Joyland

Los Angeles |

T-Rex

by Susan Berman

edited by Lisa Locascio

Veronica sits in the meager shade of a bush in the Van Nuys World War II Memorial Park. Her fellow contestants stand behind a portable stage unit erected on an expanse of dead grass, waiting for their names to be called. A drawing taped onto one of the unit’s walls shows a hot dog inserted into a proportionally incorrect mouth. Above it, in block lettered cobalt blue: ROCKY’S RED HOTS® WIENER INVITATIONAL! One of the event organizers has rigged up a 90” flat screen, on loan from his living room, upon which the competition will be projected. A teenaged videographer connects cables and tests the equipment.

Veronica tunes out the pre-game hubbub, stealing this moment alone to mentally expand her pyloric canal, her pre-game ritual.

Pyloris. Greek for “gatekeeper.” The Saint Peter of the almighty passage from stomach to duodenum. Veronica visualizes a robed, ancient man opening an anatomical gateway, welcoming the oncoming rush of barely masticated hot dog. Rewarding her for having trained so goddamned hard. Veronica keeps her eyes closed until she can see every vein in the old man’s hands, the entire sunken contour of his face, displacing negative images that fight for center stage in her brain: coming in dead last while the audience howls with laughter. Her mother’s disappointed face. Begging on a freeway onramp with her kids. It is only when the old man is so real she can see the tiniest hair growing out of the tiniest nose pimple that she declares herself ready.

Veronica’s been in training since the last bout, a deeply humiliating nugget rib competition in Sparks, Nevada. Okay, maybe this particular competition is a couple of rungs down on the prestige ladder, but it’s a step toward rehabilitating her tarnished image. And she had been doing so well! A string of wins. Modest wins, to be sure, but crucial steps. She imagines herself competing before a crowd of over 10,000 with continuous coverage on ESPN. That’s how popular the sport has become. It’s only a matter of time until the entire world bears witness as she accepts the Seventh Annual Mickleberg Trophy: legacy of Dave “Foot Long” Mickleberg, who rocked the competitive eating world in 1994 by consuming fifty intensely spiced Merguez sausages in under ten minutes. Shortly afterward, during a chorizo competition, he died a gruesome and public death thanks to a microdot of intestinal casing that adhered to a fissure in his windpipe. It happens. Almost as often as you’d think. An Arizona woman’s stomach exploded after an oyster event. Every sport has an element of danger. Otherwise, thinks Veronica, why do it?

The Mickleberg Trophy Grand Prize: Fifty thousand dollars.

Oh, let me at it! Veronica says out loud to the popcorn ceiling as she lies, churning, in bed every night. She sees herself, single mother of two, dancing in a snowfall of legal tender. Her erotic fantasies consist of on-time car payments, credit cards with a zero balance. Braces for ten-year-old James, late thumb sucker. A keyboard for musical Cassandra, thirteen, disaffected girl-child approaching the front lines of adolescent warfare. Also months of future rent payments luxuriating like fat vacationers by the pool in a high interest account. And, because time marches on, especially around the jawline, a lower quadrant facelift to ensure her future in the PR aspect of the sport. And she’s ready. Okay, maybe she wasn’t ready in Sparks. Not quite. But now. Hell to the fucking yeah.

Today, however, it’s the Rocky’s Red Hots competition. She can live with that. Two thousand for the winner. July’s rent and change. Nothing to sneeze at when you still owe for June. Also an endorsement deal with the chain’s in-house brand: Rocky’s Mega-Hots (They’ve got SNAP!) soon to make its statewide debut at Wal-Mart. There is real competition even in these lower-level events. Sometimes heavy hitters show up, considering it a training session with prize money. Do enough of these a year, cop a couple of endorsement deals, and bam! An eater can make a living doing what she was put on earth to do.

Veronica’s six years in the “world” started when the kids were small and worshipful, sitting at the kitchen table in the Canoga Park condo timing her as she speed- ate whatever was around. Kid food in those days. Lucky Charms. Goldfish. Pizza Pockets. Veronica had always been a binger and a chewer. She passed through bulimia on her way to self-cannibalism, eating the skin on the sides of her fingers, her hair, her upper lip. A Donner party of one. For all those who told her to “stop picking” she now has three words: Fifty. Thousand. Dollars.

