i am standing at the edge of a cliff. i am wavering on the highest cliff overlooking the Santa Monica surf. Listen to my thoughts that rush and swell like the ebb and flow of the sea. And when i look down into the transparent patina of blue, endless swell of blue, i can still see her eye lying at the bottom. A black marble. It will keep staring up at me. Will it someday float to the top? Will it hunt me down with steadfast gaze? That tiger black eye and her Tiger Lily body. Tiger, tiger, no longer burning bright in this world.
My name is Reese Lovejoy. i got about an hour to live. Maybe less. Maybe more. Not much more. I remember the headaches that boomed and obliterated and the lights. The lights would switch on and off, like Venetian blinds, thin rectangles of sunlight. Always preceded the headaches.
i squat down near the cliff’s edge. Look on the bright side, i think--If you have an hour to live, you got an hour to kill. It’s funny; it’s not. That the headaches will stop is a relief but not, no, comes the darkness that swallows one whole, the void in the last thoughts. The void is what can swallow you whole. It’s hard to think coughing up gobs of congealed blood, and the bullet hole, the radiating pain, the burn. A shark-like pain is tearing at my vessels, their lining and then deeper. Don’t look down. You’ll fall too.
i want to set the record straight, Mother--what did happen, what didn’t. There will be a thousand versions in between. i’ll start by saying how i met Betty Yaimei in my Palo Alto office one evening of a warm day, the smell of burning flesh that had drifted down from the north, floated off the streets, a day with a dull sun glaring through orange-green tint.
i want to start by saying that i’ll never wake up again. You’re babbling, Lovejoy. Hurry up. Oh, yes, Mother. It hurts.
It was a day like any other. The front page of every paper boasted how the Truce of Napa had been signed; the Island of Kalifornia would be separated into two sectors: the North belonging to the North Koreans and Pan-Atheists, and the South remaining Free Kalifornia (FK). The Third Internecine Conflict ended and Chairman Han of China jokingly referred to the demarcation line as the 38th parallel. There would be no parade, drums, or bugles. Neither side could claim complete victory.
Slowly, the island of Kalifornia was drifting towards Asia.
i was closing shop, catching up on old paper work, shoving files back into cabinets, sealing envelopes containing bills or typed testimonials. Besides freelance investigations, i worked mostly as a Level II Ossilocater, free floating in an no man’s land of locating nuclear victims, plutonium-burnt bodies resembling shadows, working with lawyers and families to locate the remains of loved ones. i used the latest in R-Isotope technology. It wasn’t a pretty job, but it paid the bills and i whistled a sweet tune on payday. My career as a private dick was coming to an end, planned to retire early, real early, relocate somewhere with all night life, no day life. No sun. My graying hairline, the salt and pepper sideburns, were persistent parasites that marked my waning. i was a big man, muscular, would make someone think twice about deceiving me into secret agendas. Everybody had at least one. Between the sheets.
My secretary, Kandi-O, an ex-morphine addict i rescued from the makeshift shelters caused by crack lines in the earth, knocked. She always wore some dark-knit turtleneck, and her frizzy orange hair puffed out like a huge fuzz ball. She poked her head past a translucent glass door. “There’s a chick waiting outside, “ she said. “A Miss Betty Yaimei. Looks a little Alpha-antsy.”
i adjusted my shades, the ones i always wore to block out the light.
Kandi, i said, looking at my Montezuma quartz watch, holding my forearm in the air, tell her to come back in the morning.
Kandi squeezed her lips in a small circle and said the woman seemed really frazzled, might explode in tears.
I took a pill from my preventative medicine bottle that never prevented: Topeine III, a mix of advanced Topamax, ultra-caffeine, and some other nonsense. I never did see a doctor. I hated how they look into your eyes and shine lights. I looked up at Kandi who threw both hands in the air.
“She’s like it’s the bitter end or something, boss.”
“What the hell. Send her in.”
i dropped another Top III and stifled a gasp of heartburn.
She entered. i rose and stretched out a hand. She ignored it. i pointed to a modular half-chair.
“Miss Yaimei? How can i help you?”
She unzipped her black leather jacket that wrapped tight and clung over her spandex. Wore a black eye patch that i assumed was for decorative purposes, the insignia of the Southern Kalifornia no-hope proto-punk scene so rampant. What disturbed me more was the tattoo of a red spider displayed along one side of her neck. i had seen it before.
The uncovered eye bore through me like some glittering piece of black jade, something feline and angry. She sat, crossed her legs, a peep-toe stiletto rocked in front of the other shin. Its rhythm--the ticking of a time bomb. I thought of the dregs and the dross that lie buried under the nexus of Palo Alto streets, the rusted souvenirs and pioneer bones and whether corpses could whisper flash fire secrets.
“Mr. Lovejoy,” she began, “a man is trying to kill me. He calls me on the video phone, but his face is always blackened out. He knows my name and says he will enter my house and violate me. He describes the horrors of burning my flesh, my face. Mr. Lovejoy, you have no idea.’
She ran a finger across her raspberry lips. The red gloss remained intact.
“i wake up screaming.”
i estimated her age somewhere around late twenties. Wasn’t sure. There was a slight accent to that quivering voice, high-strung, almost melodic. A slight breeze of sulfuric-smelling air drifted in, perhaps from the Del Norte-Humbolt Coast. i wondered if she removed her eye-patch, just what would be uncovered. Would it blind me?
i picked up a pencil, tapped its chewed eraser on a notebook.
