“Father was busy reading and did not notice that the house was being filled with strange Indians until Mother spoke about it.”
-Narcissa Cornwall, 1846
Ideological branding aside, most Lesbians she knew and admired had less problem with the penis as a fact than with the word Lesbian, that cardboard word, so dry, so nothing brown, redolent of the 1950s and the suppressed longings of whiskered librarians with scalp-torturingly tight buns streaked with grey. O’Sirus can even smell the book rot. The brambled grey heart of the librarian’s talcumed vadge. She nods to herself and goes on thinking, under the deafening blast of the barge horn, how the real problem with the bipedal male mammal is not its penis but its head, face, smirk, leer, glower, the swaggering grin. Imagine putting your tongue in that. The general problem of the whole male head is for her insurmountable and here she has to think of her dad when it dawns on her she’s been thinking of her dad all along, her dad had triggered the reverie, her dad and his mustache, that time they’d stood and watched some sort of regatta. The barge had triggered her dad.
She couldn’t have been older than five and also, now that she really thinks about it, can’t really be remembering him from that particular day. Must have been a photo in her mom’s treasured album she stole the image from, spliced with an impression of pointless boats on a body of water, frivolous boutique boats, toys of the nearly rich, gleaming white weddingcakes on a filthygreen body of water. She likes the phrase body of water. She sees her father clearly, a dead ringer for Anwar Sadat, dressed in that embarrassing faux-commodore’s outfit, smoothing his mustache, sweating profusely, flirting with the waitress, the flamehaired waitress dressed like a sailor and circulating amongst the guests with a tray of what Kimberly, at the time, had taken to be glasses of colored water. The redheaded waitress who looked like his wife. Kim’s mom.
Come to think of it. Before she was famous, O’Sirus sucked a dick once and actually liked it. Mostly. She’d liked the quickness. Plenty of room for improvement in the bouquet, though. Like the pulse of a wingless hummingbird on her tongue, the cock she’d once sucked was the encapsulated heartbeat of a Queer who worked at her data consultant’s, a cute little Queer with a mustache and a worryingly red rash on his belly. Rodney. Nothing like her father at all. Her father would’ve eaten the twink for breakfast. Her father and his macho Egyptian aphorisms, delivered in a cigarry nimbus with the voice of Maurice Chevalier: A faggot is the poor man’s woman.
A woman is the poor man’s what?
Whenever she happens, by accident, to see Rodney Redrash (sneaking out of Woodbridges, say), she winks and he blushes, making her feel like Frank Sinatra. Whenever O’Sirus remembers her father, he appears in that commodore’s outfit, sweating profusely, smoothing his mustache, flirting, and feeling, no doubt, like Frank Sinatra, though with a balding brown head and a pencil-thin mustache. The flirting he did on excursions, the glowering he did in his bathrobe at home. She feels like her father looked whenever she sits at the kitchen table in her bathrobe. Glowering, as Katryn once noted. Glowering like her Egyptian pater with his overall problem of having a male head in its bigness, its hardness, the whiskery roughpatches and off-putting repertoire of crazed expressions. The vagina dentata of the hairy male mouth.
O’Sirus tells herself to snap out of it.
She tells herself O’Sirus, you’re having a Kimberly moment again. Look at the pretty barge. The troutpool sky with its puffs of pink putti. The Saint Lawrence Seaway below. You are semi-famous. Your father is dead, probably. You are not, you are no longer, Kimberly Mahfouz. The pretty barge is angling in from the horizon and you racked up two point something million downloads last year. Remember your mantel full of Asimovs. Your triumphant gig at the Khyber. The endless ovations. Your pampered white goddess in the rumpled warm bed of the presidential suite of the hotel overlooking this body of water. Turn. Wave to her. She’s probably watching.
Drooping in the blue are crippled crosses. Seagulls snagged on the wind. O’Sirus is standing in Duluth at land’s end filming a barge as long as a jumbojet’s runway rolling through choppy March waters, blasting its Wagner-horn at the liftbridge and thrilling her, inexplicably (as though she was watching some natural wonder like whales fucking), when this lady ajog on the walkpath behind her comes up to comment, hands on hips in pearshaped hotpink sweatwear, amiably out of breath, going I can tell you’re a tourist. The jarringly gothic presentation had hooked her, no doubt: the long black high-collared coat plus regal auras of remoteness. The curly hair, the olive skin, the freckles, and, of course, of course, the accent. In telling the story to Katryn, O’Sirus will refer to the jogging housewife as Marge.
So how do they end up having a blazing row about China? Out of the blue, Marge offers her sanctimonious two cents about mass executions of Chinese drug addicts. It’s a sickness, not a crime plus all those other smiley-faced, hug-the-world liberal white upper-middleclass orthodoxies that set O’Sirus’s teeth on edge as she passes through this part of the country so thick with them. Must have been an item in the morning paper. Americans like reading about hellish conditions in other countries over breakfast. Makes the ham taste better. O’Sirus points out the historical fact of the Opium Wars. England-enforced drug addiction had diminished China from an imperial power in the early 19th century to a decimated landmass of whiskered junkies a century later, as detailed by an ex-girlfriend with two published books on the topic, thankyouverymuch. A ginger ex with a bright red vadge I called Trotsky.
Lesbians cannot have strong opinions because when they do (the assumption persists) said strong opinions are merely a symptom of Lesbianism. Overdosed on toxic vadge. We keep trying to get rid of that word but it always comes back. She’d even sponsored a contest, recently, with her merged mega-fan club, to come up with a replacement, but none of the terms, clever as they were, had managed to stick. Katryn, dumb as milk, beautiful as water, had suggested Lesbianoids. You can tell she’s a straight at heart. She says she wants kids.
Go buy goats.
“My husband Mr. Chalfont and I run quite a successful little import business that specializes in printed Chinese textiles and we’re on the phone with these people at least once a week so I think we know a thing or two about China.”
O’Sirus is thinking I earn my living writing stories and singing songs about dysfunctional shrews, deluded cunts and in-your-face-American loonies, so I think I know a thing or two about you. She interrupts Marge’s rant, which has already managed to incorporate both Nixon and Tiananmen Square and points a sleekly gloved finger at the azure chop:
“How cold do you suppose that water is?”
“Excuse me?” Red faced. Non plussed.
“The water in the seaway there. How cold?”
“Well it can’t be much above freezing, this time of year, obviously. Why?”
“Because why don’t you jump in it?”
Marge takes a step towards O’Sirus and O’Sirus assumes a very cool but proficient-looking Karate stance and Marge fucks off. Running backwards.
What a lovely spring day.
“I still can’t believe you’ve never fucked a person of color.”
“Neither had you, before me.”
“But that’s just it.”
“What’s just it?”
“You’re a person of color.”
“So, it’s stranger when a person of color hasn’t fucked a person of color than when a person of non-color hasn’t.”
“Katryn, dear, go back to your Vogue and leave me to the important task of ordering breakfast. What put your tiny train on that short track, anyway? Or will I be sorry I asked?” O’Sirus has a still-gloved hand over the mouthpiece of the phone. Katryn dutifully holds the magazine up to scrutiny, folded open to a full page photo of some black North American celebrity who looks just as stupid as they like their black celebrities to look. With murder in those bedroom eyes.
“Hullo, this is room 802. We’d like to have something sent up. Yes. The eggs, again, too, but a little less salty this time, if that’s possible. Sorry? Whole grain. Buckwheat? Sure, buckwheat. Whatever you say. Really? Well, whichever strain of buckwheat you suggest, then. Yes. Yes. Because I trust you. Okay? I’m ringing off now. Seriously. Have one yourself. Cheers.” She’d been this close to ordering something even more horrendously tasty. Every day, in America, one enters the pitched battle between god and the devil, sanity and self-indulgence, sincerity and being nice. She turns back to Katryn. “Let’s not go there, dah-link. I fuck who I want to fuck.”
“That would be me.”
“That would be you.”
Splay-legged on the red satin sheets, gushing blonde all over everything and white as chrome on a snowscape, Katryn is the purest vision of the Western (Eastern, Northern, Southern, global) ideal of the unattainable. Yet here she is, fully attained, The Goddess of whipped cream on cherry tarts, hers. O’Sirus’s. How soon after O’Sirus had attained Katryn had O’Sirus noticed that Katryn wasn’t Susan Sontag? She finds herself re-revising the downward reappraisal of her lover’s intellectual capacities by the hour, of late. The minute. Nevertheless…
Katryn rolls over on her belly as instructed, elevating her marble ass to a proper azimuth of prayer. What a marvel, the proportion of narrow waist to plump behind; the detailed articulation of ribcage flexing with life. In, out, in, out, in, out… a mindless argument that always wins. Katryn covers an embarrassing fusillade of thrust-syncopated vadgey flatus with a passion-simulating (or mocking?) scream as the abashed Roomservice Guatamalen knocks timidly, hoping most of all not to be heard. But the pancakes are coveted and the knockings are heard. O’Sirus bounds to the door. Moments later:
“These are so good it’s awful,” groans Katryn, legs crossed. Orrful.
