He saw her at the top of the stairs where the stairs ended and the railing began. She was leaning against the safety hazard of the motel balcony. She was wearing a violet dress that hugged her waistline not tightly, that tapered into less violet shades at her thighs. She was doing that thing again where she rubbed her palm against the starfish in her pocket.
How do you do, he practiced in his head.
He put one foot before the other.
She had her eyes glued to the binoculars. The motel was like any motel lining 41: two-story, single occupancy, ringed like a horseshoe; cheap black iron stairs angling up to the second floor.
He walked his way across the parking lot. A truck, a swing set, a curb in disrepute. He walked his way right up to the stairs.
She was watching the way the creek slothed past and how the yard on the other side of the road went beyond that.
He was walking his way up the stairs. He had a laborious time of it, walking up the stairs. He kept wanting his bad leg to stop slowing down his good leg.
She was seeing in the binoculars that the yard opened up past the pond and there were vegetable plots—kale, it looked, or okra—and there was more yard and then there was woods, past that.
He was practicing the way he would pass her on the stairs.
Peeping Tom? he practiced to himself.
Lots of fauna out? he practiced.
SCENE: ERSKINE PRINCE PERAMBULATES THE MERMAID MOTEL COURTYARD
Potbellied, hair white as piano ivory, Erskine looks serenely maladjusted in the courtyard. There’s that weird steampunk-inspired patch over his right eye [a lone goggle], and his hair is hanging morosely over his shoulders [though his face is clean-shaven as an imp’s], and by morosely one more or less means oily and clumped. His cheeks are a straight up lunar landscape of pimple scars. By courtyard one means a pelvic peninsula of grass braving the sandy space between the highway and the Mermaid Motel marquee—though marquee is most definitely not the word.
Here are the things that Erskine is wearing: a massive black overcoat, so long it’s almost a cape, hulking over a thick-fitting tunic; a rectangular jade amulet, hidden beneath this tunic; a trapezoidal magnet, strapped to the small of his back [also hidden], sucking out all the bad qi from his spine; a gaucho’s leather belt and black jeans, crumpling over gigantic black boots; and a single silver chain, snaking into a pocket. The courtyard’s empty but for a hoary-jowled man leaned against the iron trellis of a swing set.
On the property adjacent to the Mermaid Motel, sharing elbow room with the highway, is a walk-in “Matrimonies” which has momentarily engaged Erskine’s exceptional peripheral-visual capacities. Two star-crossed specimens saunter into the office—part of a retail strip that includes a credit union, an insurance operation, and an Amish creamery. Erskine notes their vitals: He: brown hair, long; roundish nose; a squashed, rounded quality to his face. She: brown hair, buzzed; ears like elves’; a satchel from Nuevo College bisecting her tank top. Heights: unremarkable.
“Hippies,” grunts the hoary-jowled man, by which he probably means hipsters. “You can smell them all the way from last year.”
Erskine figures with his slumped body and brown-bagged Big Gulp that he’s talking to himself, because he goes on: “Only hippies would get married ironicly.”
Erskine can’t be bothered. He busts out a lilliputian pair of binoculars. The object of his espionage opens lavishly to the view. A sprawling jungle gym of a house, with fairy tale balconies and crude additions held together by some freak black geometry. It is such a departure from the modest Amish homesteads fanning out from its northwest shoulder that it looks more like a haunted plantation, resurrected after years of Rip-Van-Winkle slumber, only to find the stamp of the American dream grown up around it. The yard looms. The pond yawns. An egret plucks a mite from its plumage. And then you come to the woods—so dense no eye can penetrate.
Hoary-jowl’s still blathering. “You know who’s intresting? Writers. Writers are intresting. You know why they’re intresting?”
Having one eye and only one eye to speak of these days makes all binocular efforts considerably more complicated.
“—They’re intresting for the same reason they’re intolerble.”
Erskine indulges him. “Yeah?” But he’s marveling at the violet dress that just appeared through his binoculars.
“—Writers—they’re so concerned with their own perfection, so obsessed with getting themselves right, it makes them simultanously intriguing and simultanously worthless to anyone else, at the same time.”
Hipsters are distinguishable from hippies by their distinctive markings, notably flannel and neon.
“I don’t think writers are intriguing at all.”
“Bah, [a dismissive wave of the hand] that’s what all you young ones think.” Given Erskine’s counteface, he cannot possibly mean young.
Anyone who knows the Prince family at all—anyone who’s laid hands on Erskine’s one-hit blunder of a novel, even—will note that the erstwhile cult-favorite author no longer sports the bushy, muddled Prince-family blond that adorns the heads of his two sisters. That, together with a nine-life face that’s uglier than the underside of a teated boar, and E.C. Prince [as he signed his texts] looks every bit to be a plumper version of old cattail-whiskered Lao Tzu.