“Any idea, Miss Yaimei, who this man is?”
She cleared her throat and paused.
“Yes. Johnny Black. But as you might guess, that is not his real name.”
The name Johnny Black swept me like an undertow. He was a member of the Pomono Six, involved in soul phishing, creating nebula networks, pirating clones, murder by fiber-optic overloading. Johnny was tied to a Chinese mob, had connections to General H. Choi’s North Korean provisional government north of Napa. I had put Johnny away before the war, but some fancy-ass lawyer who reportedly slept with the judge, got his sentence reduced. He was out three months ago.
Rumor had it that he gotten his hands on the latest K-cloning and hologram technology from Pyongyang as well as helping to smuggle North Kalifornia K-clones past the demarcation to infiltrate FK. However, there were glitches in the technology: A dead giveaway to a K-clone is that the eyes turn colors reflecting emotional states. You could always tell a K-clone from the way the eyes change colors whenever the subject of natural parents is brought up. Another glitch: K-clones share memory traces of their aboriginals that they often mistake as their own. They could even feel the aborginal’s sensation at great distances.
Other than that, I ain’t no scientist. Just a dumb private i, moonlighting as a certified public O.
i sat back in the chair and smoothed my two-day gristle with a palm. i wanted her to remove the eye patch. She would be beautiful and tragic, her eyes, butterflies swathed with mascara.
“Miss Yaimei, I’ll give it to you straight. This is out of my league. My cases are confined to ossilocation of nuke victims. Have you contacted the police?”
She leaned forward and her one eye flashed.
“I will not go to the police. They protect men like Johnny. They take bribes. I’ve had bad experiences with the police. And Johnny is very clever. He would play a waiting game.”
i asked her why Johnny wants her dead. It’s a long story, she said. Ain’t it always, i thought. She stared down at the stiletto, the heel slipping off, hinting at the shapely slope leading to an ecstasy of flesh. Her words raced and lent me their fire.
She admitted she was once tight with Johnny, but later, broke free. Pointing to the tattoo on her neck, she said it was the mark of his women, a reminder to stay loyal.
Like i didn’t know.
She had a kid sister, she said, Daiyu. A good kid but got involved with Johnny’s crew. He got her a job as a go-down girl in San Francisco’s strip-a-dromes, stoking big shots, cream in your coffee, sir? That sort of thing. Johnny got her hooked on heroin-G. She fell for a young K-clone from the Napa area who was one of her favorite Johns.
“A clone?” I asked.
“Yes. Reprogrammed and registered to function in Free Kalifornia. Johnny thought he was working undercover for the FK nu-Patrol.”
Nu-cops were heralded as the elite of the Free Kalifornia police force, hybrids of human anatomy and digitally-rewired brain circuitry, Boolean tract hypothalamic implants. They were the brain child of the late forensics scientist, Dr. M. Fasinger, the founder of Meta-CSI. Unfortunately, the idea worked better in theory than in practice. Nu-cops often underestimated the complexity of an undercover situation.
She continued. The lover tried to rescue
Daiyu to a better life. They found his body, twisted like morning
pastry, hands and face burnt, in a Chinatown dumpster.
After Daiyu talked to the police, Johnny had her killed, Miss Yaimei stated dryly. At the trial, Miss Yaimei gave testimony that she saw Johnny and her sister arguing at the edge of a cliff. Johnny pushed Daiyu over. But when cross-examined, Johnny claimed they were arguing and Daiyu lost her balance, fell backwards. Having paid several witnesses to lie, Johnny was acquitted. Miss Yaimei’s version.
I offered her some coffee without promising there’d be no floating grains.
“No, thank you.”
She rummaged through her jacket pockets and handed me a photo of her sister. Raven black hair, wavy and parted to the side. The brimming smile, the almond-shaped eyes, the wishbone nose. Shame. Good looking kid. i handed her back the photo.
“What exactly does he say to you when he calls, Miss Yaimei?”
She fidgeted. Her voice quivered.
“He says how delightful it will be when he enters me. That he will take a knife and score marks across my body. That my thrashing will give him pleasure. When I least expect him, he calls.”
Her head bobbed and she started to cry. i offered her a tissue.
“Miss Yaimei,” I said, pacing in front of my desk, “i can’t take your case. But i can refer you to some very qualified people.”
She rose with the fury of a small child about to smash a vase. She pointed a straight finger at me.
“No! YOU will take my case! No one else. YOU. I read about you after the war. How you escaped that POW camp in Napa. Big war hero. The kind of man I need.”
“i didn’t exactly escape, Miss Yaimei.”
She rose and her voice shuddered with a menacing boom. i wondered when the headaches would attack full blast, the soldiers’ steadfast march that no Top III could stop.
“You want to see what trust is, Mr. Lovejoy?”
She reached inside her pocket and threw down a key across my desk.
“This is a copy of my house key. Will open both front and back door.”
i peered straight at her and refused to acknowledge the key. She then slapped a check on my desk made out in the sum of 25 convertible han-wons.
“It’s not counterfeit, I can assure you. The exchange is equal to 30, 000 FK dollars. I’m a refugee from the North, Mr. Lovejoy.”
“Money’s not the problem.”
She slapped down a wedge of crumpled paper.