“Be advised that if you gain so much as a kilo…”
The awning over the front entrance of the hotel is windwhipped as guests struggle in and out of shuttles and limos with whoops and shrieks at the sudden gusts, hands on hats on heads, fat old children at an amusement park of the elements, for Americans, lacking proper childhoods, never grow up. They wear those ballcaps and sneakers, mostly, ballcaps and running suits. Kids from six to sixty. Did O’Sirus just see a woman drive by in a black cap with widow’s veil? Katryn is a meter upwind with her camera, yet, still, wisps of her hair are tickling her lover’s glowering face. Why are we standing so far apart, K. wonders. What message is she trying to send and to whom?
“Will we be able to identify them?”
“They’ll be driving one of those horrendously large van thingies, apparently.”
“Now you’ve got me picturing two steering wheels.”
“That would be a pretty American thing. Co-driving.”
“A van! I hope we’re not expected to squat on gardening supplies or something. I’ve just had this suit cleaned.”
“No one told you to wear white satin to the provinces, dah-link.”
“They’re getting married, after all.”
“Not for a week.”
“I thought we should dress for the occasion.”
O’Sirus points here and there with her subtly hawkish nose. “Dressing up ain’t part of this culture, clearly.”
Two bellhops steer an expeditions’ worth of mod luggage out on two carts in response to which O’Sirus undertips them in a manner she thinks is extravagantly.
The wind gusts big and there are more amusement-park shrieks as an older woman traversing the lawn on the way to the driveway reaches so high to clamp both hands on her flapping blonde wig that her belly spills from under her Nike top like a clear plastic bag of cold milk. Both Katryn and O’Sirus frown away from the unsettling sight. The body of water. The body of clouded water.
“All the better for us. To make a statement, I mean.”
“A statement of what?”
“You’re the writer. Think of one.”
Katryn smirks in that way she has when she thinks she’s delivered a zinger. The stupidest problem with the stupid being that the stupid are too stupid to know how stupid they are. O’Sirus’s pert-cunted M’lady of High Saxon coloring obviously thinks of herself as a veritable fount of classically clever screwball comedy quips. A long-haired Carol Lombard to O’Sirus’s dusky, mustache-free William Powell. Maybe I’m just grumpy, muses O’Sirus, because I didn’t have time to come before the pancakes came. Or am I grumpy because we’ve flown all the way across the Atlantic in tourist-class seats to watch two American strangers get married in some kitsch-Wiccan travesty of a wedding ceremony, trapping ourselves in Yokelopolis for two weeks?
Not strangers, exactly. The two presidents of her biggest North American fan clubs, now merged. First they were rivals and then they were online friends and, then, after gods-knows-how-many thousands of dollars of phone sex and Fed-Exed panty samples, they are a dynastic match, merging two nationwide clans of O’Sirus fanatics. The upper Midwesterly O’Sirens plus the lower Midwesterly Phangasm. Now it’s just one super-regional entity called The O’Sirens of Phangasm or TOSOP. Well. Seth and Shem are each thirty, wide of neck, bleached-blonde and sport similar weightlifter haircuts. They take smiling very seriously, showing all of their many big teeth whenever they do so. Or so O’Sirus has gathered from the presskits. They could be three feet tall or human heads on millipede bodies for all she knows, for she’s only ever seen the photoshopped headshots.
When the van sails up the horse-shoe’d hotel drive, yellow foglights dim in the bright morning, it takes her a thought-cycle or two to grasp that the writhing, bulging, Bosch-like mural covering the body of the yacht-long vehicle is a graphic representation of various scenes and characters from her songs and her fictions; her mindcircus come to town. She recognizes the blue-haired protag of Inter Stella and the creepy-eyed dreamthief from The Sidereal Spinship and the clan of Vietnamese hermaphrodite warrior-poets from the song-cycle 23AD. There’s Corpuscle Christie and there’s a Weremaid (a sort of oceangoing werewolf) and there’s a Cockerpillar (don’t ask) and the singing white Communist spiders from Horror Scope. There’s the castrated, jet-black, light-eyed time-travelling Nigerian from the Dutch teleflick serial of From Near to Eternity…
I’m not climbing into that.
The earthship eases to its shuddering halt, eclipsing the sun, ticking and cooling and rocking on springs as doors swing open and slam shut and two vivid pink megaweights thud on the driveway. They commence rolling their shoulders and jerking their necks and grunting like carnival strongmen. What kind of eating could result in this kind of obesity? Eating as war… Total War. Neither of these two was ever not fat, clearly, and O’Sirus pictures lard-colored, tadpole-sized sperm and feels sick. She pictures nuked wombs and blown pussies and herniated nurses, groaning on cots of their own. Katryn is walking instinctively towards the marginally more enormous one with an outstretched hand so small, so finely articulated, in comparison, that it’s deeply and eerily moving. She could be walking bravely to her martyr’s death. O’Sirus feels a pang. A pang of almost-love at the thought.
Pang passes. She moves to greet her biggest fans.
“Kimbo!” cried mother Peg, with her deracinated Phillyish howl. Spelled “Kimbaud”. Emphasis on the second syllable. Mother’s joke. Kimbo was almost the age the poet was when he gave it all up to run guns in the jungle and Kimbo’s mother had been joking for months that Kimbo would do exactly the same. Only in Kim’s case she’d just hitch to New Jersey and get a job. Walk away from her gift in exchange for a life of middleclass riches untold.
Kim sorrowed over her mother’s lost accent. Sometimes, for a treat, a satirical treat, mother’d lay it on thick with a Faith ‘n Begorra! to get Kim out of the bed or the bathroom but that doesn’t count. Most of the time she sounds like a plain old Fildelfyan, carefully hiding both her Irish origins and the level of her education. Anything to be friendly. Anything to get along.
Kim was in bed with a picture of Kim Novak. Trying to calm herself. Cat Stevens emoting. The picture in the middle of a library book. The flames on her scented candles did the hula whenever Kim got out of bed to put the needle back to the beginning of her favorite song in a bedroom that, even then, in 1977, she could look around with detachment and think how it looked so much like the ‘70s. Cat Steven was singing in Latin. O Caritas, O Caritas, Nobis Semper Sit Amor. She had friends who would wait for the next Supertramp single to grace the radio. She had friends with bubble perms. The library card was a penciled-in record of the reading habits of a certain type of girl to be found sprinkled throughout the student body of her all-girl high school, the same handful of names, over and over again, in various sequences. The list was an accurate prediction of the girls who wouldn’t be attending the prom. The girls who wouldn’t be going through pregnancy scares. There was a butch chocolate thumbprint in the lower left corner of the picture of Ms. Novak (an old publicity still from Bell, Book and Candle) which Kim was pretty sure she recognized. The boorish thumb of the crewcut snack-addicted basketball coach Miss Yanni. Brillo Bush. She preyed on the skinny, bookish girls who couldn’t do chin-ups.
The year was 1977 and such issues were no longer an issue. For example, just recently. These two ladies. Out on Market Street, plain as day, holding hands after twirling out of the revolving doors of Wannamaker’s and Kimbo followed them for blocks and would have asked for their autographs if only she’d had the balls to. The only problem she had was with the word itself, the term, so evocative of some turn-of-the-century cure for hysteria just reeking of chalk in a brown glass bottle by the sink. The word was a total invasion of privacy, for one thing. And it claimed you were from an island called Lesbos. Aesthetic considerations aside. Were actual legal natives of the island of Lesbos called “Lesbians”?
One word and it’s supposed to be the summation of you and who you like and what you like doing with who you like and what the results will be. Only she didn’t like anyone, yet: not in that way. There was no object, it was all subject. Being what she was was thus far merely about knowing for sure what she wasn’t. It was an abstract, intellectual kind of gender she had got herself into, apparently. She wasn’t doing, she was not-doing…. all day long. All day and all night, like a fiend. There wasn’t an hour went by when she wasn’t not doing it. Oh, her mother would shit. Poor Peg, raised a good Catholic in some never-discussed corner bog of Oyurlan, would’ve shit and died.
“What?” the long-suffering, half-tone dipthong in descent, engineered for the staircase.
