Vacancy and ariel, p.5

Vacancy & Ariel, page 5


Vacancy & Ariel

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  Soon they’re speeding south on Highway 1 toward New Smyrna, passing through a salt marsh that puts Cliff in mind of an African place—meanders of blue water and wide stretches of grass bronzed by the late sun, broken here and there by mounded islands topped with palms; birds wheeling under a cloudless sky; a few human structures, dilapidated cabins, peeling billboards, but not enough to shatter the illusion that they’re entering a vast preserve.

  After a minute or two, Shalin says, “My mother and I…I mean, my aunt. We shared a unique connection. We resembled each other physically. Many people mistook us for mother and daughter. But the resemblance went deeper than that. We had a kind of telepathy. She told me stories about her life, and I saw images relating to the stories. When I described them to her, she’d say things like, ‘Yes, that’s it! That’s it exactly!’ or ‘It sounds like the compound I stayed at on Lake Yogyarta.’ I came to have the feeling that as she died—she was sick the whole time I was with her, in dreadful pain—she was transferring her substance to me. We were becoming the same person. And perhaps we were.” She darts a glance toward Cliff. “Do you believe that’s possible? That someone can possess another body, that they can express their being into another flesh? I do. I can remember being someone else, though I can’t identify who that person was. My head’s too full of my aunt’s memories. It certainly would explain why I’m so mature. Everyone says that about me, that I’m mature for my age. Don’t you agree?”

  Scarily mature, Cliff says to himself. He doesn’t like the direction of the conversation and tells her they’d better be heading back to the lot.

  “Certainly. As soon as I see a turn-off.”

  She gooses the accelerator, and the SK surges forward, pushing Cliff back into the passenger seat. The digital readout on the speedometer hits eighty, eighty-five, then declines to sixty-five. She’s putting on a little show, he thinks; reminding him who’s in control.

  “Aunt Isabel spoke frequently about the man who made her ill,” Shalin goes on. “He was handsome and she loved him, of course. Otherwise she wouldn’t have risked getting pregnant. He said he couldn’t feel her as well when he wore a condom, and since this was at a time when protection wasn’t considered important—nobody in Southeast Asia knew about AIDS—she allowed him to have his way.”

  A queasy coldness builds in Cliff’s belly. “Isabel. Was she an actress?”

  “You remember! That makes it so much easier. Isabel Yahya. You cracked jokes about her last name. You said you were getting your ya-yas out when you were with her. She didn’t understand that, but I do.”

  She swings the SK in a sharp left onto a dirt road, a reckless maneuver; then she brakes, throws it into reverse, backs onto the highway, raising dust, and goes fishtailing toward Daytona.

  “Take it easy! Okay?” Cliff grips the dashboard. “I didn’t give her anything. She gave it to me. And it obviously wasn’t AIDS, or I’d be dead.”

  “No, you’re right. It wasn’t AIDS, but you definitely gave it to her.”

  “The hell I did!”

  “Before you became involved with Isabel, you slept with other women in Manila, didn’t you?”

  “Sure I did, but she’s the one…”

  “You were her first lover in more than a year!”

  Shalin settles into cruising speed and Cliff, sobered by what she’s told him, says, “Even if that’s true…”

  “It’s true.”

  “…she could have seen a doctor.”

  “She did,” says Shalin. “If you hadn’t gotten her fired, perhaps she could have seen the doctor who attended you.”

  “What are you talking about? I didn’t get her fired! She vanished off the set. I didn’t know what had happened to her.”

  Shalin makes a dismissive noise. “As it was, Aunt Isabel went to a bomoh. A shaman. I can’t blame you for that. She was a country girl and still put her trust in such men. But when he failed her, she wrote you letters, begging for help, for money to engage a western doctor. You never replied.”

  “I never got any letters.”

  “I don’t believe you.”

  “She didn’t have my address. How could she have written me?”

  “She mailed them in care of your agent.”

  “That’s like dropping them into a black hole. Mark…my agent. He’s not the most together guy. He probably filed them somewhere and forgot to send them along.”

  They flash past a ramshackle fishing camp at the edge of the marsh, wooden cabins and a pier with a couple of small boats moored at its nether end. Their speed is creeping up and Cliff tells her to back it down.

  “It’s an astonishing coincidence that we bought the Celeste and you started working for Uncle Jerry,” she says. “It almost seems some karmic agency is playing a part in all this.”