“That is my address, my phone number. I have no immediate family in the area.”
“Miss Yaimei, i can’t.”
She treaded the floor in a small circle. The sound of her heels spiked the floor, wracked my nerves.
“Mr. Lovejoy, do me one small favor. Take off your shades. Just for a second. I want to see your eyes.”
She walked up to me, stood toe to toe.
She tore off my shades, then, threw on the overhead light switch. i cringed, covering my eyes. You little bitch.
“Turn off the lights! Turn off the lights.”
She stared at me with a stingy parting of lips. The lights flicked off. She stood a few inches before me.
“I remember reading your testimony in the papers. What they did to you in the camp. You and I both wake up screaming.”
She leered at me. My head still throbbed. She walked to the door, turned around. Her voice, chilly and edgy.
“You know what the name Yaimei means, Mr. LoveJoy?”
“It means swallow plum. You will save the life of this plum lady before she is swallowed by Johnny Black.”
You gotta love a woman who never says Mother May I?
A queer smile spread across her face. She inhaled deeply.
“How is it, Mr. Lovejoy, that a woman slight as I can learn to love the smell of carbonic acid sky or the barium-dark soul of a lover. It’s amazing what passes for love these days, isn’t it? We are so far from paradise.”
She abruptly stomped out of the room. I listened to the sound of her stilettos hitting linoleum, then fading, bullets in the distance.
Kandi-O traipsed in. She asked if we could close up. Her nervous smile charmed the shit out of me. i pictured Miss Yaimei sitting alone in her house, the still of her frozen eye, the shush of the rooms, the hot apple skin of her thoughts, peeling, falling around her, drowning her. Then, i couldn’t picture her. No longer. Sure, i said to Kandi-O. Sure, close up.
i threw several operatives on the case, including Charlie Grier, whom i always called “Blue.” Blue, i said, over the V-phone, do some research on a Betty Yaimei, a kid sister supposedly dead, and a court trial where Miss Yaimei gave testimony to her sister’s murder by Johnny Black. I called him Blue because back in the Napa camps his lips turned that color after subjected to chemical torture. But Blue was reliable as a bird dog. Always looking for some odd jobs to make ends meet, and he bit the bullet more than once for some rookie nu-cops doing undercover.
i told the team to keep a loose surveillance on Betty’s house, a modest two story colonial near the Romona area. And if she’d leave the house, to tail her and report to me anything suspicious. S-U-S-P-I-C-O-U-S. That word always cracked me up. What wasn’t suspicious?
Over the weeks, i saw little activity around the house. But some developments not to my liking.
SEVERAL DEVELOPMENTS THAT NOT TO MY LIKING
She has funny trains.
Betty shops twice a week in a little shop off Forest Avenue in Palo Alto. Walks out with half the store. Can fashion join Kalifornia back to the mainland?
Orange women, lemon twins, Siamese orphans, have a tendency towards SWIRL, and hand paint themselves as victims of a violet terror.
She starts wearing tighter skirts, shorter, white, black, shades of shrinking purple, and some baby doll see-through outfits that could cause Chariman Han to hoot and shout.
Your heart is mango speechless.
Betty dresses and undresses by the second-story window. Her silhouette performs a slow dance, revealing the outline of her plum curves, the possibility of scurrying fingers, moist caverns, dark, you’d shoot the little man carrying the flashlights.
Happiness is a spasm of quicksilver hearts.
During phone calls, her voice imitates the pitch of a younger girl. Sometimes she pretends she doesn’t know me. Then she laughs, Had you fooled, Mr. Lovejoy, huh? I stare at the blackened picture on the rectangular screen of my V-phone until her eye-patch gobbles up my view of her sardonic smile.
Women who scream in the dark never live near fever trees.
She starts parting her hair to the side, a loose wave near the hairline, a surfer’s dream when it was safe to surf.
The emptiness in the rain is the tiger lily’s chill.
My headaches start to increase, and on stake-outs, i squirm in my red Hydro-convertible. i wonder: Is she trying to set up Johnny Black or me?
My gun is quick.
And another thing that bugged the piss out of me.
A bird in quicksand is worth a murder by the bush.
On Wednesdays, she drives a zigzag route all over freakin’ South Kalifornia, up Ventura, past Malibu, but always winding up in Santa Monica Bay, racing along a jagged berm that leads to a tall cliff overlooking the ocean. Gives me the creepers, Mother.
Our hearts are glass-snake fragile.
She walks to the edge of the cliff, stares down at the ocean, its blue glass of calm. She stands there for about an hour. Then, she disrobes into a one-piece swimsuit (hot-pink or flaming flamingo?). She always holds something to her ear.
She has funny trains.
i followed Miss Yaimei to the Santa Monica cliff. There i feasted on the scent of cocoa-butter and salt-spray wafting from the beach. As a kid, my old man had caught spotlin and yellow croakers, barred and walleyed perch. At night, people congregated, waving flashlights, grappling with the slippery silver fish they caught. Before the missile attacks up north that made contaminated fish turn belly up on the shores. Mother.
i crept up to her, not wishing to startle. She was so close to the edge. If she fell, the drop into sea-mirror would be slow, the end, bottomless.
“Miss Yaimei, i’ve been trying to call you. Need to discuss a few things.”