Sweetly. “Is Lyndsay still up there?”
“Lyndsay went home, mother!”
“That’s good, then. It’s getting late.”
As if. She was tormented by niggling, semi-formed suspicions, is what really happened. O, mother, lamented Kim. If only your conscious mind knew what your subconscious fears the most. She put away the library book and scooted up in the bed with her back on the headboard and handled poor Lyndsay’s manuscript again. Kyth and Kynna it was called. Kyth and Kynna, by Lyndsay Weissman. The only copy of the thing in existence. Lyndsay had wanted her to read it. Handed it over with weird casualness. Tell me what you think. Two chapters into it she tried a kiss.
The bedroom door swung open. A pretty woman walked in with humblingly humble grace.
“I just didn’t want her walking all the way back through Germantown after ten, Kimbo, is all. It’s dangerous. The under-privileged…”
Kim produced a patient smile.
A flash of pornographic doodle before the manuscript dived under the bedcovers. “Nothing.”
“Fair enough. Can I get you anything, dear?”
Why has she been treating me like this? Like I have a fever or brain damage?
“Hm?” Eyebrows lifted like wings. Plucked as thin as Anais Nin’s, as a line from one of Kim’s silly poems goes. She still looks fairly young, though, having been only a month more than eighteen when the mustached progenitor knocked her up.
“We need to talk.”
“We talk all the time, Kimbo.”
“About a certain thing, I mean.”
“Should I sit down first?”
“Perhaps.” She nodded her mother down to the edge of the bed. “Mother.”
She detected a glimmer of hope in the eye that was turned to her. The vain hope that Kimbo had reconsidered about college and all. No, mother, it’s about cuntlicking, actually. Lots and lots of theoretical cuntlicking. Cuntlicking and nipplenuzzling and biting at softsloppygirlmouth. To be honest she has also fantasized about having a finger in her bottom but that’s faux-phallic and ideologically inappropriate, isn’t it?
“You remember, last Christmas…”
…but she has fantasized it…
…a finger up there…
“…you sort of set me up on this little date situation with that awful nose-picking would-be rapist son of those people you kind of half-know from the book store?”
…tweedling her to a cathartic bowel movement…
…digging and twisting…
“Remember how fatally disgusted I was when I got home later? So disgusted I was literally sick? You had to take my temperature? I threw up? Remember?” Kim stared mother down beseechingly.
She was feeling terribly self-conscious. The timing was wrong. She didn’t want to come out (“come out”) to her mother while her hair was looking like that, like the dancing discharge from a van de graff generator due to the hatefully humid weather; didn’t want to come out while dealing with the thing that had happened with Lyndsay. She thought of bowlcut Lyndsay out there in the foaming drizzle night, hands in the pockets of her new red unbuttonable raincoat, droplets beading her cheeks, moving towards the sights and sounds of a Friday night in an integrated swath of Philly with that top-heavy lope, those chugging tits, spine-bending tits, Hall and Oats on a car radio, Friday a black mirror encompassing tawdry tavern come-ons of saturated color in mysterious patterns of smalltime money and bigtime sex, devastated by the rejection. Eyes jammed shut and face extended with lips almost comically puckered. And Kim had just sort of cleared her throat after a terrible terrible silence.
Lyndsay was supposed to call when she got home and she didn’t. She was supposed to announce her safe arrival and didn’t.
The door bangs open.
“Hey, where’s the camera? The phone, I mean. The camera.” Katryn tilts her head. “And why are you in bed? I thought you were writing.”
“I am writing.”
“Ah. That even-when-I’m-lying-on-top-of-a-fully-made-bed-with-my coat-still-on-sort-of-staring-at-the-ceiling-like-a-grumpy-zombie, I’m-still-writing, in-my-head kind of writing.”
“Aren’t your new best friends going to miss you?”
“I just have to get a picture of that pool.” Darts into the little room. Calls out from it digging through suitcases: “Can you set up the thingy so we can, erm, send out some tacky tourist shots tonight?”
“Well, do they have a wireless hub…?”
Katryn darts back in, just a bit, just the head, horizontal, the head and a gripping hand, hair flowing down in a perfect blonde vertical that almost touches the floor. Lowered voice plus exaggerated pantomime lips. “A wireless hub? Are you kidding? There’s a flatscreen on the wall over the Jacuzzi in our guest bathroom. And a refrigerator next to the…”
“Have you found out what they do, yet?”
“Crass to bring it up so soon, don’t you think?”
O’Sirus turns on her side. Fetal. Coated back to Katryn’s disembodied head. Collar turned up. “Just curious.”
“Have to be corporate law or something. Or property. Don’t strike me as doctor types. Drug dealers…?”
“Vulgarly fucking lucrative, whatever it is. I’ll feel a whole lot better if it’s illegal. Isn’t it rather cold outside for a dip in the pool?”
Sigh. “Go away, Katryn.”
Katryn makes an affectionate detour around the bed to run her fingers through O’Sirus’s hair before leaving. Even Katryn assumes it’s a gender-political statement, the short-ish hair. Once upon a time O’s hair had been, theoretically, when combed out, combed out and pressed, long enough to half-cover her shoulder blades, if. On dry fall days she could tame the stuff with sweaty efforts into stiffly lustrous waves but let the relative humidity hit a certain dread figure and she became Medusa Garfunkle. Give her so-called black hair any day. Densely kinky hair is nice and sculptural like topiary and can be trimmed into stable shapes and straight hair is controllable enough but her hair is fuzzy and floppy and really only sorts itself out underwater. Underwater, she is an astonishing sloe-eye siren floating in the languid nimbus of sultry slo-mo hair.
It was Medusa Garfunkle who regarded, with loving resentment, satin-haired mother Peg with the curious tilt to her head. She could see what the progenitor had seen in her.
They could smell Unca Mundee’s awful cooking odors gurgling through the wall. Much of the meal had obviously died on the premises. His cooking, his stereotypically black jovial laughter and monotonous untuned major-key guitar twangings: entertaining some white woman.
In Africa we were Kings and Queens was Unca Mundee’s favorite non-sequitur of a valediction, at which Kim would always lamely smile as he limped off with shaggy shakes of his head but to which she always thought:
Kings and Queens of other Africans. So what?
The weirdest thing about Kim and her mother is the fact that they’re two distinct races. Kim’s reaction to Unca Mundee differed from her mother’s along racial lines. Mother found him charming. She over-appreciated the other black neighbors, too; always found something valid in them; yet viewed the whites with contempt, suspicion or a cold tolerance verging on species hatred.
“O, Mother,” sighed Medusa Garfunkle.
She shook out her hair and hid her face behind it. She blew a note through her nose. With Lyndsay’s manuscript under the covers and mother perched on the end of the bed, she felt herself caught between the rock of a friend’s greater talent and the hard place of her mother’s unconditional love. Who was she? What was she? Which was more impossible to ignore? Medusa got up, switched the record player off wearing frilly pyjamas she pretended to wear ironically and climbed back in bed.
Mother vanishes. Bear with me for a moment here.
Kimbo in her frilly pyjamas, O’Sirus in her gothic coat.
“You’re silly,” says the one to the other.
“You’re old,” says the other to the one. “Dyke hair.”
“I’m silly? You’re talking with an English accent?”
“You haven’t written anything in over a year.”
“You haven’t written anything. Ever. Period.”
O’Sirus snorts and rolls off the bed and smooths her coat and crosses over to Kimbo’s side of the room, where the air has that dark, familial, sweet Philly rot to it. The smell of the Upper Nile rephrased as rotten roofs and turnpike puddlewater and sheep-based Quaker cooking. The aural twinkle of evening rain through the breeze-blown blinds. On the rickety wicker table beside Kim’s bed is a silver tray (from Lyndsay) over which O’s fingers hover tremblingly. On it are arranged with talismanic precision a tiny leather pouch containing an Israeli penpal’s uncurled charcoal cunt clippings; I-Ching coins; a silver dollar from 1902; a pinkish cowrie shell from the Jersey shore she suddenly remembers she saved as a souvenir from the day her father squired her in her too-big-hat to some regatta. She pockets the cowrie.
They blanch as one at Unca Mundee’s muffled orgasm.
“Not dead yet, if that’s what you mean. You know that little talk you keep trying to have with her?”
“World War Fucking Three.” But not in the way you think, she thinks. “You’ll wish you’d never brought it up.” But not for the reason you think.
Kimbo has shuffled warily around O’Sirus to the muted high-ceilinged glow of the mammoth guest room on the other side. She fingers gadgets with hands trembling. Sunshine saturates the curtains in hot butter squares and playful poolsounds soak in from behind like a Club Med Polonius behind the arras. Shrieks and splashings. The whoosh of blue water as big white mammals spin down through the spray. The sounds of my future family? My future lover? My future friends?
