Desirée Benison, at five-and-a-half, could deliver sophisticated disquisitions on the nature of art; and did so—“Why is Papa Smurf the only old Smurf? and why is Smurfette the only girl Smurf?”—while she and her auntie made their beds. Smooth those sheets, smooooth them out and double-fold with a tuck tuck tuck (last one for luck). Sing the Wheeville version of “Barbara Allen”:
O Mother Mother make my bed
‘cause Mother I am lazy;
I cannot make it by myself
my friends would think I’m crazy.
The heatwave this morning was bad as ever. Good Old Heartland USA: managing, in true Middle Western fashion, to combine high humidity with extreme drought. Going to hit a hundred again today too, after getting barely below eighty last night.
Comfort dictated hang-loose outfits, but Sadie for some occult Tarot reason wanted the three of them to coordinate. Which was a good guffaw, given a trio of tallish-wiry redhead, compact blonde shorty, and not-quite-kindergartener whose dark wavy face already had young Leland upstairs in thrall.
So they all donned off-one-shoulder T-shirts with splattery neon designs, as were all the rage that Flashdance summer. Skeeter’s sported a hot-pink-on-bright-blue DELIRIOUS, Desi’s said AWESOME, and Sadie’s PUT IT IN WRITING as she repackaged her portfolio with brainbusting exactitude. Until, at the last minute:
“Aagh! Look at that!”
“My toenail polish! It’s chipped all to hell! And I spent so much time—well that’s it, I give up. Forget it. We’re not going. It’s hopeless.”
“They judge you on the state of your toenails?”
“Oh you wouldn’t understand, you never went to art school! For me to go in there with these looking like this, in open sandals—I might just as well paint them a bullfighter-by-number on black velvet!”
“Can’t you just wear socks?”
Well, if Sadie B.’s feet could swelter in socks on this, the most critical turning-pointy day of her life, then by God so could Skeeter’s and Desi’s too. This decided and all reshod, there was next the feat of getting Floyd out of Wheeville and into unyielding rush hour traffic.
“We seem to just be SITting here,” Sadie remarked, far too calmly.
Screeeeeee as Skeeter laid rubber, grappling with the wheel as though she were piloting a windjammer through a sudden squall. “That’s the way you learn to drive when you run away to sea,” she said; and ten minutes on the expressway later they were a dozen miles northwest.
“There—turn there,” Sadie hissed at the 144th Street exit. Which took them to Glazier Street; which led them steeply up Dee Ridge; which brought them to the Merely School of Art & Design.
What was it—seven years now?—since Sadie’d first come here, back in antediluvian Bicentennial times. Telling Skeeter and their folks by picture postcard that everything was beautiful in Elsew and she loved it here (but then that was Sadie’s standard reaction wherever she went, at first).
Skeeter had been scheduled to visit her at Easter that first year, but The Big Noise had intervened and she hadn’t made it. And then there’d been high school to finish and college to embark on and the Nothingbutt Theater to aspire to; and before you knew it Sadie was pregnant and all a-fret whether to have the baby or not, whether to put it up for adoption or not—this embryonic predicament resolving itself into the Michael Jackson mimic in Floyd’s back seat.
“Just beat it!” Desi sang, “beat it beat it beat it—nobody here, let’s go home!” as Skeeter drove them into a nearly deserted parking lot. Fortunately for Desi, her mother was too far gone by this point to get further aggravated.
“Let’s go this way,” was all Sadie said (meaning her way, of course) as she led them along a bypath to an ivy-throttled building like a stately manor house. A cautionary sign out front read Brecknock Hall, as though your neck might easily get broken here, so better watch your step.
“Okay okay all right all right I could really use a hug!” Sadie was croaking, clutching first Desi to her, then Skeeter; then leaving them in the stately vestibule with a parting command to not for God’s sake get lost.
“Do they have Space Invaders?” Desi asked, the moment her mother was out of sight.
See if a stately game room was on the premises. All colleges have a game room, with Foosball and pool tables and pinball machines; it stood to reason that even art students had to relax their aesthetic selves sometime. But initial exploration disclosed only a few empty offices, a vacant conference room, hardly a soul to be seen. Between semesters, after all.
“It smells in here,” said Desirée.
“That’s art for you,” said Skeeter, snuffing the mingled aromas of oil paint and India ink and airborne charcoal and unsettled chalkdust and “...floor wax! I smell floor wax! Somebody’s waxing the floors! Come on—”
Down the hall they ran, and there—around the corner and beyond a yellow
sign—they goggled at a wide-open corridor, buffed and pomaded to a glossy sheen! The sort of passageway every true slider-on-wax waits her life to find, and gloat over, and toss yanked-off sneakers to the side of, and prepare to launch herself into—
“Do me Skeeter do meeee!” yelled Desi, her laces one big snarl. In a trice Skeeter had her sockfooted and putting on an improv Wax Capades act, hand in hand: “We whoop and we whoop and we wheeeee...” Twist, twirl, catch hold of the antique water fountain at the hall’s far end and push off again, sailing back through this unoccupied hooky-playing school building—
—till a door opened and out came a tall bald man with a double armload of catalogs that got scattered all the hell over as their carrier was barreled into WHUMP and bowled over WHUMP and sent skidding a good three feet WHOAAAA with an even better hundred-and-one pounds of Skeeter Kitefly atop him.
And there matters sprawled for a brief stunned while.
The man on the floor took in a breath through a sizable nose that began to bleed at its edges. And he said:
“Scheiss de la merde!”
“Oh my God are you okay?” demanded Skeeter. “Are you broken anywhere? Your NOSE is bleeding! Oh Jeez your poor nose! Did you bust it? I’ll nurse it back to health. Be calm now; don’t panic. Tilt your head back so the blood’ll run down your throat. Ice! We need ice and a washcloth—I think there’s some bandaids in my poke— I’ll pinch your nose shut till you start to clot—can you hear me? Hello? Are you a foreigner? Sprechen sie Deutsch? ¿Habla Español? Parlez—”
“Young woman,” said the man on the floor in a deep Midwestern wheeze, further nasalized by Skeeter’s pinchgrip. “If you want me to blow, you might provide a handkerchief.”
Up Skeeter zooped to where she’d left her saddlebag, grabbing from it a couple of bandaids (always keep your sticking plaster handy) and a wad of kleenex. Another bound and she was back atop Mr. Nosebleeder, out of whom all the breath again went whoosh.