She turned slowly, a mechanical movement of a doll. i tried reassembling the girl in the photo. Betty stopped within a foot of me, then, stepped closer, closer, a slight twist to her hips, coquettish, unnerving. i started to shake, maybe the breeze from the north, the thought of it.
“Mr. Lovejoy, do you think it is wise for us to be seen together?”
i adjusted my brand-name ozone frames.
“Two things. Stop standing so close to that goddamn edge. Or better yet--stop coming here at all. Number two. Stop undressing by your window. You’re calling attention to yourself.”
She stared at me with a vigilante’s cool gaze. i peered down at the seashell she held to her ear.
“Is it the money, Mr. Lovejoy? Do you need more money?”
i stood before her speechless. Imagined her skin honey-warm, her lips, tangerine bitter-sweet. Like the mother you wish you once had.
“No. Not more money.”
Seconds elapsed, as if waiting, the vertigo of crossing a chasm, me, detecting the rush of blood, the stupid lust of insects, my death in nectar dreams. i kissed her. Fell into the vacuum of that one eye, and i thought of caverns, tiny damp rooms, never finding my way back, running from little men with flashlights. My life, short, sweet and my head began to pound. i pushed myself away. You never push yourself away.
“Either we do things my way, or i sign off.”
i started to turn, not wanting to, the overhead sound of white birds flapping their wings. They would dive into their shadows, into the sea’s crests. They flew past mourning, past the ghosts of their contaminated brothers and sisters.
She called out to me. Perhaps in her sister’s bird-like voice. i stopped, turned. Holding out a seashell, she asked me whether i’ve ever listened to one. Do you know, she said, you can hear voices within the conch. They tell you how you died or were never born. Listen carefully.
That was a lie. In the Napa prison camps, i died many times.
i walked away.
i drove my Hydro-Cell back towards home and wondered when Blue would get back to me with his report. The research over my dizzy client.
Hey, Reese, sorry for taking so long, buddy, but what the hell. Listen, I gotta talk fast because this V-call gonna cost you a fortune collect. Calling from some bar that serves imitation-Ks off Venice Boulevard. You gotta see their eyes turn yellow when they’re drunk and start crying over the parents who bore their originals. Sorry, can’t stop laughing. Okay. Spoke to some high-ups in the SF squad, and got in touch with a few ex-member of Johnny’s gang rotting in the joint. Managed to work some privileges in exchange for info. Christ, I’m burning up. Okay, listen. No record of Betty Yaimei or a kid sister. No record of this so called trial. But get this. Johnny Black had a girl Friday, named Lucy Simao who kinda fits the description. A war orphan, only child, both parents tortured and killed by North Koreans at Napa. God, my prick is burning. Hooks up with a G.I., manages to smuggle her south. G.I. Joe dumps her. She sells her fuzzy to keep alive.
Johnny takes her off the streets, makes her service high-ranking clients, makes her his mistress, kid’s good with figures, fudges his Excel-400 ledgers, but gets hooked on Horse-G. Lover boy promises to marry her, but instead, shit, gotta see a fucking doctor, shacks up with a sixteen-year old manga cutie pie just pawned from Tokyo. Lucy wants revenge, starts dating a K-clone who gets her rehab, but winds up dead in a garbage bin. The aboriginal sees a photo of his dead body in the papers, commits suicide. Lucy runs away. Johnny worries she might talk to Feds, nu-cops, linears. She travels all over FK, Salinas, Pomono, Marina del Rey, taking odd jobs as waitress, hooks part time, singer for a proto-punk band, even an actress for some loony porn director who shoots movies at nuked out locations to achieve orgasm. Turns up at an LA mental institution claiming she’s somebody else. Reports of seductive behavior. Reports of self-mutilations. Mother of Mao, I want to cut my dick off. Johnny tracks her down, sends her money to keep quiet. Huge payoffs. Maybe a soft spot for the chick, I mean, not whacking her and all. What does the ditsy bitch do? She goes and squeals on Johnny, after he sends her so much money, and after she makes lucrative investments in Pomono real estate, and Johnny lures her back, sends messages that he will make her his queen and dump the little doll he’s shacked up with, takes her to a cliff, threatens her, tells her, she’s a no good tramp who should end her life, she jumps, maybe depressed, well fuck, who wouldn’t be? the body never found, the lady vanishes, nu-cops shrug and call it suicide, even though an open case, but so many girls who wind up like her, hundreds, and who’s gonna find them or care to? Hey, hey, met this hot babe the other day at Malibu, Reese, you shoulda seen her, sitting on the beach rubbing herself with nitric protection cream, her tits floating up at the sun, as if it was yellow like it once was, the tits floating up clouds, Reese, like clouds, and she turned, I said hello, a college kid, red hair and freckles, a Miss Spring Rain Of The Year, and I didn’t say Mother, May I? I must have banged her in the hotel till my dick turned blue. She takes my .38 and points it at my nuts. Playful kid. Let’s do it again, grandpa, she says. I notice this red tattoo of a spider on her rump and now I got the fucking clap. Mother. So, Reese, uh, listen, we get together sometime next week, and I’m hurting for cash, and this goddamn problem with my dick burning. God, I could use three months worth of back rent, and maybe, just maybe, you owe me a last call at the Tipsy Inca? Give the dog a bone, I say. Thanks for taking it collect, Reese.