  Cliff doesn’t know what troubles him more, the idea that the coincidence is not a coincidence, a thought suggested by her sly tone, or the implication that an intimate relationship exists between Jerry Muntz and the Palaniappans. Now that he thinks about it, he’s seen Jerry, more than once, stop at the motel for a few minutes before heading home. He has no reason to assign the relationship a sinister character, yet Jerry wouldn’t befriend people like the Palaniappans unless he had a compelling reason.

  “All of what?” he asks.

  “Aunt Isabel was a woman of power,” says Shalin. “By nature, she was trusting and impractical, not at all suited for life in Manila or Jakarta. She ended up in Jakarta, you know. In a section known as East Cipinang, a slum on the edge of a dump. We survived by scavenging. I’d take the things we found and sell them in the streets to tourists. We had enough to eat most days. Tourists bought from me not because they wanted the things we found, but because I was very pretty little girl.” Her lips thin, as if she’s biting back anger. “Isabel could only work a few hours a day, and sometimes not that. Her insides were rotting. She received medicine from a clinic, but the disease had progressed too far for the doctors to do anything other than ease her pain. She’d lost her beauty. In the last years before she died, she looked like an old, shriveled hag.”

  “I’m sorry,” Cliff says. “I wish I had known.”

  “Yes, you would have flown to her side, I’m sure. She often spoke of your generosity.”

  “Look, I didn’t know. I can’t be held responsible for something I didn’t know was happening.”

  “Is that what it is to you? A matter of whether or not you can be held responsible? Are you afraid I’m going to sue you?”

  “No, that’s not…”

  “Rest assured, I’m not going to sue you.”

  Her voice is so thick with menace, Cliff is momentarily alarmed. They’re within the city limits now, driving in rush hour traffic past fruit stands and motels and souvenir shops, not far from the lot—he can’t wait to get out of the car.

  “Isabel, as I told you, was a woman of power,” says Shalin. “In another time, another place, she would have been respected and revered. But ill, buried in the slums, power of the sort she possessed could do her no good.”

  “What the hell are you getting at?” he asks.

  She flashes a sunny smile and goes on with her narrative. “Isabel loved you until the end. I know she hated you a little, too, but she maintained that you weren’t evil, just profligate and vain. And slight. She said there wasn’t much to you. You were terribly immature, but she had hopes you’d grow out of that, even though you were in your thirties when she knew you. She was basically a decent soul and power was something she used judiciously, only in cases where she could produce a good effect. It was among the last things she transferred to me.” She sighs forlornly. “Taking control of me was the one selfish act she committed in her life. You can’t blame her. The streets had left me damaged beyond repair and she was terrified of death. Of course these transfers are a bit like reincarnation, so it’s not exactly Isabel who’s alive. I mean, she is alive, but she’s a different person now. There are things that are left behind duri
ng a transfer, and things added that belonged to the soul who once inhabited this body.”

  “You’re out of your tree.” He says this without much conviction. “All you’re doing is screwing with me.”

  “Right on both counts.”

  She slows and eases into the turning lane across from the lot, waiting for a break in the traffic.

  “Now,” she says, “I use my power to get the things I want, to make my family secure. Sometimes I use it on a whim. You might say I use it profligately.”

  She edges forward, but brakes when she realizes she can’t make the turn yet. A semi roars past, followed by a string of cars.

  “One thing Isabel didn’t transfer to me was her love for you,” she says. “I imagine she wanted to keep that for herself, to warm her final moments. She was almost empty. All that was left was a shell, a few memories. Or maybe she didn’t want me to love you. You know, in case I ever saw you again. Do you suppose that’s it? She wanted me to hate you?”

  “You can get by after that red pick-up,” he says.

  “I see it.” She makes the turn, pulls into the lot and parks. “If that’s so, if that’s really what Isabel wanted, she got her wish,” she says. “No child should have to endure East Cipinang. You have no idea of the things I was forced to do as a result of your nonchalance, your triviality. Your shallowness.”

  She looks as if she’s about to spit on him, climbs out of the SK and then bends to the window, peering in at him. “This car won’t do, I’m afraid,” she says, blithely. “It corners horribly.”

  “What’re you trying to pull?” he asks. “You were at my house the other night, weren’t you?”

  “If you say so.”

  “What the hell do you want from me?”