“What’s this supposed to be? A Tricorder?”
O’Sirus raises her voice. “Computerized typewriter capable of storing and playing thousands of hours of music, movies and, yeah. You communicate with, erm, communicate instantaneously in audio or audio-visual or print functionality with people, literally, all over the planet. Use ‘em in cars, cafes, airplanes. Wherever.” Lowers her voice again. “And so forth.”
Kimbo is impressed but O’Sirus is grief-stricken. She wants to trade. There is so much to say that can’t be said. Messages from the past’s definite future to the future’s improbable past. And this burning thick-black buckling wall of affectionate hostility between them, exponentially more rageful than anything conceivable between a too-close mother and daughter of similar age gap. Thirty years.
O’Sirus chuckles. Doesn’t mean to sound mean. But. “Cat Stevens.”
“He’s a Mullah now, dipshit. Like father.” Blows a note through her nose. “You don’t even know what a Mullah is.”
There’s a thickish unbound manuscript; foxed, yellowing; divided in piles. One pile face-up and one pile face-down beside the magical laptop thingy. The faded ink outline of an erect fat penis with luscious tits for testes is visible on the back of the larger pile. Lyndsay always claimed with her clothes off and bowl-cut hair and receding chin and big knockers she looked like an old man’s big-balled hardon. She would doodle this cartoon she called the Mammophallus everywhere. Like on the back of her manuscript. Kimbo is staring at the faint drawing and O’Sirus looks up from the stuff she’s staring at to stare at Kimbo’s back as she stares at the thing she shouldn’t be seeing.
Kimbo yodels Oh my fucking G-
–before O’Sirus lunges and grabs a fisty knot of Kim’s hair at the roots and pulls hard. It’s tough hair; durable hair. Feels sharp tingles in her own scalp as she tugs and bends and waggles her other self away from the laptop like a tooth. Like a loose tooth. O’Sirus feels how every yank she gives whimpering Kim to the left, a powerful counter-force jerks her right. Kim is a paler, softer, toneless scribbler of pretentious Pound-pastiching poetry and it’s no contest. Kim is physically soft and forceless and lacks the conviction of inveterate rage. O’Sirus has a personal trainer and a competitive edge and a smouldering litany of grownup slights and grudges to work off. One outweighs the other by twenty five pounds of muscle and ten pounds of wisdom’s hard-won fat and it’s a massacre. It’s a three-legged tango on the wildly tilting floor of the Titanic. Or a scene from that episode of Star Trek. Matter and anti-matter in an endless struggle in a tumbling cube. They crash into stuff and knock things over to the agonsong of whimpers, curses, growls and grunts. Most un-ladylike.
“You plagiarism bitch,” thinks Kimbo and O’Sirus hears it.
Katryn comes bounding up the ankle-deep carpet on the stairs and into the dim room in a comically-cute bathrobe many orders of magnitude too large, hair slicked back like fresh paint. She beams at O’Sirus hunched over her laptop on a chair by the curtain-drawn bedroom window, slips into the bathroom and calls out. “Well, how’s it coming?”
“Not fast. Not slow. So so.”
“I like it!”
“You haven’t read it yet.”
“Well at least that horrible old writer’s block situation is a thing of the past, knock on wood. Right?”
Katryn sidesteps confection-white bouncy-naked into the bathroom’s gilt doorway with the world’s dumbest ingénue grin.
You, reading this: you’re a silly cunt. I’m a silly cunt.
The house is understated wealth pushed to a giddy limit of near-bad taste. Triumphalist decorum. They don’t call it a “villa” but the term is evoked. The word is asserted as a pressure in the eyeballs as pupils dilate at all that just-right stuff. The word asserted in the curving climb of china-smooth driveway and asserted over brunch in the trattoria-sized kitchen and asserted deftly, softly, wetly somewhere in the finesprung nightwork of acres of cricket-blessed imported white heather. The word asserted in the synchronized sprinklers weaving silver quilts of programmed permuting design. Asserted in the steadystate Japanese mindfullness of rock gardens and Koi ponds as well as there being something earthily Tuscan in the texture of the monogrammed toilet paper one perceives the shared initials asserted like Braille upon the wide blind eye of one’s perineum with. The spoken initials S.A. are so close to the word assert. To assert without assertion is the awshucks Zen of politically correct American pussy-sucking money.
The villa is on a hill overlooking the cold cold water you could paddle to Canada upon. Atop a goodly patch of dollar-green terraced land, built around three atriums, of fragile beauty and nuclear-blast-proof materials. A three-looped mutant rhomboid figure-eight. What do Americans do to earn money like this? And still have time to organize some silly fucking national fan club? Americans with a Ponderosa-like spread like this? Money like this couldn’t possibly be earned. That’s why it makes you mad.
They’re gathered in the smallest of the three atriums under a souvenir-blue sky. The sun stops at a waterline of shadow a foot above O’Sirus’s head on the stucco wall close behind and she’s all dressed and madeup and haired-up and on-camera. Shem Astaire is interviewing her for the edification of nationwide fans. Off camera and a distance of a dozen meters to her right, seated at a café-style table near the sliding glass doors of the kitchen, Seth Atkins and O’Sirus’s ladyfair can be seen (but not heard) chit-chatting over cinnamon buns so radioactively fragrant that O’Sirus fears a sympathetic gastrointestinal response will be picked up by Shem’s invisible microphone, rendering O’Sirus human, suddenly, in the eyes of a few hundred thousand disciples watching the webcast over breakfast. Like a distant barge or a zoo noise or whalesong, or, worse, a string of bathtub farts. Clearly professional people, her fans, she thinks proudly: what other demographic could be expected to be up at 7:30 am (Central Liberal Time) for a webcast? The air is nippy and little brown sneezes of mendicant sparrows are at it again in the undulant limbs overhead. Attenuating limbs like dark veins in the blue sac of the atrium’s sky. Those sparrows. Never stop fussing about fucking and breadcrumbs, do they? This petty bitch called Nature.
It hits O’Sirus that she’s gazing upon a new type of human, or a member of what can properly be called, for the first time, finally, the American Race. Very fat but, yeah, kinda healthy, seemingly. Ruddy-glow healthy. Strong in her very-fatness. Very fat but confident, with the self-possession of a tango instructor, or a waterborne polar bear, in her occasional straight-backed bearing and her occasionally casual grace. Very fat but sort of attractive, really, in that silken fuscia tracksuit and a dewy glaze of makeup and hairspray. O’Sirus has never seen breasts that size on anything outside of a cinema screen. Surprisingly jutty. And there are two jutty pairs of the hefty things in this menage. Poor Lyndsay called them jiggly baldies. Four white soft-shelled pumpkins for two avid mouths plus megatons of vadge and O’Sirus imagines a groaning, stress-tested bedroom built for it. A gym-sized mat for the conjugal bed. A circle inscribed on the mat and deafening wet impacts. The odor of stomped salmon. It’s over in seconds. Sumosex.
O’Sirus is wearing her cruellest shades.
S.A.: We want to welcome you to Duluth, America, and thank you sincerely for agreeing to appear in our Saturday Breakfast Omnicast.
O’S.: My pleasure on both counts.
S.A.: This is your first visit to our country?
O’S: It is, Shem.
S.A.: Your impressions?
O’S: As a child of five I made a morning’s journey with my mother, from our provincial village, for the first time, to the city of London. Looking at the size of everything, I assumed that giants must live there and I was afraid. I clung to my mother’s side the whole day. Multiply those childish impressions of mine by a factor of ten and you’ll come close. We flew from Heathrow to JFK and spent an afternoon in Manhattan. The change of scale is disorienting.
S.A.: A good thing?
O’Sirus: For an artist, yes. For a human… I’m not so sure. But if it’s a bad thing at all, it’s one of those bad things that feels far too good to do only once.
S.A.: So we can expect more visits in the future?
O’S: Without question.
S.A.: One of the themes you deal with is how far we can fall from our goals and challenges. I’m thinking, in particular, of the Nigerian character, in your short story From Near To Eternity, which you later developed into a screenplay for Dutch television?
