The blonde tennis star is in a robe on my sofa. She won’t stop asking me questions about my wife’s external defibrillator. It’s late afternoon, the first Sunday of August. Link prints are back in and here on my shirt, with its French cuffs and broad collar, are thin chains of gold in a plaid sort of pattern. They look like the cords for men’s pocket watches. They say: I own Time. They say: I am powerful. The shirt is bright white. I am deep bronze. I’ll throw the shirt out in a month or two, tops. The tan stays year-round. In winter I turn slightly orange. I’m forty years old. I’m wearing board shorts. I’m worth about thirty-five million. My house, in the suburb of Piedmont, California, makes up one-fifth of this total. On my west-facing oak deck are a half-dozen chaises; they look at the Bay, at the bridge, San Francisco. Today, heavy smog: fine, brown, acrylic. Smog promotes fear. Smog makes me money.
“You really don’t mind if I borrow this?” the tennis star asks me. She’s left the red clay of Rolland-Garros early again, losing in the second round to an unseeded Belgian. Some of her friends down in Indian Wells are throwing a taser party for her. Michael Jordan will be there, as will Ringo Starr. The gala will take place on a twenty-acre compound at the base of a very steep canyon. The house and the lot are both owned by the Feds. The celebs will arrive in camouflage Hummers.
“It’s fine to take it; someone there can read joules?”
“We rent out some doctors from down in the Burbank.”
“Up,” I say. “Burbank is up from there.”
The tennis star rolls her eyes while she thinks. Her small mouth’s thin lips press against one another. Today, in the bathroom, I read The New York Times to her while she showered. Her sexiest attribute? Her injured left shoulder. Yes, her toned arms. Yes, her pert ass. Yes, her long legs, like twin camel towers. But the scar on her shoulder, and the bone chips below it – this is what makes my heart thump in my chest. To know that on days marked by shifting air pressure, the star, once she’s older, will writhe from discomfort. To know that while showing some kids at some camp the proper way to hit a backhand volley, something will pop and she’ll curse tersely in Russian. The shoulder is fault line; the shoulder is wrath. The shoulder’s war is a war of attrition. It is items like these that provide my net worth. It is items like these that build five-car garages. Some say this country is coming apart. My Rome is not burning. My Rome has not fallen.
“How is your son? He is at his new school?”
I nod. I am looking out, at the water. “Muhammad Ali’s doing fine, I think, thank you.”
“Make Nike give me more TV commercials and I’ll fly back there and see him. Surprise him. We get a hotel. We’ll do things together. We’ll buy things on eBay. We’ll outbid all others.”
“I’d love that, Yi-Yi” (my nickname for her), “I really would. I’ll keep it in mind and we’ll rain check on it.”
“But the season, you know. I get so busy.”
“Yes, the season,” I say. We both laugh and it’s a fun laugh, a laugh of shared joke. My white Gucci loafers are calfskin, eight hundred dollars.
“I’m sure you’ll try hard.”
“I will try one ounce of hard for each dollar they give me.”
From the baby monitor I’ve set up in the living room comes a low, metal grunt, made by my wife. These are phantom sounds, physicians assure me: ethereal, arbitrary issuances. I walk over to the device and turn down the volume.
“I’ll talk to Nike later this week. What was your favorite article today, in the shower?” Yi-Yi’s big secret is that she can’t read. Perhaps two dozen people know this about her. And really, who cares? Does her sport involve thesis? Does her drop shot require thorough knowledge of Dickens? It doesn’t. It requires that her sports bra make her chest shapely. It requires good teeth and a surplus of smiling. It requires that she squeals when she hits the ball, emits a shrill sound not unlike major orgasm, so that you, the white male sitting at home, will keep watching. The problem with the player who started the grunt was that she was ugly. Prototypes are rarely spectacular. So some people I know paid to have her put out of commission. Our currency? What we gave the guy with the knife? A pallet of assorted sugar cereals. He wanted ten boxes of Fruit Loops, ten of Apple Jacks, ten of Corn Pops and so on. It cost maybe two hundred dollars, plus shipping, to get Horse Face shivved in broad daylight on international television. The subconscious lesson? La morale inconsciente? Loud ugly people get knives in their backs. Not true, though, for loud gorgeous people.