Overslept my midnight stakeout. Rolled over, flicked the night lamp, squinted at my Montezuma. Fuck. i scrambled out of bed, tossed my head under a quick shower. The phone rang in a splitting shrill. It was Betty.
She screamed in my ear. He’s in the house! He’s in the house! Reese, where are you?
i watched her zoom in and out of focus on the V-screen, crying, as she mumbled something in blocks of Chinese incantations. My heart plummeted like a ten-year old not pleasing his mother. Told her i’d be right there. Told her to call the police. Knew she wouldn’t. Tried calling nu-cop hotline myself, but the operator stated department delay due to brain upgrades. I thought, fuck this, grabbed my .38 flash gun and slid it into my Weber-Uber rig.
I flew out of my chintzy apartment that smelled of sweat-soggy shirts and old newspapers, Flew out of this apartment complex where the neighbors sat up and watched late night LVDs about flying saucers and creatures with one eye.
I jumped into my Ford Hydro-car, reliable as a sweet first love. Sped cross town to Betty’s address. Sped thought red lights on winding roads. My wheels tracked through sand sprinkled streets, under palm trees bent like old women. A nu-cop flashed me down. i showed him my license, told him i was responding to an emergency. In typical nu-cop monotone and slight stammer, he asked the address of the woman. i told him. He said he’d call for back up. It never arrived.
Pulled up a block away from her home. Did a cross-eyed scan of it. i crouched low in the backyard, pulled out my .38, grabbed the key she had given me. Looked up. No lights in windows and no sound. i jimmied the key through the back door and cursed. Began groping against the walls, one room at a time, turned on the lights, called out to Betty. Reese? She answered, in the attic. He’s in the attic!
i flicked on the living room lights. The room was decorated with oriental furniture, designed with curling ends of pagodas, a few photos on a wall, one of Betty as little girl back in China, standing in front of her parents (conjecture). She looked so hopelessly cute and small. Fragile as an orange blossom in the rain. A very private rain. i snaked up the stairs. Getting closer. She screamed again. Kept screaming. Closer. The thrill of her cries, needles poking my heart that was no longer or anytime before--an orange blossom.
i stumbled upstairs towards the attic. Crouched low. Pried open a sticky plywood door, caught a splinter in my thumb. I crept in, searching for a light switch. Then. A white flash, the boom of it shattering my ear drums. I fell back, shook my head, started firing blind in the direction of the blast. Silence. I heard the moan, the rustle of a body slumping to the floor (conjecture). My breaths looped in spasms and my heart fluttered. I watched my back, put it to the walls and swung my .38 at each corner. Where. Left. Are. Right. You. Back. Johnny? The stench of internal organs, exposed, perhaps splayed across the room, gutted me.
Managed to find the switch to the string light on my three-barrel flash. It shone against the body, arms outstretched, the blood flowing to my feet, splattered against the walls. I walked over and looked down.
It was Kandi-O.
Her lips trembled as she tried to lift her head, blood streams from one corner of her mouth.
“Guess, it’s the bitter end, huh, boss.”
Her eyes froze, staring out, then closed. Her head fell against the floor. i pulled back her turtleneck--the tattoo of the red spider. i felt like puking.
Ran back downstairs, switching on lights, stooping and turning, i staggered towards Betty’s harsh cries. i swung her bedroom door open. She stood in a flimsy nightgown, an artistic cut of gauze. The gun from her hand dropped. Could you use that? i asked. Would you kill him?
Yes, I could. Yes, I could. . .No, I couldn’t.
No. I couldn’t.
Her watery eye stung me from a distance. So did her nipples. Her body throbbed and cringed. The delicate bird woman with chameleon cover. i tucked my .38 back in its home and raised my hands. No Johnny, i said. It was somebody else. One of his whom i thought was mine. My legs trembled. She nodded towards the fine fibers of carpet, Persian and wine-colored, to her silver and black-rimmed slippers. She looked up at me--her eye widened.
“Where were you?” she said. “Where were you!” She screamed a long howl that echoed Napa nightmare.
i stood numbed and foolish, trying to thing of something REASSURING, but my words could only amount to sweet nothings. We stared at each other as if each wanted to eat the other alive, but for different reasons. Please, she said, stumbling towards me, with scared little puppy gait. Please, she said, don’t leave me here alone. I’ll do whatever you want, but stay with me tonight.
i grew raw, so many nights alone with shadows, raw to enter her as a river of sweet narcotic, and i would never wake up. Stay forgetful in a radioactive love.
Her robe drifted down past her shoulders, the whiteness of them. Settled at her ankles. My head pounded, the sonic boom of pain, the expectation of sudden ecstasy. i embraced her, rubbing my hand over her smooth and glossy hair, parted like her imaginary sister’s. Told her how much i dreamt of her, how i wanted her in the night. Me too, she said, me too. i thought of us in daylight lush park, the sunlight stroking her face, that brimming smile of a thousand wonderful deceptions, and my head cradled in her lap. i went picking flowers for my mother, poinsettias and sunflowers. My mother stroked my cheek and said we can never die, so far away from the techno-dogs of class warfare.
i carried her to the bed and placed my .38 under her (ours?) pillow. i slowly undressed slowly dissolved myself of all running pretense. Divest your life of all its acid rain garbage. With eyes closed, i planted kisses on her thighs, and i thought of honey, ran my hands over her breasts, and I thought of the violet secrets of white blooms. i entered her, my head pounding madly, listened to the trill of her delight, tried to ignore the splat of Kandi-O’s blood dripping from the ceiling, across my back. i scoured the pinpoints of light in Betty’s eye, the little men with flashlights that always spoiled your surprise, her wide delicious grin. i sank and rose, so many caverns and dark rooms, but the head, pounding harder, the lights, with Mother screaming no, no, no, to the matchstick men with flashlight eyes, and slowly, i pulled off the eye-patch, wanting to see both eyes in shimmering delight, her, waving her hand not to, reaching for it, but no no no no no--an empty eye socket.