O’S: Siegfried Olubodon. Yes. I thought it was a well-done production, with surprisingly good special effects. I like…
S.A.: Yes. He time-travels back back to the days of North American slavery, equipped with this, like, mind-boggling scientific knowledge, doesn’t he? With this kind of wonderful secret plan to break the rules of time travel and change the course of history in a major way. What I remember is that the plan is to give these 18th century African slaves this 24th century technology. But in the end…
O’S: Yes. He’s seduced by the unbridled sexuality of the plantation. It’s a Caligulan orgy of torches and whips and he’s dropped right in the middle of it and the intensity overwhelms him. He’s hooked, in a word. He gives up his revolutionary vision for an S&M fetishist’s super-dream, basically. But I’m not so sure that’s my comment on our tendency to fall short of our goals as much as it’s a comment on male sexuality. [laughs]
O’S: Do we have “goals”, even, really? I’m not so sure. I see them more as habits; default programming. How can creatures with such limited lifespans be said to have “goals”, in the end?
S.A.: Which brings us to another theme in your work. Immortality.
O’S: I touch on it here and there, yes.
S.A.: Do you think it’s possible?
O’S: Oh, most definitely. Perhaps not “immortality” in the strictest sense of living forever. But I certainly believe in the existence of extremely extended human lifespans.
S.A.: The existence of it, or the possibility?
O’S: Well, how shall I put this without sounding rather loony… [laughs]
S.A.: [laughs] So it’s not a metaphor…
O’S: Ask yourself: if the very powerful and rich, after centuries, or, even, millennia, of concentrating all their efforts on only two things, really: A) getting richer and B) living long enough to enjoy the wealth…would they tell anyone about it once they’d achieved it?
S.A.: Intriguing question.
O’S: Of course extended longevity would only be for the very, very rich. And if the masses found out, there’d be very bloody, very bloody, riots. World-wide. I guarantee it. Such riots would make the storming of the Bastille look like a Quaker barn-raising party. Certainly, there’d be steps taken to keep it all very, very quiet. Which I believe is what we’re seeing. Or not seeing. The quietness, I mean. If you follow me.
S.A.: I think so.
O’S: There’s a shop, an expensive tobacconist, called Woodbridges, no apostrophe, which also sells fine chocolates, gourmet biscuits, assorted exotic delicacies from the continent. It’s a dark, dank little place, located on one of those intestinal little streets off the West End and it’s almost two hundred years in the same location. It’s not even the oldest such shop in London. There was a summer I was addicted to these Italian biscuits; I’d go there at least twice a week. That was where I first got the idea. I’d started recognizing certain vintage limousines and certain vintage customers and I realized that a very old shop, or a very old library, and so forth, in a very old city, is where’d you find them. I mean, past, what, one hundred and fifty years old, you’d be a creature of pure nostalgia, wouldn’t you? All of your human connections and accomplishments would be far behind you, buried with dust.
S.A.: Interesting. So how do you think this kind of ties in with, you know, the idea of achieving immortality as an Artist?
O’S: Well, it’s a bit of a misnomer, the way the word “immortality” is applied to the Artist’s dream of prolonged longevity, isn’t it? As though we all just want people talking about us after we’re gone. Yes, I confess, I want something of myself to survive my body’s extinction, preserved in my work, but it’s not my reputation, or gossip about me, that I’m working so hard to preserve: it’s the very shape of my thoughts. The rhythm and structure of my thoughts, which is my essence. Remember when it was in vogue to think that science would one day be able to transfer the mind into a deathless housing? Well, think about it, writers have already been pulling that one off since the beginning of papyrus. That’s what the Artist sends into the future without her… hopefully a few centuries into the future, at least…
O’S: (cont’d)… her mind.
A sparrow in the undulant birch branch cocks its head and hops down off the branch to swoop through the shot, followed by a chain of others, aiming at the wastrel bun crumbs that Katryn, out of shot, stage right, is tossing from her plate upon the interlocking terracotta tiles of the atrium floor (tiles shaped in the Chinese ideograph meaning conjugal bliss) unaware of the strict don’t-feed-the-sparrows policy in effect at Villa Vadge that Seth, the edict’s architect, being too enamored of the silky Brit bombshell who laughs at all her jokes and even blushes at some of her jockish innuendo, won’t mention.
S.A.: What a beautiful thought to end part one, of three parts, of this historical omnicast. Thank you.
O’S: My pleasure.
Shem does a sudden half-turn right and stares, smiling, at an elevated phantom presence for an unnerving long beat or two. She squeezes, off-camera, a black wafer remote that resembles a scale model of the alien dildo in 2001: A Space Odyssey and turns back to her guest. She asks, in a new tone, a new face, a worried face, “Can we talk?”
We weren’t in the hypertrophied van thingy. We were in a mauve-colored jeep thingy that reeked of new car. Rolling between my feet was a metallic green-aerosol called Nu Car. Descending from Duluth’s Olympus and heading west in a wavy diagonal. There was a bulbous screen in the middle of the dashboard that Shem explained was technically illegal but they got away with because it was also part of the GPS. Perfect for checking email in traffic jams. Shem smiled at the road and said, “Can I be completely honest?”
“That’s up to you.”
“You really really really intimidate me.”
“Okay, maybe it’s the British thing. But it’s like you talk like a book and I really admire that. You know? While we were doing the interview back there? I was thinking, man, I can’t keep up. If I’d read a transcript of what you were saying I’d think it was, like, heavily edited. You know? But it just popped right out of your mouth, as is: boom. Americans don’t have that.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say Brits do, either. Have you been there?”
“No, but we’re planning.”
“The Zeitgeist seems to be this mad dash to make up for lost time in the race to steal America’s crown of illiteracy. No offense intended. Because of course there are exceptions. In both… ”
“Did you go to Oxford or something like that? Here I am the CEO of your only official product-enhancing tribute organization and even I don’t know.”
Aha, I think. The Bio Hazard. As in Biography.
“No one knows, to be quite honest. That’s a deliberate policy and it’s far from an easy policy to maintain. I suppose you’d be astonished to find out that even Katryn, my partner…”
“She’s so pretty I can’t even look at her…”
“…thank you…even Katryn doesn’t know anything about the life that was prior to… O’Sirus. But I feel… always felt… will always feel… that the Artist’s personal details are not merely irrelevant but actually dangerous… ”
“You think the biographical stuff…”
“I think it erodes the Art. Destroys, it gradually. Like water and sandcastles…”
“Like matter and anti-matter.”
We both laughed too hard and long and I let the laughter stand as the natural end of that branch of the conversation. Before Shem could try again, I said, “By the way, where was the camera? For the interview. I’m curious. I couldn’t see one anywhere.”
She turned a new smile (with a vulgar edge to it) on me and held up a splay-fingered hand. “Five cameras. You can’t get a broadcast-quality recording otherwise, unless, okay, you have two handhelds, but two operators with handhelds would be way intrusive. I learned you improve the product by sort of, you know, minimizing the people in the process. There’s an editor, she’s doing it realtime, she’s so good it’s scary. And that’s it. Okay, beside the people at the IP. She’s in a remote location at the multi-media lab of the University and she’s very very good. The editor.”
“We’re all about the tech. I read somewhere they’re working on putting spy cameras in cat hairs. Wouldn’t that be cool?”
In profile, Shem didn’t look quite as graceful-yet-titanic as she’d seemed while interviewing me. It must have been the lighting. Scrunched up behind the steering wheel she was just a slumping stack of several overlapping hundred-pound sacks of cobblestones, steering the jeep with her breasts. The jeep was moving so slowly that I realized we were meant to take note of the area we were driving through. A treeless street of shabby woodframe houses with fenceless, muddy lawns. One of the lawns featured a washing machine turned on a diagonal to the sidewalk. But for the lack of trees, and the upper-Midwestern architecture, we could’ve been driving through Dogtown in Philly.
There was one tree, spreading its branches in an uninterpretable gesture over the intersection as we approached it. Shem saw where I was looking. “Oldest thing in the area. It’s, like, really hard to climb because the trunk is so huge and the lowest branches are about six feet up. You had to be a jock to climb it.” I envisioned a dozen bodies dangling from it, twitching like silkworms. The convulsive death throe as 19th century porno.
Shem said, “Right here, last week, a guy was shot, standing right in the intersection, middle of the day, with a fat roll of hundred dollar bills in his mouth like a cigar. African-American.”
She pressed a button and a nuclear-launch-style warning-beep preceded the convulsive retraction of half the Jeep’s roof while we waited for the traffic light. Shem pointed up without looking.
“Those running shoes dangling from the power lines? Okay. That’s a signal that happiness is for sale in this neighborhood. The style of shoe indicates the type of drug, but I’m not really up on the latest hieroglyphics so I couldn’t tell you. But I’ve read there’s a new form of crack out called Clit.” Smacked her lips. “Because you lick it.”
What had she been so anxious to “talk” about?