“Oops sorry!” said Skeeter, climbing off his chest. “Force of habit, I guess. Here—bleed into this till I get these unwrapped. And hey! what were you talking about just now, when you said you-know-what if you said what I think you were talking about just now?”
A tiny set of venetian blinds went up inside each of the man on the floor’s eyes.
“Ah... that was me being crude, in a polite sort of way.”
Skeeter, wrestling with the bandaid packaging, kept looking at the bald man’s nose. Not that it was grotesque or elephant-manly or anything; it was simply—unmistakable. Even obscured by kleenex, you could tell that it was what it was. Broad. Blunt. Banked. Below it a meager smudge of moustache, such as can be found in photos of Orwell or Thurber or Edgar Allan Poe. And above it, on either side, behind those heavylidded venetians...
At twenty-four, Skeeter was quite used to being ogled and leered at and mentally undressed; but never before—except maybe once—had she felt this sort of sense of shrouded observation: measuring up and reckoning down. Weird. And faintly creepy. Or so at least it ought to feel.
“Are you a priest?” she heard herself asking.
The venetians inched higher.
“Ah... what am I? Am I a what?”
And maybe Skeeter would have told him never-mind-forget-it, had Desirée not broken her unaccustomed silence. “How can he have a nosebleed when he got knocked on his butt?”
“Good question, little girl,” said the man on the floor. “Many thanks,” he added as Skeeter applied the bandaids. “Let’s hope I have no need to sneeze.”
“There you two are!” said Sadie, appearing just then at the end of the hall.
“Hey Mommy! how’d it go?” asked AWESOME.
“Hey Sadie! how’d it go?” asked DELIRIOUS.
“Hay is for horses,” PUT IT IN WRITING informed them. “God what happened here??—God I don’t believe it!!—well, I was wondering when I’d run into somebody I know!”
“In this case,” said the man still on the floor, “mine was the body and she did the running into.”
“So what happened?”
“We were only skating and he got in the way,” explained Desirée.
“And having a stack of catalogs jammed up one’s nose can result in paper cuts,” added the man. “I take it these two belong to you, Mercedes? All makes perfect sense now.”
“You haven’t changed a bit!” laughed Sadie.
“You say that after your friends did me the favor of tearing me a spare nostril.”
“Well, I said I was sorry,” Skeeter mumped. “Or did I? Well, I was—I mean I am—sorry, that is—so—”
“You’re not still taking classes, are you?” Sadie asked the man on the floor.
“No. I teach them now.”
“You’re kidding! You’re on the faculty?”
“No kidding matter. And where I really am is here on the floor. Ladies, if you will—”
Together they hauled him to his substantial feet. Sadie began to give him her old-acquaintance half-hug but pulled back, saying she was wrong, he had changed and more than just a bit; she didn’t remember him as ever being thin.
“Dropped some weight awhile back,” said the man. “Broke it, what’s more.”
“...well anyway, this is my old pal Peyton Derente. He’s from Demortuis too, so that makes all of us ‘paisans’ except for my baby here.”
“I’m not a baby!”
“No,” said Peyton, “I expect you must be Desirée.”
“How’d he know my name?” asked the indignant child.
“I was on hand at the Mercury Theater the night your mother commenced being your mother.”
“Went into labor,” Sadie interpreted. “Right in the middle of that horrible movie they made of A Little Night Music—God do I remember. Elizabeth Taylor sang ‘Send in the Clowns’ and, bang! there came Desirée... And this is my sister Skeeter.”
“Hi! We’ve met,” said Skeeter. “So do you forgive me so far?”
Again that dark proportionate glance.
“Absolutely. Sisters, did you say?”
“Stepsisters,” she demonstrated, dancing a little cakewalk.
“Ah... yes. Your name is Skeeter, then? I presume you sing country-western music?”
“Yuggh! no way!... So Sadie, how did it go?”
“God I almost forgot—I’m back in! Yes! At senior level, with all my studio credits in good standing, and did I ever have to beat the Dean’s Office over the head about that too. Six months I was after them—you’d think motherhood wasn’t—”
“—reason enough to take a few years off,” Skeeter harmonized.
“Don’t feel too put upon,” said Peyton. “We go through much the same routine whenever the Liberal Studies copy machine breaks down. I take it you’ve been readmitted, Mercedes?”
“You betcha! I’m finally going to complete my Graphic Design degree, so I can finally get myself a worthwhile job.”
“Congratulations. Which reminds me.” He looked down at the mess of scattered catalogs. “So much for my trying to act useful. Increasingly less-likely that we’ll be shipshape in time for registration. But them’s the breaks.” He opened the same door he’d come out of and began to toe the catalogs back over its threshold. “I’ll help!” said Skeeter, and slid around scooping up debris.
So center stage was cleared and relinquished to Sadie, while Skeeter got resneakered and helped Desi with her snarls. Sadie meanwhile turned a critical eye on Peyton, saying the least they could do after bloodying his nose was fatten him up again. “I’m starving anyway, I was too tense to eat breakfast, what say we go for burgers and beer? Is Marr’s Bar still on the Milky Way?”
You could hardly take minors there, Peyton pointed out (“Is he talking about me?” bridled Desi) and it was rather early for lunch anywhere, being barely ten o’clock. But if they were truly hungry there was always the Student Union. Its cafeteria wouldn’t reopen till next week, but vending machine victuals were available if you didn’t mind your food tasting like saranwrap.
Before they took a dozen steps down the gleaming corridor, Sadie brought them to a sudden halt. “Wait a minute... what do they think they’re doing, waxing the floors at this time of day anyway?”
“For the same reason They bulldoze enormous holes in the middle of campus right before classes start,” said Peyton. “Go take a look at the West Quad; there’s one there now. A few semesters back They closed off half the Glazier Street parking lot just in time for finals. I don’t doubt this is the first time They’ve laundered this linoleum for five years or more.”
“Not since I pooped off,” said Sadie.
“Not since then, or before.”
So they bade cheerio to ivy-throttled Brecknock Hall and ventured out into swoggling August swelter. “God!” went Sadie. “If I didn’t feel so good right now, I don’t think I could stand it. I’ve spent half the summer burning and the other half peeling.”