“I liked the story about the people cloning panda bears,” Yi-Yi tells me. “I think it would be a terrible thing if panda bears weren’t in the world.”
“And you consider the panda bear as remaining in existence even if all the panda bears that are left are clones of the actual panda bear species?”
“I don’t think that anyone would know the difference. They look the same, right?”
“They do,” I say. “Exactly. At your party: will you be tasered, or will you be doing the tasering? To my understanding it’s either/or, top or bottom.”
“I am mainly watching, but you’re right,” says Yi-Yi. “Almost always either/or. Some are switching, though. Spike Lee is a switch. Billy Jean King, she is switching.”
“I’ll get pictures to my email in a week or so, then.”
“And the machine will come back in a courier truck.”
“Yes. DHL. You know what to do?”
“Three gold-star stickers on the bottom right side with the word ‘armadillo’ in tangerine Sharpie.”
My cell phone is vibrating. The limo is here.
“It’s time to go,” I say.
“OMG,” says Yi-Yi. She bounds from the couch and the robe drops to the floor, a puddle of black silk on the hardwood.
Yi-Yi gets dressed and we kiss at the door and my house, while not empty, is silent again. I loathe silence: it affords contemplation. It allows for the fog of the mind to clear out. The machine that I make is loud. It burns hot. It needs you to remain under perpetual cover. It needs you to lube it with fear, lust and haste. It needs tears in your eyes and sweat on your face.
It needs to always keep running.
I eat a big meal of dog on my deck. The Vietnamese identity-theft ring I employ brings me steaks of it. They’re cut very thin – how you often see veal – and I bread them in flour with a pinch of cayenne and then fry them in oil on my eight-burner range, with two egg whites and hash made from corned beef. Whenever I can, I eat breakfast foods: bacon or pork chops or omelets or sausage. It’s a trick that I learned before I dropped out of college. That Food Pyramid that the Feds conjured up? Total bullshit. Done to save farmers. Eat that many grains and see how you feel. Force that much fruit down your gullet. My body needs protein; I am a wolf. I hunt and I howl and I wander forlornly. I am a ghost of the tundra. Migrate where you can, where you want, on a whim. I follow your tracks. I stay one hill behind you. I feast on your sick and your lame and your well. I propel you until I destroy you.
Below my wood deck are four weeping cherries, arranged in a square around an oversized porcelain vase on a pedestal. My house, on the crest of a very steep hill, was built in the shape of a wishbone. The kitchen and deck comprise the bone’s base, with two wings curving eastward, symmetrical. Between these two wings are a lawn, a small pond. There are roses, chrysanthemums, forsythias. A column of poplars – the Italian variety – stand at the back of the property. Postwar, this plot housed a colony for artists; ten tiny bungalows stood across its half-acre. The rich came here to paint, to write verse, to snap pictures; a darkroom once stood where I’ve put in a sauna. The compound’s destruction was the key selling point. I loathe art, and crave its obliteration. Were there no art, I would not be an orphan. Instead, in my dreams, Klees pock and melt. Instead, bulls trample Picassos. And Cezannes are graffitied and Rauschenbergs bulldozed, and Pound, in his room, is given no pen, and Da Vinci is hung, and Hendrix is aborted. Art is false pretense. Art connotes peace: if war eats your block, or disease, or a mall, no art can be created. Art takes and takes, wanting so much. I give and give, and ask little.
I put down my plate and stretch out on my chaise and here is the sun and here is the sun shining through me, my skin slowly changing, my body consuming and producing, the crows hunched on sun-brightened wires, the dragonflies and yellow jackets landing then buzzing then landing again, the lemon trees still in their planters. The Bay’s marine layer is just past the bridge; in minutes, its gray will crown San Francisco. Downhill from my home stands the home of the Burgstroms: a cream-colored Tudor worth maybe four million. The electrified fence that I’ve had wrapped with fake ivy has killed two of their cats and, before that, a puppy. The Burgstroms no longer own any pets. This saddens me; pets are big business. Pets need to be bathed. Pets need to be fed. Pets need to be housed over summer vacations. Pets get in fights. Pets get hit by cars. Pets need their limbs amputated. And leashes for walking. And small rubber toys. And round granite headstones to remember them by, when direction of sojourn means meeting of maker.