Someone with places to go and things to do leaned on the horn behind us and enormous, self-confident, managerial Shem sailed sheepishly left through the intersection without flipping-off the horn-honker or even just centering a scowl in the rearview. When a community is known to be heavily armed, I reflected, everyone is accorded unthinking respect. You’d have to be mad to run afoul of even a seven year old’s sensibilities in the new reality, for, never, in human history, had so many nobodies commanded such genuine firepower, the power of minor gods, to erase the million, billion ramifying branches of a future history with little more than a gesture. Looking back I saw that the honker, driving straight-on, was just some old white woman with an orangey-blond perm, low in her seat, and that Shem had wasted the opportunity to block the intersection, climb out of the jeep, kick dents in the woman’s thirty-year-old car and tell her to go fuck herself on a dirty speed bump. Unless Shem knew what I didn’t.
“People think of America as kind of a violent culture and I guess you’d have to agree with them.”
“Actually, I’m put in mind of those old horror movies where some spooky house is a hotbed of poltergeist activity because, ooops, it was built on Indian Burial Grounds. Well, as it turns out, the whole of North America is built on Indian Burial Grounds, isn’t it? Which would seem to explain everything.”
Shem nodded, too caught up in her own seriousness to give in to my frivolous wit. If only she knew I am far from shocked, I kept thinking, by the poverty-porno tour she is dutifully driving us through. This is either Shem’s pedantically instructive guilt trip or a pre-emptive strike against the fancy foreigner’s sanctimonious grin on the topic of American Haves and Have-Nots. But I’d grown up in a neighborhood bordering a neighborhood very much like this: a zombie-factory. Philly in the 1970s was not much better than the untidiest corner of 21st century, otherwise-white, Duluth… although. The quality of the raw human material the zombie-factories are working with now has degraded considerably from the days of my youth in which normal people, who were kneaded, battered, blasted and broken down on the conveyor belt of the process, were the base ingredient in the mass production of subhumans. Now, it seems, the machines are busy turning subhumans into super-subhumans. Subhominids. Shambling half-gibbon and chimp zombies. I knew better than to work this indelicate observation into the conversation.
Shem said, “Feel like breakfast?” Her breath like a seashore.
I said, “Sure.”
She said, “Are you a teetotaltarian? Just curious. Seth won’t touch a drop of alcohol. But Katryn drinks, right?”
As Shem drove she droned. We saw a Bible-quoting billboard with blue-eyed cartoon suburbans looking confident, yet humble… ie, “saved”… and I thought: nothing new under the sun?
Really? Nothing? Nothing new under the sun? Except for the fact the 90% of everything of any importance in the history of civilization happened after the phrase was first chiselled or scrawled, in whichever dusty half-dead language, you silly Christo-Semitic cunts. I was thinking about facial expressions. How there are certainly new ones. Facial expressions are evolving. That face that everyone under a certain age makes in their MeBook or I-Face or My-Face profiles; the new face that recent generations honed over the arc of the disco era, mugging in photobooths and peeling polaroids, until Duran Duran came forth to bring this facial expression to its early-late Twentieth Century apotheosis: not just pouty but smug: that face: which, surely, never once occurred during the Middle Ages? I was thinking that and about the facial expressions of cartoons. I’ve seen facial expressions on cartoon characters that I have not only never seen on humans, but that would be physically impossible for human faces to perform… and yet I grasped, instantly, the emotions they were meant to convey (though I’d be hard-pressed to name them) , as though…dunno…
Let it be said that Americans display a genuine genius for doing things like converting abandoned petrol stations into Lesbian Pancake Houses. I call it a Lesbian Pancake House because Shem referred to it as such: she militarized, medicalized, or bureaucratized it by calling it an LPH. I said what’s that? In this particular case, the building had been one of those petrol stations doubling as a 24-hour workingclass junkfood/porno grocery. Through the fingerprintfree glass walls of the LPH we glimpsed perhaps a dozen free-standing tables and that many wall-lining banquette-booths packed with fat, well-off, middle-aged rosy-cheeked socially-liberal white women of every possible description, talking with their mouths full. And all managing to smile, of course, at the same time. Except one.
We were shown to a reserved table by a pear-shaped minor fatty of medium height with a winning, dimpled smile, owlish glasses and freckles so dense it was hard to tell what race she was diverging from. A red bandana hid her hair entirely. The hair would’ve told us. Her boobtag claimed she was Gwynneth. Gwynneth’s lips were full but not very and her nose was broad but not very and both effects could well have been a result of too much food rather than ounces of African blood. Was she a half-breed like me? Big black nipples on buttermilk tits? Strangely-configured intrauterine walls? Does shtetl meet veldt in her bootie?
“Wonderful interview,” said Gwynneth to Shem, and then, quite shyly, to me, pulling our seats out for us. “Really smart and wonderful.”
“Oh, you saw it?”
Gwynneth and Shem smiled.
“Everyone in this room saw it,” said Shem, and I followed her gesture down, to the table, inlaid with a videoscreen, which we were very slowly being seated at. The screen was a rounded rectangle set lengthwise across the width of the table where the table was nearest the wall, so parties on both sides of the table could watch it while eating. Every table in the room featured such a screen, I realized, and then noticed, as we finally planted asses on our cushioned seats, that the clientèle was watching us closely, their synchronized chew-rates decelerating. Most showed intensely unreadable smiles. Except one. A dotted brown bitch, smile-frowning as if something crucial were at stake.
“You’re the guest of honor,” said Gwynneth, blushingly, fetchingly, winningly soft. Treacle-brown eyes averted with a deference I found to be making me wet. “We’ve been waiting for you…”
Aha. So everyone had gathered here today for the communal pleasure of woofing fair-trade pancakes whilst watching Shem Astaire’s blunt interrogative instrument probe the swollen folds of the mind of the half-caste faux-British vadge enthusiast with money problems.
Would they have been so interested in my thoughts if they’d known I spent my first twenty years in a shabbily integrated neighborhood of Philly? The Saturday Breakfast Omnicast, brought to you by the O’Sirens of Phangasm, had signed off just minutes before we walked in. First one diner, then another, then several clusters of them, until the whole restaurant entered the ridiculous act of applauding. Let it be noted that nowhere, in America, do applause not lead, and very quickly, to a standing ovation. Ever. We found ourselves pressured into standing in order to acknowledge the tribute. I could feel, literally feel, Shem soaking up a goodly portion of the ovation as her own, a black hole slurpping greedy and hard at the light. Maybe it was all hers to slurp up, anyway. I didn’t care. I am immune to praise.
I let Shem order for us. When one tapped the tablescreen one got an overhead image of the diners. If one placed one finger on a fixed point on the screen and dragged another across it, the camera panned the room. In the ten minutes it took for the food to arrive, I had figured out how to get an extreme close-up of anyone in the restaurant, from any angle, including myself, using these finger commands. A playful lesson in the quaint obsolescence of privacy. Privacy is such a 19th century concept, don’t you think? Big Sister with that bearded eye between her fat legs. I tapped and dragged my fingers on the screen until I located Gwynneth in the lavender-walled employee WC to which she’d hurried after serving us, re-buckling her pants in the frosted-glass-walled stall with trembling hands.
Shem gestured with her fork that I should start eating, then did the first truly startling thing of the day, putting her fork down and closing her eyes and mouthing a breathlessly rapid prayer before spreading her fingers in an unnatural, almost Spock-like, configuration over her citadel of syrup-shellacked pancakes (which were surrounded by dolloped side-orders of high-calorie fruit-topped stuff ) in what was either a blessing or a bit of self-mocking dud magic I may or may not have been meant to laugh at. With one megamouthful she erased my headstart and took a sizeable lead, announcing, in richly food-coated language,
“Gwynneth likes you. I mean really likes you. I can tell. Not that she’s half as hot as your Katryn. Hey, is your thing with her committed or, you know… kinda funky like that?”
Before I could think of how to respond, Shem swallowed and asked me if she’d forgotten to thank me for coming to the wedding, whilst shovelling more fuel in. She had the distracting habit of raking her fingers through her bristling blond hair before every other forkful. That and other tics (leg joggling and lip chewing) I later learned were traceable to a rigorous schedule of antiagressives, antidepressants, hormone balancers and cholesterol blocks. “Anyway, wow, thankyou very much for taking time out of your busy schedule to attend the ceremony.”
“Well, thank you both for inviting us.”
“Not both, just me. Seth was kind of against it. At first she was totally against it. You wanna know what’s scary?”
“Samesex marriages are legally binding, in Duluth.”
We laughed knowingly.