Peyton on the other hand had this weird pallor about him. His complexion reminded Skeeter of... of grilled cheese; yuggh. Gross and creepy. (Or so at least it ought to be.)
“This place!” Sadie was carrying on. “It was just a blur to me, coming in. But aw reeeet—it hasn’t changed a bit.”
If so, the Merely School of Art & Design must have always had burnt-out brown patches and a barricaded hole in its West Quad. And yet, despite the horrendous climate, the campus retained some semblance of greenery. There were lots of shrubs and bushes and shady trees; it was probably a really pretty place when it wasn’t like it was now. And out of everything came the same whiff of mingled arty odors.
Now Sadie was blowing kisses at an odd black-magical sort of building: Haller Hall read its sign. “There’s the Design Studios, my studios—they’re mine again,” she crowed, and went on to greet the more ordinary-looking structures opposite: the Amphitheater, the New Library, the Book & Supply Store.
“Isn’t this a beautiful place, Desi?”
“Desi! You were practically born here!”
“I don’t care...”
Now Peyton was mopping his brow with a black bandanna, dabbing the bandaid-bound tip of his decisive nose. Skeeter wondered if that little moustache tickled. She pegged him as being past youth, in his middle thirties perhaps, and maybe he’d been portly or rotund before but now his britches were too big for him.
They passed an outdoor sculpture-thing like soundless amplifiers, then one like unwound windchimes. Skeeter briefly envied artists (or was it artistes?) their ability to create things that would last, although these weren’t exactly examples of what she might have had in mind.
“What happened to the fountain?” asked Sadie, nodding at a pile of rocks.
“They shut it off. To save water, They said.”
“Because of the drought?”
“I shouldn’t think so. They make us save string, too.”
“You’re too big.”
“...I’m so hotttt...”
“We’re all so hot, Desirée.”
Desi dropped back and trailed behind, letting out an occasional hunnnnhh. Skeeter dropped back too and tried to take the child’s hand; when Desi wouldn’t let her, she began cutting ninety-degree capers. Jump, skip, hop. Pop, crackle, snap. And after awhile the hunnnnhhs ceased and Desi allowed Skeeter to give her a pinky-finger tickle-squeeze.
Up ahead Sadie was asking about Merely students from the Seventies, and Peyton was filling her in:
And don’t forget that kid who’d gone so far with his Van Gogh emulation as to commit botched-but-terminal suicide by shooting himself in the stomach. Quickest way to a man’s heart, after all.
“You serious?” said Sadie. “That one I don’t remember.”
“Mmph. I think you were away that semester. In Italy was it? Or Australia?”
“God don’t ask me. I’ve been all the hell over. I suppose you’re still living in that place with the colonnade, on Saturn Street?”
“No? I thought you swore they’d have to carry you out of there feet first.”
“So where then?”
“The Cheval,” said Peyton. One of the gone-condo apartment buildings on Dee Ridge: conveniently near campus, but far out of the student-housing league.
They reached a pond, shrunken by the summer dry spell. Peyton paused to pick up a stone and skip it across what remained of the water. Skeeter heard him mention the Megrims, whom she took to be a family of his and Sadie’s old acquaintance, till Peyton added that sometimes a body just gets into the dumps, that’s all. And Sadie, God love her, was starting in with one of her slate-smashing Anne-of-Green-Gables pep-type-talks, when Skeeter dropped Desi’s hand and came running up.
“When you’re depressed you know the best thing you ought to do?” she asked.
His venetians twitched, and turned to her.
“Go see a scary movie.”
When I was first at Merely SAD—
(said Sadie Benison two hours later, riding home in Floyd)
—everybody hung out at Marr’s Bar on the Milky Way. There was one particular group that took over the place whenever they were there: had all-night arguments and poker games and so on. They called themselves the “Dilated Nostrils,” and none of them was at Marr’s more often—or had a more dilated nose, for that matter—than Peyton Derente.
Back then he was a big burly guy, like a bald W. C. Fields and Orson Welles and Charles Boyer rolled into one. He’d always sit at the corner table under the Michelob sign, in a chair like a throne that I think he brought from Demortuis and donated to the bar. He’d drink from this genuine pewter tankard too, that held what must have been an entire quart. “Anybody can play the highbrow,” he’d say, “but it takes flair and scope and depth to be a Dilated Nostril!”
You didn’t see him much on campus except at Marr’s, but he was supposed to be this brilliant Art History student doing this brilliant thesis on—what was it?—the Ash Can School, I think. But he could do art too, he was a wizard with pen and ink; in fact that’s what he said they used to call him in Demortuis: “the Wizard of Schnoz.” We had this tabloid paper back then, the Elsew No-Nazz, and Peyton did line drawings for it—a logo of a cracked egg spilling its yolk, “brought to you by all the folks at A.K.A. Enterprises.” He never would pay enough attention to his layout, though; kept cramming detail on top of detail...
Why the Kojak haircut? He said he’d shaved his head in high school to settle a bet, then stayed bald on purpose. If you asked whether he’d gone prematurely bald, he’d say, “Nothing about me is premature. Seventeen days overdue at birth I was, and I’ve been taking my own sweet time ever since.”
God you never heard such a laugh—I bet Rabelais laughed like that, making the walls rattle. Every couple of months he’d throw what he called “raspburials” at his place on Saturn Street: these special parties where he’d lampoon all the instructors and famous art critics. God it’s all coming back to me—“Post-painterly-abstracter-than-thou, eh?” Oh and he’d make us make up these elaborate impromptu drinking toasts and chants, on the spot like Cyrano de Bergerac; except I always thought Peyton made his up weeks ahead of time. I remember one of his that went like this:
Curious the way life takes
You by the throat and soundly shakes;
Apropos then is death’s touch—
It loosens and lets out the clutch!
Absolutely larger than life... What do you mean, “did I ever sleep with him?” I didn’t exactly spend all my time at school in the sack, kiddo! No, of course not... I don’t think... well, how’m I supposed to remember now? That was years and years ago.
You know, Peyton and I weren’t especially close—he could be irritating, lots of times, and full of himself. Pompous and bombastic. When it came to women he could get so damned French—he’d take your hand and raise it almost to his lips, and say, “You have nine days, my dear, to prove yourself a wonder.” Then after the nine days were up he’d pay no more attention to you. He’d go out of his way to look down another girl’s front, saying as an art historian it was his duty to “penetrate to the heart of things.” What gall! Of course, that’s typical of every straight male art student I’ve ever known... like who’d you say? Like João? God! I’d forgotten about him...
