UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION 5/2009
Marvelous Time Starving
Behold, the Bill Holden of literary fiction, swishing last night’s vodka off his breath with what was left of yesterday’s breakfast coffee.
He thought about the expensive film for his girls' Polaroid cameras and the trinkets he would air-mail them -- and, interrupting the bliss, about the rivets on these parasites' jeans scratching up the chauffeured cars. Back home the wind never got so powerful, not like the wind here in Baja, a kind of wind that knocks over motorcycles. Wallace's pockets were ballasted with silver, there was silver in his hair and beard, and he always dressed as if it was 70 degrees out. The coins were for the light-rail system that ran just outside his hotel. He had no idea about the denominations. Though he was fifty, the rumor was he colored his hair to look more sagelike. When he grew a beard it still came out jet black.
"Hey, paparazzo," he said. It was best to just throw back his shoulders and smile -- otherwise they'd hound him all day.
"Don Julio! Where are you going?"
"I bet it is a woman, hey, Don Julio?"
"Women," he said.
"Ah, so it's two girls, at least!"
"Two Latin girls are too expensive." Under his arm was the region's daily paper, folded over, thick with adverts. He used it to swat at them when they blocked the train doors.
"Smile for us." The cameras had dark, gaping mouths. "One smile."
"Fuck off," Wallace said.
It was as deftly as he had handled them in months. His first fame was his wife's doing, dame Julia, her generation's most promising actress, pushing her agency to publish an adolescent-angst novel Wallace wrote (said the dust jackets) in "a flash of brilliance" in Grosse Pointe. He was pen-a-fire and telegenic from certain angles – soon after the film adaptation the attention fell squarely on him. Julia was still regarded highly by critics; her films were played at festivals in university towns. They sent one another Christmas cards. She produced small, meaningful projects, whereas his last decade had been a creative waste: he was comfortable on his laurels, flown places, lauded in great gusts of invective. But he had never felt at home anywhere. He had never so much as found a suitable place to work.
Taqueria Arandas was cheap beer and deep leather booths and saucy Canadian fishermen, grizzled and hulking, Baffin Bay and the St. Lawrence Seaway to Loreto and the Sea of Cortez. Life here was no bother, it was slow and warm, and there were amusements and no end of watering holes. Some of their women were deckhands who moonlighted as bartenders here. Wallace liked to hear them talk the language, cussing when they couldn't find the words. They cussed often, and sincerely.
Wallace had been given a description over the phone. He walked past the wait station to the booths lined up beneath the cosmic blow-ups of the ferias.
"You're Laughlin?" he asked, gingerly extending a hand. "Niall Wallace. It's good you found an empty one. Tables here are coveted." He twirled off his scarf. "Julia always wanted to open up a breakfast joint like this, food on one side, bar on the other. She wanted to call it Crepes of Wrath."
"You’re shaking, Wallace. Nerves?"
"On my way over I saw the vultures outside the hotel. Yours?"
"Anna Soren is honeymooning there. I go out more often that she does, obviously." Before the waitress could speak Niall flashed two fingers and said, "Two Modelos, please."
"I've never seen an author command so much attention. I mean, you're a writer, not a rock star."
"I've had a little success."
"Admit that you married well."
"Don't be fresh, please. I'm a public figure, it's not sporting to get the upper hand on me."
"Why do they call you Don Julio?"
"It's some brand of tequila. Someone in the hotel is going through a bottle or two a day. They think it's me."
"Sure, say it's me. It's more fun if it's me." Julia warned about when his image would no longer belong to him, when he was legend, no longer a real human person, flesh and blood and fears. "Look, I'm flying out tomorrow and won't have time to review anything with you ... so if I’m talking too fast and you can’t keep up, and there are gaps then just … fill it in with whatever you’d think I’d say."
"My editor gave me these questions." Laughlin held up his writing tablet. "I'm supposed to stick close to the script."
Niall tore off the top sheet and deposited the paper into his shirt pocket.
Laughlin said, "I think it’s important to tell you, full disclosure, that I despise your work. I mean I really find it despicable."
"You write as if you do it just for money."
"I write so I can keep doing cigarette advertisements."
Laughlin pulled a soft-pack from his coat pocket; Niall kept his in a silver case. "I started when I was 13," he said. "I might have taken it up because of you. Your name had a lot of currency once."
"Now they send discount reporters to your door." Laughlin assumed Niall's iconic billboard pose, cupping his hand around his mouth as he drew smoke in, cigarette between the right index and middle fingers. "Let's start with Augusta."
"I was about your age I guess." Niall's eyes were fixed outside, on the bicycles floating by and the crowds. "Best two weeks. Azaleas and water fountains for the coloreds. All my gear was in an Army duffel. There were signs on the perimeter that said, 'Don’t feed the writers.' Lent had started." Ashes and smoke were floating around. From a neighboring table came coughs. "I hated Julia at first. She hogged the rocking chair on the porch and made hour-long calls to her girlfriends and complained that the telephone cord wasn't long enough. We had no idea why she was there. She talked a lot of politics. It was her caring for the state of the world -- the rest of us were so deep in our crafts -- it made her seem iconoclastic. She was always asking my position on things. Cuba, Israel. It’s hard to talk politics, I told her, my values are very Midwestern. It was a better time, I said, when our senators were chosen in smoke-filled rooms, the era of the trade conference and two-martini lunches and when you came onto her hard the secretary didn’t think twice. I think this intrigued her. We hitched a ride into town and drank and drank – Irish whisky, I thought it would flatter her, she was Irish – and she hailed me a taxi and I ran away from it. Sprinted away. That's how it started. She was studying up to play Ginny Wolff. I remember one day we took a walk in the woods and stumbled onto a golf course. Augusta National. Here we are."