Shem lowered her voice and, with some urgency, said, “Best warn you that Senator Cindy is on her way over to the table to make a connection. She’ll take her time, pressing the flesh and whatnot on the way over, so I have, like, thirty seconds to fill you in on her Lifestory so you’ll know where she’s coming from when she springs her really weird shit on you. Divorced. Kinda wealthy. Ran for a Senate seat in Texas a few years back and lost to a Gay guy named Ron Smart. She lost but we call her Senator Cindy anyway. Okay: she’s Indian? I don’t mean like Native American or anything cool like that, I mean, you know, Bollywood and Karma etc. Which is all great in the proper context but kinda freaky when it’s coming out of somebody who reminds you of the most obnoxiously snooty Tupperware lady in a ton of makeup you ever tried to chase away from your doorstep. Like, you’ll notice that her face is about three shades lighter than her neck situation. And she’s one of us but won’t actually come out and say it. Loves Country Western music. Lives with her girlfriend in a loft over-looking the harbour, it’s full of statues of Kali and framed signed photographs of her with Barbara Streisand and Elizabeth Taylor. Michael Jackson is the only black man she speaks well of. Finds PDA and frank discussions of sexuality disgusting. You know the type. Looks down on Koreans, Mexicans, real Indians… Native Americans… and blacks. Especially blacks. Probably can’t stand that someone more rich, famous and powerful than she is is sharing the room with her right now but she’s forced to make a connection. She’s going to come over here and ask you to donate your time to one of her projects. Mostly saving historic landmarks and crap like that. As in, there’s this hundred-and-twenty year old brewery downtown that they’re talking about tearing down. Okay? It’s on the ugliest block in Duluth. If they can tear the crappy thing down, they can flatten the whole block and put something cool there like a… I don’t know. Whatever. Something useful that’ll help elevate the property values in the area. But she’s got this thing about these old buildings. She likes the word heritage. Can’t pronounce it but likes it a lot. Adds a fourth syllable like some people do with erudite. Always talking about the so-called American heritage we’re supposedly selling-out by tearing these roach hotels down. Okay? You just want to slap her and say, what’s it to you? You’re from Calcutta or somewhere, bitch. The important thing to remember is never promise her anything, but if you make the mistake of promising, because she’s good at getting people to make that mistake, be vague about it, at least, and never never ever sign stuff. Not even a postcard. Okay? Her girlfriend is a lawyer.”
Shem whispered that last bit with a million-watt smile so sudden I recoiled from the huddle we’d fallen inexorably into. A shadow fell across the table. A face loomed dark in the tablescreen. Totalitarian black eyes.
“I would like to congratulate you on a marvelously informative and stimulating program, which I am looking forward to the continuance of,” said Senator Cindy, loudly sing-songy, extending a pudgy brown hand with black knuckles and various gold bands on its spiderthigh fingers, “I am Sindra Prabhalawrjidaraj-Tyler, but my friends call me Senator Cindy.”
The kind of woman who would fart and be disgusted with you for smelling it.
I thought: Senator Cinder is more apt. Racoon circles around those avaricious eyes. I could just see her fussing and fawning over pimplepink baby blondes in a Humvee Pram blocking the entrance to some Neiman Marcus in a garish mall in Texas. Took one look at my semi-Negroid curly hair, weighed it against the mitigating factor that I am three point five shades lighter than her, did the quick racial algebra and gave herself the slight Eugenic advantage.
Contrary to what I’d been led to expect, however, Senator Cinder handed me a card after a demur flurry of purse, said she’d like very much, at my convenience, to talk about something I’d mentioned during the interview, made her excuses and left.
“Weird,” said Shem, who, once started, hadn’t stopped chewing and was already finished and daubing her glossy chins and neck with a napkin. Americans eat as though the food’s in danger of being snatched from them. Which, perhaps, in a broader sense, it is. My plate was still full but I begged off cleaning it. No appetite. Despite the children starving in Bangladesh and Chicago. We simply stood up and left. Like many wealthy Americans, Shem had about her the aura of a lottery winner, charming and uncouth, with her hickish need to deserve all that money by displaying petty goodness: she held the door for me.
“Don’t we need to pay now, Shem?”
Held up her wrist and its lilac scar, no larger than a cartoon butterfly’s smile.
“Subcutaneous chip. Lotta places won’t handle cash anymore.” She waved me through the door, outside, to the ghetto.
Creamy clouds. A piping-hot bananamuffin sun. I had to shield my eyes as we crossed the asphalt lot, putting the Lesbian Pancake House behind us. We got in the Jeep. We drove. Shifting gears, Shem said, with feigned casualness, with barely contained hope and greed, “Katryn mentions you’re working on kind of a new book, maybe?”
“Oh, we don’t talk about that.”
“Hey, I’m just a nosey Dyke.”
“I think I forgot my sunglasses.”
“No prob. We’ll have them send ‘em over. Gwynneth can bring ‘em.” Leering.
A mere corner or two and then we parked again, suddenly, (even the jeep must have been surprised) and Shem gazed, in a trance, from behind the low hedge of a “bittersweet” smile. Gazing at a rotten, rumpled, whisper-grey, three-storey woodframe house across the street from where we idled. I was thinking don’t tell me this is the house in which Bella Abzug was born. Or the place Shem first discovered pussy. Or pussy discovered her. The street was on an incline steep as a roofer’s nap and the house strained in a tilt against the angle. Skateboard Valhalla except this wasn’t the neighborhood for conspicuous exuberance in the honkie style. Shem shut off the engine and exhaled long and loudly.
“That’s where I grew up.”
She performed a face-washing gesture with both hands.
“Can you believe that? Just a thirty minute walk, on foot, down the hill from where we live now. Kinda hard to comprehend.”
She turned to face me.
“See, thing is, I’m not like Seth. That’s the first thing you have to understand about us. Seth is, like, the most self-confident person I ever knew. People think I’m the ‘top’ in this relationship but that’s far, far from the truth. Seth is a big beautiful woman because that’s what she wants. I’ve seen pictures of her at four and I swear she looked exactly the same. Just ready to eat the world and spit out the seeds. But I’m different. I wasn’t always like this. I may carry the weight well but I wasn’t always accepting of it. And all my changes have reasons that have nothing to do with who I am or wanted to be.”
Self-administered platonic hug.
“You won’t believe this, but I was a skinny kid. Real pretty, too. Okay, I hate the phrase, it’s basically insulting, but I was what you’d call All American in my appearance. Tall, lanky blonde, kinda big boobs for my age, blue eyes, big smile, the whole package. Developed. I was a tomboy and the only girl who could climb that tree back there, the big old one I pointed out to you? Most of the boys couldn’t even climb that monster.
“I come from what they call a bi-racial family. My step-brother, Juan, he was two years older than me and, okay, he was black. Skinny adolescent black kid with this sad round face and we shared a bedroom about six months while they were renovating the house. He was just a kid and I was just a kid. It wasn’t so unusual back then, a bi-racial family, but it was unusual enough in Duluth.
“Down in Minneapolis it would’ve been old news, a half-white family living in the ‘hood. For a ten year old All American girl it was kind of a shock to the system, though. We had lived in the suburbs before that, so, it was kind of what you’d call a step down. To this day it’s kind of hard not to blame my father… my real father, Randolph Astaire, the white one… for kicking us out.
“So Juan’s father was my step-dad. I called him Mr. Calvin the whole time I lived there. Mr. Juan Calvin Sr. Loyal employee of the Federal Government. The kind of black guy ironed his handkerchiefs and never said a rude word. He’d say cheese and rice instead of Jesus Christ if he stubbed his toe. Stamp collector. That kind of guy. You know? I was nine when mom and me left the suburbs and ten when my mom married Mr. Calvin. He was a really nice man; I’m still in contact with him to this day. Still lives here. White hair. All stooped over. He’s at work now; still works for the Post Office. I send him cheques and all on all the major holidays and his birthday.
“Juan had stolen this bad book from his father’s library and he would read it at night, under the covers, you know, with a flash light, like adolescent boys will do. Only this book wasn’t about dinosaurs or anything good like that. Listen, I have to be honest, to this day I hate the sight of that book like nothing on earth. I’m against book-burning in general but I’d make an exception in this case. Juan would read it and masturbate down there in the lower bunk of our beds. I had no idea what he was doing. I was just ten, remember. How would I?
“Grownups had introduced the topic of Sex Education and whatnot already at that point. So we had Sex Ed from an early age. But I had no idea that all that talk about semen and stamen and fallopian tubes had anything to do with Juan playing with himself. You know, I had no idea all this stuff had anything, potentially, to do with me. You know? Like the math you learn. Right? I assumed this miracle of life stuff was more of the same. You’d never use it.