Still, to be fair, Peyton could be—what’s the right word?—chivalrous, I guess you’d have to say. It was Peyton who took me to the Mercury that night I thought I was about to lose my mind because Desi wouldn’t be born and wouldn’t be born (yes, I’m talking about you, baby) and it was Peyton who kept his head and called the ambulance when I did go into labor and everyone else panicked. In fact that was the last time I saw him, till today...
I’d’ve thought it’d be great, him still being here. But he isn’t the same. He used to be such a barrel of laughs, and now he’s so awfully quiet—and not just quiet: silent. Like a ghost of his former self. The way he brushed us off at the Union, saying he had to get back to the office—the old Peyton would NEVER have turned down an offer of free food. Even from a vending machine—he’d’ve made you buy him one of everything. I don’t know—I’m almost surprised he agreed to that scary-movie suggestion of yours...
What do you mean, “how’d I like to not come along tonight?”
So here we are once again—
(said Skeeter to herself later that day, back on the expressway)
—preparing to keep our rendezvous with destiny. Not going to be late for this rendezvous, except in the sense that we’ve been avoiding it for years.
All this backing and forthing. All these doubts and conjectures.
She twiddled with Floyd’s radio, in search of something reassuringly acceptable. No, not Donovan’s “Epistle to Dippy.” But out came Blue Öyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” which tune took Skeeter back to Bonum High—to Demortuis as it’d been before the yawning and the gaping.
There the Derente family had been rich and prominent, cutlery kings, their name on scissors and knives and razor blades. The Derentes of her own generation hadn’t gone to Bonum High, of course, but attended Cornwall like Sally Whistletoe. Who’d presumably gone on to do great things, sure of her place in the world; not letting life just happen to her.
How would Sally interpret the tug renewed at Skeeter’s tattooed ankle (ΛΛ from this angle) causing her to stomp on the gas at every red light? “Carpe the diem, go girl go?”
Was this It, then?
A silent wraith, a ghost of a former self—a barrow-wight with grilled-cheese pallor—come to claim her at last?
Fragments flashing before Skeeter’s eyes and ears. 1-2-3 Red Light. Going to the Halloween dance as a vampire. A drawer full of bobbins and safety pins. The telltale snick of a motel door. Watching The Third Man on TV just the other night, and Orson Welles not being in his coffin where he belonged.
Well, one thing was for goddam certain: she wasn’t going to run away this time, no matter what. She’d stand her ground with both feet firmly planted; if Fate wanted a confrontation, Skeeter Kitefly would give It the showdown of a lifetime. She’d already knocked It down, sat on Its chest, proven It could bleed—and if she were able to do things like that, how could she possibly be something soppy-sad out of Hans Christian Andersen?
Jeez that wasn’t her! Not Skeeter Kitefly, born to do nothing but laugh—unless it was to emulate Bruno You Know by getting into all kinds of escapades, trying to do EVERYthing before you die!
So count your blessings if you want to count on them. Maybe you are just a pingpong fluke of the apathetic universe, after all; but you’re still Skeeter With Castanets On, and getta loada you now!—’cause you can take your clackin’ and MAKE it happen... somehow.
She took the 144th Street exit over to Glazier, stopped at a Safeway, and bought a basket of raspberries.
The Cheval was flanked by ordered rows of trees. These, though tall, grew only half as high as the building; so that its upper stories seemed to peer out and over and down at you.
Not exactly Castle Dracula. Imposing, yes, but not gigantic, though you’d doubtless have plenty of room inside to swing a—never mind, forget it. Nor was it a ritzy glass palace like the Gold Coast highrises Uncle Buddy-Buzz had aspired to. Still, if you lived high enough above the treetops, you’d probably have lights at your feet even so. Definitely here on the Brecknock Boulevard side, where even from the parking lot there was a spectacular view across the Dee Valley.
Park Floyd, then. Get out. Go on up to the not-gigantic door. Find Derente P. 809 among the formidable bank of security buttons, and press it. No response. Press it again. Nothing.
Mustn’t dilly, mustn’t dally, don’t be silly—but be good and damned if we’re going to be stood up at this stage of the game! THUMB that button—thumb a whole BUNCH of buttons—
The Cheval lobby was like a deserted country club. Or not entirely deserted: there on a settee off to the side sat a wispy white-haired old lady. (Great-Great-Aunt Livy? here?) Then again, it might be a carved mannequin—not a peep out of it. Skeeter resisted the temptation to go over and touch the thing, to see if it was (or at least had once been) a live person.
With every tiptoed step her tennies sank into a deep-pile carpet of rich charcoal-grey. Noiselessly: nothing to disturb the heavy unmoving stillness. Silent as a tomb (aha!) until a big old grandfather clock bonged seven times.
There was a pair of bas-relief horse’s heads on the elevator doors; and three more inside, one on each wall. These might have been heartening had they not put Skeeter in mind of how many equestrians were associated with the Apocalypse. Not to mention New Junebug, Supertimmy, and Desi’s gerbils, all since gone to their horsie maker.
Two wings on the eighth floor: even numbers to the right, odds to the left. Skeeter started down the left-hand corridor—and, yes!—all she needed was a set of Superclunks to re-enact that night in Keening! Especially when her knock-knock on number 809 produced the same old echoless hush.
“Peyton?” she called out. C’mon, don’t prolong this; let’s have it over once and for all. Knock knock knock knock knock—
“Jussa minute!” from within.
About time too, the turk! And just in case he was measuring you up and reckoning you down through the security peephole, make a few goggle-moues and grimace-mugs up at it. So there nyaah—
Sound as of bolts being drawn back.
The door was opened.
Heat rolled out—were those flames in the background?—I AM THE GREAT AND POWERFUL SCHNOZ!! WHOOOO ARE YOOOOU??
Well, not really.
Skeeter waited for the tall bald man in the doorway to unveil a scythe or whatever, but he just stood there staring grimly down at her. Wiping his face with the black bandanna.
Okay! She was an old trouper; she could play along (on her guard, of course). “Hi! Remember me? I’m the one who swept you off your feet this morning. Are you ready to go? Here, these are for you—Sadie said you used to throw raspberries at your parties, or was it bury them? ANYway, I thought you could use some tonight. Whoooo it’s like an oven in here, how can you stand it? Is your air conditioner busted?... You don’t have one?”