I shrieked, rolled over and placed the crook of my arm over my eyes, destroyed by the darkness of hers, my skin prickling with the heat, the body shuddering.
Mother, do you know me?
She tugged at my shoulder and ran her cheek against my ear. I’m sorry, Reese. He did that. Johnny did that.
i sprung, sat on the edge of the bed, buried my head in my hands, elbows against the fulcrum of my knees. i shook my head several times. Started to cry. Big man, no man. She rubbed my back with her hand, so light as feather. I thought of geese in a trance, the back pool of their silence. She stroked me in V-like patterns. Maybe next time, she said. Next time we will make love with blindfolds. i turned back, tucked myself under the covers, and we slept in each other’s arms, my eyes shut tight, and her one eye perhaps more so (conjecture).
The POW Camp at Napa
i was pushed into a dark, grimy cell, beaten and tortured each night. On several occasions, the commanders of the People’s New Liberation Army (PNLA) sent a short smiling man with round spectacles to draw blood samples for DNA cloning experiments. The soldiers woke me up at all hours, whistling, shouting, banging tin cups against the bars. They would shine flashlights in my eyes and laugh as I tried to cover them. They kicked my head until blood streamed into my eyes. For weeks, i stunk, forced to sit in my own shit, and each day, a woman, perhaps a young farm girl imported from the provinces around Pyongyang, entered my cell and stroked my head. They dressed her in a tight silky dress, floral designs, much like an aspiring prostitute for rich clients. She spoke in soothing tones, and asked my why do i lie for the imperialist techno-dogs, and it was her who would save me and not them. She said she wanted to give me back the joy of living, if only i would talk and be a flower among so many others. She promised that if i revealed the location of FK’s underground nuke sites, she would sleep with me and she explained how flowers could grow all over the world, even on an island such as Kalifornia. She said her name was Maylani and that she was my real mother.
Remember, she said, Mother loves you so.
Weeks later, Saber XX helicopters thundered the skies and the camp was liberated.
At the interrogation in L.A., i sat in a courtroom, listened to “Blue” give testimony to countless human rights violations. He stared straight into the eyes of the captured field marshal Ming Jong. Blue admitted that the worst torture he endured was not the chemical gases that made him vomit or laugh inappropriately or cry without reason or destroyed his ability to write in paragraphs. But rather, he had fallen in love with the woman named Maylani, and that he still dreamt of her. She plagued his thoughts, night and day. Behind my shades, i wept.
Then the FK military committee cross-examined Field Marshal Jong. He admitted that out of 70 or so attempts at cloning prisoners, only 20 “took.” The technology, he told the committee, was far from perfect. Many of Pyongyang’s top scientists were brain damaged from toxic drifts. With a cruel twist to his lips, he confided that the most flamboyant failure was Blue’s case--there was extensive damage to his DNA structure and further attempts were aborted. Some of the twenty clones, he also confessed, managed to escape. They were never located by Jong’s Flashshock troops.
When questioned about Maylani, Jong said that she herself was a victim of American mainland and FK nuclear missile attacks, that half her face resembled “the far side of the moon.” In payment for the brilliant reconstructive surgery by North Korean doctors, Maylani devoted her life to serving the PNLA cause.
Later, I took the stand. I admitted giving erroneous information to my North Korean captors.
In my dreams from then on, Maylani sat at the breakfast table with mom and dad, or watched me from afar as I played baseball as a kid in a grassy field. Sometimes she would just sit and smile. She never spoke. She would rise and walk away, and I’d wake up in a cold sweat. Sometimes, random lines of PNLA manifesto would enter and rake my head.
We are all flowers of the same garden.
We all lean towards love.
i watched Betty Yaimei scramble to her car, her head capped by a blue beret that matched the darkness of the eye patch. She wore a brown leather skirt and polyester high boots. i shifted into first and cruised a good distance behind her. The car radio reported three more people dead from one of the worst carbon monoxide fronts in years.
i tailed Miss Yaimei past posh houses sitting on hills, ones that would soon fall into the sea. I followed her up and down the winding hills, the slopes of the Pacific Palisades, past a sign that read: Slow Speed, Road Curves. After passing under a dark grove of sycamores and a straggle of hillside cabins, i lost her. Sped up, almost losing control of the road. It was that dark. i spotted her Chevy III Hydro, lost and found, never the story of my life. i watched her peek into the rearview. She honked her horn. i leaned back into the seat.
Behind me, i heard the grumble of a high-speed hydrocell engine. i poked my nose in the rearview. Some sleek double T-Bird with H-D halogen beams flashing, hitting me square in the eyes. i winced and bucked in my seat. The bastard honked his horn, kept doing so. i refused to swerve to allow him to pass. Got another look. It could be Johnny (conjecture). i recalled the digital mug shots, his head shaven, that smug look, my bruised analog-old ego.
