my anger, but it isn’t possible. “You in pants is funny, if you’d like to see a giant butt that can walk. And yes, those pants do make your butt look fat because it is fat, Marsha.” I regret saying that the minute I finish, but I discover this doesn’t even faze her. She is difficult to faze. It’s one thing I really like about her; she is not sensitive the way most women are. “You mean to tell me you don’t know what a tin horn is, dude?” This is added by Rodney, leaning forward over his plate and grinning wildly. Yeah, he has a thing for Marsha for sure. Now I know Rod is trying to get on Marsha’s good side by laughing at me! “What the fuck is it?” I demand angrily. “Vig, you don’t know? You aren’t very well educated about your genre. Here you are trying to write Westerns and you hardly knew any of the jargon or anything that’s Western! Rodney and I don’t write westerns and we know what a tin horn is. You ought to be embarrassed. Why don’t you buy yourself a book about the west and read it?” “Fuck off. I can fucking make up whatever I fucking need. Get off my fucking back, woman.” Marsha laughs loudly. “You think you can make up everything? You think so? That’s exactly the way you think, I suppose. Good grief. How stupid can you get? Why don’t you read a book once in a while or google something? Why do you insist on writing westerns set in the past when you don’t know what things like a tin horn are?” “Shut the fuck up. What is it, you fucking shitheads?” “A tin horn, Vig, is a person who’s full of himself. It’s slang for someone who has a lot of bravado. Blowing his own horn. Exactly like you,” she says, chuckling again. “You are a funny piece of work.” “Oh, shut the fuck up,” is my reply. My opinion of the world and Marsha and Rodney is now becoming dark and obscene. May they both rot in hell! “Oh Vig, Vig, you are something else. And you think you’re bothering me?” Waking up after you’ve been hysterical during drunkenness plunges one in the depths of despair. The next day after the writers’ meeting at Mi Hawaiiano I am reminded of that again. A second later and I am also reminded of the fact I need to be at work in twenty minutes. I throw on my clothes, run out through the courtyard waving at the Canasta crowd, and speed away in the Subaru. I barely brake fast enough to miss colliding with a patch of prickly pear cactus at the back of the Quonset hut. Yes, idiots at the door, this is the fucking rodeo museum, you are right, and you can come in the door and stop acting like a coupla sheep lost on the side of a fucking mountain in a blizzard. I am ranting to myself about the two shy museum visitors lingering near the parking lot door. She is a she sheep and he is a ram. Faces perfect as long white-haired sheeple with pink skin and weird hanging noses over wrinkles and bad teeth, a preciousness of their elegant movements beyond all imagining. She grips her purse tightly to her side and he has polished dress shoes on. Come into my chamber, says the spider to the fly. A stiff couple, a coupla stiffs, seriously overdressed, the man in a suit and the woman in a woman’s suit, brown tasteful striping on his tie and her skirt. Oh god they are European weirdoes who immediately walk in behind me, almost stepping on my heels as Chet unlocks the door. They try to pay way too much for their admissions. A hundred dollars when they owe twelve! “This is too much money,” I say in all honesty, “you don’t owe this much, for heaven’s sake. Don’t you have any smaller bills with you? No, sheesh, well that’s a pity. I’ll get your change right away but I have to open the safe and it takes me forever. Go on it.” And the woman sheep says, “Oh, why don’t you put the difference in the donation box for us. We don’t worry about these trifles.” Oh, yeah, money is a trifle to those who have it dripping off their fingers and they tell me to drop the difference in the box for a donation which I do not do, of course, because I am desperate, well, maybe not after Marsha has helped me and my landlord has forgiven my missed rent and excused two months’ future rent, but I’ll be desperate soon enough, that’s for sure, and from now on I’m keeping any goddamn money I get my hands on, thank you very much. The two of them make me sick, trusting me like that with money for the museum. Why don’t they insist I give them the change and let them drop it in the donation box themselves? Why do they leave me in charge of the morality of the situation? Can’t they see I have no fucking morals? Isn’t that obvious? “We are charming with this place. And very much hoping to…er… see the wonderful coaches which you are having and all that we having read about online and your whole collection and as someone interesting in the old west, well, you know, it is sounding so very wonderful, I hope you understanding?” the man says, standing in front of my desk. What he says ended like that, his little lilting, weirdo speech of non-English with a lot of ing endings stuck randomly everywhere. And these European weirdoes natter on about the wonderfulness of this wonderful museum they have yet to see, in all its dusty junkiness, and I see, oh, god it is Oliver Jones, the resident nutcase blundering in the museum door as big, or as skinny, as you please, coming in and stinking up the place like a bad piece of overripe cheese. The only good thing is he scares the weirdoes away from my desk; they scuttle away looking worried by his grimy pants. Woo, this is one stinky old dude, of the highly fucking odiferous variety. I’m smelling the gentleman again after days. Living where I do, I have smelled many of them because those Canasta ladies are pretty stinky. And a lot of old guys go through our trash. But no, this guy is hella worse. Woo and woo, the body odor is knock-your-socks-off, A Number One, Stink-o. “Howdy. Mind if I sit?” asks Oliver. “Not at all,” I say, holding my breath slightly as I speak. My eyes sting and water from the stink emanating from the old dude. Fuck! Getting to work on my writing seems unlikely now. Where’s Chet to protect me? “Glad to see you again.” “Can I visit the museum?” Oliver asks. “For an hour or so. I won’t stay any longer, I suppose. Not any longer than that.” Oliver glances at me plaintively. “Sure. I’ll put money in the till again. What’s that you have?” I ask, noticing some notes the old man is bringing out of his pocket, though I am not actually wanting to know what they are. “Oh, these are some very interesting facts about the famous people in Arizona,” says the crazy nut. “Yeah?” “Take a copy.” “Thanks.” “Have you ever heard the truth about the corruption of Governor Wilkins, for example?” Oliver begins. Yikes, he’s planning to talk to me too! “Can’t say I have.” I wish I could sound more interested; this old guy might have some gems for stories, but my fight with Marsha at the writers’ workshop dinner torments me and those morose feelings chase away any thoughts of great stories. I wish I hadn’t said half the stupid things I blurted out at her. No use dwelling on it, I think, as I dwell on it once again. Oliver begins spouting ridonkulous ideas immediately about the terrible corruption of the famous old pioneers of the state, and as I have the misfortune to have to listen to him, Oliver wears my ear out with dumb tales about all the important people he knows from the history of this state and how they were corrupt in different ways. “Well, Governor Wilkins has a whole park named for him but nobody knows he stole every bit of property he owned and how he did was through lawyering…” Oliver sees through the whole world of wealthy and famous people, apparently. I am horribly bored, but I suffer along, smiling at pertinent points. Strange old man, a freak this damn Oliver. I only met him a few weeks ago and already he is driving me a little crazy. Oh, fuck, he stinks of urine and old trapped farts. Shows up at the wrong moment. Not sure I want to be around the stinky old dude. Fuck, he stinks to hell. Say something nice. Say something to make the old fool like you, I urge myself. “You’ve got some interesting stories here,” I say, trying to make heads or tails of the nonsense printed on the paper. What is this paper? Little bits of writing about people? Snippets from the past all over it. Crazy-ass writing covering the paper at different angles. “The famous men of Arizona’s past were all frauds!” I read aloud from the title. What a fucking kook! Written all in crazy big capital script and he puts his ideas randomly on the paper. A paper covered with every bit of crazy crap he can think of. Every line is a different scandalous fact about who did what to whom. He names the names of the culprits of various misdeeds. Who had a mistress he murdered. Those who were stupid. The stupid Southern bigots, and the cowards and those who had parks, elementary schools, and stadiums named for them. Famous scoundrels. The shams, the lies, those who didn’t keep faith or had a failing. The state’s various famous and powerful madmen. I have heard of a few of them. Some who were cruelly ignorant or ignorantly cruel… “Now you ought to hear about Mrs. Knight. She murdered about six people and got away with it scot-free and it was all hidden due to the fact that…” Say this old coot is fucking fun in an odd way with all his crazy accusations about the powerful and prominent. What a strange obsession to have late in your life, but you never know what will grab someone when their life is almost over and I suppose it’s normal to decide the best thing is to reveal some shocking details of the lives of one’s betters to even the score before checking out for the last time. Problem is I figure the members of the Arizona Historical Society won’t like to hear what this old coot is talking about and I sense there isn’t anything to the nonsense he has written on the paper saying they had illegitimate babies, unknown lovers, or had committed murders and depredations undercover. Letting this guy into the museum for free is probably a terrible idea! Some were accused of thievery and some of outright robbery. Some cases involved stealing land or the property of orphans or widows. Society, the paper says, wants to gloss over everything dark about people who become prominent. People want to think the best of the town’s best. That is the idea. Sweep all the dirt under the carpet and stop the rattling skeletons. That’s all Oliver wants to do. Rattle the skeletons in the closets and make them grin and gamble about the stage for a while telling more about others than they want us to hear. Might have some good stories to tell if you could get past the craziness long enough to get a straight plot out of him without any side-stepping. Today I’m thinking in a practical vein. “Another little known fact on that paper in front of you concerns the business of Mr. Franklin Grant. He amassed a fortune in jewels but he took most of them from a chest that belonged to a Mexican lady whose husband had died. She didn’t have a soul to protect her and he left her penniless. He became a prominent citizen in Los Angeles.” Besides the stink, maybe I do enjoy Oliver’s company. Even if some of his accusations are a little unbelievable, the outlines of these stories are thrilling and provide me with more grist for the literary mill I’m running. Yes, fucking yes, more grist for the damn unsuccessful literary mill. I’m so glad I looked that up, the grist thing, when I was with Rod. Eventually, Oliver bores himself. “I think I’ll take a tour around the museum,” he says. “Go ahead,” I reply. In a few minutes I can hear Oliver talking to the Europeans. “This wagon was use-ed in the mines, they say here on the tag, dear. Shall I reading it to you? Are you interesting? My, my interesting. I haven’t seen one of this construction.” The two weird Europeans talk loudly about a display. “I used to know a lot about mining,” says Oliver, sneaking up on the pair of European weirdoes. “Did you now, sir, I must say that is most interesting indeed. What was your capacity? In what capacity, I mean to saying?” asks the European man. Oh, this is going to be good; I laugh quietly. I want to write, but it’s impossible with this funny scene going on near me. “Well, I invested in them,” says Oliver Jones cheerfully. “And I collected legends of lost gold. Strange stories I’ve heard over the years. I’ve kept them all these years. I might be the only one who still knows them.” I chuckle to myself. Oh, good lord, more strange stories? Lost mines. Doesn’t he mean lost minds? “That is interesting. So you know about lost mines and such, hmm?” says the woman sheep. Ho, ho, yes, siree, I want to hear these tall tales! I’ve got to get up and hear these! “You could say I do, ma’am, yes. I have collected the tales of such things. For example, there is the tale of the Babbling Nun. She came into a camp of hunters in 1912 and told them she had seen a fabulous cave of gold in the Wetstone Mountains, but the sight of nuggets as wide as your fingers had driven her mad, and all she could do was babble about the fabulous nuggets.” “Well, I’m impressing,” says the sheep woman. Here I snicker even louder at the absurdity of Oliver Jones talking to these European weirdoes. Even though I’m laughing, I feel myself trying to hear a little better what the old stinky nut is talking about with his lost mines. Oh, but what a bunch of nonsense! It’s hysterical to listen to him, talking about lumps of gold the width of your finger and a babbling nun. And these idiots are eating it up, swallowing it hook, line and sinker. I stop writing and listen to old Oliver talking. Then I write the conversation so I can remember it for a good comedy book about a gold-obsessed old man. “I tell you, a better story, though, which I got firsthand is the tale of the pot of Apache gold in the Huachucas!” “Well, how fascinating,” says the ram. “Sure. It is.” “Firsthand? You mean you knew the person telling the story?” says the ram. “Yes, that’s it.” Ha! They are idiots to fall for this idiot’s story. “He told me he had seen the treasure and left it where he found it due to the fact too many people were around. When he came back, he never could locate the exact ridge, but he had pretty good directions. Afterwards he had a car accident and he couldn’t convince anyone to go back there.” I stop writing and let my hearing focus so I can remember later what the weird Europeans reply to Oliver. This is going to be rich, but the whole group is moving away! How can I get closer to hear what they are saying? There’s a little dust on the old Conestoga, for sure, I think I might get up and use that as a ploy to get closer to them. And to think I’ve been trying to get away from Oliver (because he smells so bad and talks nonsense) and it takes these two weirdoes from Europe talking to him to discover he has some funny stories. Those two morons eat up everything Oliver says, though they are horrified by his stink. If I take a rag and wipe it casually, I can walk around them. Do the old rub-a-dub-dub let’s make this place spic and span routine. But I decide against it. The whole thing is such nonsense! At my desk in my apartment beneath my fucking tin horn later that night. I sit trying to write the Jose Vampiro story, which my landlord has inspired, but I am reliving (in fury) the tin horn episode at the Writers’ Warehouse dinner instead. Marsha made me feel like an idiot in front of Rodney. But instead of hating Marsha, I’m thinking about how fucking irritating Rodney is becoming. Why do I still consider him a friend? And what did Marsha mean by saying she would not give me a plug nickel again? Did she really mean that? And later that evening I even overheard Marsha and Rod discussing going on vacation together! She and Bailey drive somewhere every summer, usually Colorado or the Pacific Northwest, and Marsha uses that place for the location of her next crappy romance, writing a bunch of flowery descriptions that stink to high heaven about the way the romantic couple view the sunset and the plants and crap. She used to say she would take me with her someday so I could have a vacation; come to think of it, it’s been a fucking long time since she’s said that to me. “A real writer can write regardless of adversity,” I, the douchebag friend, plan to reply if ever I hear again her anguished complaint about getting a better job. Shit, I feel bad though, saying crap like that even inside my head and would I do it now to her, saying crap I don’t even believe and never have? It’s messed up to imagine treating her like that after all the years I’ve known her, but what can I say? The fact is I have to do what I have to do when I have to do it and there is no escape from destiny, dude. Why am I chewing my fingernails again? Oh please, I beg myself, don’t cry. I know I am saying a lot of stupid-ass platitudes, trying to make myself feel better about Rodney moving in on Marsha. The thing is I can’t think of a way to stop Rodney. But, snap, and say now, I think with a sniff, Marsha might have other amigos or relatives who I can tap for rent money, too, since she might not be in love with me. I will have to get cold about our relationship and plan to use her for whatever I can get. Sure, that’s something to hold onto. Now that she’s no longer in love with me and all my illusions are shattered, I can use her freely. I feel super crappy and super drunk and illogical saying that to myself, honestly though, confessing my truly terrible-ass thoughts. She’s been too good to me and I’m not even loyal to her, ever, and I’ve told her a hundred times I’m no good and she should leave me to my own devices, but she keeps helping me out whenever she can. But maybe, maybe, she’s wising up? She’s given me rides places and given me her actual stuff. Dude, no kidding; Rodney was wrong when he said her gifts were nothing special. And I used to think, sometimes, every once in a while: “I hope this means she isn’t taking any of it from Bailey.” She gave me a home cooked birthday cake with “Happy Birthday, Vig” on it and one year she gave me some writing things and even a new leather coat, boss, but I gave it to a chick, and Marsha told me to keep going at my vampire novels, even though she didn’t like them and thought the horror genre was about the dumbest crap… Hey, I need to stop right there and think about what’s going on. Maybe she wants me to succeed for her own reasons and maybe she thinks if she says I shouldn’t give up I’ll become a success and I won’t forget her and Bailey! She is a vampire! Oh, jeez. That’s my detective brain thinking of symmetry in relationships, but it’s shit, dude. There is no symmetry between the thinking of a man and a woman. None whatsoever. Maybe it’s my paranoid brain imagining. But no, I don’t think Marsha will ever be as devious as I am. I don’t think she has a devious bone in her body. Buys me a beer and laughs at my jokes, when she doesn’t have Bailey with her. And she gave me actual dough, which is a new low for her. A new fucking low. If she was flirting with Rodney at the writer’s dinner, it had to be to make me jealous, therefore she might have fallen in love with me! That much is an obvious conclusion, isn’t it? If I think through the situation carefully from start to finish that is the only reasonable conclusion. And knowing she has fallen in love with me convinces me she has truly, truly disintegrated as a person. Sad, and I don’t even respect her writing. The whole thing is pathetic, and I keep telling her that, in my mind, but she doesn’t listen or doesn’t want to hear what I’m saying which is fucking honest. Well, I’ve warned her. At least in my mind. I tried to warn the one I screwed? Yeah, there you go, I mutter. Why is it always the case the screwees refuse to heed the screwers? I never thought of Marsha having amigos or relatives, though, besides Bailey, who is in third grade (I have babysat Bailey time and time again for hours to be a good guy for the little ridonkulous tyke), but she might scare up a few of them, and the douchebag writing buddy might move in on them, I figure. Sure, it’s a possibility in the realm of stupid-ass ridonkulous things that could never fucking happen. Maybe that’s what Rodney has in mind! Sure, he’s gotten wind of her money from me! I had mentioned that Marsha gave me money. That Rod is the biggest opportunist, besides me, that I know. She doesn’t know a thing about that Rodney character; he’s a bad actor. Damn, he’ll screw anybody. Rodney babysit a kid? Fat chance! He won’t do anything that doesn’t benefit him directly. Rodney doesn’t care about Bailey. I realize no matter how tough I talk, I won’t leave a kid in the lurch. I’ll always stand up for a kid. Bailey can’t be left without a babysitter, which would be messed up. Rodney talks a good talk, however he doesn’t have that bottom-line interest in others, and he doesn’t have any interest in Marsha’s kid; I can bet that’s true. Marsha is making a big mistake if she’s thinking Rod will come to her aid the way I have all the times I’ve agreed to take care of Bailey. Sure, Rodney is all for himself. Now I might say that, but I don’t act that way. Marsha ought to be able to see the difference…. “Hey, Marsha, got any relatives in town?” One day I’ll drop that kinda casually into the conversation. My new scheme. Plunk, drop it right in front of her. Now that’s something worth looking into and I’ll write myself a fucking note to that effect as soon as I get a six-pack to celebrate getting the dinero finally, after six long months struggling to meet the rent every month, and the “Spinoza months” bonus from Tight-ass, and so I am finally many months up on rent and can get some breathing room with money from my job. And the tax dough. Gotta get onto the taxes, dude. Get going now while you’re ahead. Finally, also, a bigger pay-off to that goddamn lame relationship. I mean with Marsha. Fellow writers, fuck them! Shit. And I ain’t getting no second job, you idjet landlord. And Marsha. And Rodney. Why is everyone ganging up on me about a second fucking job? So, dude, wait a fucking minute. If Marsha had any relatives with any money they would have given her their money by now, right, Mister Smart-Ass Detective Asshole? If she had any relatives with money, would she be left so poor her kid had trouble with the wrong size sneaker making her toe infected? Good thinking, fucking genius. And I realize it is fucking hopeless to imagine her relatives giving me anything, and truly it is beyond hopeless into the realm of unthinkably ridonkulous things to not even waste any time thinking about. Stroll up and get yourself another six pack of decent ale for a change from Rancho Grande Drive-Thru Liquors. Go ahead, you deserve it for working hard to get yourself out of all your fucking money troubles, which are coming at you from all directions like a stupid Star Wars laser attack. I am sitting on my shaggy, buggy couch, the one I found on the street one day and the one I sleep on in front of an old foot locker (the colors of the Mexican flag, red, white and green on different sides) and which I use as my coffee table. I have my feet resting on the locker and a beer bottle resting on my stomach and I am watching a neighbor walk a Chihuahua across the street toward the dry cleaners. In another old duplex some hairy guys without shirts are sitting on a wall playing the guitar and talking to the Chihuahua dude. “Is she better now?” asks one hairy dude. “Yeah, she’s not vomiting as much.” Oh, that’s good. Poor little Chihuahua. Pablo, the counterman at Rancho Grande Drive-Thru Liquors who lives at Don Francisco Apartments with me, strolls through the courtyard toward my open screen door. “So now you’re buying good beers, huh, Danish ale? What, did you win the fucking lottery?” says Pablo, after he reads the text where I offer him a Danish ale and before he even gets through the door. He knows how broke I am usually and how I buy crap beers and complain all the time about how lousy they are. “I’ve had a streak of good luck. Two streaks. Have a fancy ale.” I get off the couch and go to my refrigerator. “Thanks. Some people do have good luck,” says Pablo falling on my couch with the beer I hand him. “Others are fucked all the time. I seen it all today, bro. A dude at work got hisself hit by a fucking truck.” “What!?” “Yes, it happened again. Can you believe this crap? I said, ‘Step onto the curb, dude, you’re blocking the kammamumatag coming up behind you. That guy has tried to run people over before and he never stops.’ And wham! Next thing I know the dude I’m talking to is flying through the air and I’m dialing 911. The ambulance arrives and they’re shipping the guy off to St. Mary’s on a stretcher. Broken pelvis. Hope the bastard doesn’t sue the store and they’ll blame me for it. Like I didn’t try to warn him or something. I said ‘watch out’ to him. I told him before not to order from the drive-thru window, but step inside the store. I swear he don’t listen well. A kammamumatag got him. That’s what you fucking get for not listening to people when they trying to warn you of shit.” That kammamumatag is goddamn O’odham lingo for a fucking pickup truck. I think this is interesting, when Pablo sticks O’odham lingo into his conversation like a ladling of spicy salsa, and I am gonna hafta use him and his lingo in a vampire horror story someday. Hey, I might have gotten that classic, the Caca Cocktail idea, from Pablo! Sure, he said it once to me and it was fucking funny. I’d forgotten that. This guy is a gold mine for a writer. A walking, talking gold mine. I feel like a vampire, sucking his victim dry of good story ideas! “Hit by a truck in the drive-thru lane of a liquor store. Shoot, that is a good beginning for one of my stories,” I say happily. “Use it. Use it in a story if you want, Vig. I give it to you for…say…three thousand dollars, maybe. No, make that five thousand bucks.” Pablo winks at me mischievously. “Sure, buddy. Ha ha, but, fuck, I bet you know some good legends and crap from your tribe that I can use in a slick fashion. Maybe you know some creepy tribal history, legends of devils and gods, big battles and crap from the desert. Or the old creepy cliff dwellings. Sure, that’s gotta be fantastic. Sheesh, I’m gonna hafta pick your brains sometime and get a buncha good stories outta you. Fucking jerk; you’ve got them in you and you’re hiding them from me! Give them to me.” I tip my beer up to the ceiling. I’m smiling like crazy. I like this guy. “I mostly didn’t listen to stories my parents told me. They both were so fucking messed up. Their stories were about kids getting in trouble. My father is a dentist. He told stories about kids not brushing their teeth and how all their teeth were blackened and bloody. You wouldn’t want that kinda crap. I have these aunts that are battling over baskets, though. That’s pretty fucking funny.” “That sounds interesting. You see, I can smell a good fucking story a mile off. I could smell stories stewing in your brain, stories cooking up in there, in that brilliant noggin of yours, and you don’t even know what you’re doing when you’re doing it and you don’t know you stink of great stories and interesting characters you have known. You sly native fox you. Give me the story right now.” “Well, bueno, uh, this one aunt works at the gift shop near San Xavier Mission and she can get stuff placed in the shop, you know, Indian crap for tourists to waste their fucking money on. So the other aunt weaves baskets, thinking she’s gonna ask her sister if also can get her stuff in a shop across from San Xavier and make a shitload of cash. But all her baskets so far are pretty much crap; she can’t follow the patterns right or nothing. She made this one with a bat on it, and she spent months on it, months and months, and made it big, but when she shows it to her sister my other aunt says the fucking truth; that bat looks more like Godzilla or something instead of a fucking bat.” “Ha! That’s funny. Does it look like Godzilla?” “Sure as shit does! Almost exactly, dude.” “I wish I could buy it. It sounds fucking great.” “Um, well. You couldn’t afford it, Vig. It’s like above a hundred or something. A hundred and fifty or two hundred, I think. Shit. That Godzilla basket makes them fight and everybody takes sides. My aunt wit the contact doesn’t want that fucking ugly basket in the shop in case it ruins her relationship wit the owner of the shop, you get it? So my dad says the one wit the contacts should put the basket in the shop and see what happens. Some stupid tourist might like it. You never know and all that crap.” “So what happened?” “Oh, it’s still there. The stupid tourist who will like it hasn’t showed up yet. My aunt keeps waiting. The price tag still says a hundred and fifty, I guess, or maybe two hundred. Maybe a Japanese tourist will like it. They made Godzilla