“Not since I was involved in an air conditioner à trois,” said Peyton Derente.
“She and Desi went to see our neighbor’s new puppy litter. Ten itty-bitty basset hounds worth a hundred bucks each; I sure wish I was them. The neighbors, I mean. So Peyton, it’s just you and me tonight (nudge nudge wink wink).”
On his feet, he looked rather like Egghead from the Batman TV show. It was a massive egghead too, shaved clean on top, with a cropped fringe left around the back to match the smudge-moustache. Squared-off brow, squared-off chin; sallow waxen face; that unmistakable nose; and those dark saturnine eyes, which if you boldly stared back at, didn’t look grim—
—so much as they looked sad. Bewildered, even. (Maybe by the basket of raspberries.)
“I thought you were delirious,” he said.
“I was what?” asked Skeeter, and found him looking down her perky upper deck. Almost as firm as it was at fifteen; upheld by a strapless lace unmentionabubble and clad in a fresh neon splattershirt, this one hot-pink-on-lavender (to go with her shrinking-violet short-shorts) and saying MANIAC. From its flustered contents rose a cloud of spice.
“Opium,” Skeeter explained.
“I got a bottle for my birthday. Actually it’s Imitation Opium; I have cheap friends. Perfume, not the puffy stuff—I don’t do drugs, I don’t need ‘em. I can get high on an Eskimo Pie.”
She chugged on past him into the hushed red gloom created, in part, by wine-colored curtains drawn against the sunset. Muting and diluting what Buddy-Buzz would’ve called a suite, for sure: lofty cathedral ceiling, walnut-panelled walls. Three large rooms sparsely furnished, except for rattly electric fans (bringing small relief) and a bookcase against every available surface. The living room (if you could call it that) was dominated by an immense sofa and a highbacked swivel chair, each of which had a great D embroidered upon it.
Dust lay on everything in various degrees of filminess. Skeeter idly fingerwrote K.R.K. on one shelf, rounding off the R with feeling, that it might not be taken for a middle K. Wash me. Clean me. “You’ve sure got a lot of books. Nice apartment—or should I say nice condo? Even if you don’t have air conditioning—oh cuuuute little staircase! Where’s it lead?”
“Up, if you’re facing that direc—be careful up there! Don’t go touching anything!”
“Jeez I’m not about to trash the place; calm down.” Kind of an indoor balcony, projecting over the living room; a “miniloft.” Drafting table, clamp-on lamp, cushioned stool, heap of pens and pencils and brushes, jars of different-colored ink. Floor covered with stack upon stack upon stack—“What’re all these dusty papers for?”
“I’m a cartoonist,” Peyton said from below.
“A cartoonist! You told Sadie you’re a teacher.”
“Same thing. You draw out the history of art for college-level students, and when you get back their papers the result, often as not, is laughably grotesque... I draw on the side.”
“Really? I sleep on my back,” said Skeeter. “What a coincidence. So why teach at all?”
“It pays the bills. Art adds to them.”
“A cartoonist! That is so cool. Come up here and draw me a squirrel.”
“A what? Not right now.”
“Aw please! Just a squirrel, and then a duck and a parrot and maybe a penguin.”
He demurred, unfazed by her “Well when then?” and “Oh you meanie, you sadist,” so Skeeter came galloping back down. Between the many bookcases hung a variety of framed prints, some fine-arty—Goya, Grosz, Daumier—and some of old-time comic strip characters. Skeeter romped through the rooms exclaiming at these—the Yellow Kid, Happy Hooligan, Little Nemo, Krazy Kat—and paused alongside a tubby little man in a fedora and overcoat, sporting what looked like moth wings: Cushlamochree! read his speech balloon.
“Mr. O’Malley,” said Peyton, coming up behind her. “Barnaby’s Fairy Godfather.”
“Not like that. Barnaby was perhaps the finest comic strip of the Forties. It had—”
“Was Mr. O’Malley that good a Fairy Godfather?”
“No, he was something of a humbug.”
“Like the Wizard of Oz!”
“To a certain extent, yes. He kept having to refer to his Fairy Godfather’s Handy Pocket Guide... See that mushroom in the corner? There’s an invisible leprechaun sitting on it. His name is McSnoyd.”
“Riiiight,” said Skeeter, and flung her headlong self onto the living room sofa. “‘He layudd me down upon his bayudd ‘n’ mayudd this girl a WOEmunn.’”
“Pardon me. Country-western music. Actually I haven’t seen a bed anywhere in this place. Is this your bed? Is this where you sleep? Oh, you’ve got me in your bed, you rascal! And here I lie all bashful and defenseless—”
“You,” Peyton told her, “are about as bashful as an earthquake.”
Which caused a horizontal fissure to spread across Skeeter’s face; and out of that, turning cartwheels like a zootsuited rugcutter gone high on an Eskimo Pie, came a stuPENdous cacklelaugh such as she hadn’t cacklelaughed in what felt like years upon years. (Even without a maraschino cherry up her nose.)
“Are you okay?” she asked Peyton afterwards. “You look awful pale.”
“My snoot has stopped bleeding, if that’s what you mean.”
“Your snoot? I noticed you took off the bandaids. No, I mean you’ve been acting kind of quiet and Sadie said you always used to be full of—”
Peyton informed her that things had changed since Mercedes had left Merely SAD, “and I’m not exactly institutionalized—you needn’t order me a straitjacket yet!”
“Well,” said Skeeter, “we don’t have to go out if you’re not feeling well—”
“I expect I shall do, thank you.”
“...shall you? That’s good. I’m glad. And like I say, there’s no better cure for the blues than to see a scary movie.”
She suggested Jaws 3-D (The Third Dimension is Terror) but Peyton said if they were going to do this they might as well do it properly, and the Mercury Theater—“Where Desi was born!” “To a certain extent, yes”—was showing Zanzara’s latest aberration: Si Comporti da Essere Umano.
“Act Like a Human Being.”
“I thought you’d never ask. May I use your potty?”
“Ah... are you referring to my fixings, or my facilities? The one’s through there; I don’t have any of the other.”
Off she went cackling, saddlebag in hand; and, once safely inside with the door closed, took a moment to catch her breath.