Mrs. Burgstrom floats now in her blue-tiled pool, in a white rubber cap and strapless black one-piece. On their roof is a telescope, for looking at stars. One son’s at Dean-Witter, the other at Merrill. Both have tall wives with thin hips and slim feet. Both of these women would look gorgeous in rags. Instead, Valentino, leased German sedans. Rings inlaid with diamonds, each gem the size of the pit of a cherry. And in exchange for these gifts, a womb which will ripen: nine months of weight gain then pain then C-section, followed by breast pumps and throw-up and diapers, and with the weight lost and the crib still and silent, the two Burgstrom sons and their slim-footed wives will grow damp and moan under high-thread-count sheets, and repeat the process exactly once more, and begin, very slowly, to hate one another, as the husbands work late, though they aren’t really working, and the wives have lunch dates where nothing is eaten, and the children, both boys, grow, quickly, up, and get into Stanford, and get into Princeton, and have too their own wives, and their own pairs of children, and buy houses with pools, which their wives will float in.
Wind off the ocean, pushed through the fog. Mrs. Burgstrom ascends her swimming pool’s ladder. The sun sinks to dim orb past the white marine layer, and bathed now in soft light is Berkeley, is Oakland. Goodnight to Napa, its acres of grapes, its Zagat-applauded French bistros. Goodnight to the Golden Gate Bridge and its jumpers. Goodnight to the hobos of South and North Berkeley, who through the small hours will slur incoherent – goodnight to their beards and their fleas and their fears, goodnight to their laughter and problems. Goodnight to artists’ lofts dotting west Oakland, where vegan subversives silk-screen scoop necks to the tinkle of crack vials, breaking. Goodnight to Lake Merritt, its gray murky slough. Goodnight to Hayward, the county courthouse, its surplus of piquant redactions. Goodnight to the South Bay, its orchards of pixels. Goodnight to the city named after St Francis; goodnight to the tight and steep hills that comprise it; goodnight to North Beach, goodnight Noe Valley, goodnight to the Mission and Western Addition and long-idle shipyards of Bayview/Hunter’s Point; goodnight to Nob Hill and the Castro; goodnight to the Haight, goodnight Pacific Heights, goodnight to Parkside and SOMA and NOMA, goodnight to the Sunsets, both Inner and Outer. Soon, switches flicked to keep out the dark. Soon, the consuming of Sunday-night dinner, the small fork then the big one, the spoon and the knife, sweaters and slacks, napkins of linen, the cooking of beasts slaughtered six states away, brought here by Eisenhower’s Interstate System – five million mouths chewing five million meals as stomachs expand and dusk, bruised to death, is wondered at mutely then promptly forgotten.
I put food in a tube that runs down my wife’s throat. The bedroom’s near-dark, the lights kept on a dimmer. I scrub my wife’s feet with the same sort of stone one uses to remove lime from porcelain. My wife is past gaunt. Her ribs show through the sheets. Each day new hairs loose onto her pillow. My wife dyed her hair blonde but is really brunette. Her straight, matted locks look like a half-painted wall, like a project unfinished.
And here the done nose, the bridge sculpted to perfect. And here the blue eyes that don’t ever open. And here are my hands on the clasp of her necklace, her back slightly lifted, her breathing tube pressed against the wall of her esophagus. The noise deepens some, the machine working harder. One year of this. Four separate seasons. One year of baths with a bowl, a damp sponge. One year of massaging thin calves and thin fingers. The doctors say grim. The doctors say stasis. The doctors give chances that involve single digits. I tell all these doctors their opinions are wrong. I tell them they don’t know her like I know her.
A key in the lock: Esquido is here. Esquido’s our nurse. Esquido’s Salvadorian. Esquido was once part of the MS-13s, one of the most evil gangs on the planet. Their ways are perhaps best described as parasitic: they figure out who is selling what where, then kill lots of these people and enslave the remainder. They grew up in jungle towns, orphans of orphans. They worked for cartels as sadistic guerrillas. They hack men with machetes in area malls; they control the Richmond dope trade, every kilo. My friend Frank Gaines, not a nice man, works for the Feds out of their LA office. He was part of a raid on a house down in Watts; Esquido was caught climbing out of a window. This was bad form, per the MS-13s’ governing tenets. You kill all you can and if capture is imminent, you kill yourself – there aren’t any prisoners. Esquido did neither, and was thus marked for death. Hid underground by the Feds for eight years, they removed his tattoos and altered his cheekbones. Esquido takes pills that lighten his skin. Esquido has learned how to speak without accent. Esquido was trained as an R.N. while lamming. Esquido’s real name isn’t really Esquido.
