Vacancy & Ariel, page 4
Marley’s place is tomboyishly Spartan, a couple of surfboards on the wall, a Ramones poster, a wicker throne with a green cushion, a small TV with some Mardi Gras beads draped over it, a queen-size box spring and mattress covered by a dark blue spread. The only sign of femininity is that the apartment is scrupulously clean, not a speck of dust, the stove and refrigerator in the kitchenette gleaming. Marley tells Cliff to take the bed, she has to do some stuff, and sits cross-legged in the wicker chair, pecking at her laptop. He closes his eyes, surrendering to fatigue, fading toward sleep; but his thoughts start to race and sleep won’t come. He tries to put a logical spin on everything that happened, works out various theories that would accommodate what he saw. The only one that suits is that he’s losing it, and he’s not ready to go there. Finally, he opens his eyes. Marley’s still pecking away, her face concentrated by a serious expression. In her appearance and mien, she reminds him of girls he knew in LA in the eighties, many of them weekend punkers, holding down a steady job during the week, production assistants and set dressers and such, and then, on Friday night, they’d dress down, wear black lipstick and too much mascara, and go batshit crazy. But those girls were all fashion punks with a life plan and insurance and solid prospects, whereas Marley’s a true edge-dweller with a punk ethos, living paycheck to paycheck, secure in herself, a bit of dreamer, though her practical side shows itself from time to time—for a week or two she’ll binge on schemes to resurrect her fiscal security; then, Pffft!, it all goes away and she’s carefree and careless again.
These thoughts endanger Cliff’s resolve to remain friends with her, and more dangerous yet is his contemplation of her physical presence. Frizzy blond hair framing a gamin’s face; braless breasts, her nipples on full display through the thin fabric of her t-shirt; she’s his type, all right. He understands that part of what’s at play here is base, that whenever he’s at a loss or anxious about something or just plain bored, he relies on women to sublimate the feeling.
Marley glances up, catching him staring. “Hey! You all right?”
“Yeah,” he says. “Why?”
“You were looking weird is all.” She closes the laptop. “You want anything?”
“No,” he says, a reflex answer, but thinks about the things he wants. They’re all momentary gratifications. Sex; surcease; to stop thinking about it. He suspects that the real curse of getting older is a certain wisdom, the tendency to reflect on your life and observe the haphazard path you’ve made, and then he decides that what he wants above all is to want something so badly that he stops second-guessing himself for a while. Just go after it and damn the consequences…though in reality, that’s only another form of surcease.
“What do you want?” he asks.
She tips her head to one side, as if to see him more clearly. “I don’t think I’m getting the whole picture here. Did something happen last night? You know, something more than what you told me? Because you’re not acting like yourself.”
“I’ll tell you later.” He shifts onto his side. “So what do you want? What would make you happy?”
She sets the laptop on the floor and comes over to the bed and makes a shooing gesture. “Scoot over. If this is going to be a deep conversation, I want to lie down.”
He’s slow to move, but she pushes onto the bed beside him and he’s forced to accommodate her. She plumps the pillow, squirms about, and, once she’s settled facing him, arms shielding her breasts, hands together by her cheek, she says, “I used to want to be a singer. I was in love with Tori Amos, and I was going to be like her. Different, but one of those chicks who plays piano and writes her own songs. But I didn’t want it badly enough, so I just bummed around with music, gigged with a few bands and like that. One of my boyfriends was a bartender. He taught me the trade, and I started working bar jobs. It was easy work, I met some nice guys, some not so nice. I was coasting, you know. Trying to figure it out. Now I think, I’m pretty sure, I want to be a vet. Not the kind who prescribes pills for sick cats and treats old ladies’ poodles for gout. I’d like to work out in the country. Over in DuBarry, maybe, or down south in Broward. Cattle country. That would make me content, I think. So I’m saving up for veterinary college.” She grins, fine squint lines deepening at the corners of her eyes. “Someday they’ll be saying stuff like, ‘Reckon we better call ol’ Doc Marley.’”