Her kids cheered her on, realizing that speed eating made Mom nicer. And happier. Happier than working for Time Warner Cable tech support. Which she still does, feigning interest in people’s forgotten passwords, pretending to be patient as they pull the wrong cords out of modems, cursing her for not being able to jump through the phone and make everything right again. But soon TWTS will be a distant a memory since winnings have risen to these levels. And since her training regimen has been nothing short of Olympian.

She’s had to miss too many days of work because of the demands of training. Last week her supervisor informed her, barely containing his glee, that Veronica is on probation. The kids don’t know. And their “father,” who has been couch surfing through the greater Boston area for the past five years, could give a flying fuck.

But fifty thousand. Some day. No question about that!

“T-Rex Van Horn?” Says a guy with a walkie-talkie, one eyeball atrophied, focused somewhere east of her face.

“That’s me.”

“Been looking all over for you.”

“I like to prepare alone.”

“Didn’t I see you in Sparks?”

“I guess you must have, if you were there.”

“Jesus! That was, well. That sure was a –“

“Just tell me when I need to go out there, okay?” Veronica snaps, irritated. She knows where he was going with “That sure was a . . .”

The truth is, she had vomited. At the crucial moment, neck-in-neck for the lead. Immediate disqualification, even for the slightest drop, case closed. The judges examined the offending chunk of gristle to see if it had never made it into her mouth or was, in fact, a reversal of fortune. They confirmed the latter. “Cancel, cancel,” she whispers as she follows the man. “Cancel all negative thoughts.” Fucker trying to psych her out! Well, she thinks, good luck with that. “You will live a short life and die in unspeakable pain,” she mutters under her breath.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“Oh. Well, like I was saying, that was some crazy ass shit there in Sparks,” says the man, who just happens to be contestant Gut Man Gifford’s sycophant, his simpering Ed McMahon. He’s walking backwards now, so he can look at her. “What was it, bit off more than you could chew?”

Sparks had been a leap, that’s for sure, a world-class event for the big boys. Jumbotron, local news coverage, participation stipend, etc. Veronica had barely squeaked in as the underdog. Her mother and the kids had been there, as always, watching helplessly as a referee led her, hunched and shaking, from the competition table to a Clorox-scented bathroom where she lay on the cold floor retching and bawling. At least that part wasn’t on camera.

“Well, anyways, they need you,” says the man. Then, into the walkie-talkie, “Got T-Rex in transit, do you copy?” The response is a meow in a blast of static.

“Wilco,” he says to the speaker holes. Then, to Veronica, indicating the bathrooms with the antenna, “Wait over there until they call your name.”

Veronica surveys the crowd from behind the restroom building, located a few feet from the competition area. All of the one hundred or so folding chairs are taken. Over fifty other spectators stand around the periphery. A few others lie on blankets, faces purpling in the sun. A fat guy in the front row pours ice water down the neck of his t-shirt. Someone breaks up a dogfight. The referee, black and white striped shirt with a whistle, steps up to the mic on a raised platform and calls for the first contestant. Next to him is the long competition table. Coolers and water buckets at each place.

“CUR MCGINTY.”

The crowd gives him a respectful welcome. A few whoops. Someone toots an air horn, causing a baby to shriek in terror.

Christ, thinks Veronica. Cur McGinty. That embarrassment to the sport. From where she stands, she can see him run out, shirtless, doing his asinine “hula hoop” torso swing, swiveling his balloon gut before he takes his place at the competition table, making the audience go wild. In Veronica’s opinion he embodies every stereotype: fat, slovenly and undisciplined. Even his name, “Cur.” A junkyard dog, a lack of refinement. An old school, county fair, face-down-in-a-berry-pie chipmunker.

“WHIP STANTON.”

Wait. What?