“How is she?” he says, shutting the door. Early last year, the first week of February, men broke into my home while I slept. They planned to tie me up and then take things. Both were parolees with no gang affiliation. Esquido was in my home’s den, not sleeping. The men’s paths diverged, a tactical mistake. They lived bound in my basement for over a week. My son never knew the intruders were here. Afterward, Esquido presented me with two mason jars: one filled with teeth, the other with fingers.
“Her eyes twitched,” I say. “They’re doing that more. I know it’s nothing.”
“It’s not nothing,” says Esquido. My friend Frank Gaines has promised me this man until my wife dies, or until she gets better.
“I fed her already and I changed her necklace. The tube bumped her throat. If you’d double-check that everything’s fine there.”
“Of course,” says Esquido.
“I’m out for the night, then,” I say, and Esquido nods once and I leave the bedroom. In my office I change into slacks and black oxfords and slide one of my laptops into its neoprene sleeve. It’s full dark outside. The air’s gotten colder.
I leave my home’s hill in my small silver Prius. My suburb is still, its main street elm-lined and silent. Piedmont is home to three banks and two churches. There’s a small barbershop, one high-end market. The Veteran’s Center is set between the police and the fire departments. There’s a community pool; my son swam for their team. Across the street, his old high school, the source of his exile, the setting for him beating a classmate unconscious. My town has six stoplights, about ten thousand people. My town has no motto. My town’s motto is: Money. At the base of its hills, where it borders with Oakland, are tall iron gates with chains wrapped around them. As legend has it, these gates were installed for keeping out have-nots in times of peril. They haven’t been closed since I was alive; few things, however, are purely aesthetic, and on some occasions, in predawn’s small hours, I’ve seen city workers, their truck’s lights turned off, checking the locks and oiling the hinges.
Telegraph Avenue runs north to Cal-Berkeley and south to Jack London Square, and Oakland’s marina. The waterfront’s air smells of salt and pollution. My top-floor king suite looks out at its docks and its jetties. Boats with their sails wrapped bob on the water. The whole room is pastels: hues of nausea, of weakness. The drapes are light salmon, the bedspread mint green. Wallpaper that would best be described as eggs, fainting. All these shades chosen from the same base ideology that gets fusion jazz into so many elevators: finding things that all will like is quite hard; finding things that all will hate is much more achievable. Placation is the Siamese twin of distemper. Here’s your cheap room: do you see these wan colors? Can you feel, deep inside you, how much you dislike them? And do you remember that were you much richer, you would not bed, shit and shave in such places? That these sorts of interiors simply aren’t seen by those who drive Beamers and clutch Prada clutches? That that demographic gets mints on its sheets? And flat-screen TVs? And sleek fancy headboards twice lined with firm pillows? Not you, though, small friend. Here, hairs by the drain. Here, every wood surface fiberboard laminate. And the lamp needs a bulb and the ceiling fan’s broken and the windows won’t open more than two inches, the management’s unspoken belief being, in regard to the last of these items, that if this is the only place you can afford, a window fully opened will be used as a portal to an afterlife that must be at least a bit better than the existence you’ve managed, somehow, to cobble and eke, a life of malaise and microwave dinners, a long string of months lived paycheck-to-paycheck, a life of clipped coupons and loans upon which you’ve defaulted, and for this, low ceilings, exterior stairs, a TV that whines while you watch it, and for this, brown carpet (the room’s dark exception), a cake of thick shag iced with the fluids of decades of guests, while the fatcats drink gin in big lobby bars, and don’t wake in the night to the noise of airplanes overhead – instead this place, that feels like you’re living in a trash can the day after Easter. Get mad. That’s what I’m after. That’s why this room looks like it does. You’ve paid for it already; I don’t want you in it. I want you to hate it so much and so purely that you go out and spend cash so that you’ll feel more worthy. Bring back dumb gifts for your undersmart kids, des petits cadeaux for that spouse you know not what to do with. This room is not here to make you feel at home. This room is not here because you’re on vacation. What this room is is just better than jail. Shop. See the sights. Get some fries at the Arby’s, located next door. It closes at ten, due to near-constant robbings. I hope, sincerely, you had a nice stay. Now return to your rock, its slick, dark underbelly.