and everything. And they got all kinds of dough.” “Ha! Good thinking. I like it. That is a fucking funny story, Pablo.” “So what’s new wit you?” Pablo asks, tilting up his bottle of ale. “I got Marsha to give me some dough cuz I was late on the fucking rent.” “Oh yeah, you were in trouble wit dough. That explains this fancy-ass ale. Who’s Marsha?” “The chick who loves me.” “Woah. Yeah? You got a chick who’s in love wit you?” “Yeah, I told you. She’s going crazy giving me gifts, remember. I told you about her and she paid my rent this month already. No more ugly brosnor as a result. I’m moving up thanks to her, to Marsha,” I listen to myself saying all this to this story container sitting beside me, telling him proudly about Marsha. “I forgot. How you know this Marsha?” asks Pablo. “Ah, the tassel who went to college with me? Aren’t you following anything I’ve been saying for the past month since we met?” “Maybe yes, maybe no. What’s the name of my girlfriend?” says Pablo slyly. “Uh…I don’t know,” I stumble. “Well, I don’t know either, cuz I don’t got one. Ha ha, punked you! So you’re a gigolo now? I thought you were a fucking horror writer?” “No, I’m a fucking horror,” I say, getting up from the couch and angrily snatching another beer from the fridge. At that point I’m getting offended. Maybe Pablo isn’t so damn interesting after all. I’m not so damned enthused about using him for story idea or even talking to him again. Use him as a source? Forget it, I seethe. What an insulting jerk this guy is. Wait now, I think an instant later. I shouldn’t be hasty. A good story is a good story and it doesn’t pay to get so damn butt-hurt about every little thing someone says. Aren’t I called Vile Vig by my writer friends? Gigolo! Crap, is that what I am now, I ask myself? According to Papago Pablo. Shazam! Maybe I could be. Doesn’t bother me one bit come to think of it in the right manner. Sure, I think, I will entertain any offers of gigolo-dom, which come down the pike in my direction. Yes, sir. Come on, rich old ladies. I am ready and willing to be your fantastic gigolo. Give me the doe-ray-me first. I figure I am handsome enough for them to want my services and no woman has complained of my hook-ups yet. But I don’t want a second job, not even as a gigolo, when I think about it. Why is everyone I meet—Rod, my landlord, Marsha, and now Pablo—are trying to get me to take on a second fucking job? CHAPTER FIVE The next day I and six friendly overly fine-ass Danish ales stroll Frontier Avenue (Pablo and I had demolished a fair number and I’m buying more) and I’m clutching these ales close in a complex, loving embrace. Fine-ass complex fucking ales. Sun feels great on my hide after a coupla cold mornings, near freezing and windy even in this desert, but now I can afford running my fucking heat when I have my rent paid ahead of time! I am still sleeping under loads of blankets, though, which I bought from the Salvation Army and that blanket that Marsha gave me for Christmas, God bless her bleeding heart, and it still bugged me to think that Rod had gone with her to buy me that. Maybe he’d been lying? These fancy ales are going to be mighty fine, say I to my fucking self. I do like a fine ale, instead of cheap-o swill. A busted car drives slowly by. Goddamn! Will you please look at that ratchet ass bitch over there? There is every kind of ugly on her. What do you call that hair style? Creepy comb-over crumble? I’ve never seen that before. I think she must have used chalk on all the zig-zag parts and teeny braids. Now it might be funny if a vampire refused to suck the blood of someone like her because of her bad taste in hairdos. That would make a comic vampire story, which I haven’t written, but I don’t think I want to do that, tempting though it is. That happens to be a crappy idea produced by a person with a mild hang-over. A hombre with beautiful tats all over his chest and arms, ones that make me jealous right away, bursts out of a door with an overflowing trash bin in his hands and a baby in a diaper follows him slowly down the steps as though the man is the most special thing in the world and this kid’s whole world is walking away with the trash, so he has to follow. Awwww. I get a weird pang. A baby-type pang. I think it might be fun to have one of those myself, tottering after me. Not a garbage can, but a baby. Cuteness rules the day of the detective. Detecting cuteness is, however, a stupid thing for a horror writer to do. How can I use that in a horror story? A horror baby? Somebody musta done it already. A horror vampire baby? A whole flock of baby vampires, flying in a team. Team titan vampire babies. I’m stretching too hard for a dumb idea. And it has been done before by some other dumb writer who was way ahead of me in the game of thinking up dumb-ass ideas. After I get the baby pang, I divert my thinking to my relationship with Marsha. Let Marsha struggle and suffer over the ridonkulous plots of her crappy romances and let her fail at it...wait, shazam! Ha, ha, ha. Get her to succeed! That’s it! Prop her up in this ridonkulous endeavor and have her make a mint selling this romance hokum to the plebes who will eat it up like pabulum. Make her work like the devil at it non-stop. Goad her on with stars in her eyes telling her she is going to be successful and make a load of dough. And who knows, maybe she will make a fortune off that crap of hers. She might be a millionaire from it and I will be better off as her oldest and dearest friend because of it, when she will let me live in the spare bedroom of her foothills mansion and occasionally clean her algae-ridden pool, mop up her messy parties, and live like a king in a small attic room of a giant modern desert castle. Sure, that would be the life. Let her believe crap about me and her. Damn, dude, I’m good. I am her friend. Not! Hoping I don’t have to play, because that isn’t there for me, truthfully. A fifty pound overweight girlfriend? Ack! Capeche? Adventures in Paradise, Lost. I wish I was fucking blind. Ho, ho. “Vig,” she’d said to me in her squeaky voice like chalk on a chalkboard, shit, when I asked her for the money, “you hardly have any friends, and if you want to know why, it’s because you can’t stop insulting everyone. Why do you think they call you Vile Vig?” “Cuz I’m so sweet natured?” I answered back at her in my mind, adding an insipid, fucking grin. I can’t remember what I said to her when she actually said that. “Viglietti!” “That’s my name, don’t wear it out.” “Vig, haven’t you got any family who can help you? It’s just that I feel sorry for you, you know. After all these years I’ve known you, to see you reduced to begging me for money. I thought you had more self-respect. And you know, Vig, I’m only doing this once, by the way. Don’t ever ask me again because I’m not giving you a plug nickel after this. It’s only for old time’s sake and I believe you are truly going to lose your apartment if I don’t help you. And you ended up in the hospital with pneumonia and didn’t even tell me anything about it and that breaks my heart. You could have died and no one would have known the difference!” That was when the tears showed. That was what she’d said when she cried. I remember all that perfectly. I remember it better than I ought to. I can remember dialog. Well, sure, the sickness story helped, but I still think she has a crush on me. So, she loves me, and nobody should get smart-assed about it the way Rodney had either. She fell for that lie about pneumonia without any proof! Fuck. And, and, I know that was not true about her not giving me another plug nickel. She had to have been bluffing, since I know I can read her better than she can herself. She’s a pushover. I can ask for anything, but later, not right now so soon after I’ve gotten money from her. If she fell for the stupid-ass pneumonia line, she’s gonna fall for any crap I tell her again. Maybe that’s a sign she loves me; I should ask somebody besides Rodney for an opinion, maybe Pablo. Does a person who falls for your shit qualify as ‘in love’ with you? Wouldn’t someone question my sickness story? Why didn’t she grill me? This isn’t going to be the last time she would give me money. Far from it. “I don’t have anyone who can help me out, Marsha. They’re all back in Wisc…and, you know, like I told you, they’re too poor to help me out.” Didn’t want to tell her I’m from Wisconsin, because it wouldn’t be too hard to find my family and they might tell her a thing or two about me which might change her opinion of me, though maybe it wouldn’t surprise her. But it would lead to things I don’t want her to know. Shit. No, my family won’t give me any money, Marsha, because I am permanently estranged from those fools after my sister-in-law and I hooked up (god help me, I didn’t see that one coming and my brother walked in on us, shazam of all shazams!). And I left Wisconsin for good on a Greyhound bus. My fucking parents won’t give me the time of day. My brother was a total jerk to me all my life and now he is super successful after he stole my girlfriend, Patty, and dumped her two months later so that she wouldn’t ever have anything to do with me again, and I think a lot of her. She was my best friend in town and now I’ve lost her, so I was fucking tired of hearing about what a great dairy farmer my brother was going to make after going to college and everything. My dad was fooled by my brother’s sorry ass! Dad never saw my brother for the manipulative creepy moron he truly is, and of course my parents still think I ruined my brother’s marriage when my brother had already cheated on his wife and she was only using me to get back at my brother and she even set it up so that my brother would walk in on us! Investigations into my past life should come with a warning: real life stupid soap opera plot lurking ahead! Mean bitch. That’s what my sister-in-law was. Thank god she and my brother didn’t have children. I heard from one of my aunts in Wisconsin that they are not even married anymore and he got some other woman pregnant recently. My parents aren’t even going to meet that grandchild because the mother wants nothing to do with my brother’s sorry ass and she moved away to Long Beach, California to become a movie star, according to my aunt who I have every reason to believe. I didn’t have a chance with my dad, and my mom wouldn’t take my side against my dad, so it was goodbye Wisconsin, hello Arizona. I applied to college myself and got enough grant money to make it on my own, at least while I was in school. “Welcome home. Here’s our conquering hero,” say the roaches and crickets when I walk into my abode with more brew. Nobody here today but fools. Shazam. Refrigerator runs loudly and I hope it isn’t about to take a crap, because I don’t want any more contact with my landlord. Two hours of Spinoza and Internet porn was enough for me. I’ve been thinking, if my refrigerator is about to break or my pipes about to leak that would be about fucking typical for me. I sit on my sofa, which is my bed, as I said, and review the day, especially how I am gonna hit up Marsha for dinero over and over and that isn’t no lie, or maybe it is. I realize I am lying to myself in order to descend about as far down as a human can go into the charnel house of evil madness. What an impossible situation. That is the ultimate disintegration, bro, I tell myself. “When you can’t be honest with yourself you are sinking into The Abyss of Piss,” I say solemnly aloud. Hey, I need to write that down; Abyss of Piss is kinda nice. Whadduya think, I ask myself? Okay, I’ll put it in as a small note in my notebook. I get up to find my notebook and a pencil. So Marsha has said I was calling people names? Little old him? Oh, I hadn’t called them half the names I have floating around in my head and I realize I ought to shock her by telling her that, so that I can drive her away and that would be the best thing for her. Those disloyal so-called friends of mine ought to be thankful for the fact I don’t hit them with all I have in my arsenal of incredible insults and I figure they ought to stop sniveling up to Marsha. Hey, I think angrily, she is mine to snivel up to! Get away from my Easy-Touch Marsha. Shazam. That is a joke I keep making to myself about the Easy-Bake Oven. That is a fucking funny line, which I must remember to use somewhere in a book, but I don’t see how it would fit into a vampire novel at the current momento. “Jot it down, though. Right, dude. To the notebook and jot that down, even before you figure it out. Right, crickets? They have been very quiet since late November and are probably dead or sleeping.” I jot down the Easy-Bake thing calmly and carefully. At that, I crack open a beautiful ale and it goes down my gullet. “Hey, this stuff is great.” I happen to be a failed writer, of course, like Marsha. She wants a career as a romance writer, and her unpublished books have the dumbest titles you can think of, except that you would never, ever, think of them seriously, because they would make you burst out laughing so hard you wouldn’t be able to go on thinking about anything else like how to make a dinner out of one can of refried beans. I believe she’s written one called Love in the Lost Canyon, Beyond and Between Tomorrow (wait, not that, but something equally as ridonkulous, I’m sure), and We, As Always. She churns them out at about the same pace I produce horror novels, that is, a steady stream of love, love, and love, for the love loving crowd; God, protect us. In the last three years, she’s emailed all of them to different agents like so much Bermuda chaff scattered in the wind—without effect. Not that she wasn’t certain of her own brilliance. Not that she had ever doubted her own eventual success, for she claimed the love story thirst of the public was practically unquenchable. They must have their cold, dominate males and poor, frightened virgins. I have the same opinion of my ability to sell horror; isn’t it funny we’re sort of symmetric people and all that symbolic crap-a-ron-i? “Vig, you are mocking everything your friends say and you know they always call you The Vile Vig behind your back? Why would you want your friends to do that? It isn’t right to deliberately provoke people that way so that they eventually have to drop your friendship. I see that’s what you’re doing,” Marsha complained a few weeks earlier. Oh, you detecting detective, you writer, you, Marsha. You see what I’m doing? Oh, that is only an illusion, baby, you don’t see half of what I’m doing. Sure, I get rid of friends, sometimes, even old, once-dear friends, like Rodney whose texts are currently being ignored since he seems to be making a move on you, Marsha. But not you, Marsha; you don’t mind me calling you names; to you, I’ll always be…Vig. Or Viglietti. We go back, like I said, back a coupla years when we attended fucking college together like a coupla dumb clucks wasting our time and money on the futile pursuit of an education that would make our writing go down better. Dumb old lame Marsha. Returning to finish her education when she was a ridonkulous twenty four, while I was barely turning 18, but I wouldn’t call myself baby-faced or fresh faced, and anybody would understand why in light of my sister-in-law and me, and that happened right before I moved to Arizona and turned eighteen. Well, Marsha had had a baby, Bailey, so maybe she isn’t so fresh-faced either, although she is six years older than me, come to think of it that way, which is a way I never thought of before until I robbed her. She had never talked about the baby’s father and I’d never asked. Sweet mystery of life and all that crap, I suppose. She said she came from Florida, so one would suppose the father was still there, but she never said Bailey had gone to visit her dad or that he had visited here. Well, as I said, Marsha and I found each other–no, that isn’t exactly the right way to say it, I don’t mean to imply I ever had any true love interest in Marsha or affection for her, so I should say we found ourselves taking several dumb-ass creative writing classes together. The class I remember best was the one when I first met her, Dumb-Ass Writing 225. It ran from 4 until 7 every Tuesday afternoon during the fall semester of our sophomore year, and for that class you had to write silently during most of those three fucking hours. In her case that meant scribbling in a yellow legal pad, because she couldn’t get inspired to write her crap on a computer—she was so fucking ridonkulous about her writing mood and all that crap, and in my case typing on a laptop. But both of us took the class seriously and worked at our respective salt mines without even glancing around the room much. I still remember most of what happened on the night I met her as I sat in my seat and worked away, deep into my first vampire western novel; I think that first one was called Blood on the Succubus Moon. That was the title at the time but I changed it about sixteen times afterward, or some such shit like that, and around six, while I sipped some coffee I had bought before class from a vending machine, I noticed it was already dark enough outside for me to see the reflection of the room in a narrow window near my desk. Marsha could see herself, and noticed all the ugly fat rolls she had gathered around her middle, what a terrible sight that was, and I noticed her noticing me looking at myself in the reflection. For a second our eyes met. She was having a time fitting herself into those silly desks in university classrooms, and she noticed the seat beside her, and she suddenly realized there was this Total Inked Heartthrob working there. Viglietti, me, the douchebag horror western writer extraordinaire who was about to become her one and only friend for life, BFFs, yeah. I think I might be exaggerating about the only friend. I now happened to know she is good friends with Rodney, the goddamn sucky douchebag, and she has made friends with a bunch of the writers we both know, also. None of them are making a move on her, though, to my knowledge. What had Rodney said?—he went with her when she bought everyone Pendleton blankets for Christmas? Crap. After Marsha saw me looking at her looking at me all those years ago, our teacher (I would have played her, if I could have, she was hot with a pretty face and little wonky breasts) said, “Break time, everybody.” That was when we usually walked out to the patio and glared over the railing into the dark at some shaggy palm trees and lumpy cactuses that were grouped together like they feared an imminent attack from a chainsaw-wielding yardman. A coupla nights that year it was rainy and everybody got so mesmerized by the water dripping off the eaves that the teacher had to come out and tell us to get back inside and write again, like we were super lame and didn’t know why we were taking a writing class which would be to fucking write. That lady was a slave-driver. I usually used the break to try to hook up with Little Miss Hot-Ass, a dumb bitch, with a tongue piercing and ripped neon shorts, who had my eye that semester. She was going out the door and I wanted to follow her all the way to Playsville, U.S.A. Meanwhile, Marsha was struggling to work her way outta her chair, when I strolled by and so I dropped this gem kinda casually: “Saw you checking me out in the reflection of the window. Sorry to break your heart, but I don’t date fat chicks.” Her hatred for me, a creepy douche bag who was implying that she admired him, was instant because I had called her a fat chick. Truthfully she was only a little plumpish, but her hatred knew no bounds at that point, like her weight knew no bounds, and that was a bad joke. I already knew I would be reeling her in. Ha! Get the plump chicks mad at you first and reel em in when you let up on them. They’re so happy to be let up on that they think you like them and they have a chance with you, which isn’t happening. “I already know I’m overweight,” she reared up and said, in the best tradition of overweight chicks rearing up when you pick on them, “And I don’t need some douchebag like you reminding me of it and implying I was contemplating you as anything other than a total weirdo. With your bulgy eyes and your jaw hanging off of your face like a toad, you’re scary. And do you know you strawberry blonde guys have no eyebrows or eyelashes, either? That is so creepy to look at. You have no clue.” “Ahhhh, words of L-O-V-E.” I already knew she wrote these sappy-assed romance novel crap, so I was digging her in the ribs, so to speak. “Maybe we’ll find love after hate? What do you think?” I said this in a nasty fashion. She had some plot with that thing, love after hate like Pride and Prejudice or some such ridonkulous romance crap young ladies and flabby old men believe in and admire. Pablum for the masses, man. Sickening pablum. “Do you know what, dude? Your face looks like a two hundred year old adobe wall, and if you don’t know what that looks like I mean to say it’s fucking pitted,” Marsha added, as an extra-special topping to her prior insults. “Whatever,” I said. I ignored her at that point and went after the hot chick with the piercings. After some maneuvering along the rail, I cozied up to her in my best fashion of utter adoration of the Venus on a Half-Shell type, though she was not of that quality, uh, not even close. “Hey, baby,” I said to her in a way of introducing my awesome-self to her hotness-self however she was in the same kinda mood as Marsha and said: “Listen here, douchey, why don’t you put your best face forward? Oh, I know, that is your best face.” That was another dirty dig about my pimply face and bulgy eyes, as though I didn’t fucking already know about them and I didn’t care, because, despite the pimples and weird eyes, I was still handsome, and I knew it. I grunted, grinned, took a drag on my cigarette and chuckled. “Bravo. Now let’s play?” I replied confidently. “Listen up, Acne Al, I wouldn’t play with the likes of you.” She said this in a snotty, laughing voice with her ugly lips stuck up in the air (along with her nose) and she came back with this retort fast like a fierce slap upside the face. Whack. Dirty nasty bitch. I crossed her off his list for Christmas. After Little Miss Hot-Ass had insulted me, I smoked my cigarette in a burning rage and strolled back inside as big as you please and what should I discover but that Marsha chick was stupid enough to return to the same seat, beside me, that night. Reeling her in. That’s what I’d been doing. We continued typing and writing, ignoring each other. Later, when we knew each other at the Warehouse District Writing Workshop, I got the behind-the-scenes look at what she thought of me at the time. Yeah, she told me ridonkulous shit about what she’d thought of me after that night and for the next months. In her dumb mind from early on, after knowing little old me, she felt I should receive the same treatment I dealt out to my poor unsuspecting characters: by that she meant: branding with hot irons, stakes through the heart, violent dismemberment. None of that was too good for me and according to her, it suited me fine. If I put hot branding irons in fires of mesquite and branded a red-hot flaming V on the foreheads of certain corpses, she figured I deserved the same jammed onto the unhealthy skin of my “skinny white superior bottom.” Or Indian arrows protruding from every part of my ugly body like a voodoo doll, or to be scalped, or to be singed, or skinned in the delicate unmentionable parts! She thought that! Damn, she was better than I was at thinking of mean things to do to someone—me! When I read aloud about the vapid vampire harlots I created drowning in rushing arroyos which were gorged with rain water like a sea, full of mud and tires and dead dogs, and these harlots were battling the waves, flailing the water, tossing back their wicked heads to breathe, (but would a vampire harlot need to breathe, anyway, I’d better figure that one out sometime) she wished me the same fucking fate. Would that I should walk my stupid ass right into an arroyo in town during a raging monsoon rain and would that I should be swept away, buried deep under the mud of the Santa Cruz River so that all the searchers would find was one of my fancy black boots somewhere in a drainage canal way out on a ranch halfway to Utah and nothing else to ever show that Viglietti walked the earth. She wanted me wiped off the face of this planet! Why am I actually claiming that my insults don’t phase her? That must be something recent. Is that some kind of clue I should worry about? The next writing class that semester Marsha found another seat, which sort of blew my theory of me reeling her in and all that, but when I rolled in a few minutes late, as usual, and plopped in the chair beside her again, she was so fucking horrified that, I remembered, it was hysterically funny. Her face with its big baby-blue eyes had the most comical mix of horror, hatred, and indignation I’ve ever seen. Oh, it was lovely, lovely. She said later she should have gotten up at once and moved, but she sat right there. There must have been fifteen other empty seats he could have chosen from, but I knew the best thing was to flop myself beside her again and see what she would do. It was her head I wanted to mess with, that’s all. Why I was doing that, well, I have no idea, because I wanted to be near Little-Miss-Hotness again, except, come to think of it, she wasn’t even there that night at all. She was a terrible writing student with no dedication to the subject and a bad attitude. Not like Marsha. “How’s it going,” Marsha had said after the momentary shock. “Fine,” I said, sniggering. Insincerely, at the same instant, we both smiled at one another, and our eyes opened wide that the gesture was so perfectly mirrored, though there couldn’t have been two people less similar physically in the whole room. I was skinny, like Jack Spratt, and Marsha was like his wife—kinda fat, though we were both blonde. From then on, we spoke, occasionally. I made fun of her being a dumb-ass romance writer, of course. She mocked me for the horror writing obsession. We traded barbs and witticisms, back and forth for that semester. Reeling her in. That’s what I’d been doing. Yeah, maybe she was reeling me in. I would have strongly objected to that fucking vision of reality at the time, though. CHAPTER SIX Marsha has seen where I live, the wrecked courtyard called Don Francisco Apartments, hundreds of times in all the years we’ve known each other, whenever she asks me to take care of Bailey for a coupla hours in emergencies. Today, a few days after I’d been remembering how we first met, I pull out my phone and she’s calling me for help. “The damn babysitter didn’t show up again, Vig,” she says the way she often does on the phone. “Do you think there’s any chance…?” “Oh yeah, sure. Bring her over. I’ll take care of her,” I promise. My heart leaps around like crazy and a madness grips me. To my closet I flee for a session of staring at my shirts for five long minutes in utter despair and frustration. Why hadn’t I bought some better shirts? I put on an old plaid shirt with mostly red, change to a solid black shirt with lines you could only see at certain angles, and end with a blue plaid I’d gotten a compliment on once from another woman. Hurriedly, I rehang the shirts I’ve tried on and look at myself in the mirror at various angles, all the time telling myself I’m looking for spots to make sure I don’t wear a spotted shirt on a date sometime. I try some new gel on my hair and make it into a messy man-bun, which I have been experimenting with. I’m not sure my blonde hair works in a man-bun, but I want to try it. I will be wearing socks when I greet her so it looks like I was casually waiting for her. At the last minute before she arrives I notice one sock’s enormous hole, but it’s too late to change. And when they arrive I yank the door open too quickly and Marsha sort of gushes at me. “Oh, Vig. You’re an angel.” “Don’t go that far.” My arms are hugging me. Such a nervous gesture; I hadn’t done that in years. I put my sock foot on top of the other because of the hole in the bottom sock. Why do I want to hide that from her? “I hate to ask you since we fought. At the dinner. Sorry about that.” Marsha pushes her hair out of her eyes. Beautiful eyes. “Fought? That was a friendly disagreement. I shouldn’t have been so sensitive about the tin horn thing. I’m getting sensitive. In my old age.” “Old age, ha!” “You aren’t old, Uncle Viggy,” says Bailey, coming through the door and hanging on my arms. She lost both her front teeth before Christmas. She has dirty dishwater hair and her mother’s blue eyes. “Sorry to tell you, but I am old. Old age approaches rapidly. Thirty is right around the bend.” “You’re