No! Please God, no. Not Whip Stanton. He was not on the program. He didn’t compete in Sparks, thank God, and Veronica hasn’t seen him in months. Damn the World Competitive Eating Association. Damn them to hell! Notorious for adding surprise contestants at the last minute.

Of course he gets a huge response. For this crowd it’s Mick Jagger sitting in with the bar band. A group in the back, who must have been tipped off, unfurls a banner that says, “WHIP ‘EM STANTON.”

Veronica feels her blood dance at the sound of his name and hates herself for it. Whip Stanton. He of the signature five-foot ponytail. Creator of the popular Stanton Technique, involving humming and the crucial role of vibration in the ingestion process. Whip Stanton, with whom she shouldn’t have slept those twenty-seven times. Who she never should have introduced to her kids, thinking for one deluded moment she’d found the only person in the entire world who would ever understand her.

Instead, she realized she’d been mere filler until a younger, more battered soul came along. And hell yeah she came along. Took last place in the Nathan’s Competition, but obviously Whip didn’t give a shit about that. Not with those tits. Not with that drug problem. Veronica stood a chance. What man could care-take So she sat and watched the image of herself and Whip as a competition Power Couple pixilate and disappear. Fuck him and his ponytail and his humming technique. But, still. But, still. Whip Stanton. The things he taught her. Oh, fuck him to hell!

“GUT MAN GIFFORD.”

The Sparks Grand Champion himself, wearing a cape, for God’s sake, his recent run of victories clearly having gone to his head. Not to mention the merchandising. When Veronica arrived at the venue she saw a booth hawking Gut Man detritus: T-shirts, posters, the slightly out of focus video, Gut Feeling, in which he discusses his training techniques, welling up as he laments the death of his father, Ribeye Gifford, who taught him every technique he knew right there at the family dinner table as his mother lovingly looked on. Supposedly.

“T-REX VAN HORN.”

Veronica walks out onto the field and, sneaking a glance at the TV screen, positions herself in a perfectly centered, full body shot. T-Rex. So named because the T-Rex could devour five hundred pounds of meat in one bite. A shrill, in unison “MOM,” emanates from the back row, making up for the slight dip in applause. She makes sure Whip Stanton is watching and lifts her T-shirt exposing her lithe torso, her exquisitely flat stomach. One hundred fifteen pounds, motherfuckers! The result of months of cabbage, seaweed and water for breakfast, lunch and dinner, followed by two weeks of clear liquids. Except, of course, for strategically spaced training sessions. She raises her fists in the air and turns, slowly, so everyone can experience the 360 of her. Still, a tepid response. The glass ceiling, triple-paned.

Cur McGinty, in a second-grade level humor moment, makes retching noises. He didn’t compete in Sparks, but he, like thousands of other non compos menti enjoyed Veronica’s moment of shame, played and replayed in an endless loop on EatFeats. The front rows, within earshot, laugh their carnivorous asses off. Veronica takes her assigned seat at the table, next to Whip Stanton.

She allows herself one inhale’s worth of fear, and then recreates the old man, in clear focus this time. She knows she’s back in the zone when everything around her, every bird, every stretched-out cloud makes her want to swallow it whole, feeling it slither through every exquisite curve of her intestine.

Veronica feels the head-clearing effects of a new water training technique, which has gently expanded her stomach capacity without wasting energy digesting solids. That was her downfall in Sparks. Chicken wing training. Rookie mistake.

She will not be cowed by her proximity to Whip Stanton. Ever the competitor, he’d love nothing more than to throw her off her game. She can feel his sinister vibrations attempting to invade her pores. Cancel, cancel, she whispers. Cancel all negative thoughts. She turns to him and smiles. The one he returns is not genuine. It ended badly. She shouldn’t have keyed his mint condition Barracuda, for instance. But then he shouldn’t have offered to give Cassandra guitar lessons. Getting her hopes up like that! Cassie even braided his hair once and then bragged about it to the kids at school. Never mind that they said, “Whip who?”