This isn’t developing at ALL like you expected.
Dusty in here too, but not foully so. Washcloth on the floor: dropped there, or fallen? Old-fashioned bathtub with clawed feet, like back in Marble Orchard, but much grander—you could have a proper wallow in a tub this size. Hanging up inside the door was a huge brown hooded robe, thick as a bearskin; a fine thing to climb into on a chilly morning. Inside the medicine cabinet (okay, you’re a snoop) was nothing more remarkable than a Derente™ brand safety razor—and an extra-large can of shaving cream, presumably to accommodate the scalp. Outside the medicine chest was the customary mirror, and in that was a familiar face. With all the gloss chewed off its lower lip.
Open the poke, break out the Maybelline, put yourself to rights. Give that wand a whirl, O BoogaBloo Angel.
What’ve we got here? Small round face, winsomely pink: add a touch of blush. Pointed chin, pointed buttony nose: there I am—there I am. Eyes like baby-blue M&M’s set afire by some confectionery pyrotechnic: not even RoBynne O’Ring could boast of that! Still “rather diminutive altogether” (despite the boobies out to here) and all of it made littler still by the glasses wide as coffee mugmouths. And the great big whomp of hair the color and fuzziness of a prime-time peach.
A face, like Scarlett O’Hara’s, that might not be beautiful, but could seldom fail to impress. Certainly not after you apply this cross-your-heart kissable lipgloss. Mmmm-wah.
She emerged, trailing a fresh wave of Imitation Opium, to find Peyton putting stuff in his pockets, including a big fat wallet.
“Excuse my asking,” he said, “but why ‘Skeeter’?”
“It’s short for Kelly Rebecca. ‘Cause I’m short for Kelly Rebecca. Are we ready to go?”
“You are old enough to see this film, aren’t you?”
“Hey! I turned twenty-four last month! Three weeks and two days ago, to be precise, and yes I am still accepting birthday presents—”
“No offense. You don’t look twenty-four.”
“Tell me about it. I’ve been carded all my life. Exactly how old are you?... Twenty-seven? Jeez, I’d’ve said thirty-five at least. Maybe everybody’ll think you’re my dad. Where is this Mercury Theater, anyway? I can drive us, my car’s downstairs.”
“No need. It’s just across campus. We can walk there in fifteen minutes.”
“What! Walk? On my li’l flat feet? Well, whatever fries your bacon. Oh wait a sec—”
She dug through her humongous poke, produced a hairbrush, flopped her whomp bodily over, and vigorously assaulted it. In the process a fair number of fair hairs sprang loose to drift downward.
“Look at that! Winkle winkle winkle. I’m going to be bald too, by the time I’m an old lady.” With a bright blue ribbon she tied her remaining opulence into a quasiponytail. “How do I look?”
“Very nice,” Peyton said.
“Well of course. But sometimes my ‘appearance’ puts people off. I’ve actually had people tell me I’m funny-looking, just because I make faces at ‘em like this—”
She ran through her grimace repertoire: mock horror, faux rapture, coy astonishment, hammy dismay.
“But when I want to,” she assured him, “I can look like an angel.”
In the elevator Skeeter extracted a pack of Pall Mall Lights from her bottomless bag. “Oh—you mind if I smoke?”
“I thought you said you didn’t ‘do’ drugs.”
“This isn’t a drug, this is recreation.”
“Go on then.”
She dangled a cigarette from her lower lip, then detached it. “You’re sure it won’t bother you?”
“Go on, I said.”
She replaced the Pall Mall, got out a Bic lighter, but didn’t flick it. “No, I can see you’re just being polite—”
“Smoke the damn cigarette if you freaking well please!”
“Oh you’re so insistent,” said Skeeter, striking up in earnest. “Stay that way, too. You can’t be gloomy when you’re with me. I won’t let you. I don’t allow it. Being with me’s got to be a nonstop all-night belly laugh.”
On the way to the parking lot she went cuuuute at all the Cheval’s horsehead embellishments.
“What a neat building. There ought to be an awning, though, over this door, and a big fat doorman in a long red coat with a lot of brass buttons instead of those security buzzers, standing right about here.”
“I don’t remember buzzing you in.”
“You didn’t. I had to buzz the whole bunch.”
“My apologies. I was—napping.”
“‘Truly my forgiveness you implore, but the fact is you were napping, and so gently I came rapping’—damn! I’m clever... That’s my car. Sure you don’t want me to drive us?”
“Good God, not in that circus wagon.”
“Hey! You’ll hurt Floyd’s feelings!”
“That’s right. Now I’ve got to insult your car. Which one is it?”
“I don’t own one anymore.”
“What? No car, no air conditioner—aren’t you rich?”
“Not from teaching at Merely I’m not.”
“You must be sort of rich if you’re one of the Derentes. Everybody in Demortuis knows how sort of rich the Derentes are. Did your parents disown you for being a cartoonist?”
“...I’m sorry. I’m just a curious person. Don’t be mad... but you must have a trust fund or something, right? To live in that nice condo?”
Perhaps half a guffaw burbled out of him, with all the embarrassment of unrehearsal. “Or something. Yes.”
Crossing Frise Street, they cut through Brecknock Park and the deserted campus. Down and up as the landscape rolled, past the Union and skirting the pond—that body of water that had been sketched and painted by entire student generations, and into which those same generations had individually jumped or been thrown. Here Peyton again stopped, stooped, and threw in a ritual pebble. On down, on up, past the New Library and the Amphitheater, Haller Hall and Brecknock Hall; on through the semibarricaded West Quad, empty even of frisbee-tossers.
“Three months I’ve lived around here,” said Skeeter between smoke rings, “but I never saw this place till today. With Sadie readmitted I might come visit all the time. How’d you like that? I could knock you down every Tuesday and Thursday.”
On up to Merely Way, the “Milky Way” to those pond-doused student generations, with its lights and sights and shops and stops and coffeehouses and then-and-nowses, not to mention Marr’s Bar; and there too was the Mercury Theater of song and subtitled legend.
With a regular appetite-ruining snack display, to Skeeter’s relief. She had Peyton play packmule to a large Dr. Pepper, a box of Milk Duds, roll of SweetTarts, and family-size popcorn with double-extra butter; and thus provisioned went in to Act Like a Human Being.