In the small single drawer of the king bed’s nightstand, I remove the phone book from beneath the Bible. Escorts is found just before Escrow, and just after Escalators. I call the first place I find with a 510 number. A woman’s voice answers. Her tone says, I’m bored. Her tone says, I spend long hours of my day accommodating perverts. She is, perhaps, a mile away, in a small ground-floor office without any windows. The building is filled with these sorts of suites. There are rows of phone banks; there are rows of computers.
“I want an escort. A woman,” I say. A boat’s galley lights up, out on the water.
“What type of girl do you want?” the woman asks me. I am trying to imagine her happiest moment, that scene in time where the sun shone upon her. What was she wearing? What sat in her hands? What was the name of the pet that had loved her? Doing so is my job, and I’m always working.
“She needs to have arms. Both arms,” I say. “Legs are of lesser importance.” I unzip my Mac from its neoprene sleeve. The woman says nothing for two, three, four seconds.
“Are you there?” I ask. “Did we get disconnected?”
The bored woman sighs. We all have a sound that we’re best at.
“I need your first name.”
“My first name’s Esquido.”
“Okay, Esquido, and where are you this evening?”
“I’m staying in a king suite down at Jack London. Do I get the privilege of learning your name?”
The bored woman’s typing now. “My name is Rachel, Esquido,” she says, leaning on the middle syllable of my alias, to show she’s not stupid, and that her name’s not Rachel. So many masks and codes and passwords. So much emotional binary.
“And Rachel, what are we wearing tonight?”
“We’re wearing clothes, Esquido.”
“Are they sexy clothes?”
“Not really,” says Rachel.
“Well, what kind of clothes are they?” A man climbs the stairs of the boat with the illuminated galley. He points to the stars and then pulls down his pants, and pees in the water.
“Do you want me to hang up, or do you want a girl at your hotel room?”
“I don’t want you to hang up, Rachel. I’m deeply sorry. What I was wondering, and what I did a poor job of wording, was whether you are, in your line of work, forced to dress up. Is it office wear? Is it business casual? Or do you work in sweats and camis and such?” And I do want to know, because Rachel’s employed, which means that she has disposable income. Maybe not much, but at the very least some, and clothes may let me know how she spends it.
“I’ve got on blue jeans and a sweater, Esquido. Where are you staying and what’s your room number?”
“I’m at the Breezeway, room 325. But Rachel, please, who makes your jeans? Are they from a thrift store? Are they designer jeans? Is your sweater a crew neck? A long thing that ties?”
More typing now—I can hear the sharp clacks. A phone rings on Rachel’s end of the line. Dumb, lonely men, nervous and hungry.
“My clothes are not used. I need a card number.”
“But Rachel, the jeans. Just tell me that. Are they Levis? Express? Did you buy them at Walmart? Were they a gift? Who knows your size? And what is your size, Rachel, if you don’t mind me asking?”
The phone line keeps ringing; Rachel’s maybe alone. “I need to go, Esquido. Like right now.” Rachel is stressed; this exhibits work ethic. I give her my card number, my security code.
“Rachel, okay, but answer me this: how much would you say you spend per week on gas for your vehicle? And when you fill up, what else do you buy at the station? Mints, maybe, sometimes? A soda or two? And Rachel, what else would you buy if you could? What is it you want that’s not being offered?”
“Jacinda is a hot brunette with all the right moves. She’s tall, and she used to be an exotic dancer. Jacinda will take you to the heights of passion, and leave you wanting more. Goodbye, Esquido.”
Rachel hangs up. Goodnight, sweet Rachel. May the agency give you a raise for your poise in the face of such wanton indelicacy. Please know this land has plans for you. Keep working. Keep praying. Keep spending.