  She straightens, as though preparing to leave, but then leans in the window again, her teeth bared and black eyes bugged. Except for the color of her skin, it’s the face of the witch, vividly insane, without a single human quality, and Cliff recoils from it.

  “If you want answers, watch Isabel’s movie,” she says, her face relaxing into that of a teenage girl. “I believe you have a copy.”

  Chapter 8

  CLIFF SITS IN his office for an hour, hour and a half, not thinking so much as brooding about Shalin’s story. It’s absurd, impossible, yet elements of it ring true, especially the part about him giving Isabel the STD. He digs deep, mining his memories, trying to recall how she was, how he felt about her, and remembers her as a simple girl, not simple in the sense of stupid, but open and unaffected, though it may be he’s prompted by guilt to gild the lily. She didn’t seem at all “a woman of power,” but then he didn’t take the time to know her, to look beneath the surface. His clearest memories relate to her amazing breasts, her dancer’s legs and ass, and to what a great lay she was. He wishes he could remember a moment when he loved her, an instance in which he saw something special about her, but he was a superficial kind of guy in those days, and maybe still is.

  Thoughts buzz him like mosquitoes, a cloud of tiny, shrill thoughts that swarms around his head, diving close just long enough to nettle his brain, questions about Shalin’s story, more memories of Isabel (once a trickle, their flow has become a flood, but all relating to how she looked, smelled, felt, tasted), and disparaging thoughts, lots of them, remarking on, as Shalin put it, his triviality, his nonchalance, his shallowness. If he could go an entire day without his life being captioned by this dreary self-commentary…

  The phone rings, and he picks it up, grateful for the interruption. His agent’s mellow tenor brings all the infectious banality of SoCal to his ear. After an exchange of pleasantries, his agent says, “Listen, Cliff. I was in New York last week. I had this crazy idea and you know me, what the hell, I pitched it to a couple of publishers. I said, What if Cliff Coria wrote a book, a memoir, about his life in the movies. This guy’s acted all over, I told them. Spain, Southeast Asia, Czechoslovakia. You name it. And he’s smart. And he’s seen celebrities in unguarded moments. He’s kind of an insider-slash-outsider. He can give you a view from the fringes of Hollywood, and maybe that’s the clearest view of all.”

  “I don’t know, Mark.”

  “Don’t you want to hear how they reacted?”


  “They were excited, Cliff. There could be serious money for you in this. And if the book does what I think it will, it’ll generate significant heat out here.”

  The Celeste’s Vacancy sign switches on in the twilight, seeming like a glowing blue accusation. Cliff lowers the Venetian blinds.

  “I believe there’ll be interest in you as a character actor,” Mark goes on. “Not just cheesy parts. I think I’d be able to get you serious work. I know you can do this, Cliff. Remember those letters you used to send me? Like the one about Nicholson’s ass hanging out of the car when he was banging that bit player? That was fucking hilarious! Come on! All I need is a few chapters and a rough outline.”

  Cliff assures his agent that he’ll give it a try. He leaves a note for Jerry, saying he’s going to take a few days off to deal with some personal problems, and then heads for Marley’s place. Crossing the Main Street Bridge over the Halifax River, which bisects Daytona, he sees several old men fishing off the bridge, half in silhouette, motionless, with buckets at their feet, the corpses of blowfish and sting rays bloodily strewn along the walkway, and thinks that if he were ever to take up fishing, this is where he’d like to drop his line. The idea of joining those sentinel figures appeals to him, as does the thought of hauling up little monsters from the deep.

  At the apartment Cliff pours a vodka from a bottle chilled in the freezer, turns on the TV, and pops Sword Of The Black Demon into the DVD player. While the opening credits roll, he calls Marley and tells her he’s coming up to the Surfside sometime between nine and ten. He fast-forwards through the movie until he finds the entrance of the witch queen and her chunky blue retinue; then he sits on the edge of the bed, sipping vodka, watching Isabel Yahya and the other women attending a ceremony in a torchlit cave made of acrylic fiber painted to look like rock—it involves the queen choosing a new fuck toy, a young Filipino youth with oiled muscles. She leads him to the royal chamber, where a bed with blue satin sheets awaits, screws his brains out and, while he’s helpless, limp, and nearly unconscious from her amorous assault, she drains him of his soul, laughing as she coaxes it forth by means of a lascivious dance. The soul resembles a stream of pale smoke from which faces surface. Cliff assumes them to be the youth’s memories. The smoke dwindles to a trickle and at long last, after much eye-rolling and twitching, the youth dies.