Whose concubine heroine earned Skeeter’s immediate dislike (“What a bitch, I hate her”) despite her sinister fancy man’s losing his mind during a thunderstorm, and their remote-to-begin-with bagnio’s getting cut off from civilization by floods and mudslides. Unless it was all a dream; you never could be sure in a Zanzara film.
Skeeter kept up a constant yakkety gabble, pausing only to clutch Peyton’s arm and shriek on dutiful cue. “What happened to the old butler guy? Did he get killed or just disappear? They never keep the subtitles on long enough to yeeeeeeek!... well, so much for the butler. My friend RoBynne would just love this; she’s writing a smutnovel—oh my God!—don’t go in there, fool! She could’ve climbed out the window and escaped. What a bitch. Oh I hate her. Now he’s got her trapped and—wait a minute—where’d the butler’s body go?”
“Quando l’hanno lasciato uscire dalla gabbia?”
“What’d he say?”
“‘When did they let you out of your cage?’” Peyton translated. He watched the picture unmoving, hardly blinking, nose motionless as he gave Skeeter a sidelong once-over.
“That doesn’t make sense. What cage? How’d she get back in the boudoir? Jeez what a weird movie. Pass me the Milk Duds.”
“‘Please’... you turk.” (Munch.)
“French Huguenot, actually.”
“Not ‘turk’ as from Turkey! You know, ‘turk’ as in turkey.”
“Ah yes,” he said, and getting out a pocket notebook, began to write something in the minimal cinema light.
“What are you doing? Are you taking notes, or what? I wanna see!”
“Ssshhhh!” from the row behind.
“Oh shhhh yourself and watch the movie,” the row behind got told.
Peyton continued his covert penmanship while Skeeter chafed and the concubine heroine sent her predator to an implausible death—tricked into impaling himself on a broken balustrade. The audience cheered, the Mercury’s lights went up, and Skeeter was handed a little cartoon squirrel drawn in red and black, its paws full of popcorn and a babblement-balloon coming out of its mouth.
“CHECK THIS OUT! THIS IS SOOOO COO-WULL!!”
All the way back to the Cheval she frisked squirrelly about.
“You’ll have to come see our place. We’ll have to have you over, once we get it cleaned up. If we get it cleaned up—I bet you anything Desi’s talked Sadie into buying one of those hundred-dollar basset pups.”
It was dark now if not noticeably cooler. In the lamplight Merely SAD lost its burnt-out browns, looked almost sylvan; the campus pond seemed replenished, and this time Skeeter ran ahead to throw in the requisite pebble.
Close your eyes, my child, be in tune with the infinite.
So this is reality—improve on it, then.
You gotta be a Hype if you don’t wanna be a Ciphe.
Life is short; live it up.
And Jeez thought Skeeter. I was acting as though he were DEATH.
Peyton came up alongside; there was another spectacular view from the pondbrink, looking out across the East Quad and Dee Ridge to a starry haze on the horizon, ten or twelve miles distant, that was the city of Elsew.
Skeeter stirred. “Got any good booze? We could have a nightcap. I can make a mean Freddie Fudpucker if you’ve got Galliano.”
They reached the Cheval, the lobby, the elevator, the top floor, and apartment #809—where Skeeter pushed in first, shutting the door in Peyton’s face, locking it with a snickersnack. (Sound the Improv battle cry!) And by the time he got the door reopened she had flipped on every light in every room, turned on all the fans and was busy spreading paper towels over the carpet.
“No telling if you might have to barf after seeing a movie like that. After I saw The Shining this guy I was with dreamed these bugs were crawling all over him all night long. (Yuggh.) Do you moan in your sleep? My Grampa Otto used to have these moaning nightmares and go Oooohhhh in the middle of the night. One time he did it when I’d snuck out of bed to watch a scary movie on TV. I bet that ceiling still has popcorn-butterstains on it.”
She flung wide his wine-colored curtains, yanked up the shades, let in—what? No poetic sweetbreezes anyway, welcome as cool air would have been. Nothing entered other than the sound of cicadas going rikki-tikki-tavi, out in the trees or the shrubs or the bushes or wherever it was cicadas broadcast from. Small matter; Skeeter had discovered some incense, and Gonesh Spring Mist was wafting through the living room.
“You can see the whole Milky Way from up here,” she observed in the kitchen. “Look, there’s the Mercury; I can see its sign... You must not do a lot of home cooking, that’s for sure. Oog! cobwebs! and there’s the spider. Want me to knock it down for you?”
“Leave it be,” called Peyton from his D-embossed swivel chair. “Dead already.”
“Not at all. It’s up there serving as a kind of scarecrow.”
“A shoofly, you mean. Where do you keep your yummy stuff?” He directed her to a cabinet above the sink, and Skeeter fell momentarily silent among the bottlenecks. Perhaps more here than was strictly necessary; but life in the old soldiers yet. “No tequila? Oh Peyton, what you are missing! But here’s Gilbey’s, that’s good—okay! I’ll make you a genuine Pink Gin. Slosh a dash of bitters in, then you slosh it out again, then pour in your Gilbey’s.”
She brought forth two vaguely rosy mixtures, one at low ebb for Peyton and a heftier pouring for herself, together with the basket of raspberries. “Looky what I found! Someone with a kind warm loving heart and a really dynamite bod must’ve got you these. (Cackle.) Well, she won’t mind if I have just a few.”
Back onto the sofa she hopped, basket and badly-balanced drink in hand. Out reached her glass; Peyton looked at it, then allowed it to be clinked against his own. Out reached the raspberry basket; Peyton waved it off.
“You’re being gloomy again,” Skeeter told her host, hitching up her MANIAC top and doing something extraordinary with her trim little midriff.
Again he burbled a half-guffaw.
“That’s better. Now stay that way. It’s not just anybody, you know, who can make their belly button wink.”
“Learned that in the Orient, did you?”
“‘I’m an Occidental woman in an O-ree-ent-al mood for lovvvve,’” Skeeter sang. “Actually I learned how to do that when I was in the Brownies back in Marble Orchard. Our troop leader became a professional belly dancer and taught us all how to bump ‘n’ grind. I learned other things in the Orient. (Cackle.) Hey I really did, that’s where I learned how to make Pink Gins: from a steward on a steamer with a Chinese head chef. You’re not married, are you? Or engaged, or ‘involved,’ or gay?”