That’s what searching for your father for half your life will do to you.
“What’s your name, anywho?” goes the man, a recently-ingested Coney dog’s fumes reaching from his mouth as though a hand from the grave.
Erskine eyes him with the closest one he’s got. “Rasputin,” he goes. “From Tennessee.”
Number 166 is at the top of the stairs. Rolf Mansford, U.S. Army Special Forces, retired, notes the angle of her body at seven plus or minus two degrees northwest, notes the binoculars she affixes to her face in a not inconspicuous gesture and notes the astonishing white of her free hand, steadying herself on the railing. He notes the shapeliness of her breasts. He notes the way the violet dress curves around the iris of her body, fluttering, to cup her shapely breasts. He notes her hip. He notes with a wistful seizing up of the midsection that he should like to inspect her in further detail, in a perfect world. Rolf Mansford notes from the way Number 166 hikes up one leg, props against railing [such an astonished shade of white] that Number 166 can handle herself if pressed, leading him to believe she has had men problems before. He should not like to join that company.
There was a moving scene circumscribed in the binoculars ellipsing Number 166’s view. The object of her espionage was an old woman visible through the kitchen window. She wore loose gray pajamas and a sable-fur coat. She moved with the slow, indignant defeat of an aged Southern belle. She produced a maudlin grapefruit from a birdcage-cum-fruit-basket. Day 16 of observation, and the kitchen wore its disarray on its sleeve. The woman Number 166 knew to be Mary Louise Prince was retrieving a knife from the medieval array of cutlery and she was placing the knife in the crook of the maudlin grapefruit. What happened after that was a scene of almost cinematic tenderness. Mary Louise shuffled her way into a chair by the window, where the thin winter light cast a shaft of silver on the plinth of the desk lamp. She then reached very slowly after a saucer of sugar. She tapped three spoonfuls over the halved, maudlin grapefruit. She picked up the serrated grapefruit spoon from the side of the bowl. Number 166 watched her plunge the jagged instrument in the halved, maudlin grapefruit. When it reemerged the spoon cupped a sugared prism in its palm. Number 166 watched Mary Louise usher the morsel in her mouth as though it were the first bite of food she’d had in months.
Number 166 bends to retrieve the Franzia box at her feet.
On the roof of the Mermaid Motel is a dried-up baby pool and some beach chairs and a table. Five months ago Mermaid Motel proprietor Eduoard “Rolf” Mansford, who has always been exasperated at the number of vowels in his name, started taking in some peculiar guests. First it was the guy with the cape and black jeans—really—who’s been here ever since, and hasn’t once been seen by Rolf Mansford wearing anything different. Next came a woman who is sartorially speaking the opposite—a professional cross-dresser? an actress? a lesbian?—who comes out every several days wearing a different outfit and comes back before evening with a box of Franzia under her arm. Rolf Mansford calls her 166. Rolf Mansford calls the caped guy Number 266. He doesn’t call them this to their faces. He never speaks much to either of them, but they’re part of a larger trend of long-term tenants. Just the other week, a couple Spanish-speaking fellows and a redneck wearing a Marlins cap showed up in a gray Silverado. They rented two rooms on the far end of the palace. Rolf Mansford makes a mental note of everyone’s room number because if Rolf Mansford required his guests to hand over identification with occupancy he would lose a substantial slice of his clientele, and he knows how hard the economy is. Turns out most people come to the Mermaid Motel to not be found. As it is, he has to supplement earnings with a two-minute marriage license business next door. It mostly attracts the hipsters who think it’s an amusing place to bring a date but sometimes there are people who mean it. Rolf Mansford uses the word “palace” in reference to the Mermaid Motel in line with a new strategy he’s attempting toward life, inspired by the incredible true book by Jay Pickseltof, the former bodybuilder whose spiraling cosmetic insecurities drove him to rock bottom, specifically the bottommost cell of the county jail, where he was consigned for ten years after an unusual conviction of “grand theft anabolic steroid,” and during which time he became convinced of the power of positive thinking and wrote a book about the deeply restorative process of naming every object, instance, scenario, or person not exactly as they appear but rather in the image of what they could be—a kind of bizarre twist on the Platonic form. In this manner Rolf Mansford has fashioned a robust idealized world for himself.
166 heard Rolf Mansford clanging up the steps behind her before he got all the way up.
“You can’t keep following me around, I told you I’m married,” she said by way of preemption, eyes still glued to binoculars.
To her surprise the clanging stopped and she turned around to find it wasn’t Rolf Mansford at all. The wine leapt out of her glass at the sight.
The man before her was wearing a gaucho’s leather belt and black jeans. He was wearing what had to be some kind of cape.
Number 166’s first thought was how hideous this man before her was.