He kept honking and flashing his high beams. i blocked him and honked back. Beeped to warn Miss Yaimei there was trouble. i thought of my .38 flash snuggled against my waist and i longed for a warm breast.
Johnny (?) started to bang my Ford from behind, love taps that rocked my spine, the high beams making my head buzz. i swerved several times to block him. But he sped alongside me, slamming the T-Bird against my wheels. i forced him back. It went on. This game.
i didn’t see it coming, but the road forked. Spinning the steering wheel to the left, i lost control, the car veered off the road, the fender crashing against jutting rocks, their edges, my window shield cracked. Tiny brain cells jiggled. i overlooked the ocean, felt its heave and yawn. Mother of Mao, have mercy. Shifting the car back into reverse, i cursed. Come on, old granddaddy, i thought, this ain’t Pork Chop Hill. i laughed until i couldn’t.
The engine whined, and i was back on the main road, but no, i had lost them. i searched for signs of an overturned car off the side of the road, imagining the worst. Betty, her mouth, slack and bleeding, her arms, naked, riddled with old track marks. There was nothing.
i headed towards Santa Monica Bay, thought of the cliff there, the one Betty visited. My head hummed. The image of those high beams transfixed themselves behind my eyes. i would not let this case fly.
Parked by a boardwalk and ran past women holding the hands of children, who buried their faces in clouds of cotton candy. Ran past a game stand where a guy in cut-off flannel shirt, a craggy, sallow complexion, kept saying, “Only fifty cents for three throws. Win your girlfriend a prize Panda Bear with vinyl eye patch. She’ll love you twice for it.”
My fists working like angry 21st century pistons, i ran towards the cliff, towards a deserted stretch of beach, far from the crowd, the chorus line of stunted palm trees. Looked up. i made out two figures on the cliff, but at this distance, could be anything. But the thought of getting there too late, a body falling, and i’d wake up screaming.
i climbed and panted, the headache pouncing off the walls of my head. i took no preventative medicine that never prevented. i slid, my face fell against sharp rock. i wiped a smear of blood. At the top, reaching this, i hid behind some rocks, listened to their voices, murky as the sky over Palo Alto. i peeked out, daring it. Johnny was walking towards her. His hair, now grown back, was in a ducktail. He wore dark baggies and some violet silk shirt.
He was saying, “You thought you could trick me. I knew you were still alive somewhere. Inventing bullshit names and stories. Did you think you could get away from me? You ugly piece of shit. This time, we’ll end it. Your life. Didn’t I pay you enough? Put an end to your ugly life. Jump?
It hit me odd, the way Betty cried in a melodramatic way, as if putting on a show for a parent. Slowly, she back stepped towards the edge. My head continued to pound. i watched them through burning eyes. Slipped my .38 flash from it rig. i stood up, crept over, and yelled, “JOHNNY.”
He turned, his eyes wild. i pointed the gun at him, praying straight shooter. i strode towards him in stiff steps, wanting so much the pleasure of shooting him. i ordered him to raise his hands, high, high over his head.
“Miss Yaimei. Walk slowly to me.”
He smiled, refused to drop the piece.
“Well, well, Reese Lovejoy. Big war hero making a living digging up skeletons of nuke victims.” His voice sounded distant.
She slid away from him. i trudged towards him. Might have even smiled. Johnny, i said, two choices. Either i shoot you, or you jump.
His face twisted and trembled, the kind of wretched look you’d never expect from a big man who was so SMALL, and the fall into the glass ocean. He must have thought about that.
“Hey, Reese, tell me. Are you one of those sick bastards I read about? Gets his rocks off sleeping with nuke victims who poke out their eyes. You know, the self-hatred thing so much in vogue.”
“Shut-up, scum bucket.”
“That’s real original, Reese. Real aboriginal.”
i stared at him. My jaw trembled. The snicker worming across his face irked me. Who would fire first?
“Take off your shades, Reese. Show us the color of your eyes.”
i fired. The heat bullet whizzed through his shoulder. Nothing. No blood. i turned the setting to L. The laser beam bored through him. He laughed at me.
i realized it was a hologram. i turned around, Where was the projection coming from?
Something hard crashed against my skull, knocked me to the ground. My gun and shades flew a good distance. Recovering myself, i looked up. A blur came into focus. It was Johnny. The real Johnny. He stepped on, crunched my shades.
Get up, he said, motioning with his flash. The red string light from the gun hurt my eyes.
i stood before him. Watched him flip the gun’s control settings.
“You got two choices, “ he said, “ Either I laze the skin off your sorry frame or you jump. If I were you, I’d jump. It’s a good night for a swim.”
Slowly, i backed up, trying to think of anything to plea bargain with. Came up empty. Stood a foot or so from the edge. He closed in on me, smiling. He kept forcing me to the edge.
Another step back.
“Are you deaf?”
i made a move to turn, but dropped low, tackled his knees. We struggled for control of the gun. Strong bastard, marshmallow me, he pushed me off several times, despite his lanky frame. We rolled over, punched and grabbed at each other’s vitals. The gun slid, fell over the edge. He grappled with my wrists, pinned my head to the edge, forced my chin back--i saw the ocean upside down as if now the sky. i reached for rock close by, slugged him until he was motionless. Threw him over the edge. His face reappeared, levitated over the edge. The dazed look wore off. He hung from the side by two hands.