“Well don’t have a spaz, I was only making sure. It’s fine by me; you know what they say about men with big noses. And men with big Adam’s apples, and men who grow cucumbers—”
“Which I don’t,” Peyton informed her, that grating note still in his voice. “So finish your drink and—”
“Yeah I noticed you don’t have any plants or flowers around here or a cat or a bird or goldfish or anything.” (Swallow.) “I mean you’re straight and single and kind of rich and not bad looking and have these really Byzantine eyes and that really smooth scalp and obviously adore being ridden down waxed floors by knockdown-gorgeous women—”
“You’re right about the knockdown part, anyway.”
“Well then,” said Skeeter, “wouldn’t you love to be my sugardaddy?”
“My own personal Last Tycoon?”
“Um—you could feed me and dress me and take me for drinks, and since you’re going to dress me ANYway you might as well know I always wear bright red underwear, summer and winter, so lay in a good stock of it, and if you’re the sort of nasty-nasty man who goes wild over black undies I’m sorry but black just isn’t my color at all, or brown either so forget about leather too, but red? ooh la LA, believe me, I’d give you a sample glimpse but you might faint from lust and crack your nose wide open this time, so whaddaya say? Is it a deal?”
“...don’t you know how many men would kill themselves to get such an offer?”
“Why aren’t you making it to them, then?” said Peyton.
She looked down at the raspberries being rolled between her thumbs and index fingers: red in the left hand, black in the right.
“Well... ‘cause you—listen, you—pay attention, you—I bet if I said ‘What did I say just now?’ you could tell me exACTly. I mean, Sadie and Desi and my friend RoBynne—I talk to them, and they talk to me, but they don’t listen either. You see?”
“Do you listen to them?”
“That’s not the point,” Skeeter said with dignity. “Look: I love Sadie, but she’s so busy putting on her goddam Pippi Longstocking act, and Desi’s a sweetie but she’s only five and wants to watch I Love Lucy all the time ‘cause she’s got this thing for Ricky Ricardo, Junior and Senior. Me, I prefer the Fred Mertz type. (Cackle.) Actually what happens is I keep falling for these strange-eyed Sven-types and I’m sick to death of it. Them. Yeah. I mean, Jeez: I’ve got more ex-boyfriends than Sadie and she’s five years older than me.”
Peyton’s venetians twitched a bit at that and with a trace of impatience Skeeter added, “This isn’t Educating Rita, you know—I don’t want a ‘tutor,’ I don’t need a ‘tutor,’ I’ve been going to college for the last six years off and on. And I don’t want to learn how to talk like a lady so I can work in a flower shop, either. Understand? I don’t expect you to teach me anything—”
“Mmph. You and a hundred others each semester.”
“What I want is, is, is—like a confessor. Yeah! What a shame your name’s not Edward—see, that’s an educated kind of joke, right? An ignoramus wouldn’t have made a joke like that. And before you say what I really need is a minister-priest-or-rabbi you should know I’m not that kind of girl, I mean I was a Chinese Communist for awhile but other than that I’m not that religious. What I really need—”
“Is for me to be your own personal sugardaddy confessor.”
“ExACTly! You got it, Peyton! Ooh I can’t wait to spill my guts and tell you all about my hard, hard life, and we can stuff cottonballs in your mouth and you can make like Brando and put Cheval horseheads in my enemies’s beds—”
“And what enemies might you have, may I ask?”
“Well, do creditors count? There’s a couple of department stores I’m not on too friendly terms with at the moment—”
She stopped then, put down what was left of the rolled-around raspberries, smoothed herself visibly out.
For a moment Peyton seemed to fear this would be the prelude to some unguessable paroxysm—speaking in tongues or spontaneous combustion.
But no, her face remained tranquil, all gapes and grimaces set aside; shining with the power of cutiepiety. O angelface! With eyes not squintsome but perfectly round, perfectly clear, gleamily piercing as a pair of China-blue javelins—
“So,” she said, “is it a deal?”
Peyton sat back and picked up his tumbler. “Good question, little girl.”
Take on Skeeter Kitefly, be her Padre Warbucks for better or for worse, a blessing or a curse? And all he’d have to do, no matter what she did or said or thought or felt, was...
And in return...
That’s artful of her.
The man in the chair took in a breath through his unbandaged nose, inhaling the mingled aromas of gin and bitters, incense and raspberries, Imitation Opium and the outer August evening.
Then he cleared his throat and said, “Go on.”
“Where?” asked Skeeter.
“Not where,” said Peyton.
“But I don’t want to go yet.”
“Not yet,” he sighed, and finished his drink.
“What then? What? Wha-utt? Tellll me!”
He put down his glass and folded his hands. “You tell me,” he clarified. “Your hard, hard life. All nine thousand and one nights of it. From sperm-and-egg conception to this very day, in this very room. I’m all ears. Except for the rest of me.”
WHEEEEE went the fissure across Skeeter’s face in a flashdancy way you could never forget—as if there were anything about Kelly Rebecca Kitefly, of course, that you were ever likely to forget.
“I jump around a lot,” she warned him.
“I’ll take that into consideration,” he replied.
“All right! Get comfy now.” She plumped down onto the papertoweled carpet and stuck out one wellshaped wellshaven leg. “Pretty nice, right? Well, there ought to be this terrible scar here. Picture me about Desi’s age. When I was little. Okay! Now we are not-quite-six, and if you think hiding Christmas presents from a six-year-old is hard you should try hiding Fourth of July fireworks from the same six-year-old, especially one who’s already a natural-born arsonist....”
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
To be continued in Skeeter Kitefly’s SUGARDADDY CONFESSOR
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
P. S. (Paul Stephen) Ehrlich was born, raised, and educated in Kansas City, Missouri. After enduring thirty-one summers and winters there, he exchanged Middle Western climate for Puget Sound’s in 1988. Employed by the University of Washington (not necessarily as an instructor) he lives with himself outside Seattle.
As the author of The Ups and Downs of Skeeter Kitefly (a disturbingly hilarious novel about a compactified young woman) and Skeeter Kitefly’s Sugardaddy Confessor (a disturbingly hilarious sequel with further compactification), he has since 2002 administered the Skeeter Kitefly Website and its Split Infinitive Productions at www.skeeterkitefly.com.
Copyright © 2001-03 by P. S. Ehrlich
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