"It was the usual discord, mostly. And, she was fucking a legion of men -- I'm convinced this is true. Her parents were sex therapists. I knew even the most compromising images of her I could conjure up for revenge couldn’t shock them. I thought I could wrest the upper hand from them, but no. They were cleverer than me. I'm sure they coached her how to subterfuge her dalliances when I was out of town." Watch yourself Niall, he thought, you're getting righteous. "But I never knew for sure. You can print all of this if you wish."
"Are you usually this profane in front of reporters?"
"Only when I can't summon the right words." He pushed out his chair and tossed his hand back to the waitresses. "I have another appointment in twenty minutes. It's a few avenues over. You're welcome to walk along."
"Who are you meeting?"
"The devil," Niall said. "I’ll let you know how it goes. She and I are ..." he drew his hand in front of his face, "... incredibly alike."
"What's her name?"
"Nope," Niall said.
"Okay. How about this: Would you give up everything for love?"
"I’d do it for Jesus. But for a girl I’ve only known for a month? That’s altogether different."
"The porters say her negligees are hanging in your closet."
"They're not hers. I hope you didn't pay for that information. You should never trust the housekeeping."
Above the din one of the wait staff said, “Wallace, telephone."
"You take calls here?"
"The operators listen in at the hotel."
Niall leaned against the soda dispensers, speaking intently into the phone. He cupped his hands over the receiver. He smiled and mouthed many I love yous. Laughlin guessed it was a mistress.
"It was Natalia," Niall said, bearing Modelos.
"That's the second time she’s asked me what to do with her hair. It's growing out all matted and beastly."
Niall envied his girls: no money worries, growing toward the sun. Playing house in his apartment, huge as a real house, spacious, and all the cleaning supplies out of their reach.
"Six, next month." Wallace had to think about it for a second. "Yeah, six. She looks like her grandfather."
"How are you with your girls?"
"I tell them they are good at everything they do, even if they aren't." He signed his name in the air and the waitress came immediately with the check. "Pay this," he told Laughlin, "and let's go."
As they walked -- Laughlin much taller, despite the lift Niall's boots gave him – the novelist freestyled about his past; the insides of the many cars with the wheels turned into the curb preoccupied him; he liked to look into others' disarray, and talk while peering through glass.
"People think it's a smooth life, but you develop these uncanny wishes after a while. You want to dismantle all you have built and just garden, all day, in the ruins. There's a gracefulness with age, having seen a half-century pass. With Julia I was a real cad. I was, what, twenty-two when we met? I said 'daft' all the time. I liked to kick up my collar and sing. Vigorously exercised. Huge crush on Shirley Anne Field. I was too puritanical for Julia. I must have...," he punctuated this by cutting into the air with his fists, "...numberless mundane tasks to keep me sane. And she liked mirrors, she liked to study herself, she liked how big the rooms looked all mirrored up. But it doesn’t help to see yourself from all those angles."
The street widened into the town square. Washing was done in the fountains. Gutters were deep with muck.
"This is where I leave you," Niall said. "I'm afraid you haven't learned much."
"I'll scrap something together."
"Remember what I told you, if there are gaps..."
"Are you writing these days? I'm sure you're asked that a lot."
"Just cheques and instructions for renovating the brownstone."
"Are you unhappy not to be writing?"
"I just told you I was writing." He took out a small pen, sleek, and wrote a sequence of numbers on a receipt. "Where do you live, Laughlin?"
"The wife and I just bought a place in Carroll Gardens."
"When I'm back in the States and things slow down ..." Wallace handed him the paper. "I'm not proposing we become friends. But we'll get drinks and you show me your Brooklyn and I'll show you mine."
The center of town embarrassed Niall: neon signs, Americanized storefronts, shops catering to tourists, restaurants affirming his countrymen's mediocre tastes. Entire families loitered at the entrances, entreating for loose change. Children with deformities. Children without shoes.
Niall's eyes lifted to a picture affixed by suction cups to one of the windows. "That sign," he said. "The 'Love Muffin' one. The girls would scream."
"You could get it, you have those eyes," Laughlin said.
"My eyes were not my doing." Niall surveyed the square. "There's no excuse for this," he said. "All this want."
"At least the climate's good here," Laughlin ventured. "If you have to be outside."
"Yes, I can imagine the postcards sent home: ‘Weather's great, and everyone's having a marvelous time starving.’"
They walked inside to fetch the sign. Niall explained his interest and made great appeals with his hands. The clerks were quite reluctant. "Senor, please," they said. The boss was standing right there.
"There’s a way to make this painless." Niall plucked out his billfold. "For my daughters." He fanned out a lot of dollar bills -- no dice. "Bonita chicas." He took off his diamond pin and set it between them on the counter. All eyes fell. His cufflinks, the same. Then his watch and finally, his bracelet. It would fetch a thousand pesos if pawned.
"That's all. That's everything," Niall said. "My girls." He held up a photo. They were on a swing-set in matching dresses. A Polaroid folded in half.Zachary Amendt is 23 & new to Brooklyn, a native of Southern California. After college (University of California, Davis), he worked as a bureau chief for City News Service, Inc., the nation's largest regional news wire service. Last year he authored a short novel, Onset of Trembling, which is awaiting publication in the bottom shelf of his writing desk.
© 2004-2012 Underground Voices