not old. Are you fishing for compliments?” Marsha says. “No, but do you like my shirt?” I begin chewing my fingernails again when they stand in my room. It comforts me. Marsha laughs. “Yes, a shirt without a dead clown on it. That is a big improvement for you. Did you put that on for me?” “Yes. Do you have something against dead clowns?” “Clowns scare me. And you’ve got a man-bun! Trendy!” “I try.” “So cool. Hey, is that it?” asks Marsha, glancing up at the battered horn hanging on my wall. “I never noticed it before.” “Yeah, that’s the tin horn of legend. And ridicule.” “Okay.” “Don’t you think it’s great?” “Sure. Anyway, you’re an angel, Vig. You’re always there for me.” Yeah, good old angel Vig. Whenever a babysitter didn’t show and she had to go to work, or there was some other disaster, she calls me. Good old reliable Vig. She never calls Rodney, I note with glee. From all the times she’s visited her Uncle Viggy, Bailey could attest that the battered horn I’d talked about with Marsha and Rodney was almost the only thing on the wall in my depressing dump on the ground floor of Don Francisco Apartments on Frontier Avenue, the dust center of Dustville, U.S.A. I do have scenes from the Henry Crabbe beheading and spots where I squished crickets and a coupla fine girly calendars I acquired recently, but I try to whip one of them from Bailey when she arrives and I see her holding it. “Don’t be looking at that, sister,” I warn. “Why not? You do,” says Bailey. “Uhhhh…” I rip the calendar from her hands and shove it in a space between the trash can and the wall. “And don’t try to get that out. Don’t look there.” My apartment is such a dilapidated hovel and the other apartments are rented by the biggest assortment of odd balls you’ve ever seen, so it is entertaining for a lonely kid like Bailey who spends most of her afternoons at after-school daycare. “Listen, quit pulling the curtain back,” I admonish her, “the crazy Canasta ladies have their eyes on us. I think they’re going to come out and try to sell me some more of their damn Divinity. That candy will bankrupt me,” I exaggerate. “Oh, I hope they do come over with the candy. You always throw it out before I get to try it. I want to see how bad it is.” Bailey jumps around my couch eagerly, while I’m trying to edit a page of prose. “That is something you wouldn’t want. Besides, your mother would kill me if I poisoned you.” “Ha ha! Have you played Canasta again with them, Uncle Viggy?” “Oh yes. Maybe not since I told you about it, though, no. They wanted me as a regular, but I can’t make the time commitment.” “Did you win?” “No. They are dedicated cheaters.” Bailey freezes, working out what dedicated means, and laughs hysterically. “Ack! You are so funny, Uncle Viggy.” “I try. I sincerely try.” “You know what?” “What?” “We ought to go on a spying mission. That’s what a writer should do.” “You think so?” “Yeah. A writer has to be peeping out of peepholes all the time at people. Watching them when they don’t know it and finding out all the things they do so they can write about it in their creepy books.” “You’ve got it all figured out. Even the creepy part.” “Sure. So let’s do it. You and me.” “Spy?” “Yeah.” Bailey convinces me we ought to drag out lawn chairs to the courtyard of the apartment building and spend all afternoon spying on the other tenants, which is more exciting for Bailey than me, but I enjoy myself too. Pretending to sun ourselves in a small patch of dormant Bermuda, we sort out what apartments I can see from my windows and who lives in each place. “There’s the nut with the red wig. She is walking around the stairs near your apartment, Uncle Viggy. Wait. Oh, my god. Her lips are moving! She’s talking to herself,” says Bailey, making huge eyes at me. “She is. Like this.” Bailey mimes someone carrying on a conversation with themselves while they tend plants. “What’s she saying?” I yawn placidly. I sit on the lawn chair with my arms folded across my chest, sunglasses on, shoes kicked off. The dormant Bermuda grass feels warm on my socked feet. “I’ll find out!” Bailey cries. “I’ll do a spying mission for you. I shall cross the frontline for you. Wish me luck.” “Good luck. Cross the frontline safely.” I watch with true amusement as she scampers to the stairs and hides underneath them on the side opposite to where the old lady is watering her begonias and picking off the dead blossoms. In that position Bailey reconnoiters until she signals her success with a thumb up. She comes running back to me in a crouching stalk. “Oh, you won’t believe it,” Bailey exclaims. “She’s talking about someone named Nora who is not doing what she ought to about flying out to Palm Springs to see her son Melvin when he’s having such horrible troubles. But I don’t know what the troubles are...she doesn’t say... Nora is doing all the wrong things, though. She’s sure of that. This Nora sounds like a real jerk.” “Hmmm,” I say. “Interesting. We’re getting good results.” “What else do you wanna know? Give me another mission.” “Well, uh, why don’t you find out who drives the black Mustang. I’m hoping it’s a foxy chick with big t—um, big foxy eyes.” “Awesome! I’ll find out.” Bailey skulks around the complex and out to the dumpster, which I can see, where she tries to figure out which tenant owns which car, especially that Mustang which is parked near the street. Within fifteen minutes she’s back at my side, flopping into the lawn chair with such enthusiasm it nearly flips over backwards and I have to grab it to steady her. “Oh golly, I’ve got bad news, Uncle Viggy. I asked this old guy who was dumping his trash and he said he was sure it is a dude who owns the Mustang. A tall, bald dude named Clark Something-Or-Other.” “Damn,” I say, clicking my fingers. “I had hopes. I have seen that tall dude, but I didn’t connect him with the Mustang. What a pity.” “Are you sad?” Bailey tries to push the corners of my mouth down as she peers behind my sunglasses. “No.” “Aren’t you?” Bailey pulls down harder on my mouth as I try to smile against it. Bailey tells me some of her interesting ideas about the former occupations of some of the older residents. Bailey figures they were crooks, morticians and strippers. She thinks the Canasta players were the strippers. I never found out what they did in the past, not that it is any of my business. Well, authors are naturally spies at heart anyway and so are kids. When it is finally getting cool out and too dark to do much good spying, because the old ladies, at least, always draw their curtains, Bailey and I come back into my apartment and she notices the old tin horn again, the one on my wall and I’m telling the little kiddo about how it is an antique which was once used on old Western stagecoaches by the driver to warn any oncoming traffic on blind corners. “Hey,” cries Bailey out of nowhere, “you ought to put that horn in one of your books! Like have this creepy vampire guy who is all creepy and stuff.” “Oh yeah?” “Yeah. And have it be that he blows that horn on a stagecoach because he’s the driver or something, but nobody knows he’s a vampire, too, you see, secretly. They don’t even know he’s the vampire, poor suckers (get it, suckers!)” “Brilliant pun.” “Thanks. But all these people are getting murdered like and having their blood sucked out. All along the stage stops. That would be cool. He bites all the people in the stagecoaches and stuff whenever they stop some place out in the wild.” Shazam and damn. That idea of hers has the germ of a fucking great story! Out of the mouth of babes, dude. Out of the mouth of babes. I swear that little kid, like most kids, has no inhibitions, like an adult would, and she lets her mind roam freely and think of the next thing that jumps out at her from an idea or a situation with no judgment about whether it will be good or bad and that’s the kind of thinking you need in order to be able to write and that is something to fucking envy, man, that freeness is what artists need in whatever endeavor they pursue. The ability to think freely is only available to children and the drunken adult who is freed up enough to think in a flow and not let that flow stop no matter what comes in their mind to distract them. And they can make good decisions about art. It is surprising to say that. Kids have freed up brains, sure, and they know how to think about a subject and come up with something nobody else has ever thought of before. The way I figure it, they don’t have to fill up a lot of their brain with schemes to manage to get the next month’s rent, so they have a lot of time to think of creative ideas. So from what this little kid said, tonight, after Marsha picks up Bailey, I plan to work on the idea of having a stagecoach driver as the narrator of a story, and making it authentic the way the guy talks about his stagecoach, and all the people he takes around to towns in the west and all the adobes and the coyotes and junk. The driver blows the horn all the time to warn other coaches when he comes around steep and narrow passes in the mountains and then the reader slowly, slowly learns that the narrator himself is the vampire! What a trick! Snap! And so the driver, who is the storyteller, turns out to be the vampire preying on coach riders. It could all take place in the west. The idea Bailey gives me excites me so much I can’t wait to write it. When Marsha swings by to pick up Bailey I don’t care that she doesn’t have time to come into the apartment. Bailey and I stand at the curb in the dark and see her off. “Oh, thanks so much, Vig,” Marsha says when Bailey opens the door of their SUV and clambers in. “We had a great time. We were detectives,” I explain. “We haven’t had dinner yet. I’m excited about a new story idea Bailey gave me. I’ve got to get going on it right away before I forget my ideas.” “It’s about his tin horn, Mom,” says Bailey. “Oh. That. The tin horn.” “Yes, Bailey thought of a great idea,” I say, when I’m about to close the door. “Bye, kiddo.” I thump the car lightly. “Bye, Uncle Viggy,” calls Bailey out the open window as they drive off. I’m proud of the twists in that story. It’s two a.m. and I’ve finished it. I enjoy the voice of the vampire/stagecoach driver who kinda fools the listener, who is going to be another victim, of course. And now that I’ve finished the story I decide I will send it out right away tomorrow or the next day. I figure I don’t need to edit it fourteen or fifteen more times the way I usually do, but I almost hate to send it off; it’s like sending your kid off to college or something. Vampire love scenes are what I like to write best. When I write those I like to include a lot of gratuitous sex acts and crap, dripping wax burning people’s genitals and nipples and their toes and stuff. This is my favorite purview. I see horror everywhere in the Southwest. That’s what I see, and I have to write what I see, the way I see it. I’m lying when I say the tin horn is almost the only thing in my room. Above my desk there are these four color copies mounted in frames on one wall. The panels show the events in the life of Henry A. Crabbe, an American idiot extraordinaire. He is this nutty putz who thought he could invade Mexico without anything happening to him, and these panels illustrate the story of the idiot’s downfall. The first panel depicts Crabbe and the Americanos marching triumphantly upon Caborca, Mexico. The next shows Juan Hernandez declaring Death to the Filibusters. The following shows Crabbe’s head served on a platter at the Feast of the Demons. In the last panel Crabbe’s head, briefly preserved in a jar, is fed to the pigs. Yum-yum. The Southwest is good about providing stuff like that for horror writers. It’s fertile grounds with good grist for the literary mill appearing nearly everywhere I look, and I’m awfully glad I’d taken the time that night in the bar with Rodney to look up that grist crap and get it right once and for all. “Weird,” said Bailey one time I babysat her and she saw those four pictures, “That is weird, Vig. Why do you like that in your room?” I had to admit for a second I felt a little ashamed. I challenge myself, “What are you doing with these gory things on your apartment wall?” They aren’t exactly attractively painted or artistically wonderful or anything, to be frank about it. “I’m different,” was what I’d said to Bailey at the time, “I like to celebrate reality. I like the way the world is evil, you know. The way other people like to think of the world as a place of kindly people. I like to think of it as evil. I like to think of the battles in the world and how things want to kill us and eat our food.” Bailey was interested in the battle idea, and how all these things wanted to kill us, but I tried not to scare her too much and I only told her sort of vaguely that day, which was when she was much younger than now, about my interest in writing stories with vampires in them. Yes, it might have been that day when she commented on the Crabbe pictures when I told her that my dream was to become a famous author of vampire stories, set in the Southwest. I also haven’t told Bailey or Marsha, but I keep a journal in which I record daily deeds of mayhem from the past when I learn about them. They will be useful for horrifying stories which I will write in the future. April 28th, for example, the Camp Grant Massacre, is a day I made note of. That was when a bunch of locals got together and slaughtered innocent Apache women and children. And I wrote about any weapons that interested me which were involved with the mayhem. Like an unusual murder weapon used in the Camp Grant Massacre was mesquite root clubs, so I dutifully wrote that. These hard mesquite root clubs were also favored by the Yuma Indians who brandished them in a lot of depredations. For example, the Yuma killed some stupid Spanish who were pleasure-cruising in a paddle steamship up the Colorado River. The Spaniards had traveled that way a coupla times until the Yuma decided, ‘hey, that’s enough of that’ and attacked them. Head whoppers, those mesquite root clubs proved to be real brain busters. I guess it took a long time and energy to dig up a mesquite root if you didn’t find it lying around, which seemed unlikely unless a tree fell over, which they didn’t do much, but once you got it dug up, you’d have yourself a real brain basher of the first order. It would reorient your enemy’s thinking, pronto. And what about my own thinking? Maybe I am too into gore too and maybe I don’t appreciate the things I have. As I down a few too many ales tonight after babysitting Bailey, I think in some befuddled drunken fashion that besides this antique stagecoach horn, I have something else which is special—what is it? Ah, yes, Marsha and Bailey. Yes, he have an ultimate funny friend/foe and her kid, and I remember a few years earlier when I would show up at the Warehouse District Writers’ Friday night reading circle only to say something hideous to Marsha, to say she was putting on weight, to introduce her to a new member as the author of “a new series of incredible garbage.” But the funny thing was I hadn’t had to sit around and worry about whether she was taking offense from my insults; she dished them right back with equal force at me, without a pause at all and without getting all huffy about it. I had to admit I still hated her sweet novels with their morals and modern mistresses in distress. A smirk breaks out on my scarred face whenever I think about those literary efforts. Maybe it’s true as well when Marsha says that a smirk shows on my face in firm superiority and malice for every other mortal almost all the time. Well, none of us can see ourselves the way others do. That is true. But going back to what I’d noticed. Bailey and Marsha are special to me. Now Bailey had even given me a good idea for a story. And what had I given them? Nothing, I’d taken their money in fact. The babysitting was purely fun for me, honestly; Marsha didn’t need to pay me, even though I’d said that when I was drunk and angry. No, I hadn’t given them anything but trouble. I vow tonight I’ll do something about that situation. I’ll come up with money to help Marsha and Bailey. But not a second job. The old museum is dark on the next afternoon when I’m working and Oliver shows up again. The old coaches give off the scent of disintegrating leather and dusty wood, and these coaches pulled here and there along with ox carts and buggies make the museum look like a crazy intersection from the past. A wall of yokes surmount windows with parade dioramas. I like looking in at those dioramas sometimes when I can’t stand writing anymore. “What’s that beauty over there?” asks a man as he comes in with his son. He points to a glossy black coach. “That’s Maximillian and Charlotte’s coach. Everybody likes that one,” I explain wearily. I try to return to my writing, the Jose V. Piro story, while the boy hollers in the museum. Chet sticks his head in. “Vig, the old timer is insisting he wants to come in.” “Let him in,” I say, “It’s okay.” “Howdy old timer,” I pump the old man’s filthy hand in a hearty manner. “Can I take a seat?” Oliver plops down before I can answer. “Sure, sure. I was interested in your lost gold mine stories last time you were here.” “Oh, were ya? You didn’t seem interested.” “I was. I was.” “Well, most of the old cowboys in Arizona dreamed of being miners and finding a rich vein.” He tells me he’s been around Arizona for a long time and that is something. He didn’t get let out of some insane asylum in Jersey, and I suppose he could be an old miner who knows all these things about lost mines. “I’ll bet you made a lot of money in Arizona.” That was the way. Get him to talk about his money. Flatter him, too. “Oh, no. No, no, Vig, is it? Isn’t Vig, your name?” “Yeah. Short for Viglietti, my last name.” “Well, Vig, I was not successful in my lifetime. Not in love nor money. I do wish I’d followed a few leads when I was young, though. Those might have led me somewhere fine. In the money side of the issue. Never had no love interest that panned out, either. I regret that too.” “What leads were those of the non-romantic type?” “Well, I had a few things told to me when I was young, but I ignored them, thinking I were smarter. Those were my opportunities. Knocking.” “And now you think they would have been worth something? Do you mean investments?” “No. I wouldn’t call them investment, exactly.” Old cagey coot, poopy pants dude. He has something to hide! He has something important that he knows. Damn, fucking hell. That old coot knows something that might be worth a fortune. At least he thinks it could be. Is he crazy? Or crazy like a fox? Why tell me at all? Does he need someone young to help him? The old guy is second-guessing himself about something he’d heard a long time earlier. I can figure that much from the way he’s talking. Now, the old man has to get it outta him and tell a younger man. Sure, that makes sense. End of his life and he wants to make sure he completes things he ought to have done. Put an end to his story, so to speak. “Well, maybe someday I’ll up and tell you. Who knows?” Oliver says. What the fuck? He’s a sneaky old bastard, there’s no doubt. Goddamn him. “Who knows?” I say that back casually enough. “Gonna go around the museum now, if it’s all right with you,” Oliver announces. “Sure, be my guest. Sorry about the loud kid.” “Ah, that’s okay. I like loud kids.” I could strangle the old stink bomb. What does he know? What’s it worth? Gotta get it out of him. Only thing to do is butter him up. CHAPTER SEVEN The next night, several nights after I’d thought about my interest in horror, I break down and meet Rod at the Empress Bar and Grill. Rodney has been texting me to meet for drinks, but I’ve been too angry about the obvious flirting I saw Rod doing with Marsha at the writers’ dinner. Rodney and I disturb the regulars again with our peculiar appearances, especially me with my tats and gages and now a man-bun. After a few drinks I tell Rodney all about my ideas of what I think is important about my writing which is what I want to depict, the reality of deeds of bloodshed which drench the soil of Arizona. “Rodney, my amigo, life is a lot like a gang of cutthroats, an Indian raid, or a duel with Burnside rifles at a distance of forty paces. You know duels? Like guys used to have over women?” It’s the duel part I want to emphasize with Rod. Maybe Rodney will get the hint to stay away from Marsha! “Life is like a duel? You mean someone comes out dead?” “All the stinking time! Life has you by the throat and you have to be honest about it,” I assert, “and not try to prettify the world, to make a pretend place with unicorns and crap. I’m against all attempts to make the world seem a gentle, loving place full of unicorns and fairies.” “I’m with you on that. I personally am against all unicorns,” says Rodney, looking around the bar absent-mindedly. He seems to be looking for girls. Is this what he’d do if he and Marsha were getting close? Well, yeah, he actually would. I continue with my line of thought. “The world isn’t that kind of place. In my opinion it is a rough, tough, dangerous and dirty world. Most people don’t know that. People are living in bubbles, pretty bubbles of safety, constructed around them by the tough people of the past, but they ought to know the truth about the world. Like houses which save us from wild animals and weather, but most people couldn’t even construct a sound home for themselves if they had to.” “I confess I couldn’t do that, Vig. Are you saying you could?” “No. Only the guys who live under the interstate know crap like that. And they really know it.” “Um, Vig, I don’t think a guy living under the interstate knows how to construct a home. If he knew how to construct a home, well, he would make himself one. Do you see what I mean?” “Ah.” I chew my thumbnail. “Uh huh, that’s probably true.” “I think I’m right there.” “Well, or stuff about food, for another example. You see, insects want to fucking devour all our food, Rodney. We have to spray everything with pesticides to kill the bugs and the fungus that wanted to eat our fruits and vegetables. The battle is going on all around us for our food, but most of us are oblivious.” “Ah, after these Scorpions I do hope to be oblivious. At least that’s my plan.” Rodney feels around his pink Chubbie shorts for his phone. Those stupid shorts again. “That’s your plan for tonight? Oblivion? But what can I do to make my plan, my dream, come true? The answer is I have to keep searching for it,” I say mysteriously. Is Rod getting a text from someone? Maybe Marsha? I try to examine the screen of his phone surreptitiously. “Uh what? Plan? Searching for what? Did I miss something?” asks Rodney who finds himself trying to follow my line of thought. He reads a text and smiles. I try to lean over farther to see who texted Rod, but he shuts his phone off and puts it away before I can see anything. Fucking jerk. After an awkward pause, I explain myself. “I’m searching for the one perfect story. What I know about it so far is it has to take place in the Southwest, in the desert, and it has to have a stagy gunfight, or a stagecoach, or a giant heely monster and it will tell the god awful truth about the way things are for everyone walking around on the face of the earth, the way only someone living in such a deprived place could tell all the nasty truths. That means no prettifying. Stuff which stinks at the beginning of the story would still stink at the end.” “You seem to have decided to specialize in stink, Vig.” Rodney chuckles. I continue without a comment. “Things would appear as they are, especially people…with all their warts.” I eye Rodney significantly. “You would find out the truth about people in my best stories. Defects like lying and cheating would not be hidden.” I finish dramatically. “Sounds highly unpleasant. I think you have given yourself a distasteful assignment.” “Exactly. For example, one story might open with the old chestnut: a dark and stormy night.” “Oh my god. Brilliant. These Scorpions are doing you no good,” says Rodney sniggering. “The reader sees him, a man…lanced, pierced in the neck, blinded with hot rocks, ravaged, outraged outrageously, flayed, beaten, whipped, slapped, scalped, slammed, kicked, beaten, stoned, hammered and tonged, whipped, pummeled, thrashed, beaten, knifed, stabbed, tossed from the highest precipice available, hit, brained bashed, cut, scraped, slashed, de-eared, and left for dead. This man who had been on the stagecoach crawled thirty miles in two hours, without water, living on cactus roots and he survives to tell his story…in a hoarse voice.” “Good grief! That has to be the worst idea for a story I’ve ever heard.” Rodney bursts out laughing and belching. “Except for some kiddie books about squirrel twins that I read as a boy. Those might have been more horrifying and awful than what you’re describing. That is why I’m writing children’s books, I suppose. To improve the genre.” I ignore Rodney’s negative feedback. “‘I’ve seen a snake fatally impaled on cholla.’ That is an example of a great opening line for one of my horror novels. This line would have great impact if some dude was saying that kinda callously to someone. But what’s the scene? Who’s the character? Is he bragging? Or telling it like it is? I should jot that in my little notebook which I keep with me at all times. I’ll get out my pencil and do it. A writer has to have some discipline, that’s for sure.” “If that’s a requirement, you might want to give up now.” “Even when he’s drinking Scorpions, and drunk, a writer has to be writing everything in a drunken complex fashion. Record everything of importance and know where it is for future reference, and refer to it when you need it. You have to have the filing and recall system of an obsessive-compulsive librarian.” I notice I don’t seem to be able to write anything, though. What am I going to write anyway? “Or marry one. I love librarians. Do you know any? Hot ones?” Oh, I know now he is trying to make me think he isn’t seeing Marsha by talking about other tassels. But I’m not falling for it. “Also, you must have faith that something will come to you if you collected things and wait patiently for an idea to appear to connect to it or build off of it, in the manner of blocks or dominoes.” “The writer is like a child playing with blocks. Finally this is something you’ve said tonight that makes sense,” replies Rodney. “I can see you and me as a children. With blocks. You happen to be bashing me over the head with them.” “‘The desert is a great hiding place,’ I want to write that somewhere, too, even if it isn’t strictly true, it is dramatic. So, you see, I’ll jot that down at the same time with a space in between the two phrases in case I have some sort of reaction later to each of these sentences.” “Wait a minute. Let me see that notebook. You have a lot of things written and no reactions in the blank spaces. This writing is also scribbly. I can’t read half of it.” I snatch my notebook back from Rodney. “But, the desert being a hiding place might be inaccurate, because bodies don’t rot away to nothing in the desert. They get freeze-dried, like the mummies in Egypt. I’ll have to think that one through.” “Give yourself an eon or two, will you?” “Well, you could say people don’t go out into the desert, especially not in the summer, and therefore you could hide something there.” “You seem to be obsessed with hiding and lost things. Have you noticed that?” observes Rodney. “Yes, chombolone, I have taken note of my obsessions, but thank you for being a dutiful little psychoanalyst of me. Maybe the thing I should produce which will knock the socks off the reading public would be a dark tragedy set at a fucking desert well. Would people like that? Well, well, a good idea there—indeedy do. I’ve written the well story. Perhaps, that’s it, call it something a little more mysterious than my usual fucking titles. That could be the problem with my works which will explain why they’re not selling when I’m working pretty hard on them, using up all my spare time.” “Vig, it isn’t the title that’s the problem,” says Rodney groaning. “Sure, the titles aren’t subtle enough. Not fucking subtle at all. Don’t hit the reader on top of their teeny pointed Dumbo heads.” “Dumbo heads? If you think your readers are Dumbos that might explain your lack of success.” “Sure. Call it. Umm. ‘Well and Truly Dead’. What a good title that is for a story about a well.” “Yikes,” is all Rodney adds. He tries unsuccessfully to catch the bartender’s attention. “An image. Shazam. A new story. A small boy stands on a sidewalk crushing worthless sour oranges. He’s enjoying crushing them the way some local tribes liked to crush their enemies’ heads. Squishing them open like berries. The kid pops these oranges open… and it’s like he’s shattering the skull of his enemies with a rock and propelling out the brain tissue. Now, what could I do with that?” “Try to pry that disgusting image out of your head?” suggests Rodney hopefully. “Did the boy enjoy it so much that… what happened? Well, snap, the best thing to do is to write that fragment and collect it for future reference or something, that’s what I shall do, damn idiot person that I am. Don’t waste a single idea, Rodney. Time’s a wasting, don’t you agree, dude. Times a something-er. Preserve the images. Write everything and preserve it in amber or something. Forever.” “I would discard that one, personally.” Rodney succeeds in signaling the waiter to order two more Scorpions. “Everything you think of isn’t worth keeping, preserving in amber, you know. Or even saying in polite company for that matter. You need a better editor.” “Damn fine Scorpions. Damn fine. Thank you for thinking of these instead of beers. I’m working well with it coursing through my veins. Fine drunken state for some smooth fucking talking. Fine, fucking, fine. Going to enable my creative fiber to produce the material of my needing, like fine spinning yarn. Terrible analogy. I am degenerating.” “Yes, you are.” “Rum and brandy, buzzing my brain until the lower self can think like a reptile and emote. Does a reptile emote? Seems unlikely, uh well, it’s happening to me.” “I would hesitate to characterize what is happening to you.” “Next. Yeah, yeah, remember it. The dreadful details of the Wickenberg Massacre. Have to use it somewhere, somewhere special, yeah. I will write that. Special. Sure, and tell them how the sheriff carefully washed excrement which one murderer had left at the scene. Oh, add while waiting for the stage to come by. Fact was the murderer defecated behind a tree. What kind of tree?” “Does it matter?” says Rodney darkly. “Yes, amigo. That is an example of a telling detail. The problem is I can’t tell that telling detail. Fucking hell. Unknown type of unknown fucking tree located somewhere in Arizona. Bejeezuz, I mean I don’t know anything and Marsha was right.” “So fucking right,” Rodney chips in. “Marsha is wonderful. Let’s drink to her.” “To Marsha,” I agree, clinking glasses with Rod. But WTF! Did Rod say Marsha is wonderful? The fucking jerk. What’s he doing praising my Marsha? Oh, damn. But maybe he doesn’t know I babysat for Bailey the day before, maybe he doesn’t know that. I vow I won’t say a thing about it. I have to hold things close to my vest or my chest or something. “How can I write about anything when I don’t know anything and have to look up every fucking thing all the time? It slows the flow of words which are supposed to gush out of you like some kind of goddamned stream or something in the stream-of-consciousness field of crap I’m supposed to know about. So my stream will be stopped up if I have to look up crap constantly. Look that tree I need up on google, will you? It was easily determined to be human poop. Readily. I’ll change it. And that poop had contained pumpkin seeds. That strange fact neatly proved the Mohave Indians guiltless. Mexicans ate pumpkin seeds, the Mohave Indians never did. Innocence proved by reason of excreta. A novel ending to a fucking novel novel. Ta da!” “Do not write that,” Rodney admonishes me. “You will not be successful with that.” “Think of a funny western alliteration, Rodney, will you?” “Ah...dastardly deeds were done,” says Rodney slowly. “Shit, man, do you realize that’s great? Jeez, that’s one of the world’s greatest fucking great words, dastardly, but I am the only one who recognizes how great that word is. You didn’t recognize that? I know! Dastardly. I am gonna write it and underline it and put that it was given to me by Rodney, my best friend. Underline it twice in my notebook to show the true worth of it. That word is the best word in the world and if you use it right it could rule the world. I could rule the world with such a word, shit, everyone would bow to me if I only command them with that word. Well, am I drunk? What a stupid question. Yeah, drunk on the word dastardly.” “I don’t think it’s interesting, frankly.” “Shit, it’s a great title—Dastardly. It has the power I need, the power to control the reading public. Bailey helped me think of a good story the other day when I babysat her.” Damn, I had spilled the beans. What I had told myself not to say was what I said. Why didn’t I mind my own admonishments? It was ridiculous the way I was telling Rod everything he didn’t deserve to know. “Oh yeah? Sheesh.” “I have to press my ear close to the past in order to hear the words on the lips of victorious Indians. What are their words? What do I hear?” “Whoopee?” offers Rod. “No, no, wait a minute. What the fuck am I thinking? I am drunk, bombed out of my mind. Those are loud war whoops. Victorious Indians! They aren’t whispering anything, wait a teeny, tiny, fucking minute. Why would I have to press myself close to the past to hear the loud words of the victorious Indians?” “Did you do peyote again before I picked you up?” Rodney opens his astounded otter eyes even wider than usual. “Because if you didn’t, you are on a crazy roll.” “No, Rodney.” I hold still a moment with a freckled finger in the air. “That is total crap. Wait, what I wanted to say was about the losers. Who are the losers here? Oh, yeah. Yeah, the dying cavalry or troopers. Press yourself close to the lips of the dying cavalry officer. From the past. That’s it. That’s the thing. The blood and thunder era of the past is my natural realm. I’m writing that.” I scribble with an illegible hand in my small notebook. “If I am ever interviewed, I will say I was there when you imagined of all this brilliant crap.” “Shazam. Profound.” “Yeah.” “Now, the hairbreadth escape of a man pinned down in rocks with fire coming at him from all directions, goddamn, shit, dodge it, go; he chews tobacco and rubs it in his eyes to stay awake and props up hats for the Indians to use their supply of ammunition on. Bam, bam. Bam, bam, bam, take that, you Apaches, you fiends. And, when the trooper thinks he’s safe, slowly, the horrible vampire descends! From the roof of the cave where the trooper is hiding. Oh, god, this is a great idea! Why haven’t I thought of this before now? These Scorpions are doing the trick. Rodney, thank you for inviting me to imbibe with you. Glowing red eyes. Ahhheeyyyyeee!, yes, yes, the Apaches come in for the kill. But the trooper is already dead, and deathly pale as he lies sprawled across the boulders at the mouth of the cave. The vampire retreats and waits, clinging to the roof of the cave again, and he watches the bewildered Apaches as they inspect the white soldier. What has happened to him? When they scalp him, no blood appears in the wounds. Of course, he doesn’t have any! The Apaches suddenly jump up, but it’s too late for them as well. The vampire descends again! He sucks them dead, too. Damn. God damn. Great idea. I’m a genius! Vampire kills the pinned-down cavalry officer. He kills the Apaches when they come in after the cavalry officer. Hell, it’s great. Sucks em dry. They don’t see him coming from the roof of the cavern. Cool. Sure. A sure-fire winner. Wait, what if the vampire propped the dead cavalry officer’s corpse up on some rocks to lure the Apaches into the cave. I don’t know what the vampire does in the end, though. What could top that or round it out? Vampire does what? Flies away, laughing fiendishly? Goes back to the roof of the cave? He’s been living there since early times? Should he be dressed like someone from 1600 though? Suppose he attacked the Hohokam originally! That is why there’s no more Hohokam. Get it, the ‘used-up’ people. They were sucked dry by a vampire! Maybe he was a Roman vampire or something.” “Don’t get caught up in details,” Rodney advises. “Sure, details are crap…no, details are not crap. Telling details tell stuff. Death at the hands of different tribes. That’s the best. Maybe I can try my hand at some non-fiction about various tortures? For a magazine. They’re mostly bankrupt, though. I hate that work. Well, it isn’t what I like to do. I doubt I’ll get paid much, either. Death at the hands of something. What is it I want, Rodney? Come on and help a little. Well, I’m not sure, but how about massacres perpetrated happily. Yeah, these are good phrases. I’ll write that on the side. Good phrases for a work which involves tribes and vampires or some kind of horror.” “Rustled cattle,” says Rodney listlessly. I tap my pen to my teeth. “Rod,” I say quietly pointing with the pen, “you are a genius. What if a character says, ‘You’ve reached the end of your rope, compadre.’ Funny line upon hanging someone accused of rustling cattle. Hey, what if a guy hangs another guy for rustling and the first guy is…a fucking vampire?” “Again? Another fucking vampire?” “Yeah. Another great idea to write up right away before I lose my inspiration. And the vampire comes alive slowly as he swings on the end of the rope, sort of dances himself up to the tree or something. Cuts the rope himself and swoops in to suck the blood of the man who lynched him. Wow. Shazam! The Ox-Bow Incident or Incident at Owl Creek Bridge except with a vampire added. That’s a great idea! This good rum and brandy is giving me dastardly great ideas. You know Bailey told me a writer is like a spy peeking through a little window and seeing stuff. I feel like that tonight.” “Okay. I’ll play along. What about tales of. Tales of what…ah…strange dances with snakes and…fabled gold caches...” says Rodney. “Oh! Suppose a guy is dancing around a big heaping treasure box, yeah, all full of nuggets and gold flakes, brimming out of the box and these snakes slowly wiggle out or something. Yeah, or scorpions or something sting him and he’s a goner in a few minutes and the horror, the horror, shit, I think that would be pretty good. But do scorpions ever kill people? Have to google that and it seems….scorpions don’t kill people often, sadly. They would have to be injured already. Well, I can arrange that, I suppose, not too hard to work that into the old plot device there, have him fall off a cliff before and he is out in the wilds and maybe dehydrated, sure. Wouldn’t be too hard to believe he could die from that after a day or so if no one finds him...Details about him are that he lives above a tire store in the south side of town. Rebel Garage with its cocky gray-hatted Confederate. But the words in Spanish were worn off the orange paint.” “I’m telling you those are not important details,” Rodney observes. “But they are. Details matter. And I’m thinking of something else. What I’m thinking of is these horrid long greenish-yellow cactus needles. Those were used for tattoo by some of the tribes. Wow, that’s neat. Tattooing needles favored by certain Indians. I’ve heard of desert animals driven by hunger, first sniffling, and nibbling, and finally devouring the green flesh of the cholla cactus. But sometimes they got a nasty surprise. Instead of a nourishing meal, the interlocking thorns stitch their lips permanently shut. The more the thing struggles, the tighter the mouth trap get. They’re tormented in death as they slowly starve.” “Entitle it ‘The Last Supper,’” suggests Rodney, giggling horribly. “Yeah, yeah. That’s a good idea. Enough tonight of the stories, dude. Back to real life, dude, though. Well, you know Rodney I’ve been thinking. What you said last time we got together might be right. Maybe I did play it up badly with Marsha, maybe I have laid it on too thick with the goddamned pneumonia story and now I’ll have to keep embellishing on that fake thing with her and maybe I’ll never get her to forget about it. But at least I got the dough. Ten hundred dollar smackeroonies. Sure, she is gonna be easy to take dinero off.” “Lovely. Oh, Vig you are lovely.” “She helped me, yeah, with my rent. I can use her like a game of fucking Canasta. Marsha? She fits together with me like a pack of dominoes. No. Well, what? What is a better analogy?” “There is no analogy between you and Marsha. You two do not fit together. One last Scorpion? Why not?” CHAPTER EIGHT I consume six amazing and precious Scorpions and afterwards Rodney and I blunder safely to Rod’s apartment again. I collapse on Rod’s couch but I’ve had so much booze I can’t sleep, which is a problem I sometimes have now, and while I lie awake a scene from my past with Marsha comes back to haunt him. “What garbage to be thinking of” was what Marsha had said about me writing horror in a conversation a few months ago. She claimed I was wasting my talent on writing these awful tomes, she called them, simply because they were popular which was no reason to give people what they wanted when “what they want is so incredibly sickening”, according to her, the authority on sickening. Of course, I pointed out I found romantic books sickening and they are as popular, truthfully. After all, you can’t expect people to know what is good for them, but I always point out Shakespeare’s early plays were horror stories as that dude knew what would interest the public and he cut out someone’s tongue in one of his early plays and made the poor woman, or a man dressed as a woman, I guess, walk onto the stage with fake blood oozing out of his/her mouth and a blood-stained tunic; it was some sort of fake classical deal. “Yeah, but Shakespeare got away from horror quickly because he realized it was not the finest way to enlighten the world about real human drama or anything and he regretted it,” Marsha pointed out immediately. “Oh, but he put in witches in some of his most famous plays,” I claimed right back. “I think they know another writer put those in. And the bubble, toil and trouble crap was for fun. And the Queen liked it.” “How can you prove that?” “It’s well researched, Vig. Read some books about his plays and what went on in the theaters of the time.” “All I know is the public loves horror.” “These horror stories are only a sign of temporary insanity in the reading public,” Marsha claimed “and that is all and eventually they’ll shake it off like a bad dream and they’ll prefer romance. Chalk up their interest in horror to the general lack of horror in their own lives, the lack of significant challenges,” said Marsha, waxing all psychological and professorial and all that crap. “If they were threatened in their daily life they wouldn’t want horror. They only crave it when there is a lack of it around them.” “I disagree. Everything in America is horrid. Everything in the American West is horrid. One must accept that as fundamental and go forward accordingly.” I proclaim that in my head, imaging the speech I would give as I accept an award for brilliant writing. “Tarantulas. Scorpions. Think of it. Take advantage of it to create—Western Horror, a new genre in which to make millions!” I extoll the cheering crowd. The next day I write in undisturbed bliss all day in the museum. I lock up the museum and drive home where I shower and leave my laptop hidden under the bed in a secret spot in case my apartment gets robbed. I head out to the February meeting of the writers’ workshop. Promises to be another fiasco and include lots of drinking and arguing. Marsha is always there. Half an hour later, sitting across the table with its red paper tablecloth at Mi Hawaiano’s Mexican/Hawaiian restaurant in a red brick ranch-style house with a glass of lemonade and beer mixed. I’m eagerly devouring the chips and salsa and looking at Marsha sitting happily beside that fucking friend of mine named Rodney. I keep thinking the two of them should not be allowed on the face of the earth much longer. Darting clever little cutting glances in Marsha’s direction, I sweep my strawberry blonde hair out of my pock-marked face. She doesn’t speak to me. I’m thinking I don’t belong with this group of writers for whom I’ve nothing but disdain anyway. And sure enough it’s a fiasco so far. Our waitress is a walking, talking Diego Rivera painting, and I can’t take my eyes off her. Marsha has noticed this. “Vig, are you in love with our waitress?” asks Marsha. “She’s amazing,” I say. “I want to use her in a story. I think she might be a goddess or something.” I look at that big lady, walking around the tables like she’s royalty and nobody in the place sees she is an Aztec or Toltec princess. It’s so obvious to me. I use my phone to look up the pictures of Aztec and Toltec princesses and I get it straight once and for all. Olmec is what I want. Shit. Olmec. Fellow writers are such incredible Dumbos because they sit there ignoring the best character as she wends her way around the tables. She bulls her way around the conference room dropping baskets of freshly-baked tortilla chips and red squeeze-bottles filled with salsa here and there, ignoring anything anyone says to her or asks for. I think her broad brown face with high cheeks and bosomy chest ought to have been carrying a load of cotton in a Diego Rivera painting, maybe that isn’t p.c., though. Broad chest and broad face. The eerie face of a jungle temple stone carving exposed from beneath the clinging vines by some explorer for the first time in thousands of years. A big, wide scary face with huge lips that seemed to want to…do something…ah yes, she wants to devour the world. Oh, that’s perfect. This big woman is eating the world in enormous bites and no one can stop her! And like those huge lips, her eyes take control of me and the world. How had her eyebrows become so powerful and her eyes so huge? Huge eyes, big enough to take in everything. Big upper arms and back and hairy black forearms with a man’s wristwatch and black orthopedic shoes. A mustache on her lip. Tight black pants. A pencil behind one ear. Hair in a flip. A walking stone temple carving, frightening, fierce. Big ear lobes dripping with turquoise. The band of the ruffle on her embroidered top cutting into the flesh of her arm. Huge strange black rimmed glasses, reflecting the tableware and glimmering glasses of ice water. The room is filled with dark black bark plates with pictures of women in dugout canoes making offerings of flowers. Crudely carved wooden plates painted with red roses. The arches of windows filled with stained glass showing donkeys and carts. I sketch the waitress and the room in words in my notebook while the other writers around me continue talking blithely. They have no idea when a good character comes up to them and bashes them on the head and says “fucking use me in a story, will you?” So that night I plan to write another horror short story (not that I need another story to have to write, god help me, I can’t control the ones I have! but how can I stop them when they want to come?) about a waitress who is preparing victims for sacrifice. Sort of the Barber of Fleet Street, except set in the Southwest. And now that I think of it again I need to get the plot in my notebook muy pronto. Might be a great idea. She is a fantastic character. I take my notebook out again the moment I’ve put it into the pocket of my black jeans. After all the food arrives and most people are at least half-way through their tamales, the eager group of dip-shits at the monthly meeting grow strangely quiet, as though they all have disturbing gas. The moment they have waited for is at hand. An elderly lady writer stuffs rice hurriedly into her mouth and has it scatter over her skirt. “There he is,” says Marsha to Rodney. “Who?” I ask, butting into their conversation. “The speaker. Melvin Wainwright.” “Where?” “Beside Honor Brown.” “Is that him?” “I had no idea he was so old,” says the old lady who is still dropping her rice. “I suppose he’s going to tell us about serious novel writing,” I say snottily. Everyone at the table sniggers. Melvin Wainwright is a hack writer of westerns. “Let’s don’t get catty,” says Rodney. I notice Rodney has his arm resting casually near Marsha’s. I hate seeing that. In fact it makes me furious to see that! “Oh, let’s do get catty,” I reply. A woman with bug eyes and pert hair stands up slowly. This is Honor Brown. She rustles peppers around on her plate and bends over to tap the microphone. “Now, now, ladies and gentlemen, ladies and gentleman. I know you’re enjoying your food,” she gasps, “but now is the time for our keynote speaker. Many of you know him, our speaker,” she says in a spooky voice, extending an arm toward a bewildered man beside her. He tries to finish his food quickly, wolfing his tamale and jamming rice in afterwards. “Our good friend. One of the More-Than-Occasional Winter Wild Bunch. Mr. Melvin Wainwright.” She lightly slaps her extended hand in a timid clap as he stands in a stupid stoop and, as I see it, the dumb-ass audience of writers take the cue and applaud like the crazy dip-shits they are. I am applauding the loudest. Marsha and Rodney frown at me. Mr. Tall Tweedy Twat stands up. The smear of fucking refried beans on the broad lapel of his old jacket is like a mysterious stigma, fleshy and pink. The same smears, with one or two encased beans, surround his plate as it is whisked away by the scary Olmec stone goddess/waitress, and I say to myself, “look that up in google and get it right about which stone Olmec goddess she would most resemble. Have to have specific names of these Olmec goddesses.” Can’t I get anything done, I admonish myself? “Well, I’m back in the desert again!” The applause is loud and sustained and rising and falling and someone even stomps their feet. Someone wolf whistles, too. Well, to be honest, it’s me stomping and whistling and trying to annoy people, and I see it is working because out of the corner of my eye Marsha is now glaring, with deep disapproval, at my ridonkulous clapping and whistling. I love it when she glares noticeable in my direction. “Every year I delight in coming to The Old Pueblo. My delight involves seeing again those things which made me a writer of westerns,” says the old coot mildly. “So many things have changed, though. Where, for example, are those burlap bags we once used to hang off our radiators? Does anyone else remember those?” “Sure, Mel,” hollers someone, a stupid-ass clown who doesn’t remember those burlap bags, but is humoring Mel to get on his good side in case he’ll introduce unknown writers to a literary agent. Yeah, you guessed it, it was me hollering. “And do you remember the interesting roadside novelty stops run by small children? Those used to be everywhere out west. Gosh I miss those funny places. I always stopped to see the oddities and paid my quarter! I wanted to tell you an incident in my earliest remembrance of one of those places in the desert. I left my car to be filled with gas at a time when all stations were full serve.” The audience laughs. “Full serve! Ha!” I repeat loudly. Marsha and Rodney sneer at me. Oh fuck them. “There was a sign at this garage which proclaimed it had a museum of desert oddities. I paid my fifty cents, I guess I must have been flush with cash, and entered the small room. Two large fat lizards slept in a crate; it was like something from a Lovecraft story, you know. A roadside reptile garden displaying hideous lizards to impress the visitors.” “A little boy snuck up behind me. ‘They never have sex,’ says this fat little boy proudly. “I keep looking and I’ve kept a diary for six months!’” “Ha!” I shout as the crowd laughs and claps. “He kept a diary,” repeats one of the inane writers near me. “I swear I’m not making this up!” protests Melvin. “Another time while visiting the saguaro forests near town I saw a woman and decided to speak to her. ‘I’m impressed by your native saguaro cacti,’ I said to this woman. ‘I suppose you’re proud of them.’ ‘Saguaros? Yes, umm,’ she said. ‘Wonderful things,’ I said. ‘A gift of the gods,’ she replied. ‘Yes. We like to think so. When I was a little kid we all used to drive out to a real big one, and dad would gather up some mesquite limbs and we’d pile them at the base of a saguaro. Well, we’d set it afire,’ she said proudly, ‘And they burned like candles. For hours.’” The audience groans. Laughter swells, then peters out. “Mel, good god Mel, say it ain’t so!” someone hollers. Me again. “Enough amusing details. My impressions of the 1950s are neither here nor there, for my writing focuses on the West of an earlier era, the West of the 1890s. Here I found your various historical societies, historical buildings and private collections of inestimable services to me, a man who was after all only an Easterner, a dude at that, trying to tell and retell the stories of your vicinities.” “And you did an excellent job,” says the perky woman, rising to lean into the microphone. The audience claps. “Oh dear, oh dear, thank you. It is time for my much promised reading. Now, as a treat for you I thought I would let you in on one of my newest offerings.” The audience applauds lightly. “Therefore I will be reading from ‘When a Man’s a Stronger Man.’ Ah hem.” The old boob rustles papers around and plucks at drooping skin which is like dewlaps hanging from his neck. He clears his throat, horribly again, and says: “Before I read I want to give you a little background about the character, a young woman. You see, she is growing into womanhood and is experiencing the terror of male potency, and it seems all the more dreadful to her because of its mysterious nature. By accident she witnesses an act of evil on the part of her cowboy-lover and afterwards she realizes she must submit or flee from it and this defines her role as the pivotal one. Is this a hopeless passion, she asks? It’s the anxiety of femininity, the spirit of a child-woman’s heart. Yes, her secret prayers will be answered. Her angel is on the horizon.” I make a gagging noise and the writers around me snicker. “Until he screws someone else,” I say out of the side of my mouth, cracking up the writers around me, as I knew I would. The speaker rolls his eyes upward to the ceiling for a moment. “Divine inspiration,” I say to more suppressed snickers. The man at the podium licks a finger, weirdly, and begins to read aloud in a booming voice while he pulls a mechanical pencil in and out of his blue blazer’s chest pocket: “The great dark brown eyes, blank and tragic, appear to note nothing in the quiet snow scape. The quivering of ripe scarlet lips and the brimming tragic eye sockets were mute testimony to the six-gun violence so recently visited upon her precious familiar adobe. The miraculous was happening. Someone was coming to meet her! And while they came, she made a darling picture with the slight suggestion of a forlorn soul lost in her.” Wild applause for this sappy crap from the sappy crap master! I clap the longest and loudest and everyone around me glares and chuckles at me knowing that I consider the speaker’s writing to be some of the worst ever and I think it sucks and stinks and rots from the head. And the speaker is still blabbing. He ends by saying: “The West is in my soul and I am in the West. When I die I hope to have my ashes planted somewhere in the mountains above the desert.” “Oh God, planted in the mountains above the desert? Yippee,” I crow. The writers go back to eating. “I keep telling you guys there’s no point in writing anything other than horror out here. No one will ever write a good story of this place unless it’s horror,” I tell them. “Never is a long time, Vig,” says Rodney. “I’m certain of it.” I cross my arms on my chest. “You’re so certain, Mr. Smarty-Pants Viglietti. How long have you lived here? Two years or something?” asks Pam Rose, a young writer seated near me. “Six.” “Oh, whoopee,” she replies. “I tell you this place is ripe for the production of horror books, but not much else, not realistic literature because who would believe what you told them. The rest of the country isn’t interested in what is here. You’d have to explain an entirely un-American way of life to the country. It couldn’t be done successfully. And it will remain that way. It’s inevitable.” “Why?” “To begin with this desert is devoid of people and people make stories interesting.” “I object!” cries a male writer. “Yeah, Vig. We’re people,” says Marsha. “Not a large enough population. And not an educated population.” “You don’t need that,” says Rod. Everyone around his end of the table hoots loudly and claps. I know I’m attracting too much attention, but I love it anyway. “Secondly, it’s devoid of thought,” I explain. “My theory is we are stuck in a past with too popular a vision which is world-wide in scope but fragmented and misunderstood,” says a crazy man with a bald head and red stubble on his chin. “What does that mean?” asks the frail old woman. “They’re both full of it,” says Rodney. “That’s what it means, Mrs. Green.” “You don’t know the genre. You gotta know your genre. All of you ought to be writing horror,” I say. “Horror?” says the crowd around me. “There is tons of material for first class horror stories out here, but everyone goes back to that same old worn-out cowboy stuff or now the Native American angle, but they’re playing the same worn themes. When I moved here the first morning, the first thing, I said to myself was: ‘Horror! That’s it! That’s all this place has going for it. Don’t even try writing anything else. Forget anything of any lasting impact. The place is full of horror.’ Who’s thinking about eternity? I bet you couldn’t find a single citizen of Arizona who’s thinking about eternity,” I claim. “Well, now—” “I’m serious. They’re interested in football games and basketball teams and—” I’m getting more excited. I can feel myself losing control of my mouth and I don’t like the result. I know any instant information will spill out, information I won’t want to reveal, yet I can’t help talking. I know I’m doing it for Marsha’s benefit, and that seems so stupid of me, but I still want to impress others in front of her. She’s known me a long time and I don’t need to do this, but there seems to be no stopping my damn mouth! “Horror surrounds us! It’s everywhere. There’s a thousand and one tales of horror. All the glorious scalping. Authentic scalping. The creepy melting adobe homes and the spiders! Tarantulas, scorpions, lizards that are poisonous. Weren’t they created for horror? Old newspapers around here are full of ideas. We need a whole genre of horror Westerns, modern and historical. Blood in the creosote. Stage coaches. Sneaky people. Painted ladies. Devils dancing with club feet.” “Club feet?” says Rodney slyly. “Yeah,” I say in a belligerent manner. “Club.” “Don’t you mean cloven feet, Vig?” asks Marsha. The writers around me are cracking up when Marsha corrects me on that mistake. What a funny blooper. I make a million of em. Damn, why am I so retarded? “Uh, yeah, I guess so. That was a slip-up.” I feel a seething anger and horror at making a mistake in front of Marsha. It’s like that damn tin horn thing again. All I do is blunder. And that sickening Rodney douche, erstwhile friend of mine; why did he have to be among those cracking up at me? “Ha!” says one of the wild bunch of writers. “You are hysterically funny, Vig.” “Thanks, I try. But I mean it. All of you ought to be writing horror stories. There’s tons of potential horror ideas out here. The southwest is dripping with blood. Take your scalping parties, Indian attacks, gambling disputes, border battles, duels, devil worship, soldier buried alive by mistake—” I begin lecturing them again. I noticed my mouth moves more than my brain wants. And I’m talking lists again. “What the crap! Who worshipped the devil out here?” says one of the writers at my side. “Cowboys, that’s who!” I exclaim happily. “What?” shouts the incredulous crowd around me. “Why do you think they wore ten gallon hats?” “Uh, what?” Rodney dissolves into laughter. He bends over closer to Marsha while stuffing a tortilla chip into his mouth. “For fuck’s sake, I can’t take the suspense. Tell us, the ignorant bystanders, pretty please, Vig, why did cowboys wear ten gallon hats?” “To hide their horns, of course, hombre,” I say happily. “Their horns!” Everyone exclaims that together in horror. A chatter of laughing comments follows and several people who are finishing up their meals drop the fillings from the last of their tacos on their shirts and plates because they are giggling so hard. “Great big ones,” I add. “No!” People around me fall over laughing. “Whole outfits of men with horns. Take my word for it.” “You do say the funniest things, Viglietti,” says someone at my left, shaking their head in disbelief. “For pure amusement you’ve got everyone else beat.” “Finally, an appreciation of me!” I say. “Oh, Vig. Everyone knows you’ve got a gift for wild imaginative thoughts. I would go with that idea of yours. Brainstorm it out and you’ll have something. Devil worshipping horned cowboys. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone doing it before. So you go ahead with it.” That is Marsha’s voice. Marsha is always in there, cheering me on. Sure, she is the first person to say something positive about what I said. She’s always there for me and maybe in the past I didn’t see it before. Or maybe I did. Maybe I saw it all along. I blush when she says that, and my heart squelches up, because it makes me feel so good to hear her praise me in front of everyone in the group. She said I have a gift. A gift for wild imaginative thoughts. Dude, what she said, that makes me glow. And she said it in front of a table of other writers making me feel ten feet tall. And she said she’d never heard of anyone expressing my idea. So she thought it was original. It meant a lot to hear that, because she’s better read than I am in any genre. Even Rodney is sipping his beer and closing his eyes, because he doesn’t like hearing Marsha praise me. Sure enough, Rodney looks agonizingly perturbed by what Marsha has said. “Go ahead with it. It’s good,” Marsha adds. “I plan to,” I say, downing more of my beer in a big happy gulp. But I hadn’t wanted to tell them the devil cowboy idea. Oh shit! What is coming out of my damn stupid trap? Truth isn’t supposed to come out of my mouth because these people are my competitors and they can’t be trusted. I don’t want them knowing what I’m up to. I don’t want to tip them off to what I’m doing or give them a great idea. I’d forgotten that devil cowboy idea; it must have been floating around in the back of my brain. And now it’d come back into the front of my brain while I was drunk and it had come spilling right out of my fucking mouth. “So I was thinking of possessed cowboys. The reader only gradually notices the cowboys are a little odd. Visiting with the devil, or something,” I stumble on verbally developing my idea, though I wish I would shut up. “Cowboy devils,” muses the writer at my side. “Or cowboy devil worshippers?” “Either are amusing ideas. Work with them,” says Rodney. He has given it his fucking stamp of approval and that makes me furious. I don’t need the stamp of approval of some stuck-up creep who wouldn’t know a good idea if it hit him over his head, and that creep was successfully stealing my girl! I like Marsha encouraging me, but when these other writers speak up I suddenly feel angry and annoyed. Crappy conceited jerks. Telling me to work with it? What the fuck do they think I do all the day? I can assure everyone I do nothing but write and think about my fucking writing. I do not need to be told to write! “I assure you I have already begun it.” I open my second tamale by pulling off the corn husks and after dropping the husks on a spare plate, I neatly cut the tamale body in two up the middle and pour salsa into the cavity. “And lots of other devil stories.” The elderly woman who was throwing so much rice on herself and who had gone to the restroom plunks down nearby in time to hear the last sentence. “Oh dear. I must have missed something—” “Vig says there were cowboy devils,” says Rodney, drolly filling her in. “Look at the horns on those early steers. Devilish things,” I mention. “Well, now that was in Texas and early on. I don’t think any of them, or many of them, got out as far as Arizona,” says another male writer. “You mean longhorns, don’t you?” “Yes. There weren’t many in Arizona?” I ask intently. “No. I don’t think so.” “Good. I need to know junk like that. Although honestly the people who read horror do not read for historical realism. I mean if they did, would they be responding to horror at all? Let’s face it, logic escapes them. If you gave them two pieces of wood they couldn’t nail them together at right angles.” “I’m not so sure I could do that, Vig,” says Marsha, chuckling. “An old time western Faust tale set in Arizona would top anything Europe ever had to offer. What’s so horrible about Germany, I mean? Besides the Nazis? It’s green and covered with meadows and full of deer and cuckoo clocks,” I say, rambling on as I quickly eat my tamale and finish up some salad. “That’s Switzerland,” Rodney observes. “Same difference,” I shoot back. “Oh Vig,” says Marsha. “Well, I think cuckoo clocks are pretty horrifying.” I smirk, “Oh yeah?” “Those weights on the chains always make me think of severed gonads.” Marsha looks archly at me. “Like someone’s been castrated and their balls hung out to dry.” “Nice image. I’ll have to use it somewhere,” I shoot back. Marsha genuflects in my direction. “Oh, and if I can ever be of more service.” “Speaking of good ideas and cuckoo clocks,” says the writer who knew about long horn steers, “I did happen to read an old Arizona Highways with an interesting story about some writers who owned a cuckoo clock and a pet roadrunner. Well, it seemed the roadrunner was a real character and the minute they let him out of his cage he immediately claimed the top of the cuckoo clock, which was in their library, as its territory. It made a home up there.” “Roadrunners are the desert’s clown. Sort of a Falstaff of the desert fauna,” I say. “Oh God preserve us. Roadrunners are now characters out of Shakespeare,” Rodney groans. “That’s so funny because the roadrunner and the cuckoo are of the same family,” says Marsha. “I know. Anyway,” the original writer continues, “this pet roadrunner would attack anyone who sat under the clock and whenever the owners had parties—he would swoop and peck the head of the pitiful person stupid enough to sit underneath. I’ve been thinking that would be good in some modern western story.” “The vengeance of time angle,” I say. Marsha and several other writers groan audibly. I have to admit I’m being stupid and annoying tonight. “I suppose you have something there, Vig,” says the writer. “The roadrunner becoming a sort of symbol of the wrath of time. Always popping down to rap someone sharply on the head.” “Tempos fugit,” the elderly writer says. “They do have beady little eyes,” someone else adds. “Vicious,” says Rodney. “I heard that when they’re eating snakes they sometimes leave them hanging out of their beaks and swallow them slowly as their stomachs digest the snake. They go about nonchalantly racing here and there while this snake hangs out of the side of their beaks, glassy eyed and limp,” says another writer. “You see—no matter what image you come up with here it evolves into some sort of splendid horror! The material is endless! The untapped material is endless!” I proclaim triumphantly. CHAPTER NINE Home at night after the writers’ dinner and I feel great. Looking back on it, I think Marsha has boosted my ego, though we did tussle slightly at the dinner’s beginning and she didn’t like me clapping and hooting at Melvin Wainwright, ultimately, she supported me and my writing ideas and that makes me feel fabulous. Time is not my ally, however. I’m sitting in my room, looking at my poster of Henry Crabbe and the filibusters, seeing the head being fed to the pigs, and I remember “cast not your pearls before swine” and I relive everything I said at the dinner, and I see that my ideas were my pearls and I had cast them before swinish idiots (except for Marsha). That’s what I had done. But I don’t want to panic right away because probably nothing whatsoever is going to happen about those guys stealing my writing or anything. I wouldn’t put it past them, but they didn’t seem that interested and they were laughing at me so I guess that meant they weren’t interested. Yeah, that means they didn’t catch that I’d thought of a great writing idea. They were laughing at my idea of devil cowboys. I take a shower to relax. I go back to my couch and flop. Sure, the other writers hadn’t see anything interesting about my story, the fools. They have no imagination. I can’t imagine a group of people more devoid of an ounce of creativity. They wouldn’t know a good idea if it came up to them and kicked them in their balls. It was embarrassing to have them chuckling at me, but of course they were laughing at what I said about Melvin Wainwright who was talking so they were in a jovial mood all right, but especially at me. What did they say about the devil cowboys? “You think of some stupid shit, bro.” I remember that. Sure, they thought I’d made an ass of myself and they were enjoying me suffering as everybody poked fun at my devil cowboys with their ten-gallon hats, but they didn’t understand it was a fine idea and no more absurd than vampires or mummies, and I’d written a lot of stories with those as characters. Well, they didn’t write horror and they looked down their noses at me for wanting to. They wrote profound books with earnest young men who were software developers or stock brokers and heroes. They wanted to sell a sort of ode to the age book where you wash out all the interest and pandered to money. All their characters were well-off and secure and they had to face a crisis like dying of cancer. Well-off people will buy weepy books like that crap. But I was saying vampires are still going to be popular? Damn, they’d better stay popular for a while longer! And devils. Devils have to stay popular for as long as it takes me to write that cowboy devil book of mine. Smart-ass jerks who only want to ride my ass and tell me I am wasting my time writing western horror, because it is a stupid-ass genre that won’t go anywhere. Horror people don’t like westerns and western people don’t like horror, they asserted, and if you thought about it for two seconds, I’d know they were right. Smart asses. They thought they knew it all. They liked to treat me as if I was some kind of dumb shit who stumbled in off the street. I got no respect from them. They looked down their noses at Marsha, but it was even worse with me. They always said westerns and horror didn’t mix. Why those two genres have to be the most unlike of any in the world, they said. But I know what I’m doing and I can read the public. This horror love isn’t temporary, it’s permanent. It’s a permanent shift in favor of stories that deal with reality in an unreal format. I specialize in that. I want things as they were and I want people to delve into a world full of witches and wicked stuff in the west. Had too much to drink, though, I cannot deny that because my head is buzzing now, even after the shower. I don’t feel productive with this buzz, though, it’s the wrong kind. It’s an angry buzz. I want to punch one of them. It’s a surprise that I didn’t punch one of them during the dinner. I sure as shit felt like it! Did Marsha stop me from punching them? I don’t remember. She always told me to forget about them. Easier said than done for me at least. Those guys got under my skin, mocking me nonstop. Come to think of it, I didn’t explain my ideas well and that’s why they thought my ideas sucked. Sure, I was unclear. I was drunk. Reconsidering that. Thinking carefully about the conversations of the night. I think I’d been clear about my ideas. Yeah, dammit, I know I’d been transparent, so damn clear about my ideas when I explained them. I didn’t slur my words or tell about the devil cowboys in a stupid, drunken fashion and I hadn’t rambled on and on when they weren’t listening. I’d noticed they were paying a lot of attention to what I was saying, maybe too damn much attention. Sure, there were no side conversations while I was talking, not one person poo-pooing my ideas or mocking my stories after the initial laughter. Yeah, that was it. Too damn much attention! No one else was talking near me, on that part of the long table in the closed room of the restaurant, at least. I did a good sales job…hey, maybe too damn good? Maybe they were listening a lot better than I thought they were… That’s it! That is the fucking truth and I know it the minute I think it. I’d caught a couple of looks on their guilty fucking faces, subtle things, yeah. Things passing over their faces, like mild sly wisps, glances that told me they got it, all right, they got the potential impact of my idea on the reading public; they took it in wholly and they understood it was a good fucking idea for a damn fine story. At least at night afterwards I’m thinking that. So I tell myself to rethink the whole fucking scene, detail by detail until I see it all as it had been. Play it back in my mind again from the point when the old cowboy boob stopped talking and they were discussing, arguing about westerns and horror. Think of what they said comment by comment, scroll it out and examine it. Think of what every person said. Do it carefully, one sentence at a time, replay it slowly, don’t let a word be lost. A writer has to be a detective and I have to find out what had been in their minds by recalling their words, and their gestures. Their exact words and gestures, though. I want to kill myself right here and now because it is clear from what they said they were way too fucking interested in what I proposed for my story. I can see it. Why didn’t I notice what was happening? I was a fool to sit there and blab away about what I was planning to write. Why didn’t I hold my cards close to my chest? Why didn’t I learn to be more devious? Goddammit! I seem to think I’m devious, but I go out and blab everything I’m thinking. They were only pretending to be disinterested, and I don’t even think now they were laughing at me. No, they were listening carefully. Those fuckers! The fucking thieves! Damn, they were stealing my ideas from right out of my stupid-ass mouth and I let them do it. I talked about my idea of cowboy devils. Some of the writers at that table would do anything to get a good idea, a viable idea, because for them, good ideas simply didn’t come and they sat around all day bullshitting and wasting time hoping they could steal something and could only think of ideas that were ordinary and here I came along and thought of cowboy devils! An idea which was ripe for the taking! Those dirty fuckers would never think of anything themselves and I can’t believe I was dumb enough to blab away in front of them, giving away all my ideas like that. That was stupid liquor talking, dude. Damn, I thought I saw the look of interest in a few of those who were tossing back beers and looked at me over the bottom of the bottles with that kind of sly, bemused look, pretending not to be interested but I knew differently, yeah, I know they were listening to my whole idea when I talked about the hats and the horns. They had little smiles on their faces. Little sneaky, fucking smiles that seemed to be saying “yeah, I can steal this great idea of this jerk and no one is ever going to say a thing about it because he has no power or influence.” Oh goddammit, fucking hell, why did I have to be such a loud-mouthed fool to tell them exactly what I was thinking? I was too damn drunk to hold my tongue around people who were opportunists and I knew that was what would happen to me if I drank at that meeting. Drank more than one margarita, yeah, I was ordering them one after another. And my bill must have been massive. Crap. Did Marsha pay it? I suppose she did because there’s no sign of lost money in my wallet. Checking it. I’m sure I hadn’t brought much. All the bills that were there are still there and my bank account—let’s see—get my phone. Untouched! There were a number of guys there who would steal my ideas, a big number. I think Hank Rice looked interested in everything I said and I could see the gears meshing in his fucking head and Hank had been beginning to realize that I had dreamed up a damn fine idea there for a novel and Hank was thinking he could steal it and make something great out of it with all his contacts and finesse. He hasn’t written anything of note and he was sick of not being able to pay his rent the same as me and he would steal anything now because he was at his wit’s end for how to raise some dough. The difference was I would steal money and they, they would stoop to stealing another man’s ideas. Shit, Hank wasn’t the only one of the writers at that table who would have liked to make my creative efforts theirs. Lots of them would be content to steal a horror classic and sell a million copies on my fucking brainwork. Hadn’t other authors done it? Don’t those guys know it? But could they ever think of anything themselves? The answer was no, no, a thousand times no! They didn’t have any interesting ideas ever; they were dullards. Jeez, Hank would do it, and I knew Hank wouldn’t feel bad at all about ripping me off. What an idiot I am! And George French was listening as well, now that I thought of it, and he looked like he was taking the whole thing in and imagining what he could do with the idea, getting a whole feel for where to go with the best idea I ever had. What was I thinking! Was I even thinking at all? Those guys didn’t wish me well and I was never going to be able to impress them with my works. They were only planning to use me to steal my ideas. I know I’m going crazy, but I’m pretty sure they fucking stole an idea of mine. Crap. Crap. What were they planning right now? I could tear my hair out thinking about it, wondering how they were going to use my great ideas for their own purposes and never say a thing to me, but continue laughing at the things I said. I was going mad. I was going out of my mind with anger. No, I couldn’t kill them, not ever. I could hit them. I was suspicious of them. But rightly so, they are dishonest. I feel it in them. They are also incapable of thinking of stories. They don’t smell of stories at all. There is no hint of anything interesting about them. In fact I sense they are desperate for a good idea. Yes, you can tell who is desperate and lacking imagination. It’s easy to sense it in their eyes and the movements of their hands. They have a way of looking at me that did not leave me feeling confident that they respect others. They couldn’t think of anything themselves and had to use others for ideas. I swear I am going mad right in my room. Sure, that was what was happening. Holy shit! There were bunches of thieves listening to my ideas and rubbing their hands together greedily but they were clever enough to laugh and cover up what they were thinking by snorting and sniveling at what I had to tell them about the devil cowboys, acting like they thought I was a big fool, but they will think more of it tonight, go through what I had said and I knew they would realize it was a damn fine idea. Damn fine. Yeah, they saw everything as an opportunity to think of a good story and they were not likely to pass that idea by, because it was an amazing idea. I knew because I thought of that baby. It was my baby and nobody else thought of it. My baby. My special baby project, idea, concept, crap. Crap! That one was it! That one was the special one! The one I was holding so close to my vest that I’d forgotten about it myself and I hadn’t even told Marsha and I practically told her everything for years, because she among all those people I know is the only honest person who I trust with such information and I didn’t even tell her, but I thought I had. Was I imagining I’d told her the great novel I had in me? Surely, this was the great one I’d had in me. Devil cowboys. Who else would have thought of that? Ten gallon hats. Devil cowboys riding the range together in a great drive across hot deserts. I could start a whole movement of literature. Devil literature instead of vampire novels. Sure, the public would love it. They’d eat it up. I could make a mint off the idea. Crank out devil cowboy novel after devil cowboy novel. All I had to do was tell the same dumb shit over with devil cowboys and devilish things happening. Some dances, devils showed up. Round up time? Devils showed up. Stampede? Well, there would have to be devils in that stampede. What a fucking great idea I had there. I was a fucking genius and I knew it. Oh, I was sick of myself for putting myself in this stupid ass position! What a fucking idiot I was. It was because I was drunk that I spilled that idea out for them, blabbing away without a thought in the world, thinking myself so smart and sure I was going to impress them with my great idea. Usually I was careful about what I said and I was cagey with other authors whom I never trusted with any information or ideas of mine I wanted to keep mine. I usually didn’t even tell the titles of what I was writing or give the littlest hint about the topic. Well, they knew I wrote horror. All I wanted was a little recognition from them, a bit of fucking glory for once in my miserable life. I didn’t think about the consequences when they would steal my idea. That was burning me up! All I can think about is these boobs typing away madly on my idea, fleshing out the devil cowboys and saying, damn, that guy had a great idea that we can steal. I wonder if any of them were starting the story tonight, beginning the idea of the devil cowboy by slowly letting the reader discover the horns under the hats. Oh, fucking hell, I torture myself, but they were doing that and adding flesh to my idea and getting a story ready about the devil cowboys, plotting it and working out what they wanted to have as a setting. How could I think I could spill it out like that? Liquor is disgusting the way it makes me talk and talk. Why didn’t Marsha say something to stop me before I fucking told them everything they wanted to hear? Why did she let me go on spilling the beans? Can I trust her anymore? Maybe she wasn’t even loyal to me and maybe I’d been fooling myself about getting the money from her and thinking she was in love with me. I wonder why the idea pleased me as much as it did. I know I am a conceited crap head, but this is something different. I have my doubts with the fact that she sat right there and heard me tell them the devil cowboy story, but wait, I said I never told her the idea, and never told her it was my special story. Had I or hadn’t I? I guess I thought I did, but I remember I never did do that. I thought about it once. Sure, in that bar in South Tucson the one with the burro sign and we were in there for my birthday, sure, she took me out and because we were talking about cowboys I thought I would tell her some of my great ideas about cowboys and devils and such, but before it could come out of my mouth that time I stopped myself and didn’t tell her. I didn’t tell her that night and now that I thought of it closely I never did tell her that I had that idea. I didn’t tell her it was my special project, my special baby. I can’t blame her for not protecting me from blurting it out, when this was the first she ever heard of it. I wonder what she thought of the idea. Oh well, why waste your time asking her, I yell at myself, because I’d lost it now. Those thieving wrenches will take the idea and run with it to the nearest agent as soon as they had it fleshed out. I am screwed, royally screwed, and I know it. I put myself in the position of a show off. Tin horn, yeah, that’s me. Tooting my tin horn and I lost my best idea because of my vanity and pride. Screw it. Marsha, though, she knew I didn’t trust any of those stupid writers at the Warehouse; I’d told her a hundred times how I thought they might be scouting around and asking me questions about what I was working on and I never read my good stuff aloud with them because I thought they weren’t creative and they wanted to steal my stuff. She should have interrupted me and made me stop giving up the whole idea like that. I’d had diarrhea of the mouth or something and I couldn’t stop blurting out a whole bunch of great thoughts and creative ideas, because I had the juices to make things come. Yeah, I could think of more ideas than all of those guys put together on my least creative day. They still are waiting, I thought, to steal somebodies’ ideas and use them as their own in their own successful novels. I know that. I have to stop wanting temporary fame with a bunch of know-nothing authors and hold out for the big enchilada. Always hold out for the big enchilada in the sky. I haven’t seen Oliver for two whole weeks during which time I went to the writers’ dinner and vomited out my best writing idea for everybody’s perusal. After realizing what I’d done, I’m now focusing on the lost gold mine that Oliver knows about. Focusing like a laser. These days waiting for Oliver to show up at the museum when I’m working I sweat out like I never had before. I figure the guy has a lead to make some easy dough and all I have to do is get it out of him. It would take some fucking finesse, but that is something I have plenty of. Wait, maybe not. Fuck. The next time we’re together I vow I will find out what Oliver knows. About when I’ve given up on the old timer, Oliver shows up again, stinking the place up and wandering around the musty carriages and broken-down carts like he’s lost or drunk or both. Doesn’t even stop to ask me to pay the admission fee. I guess now he thinks he would always get in there for free and I was not gonna do a thing about