“A guy who can eat his weight in hot dogs,” she’d told them. “That’s who!” Which resulted in Cassie running home in tears after inadvertently creating a nickname for herself: “Dog Turd.” A name that lived on long after Whip was out of the picture.

But, still. Why didn’t you pick us? Veronica silently beseeches him. You could have had it all. Instant family. Supporters for life. Then, trying to sound casual, showing him that she’s the new, improved version of herself, ready to be pals, maybe kicking off the friendship with drinks, just the two of them, after the competition, she says, “Hot dogs. Classic.”

“I’m sorry?” says Whip, and rips out his ear buds, irritated that Veronica has punctured the spell of his mental preparation. Also probably still mad about the car.

“I was just saying that hot dogs are sort of –”

Whip reattaches his ear buds.

Motherfucker. Veronica regrets her moment of weakness and tries to conjure the old man. But all she musters are Whip’s guitar callused fingertips. Whip’s eyes are closed. He hums “Hotel California.” Veronica knows him so well! She knows he’s listening to his lucky album and that he didn’t sleep last night due to anticipatory anxiety.

But still. He needs the money less than she does. He’s the new face of Curly’s Smokehouse Franks, she discovered with a pang while shopping in the meat section of Smart ‘N Final.

Everyone is in deep preparation. Gut Man makes strangulation noises, loosening his Adam’s Apple. Cur does “the wave,” an undulating move that he has explained, in after game interviews, mimics the journey of a food morsel through the gastric system. As if he could have come up with that himself. As if this crowd has never heard of Kobayashi.

So this time it’s hot dogs. They tell you the basics, but then you take what they throw you. “Hot dog” could mean anything from cocktail franks to knockwurst. And God only knows what kind of bun.

A couple of referees pull the lid off the metal tubs at each contestant’s side and after a countdown, underscored by neon, graphic numbers on the TV, the announcer says, “Let the competition begin.”

Ball parks on a dense seeded bagel bun, the bastards. Veronica starts slowly, undoing another mistake she made in Sparks. Dunking is permitted in this contest, so she dips the hot dog and bun into the pail of water to soften the bread. Small bites are best. Veronica learned the hard way that excessive chewing leads to jaw fatigue, so the trick is to take small bites that can be swallowed whole. Her personal goal for this ten-minute contest: thirty dogs. Unheard of until now.

The first three go down well. The hot dogs have been slathered with ketchup as a crowd-pleasing measure. People want to see a mess that evokes carnage. The next three slither down with, so far, no tooth-to-tooth contact, throat muscles fully engaged. Veronica tries not to get cocky. It’s still early. She glances at Gut Man who is utilizing his personalized “cat/bird” technique: neck stretched back, dog pointing skyward and then sucked down, his throat muscles contracting so vigorously that they sever the dog into digestible chunks. Too early for that, Veronica thinks. His esophagus will rebel. That’s a move for the home stretch. Cur’s face and hair are slathered with ketchup and water as he, head down, eats as if from a trough. Making a spectacle of himself, the troll.

After ten hot dogs Veronica feels a bit of pyloric churning, but expects that.

“SIX MORE MINUTES,” yells the referee into the mic.

Veronica sees her enlarged face on the TV, and even in the fever of competition angles it to the less fat side, the one with the more accentuated cheekbone. Never trust the PR people and their selective use of the images, which can be frozen into stills and resurface in promotional materials. Another lesson learned the hard way. Granted, it was a smaller competition – a boiled egg event. Veronica was thrown by a handout upon which her face appeared, looking every minute of her sun-damaged forty-six years, and then some. No one claps for that. No one hires that to promote their lunchmeat.

But today, beautiful. Just a hint of ketchup. Enough to make her lips look full and luscious. Veronica is astonished by her sense of calm. The training is paying off. But the next five dogs start to feel like work, and she finally enlists her teeth into the game. She takes small bites. A bit of casing gets lodged in her throat, making her cough. Fuck! “Going down the wrong tube” is another way of saying “Everything you’ve ever wanted and worked for has just evaporated into utter nothingness.” No way she’s going to pull a Mickelberg. Not today.