He’s shamed, because this is all new information; he’s known her for three years and never before asked about her life. He recalls her singing about the house and being struck by her strong, sweet voice, how she bent notes that started out flat into a strange countrified inflection. He doesn’t know what to say.
“You look perplexed,” she says. “You thought I was just an aging beach bunny, is that it?”
“That’s not it.”
“I suppose I am, technically, an aging beach bunny. But I’m making a graceful transition.”
A silence, during which he hears cars pass. The beach is extraordinarily quiet, all the spring breakers sleeping in, waiting out the rain. He remembers a morning like this when he was eleven, he and some friends rode their bikes down past the strip of motels between Silver Beach and Main, hoping to see girls gone wild, and seeing instead spent condoms floating in the swimming pools like dead marine creatures, a lone girl crying on the sidewalk, crushed beer cans, the beach littered with party trash and burst jellyfish and crusts of dirty foam, all the residue of joyful debauch. It never changes. The gray light lends the furnishings, the walls, a frail density and a pointillist aspect—it seems the room is turning into the ghost of itself, becoming a worn, faded engraving.
“Why do you always act scared around me, Cliffie?” Marley asks. “Even when we were together, you acted scared. I know the age thing bothers you, but that’s no reason to be scared.”
“It’s complicated,” he says.
“And you don’t want to talk about it, right? Guys really suck!”
“No, I’ll talk about it if you want.”
She looks at him expectantly, face partly concealed by dirty blond strings of hair.
“It’s partly the age thing,” he says. “I’m fifty-four and you’re twenty-nine.”
“Close,” she says. “Thirty.”
“All right. Thirty. Turning a year on the calendar doesn’t change the fact it’s a significant difference. But mostly it’s this…blankness I feel inside myself. It’s like I’m empty, and growing emptier. That’s what I’m scared of.”
“Well, I don’t pretend to know much,” Marley says. “I could be wrong, but sounds to me like you’re lonely.”
Could it be that simple? He’s tempted to accept her explanation, but he’s reluctant to accept what that may bring. Rain begins to fall more heavily, screening them away from the world with gray slanting lines.
“What do you see in me?” he asks. “I mean, what makes someone like you interested in a fifty-something used car salesman with a bad back. I don’t get it.”
“Wow. Once you start them up, some guys are worse than women. Out comes the rotten self-image and everything else.” She glances up to the ceiling, as if gathering information written there. “I’ll tell you, but don’t interrupt, okay?”
“We’re friends. We’ve been friends for going on four years, and I like to think we’re good friends. I can count on you in an emergency, and you can count on me. True?”
“You make my head quiet,” she says. “Not last night, not when I’m in party mode. But most of the time, that’s how I feel around you. You steady me. You treat me as an equal. With guys my age or close, I can tell what’s foremost on their mind, and it’s always a battle to win their respect. Like with Tucker. That may explain why I’ve got this thing for older men. They don’t just see tits and a pussy, they see all of me. I’m speaking generally, of course. I get lots of horny old goats hitting on me, but they’re desperate. You’re not desperate. You don’t have a need to get over on me.”
She puts a finger to his lips, shushing him. “Everything changes, everybody’s kinky for something. Some guy shows up at my door with a muskrat, a coil of rope, and three pounds of lard, that’s where I draw the line. But normal, everyday kinks…They’re cool.” She shrugs. “So it changes? So you’re fifty-four with a bad back? So I’m kinky for older men? So what? And in case you’re going to tell me you don’t want to be a father figure, don’t worry. When I’m around you, I’m always wet. Some times more than others, but it’s pretty much constant. I don’t think of you as my dad.” She blows air through her pursed lips, as if wearied by this unburdening. “Fucking is just something I do with guys, Cliff. It doesn’t require holy water and a papal dispensation. It’s not that huge a deal.”
“That’s a lie,” he says.
“Yeah,” she says after a pause. “It’s a fairly huge deal. All right. But what I’m trying to say is, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll cry and be depressed and hit things. My heart may even break. But it won’t kill me. I heal up good.”