it and he might have been right, because I am interested now in what Oliver knows. I grab up a rag as I had thought of doing before and buff displays energetically, innocently whistling a little tune, something merry and Mexican, I think, so I whistle La Cucaracha as fucking casual as can be, la de da, as I work my way over to where the glossy Maximillian coach is, reflecting the dark museum and warping it weirdly, and where Oliver is shuffling around in his old coot, shambling way. I figure coming over there will put me in Oliver’s general area with a reason to chat with the venerable old dip-shit again. “Howdy, old timer,” I say kinda casually to him like I don’t give a fart in the world whether Oliver answers back. I act out surprise, too, in my best pantomime when I see the old guy. Big shock, my goodness me, sort of thing. Wasn’t he supposed to pay admission and doesn’t he know I know he walked into the place? It is my job, after all, to collect admissions to the museum. “Well, hello again,” Oliver replies. Seems genuinely happy to see me again. Had Oliver come in to see me in the same way I had been waiting for him to show up? Maybe he wants something from me? He is pretty ancient and feeble and could use someone to do the leg work (ha ha) for him, since Oliver is always dragging his fake leg around stiffly, if there is something in his mind about a place that might yield a great deal of dough, but would involve some effort. Yeah, that’s it; that explains it, he needs an assistant in this enterprise he has in mind; what he has in mind is too hard for an old fart like him all alone. If he has this opportunity in mind, I figure, he might need a young man to help him fulfill it. Sure…Oliver is thinking the same thing I am, only he doesn’t want to let on yet. He needs my youth to help him; I need his info. I am going to get more dough fast; getting help from my landlord hasn’t made me relax. Instead I’ve gotten more intense about getting dough. Spilling my favorite story has made me feel more desperate too. It’s made me angry and vengeful. I have to get the info from this coot. But Oliver doesn’t trust me. Not yet. “I was thinking about what you said last time,” I say, pretty relaxed and nonchalant to the old man. I keep on buffing a rope in an earnest fashion. I don’t think I have ever cleaned anything in that whole damn place until today. The museum has a night custodian two days a week who comes in and cleans, so there is no need for me to do it. All I usually do is dump trash into the dumpster out back. And frankly, that’s about all the damn cleaning I’ve ever done, but Oliver doesn’t know that. “Oh. Is that so? What did I say?” says the old coot back. He’s playing it cagey all right. He didn’t want to let on that he and I were on the same wavelength. Well, two can play at that game; wait and see, bro. “I’m not sure I remember exactly…” I say vaguely. “I was talking about opportunities. Opportunities lost.” Back fast with the answer I come as big as you please. Ha! I know he is one smart clam. I can read the old limping chump like nobody else. “Sure. You know, that was it. You were talking about opportunities and how you missed out on something once. I listened to what you said and I was thinking a young person like me has to listen to every bit of information he gets. I know that. Opportunities only come around once. You aren’t gonna be begged to get rich.” “Well, well, that’s the right attitude,” Oliver says, beaming as happily as a clam thinking that I learned something from him. What a crock of shit; I’m angrily at myself. Goddamn it. Fucking damn it to hell! The old shit head knows something. But what? What’s his secret? “You were saying you had missed out on an opportunity and I wondered what that might have been? I don’t want to be nosey, though.” There I go. Straight to the point, but with a bit of humility. May as well risk it at this point because I have nothing left to lose. “Yeah, but I don’t think I want to discuss it,” says Oliver, shutting down. God damn fucking hell! What the fuck! Withdraw for a moment, I tell myself. Pull back strategically. Give him the same he gives you. So I reckon the best thing to do is to mirror his emotions back at him; they say that makes people do what you want them to. “Well, I don’t mean to pry,” I say innocently enough, pulling back from his quarry as he planned his final attack. But is he thinking the same about me? I suspect Oliver is as sly as I am, also. “Well, fact is I heard me a certain story a long time ago,” he says mysteriously. “Yeah?” Contain your excitement. Act uninterested. Listen, but don’t respond. Avert your eyes or they’ll give you away with a gleam of avarice in them that can’t be hidden. “Bout a gold cache no one has claimed,” says the old man. Oh, fucking hell. One of those lost pots of gold nuts? This is hopeless! “Hmmm,” I say, not letting him know I am immediately discouraged by the lost pot of gold crap, not that I don’t want to believe a pot of gold is sitting around waiting to be discovered, but I’m dubious enough to doubt I’ll ever be so lucky as to find it. “A pot of gold in the mountains near Mexico. Now there might be something there. Let me tell you about how I heard about it. Do you drink?” asks Oliver. “Yes. More than I should.” “You and I are kindred spirits! Buy me a drink after you get off of work and I’ll tell you the whole story. But I can’t talk if there’s any chance of us being overheard.” “I’m off in less than thirty minutes. I know a real quiet bar where nobody goes on week nights,” I say, trying to entice him quickly and hoping his trap is as apt to open with drink as mine was, witness the damn dinner with the writers and the devil cowboys. I’d given away my treasure. It was only fair that I got another one. If this strange dude had anything valuable to tell. “Sounds about right. Nobody should hear this but you and me. Understand?” Old fucking drunk. I have to buy him a drink on my measly salary at the rodeo museum and Marsha’s money? Fucking hell, this better pay off. And I have to sit with his stink for hours, maybe. Humoring his old poopy pants and smiling at his dumb-shit jokes and old fashioned witty adages. Well, it’s the price I’ll have to pay to get what I want from him. No way out of it that I can see if I want to help myself out of the damn poverty I’m stuck in. So I finish my shift and at the end of the day, with the old fart at my elbow, jabbering away, I leave the museum as I do five fucking days a week, and Chet locks up. The old fart sticks around and leaves with me. I walk him to this nearby dive called The Busy Beehive. We walk in and I see right away it’s the perfect place to take this nervous dip-shit. Isn’t a soul in the deserted beehive place except for the sleepy bartender, and he’s busy texting his wife or his lover or someone and he barely notices us until I walk up and give him our order. We take a booth that is way outta the way of the bartender and the door. We both think we’ll see anyone come in. Turns out the old guy is satisfied with a beer or two so I don’t have to lay out a lot of dough for fancy drinks. When the beers arrive, the lock on the old guy’s trap suddenly drops off. “Well, I never thought the gentleman who told me this was worth listening to,” says Oliver, “He was an old timer who used to do some mining on his own in the mountains south of the Playa. He told me which mountains and even pointed out certain canyons and ridges for me. He said he’d gone exploring there several times when he was younger. When he was forty, right after he found this pot of gold he got injured bad in a car wreck.” “Oh yeah?” “Yeah, and it took him months to get well enough to even to talk and walk again! I met him in the hospital when my leg were cut off. No one would take him seriously about what he knew and his whole family wouldn’t listen to him about lost gold. He thought there was no hope of ever getting there and finding the pot of gold he had heard about all those years ago. He tried to talk a son-in-law into going with him, but he wouldn’t listen and only laughed at the old fellow. Well, he missed out on something good. You see what’s happened was concerning the character Cochise. Have ya heard a him?” “Sure.” Oliver takes a big swig of beer and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “Well, this Cochise character was a big honcho in the ‘Pache Indian tribe. And they were robbing and stealing all over Southern Arizona. As you know from working in the museum, I suppose. But one thing was he was loyal to his tribe and also thinking about their future. Have you heard of him?” He’s repeating himself. Don’t get aggravated. “Well yeah. I mean, yes, I have.” I claim this, although it probably isn’t true I know much of anything about Cochise, if you were to quiz me. “Well, Cochise was a wise man and a great chief of his tribe and he realized their earnings in the stealing realm were not guaranteed forever so in case they were to get destitute he filled an entire pot, an old Dutch oven in fact, with golden coins and gold dust. Filled it to the brim. Or somebody from the tribe did. The lid was put on and the one who put the gold in hid it. Well, the one who hid it up and died and Cochise nor his son did not know, or forgot, where that gold was hid. But this friend of mine had heard the legend from someone in the tribe who he befriended. He searched this mountains every weekend for ten years looking for the spot he’d heard of where the Dutch oven was hid. Did Cochise steal that oven from a miner? Probably so. Nobody knows, but the Dutch oven is up there jammed between two rocks. This guy saw it before he had a heart attack. He barely got down alive and he crashed his car, almost fatally. Too much excitement, I guess. He also said there might be an old mine door and the false tunnel up there, too. He told how it had all been laid out by the people who left it to fool anyone who stumbled upon it. Damn. And there was gold for the digging. Real flakes. Didn’t have to extract it at all because it ran in a vein right behind that door. It wasn’t wider than your little finger and flakes, but it would make you rich fast.” “Now, hold on. Are you saying there’s a mine door or aren’t you? And what’s this about a heart attack?” “Well, I think he said there was. No, wait, there wasn’t. The black vein of ore was only a legend, but his friend caught sight of the Dutch oven.” “How reliable was this guy?” “I would trust him with my life.” “Can I meet him?” “Nope, he’s dead now.” “What was his name?” “Humberto Vega.” “Why didn’t you do something about this information earlier?” “I’ve never been able to convince anyone of the truth of it, but I swear it happened as I told you. I told you what I know.” I walk a block from the Busy Beehive with Oliver’s stink. And white, white, it is in the sky, all bells and hopes and nuns. A bright light of holy beneficence and wonder in the dark surroundings. The lit cathedral sits in the almost night and these creepy towers look down on a parkway littered with needles, pointing in different directions. Damn addicts. With Oliver’s stink beside me I’m suffering acutely. Walk slowly because Oliver has a fake leg which he has to swing out every step. How will he ever climb into a mountain to find this gold if he can barely creep along a sidewalk? Isn’t that something to think about? Isn’t that logical? Even when I’m drunk I can be fucking logical. It comes bubbling up like a stream, logic. Bubbles through the thick thoughts of a drunk. “Goodnight, old timer,” I call, holding a stiff arm out at him as a good-bye sign. I feel some genuine interest in him at that point, after we have had drinks together. Though he stinks, he’s all right. He’s a nice old gentleman. “Night. Back to my damn sister’s go I. Weep for me.” “Sure, dude, sure as shit!” I call. “Yeah!” “But we gotta plan,” I say. “We sure do! And it’s gonna work, too! We’re the smart ones, Vig.” “Getting smarter every day,” I claim. Nice old fool, I think as we part. Nice way of considering others. This sounds like madness, what he has said to me. Who would have believed this old man’s tale of a tale? A fool. That’s who. A desperate fool. What a bunch of crap he spun, ugh, horrible image, and he was not to be believed, I think, unless I’m a total fool. If he knew about this for so long would he be waiting around for someone to tell it to, for me to come and take an interest? It seems at least unlikely to be true that he’s not told this story before to others and they’d laughed at him, scoffed, as they should have. These lost gold stashes are a dime a dozen out in the west. Pick a mountain and somebody thought treasure is stuffed in a canyon there. The lure of easy riches seems to haunt men and make them do ridonkulous things. Why should I fall for such garbage? The answer is I shouldn’t at all; I should take it for what it is, a tall tale, a wonderful tale meant to amuse, but not to fall for, no, not to let yourself blunder into his kind of thinking. You have to keep your distance from this, I remind myself. Write about it, but don’t do it. I pull out my phone and summon an Uber cab. But what will it cost me to go along on a jaunt into the mountains? Not much to prove him right or wrong. I will get out in the desert and do a little hiking, but with a stinky old man. My cab shows up. I’ll leave my car at the museum and tomorrow I’ll take another cab to work. The next morning I vow I’ll think it through one more time and if I decide to go with Oliver on the wild goose chase, I’ll take the car in for more repairs. I step out of an Uber the next morning feeling more organized and intense than I can remember in years. A good type of intense. A happy intense. Already I’m thinking of going with that old man to the mine. That might be opportunity knocking. Sure, a lost gold cache has to be the thing I need. It might be a good idea, which would benefit me. What benefits me—that’s what matters. The part about Oliver’s stink seems unpleasant. I wish Oliver was a cleaner dude. Wish he was presentable and clean and it would make the whole thing a little more acceptable to me, but still I have sympathy for the old man. Unlikely that Oliver has much energy to help in any gold seeking endeavor. Also, Oliver won’t have the money for gas or food. I’ll have to tell him to bring a blanket and a pillow. And I’ll buy plenty of water at Walmart or something. We’ll sleep in the car and hike to the spot. Oliver said we could get to it in a day, easily, from a parking lot in the state monument. Not such a long drive to the state monument, either. I know the way, I guess. Currently, the Subaru is not highway worthy, but it would make it if I put some more money into it. Check the tires and belts, I tell myself. Maybe get the radiator flushed. Sure, it needed it anyway. CHAPTER TEN The air wrenches rattle away as I sign the repair estimate for my car, initially the lines as the service writer requests. Fixing my car will make a trip to the boondocks safer. The clipboard wobbles in my hands and I return it to my service writer. My phone rings as I walk back to my apartment. “Listen, something has come up,” says Marsha nervously. “Can you take care of Bailey?” “Sure. Bring her over. I’m walking back to my place now. My car’s in the shop. What’s wrong?” I ask her this because her voice sounds shaky and scared. “I’ll tell you later.” Here I’m about six weeks out from the time when I had robbed Marsha and Bailey of a thousand dollars. Spending it on my car. Now Marsha has a problem and needs my help. Hope it’s not a money problem. Do I feel lousy? Ha. I try to run, but I’m out of shape and I’m wearing moccasins which don’t want to stay on my feet. I’m out of breath when I get to the glorious Don Francisco Apartments. I narrowly escape Mrs. Hernandez who seems to want to invite me to another Canasta tourney. When Marsha arrives to leave Bailey at my house for the day, Bailey starts jumping around on my sofa and staring out the window at Mrs. Hernandez who is still lurking on the stairs. “Vig, we need to talk.” I go to the kitchen part of my apartment with Marsha. Marsha might be about to reveal her everlasting love or something and I’m surprised and disturbed to feel so upset inside and also I’m surprised she is going to be so frank with me at last. I feel a pressure in my chest to be near her like this when she is going to finally discuss the big thing with me and I wonder how I’m going to react. I have thought about it before, but no matter how I imagine it, I find when it is happening I don’t know how to arrange my face. What kind of reaction should I give her? Should I act surprised or nonchalant? Flattered? Receptive? None of those responses appeal to me. I’m strangely gratified by what’s happening, yet unbelievably nervous. “Okay, sure,” I say. I shove my hands in the front pockets of my jeans. I can’t remember the last time I’ve done that. “It’s about Bailey. I’ve got a pretty big issue coming up. I wanted you to know ahead of time. I might need your help. With babysitting. I don’t think it will be too often, but I can’t tell right now.” So the mystery she has in mind has nothing whatsoever to do with love between the two of us. Is it disappointment I’m feeling? What an odd response, because I should feel relief. “Her teeth are doing some strange things.” Marsha shakes her head and puts one hand on her hip. “I can’t believe we’re having this bad luck. I was so happy when the damn things fell out. Now her mouth is a disaster zone.” Bailey has lost both her front teeth months earlier, but new ones haven’t emerged in the sockets. “What? What exactly is happening?” “It’s her front teeth. They’re coming in wrong. Through the roof of her mouth instead of the spot where they fell out. I didn’t even realize there was anything wrong until Thursday. That’s when they showed me the teeth coming in the top of her mouth. We were at our dentist. She was having a regular checkup. Her front teeth are coming in through the gum in the roof of her mouth. It’s so freaky.” “Holy shit. That’s weird.” “You could say that, Vig. It’s worrying.” “I understand now.” “I had to get an emergency appointment with an orthodontist.” “Wow.” “I got in there late Friday and he took one look and immediately sent her to another orthodontist. A specialist for weird cases.” “Crap.” “Yesterday we met with the new orthodontist who told me what it’s going to take to get the teeth in the right spot. It’s very complicated and time consuming.” “That’s gotta be a shock,” I commiserate. “And it’s gonna be painful for Bailey.” “Crap.” “And expensive. I haven’t bought any dental insurance, either. The news about Bailey hits me with the biggest blow. I’d dropped my car off at the mechanics and spent all the extra dough I’d gotten from my landlord forgiving the late month and an extra month rent on Danish ale, better food, and gas and food for the trip to find gold with the old coot. Of course, I’d planned to give Marsha and Bailey the proceeds from the gold, if we find it, but I now realize how ridiculous this seems in light of Marsha’s real problem. I can see from Marsha’s face how upset she is and we didn’t even speak about it for a minute. I can hear an old alarm clock I have on the foot locker ticking loudly seconds after she dropped that bombshell. “Oh listen. I wish I could do something for you guys, Marsha. I mean I feel badly. I don’t have any of the dough you gave me anymore. I spent the last of it on car repairs. My car is in the shop. I thought I needed those. I’ve got a plan—” “Oh, I didn’t expect you to help in the money realm, Vig. I’m telling you as an old friend of the family so you know what’s going on with us.” “Oh gosh. But I want to help you. I do.” “I didn’t think you’d be able to do much. I might need you to take her to an appointment or to babysit. That’s what I had in mind.” “Any time. Say the word. You know I’ll help.” “Well, that’s all I’ll need. She might have too much pain to return to school if she gets the first procedure done and you might have to babysit her for me. They’re going to attach some wires to the teeth and try to drag them forward slowly.” “Oh, crap. That sounds gruesome. Poor Bailey. Okay. I’ll be available. You know I’ll be available.” A few minutes later Bailey runs to me and Marsha, and she says, “My teeth are coming in the roof of my mouth instead of where they’re supposed to, Uncle Viggy. It’s so freaky! Look! Look in here. Youg cang reglly see dem comin in de ruf. Cannit yo? Dode ya see?” “Yes, I do see them. Hmm.” “I’ve got these super sharpish teethies poking out of the roof of my mouth! Look, look up there at them again.” “Yes, dear. Disturbing.” “Isn’t it funny? It’s like I’m a vampire, Uncle Viggy! A vampire or something. Like you’re always talking about vampires. Isn’t that funny? I’m becoming one!” She is so damn excited and thrilled about this defect, silly kid. Unbelievable! She doesn’t even realize her mother is terrified she won’t have the money to fix this terrible thing that’s wrong with her daughter and what is the kid gonna do without front teeth, huh, has she ever thought of anything as simple as that? What is she gonna do without any front teeth. It isn’t funny or thrilling. It’s horrible. I have known Bailey since she was three, and now at eight there’s a bond between the three of us. The orthodontist is going to try to pull the teeth forward with wires, Marsha had told me, but I know it’s going to take years of work and lots of money. Years of appointments, measurements, and adjustments. You won’t do too well in life if you don’t have any front teeth; let’s face it. Bailey doesn’t realize that this is going to be a disaster at the front of her mouth if she doesn’t have teeth! She doesn’t realize it will wreck her looks in five or six years if her mother doesn’t do anything right now. And she doesn’t realize it’s going to cost a small fortune to fix, even if they could fix it. That’s the way kids are stupid. Something you find out along the way of getting a little older and wiser. Why should I care at all about Marsha’s troubles? Or why care about Bailey having wrong thinking, or even what’s happening to her teeth? There isn’t a logical answer at all and I don’t want to care, to tell the truth, I don’t want to give a shit at all for them and their problems. It makes me nervous to think of how much I care. Here I am later that same night chewing on my fingernails! Only a year ago I finally cured myself of chewing my nails. Me, an adult man, chewing my nails because I screwed up royally and screwed up a kid and I know it! That is what I’m beating myself up about. I do care! It’s like all this time I’ve been doing something screwy like letting them be a part of my life! What the fuck was I thinking by doing that! It was ridonkulous. All I’ve done is complicate my life and the last thing I like is a fucking complicated situation. I like things simple. Me, myself and I, doing our own things in the world, beholden to no one and no one beholden to me. I want independence. I value that highly, dammit. But do I? How can I value independence and go right out and get myself dependent? What makes a person more dependent than taking money from someone? Why that ties you to them and you can’t escape until you pay off the debt. But who am I fucking kidding? I took the fucking money from her? If I want to be so damn independent why did I take the money? That is not independent. I know I can get another short term job and borrow for a few weeks only, the horrible second job I dread so, but Marsha lent me this money four weeks ago. I’m fooling myself with a bunch of crap arguments and there is nothing stupider than fooling yourself. You can fool anyone in the world, but don’t ever fool yourself if you can help it. Sure, if I hadn’t taken any money from Marsha I would not be required to help her now, but I had taken her money so the situation is different. I couldn’t even pretend I hadn’t taken the money. If I were half the jerk I pretend to be, even to myself, I wouldn’t give a shit about the fact I’d taken her savings. I try to pretend that for an hour or so, but it doesn’t work. The truth keeps popping up and I cannot keep it down. I took the money and I can’t pretend I hadn’t. And giving her the savings back isn’t going to be enough, most likely. That is an additional point which preoccupies me suddenly. The expense of moving front teeth from the roof of her mouth to the front was going to be high, real high. Maybe…what? Five thousand? I lay awake trying to figure out about how much it would cost Marsha. Getting that kind of braces work done early would be about that much without dental insurance, and she never purchased any. Maybe more. It made me sad to realize I’d taken Marsha’s thousand for my rent for a month and living expenses so I could get ahead and breathe easier about the next month’s rent and food and here she was worrying about something real for a real person who I had screwed by my thieving greedy fucking behavior, and here she is believing I’m unable to pick up any money extra because I am ill and had been in the hospital when that was total bullshit. Why did I tell that stupid lie to her? I supposed I had morals that were telling me I wasn’t going to and I did not feel good or righteous about screwing with a eight-year-old’s future. That was seriously messed up. I guess I drew the line there for sure. I am not willing to do something crappy to a little kid. “Listen Vig,” Marsha had said, “I don’t want you to worry about the money. I can tell by the look on your face that’s exactly what you’re planning and I’m not happy about it. I didn’t mean for you to find out, but I’m going to see about a loan at the bank and Bailey had to tell you. She thinks she’s going to have vampire teeth, hell; she thought you’d be really interested in those! I don’t want you to think you have to worry about us. We’ll be fine. If the loan idea doesn’t pan out, I can get a cash advance from my credit card and pay it off slowly. The orthodontist might decrease the amount he wants as a deposit. I’ve got lots of ideas for what I can do. You needed that money because pneumonia is serious and you had to get well; you couldn’t work for a few weeks. I don’t want you to feel you have to give me back a dime. We’ll let things be as they are and I am perfectly fine with it. Believe me. You are more than welcome to the money. You’ve babysat for me lots of times and you never asked for a dime. If I paid you shit wages that thousand wouldn’t begin to repay you for the time you spent babysitting Bailey. And you’ve been a good friend.” I protested against all that. I was getting a turn-around in my thinking toward her, and the whole thing hit me about as hard as a person could be hit. I guess I was waking up to the cold Caca Cocktail reality of what I’d screwed up for them. “Listen, Marsha, I haven’t been a good friend at all. I’ve got stuff I have to tell you. I’m no good to you. You’ve got everything about me wrong, Marsha. I have to get the thousand back if it’s the last thing I do. I do worry about the money because I know you can’t afford it now. How can I not worry? I know I took the money when you needed it.” I chew aggressively on my index finger nail. “Now I wish Bailey hadn’t told you. You’ve gone nuts.” “Why? I’m glad she did. This kinda nuts is good.” “You aren’t about to do something crazy are you? You aren’t planning a dangerous thing or something. I’m getting some vibes from you which you haven’t given off before.” “What?” “I don’t know. Weird stuff.” “Ignore it.” Shit. Shit. “Tell me you aren’t doing something crazy.” “I am not doing anything crazy.” “I’m not convinced.” “Let me do what I have to.” “Tell me you’re not going to sell your car.” “Psh. That’s easy. Not gonna. It’s a pile of crap anyway. No one would buy it.” “I can’t think of any other asset you have, so you’re planning something crazy?” “Yeah…no.” “Oh, Vig.” And she put her arms around me, which was the first time we had hugged in all the years we’ve known each other. We didn’t kiss or make out or anything and it wasn’t sexual, but it felt good though to me, and it almost made me cry for a moment but it also made me feel sort of terrible given I was a big liar about the pneumonia and hospital crap and I was about to tell her the whole horrible truth about myself, but I couldn’t get the words out in time before she released me. “Vig, you’re a good friend to a nervous-wreck mother.” “I try,” was all I could respond. “Oh Marsha. No, wait. Don’t let go.” “What’s this?” “Don’t—” We hugged a few seconds longer. I love remembering it now. But how can I make up the thousand or get any more so I can put myself right with Marsha and Bailey? My job at the rodeo museum is paying shit wages and there aren’t any more hours available. I don’t have any other