The peeing man descends the stairs to his galley. From my hotel’s small lot comes the sound of a car frame shaking from bass. I open my room’s door and step out to the shared asphalt landing. Here is a Caddie on Daytons with Sprewells. The car is grass green, the windows tinted to onyx. The rims’ name, Sprewell, is derived from the former Golden State Warriors basketball player. This man choked his coach in the middle of practice, then returned later and promised to kill him. And for this, hubcaps named in his honor: shiny chrome things that when a car moves at a high speed cycle, slowly, backwards. Their image is one of confusion and whimsy and danger and status, and in this way pays homage to their namesake quite well. Sprewell’s gone from the league but lives on here, in Oakland.
The Caddie takes off as fast as it arrived. Through the windshield’s glass I catch a glimpse of the driver, a man wearing a baseball hat and sunglasses. So many masks and codes and passwords. So much emotional binary.
I watch Fox for ten minutes, then CNN. The big breaking news? In our new global world? Where everyone and everything is connected? Where one can know all with a few clicks of a button? Where we can all organize? Where we can all matter? The big breaking news is that early this evening a girl hung herself in Frankfort, Kentucky. Kylie Mae Heath was sixteen years old. Kylie Mae Heath was a virgin. Kylie Mae’s friends were part of a “club” where they had to bed at least one male peer by the semester’s conclusion. Kylie Mae alone failed to do so. Swift retribution: her car’s tires slashed, her MySpace and Facebook pages gone friendless. In her school’s long halls she was turned to pariah, and one day at lunch someone dumped pasta on her, and one day, during gym class, her backpack and cell phone and sandals were stolen. And then, the next week, some boys, all juniors, went to the middle school that Kylie’s brother attended, and there stole his skateboard, and knocked him unconscious. These acts were enough for Kylie to fashion a noose, and then tie this noose to one of the rafters in her parents’ home’s basement. Fox has on a pastor; CNN a psychologist. Why, tell us why, plead the newscasters.
The pastor and shrink give their status-quo answers: if we worshipped more, if we knew ourselves better. But that’s not why this item is big breaking news. This item is news because it’s Sunday, past nine. This item is news due to marketing trends and understanding the television-watching demographic. This item is news because on other channels are cartoon sitcoms and plot-heavy cop dramas. This item is news because those who watch news, at this time, on this day, have been understood by execs as low-level unstable, and biased, and zealots, and won’t watch the filth that’s on other channels, that coarse, smutty fiction without virtue or god. Those who want news at this time, on this day, want two things at once: to feel worse and feel better. This demographic – stern widows, the sick – must own its self-loathing to best revel in it. This demographic is low, constant moan: a cave-thing, albino and sightless. It needs its own voice beamed back at its feelers – it subsists on recognition of echo. It’s the grandmother rotting away in her mansion; it’s the blood-diseased uncle in hospital gown, who blames the woes of his body on the Dems, immigration. And thus young Kylie, wood-hard on a slab in a morgue in Kentucky, her corpse now a springboard for Nielsen share. Are you faith-based? Fox has rented a priest. Do you crave ethos? The shrink teaches at Harvard. The wrapping is different, but it’s the same present: a gift that keeps giving because you want and let it. And now the newscasters thank their paid guests. And now the newscasters vow that in minutes you’ll get to see young Kylie’s mom, standing on the lawn of her home in Frankfort, her eyes like a raccoon’s, her life wrecked forever. Wait; please just wait. We promise you sustenance. We promise you reverberation. We promise you hate that you’ll translate as love.
In the meantime, please watch these commercials.
Three raps on the door – my project’s arrival. I get up from the bed and turn on my Mac and cross the brown rug and crouch at the peephole. I see no pimp hiding. I see no one else. I swing the door open. “Jacinda,” I say. She typifies cliché. She is the Socratic ideal of hussy. Her makeup’s foundation is like skin on warm milk. Her cherry red lipstick looks applied with a roller. Her hair, dyed to black and done up in a bob, appears closer to wig than genuine fibers. Her faux-leopard half-jacket is too small, polyester. Tiny black hot shorts. Diamond fishnets. Red open-toe heels, the ankles unbelted. Is there some rack in the agency’s chamber? Some poor row of costumes from which all must pick? Jacinda’s chest, fake, spills from her corset. Her calves look on loan from a pro football player. I thank Rachel profusely. Jacinda is perfect.