The rain beats in against the window, spraying under the glass, drenching the ledge, spattering on the floor, yet Marley doesn’t bother to close it. She sits up and, with a supple movement, shucks her t-shirt. The shape of a bikini top is etched upon her skin and in the half-light her high, smallish breasts, tipped by engorged nipples, are shockingly pale in contrast to her tan. It strikes Cliff as exotic, a solar tattoo, and he imagines designs of pale and dark all over her body, some so tiny they can only be detected by peering close, others needing a magnifying glass to read the erotic message that they, in sum, comprise. She lies down again, an arm across her tight, rounded stomach. Sheets of rain wash over the window, transforming it into a smeary lens of dull green and silvered gray, seeming to show a world still in process of becoming.
“So,” Marley says. “You going into work today?”
“Probably not,” he says.
BEFORE GOING INTO work the following day, Cliff stops by the cottage. It’s a sunny, breezy afternoon and all should be right with the world, but the stillness of the place unnerves him. He peels police tape off the doors, hurriedly packs a few changes of clothes and, an afterthought, tosses his copy of Sword Of The Black Demon into his bag. If things get uncomfortable at Marley’s, he’ll move to a motel, but he has determined that he’s not going to spend another night in the cottage until the situation is resolved, until he can be assured that there’ll be no reoccurrence of blue witches and flashing lights and two-hundred-foot tall swordsmen.
He pulls into Ridgewood Motors shortly before two and, from that point on, he’s so busy that he scarcely has a chance to glance at the Celeste. Jerry’s in a foul mood because Stacey Gerone has run off and left him shorthanded.
“She’s been screwing some rich old fart from Miami,” Jerry says. “I guess she blew him so good, he finally popped the question. That bitch can suck dick like a two-dollar whore in a hurricane.”
Dressed in his trademark madras suit and white loafers, Jerry cocks an eye at Cliff, doubtless hoping to be asked how he knows about Stacey’s proclivities; he’s brimming over with eagerness to divulge his conquest.
Jerry’s pudgy, built along the lines of Papa Smurf, with a tanning-machine tan like brownish orange paint and a ridiculous toupee—he cultivates this clownish image to distract from his nasty disposition. Thanks to this and an endless supply of dirty jokes, ranging from the mildly pornographic to X-tra Blue, he’s in demand as a speaker at Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce dinners and has acquired a reputation for being crusty yet loveable. He acknowledges Cliff as a near-equal, someone who has the worldliness to understand him, someone in whom he can confide to an extent, and thus Cliff, knowing that Jerry will vent his temper on the other salesmen if he doesn’t listen to him brag, is forced to endure a richly embroidered tale of Jerry’s liaisons with Stacey, culminating with an act of sodomy described in such graphic detail, he’s almost persuaded that it might have happened, although it’s more likely that the verisimilitude is due to Jerry’s belief that it happened, that through repetition his fantasy has become real.
This is the first Cliff has heard of the “rich old fart,” but he’s aware that Stacey played her cards close to the vest and there was much he did not know about her. He tries to nudge the conversation in that direction, hoping to learn more; but Jerry, made grumpy by his questions, orders him out onto the lot to sell some fucking cars.
A little after five o’clock, he’s about to close with a young couple who’ve been sniffing around a two-year-old Bronco since the previous Friday, when Shalin Palaniappan strolls onto the lot. She walks up to Cliff, ignoring another salesman’s attempt to intercept her, and says, “Hi.”
Cliff excuses himself, steers Shalin away from the couple, and says, “I’m in the middle of something. Let me get somebody else to help you.”
“I want you,” Shalin says pertly.
“You’re going to have to wait, then.”
“I’ve waited this long. What’s a few minutes more?”