prospects. A second job would take a while to return much, and I don’t relish the idea of giving up my writing time any more than Marsha would have. I’m too cowardly to do crimes, so that was out of the question and I don’t have family or friends to borrow from. Rodney and Pablo will not lend me money; I’d already tried before. I know I have to do something to make things whole with Marsha and perhaps contribute to the tooth work. At the least, I need to repay the thousand I’d taken so happily, so merrily, without thinking. So the opportunity has fallen in my lap, golden opportunity, and I think of it as a chance for me, but now I think of it definitely in terms of a chance to do good for Marsha and Bailey, too. I’m not comfortable about including them in my plans, even inside my head, (I had no idea of telling them what I was going to do) but include them I must. Things have to work out well for me, too much is riding on it now. And so I make the big decision to go on with the plan of finding gold with old Oliver. It’s a stupid plan, but it’s the only one which presents itself in the next week. If nothing comes of it, I won’t be out much money and my car will be in better shape, which will mean I can get a temp job with UPS or something and make some dough if I have to and I am beginning to think I’ll have to. A skunk stinks horribly on the side of the road, and Oliver in the car with me stinks almost as much. Like an intense skunk sitting about two feet away from me. Old poopy pants himself in a jumble beside me and I have all the windows of my car rolled down. Something Oliver does not like. “The breeze is tearing at my head,” he complains. “And I smell the skunk still. Pew, it’s horrible! That’s a horrible stink.” “Uh huh,” I say, bored to death by his complaints, knowing he smells like a skunk himself and what he is complaining about is called fresh air. Oliver could do with a little air circulating around him and his fucking stinky clothes that haven’t been in a washing machine for a couple of decades at the least. Jeez, I swear his fucking shirt is rotting around his grimy old red turkey neck. Dude, I never have seen such dirty cuffs and hems to his jeans. Someone could grow an organic garden in the soil in his pant cuffs and that is the second time I’ve thought that. Has Oliver never thought of washing his clothes or his body? Is the concept of a shower alien to him? His hair stinks like rotting oil and dandruff. The old guy never washes his hands, even. I remind myself not to let Oliver touch much of my food. Shit. How could anyone let themselves get into such a state of disorder and filth? I make a stern mental note to take showers when I’m older. “Don’t you got any air conditioning in this jalopy?” asks the coot a little cantankerously. Oliver shifts around in my seat as though he has a load of rocks in his back pockets. “No. I don’t, dude. Compressor went out. It costs five hundred bucks and I ain’t got that kind of money. That’s why I’m on this wild goose chase with you. And a friend of mine needs money for her little girl to get her teeth fixed.” “Oh, that so…that’s terrible.” Oliver shakes his head. “Her front teeth fell out, but the new teeth are coming in through the roof of her mouth instead of in the spaces where the baby teeth were.” “Damn, that’s sad. Real sad.” “Yeah, right in the roof of her mouth. She went to a specialist orthodontist.” “Damn. Those orthos are expensive, I think.” “Yeah, he wants a fortune to fix it and he has to start on it pretty soon or her teeth are gonna be a big mess.” “Sure, figures.” “She’s a nice little kid too. And her mom is my oldest friend. I heard the orthodontist will give credit, but you have to have the initial deposit or he won’t work.” I don’t mention I was the one who took the money that Marsha would have used to make the initial deposit on Bailey’s teeth. I’m the douchebag friend who ran off with her dough. And I had spent nearly all of it on this wild goose chase so now I couldn’t give it back to her. “Gosh, that’s a pity. I sees why you need dough, all right. Damn, that’s a pitiful case for your friend to have happen to her. What a story. Bout your oldest friend. It ain’t fair to the kid. And you are right to want to help them. That’s because you’re a good person, Vig. The people who want to help usually have the least to give, though. That’s what I’ve discovered. Anyway, this ain’t no wild goose chase. We’re gonna do well, Vig. Pity about your air conditioning, though. I could use some cooling right about now. I love air conditioning when you’re on the highway. Damn pity about it.” “Sure is a pity. It’s shit like that which is why I hafta find this treasure you’re talking about.” I stare intently at the road past the enormous rust splotches on my hood. “I gotta make things right. I took money from Marsha and Bailey when I shouldn’t have. I gotta make it right now that they have trouble.” “I hear ya. The gold would do me some good, too. I’d like to have a decent meal once in a blue moon and I’d like to stop living with my damn stupid sister. She can’t stop nagging me all the time about my drinking and she won’t cook me a steak like I asked her to—kindly. All I wants from her is a measly cooked steak once and awhile, with A1 sauce, but what does she want? She wants to nag me non-stop about why I need to clean up my act and stop drinking. She thinks I gotta stop or I’m gonna die. Well, I ain’t gonna stop to please her, that’s for sure. Goddamn it. A man is entitled to booze it up when he’s my age. I’ve done a lot of crap that I need to forget about.” “Oh yeah. Hear, hear!” “You got me on that one.” “And how.” “Boy, it’s pretty out here. I ain’t been on the highway in ages.” “I guess it’s all right.” “It ain’t all right. Stop being so mealy-mouthed. It’s damn pretty. The mountains look a pretty purple color with lots of saddles in the sky and the weeds are waving and some of the cactus is blooming.” “You ought to be a writer,” I say. “You have some ideas there that you could write.” I’m driving Oliver out toward the Dos Cabeza Mountains, but we have only gotten as far as Texas Canyon. We drive on silently for half an hour. Texas Canyon is near the Wilcox Playa and nothing but big smooth boulders, cracked and heaped together. “Look at those boulders, will you?” says Oliver. “Yep, I’m looking when I can, old timer.” “Those are something aren’t they?” “Sure are.” “And off there on the horizon there’s the playa thingy. Big old lonely dry lake. Spooky with those birds on it. Sandhill cranes. Terrible looking things. Worse looking than me, even. Freaky heads and big horrid bodies on long legs.” “Nobody out here at all.” “Nah, there ain’t.” Isolated. Got to go on the highway in a sweep along to the east from town. Driving along with mostly trucks as friends for hours, heading in the direction of New Mexico and the rising morning sun. Mountains a pale baby blue blur against the horizon. Creosote flats in all directions. About noon, I drive off on the off ramp at the great gray Playa and after a lunch of hamburgers at a small town café we proceed in the direction on the road Oliver tells me to take. And I sincerely hope this jerk knows what he is talking about with this Dutch oven and a treasure. I would give anything to find it. Well, does that make sense? If I give anything to find it, I would have to give away some pretty nice things. Would I give away my eyesight to find it, for example? Nope. Would I give away Bailey and Marsha to find it? No, no I wouldn’t. Having never been out there before, I am trusting Oliver to know what we are doing. And Oliver seems eager enough and familiar with the signs and turn posts that I need to take, if not familiar with every aspect of the place. “To find gold you look for quartz crystal. Usually in a line,” says the old coot happily. He squints at the mountains we are passing as though he can see lines of quartz along them. “Oh for crying out loud, every fucking kid in Arizona knows that crap. Tell me something new I don’t know,” I growl. Why hadn’t I noticed before that this guy is spouting a lot of pabulum? This line of quartz junk is nothing special. “I thought you said we were looking for a Dutch oven full of gold. Not stuff we have to mine.” “That’s right. I ain’t talking about mining for us now. Just generally.” “Uh huh.” The scrawny trees and round rocks have a toasted tan look to them. “Lotsa dust. Off the playa I guess,” says Oliver, changing the subject. “Everything is dusty here,” I observe. “Yeah, dang.” “Wind’s pretty stiff, most days. I don’t know. Maybe we should have brought some better jackets and warmer clothing.” “Ah, nah. We’ll be fine. Got our sleeping bags.” I drive on for nearly an hour more. “Turn off ahead, Milepost 154.” “That seems right?” “Yep.” The vegetation of the desert floor evolves into small scrub oaks and bushes. Squirrels dash out from the rocks across the asphalt ahead where the road’s surface has cracked in a thousand directions. I avoid several deep potholes when the highway climbs off into a canyon. “A lot of water came down here,” Oliver exclaims. “Must have been in the summer.” Trees with shivering leaves crowd a narrow stream below the road on the right. The car climbs higher in curves. Eventually we drive into a parking lot and a trailhead into the mountain wilderness. “This is the place where we’ll leave the car,” says Oliver happily. “It’s exactly the way it ought to be.” “I sure hope so,” I say warily. “So far no rangers.” “Won’t be any. This darn place is deserted for weeks. Nobody comes here in the winter. Pull into the far corner of the parking lot ahead.” “On the left?” “Yep.” “This here is the trailhead parking. Put the car over there. The spot in the corner!” “Why?” “It’s open at the back there and you can nose your way up a piece under the bushy trees,” Oliver explains. “You mean here?” I pull into a spot at the edge of the parking lot. “Yeah. And under the bunch of trees ahead,” Oliver says pointing happily. “Okay. Why here?” “Don’t wanna pay park fees and don’t want anybody to see the car. At least not right away. Hope they don’t got aerial surveillance here now.” “Oh, okay.” “There won’t be anyone around for a few days, so we’ll be fine. We can camp in the car tonight and leave on our search in the morning.” I pull all the way through the spot, up a small canyon where the car can be covered by a bushy tree. I drive carefully under the tree which Oliver indicates as the best and leave the motor running until I’ve made sure the car isn’t easily visible from the parking lot. “Seems well hidden,” says Oliver after we have worked to spread boughs over the roof. “I suppose.” “It’ll have to do. Nobody seems to come around here anyway. Not on weekdays at least. I hope not. Don’t want people snooping around and wondering what we’re up to on the mountain. That’s gonna make it hard to bring the gold down when we find it.” “Hey, look on the ground there! A fucking lizard screaming to death when it died. Now it’s a skeleton with its mouth open. I gotta get a close up of it. That’s way cool.” I touch my phone to take a picture and try to share it, but there’s no signal. “That ain’t ‘way cool’ and it ain’t exactly respectful. That lizard were a living thing, idiot. Sheesh, you’re like some creepy kid or something. I wouldn’t do stuff like that if I was you, Vig,” says Oliver. “What? It’s a lizard. I can’t get any fucking cell phone signal out here. Goddamn it.” “Everything is part of the world. Everything has a soul.” “Yadda yah.” “You don’t make fun of stuff that died! That’s asking for trouble. Gonna give you bad luck, son. Don’t ever take photos of dead thing like that. Making fun of it.” Oliver shook his head in disgust at me. “I don’t like disrespect to animals. Shouldn’t have come with you. You act like a silly kid.” “Okay, Mr. Superstition,” I say, chuckling at him as I clamber into the backseat of my car and spread my sleeping bag over the seat. “You have to sleep in the front with the wheel, since I did the driving. Does that seem fair enough?” “Okay. Only sensible.” Oliver says this as he slowly returns back to his usual chipper attitude. I have to admit the old coot is reasonable about things that are fair. An old guy who is naturally closer to death can’t help being superstitious about shit. “Well, the sun’s setting. So I say it’s only sensible we eat some food and get some sleep,” I suggest. “I gotta lie down cuz my back is killing me. That’s one thing about driving I don’t like.” I close the back door and collapse on the seat, tucking a pillow under my head. It feels like my back is going to seize up tight. “Sure. That makes sense. Let’s open our chili cans and eat em. I’m tired myself with all that wind hitting me. Feels like I ran a damn marathon.” There he is again going on about the wind crap. He doesn’t want to talk about his stink. I don’t have the heart to attack him for stinking. “Okay. Here, take the keys. Everything’s in the trunk. Get me a beer pronto. Chili and opener is in a cardboard box. Cookies, too. We head for this heaping bucket of Apache gold of yours in the morning. We need to sleep well tonight and get rest.” I need a beer to ease my back pain. “One beer coming up, buddy.” Oliver scurries around to the trunk. “I could use one too.” “Well, take one. They’re for both of us. Bring me mine, please. I am tired from all that damn driving.” “Is they cans you bought?” “Yep, I went super cheap.” “Okay. That’s good enough. We can buy better stuff later. When we get the gold, right?” “Yep, that’s the idea. Us and a bunch of other fools, no doubt.” “Sure. I agree to that. Lots of people looking. Looking for gold might be said to be a hobby of everyone out here. The fantasy you love to imagine,” says the old dip-shit. He opens the trunk. “A lot of people dream, but the difference is we’re doing. We’re doing things about our dreams and not sitting around with our mouths open. Good things come to those who do stuff for themselves. I think that’s an expression or some such shit. Hey, you got those elf cookies with the good fudge. I love them. My sister will not buy me those and I love em. You have made my day. Maybe my week.” “Well, bring me my fucking beer.” I hear Oliver opening the carton. He comes around the side of the Subaru and is popping the top for me as he gets to the window. “Yeah. Here it is.” Oliver passes it carefully through the opening. “Thanks, old timer.” “Nothing’s too much for my gold-searching buddy. We’re putting ourselves into action in order to find the dough.” “Yeah, we’re not dreaming, I guess,” I say through the window. Oliver returns to the trunk. “No, we’re not dreaming. I know you doubt me about the gold. You doubting the truth of what I’m saying, of the story I told you, but I swear tomorrow you will doubt me no more. Here’s your chili and a spoon.” Oliver’s back at the window, this time with the cold can of chili with a spoon stabbed into it. He passes it through the open back window and heads for the trunk again. “I’m making myself useful back here.” “Sure are, old timer.” “I’ll bring the cookies round to you in a sec. You relax. You did the driving.” “Thanks, old timer.” “How’s the beer?” “Excellent!” I’m already stretched out on my sleeping bag and with a pillow under my head in the back seat. “Dinner in bed. Fantastic!” “Yeah. You got served. Like royalty.” Oliver hands the cookies in the window. “A few cookie crumbs gonna land in here. Ha!” “This gold searching is turning out okay. I’m getting good food for a change. E.L. Fudge, uh huh.” “Bought what I could for us.” I open the package of cookies. Oliver hops into the front seat and begins spooning the cold chili into his mouth. I offer the old coot a cookie. “Sure you did. We’re gonna be rich tomorrow or the day after, you wait and see. Your eyes are gonna bug. Moren they do now,” the old man adds surreptitiously. He stuffs a cookie in his mouth eagerly. That is a nasty crack at me. Luckily for him, I’m not too sensitive about my bulgy eyes. “Everybody has a fantasy.” “Sure, we all got golden prospects. In our mind. Plans and schemes. They used to say building castles in the air.” “Everybody’s done that. Only this one isn’t a fantasy, right?” I say. “Um, sure it ain’t.” He sounds tentative for the first time. I have not heard that in his voice before and it draws me up quick. “This isn’t some fantasy of yours, is it? Tell me now if it is!” I sit up on the car seat and come forward toward Oliver. “No, no.” He slashes the air with his arms and reacts angrily to my suggestion, a little too angrily for it to not be cutting close to the bone. “How can you ask that? I told you the truth. I can’t do no more. We are on the verge of something big, man.” Fucking idiot! That’s what I am. I sink back on my pillow and shovel cold chili into my mouth. This is a wild goose chase! And after a few minutes in the closed car I realize this goose also stinks like hell. “Ah, don’t roll it down,” says the old coot when I crank open a window. “The nights is cold enough here! It’s February! I feel the cold coming down the canyon already and it’s getting into the car.” “Shit, there’s two guys over there looking at us,” I say the next morning when Oliver and I are leaving for the trek to the gold, which Oliver promises is there. “Where?” asks Oliver, whose eyes couldn’t always see well. “There.” “Damn.” “They’re looking at us pretty closely.” “Yell hello or something,” Oliver suggests. “Howdy!” I yell. “Hi!” they yell back. “Have a good hike!” “You too!” They called back at me and Oliver and wave goodbye. “They was harmless. They aren’t interested in what we’re doing.” Oliver glances at me out of the corner of his eyes. “At least I don’t think so. You didn’t tell nobody what we was doing, did you?” “No, but I don’t like the fact we were seen. You never know what people might put together later. I don’t want to find something, some gold, and have to give it to the state.” “I hear ya.” Oliver puts his backpack on. “You mean we have to get onto that fucking ledge?” I stand looking in disgust at a narrow shelf of rock which leads to a higher canyon. “Yes, that’s it! That’s the one,” Oliver says eagerly. “We’re almost there! The gold is in the little canyon there.” He urges me on with a sweeping gesture and lurches forward. This crazy old guy with one good leg is planning to go up on that narrow ledge! “But we gotta go up that ledge there! The one that is nearly vertical where the rocks are black?” “That’s it. That’s the one. We’re almost there, buddy. That’s a vein of black ore which is what my friend mentioned. It’s there,” he says cheerfully. “That’s what the man said. I remember it well. The whole thing jives perfectly. I tell you I’m seeing the signs.” “Around that steep side of the mountain? From here?” I ask incredulously. “I thought you said it wouldn’t take any ropes to get where the gold was. We can’t go on that ledge without ropes. I’m sorry we’re on this ledge. It’s gonna take ropes for sure to go out there safely.” “It won’t. A little side step and a shuffle,” says the old dip-shit goofily. “A real simple little side step is all. Damn, we’ve almost made it!” “Are you fucking crazy? That slope is vertical. I wouldn’t go there without ropes if you paid me a million dollars. I don’t even feel safe standing here. This ledge is unsafe.” I look at the steep way he has come, following the old man’s guidance and now I wish I had never agreed to go gold hunting. “Ba-Bak? Cheap, cheap, chicken?” says Oliver making his arms fold in the form of wings and pawing the air with his good leg like a rooster. “Brawk, brawk, brawk!” I glare at him coldly. I’ll say nothing. Say absolutely fucking nothing. That’s the best thing to do right now. Oliver smiles. “Watch me, pollo. Watch an old one-legged guy get to the gold on his own. I’ll cut you out. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll cut you out of what I find. You are no longer my partner.” “You fucking idiot retard! Why did I ever listen to your stupid fucking story?” I advance toward him with my hands itching to strangle Oliver’s scrawny fucking neck. I’d had it with him and his taunting. The stupid dumb-ass. This idiot had brought me out there to show me a ledge where I can break my neck! “You—” Oliver says, realizing I mean business and am coming for him. “Leave me alone. I’ll find the gold myself!” The old fool steps backwards on his good leg and tries to scuttle away up the ledge! What has he gotten us into? This ledge is too dangerous. The old fool doesn’t seem to realize what he is trying to do is impossible. Without ropes, no one can scale that height. Oliver struggles to climb a few feet, wobbles, swings his arms around and comes back to where I stand. “Dammit!” he cries. Oliver shuffles away from me toward the higher ledge one more time. “Hey, be careful!” I shout this and try to grab the old man when I see him floundering. The rocks crumbles at Oliver’s feet and he falls suddenly down the embankment partway. Oh, crap! I watch Oliver sliding down the steep back of the mountain, rocks slamming his shoulders and head. His arms beat the air uselessly, helplessly. No more silly chicken dancing— his flapping is desperate now. The old man is falling further through space under Kneeling Nun Rock and hitting the rocks with a whomp, whomp, whomp. What? What’s— I go down! Next I go down as more of the ledge snaps off before I can even think of what to do. Before I can think of stepping back. “Help! Help me!” I cry. To no one. I wake gradually and every part of me is hurting like hell. I wake, and close my eyes again. Where am I? What the hell just happened? It takes me a moment to remember where I am. Oliver. And I remember driving and sleeping and the next day climbing a trail in the wilderness with Oliver. The current situation I’m in also dawned on me gradually. I have fallen. I am somewhere out in the middle of nowhere. No one knew I’ve gone anywhere and no one knew where I am. Oliver fell before I fell. I went down when the ledge collapsed. What about Marsha? She’s gonna worry about me, isn’t she? Sure, she’s gonna worry herself sick over me. Or had I left things in a bad way with her? Oh, I wish I hadn’t left things in a bad way, if I had. Where is her writing buddy? What happened to her amigo? That’s what she should be wondering right now. Would she be wondering it? Horror. I am a damn horror writer. And here’s some real life horror and I can’t stand any of it. The teeth issue. That had changed stuff. She won’t worry about me now because she has too many other worries. And I’d wanted to repay her. Now I’ve fallen off a cliff in the middle of nowhere. Here I am. Awake suddenly and finding myself. In a predicament. At the bottom of a cliff. Guess I’m lost, dying, perhaps. With a nitwit. I turn my head carefully. Well, my spine isn’t broken, I guess. That might be a good test of whether my spine is broken. I let my eyes focus and look around. Good thing a mountain lion hasn’t found me. What’s over there? Almost able to pick it out. Something draped over rocks. Old bag of clothes. Oliver took off his clothes? Stink old guy he was apt to do— Picking out something else. Picking out feet in shoes. How would the shoes be there if there weren’t feet? So there are feet. So that’s Oliver. Not able to pick much out. Oliver? “Oliver!” He’s lying not far from where he’d fallen. An almost dead nitwit as a companion. Staring off into space with his dumb hobo face, full of liquor and nonsense. But maybe he’s not dead yet. Gotta get seated. My leg! There’s a fucking big gash on my leg. It takes me so much time to get up. How much time do I have? Without water and injured, how much time can I take? I hobble near Oliver. “Hold on!” I say for some stupid reason. “You—” His eyes close and he shudders. His last shudder. I’d let myself fall for the old man’s nonsense. Now was the old coot happy in his death? How old was he anyway? Eighty? Ninety? How old would he have to be in order to have a real Jake leg? Old enough to have lived through Prohibition and been old enough to drink, but he might have drank rot gut in the south after Prohibition. Maybe Oliver never claimed he had a Jake leg. I couldn’t remember anything anymore. Or maybe he was lying about that, too. Anything was possible. Poor old fool. The sun set. My first day. Gather all my strength to leave the dead man and find a stick. That’s it. Hobble about with the stick and put a few rocks on top of him. There’s a good one. Can only use one arm, but I can drag this rock over. Probably put one on his chest. And another for his neck and one for his face. Would keep his head on his body when the coyotes found him, which wouldn’t be long now. “You—” Oh God! He’s not dead! Leave the fucking rocks! Stop gathering the fucking rocks and get back to him. “Hold on. Hold on old timer! I’m sorry.” I use my good arm to knock some little rocks that fell on his chest and his neck. I haven’t put any on him yet. Thank goodness. “Youuuuuu...” he says. “Hold on there. Hold on. I’ll get some help for us. I haven’t got a cell phone signal, but maybe I can hike to a spot with a signal. I’ll get us some help.” He looked at me for an instant. His eyes close again. I vow I will sit with him until… Sit with him. He’s gonna say something. Maybe his last words. “Life’s not all molasses and white biscuits,” he whispers. “Sure, sure, old timer. It isn’t.” Eyes stare off at the clouds and get a funny empty look. Dead now. Truly dead. But isn’t it terrible if the animals find him? I’m not thinking straight. Want the corpse to be protected. Don’t want it pulled apart. But I gotta save my strength. Maybe his sister would tell police he was missing. Well, it would be a long time before anyone finds us. But what about those hikers? With cell phones. If they came back around this way? What if they saw everything? What if they saw us on the ledge and saw us fall… Did they see us? Did they? No, there was no sign of them. The canyon is silent. A trail could be there. The two men we saw could be sitting in their car looking at me with binoculars. They could have witnessed the whole thing and be driving to the sheriff right now. Where is the dust? Freeze in your tracks, I think. Still, still. Be still and see if there is any movement in the mountains over there. But there’s nothing. Why be worried about the old man now? Animals find the corpse and they will find me, too. Get a move on. Go on. Happy, oh yes. Such a strange smile on the old man’s face. Triumph of getting another person deep into Fuckville, U.S.A. Or maybe he enjoyed the whole thrill of the search for something he knew wasn’t real. He’d gotten them out there and broken his neck and broken my arm. It’s broken, for certain. Oh, the fucking agony is starting to hit me. And the cut in my leg. But I have to walk out. Use a stick as a crutch. That was what I thought of before and it’s clever of me to think of that, too. A stick will work as a crutch and the pain won’t be so bad. So all I have to do is find a solid stick near a tree. Look around. Look for something that will suit my purpose. The world’s my oyster. I can see a tree with some dropped branches a little ways into that canyon. That way. That’s where I should head. Damn smart of me to think of a crutch. The heat and the injuries aren’t getting to me so much yet. My brain is still functioning well. There’s a good branch. Stretch down. Ouch. Grab the branch. A funny little thing. What’s that? Running up my arm? Shit! Feel a stabbing pain. Near my damn elbow. No, over there. “Fuck!” I shout. “Fuck the fucking fuck! A fucking scorpion!” Of all the damn stupid things to have happen to me. God, it hurts like hell, but at least I know a scorpion bite won’t kill. I learned that when I was researching my fucking stories. I read it wouldn’t kill unless… I’ve lost a lot of blood or been injured badly or went days without being found. All of that doesn’t seem so fucking unlikely now. Not remote anymore. I might have broken my arm and there isn’t any water for me until I get back to the car. Hey, but those hiker guys saw us and they might come through, well, maybe, they would come back. Sure, they would. And they would see me. And they would offer to take me to the hospital. Why sure, that was what was going to happen. A happy ending after all. Sure as shit. It stood to reason they will come back this way. One way in and one way out. Even if they plan to camp overnight they’ll be out in a day. Winter isn’t over; it still a little severe. So if I can sit still and stay warm the two of them will come along— How to explain the fact there was only one of them now. Fess up to the fall? That’s it. But how will I explain what we’d been doing there? Tell them everything? Tell them they were searching for gold. Why not? Made no difference now. Now I know the whole thing is a stupid fantasy to make