But thank the universe and Veronica’s steel-trap esophageal canal, it’s only a momentary setback. Three more dogs go down without incident.

“THREE MINUTES.” Twelve to go to reach thirty.

On one of their twenty-seven nights Whip lectured her on the pointlessness of vomiting when Veronica revealed her teenage bulimic period..

“I get it,” he said. “It’s a girl thing. But, baby what a waste. What lack of respect for this fucking awesome machine we were born with.” He underscored this last point by drawing his finger down Veronica’s throat, slowly, all the way to the crotch of her cut-offs. “Why cheat your intestines? Let them do their magical thing.”

Now the great Whip Stanton is retching. The moment is palpable. Veronica senses a pause in everyone’s chewing. But he recovers and swallows with his characteristic hum. He taught her, on their one rainy night, that humming creates a vibrating tunnel that dampens the gag reflex. A technique she’s grateful to know. Veronica remembers watching his scrunchy slide off, freeing his hair, which fell onto his shoulders in a terrifyingly sexy way. Oh that night! It was they best they’d had. The kids were at her mother’s. After sex they’d speed-eaten Slim Jims, feeding each other. Critiquing each other’s technique. It was the most intimate moment Veronica had ever shared with another human being.

A small bird hops on the table looking for crumbs. Veronica uses up a precious second shooing it away with her hand. There was that time, near the beach, when a seagull snatched a chicken taco right out of the King of the Southland’s hand, costing him the title. A mountain lion could come wandering in and it would be the competitor’s fault, even if he were dragged off and disembowled. His memory disgraced by failing to handle the situation as per regulation.

Four more dogs, and damn those bun seeds, now sticking to the sides of her throat like pictures hanging in a hallway. Veronica stands to help the downward gravitational pull. Home stretch time. She tries to breathe through the panic. She glances again at the TV screen. Her eyes are tearing, mixing with ketchup as if she, like Our Lady of Akita, is weeping blood. Whip Stanton is humming so loud it rattles her skull. “Life in the Fast Lane.”

Nothing left but the cat/bird, which she’s only practiced once, unsuccessfully. Oh to have a man’s throat at this moment! She imagines St. Peter, swinging opening the gates of fortune, ushering her in. She tilts her head back and holds the dripping mess up toward the sky. Clouds blow by. Tiny birds fly through her fingers.

“You have the spark,” Whip had said, fondling her neck after she swallowed the last of the Slim Jims. “Yes, sexy girl. You do. I see it in your throat muscles, especially the oncothyroid. Your clavicular and sternal heads leave me in awe. Where did you come from anyways? Are you even from the planet Earth?” A string of colored Christmas lights twinkled just outside the window of his ‘71 Airstream Ambassador as he spoke, making his hair look like it was on fire.

Veronica hadn’t even known she had a clavicular head. That’s how green she was when he found her. She had already worked out, privately, how they would all live together in the Airstream. She googled “modify airstream” and it all seemed so possible. James would have a loft compartment near the ceiling. Cassandra’s bed would roll out from under the dining table. A tent add-on would be the homework area.

Veronica can smell Whip’s patchouli oil. She hums a lullaby her mother used to sing while inching the torpedo down her throat. Little birdie in a tree, in a tree, in a tree. Gags once but breathes through it. Another hot dog makes it into the Kingdom of Heaven. The referee sounds the final whistle.

All four contestants lift their hands up. Whip rips out his ear buds, wipes his face on a towel. Gut Man raises his fists and gives a Tarzan yell. Cur, showman that he is, staggers to the front of the competition table and pretends to pass out, making the audience roar. The judges check each contestant for chipmunking – holding food in their cheeks for more than thirty seconds, another disqualifier.

Veronica, still exhilarated from the cat/bird, looks out to the audience, on its feet, different sections screaming different names. The judges count the remaining hot dogs. I did it! She thinks. Okay, maybe I didn’t reach thirty, but I never paused even once! Even Whip doesn’t stand a chance against me. He retched. That’s the sound of precious seconds slipping away. That’s the sound of a man down.