With her baggy shorts and a pale yellow T-shirt, her shiny black eyes, her shiny black hair in a ponytail, her copper-and-roses complexion, she looks her age, fifteen or sixteen, a healthy, happy Malaysian teenager; but he senses something wrong about her, something also signaled by her enigmatic comment about waiting, an undercurrent that doesn’t shine, that doesn’t match her fresh exterior, like that spanking new Escalade with the bent frame they had in a few weeks before. He leaves her leaning against a Nissan 350-Z and goes back to the couple who, given the time to huddle up, have decided in his absence that they’re not happy with the numbers and want more value on the toad they offered as a trade-in. Cliff feels Shalin’s eyes applying a brand to the back of his neck and grows flustered. He grows even more so when he notices a young salesman approach her and begin chatting her up, bracing with one hand on the Nissan, leaning close, displaying something other than the genial manner that is form behavior for someone who pushes iron—then, abruptly, the salesman scurries off as if his tender bits have been scorched. Most teenage girls, in Cliff’s experience, don’t have the social skills to deal efficiently with the two-legged flies that come buzzing around, yet he allows that Shalin may be an exception. The couple becomes restive; now they’re not sure about the Bronco. Cliff, aware that he’s blowing it, passes them off to John Sacks, a decent closer, and goes over to Shalin.
“How can I help you?” he asks, and is startled by the harshness, the outright antipathy in his voice.
Shalin, looking up at him, shields her eyes against the westering sun, but says nothing.
“What are you looking to spend?” he asks.
“How much is this one?” She pats the Nissan’s hood.
He names a figure and she shakes her head, a no.
“Do you have a car?” he asks. “We can be pretty generous on a trade-in.”
“That’s right. You always take it out in trade, don’t you?”
Her snide tone is typical of teenagers, but her self-assurance is not, and her entire attitude, one of arrogance and bemusement, causes him to think that there’s another purpose to her visit.
“I’m busy,” he says. “If you’re not looking for a car, I have other customers.”
“Did you know I’m adopted? I am. But Bazit treats me like his very own daughter. He caters to my every whim.” She reaches into a pocket, extracts a platinum Visa card and waggles it in his face. “Why don’t we look around? If I see something I like, you can go into your song-and-dance.”
He’s tempted to blow her off, but he’s curious about her. They walk along the aisles of gleaming cars, past salesmen talking with prospective buyers, pennons snapping in the breeze. She displays no interest in any of the cars, continuing to talk about herself, saying that she never knew her parents, she was raised by an aunt, but she’s always thought of her as a mother, and when the aunt died—she was nine, then—Bazit ste
“There!” She stops and points at a silver Jag, an XK coupe. “I like that one. Can I take a test drive?”
“That’s a sixty-thousand dollar car,” says Cliff. “You want a test drive, I’ll have to clear sixty thousand on your credit card.”
He goes into the office and runs the card—it’s approved. What, he asks himself, is a sixteen-year-old doing with that much credit? He knocks on Jerry’s door and tells him that he has a teenage girl who wants to test-drive the SK.
“Fuck her,” says Jerry without glancing up. “I’ve got a dealer who’ll take it off our hands.”
“Her card cleared.”
“No shit? A rich little cunt, huh?” Jerry clasps his hands behind his head and rocks back in his swivel chair. “Naw. I don’t want a kid driving that car.”
“It’s the girl from the Celeste.”
“Shalin?” Jerry’s expression goes through some extreme changes—shock, concern, bewilderment—that are then paved over by his customary. “What the hell. He throws a lot of business our way.”
Cliff doubts that a man who rents motel rooms for twenty-nine bucks a night could be boosting Jerry’s profits to any consequential degree, and he wonders what shook him up…if, indeed, he was shaken, if he wasn’t having a flare-up of his heartburn.
Shalin, it turns out, knows her way around a stick shift and drives like a pro, whipping the SK around sharp corners, downshifting smoothly, purring along the little oak-lined back streets west of Ridgewood Avenue, and Cliff’s anxiety ebbs. He points out various features of the car, none of which appear to impress Shalin. It’s clear that she enjoys being behind the wheel and, when she asks if she can check out what the SK is like on the highway, he says, “Yeah, but keep it under sixty-five.”
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