“Hey, baby,” says Jacinda, and pushes in past me. Her scent is amalgam of armpits and perfume, a compost of wilting rose blossoms. She sits on the bed as though this were home, as though this place possessed for her distinct comfort. Her eyes are deep brown and too close together. She digs in her purse. She takes out a cell phone; she takes out two condoms.
“Like sands through the hourglass.”
“What’d you say, baby?”
“Forget it,” I tell her. “I want you all night. Until sunrise. Roughly eight hours.”
“I can’t do it, baby. I’ve got people waiting. I’ve got other clients I’ve got to go see.”
From my slacks’ pocket I take out a sheaf of clean bills. They’re bank-bound: fifty one-hundreds.
“This is five grand. Will you stay until dawn.” I pose this as statement. Jacinda stops burrowing through the pouch of her purse. She meets my gaze. We have a winner.
“I don’t do anal. You can’t piss on me. You can’t beat me up. And there’s no way I’ll kiss you.”
“Absolutely,” I say. I throw the bills on the bed. “Jacinda,” I ask, “are you familiar with Microsoft Word? Do you know how to craft a text document?”
“You mean, like, type? On a computer?”
“That is what I mean.”
“Well, yeah,” says Jacinda.
“That’s perfect,” I say. “That’s really good.” I shut the room’s door. I turn the lock’s deadbolt.
“Jacinda, what I need you to do, when you’re ready, is sit down at that chair, there, in front of that laptop.”
Jacinda obliges. Her hips swing like a bull’s. I’m guessing size 12. I’m guessing 180. Jacinda sits down. The room’s floor shakes a little. Right now, in China, a factory worker is sewing the stitching into a new pair of hot pants just like the ones that Jacinda is wearing.
“Are you comfy?” I ask. “You have what you need?”
“Oh wait, my purse,” says Jacinda.
“I’ll get it,” I say. “You just stay there.” The black mini is vinyl with buckles of chrome. I put the phone and two condoms back in its belly and set the accessory down on the bureau.
“What are we going to do?” asks Jacinda. She is anxious. She made it, I’m guessing, through ninth, tenth grade. High school like a dress on a changing-room bench: ill-fitting, forgotten.
“What you’re going to do, Jacinda, is this: you’re going to write down everything that you want, or have ever wanted. You’re going to include these items’ details: what color they are, their type, size and shape. This list can derive from free association. The list does not need to be chronological. Feel free to jump backward and forward through time. Let one thing draw another thing from you. But the list must be complete as you can possibly make it, and you must include, when you can, why you want or wanted these items. You have until dawn to complete this assignment.”
Jacinda stares blankly. Her dumb eyes won’t blink. When I was fourteen, and cleaning out my parents’ house in preparation for auction, I found a possum down in the basement. It was crouched at the sill of a ground-level window. In my hand was an orange extension cord I’d just finished coiling. My dad had once told me that opossums were so dumb, you could hypnotize them into falling off things. I uncoiled a half-foot of the thick orange cord. I swung this length back and forth in front of the tensely clutched rodent. Ten seconds passed, then fifteen, then twenty. The animal watched the cord swing. Its body relaxed as I neared a minute. Its haunches sat down and its tail spread out. I gave the cord slack, the arc growing wider. The possum’s front paws moved past the sill’s lip. Its eyes went back and forth, its mind lost to the motion. When I brought the plug down on the crown of its skull, the possum fell stunned to the basement’s stone floor. I crushed its head with the heel of my boot, then went back to packing.
“Did you know, Jacinda, that possums are the only marsupials that live on the North American continent?”
Jacinda’s sloped nose almost reaches her teeth. “What’s a marsupial?’ she asks me.
“A marsupial, Jacinda, is so many things. But it’s also just one individual thing. Do you understand what I want you to do?”
“You want me to write down all the shit that I want.”
“That’s right,” I say. “Every last item.”