a poor man kill himself. The rocks on his head. Why didn’t I put rocks on his face? Now the coyotes might get him. I’ve already told myself all about that. Why am I interrogating myself? Can’t stand the thought of my good friend being gobbled by the coyotes. Messy scene and all that. Know what the coyotes do to a corpse. Dragging the head around like a goddamn soccer ball. But if I am such a good friend of Oliver’s why is he dressed like a hobo? Simple. I’m not a snob. I am always friendly with old men who live under underpasses and in abandoned cars. You have to be when you worked at the rodeo grounds. People at work, Chet, would say hobos often visited the museum. Had anyone heard our plans? Well, I can tell them about the gold pot. That won’t matter. I was humoring the old fool and things turned out badly. I couldn’t stop him from running up a vertical slope and the old fool fell. Why did I listen to such a fool? And that fall. Oh, it was hard to watch the fucking old fool fall. He fell with a thud. Nothing seems funny to me now. Except a funny feeling. Funny heat. Thank goodness it’s February, not the worst month in Arizona for broiling to death in these mountains, though the sun feels fucking hot on my back in this black shirt, thank you for nothing. Could have been worse. Could have been summer. Sure, summer would have been deadly, much deadlier, much quicker, too. No one knows I took the old man out and no one will miss us. Why didn’t I tell Marsha where I was going and what I was doing? I can’t remember why I didn’t. She would have wished me well. She would have known where I was going, if I had told her. She would have talked me out of it, though. She’s too sensible to fall for a buncha crap from an old drunk. Only I can’t believe now that I was stupid enough to believe in the tales of gold filled Dutch ovens tucked in between rocks. Marsha wouldn’t have believed in it. When I didn’t come back, she would have filled out a missing person report with the police and told them I went to a ledge below Kneeling Nun Rock. Am I sure I didn’t tell her? Sure, I’m sure. I’m a fucking smart-ass and I thought I was too smart to tell anyone what I was doing, not Rodney or Pablo or Marsha. But won’t she miss me? Wouldn’t she search for me? Nah, could take weeks for her to even notice. She’s wrapped up in Bailey’s teeth problem and writing her latest romance novel. Hey, she never even called me that time I went to Rocky Point with that hot chick I met. Never thought of that before. Never noticed how disloyal she was until now. She didn’t even look for me. She won’t now either. I had left for two weeks that time and she hadn’t even been concerned when I mentioned it to her. And the rodeo museum. What about the other ticket takers and the committee? They’ll wonder where I’ve gone. They’ll call. And maybe good old Rodney! Hope he isn’t using this time to get closer to Marsha. But they won’t contact the police, not right away. Not even soon. Someone will fill in for his shifts at the museum and Rodney and Marsha will assume I’m with a girl… If anyone found the body, well, it was at the base of a cliff. A cliff far back from a place far away. Buzzards! Why hadn’t I thought of that before? Maybe it was good I kept those rocks off him. Let the buzzards find him. That was the answer. But wait, they weren’t usually around until a little later in the year… Could there be anyone there, miles below on the desert plain, the big fucking flat spot? Nah, not at night, you dip-shit. Crappy, but true. Who would be there and what would they be doing? Communing with nature? But he should try. Holler anyway. “Help!” “Help!” “Fucking help me!” I’m wasting my time. And my energy. I only have so much fucking energy. Hobble on. Past the biggest rocks. I’ll find a way out of this place if it kills me. Shit, it might do that. Not if I have anything to do with it and try my fucking heart out. Might be a way out between these rocks. Sure, that could be a way to get back to my car, though I don’t remember passing them on the way, but they could have looked different in the other direction. Sure, things never look the same on a trail going up and coming down. The fall mixed up my brain. There are train tracks down there, too, somewhere. Can I get to them or find my car again? And the evening’s cold isn’t helping me and me with nothing but a shirt on. What a fool. What made me think February would be warm at night? Of course, it isn’t. Especially in the rocks high above a plain. Cold air is whizzing past me. And the fucking gash in my leg is making me feel colder. Loss of blood affecting me. The gash in my thigh aches, but the pain of my broken arm and the scorpion bite is so bad I want to pass out. Good I have a walking stick. Sure, I won’t faint with something to support myself with. That way I can take some weight off the leg with the gash. All I’ll have to do is look for a big stick lying on the ground. A big strong stick about my height. Wait, I did that already. Funny that little funny thing ran out of the bark of the walking stick. Run around, run. Oh God! A scorpion, a bark scorpion. How could I have been so careless? The wounds had affected my ability to think. And I held my hand too long in one place. The sting hurt like hell. Never put your hands anywhere your eyes cannot see. One of the cardinal dos and don’ts of the desert. And the scorpion quickly struck me. Arched over tail of thick segments, but a tiny thing. A bark scorpion. Smallest are the worst, of course. The ugliest big greenish-yellow ones are harmless. Pinchers in the front for feeling prey. Squished, it looked like pus. Got you, buddy. But you got me first. Damn you. First I’m talking to dead old coots with poopy pants and now I’m talking to little dead scorpions which I left behind me hours ago. If I ever get back I vow I will do a couple of things. One is work hard to get Marsha back her money and apologize for taking it. I will tell her the truth about what I think. Tell her that maybe I have a weird kinda thing for her. Sure, that’s the real truth that’s dawning on me. I have a thing for her and I want to let her know. If she doesn’t want me, so be it, but there it is in black and white. I would like to spend the rest of my life with Marsha and Bailey. If I get a chance I will want to tell her. If I get a chance. A lot of untapped writing material here. Oliver. Old Poopy pants himself. He was a fucking classic. One of a kind. Never meet a better character. Never meet anybody else, maybe. Never meet another soul. Marsha, Marsha isn’t half bad-looking, for an over-weight woman who writes sappy love stories. She has a couple good ideas, too. Marsha is the only person who cares enough for me, secretly, oh so secretly, loving me, sure, with all my horrible flaws, my rude remarks and my theories about writing which make me laugh and aggravated her, knowing full well but never saying to herself that I had taken rent money from her and I looked at her as someone to take money from, someone to use. Finally the idea she’s loved me has permeated my thick skull and I respect her for loving me. Even if she doesn’t love me she has liked me enough to do a lot of good things for me, but how have I repaid her? With the worst behavior possible, stealing from her and her kid. Wow, and she still had it in her to speak kindly and not be angry at me for taking her dough. And I have no respect for her writing romances; I made endless fun of her. She didn’t want to know if I thought she loved me; she didn’t want to face what I thought she thought of me. That was a lot of people thinking about other people. It’s too painful to imagine it. It makes my head hurt. Maybe that’s the scorpion poison getting to me. To delve into that would break her heart. She probably never wanted to know. That had to be the reason she had never expressed her love for me, or else she didn’t love me at all and I had only been imagining the whole fucking thing all this time. How did this thing for me grow on her? What had caused it to gradually develop? Perhaps it was nothing more than years of abject loneliness, but she faced the same now, only with the memory of loving me. That might make things a little better. The thought was too painful. But didn’t love mean caring enough for someone to let them use you? To put up with their abuse? And yet I know that doesn’t seem right. And she did care for me, but now I was gone. But when she thought I might have gone to Mexico for a few days, two weeks, but this time? It might not make sense. She might know I wouldn’t disappear for a long time when Bailey had that big tooth problem. She will begin to look into the matter of my disappearance. Relatively swiftly, I hope. The fact that my wallet and the Subaru are gone would make it seem I’d truly left, at least at first of my own accord. She would contact all my friends after three weeks. But I’ll never make it out here in a week at the pace I am going. I won’t get to the car for days, if ever. There’s no sign of the road and I can’t remember how we had left it—what the trail looked like. No one will know anything about me leaving town. Nobody will remember me saying I am going anywhere. I didn’t trust anybody enough to let them know what I was doing. Would my parents come out to my apartment and help in the search for me, if they’ve forgiven me, looking for me in hospitals, in Mexico, in morgues? They’ll file a missing person report and about that time my Subaru will be found where this goddamn canyon begins, but a thorough search might never turn up my corpse. My fucking parents and maybe my brother will empty my apartment, because the landlord will insist on evicting me, and my landlord’s ex-wife will finally be getting what she has wanted for months, and his family will prepare to take my fucking shit back to Wisconsin. Eventually, someone will stumble upon my crappy car in the hills. I don’t know why I pulled it under those trees and bushes. Stupid crappy idiot. I should have left it in plain view of the rangers. I doubt they’ll ever find my body though. The coyotes and mountain lions will get me first. They won’t know to look for someone else, so the old man’s body will be left there, too. Poor Oliver, his fate is worse than mine. Or maybe better. He died fast. At least I won’t be palming money off Marsha anymore, when she can’t afford her own rent and she’s supposed to be saving money to attend a writer’s retreat in Idaho. Marsha will mourn me, wondering if I had ever considered her more than someone to use, but always doubting it. She won’t be going to the writer’s retreat because she’ll need every damn dime for Bailey’s teeth now and she can’t throw money away. With me out of the picture, who will take care of Bailey if she does go to the retreat? The plan had always been that Bailey would stay with me during that time. Mark Viglietti, she’ll think, surely he is out there somewhere looking out for number one. And wherever he was, Marsha would be sure he would continue to look out for himself. A scorpion got me. A little articulated agony whipped its tail out and jabbed me in the hand. Oh, the fucking irony. At least I put horror at the end of my life. Consistency. It’s the telling detail that makes the fucking story great. Plenty of details in this. Shadows on the rocks, clouds skimming by. And me. Little old me. A tear. A tear is trickling down my damn cheek. I haven’t cried since I was five years old. Fucking idiot. Dip-shit cry-baby. Crying is not going to walk me out of here. If I can get back to my car I will live. If I stop here I’ll die. Get a move on, bro. Lots of good writing material here. Material that is lost forever. Down the drain with the author. Extinguishing forever with the artist. Nobody dies from a scorpion sting. I did some research on that once for a dumb book of mine years ago and again recently. What was that piece of crap called? Oh yeah, Dance with Death. A fucking lousy book that one was. Sheesh! Lousier than most of my lousy books and that was saying a lot. I tried to have a character die from a scorpion sting, but I did my research and found out it wouldn’t kill anyone, sure I did that a couple of weeks ago again. Can’t remember anything I looked up and I would have to look it up over and over like a fucking idiot. Memory like a sieve; it pisses me off so much. Anyway, the character will have to be badly injured in order to die from a scorpion sting. The character can’t possibly die because he needs something else like loss of blood or exposure or dehydration. So I’ll have to injure him and keep withholding treatment. There’s no choice but to beat up on him and torture him if I want him to die at the end. Seems the scary looking scorpions in Arizona simply aren’t venomous enough to kill anything but a small child or a small animal. Sure, I’ve read that. Maybe people don’t die even if they have a broken arm and a gash in their thigh and they don’t get treated for the sting of a scorpion? For how long can they stay alive? Must have been a day since I was stung, though it could have been two days though because I haven’t been awake for most of the time and I passed out when I fell. Cell phone is dead now. It’s been looking for a signal. When I fell I lost track of time. What day did we get here, anyway? Was it a Sunday we left? Only planned to be there two days. Which direction is the fucking car? Why did I let Oliver lead me there without taking note of the way we were going? Dutch oven full of gold, a likely story. A story is the end of me. How fucking ironic. A story is the end of a writer’s existence. Irony is a cheap way to end a man’s life. And nobody ever dies from a scorpion sting. Nobody…ever…dies… “Hey, buddy?” “Hey? You gonna talk to us, buddy? Hmm?” A man in an orange suit begins slapping my face and holding my wrist. Checking my vital signs, that is what he’s doing. Maybe he had done that once before; I can’t remember. It feels strange to have a person touching my skin, though. The hairs are rising on my arm. “That place where you’re touching me burns,” I mutter. “Coming around,” says the man to one of his companions. “What? Around here, bud?” asks the man in the orange suit who is touching me. “Yeah, and I know why.” “Yeah? Do you want to tell us?” “A fucking scorpion stung me. It came out of a stick. I tried to use a stick. As a crutch to help me walk out of this…this fucking place. It stung me right there.” “Uh huh,” says the man. “It sure did.” “It did.” “You got good veins at least. How’s that? You’re gonna feel a lot better when the drip gets in you. You’re dehydrated, bud.” “Sssuper,” I say woozily. “The place where the scorpion stung me burns,” I say. “Oh yeah, you said that. We’ll tell them at the hospital. Right now we’re gonna transport you out of here first, okay? Check his pupils.” “Okay, but it burns pretty bad,” I say. “Yeah, I bet it does.” And twice more I mumble to the man in the orange suit about the scorpion that has come out of the stick and I try to point where I’ve been bitten, but my arm isn’t cooperating. “We’re placing you on a stretcher now. Don’t be concerned if you feel yourself rising in the air. You aren’t going to heaven yet.” “Oooouuuch,” I mutter. “You’re in good hands.” After a few minutes of being semi-conscious I feel myself rising with lots of guys in orange suits around me. “Here we go. Are you ready?” asks one of the paramedics. “Sure,” I whisper. Mouth has no saliva. I endure a long journey with a drip in my arm and these guys walking beside me like my weight is nothing for them. Maybe I haven’t been that far up after all. I wonder how far I’ve gotten toward the car. I fall asleep and awake feeling the stretcher lurch, which is about to be shoved into the back of an ambulance. Two guys are sliding the stretcher. “Thanks guys. I owe you my life,” my smile is crooked and my parched lips horribly cracked, but I manage to shake both their hands weakly. “We found you, bud. You were on your last leg, ha ha. Sorry for the bad pun. You’re dehydrated and suffering from a leg wound and exposure and a scorpion sting in your hand, but you’re gonna be okay. You’re gonna make it. You’re one of the lucky ones.” “I know it. How did you know where to look?” I ask in amazement. I turn my head toward the ambulance attendant who is strapping me to the gurney and covering me with more sheets to stop hypothermia. “The border patrol. I think they found your car.” Another attendant begins prepping me for sedation and a drip. I turn to him. Cold alcohol swipes another spot on my grimy arm. “How did you know where to look?” I ask the other attendant. I study the drip in my arm. “It was us. The border patrol. We found your car,” says a man who is filling out a report. “In the parking lot. Where you left it. It was visible by air; it was pretty easy to spot even though you pulled it under some branches. No one else was hiking and the lot closes every night. Yesterday someone found it on a routine check. I think they missed your car the first night, but not the second. By the third day they spotted you. We’ll tow your car into Tucson and you’re liable for the tow.” “Someone told you I was there. That my car was in the parking lot?” “Well, I don’t know about that, sir. I doubt it. I think they spotted it in the lot and got suspicious. They got a dog to follow the scent straight to you. And the old guy.” Oliver. His body is leaving in the other ambulance. But Marsha! So I did tell her where I was going. That had to be true, how else could they have found me? When had I done it? It was vague, but it seemed possible that I’d done that in some conversation in the week before I left with Oliver, oh, the poor old coot. Dead now. Because of me. The other ambulance is taking his body away, yes, that’s it. The dehydration and shock of my fall had driven my memories deep into my brain so that some of it seemed unreal. I can’t trust my memory right now, while I am recovering, but it’s fantastic, amazing, to think I’ve told her about my trip and she’d arranged for a rescue. Truly I thought I hadn’t told her. I thought I had kept it to myself. Or I figured I’d told her and she hadn’t cared enough to worry. Goddamn it, the world was surprising me again. I cared for her, too. Cared for her and Bailey more than anything in the world. I finally knew it for sure and didn’t have any doubts about my feelings. Hiding them wasn’t even an option. Preserving a tough exterior was a stupid trick. I don’t want to keep them away. And I don’t want them away anymore. I’m going to prove my love to them. Starting tomorrow. Starting the minute I get back. “You’re free. These come off. Doctor’s orders.” The sexy nurse pulls back the blanket I’d arranged on my legs and reached over to rip open the Velcro strips that held the inflating mechanism on one of my calves. She slid it off and grabbed for the straps on the other. “You don’t need these anymore, Mr. Viglietti. You’re doing so well. We’re going to have you walk—assisted—in the halls and we’ll think about discharging you pretty soon. How does that sound?” “I wish you wouldn’t take them off. I find them highly stimulating,” I say. “Oh?” The nurse drapes the rubber mechanisms over the bottom rail of my hospital bed. “Most people hate them.” “I’m not most people. I like them. They might be doing something for me. If you know what I mean.” “Everybody hates them. You into leg massages?” “I’m into lots of things.” I give her a soulful look, but my heart isn’t in it. When I only think of Marsha now, how can I manage this, even a little innocent flirtation? “And they kept me awake so I could think about you,” I add. “This is the first time I’ve come in here, Mr. Viglietti.” “Well, I was imagining you beforehand. I have a talent for foresight, you see. I sometimes lie awake knowing some beautiful someone is about to show up in my life.” “Uh huh. I see all right.” The nurse chuckles and adjusts the tray beside my bed. She glances at the IVs and writes something in my chart. I smile. Probably wanly and turn my head to look out the window beside my bed at a section of the eastern wall of the old hospital. The smooth side of the huge building is broken by a repetitive relief that seems to be stylized leaves or paramecium; it’s hard to tell. The sun is baking onto the building and sharpening the points of the leaves until I almost fear them. I prefer the hospital interior; a sure sign I’m going nuts. Maybe being unconscious in the sun had affected my eyes. “Uncle Viggy!” shouts a kid. Bailey leans in, peeking around the hospital doorway as the nurse leaves, “You’re awake!” “Sure I am,” I say, pulling myself up in bed. “Come in. Come on in. Don’t hang around at the doorway. What you doing here? Where’s your mother?” “She’s coming.” Bailey gives me a significant eye roll as she trots to my bedside obediently. “With Mr. Yucky. And I don’t know why.” “Who? Who’s this?” I ask, mystified. I feel my heart beating quickly. “Mr. Yucky,” says Bailey. “That’s who.” “And who is Mr. Yucky?” Before Bailey can answer Marsha walks in with Rodney. She has a faint smile on her face, and I know it means something. I look at them blankly for a minute. What in the fuck are they doing in here together? And were they holding hands in the hall? I’m not sure what I’ve seen. What does she mean by bringing Rodney? But I know with a sinking feeling she is beyond trying to make me jealous for the affect. The truth is she isn’t that into me anymore. That’s evident. And when someone has lost it for you, it’s gone forever and you’ll never get it back. The two of them are a fucking pair. Sure, while I’ve been almost dying to get back the money for Marsha, she’s been Taking Care of Business with the disgusting Rodney. If she only knew what an asshole that jerk is. He treats women better than I do initially but in a few years he would treat Marsha worse. And Bailey. God, that got to me with something big and terrible and depressing that sat on my heart like a ton of bricks. Maybe my heart isn’t even beating anymore. No matter what, I know I will have been better for the kid. Marsha might not see it now, but she will in a few years. She’ll think back and regret this. But what good is winning the regrets war? No good now. No good for Bailey or for me. “Vig, my old son of a bitch, you’re looking chipper,” says Marsha. It wasn’t the same Marsha, though. Detached, that was the word for the feeling in her voice. Fucking detached and disinterested. Not amused. Not the way she used to sound with me. There’s a clean break in her voice. I hate the sound of that break. I can’t go on living with the sound of that break. My tongue can barely move in my mouth and I fumble for the aqua ice water pitcher to fill a Styrofoam cup. It gives me something to look at besides Marsha who isn’t coming that near my bed, either. “Sure,” I reply, “I am chipper.” I sort it all out in my head as fast as my broken head will work. That fucking jerk has moved in on Marsha and Bailey (though Bailey has called Rod Mr. Yucky, hadn’t she?) but there is no way for him to get back in Marsha’s good favors. I lost them forever. I’ll be an outsider from now on. Timing, I’ve never had it. You need that in life and I’ve never had it. Took me too long to recognize a good thing when it came along. “We didn’t know what happened,” says Bailey, flopping on the edge of my bed and entwining her arms on the bars of my hospital bed. “Oh, I went on a little jaunt, kid. Didn’t turn out too well. That’s all.” “What were you doing? Hiking? We think you were hiking, probably.” “Um, yeah. I was with this old guy I met at work. That’s all. We went hiking and we both fell. He hit some rocks and was killed.” “Yeah. It was in the papers. Mom read it.” “Oh.” “What does this button thingy do?” “That calls the nurse. Don’t play with it,” warns Marsha. “Oh wow!” “Did you hear what your mother said?” adds Rodney with a slight edge of irritation to his voice. “Are you gonna be okay?” asks Bailey, stroking my arm. I can barely stand to feel her touch now. “Oh sure. No broken bones. A cut here on my thigh. And a scorpion stung me on my hand.” I hold up my hand and show the bandage. “Wow! That’s exciting.” “Since when have you liked to hike?” says Rodney, assuming the role of the Grand Fucking Inquisitor at the foot of the hospital bed. “Um, it was a whim. With the old guy. Like I said.” “We didn’t even know you were missing,” says Marsha. “Rodney told me yesterday you were in the hospital or I wouldn’t have known. It’s been a bad year for you and hospitals.” “Um, yeah,” I say, flinching to remember my lies about having pneumonia. “Pneumonia, right?” asks Rodney. “Oh, only double pneumonia. Twice,” I say with a dismissive, martyred glance at the ceiling. “Well, you’re looking good now,” says Marsha. “Yes, better than we were told.” Rodney’s voice has that cold edge that clearly says he knows I have done something stupid to get injured. “I stopped by and got your mail,” Marsha begins, handing an envelope to Bailey, “most of it was dumb stuff, but there was this. Is it what I think it is?” “What? Is it what?” I say, taking the big manila envelope from Bailey. “An acceptance. Of your writing. At least I think that’s what it is.” “Oh, wow.” I tear open the envelope. “I thought it would be email. Maybe they already sent that. I haven’t been able to check my phone yet. No reception in hospitals.” “Oh, that’s right.” “Wow. It was the stagecoach story with the vampire, Bailey. The one you told me where the narrator is the vampire!” “Wow! You got it published!” “Yep. I guess I did. Now I have to blow my tin horn.” I look sadly in Marsha’s direction. She is studying me. Maybe happily? Marsha turns as the sexy nurse comes in the door. The nurse putters around the far side of the room with a chart. “Does the nurse want to do something?” “We need to change his dressings in a minute,” she replies without turning around, “but there’s no hurry. He’s going to walk in the halls, too.” “Oh, we’ll go. That’s important,” says Rod. “No, no,” I cry, looking at Marsha. “This was going to be a quick pop in and out. We don’t want to make you worse.” “You aren’t!” I say, too urgently. “I’m fine!” I yelp. “Text me when your discharged. Rodney says he’ll give you a ride home, but I want to stop by and check on you.” “We’ll both stop by,” adds Rodney. Rodney waves and begins leaving with Bailey before I can think how to respond. How can I stop Marsha from going with them? I promised myself I’d tell Marsha I love her, and this is the first time I can do it, but I’m blowing it. But do I even want to now? Every moment is so painful I don’t think I can take more. “Come on Bailey,” Rodney says. “You’re looking fantastic, Vig. So glad you pulled through.” Bailey slumps out the door with Rodney. Marsha stays and gives me the old thumbs up sign. God, how depressing it is for me to see Marsha trying to cheer me up with little upbeat gestures. I want the old sarcastic, caustic Marsha back. Rodney has destroyed that perfectly fantastic female character, goddamn him. “So I see you and Rodney have hit it off,” I growl. “Don’t start,” Marsha replies. “Just don’t start.” “I can’t begin to tell you how lucky he is.” “What’s that mean?” The nurse steps out. “What it sounds like. Marsha, my only chance at happiness was with you and your kid, and now I realize it. Out in the mountains I realized that. But I blew it for us. You mean everything to me, and I blew it.” Marsha says nothing but studies me. “Hey, what are you guys yakking about?” asks Bailey, coming back in. “Bailey!” calls Rodney from the hall. “Vig, you don’t know what you’re saying,” Marsha says. “You’re an old friend of mine and you’re feeling sentimental because you’ve been through a trauma. When you’re better you won’t feel the same way.” “I do know what I’m saying. I’m not going to change. Are you going to let me be more to you than Uncle Viggy to Bailey?” I discover I am gripping Marsha’s hand. How had she gotten close again? “I hate to tell you this, but you’re ruining your chances with the sexy nurse,” Marsha whispers. “So be it,” I say, “So fucking be it. It doesn’t bother me. Believe me, there is nothing between me and any sexy nurses anymore.” “So this is it? Us together?” “This is it.” I pull Marsha toward me with my good arm and plant a kiss on her lips. Strangely, I realize I’ve always wanted to. Always, always wanted to. “I think this may be it,” says Marsha when our lips part. “By the way, Rodney and I have only one thing in common. Our mutual friendship with you. I regret to say I have fallen for a hack writer of vampire stories.” “Shit, shit,” I’m saying this over and over. “Mostly unpublished,” I add. For a little while I’m stroking her hair and looking into her baby blue eyes. When she leaves, I notice I’m tearing up. Rhinitis, no doubt.

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