Whip Stanton frees his ponytail and gets a rise out of the crowd. His hair wraps his face in a sudden gust of Santa Ana wind. Veronica wants to chew on it, impregnate herself with his hairball. Look at it! So pretty, glinting vermillion in the sun. He’s used a rinse to cover the gray. Veronica feels an upsurge of longing. Damn you! We could have aged together. Together we could have slowed the long march toward invisibility. How could SHE ever understand that?

But, wait, she thinks, and snaps back into T-Rex again. What I really mean to say is: Motherfucker you are going down. Did you see me execute a perfect cat/bird? Huh? Did you see that, Whip? Did you see that?

The referee trips as he steps up on the platform but regains his footing.

“We have a winner,” he says into the mic.

I sure as shit am ! thinks Veronica, as she calculates the withholding on fifty grand, subtracting two month’s rent, the price of James’ braces and Cassandra’s keyboard, realizing that the jawline may have to wait for the next win.

“WHIP STANTON.”

Veronica lowers her arms, which were already half raised in victory. She is confused for a moment, as if the referee were speaking a different language. She looks at everyone, searching for an interpreter among them.What did he say? For a second I thought he said Whip Stanton. What does that mean?

A huge ovation. Love radiating from the audience, wrapping Whip in its toxic glow.

Cur McGinty, accustomed to losing, slaps Whip on the back and gives the audience the thumbs up. But Gut Man is pissed. He glowers at the judges. Everyone remembers the time in Laguna Niguel when he upended the table after a loss. The guy with the atrophied eye anticipates this and puts his hand on Gut Man’s shoulder. Gut Man pushes him off with such force that the guy falls backward onto the dirt.

There he is, The Great Stanton, in person and on the TV screen, wiping a stray bit of ketchup from his ear with a towel. There he is, in close-up, revealing the front tooth that overlaps the one next to it. There he is, a statue erected in a park. There he is, the face of Curly’s Smokehouse Franks, who will, undoubtedly, be lured from them one day in the not too distant future by Oscar Fucking Meyer.

Friends and family rush the competition area and Veronica sees Whip’s young, bra-less project flopping toward him. They kiss and she grabs fistfuls of his hair, exposing his tarantula neck tattoo.

Veronica’s kids run over, out of breath. Her mom a few yards back, limping.

“He Chipmunked! I saw him!” says James.

“Totally,” says Cassandra. “Plus, he like puked a little and nobody said anything. So unfair.”

Veronica had been coy about the prize money, so the kids have no idea what they’re missing. They don’t feel what she feels at this moment: a snake writhing in boiling oil in the upper region of her ribcage. They don’t realize that they are days away from losing the condo and moving, all three of them, into their grandmother’s studio apartment in Reseda with its pullout couch in the living room. All that training! Veronica could have done better. It was Whip’s fault, slamming her back to those twenty-seven nights she’d worked so hard to cancel, cancel, cancel.

“But anyways you looked really hot on the TV,” says Cassandra. Then, lowering her voice, “Whip’s girlfriend’s side boob is showing.”

A host of sparrows descend on the competition table to reap the remains: saliva puddles dotted with islands of soggy bun, stray meat particles, ketchup covered in flies. A Santa Ana kicks up, plastering a paper napkin against Veronica’s thigh.

“Hey, congratulations,” she says to Whip, who stands not ten feet away, his girl rubbing his distended gut like they’re expecting. No answer, even though he’s looking right at her. His girlfriend whispers something in his ear and he kisses the top of her head.

The referee and the guy with the atrophied eye walk out with a huge $2,000.00 cardboard check with “Whip Stanton” written in Sharpie on the top line. They get Whip to stand with them in front of the videographer, who shoots from a crouched position, making them look like giants. The audience whoops and applauds.

“Come on, Rons, let’s go,” says Veronica’s mom, wincing, putting her arm on Veronica’s shoulder. “Let’s beat the rush before you have to carry me out of here. My knee’s about to go.” She takes a Kleenex from her purse and wipes ketchup from a strand of Veronica’s hair. “Maybe time to rethink all of this, hon?” She licks an arthritic finger and wipes her daughter’s cheek.