  In another scene, Ricky Sintara, a striking young man with even larger muscles, also oiled, and Dak Windsor enter the cave, seeking to capture the queen and persuade her to divulge the whereabouts of the wizard who has loosed the black demon; but they are themselves captured by the royal guard. The queen drags Ricky off to suffer the same fate as the youth, but once in the sack, Ricky proves to be no ordinary man—his incomparable lovemaking renders the queen hors de combat. This is all shown tastefully—no actual penetration; only full frontal female nudity—and dredges up a chuckle from Cliff, because Ricky, a fine fellow and terrific drinking companion, would on occasion wear women’s clothing when relaxing during the shoot and had a boyfriend who was prettier than the majority of the actresses.

  Meanwhile, in another part of the cave, Dak is chained to the wall and Isabel is preparing to scourge him with an S&M dream of a whip whose lashes appear to be fashioned of live scorpions. He takes a few strokes, writhes in pain, calls out to God for assistance, using a specific phrase that causes Isabel to realize that he is the son of the doctor who saved her village from a cholera outbreak years before—she was a little girl at the time, but developed a crush on the teenage Dak that lasts to this day. Turned aside from the path of evil by the power of love, she frees Dak and they kiss, a miracle of osculation that changes her skin from blue back to a pleasing caramel, and together, along with Ricky,
they flee the cave, carrying with them the comatose queen.

  Lashed to a bed in Ricky’s shack (the hero has hewed to his humble village origins), the queen strains mightily against her ropes, mimicking her earlier struggles in the act of love, breasts heaving, hips thrusting, tormented by Ricky’s questions, and eventually she yields up her secrets. But that night, while Dak and Ricky are reconnoitering the wizard’s lair, she calls out to Isabel, whom she still controls to an extent. By means of her occult powers and a cross-eyed, beetling stare, she coerces Isabel into untying her bonds. She then knocks her to the ground and stands over her, waggling her fingers and projecting dire energies from their tips, bursts of blue light that cause her former minion to shrivel, to grow desiccated and wrinkled, dying of old age in a matter of seconds.

  Is that, Cliff asks himself, what Shalin wants him to believe may be in store for him? He recalls her talk about Isabel’s premature aging, her comment regarding a karmic agency being involved in all of this—a sudden withering would be an apt punishment according to karmic law. But he refuses to believe Shalin capable of doling out such a punishment.

  He goes to the refrigerator, pours another vodka, and watches the rest of the movie. The queen escapes through the surrounding jungle, but is killed by Ricky, who throws his magical dagger at her. It tumbles end over end, traveling hundreds of yards through the darkness, swerving around clumps of bamboo, tree trunks, bushes, and impales the fleeing queen through her malignant heart. Dak grieves for Isabel, but is bucked up by Ricky and rises to the moment with renewed zeal. With the help of a friendly shaman, they plot the attack: Dak will lead the simple villagers (there are always simple villagers in Filipino fantasy movies) in an assault on the wizard’s palace, distracting the evil one so that Ricky can sneak inside and do him in.

  The battle goes badly for Dak at first. The villagers are being hacked to pieces by the wizard’s guard. All seems lost, but the ghost of Isabel appears, wreathed in swirling mist to disguise the fact the actress is no longer Isabel (a love scene between her ghost and Dak was intended for the night before the battle, but she vanished from the project and a rewrite was necessary), and she inspires him with a message of undying love and tells him of a secret tunnel into which they can lure the guard and fight them in a narrow confine, thus neutralizing their superior numbers. As this is happening, the Black Demon accosts Ricky outside the palace and all, again, seems lost. Not even he can defeat a giant. But the ancient gods, played by white-bearded men wearing silk robes and several busty Filipina babes in brocaded halters, intervene. They whisk Ricky and the Black Demon away to a cosmic platform surrounded by a profusion of stars and clouds of nebular gas (glowing, Cliff notices, rose and purple, green and white, like the lights he saw outside his cottage), shrink them to almost equal size (the demon still has a considerable advantage), and let them fight. Fending off blows with a magic bracelet given him by his dying father, a silvery circlet wrought from the stuff of a dying star, Ricky bests the demon and takes his sword—it is, by chance, the only weapon that can slay the wizard. He is returned to planet Earth where, after a torrid chase, the wizard changes into a huge serpent that Ricky chops into snake sushi.

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