“This frigging book was called ManTan in Lily Land and it was one of those bestsellers from the ‘60s. A black man writing about the rapes he’s committed as a revolutionary act… he’s raping and stealing in this cross-country journey of self-discovery kinda thing. Can you imagine someone getting away with a book like that now?
“This frigging racist, lookist, misogynist book was a must-have for liberal intellectuals who would, like, you know, dispassionately discuss the fucker at hoity-toity cocktail parties across the nation. To be offended by it would get you labeled bourgeois so fast your head would spin. Rapist, fine, bourgeois bad. You know? There were high school English departments with this book on the curriculum. I’m not even sure what it was doing in my step-father’s library. He was a good man, O’Sirus. But Juan junior, he reached the magic age and he homed right in on that sucker. He kept it under his comics or whatever. I was basically on my own, with Juan and that book. Defenseless lily-white Shaunna Astaire. You can imagine.
“Every night, my African-American stepbrother would read this book and pleasure himself. Got bolder and bolder about causing a little commotion to get my attention without, you know, alerting our parents that this thing is going on that it shouldn’t be. And it worked. It got my attention. I was sticking my head under the railing to see what all the fuss was about. Pretty soon he’s doing it without the covers on. The first time I saw that I giggled, let me tell you. Funniest thing I ever saw. I thought he was trying to stick something into his belly button or maybe it was his belly button and he’d stretched it out like rubber. This long black belly button. Looked like the inner tube on the bicycle I got for Christmas. My step-father promised to fix that flat but he never got around to it. I had this brand new bike I couldn’t even use. Just another one of those little resentments.
“Juan used this lotion. God, I can still smell it. I mean Goddess. Blue plastic bottle with a brown label and a white cap. Dr. Caliban’s Caribbean Cocoa Butter. Pretty soon he’s using it on me. Rubbing this lotion on my little parts so he can…you know.”
Her step-brother Juan Calvin Jr, smart enough at all times to avoid the use of stepsister Shaunna’s vagina while fully utilizing everything else of interest on her body, had bamboozled, cajoled, bullied and, finally, blackmailed her into sex play, a full-on X-rated sexlife starting when she was about ten and he was about twelve and continuing, even after he’d been given his own room upstairs a short while later, until she was fourteen, by which she time she was as tall and skinny and blonde and sexually developed as she was ever going to be, which was as developed as anyone could get: her step-brother’s secret treasure, his on-call sex toy, or sex tool, never safe from his attention when they were home from school alone together, never knowing when he’d find an excuse to slip into whatever bathroom she was already in (the bathrooms in that house had no locks as a safety precaution; no locks on the bathrooms or guns in the house) and hit her up for something quick or sometimes more baroque, according to his urges and the window of opportunity, all of which had been harmless enough when he was twelve and under-developed, but by the time, four years later, she put a stop to it by finally running away from home, he’d become muscular deadpan looming black guy with somewhat of a swagger and an oversized penis to match, too large for just about anything he did to her to be anything other than a form of torture, even with Dr. Caliban’s Caribbean Cocoa Butter as a lubricant, a torture she never confessed to anyone because he’d convinced her, over the years, that to do so would spark the race war to end all race wars. Blood flooding the gutters and the storm drains. Blood on the flowers and the leaves of the trees.
Shem smiled compassionately, as though the story had been mine and not hers; or as though I were Juan, not O’Sirus, and now found myself forgiven. With slow emphasis she reached and turned the key in the Jeep’s ignition. Closure. Well, almost:
“I ran away from home, got involved with the usual assortment of, like, seriously bad guys… some black, some white, you name it… I even dated a Boat Person for a week…next thing you know I’m, you know. Blah blah blah. Doing what you’d pretty much expect. Down in Minneapolis, the Vegas of Duluth. Earning some lucky guy with a fifth grade education a lot of money. All this before I’m old enough to shave my legs. Can you picture me being delivered to the client in a Rolls Royce? My speciality was sodomy and baby talk. It would’ve gone on forever or until I couldn’t walk anymore, like, rolling around in a damn wheelchair at twenty five or whatever. Only two things saved my life.”
She gunned the engine and we did a dramatic u-turn and surged back up the bumpy hill in dolphin leaps towards the Villa Vadge. The disturbing coincidence, from a psychological standpoint (mine, not hers, though it’s difficult to concentrate on one’s own neurosis with an American within shouting distance), was that I thought I saw a man who was a dead-ringer for my father, dressed in a flowing white kaftan and a lacy white skullcap, brandishing a gnarled walking stick like a desert nomad, ascending the hill as we drove by. Shem shouted over the Jeep’s macho-feminist roar,
“Over-eating saved my life! Over-eating and Science Fiction!”
Corniche: a One-Act Radio Play
by O’Sirus’s Writer’s Block
-Is it me or are you getting fat?
-So that’s an imaginary box of Ho Ho’s, no pun intended, I just saw you inhale.
-Not to mention the greasey-assed crumbs you just casually scattered all over our brand new custom-made kidskin upholstery. Bitch, you lose your shape and you deprive us of a sizable income. I’m assuming you know that, right?
-Query. You have any idea how much that nigger just paid to have you walk all up there in his hotel room wearing a dirty diaper and let him do what he did?
-That man wasn’t a nigger; he was white as Elmer’s Glue!
-Whatever. Same difference. Guess.
-Seven hundred U.S. dollars. Seven hundred. Okay? Can you grasp the magnitude of the financial operation I’m talking about?
-That’s just sick. All the things you could do with that money! That’s six months of college! Why would anyone pay that much money to do to somebody what they could do to themselves for free?
-I see your juvenile grasp of human psychology is far from motherfucking amazing. Here. I want you to read this, cover to cover, and write me a long-assed book report by next Friday. And that shit better be legible.
-What is this?
-Robert Heinlein, bitch. Don’t you know anything? Nigger’s a genius. Everything you need to Grok about this planet, it’s in there, guaranteed.
-Are you joking?
-My fist look like a joke?
When O’Sirus enters the bedroom, Katryn, on the bed, back to the door, says, without turning, “I was afraid you’d been kidnapped.”
“In a way, that’s exactly what happened. I was being held hostage to the shameless American compulsion to tell all.”
“Our Shem was once skinny and beautiful and young.”
“And what were you up to?”
“In other words, watching television. Or eating. Or floating pointlessly in the pool.”
“Or, D) all of the above, simultaneously, with immense pleasure bordering on….”
“Ready to fly home to a proper civilization yet? Had enough?”
“If I can float in a heated pool under a sky-blue sky while watching a poolside widescreen television with several bowls of delicious snacks bobbing around me in the healing waters when I’m back there. Sure.”
O’Sirus walks straight into the bathroom, crosses the allwhite sepulchral gloom in a dozen strides, opens the first marble-fronted cabinet she comes to, finds what she knew she would. Several unopened blue plastic bottles of Dr. Caliban’s Caribbean Cocoa Butter. As advertized. Brown labels and white caps and all. She imagines a fun new game that she and Katty can play. Called Step-Brother. O’Sirus will be Calvin, obviously… Calvin or the Heinlein-loving pimp. Katryn in diapers. Time will fly. They’ll be out of Duluth in the blink of an eye and never look back; never fall back to America. Katryn calls out, wearily, warily:
“I certainly hope this Brotherland book is a hit. We are honestly starting to need the money.”
“I said I hope it’s a hit.”
O’Sirus is hanging her coat on the back of the bedroom door. With a secret naughty gloatiness about the gesture. Don’t know why but she feels empowered by the discovery of the cocoa butter.
“It’s all a question of scale, innit? This money stuff. You’re seeing things a bit skewed at the moment because of all this… this overwhelming…Caligulan… tackiness. Give yourself time to acclimate.”
Katryn turns slowly on the bed like something savoury and shiny on a spit. Has she been crying?
“I found out what they do.”
“What who do? Oh, aha, I see. Good. Okay. What?”
“Seth told me.”
“Great. White slavery?”
“No. You won’t like it at all.”
O’Sirus rubs her hands together. “Wait. Something so heinous that even I won’t approve? This I’ve got to hear. Don’t tease, Katryn. Speak.”
“Promise you won’t kill yourself?”
Okay. “They run a fan club is what they do.”
“I know that. And…?”
“No and. That’s all. They do it for money. Your fan club. All this…” she gestures with misery, broadly. With misery and glee. “All this stuff…”
“Indeed. When it comes to fucking…”
“…when it comes to fucking money…”
“Merchandise. Conventions. Seminars. Omnicasts…”
“For fuck’s sake, don’t you… can’t you…?”