Veronica takes in the scene: Whip Stanton posing with his girlfriend, Gut Man arguing with a judge a few yards away. Cur throwing up in a trash can, his usual post-game ritual.

Her mom keeps talking. “I mean, honey I guess I just don’t see what you –”

Cancel, cancel, thinks Veronica, putting her hands over her ears. Even my mother who deeply cares. Cancel my mother. Do what a champion would do in a crushing moment of defeat. Be big.

Veronica walks away from her mom and over to Whip and his girlfriend. I’m a champion, she thinks. A champion is generous. When the game is over, a champion (albeit momentarily) puts herself last.

“Hey, Whip. Seriously. Congratulations. You’re the master.” Veronica holds out her hand.

Whip and his girlfriend exchange a look that says That’s the nutcase who keyed the car. The girlfriend, feeling smug in her role as common-law Mrs. Stanton, probably says, when they’re lying in bed, post-coital, things like, “Listen, babe, why waste energy being mad? Let’s feel sorry for her. She’s crazy. Poor thing! And so old. Tell me I’ll never look that old!”

“Oh baby,” he probably says, fondling her clown tits. “Don’t you worry. You could never look that old.”

But there’s nothing like the magnanimity of victory to let bygones be bygones, and Whip accepts her hand. Veronica massages it, feeling the guitar calluses, the lifeline she once traced with her tongue. There are red, crescent moons under his nails.

Veronica ignores Whip’s attempts to pull his hand away and tightens her grip. She lifts his hand and smells it. Patchouli and hot dog juice. Mixed with something that must have rubbed off from the girl. Baby powder. She licks it to stimulate her olfactory taste buds. Yes, the particular nausea provoked by baby powder.

“What the fuck?” says the girlfriend and tries to slap Veronica’s hand away, but Veronica grips harder. She bites down and feels the snap of Whip’s skin breaking, her teeth clamping onto bone.

“Get her off me!” Whip yells. “Jesus fucking Christ!” Whip’s blood salts her mouth. He struggles but her fulcrum is in peak condition, a fiercely activated jaw joint. She couldn’t let go if she tried. Wouldn’t.

The referee and the guy with the atrophied eye are pulling at her. Someone tries to pry her mouth open. Veronica hears her mother and children calling to her. Or maybe screaming. Cancel, cancel. She thinks. Cancel all you doubters, you second-guessers. I’m an eater! Let me eat!

A volunteer goon from the audience slaps the back of her head, forcing her teeth apart.

“Motherfucker!” yells Whip Stanton, yanking his hand away. His girlfriend examines his bleeding palm. Someone hands him a towel. “Get her out of here, that batshit crazy bitch!” he says, hyperventilating.

Veronica takes a step toward Whip. The guy with the atrophied eye wrestles her to the ground and restrains her as she kicks at the air.

“You gonna stop kicking? You gonna stop?” he says, his knees pinning her shoulders. “You gonna stop spitting in my face?”

“Cancel, cancel,” she hisses, staring him down.

“What?”

“You’re crushing my transverse humeral ligament.”

Veronica closes her eyes. She doesn’t want to know if her kids are watching. She takes a deep breath. She’ll explain it all to them tonight. She’ll give them the Notes From the Real World talk she was reserving for their late-teen years. The We Sometimes Do What We Wish We Didn’t Have To Do lecture. Don’t be scared, she’ll say. Yes, Mom’s a little stressed, that’s true. But it’s not her fault, kids. Not at all! Mom’s just trained very, very hard and is a little disappointed that –

A siren screams and drowns out her thoughts, moving closer. Veronica conjures the old man in glorious, mind-bending detail. He’s smiling at her in such sharp focus that she sees a piece of food stuck between his canine and incisor. He opens an enormous wrought iron gate and ushers her into another time, before there was a Van Nuys World War II Memorial Park, before there had ever even been a war, or people, or hot dogs, or rent payments or Whip Stanton. Sixty million years ago, when the mighty T-Rex ruled the world.