Saga: a Pikachu Pokémon doll; a thrift-store Nintendo her stepmom wouldn’t buy her. Games for this console: Duck Hunt and Punch-Out, Tetris and Metroid and Mario Brothers. Brown Mary Janes with red satin bows. A bright yellow backpack with CatWoman on it. A passport. A degree from a college (read: collage). O-ring poly halters, backless, from Nordstrom. Free coke from her dealer. Courvoisier. A stretch Hummer limo with sunroof and hot tub. A red Schwinn three-speed with white plastic basket. This ring that I saw in da city w/ Leesa – it had hella emuhrulds on it. A hot pink tracksuit, velour, made by Juicy. Picture frames, tampons, Chicken McNuggets. A 58-inch flat-screen TV. An iPhone. An iMac. Bras by La Perla. Prada sunglasses. White satin sheets. Free auto insurance. A Pick-A-Path book called The Dungeon of Monsters. A pit bull named Biggy. A sleek private jet. A masseur and a personal trainer. Two full-length fur coats, one of hare, one of sable. A skybox for every Raiders home game. For those fuckers to parole my dad outta Folsom. A house in Lake Tahoe. A house in LA. A bed that sleeps ten. A yacht that sleeps fifty. Couches in leather. Couches in suede. I saw this gun once that was pink – a revolver. I want that gun, like four of those guns. I want one of those guns for each of my houses. An Xbox. A website. Her own perfume line. To cut off the balls of each man that’s fucked me. Her own pool. Her own beach. My own fucking ocean.
Jacinda smokes Newports. Jacinda types slowly. At ten after one, around three hours in, Jacinda runs out of things to write down. I turn on the TV and then mute the volume. Jacinda stares at the box, its blue screen of bright colors. I sit inches away, in the room’s other chair. Jacinda bends over to remove her heels. I set down my journal, its copious notes, and push my capped pen into her fleshy shoulder.
“I can’t take off my shoes?”
“I’d prefer if you didn’t.”
“But they’re hurting my feet.”
“And yet you chose to wear them.”
“I hell of did not choose to wear these. The agency says that I gotta wear heels.”
“And who was it,” I ask, “that forced you to work there?”
Jacinda says shit man, which isn’t the answer. The answer lies in the things comprising her list. The answer lies in the Sprewells, spinning, slowly, backwards. The answer lies in Esquido, right now at my home, curled up with Proust beneath a plaid blanket. The answer lies in bank fees and house liens and crime rates, in numbers that don’t stop compounding, accruing. And the bulimic preteen. And the weekend jet skier. And the wan soccer mom lost to Lustral from Walgreen’s. And the all-summer tourist inside his RV. And the Vanity Queen with her Botox appointments. And the elderly widow alone on her couch; on her TV set are tanzanite bangles. The man who is hosting this QVC hour has the same chin as her husband once had. The bangles are bright. The bangles look charming. The bangles are shown from a variety of angles. She is undone by their glow, by their wonder. My Lambs, my Lambs, here is Your church. Here is Your altar, Your nave, Your stained glass. Here are Your pews and Your steeple. Remain pious always. You are safe here. Listen not to the spendthrifts, the bear-market false prophets. Their words are untrue; they’ve been licked wet by evil. Fight those dark thoughts of downturn, of recession; our republic is sun-kissed, without pox or canker. Dear flock, devotion: Your faith is each day. Rest little. Stay scared. Buy often.
Around three a.m. Jacinda breaks down. Tears turn her mascara to narrow grey streams. Her upper lip shakes like a newly born kitten. Her list, single-spaced, is roughly four pages.
“I can’t do this no more,” Jacinda says through her sniffles. “This hella sucks. I ain’t ever gonna get this stuff and this was fun for like a second thinking about getting all this stuff but now it sucks and I’m tired and just want to go home.”
I stand up and grab the bills from the bed. I take out one single hundred. Here is Ben Franklin, his smiling face framed. At dawn, post-Jacinda, a three-hour nap, then the Bay Bridge, a full day at the office. Above the room’s bureau, on the wall, is a mirror. I stare at Jacinda’s dark, beady eyes. Her face’s reflection, from nose to chin, is cut off by the laptop’s monitor. Behind her, my starched shirt tucked into my slacks, my black leather belt, my hand holding the hundred. I own Time. I am Powerful. Jacinda stares straight ahead as I close the laptop. Pressing the bill to her cheek, I dry her tears. I press hard, and then wipe off the other.