He pleaded some nonsense, his words stumbling over each other, so frantic. i glanced over to Miss Yaimei, her glazed tears, thought of her slipshod love like a false memory, a room of mirrors, her chain of marigold betrayed lovers. I rose and stomped on his fingers, causing him to scream, to jerk, and for her to wince, to shake Inchon-jittery. My head kept pounding, the lights, the words of Mother. Where was she?
She loves you from the far side of the moon.
As i stood over Johnny, i began to fade out from the headache. His features blurred. i struggled to focus. He held his face up, his snarling face that was mine, twisted, pitted. i kicked at that slap-shocked face. His hands slipping--me--so mango speechless. He hung at the edge by one hand. He wavered and twirled, the eyes rolling back. He had funny trains. No longer.
He fell. i stood at the edge, watching his arms and legs spread apart like some crazy pieces of jigsaw. The pieces never fit, becoming so small. Splash. Never to resurface. Johnny, a dark memory, what the sea could reform by silence, dust at the bottom of the ocean. If fish could sneeze.
i backed away, heard Betty sniffling, clutched her shivering as my own.
Mother loves you so.
i walked towards her, slow, her back to the ocean, the sound of its lapping against rock, the sea of forgetfulness, sealed over, his fate, and maybe soon-- mine, hers. She stared into my face, shrieked what’s wrong, what’s wrong, Reese? What’s wrong with your eyes? They’re turning colors. You have the bad luck eyes of a black cat. A black cat that remembers too much. Those yellow eyes.
Perhaps the moonlight. Perhaps the slant.
The lights beamed inside my brain; doors swung open and shut, the sound of tin cans hitting walls. Maylani fed me small portions of beef and rice.
She stepped back, looking over her shoulder, suddenly, whipped out a hand gun, tucked in her waist, perhaps meant for me all along. Could. Could not shoot me? Please, she said, don’t come any closer. What’s wrong, Reese? Don’t make me shoot.
I stumbled towards her in baby-like steps, waddling. Mother, I began to say, Mother. . . i am not afraid.
No, Reese, please, no, no, no, don’t make me, please get away, don’t want to, please. Her shrieking ringed, arced like mortar shell.
i crept closer.
“It was a pinch, wasn’t it? Johnny knew the real Reese died in those camps.”
“I don’t know anything about that.”
“But Johnny wanted revenge. He found out that Reese had a clone who took his identity. Escaped from Napa.”
“Leave me alone!”
“A ‘K’ who would continue Reese’s work. The work of the aboriginal.”
“You’re making this up. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Maybe you wanted to get tight with Johnny again. You feed me to him, and he gives you--”
“Lies. It’s all lies.”
“--back your privileged throne.”
“No, I swear, Reese, don’t come any closer!”
No, she fired, her body jerked from the recoil, my shoulder thrown from the blast, the metallic impact. i wiped the blood on my palm to taste it. To taste that it was Reese’s, the same salt and plasma, my blood-type. i stopped, then pressed towards her. She fired again, but missing, stood at the edge of the cliff, screaming for me to back up, but no, i said, i don‘t want to hurt you, Mother, and her body froze, her paralysis that was mine, then, trying to aim again, losing her balance--she slipped over.
In the blue room, Maylani squeezed me against her jackrabbit heart.
Her hands dangled over the edge. i grabbed her wrist, so weak, i was, her eye opened wide, her mouth formed small futile movements, opening and closing.
I wrapped my hands around Mylani’s throat and squeezed until she could no longer breathe or talk or smile. The soldiers barged into the room and killed me who would live again. The I who would be copied.
At the edge, she spoke, clutching. i struggled to lift her up. Her head swirled and her one eye grew into a summer night moon, then smaller, yes, the sea star eye of a love junkie.
“Why is it? Why is it? That the people . . . You hate the most are the ones you love the most… I…always heard Johnny’s voice in a seashell.”
“Mother. . .Mother!” I said, staring into the white pinpoints of her eye, “don’t you know me?”
She bared her teeth, worked up a desperate smile, one that mirrored so much more, a prism of myriad colored sea glass, that look of loss, of her bittersweet and crazy love, never meant for me. My mother lied. There was never a promise of butterfly in spring.
Let me go.
Let me go.
Our hands slipped past each other’s, the palm-sweet eternal slide, whether from weakness or volitions, did i let her go or did she? She fell, fell gazing up at me, growing smaller until she was endless as the ocean, the blue glass sea washing her over. For her, never again the agony of waking up, screaming or otherwise, that blanket of forgetfulness, my headache, a river past. Her glassy eye, her vacuous eye, would stay with me. It would not slink or slide away. Not like the hands.
i struggled to climb down the cliff. I would drive, if i could, back to the office, numb myself with Top IIIs, call the police, tell them how i found and lost Miss Lucy Simao, tell them how she lies still at the bottom of the ocean, how she might resurface again someday. i’d made some final notes. Then I’d walk, maybe back to the ocean, listen to it breathe, take in its jeweled silences, the gaps between breaths, your own love like vapor. It would always lure me. And growing backwards, i’d wander town after town, combing beaches and skulking in bars, leaving trails of my blood-smeared prints, crying in the lap of every downtown prostitute. every shady-eyed Betty--looking for the eyes of my real mother.
Or until i dropped.