Her second thought was: Is that a goggle on his eye?
…As in one goggle? Singular?
He stood there one step before the stairs ended and the railing began.
He was truly very hideous.
“Oh I thought you were someone else,” she went.
“Peeping Tom?” he replied.
She hid the binoculars behind her back automatically, stupidly, as if that would disappear them. She explained. “Bird watching.”
Number 166 was trying to disappear herself.
“Lots of fauna out today?”
“Beg your pardon?”
“The birds. Lots of em?”
“Oh. Yes. Lots.” She wrung out her skirt and the wine dribbled off. A trickle of rubicund grapefruit dribbled down the chin of Mary Louise Prince. “They’re feasting.”
Erskine retrieved a pair of binoculars from his waist, moored his eye toward the pond adjoining the house. “The egret’s my favorite,” he went. “She’s a regal old dame.”
Number 166 was silent because she didn’t know what to think of this man, his ugliness, his familiarness.
“The thing I can’t get, though— [Erskine flashes her a look] is why she’s always alone.”
Number 166 replied with a “what” or something to that effect.
“The egret,” he said. “She’s always alone.”
“Cause. They’re solitary by nature,” she made up.
“Huh. That so.”
Number 166 pretended to look. Erskine went back to the binoculars. Outside, it was one of those grey days, so gray it could be spelled with an e. There was breeze off the coast, a couple miles down. It was sticky in the air. It was Florida, alright.
With his eyes to the binoculars, Erskine went, “Don’t look now. But you have an admirer.”
She whipped around but didn’t see anything.
“Not that way,” he said, eyes still straight ahead. “The other.”
She whipped around the other way and saw the beady-eyed motel owner puttering some distance behind them on the awning. He looked away superquick when she saw him. “Oh God,” she went to herself.
“Well,” Erskine went aloud. He lowered the binoculars from his face. “Let me know if you see anything.”
“Do I…know you? From somewhere?” Number 166 attempted.
He examined her hand, working furiously in her pocket. “Are you aware of your nervous habit?”
She pulled out the starfish by way of explanation. “Oh, this?” she said with a laugh. “You’re right. It’s just a habit.”
A silence of interminable awkwardness ensued. She noted his stance: wide, a perfect isosceles.
“We should compare field notes,” he said after that. “Sounds like we’re interested in the same birds.”
She stared after him as he limped off. He limped off in the direction of room 266.
[BACKSTORY]. A HEART-RENDING NUGGET ABOUT ERSKINE’S TORTURED, ARTISTIC ADOLESCENCE
Anyone who met Erskine knew right then and there they were laying eyes on a hideous specimen. Barely twenty, he had the pickled, porous heart of a recovering hopeless romantic, and his face was racked with the scars of simmering acne pods. Filthy — was a word frequently used by his sixth-grade classmates, back when. Grotesque — came the description from the class spelling bee champion. The freshmen girls of the second-floor science wing lockers invoked words like revolting and vile and down. right. fucking. gross. There was even utterance once of the exotic descriptor vomitous. Pimples stretched like cordilleras over his cheeks. His high Swiss-German nose was peppered with blackheads. An oil slick’s sheen of grease pooled across his saccharine brow.
He tried everything. Creams, powders, unguents, ointments, scrubs, masks, astringents, washes. Little adhesive strips you slap over your nose to rip out the blackheads. But the boy was cursed. As far as anyone knew, E.C. Prince was flipping burgers at a Chik’n’Bun, commiserating over his abrupt precipitous plunge from his berth as the enfant terrible of avant fiction. Most people knew he had moved to California, enrolled in a community college for pretense, and quietly assembled his thitherto-lauded debut “masterpiece”. How quickly fame could change. And then came the day, in the early part of autumn, when the agent in the offensively orange Vols necktie stabbed the lawn with a stake that blurted SOLD! and the Mexicans in white T-shirts set to piling several decades of Prince-family appurtenance into the U-haul. Erskine’s rhubarb ragtop sputtered into the driveway on a lugubrious Knoxville afternoon. Practically penniless, for all intents and purposes broken, despondent, downtrodden by fate, he beheld the home of his growing up, looming in all its austere wreckage. The house yawned its ancient white timber. Copperheaded ivy patiently annexed the windows. The seasons were changing in East Tennessee: the precipitating gestures of a newly-kaleidoscopic fall.
The paint-besplattered movers galumphed through the door smelling like Pine Sol and Cheeseburger Charlie’s, an empty cupboard in tow. It was sometime in the black hole of the ’80s. He had nothing keeping him in his country anymore.
Before he fled Santa Monica, some two weeks earlier, Erskine received a phone call. The two-room rental, a block from the beach, had never looked so violated. He watched as a tattooed forearm defenestrated the Prussian tapestry. A butterfingered wide receiver misjudged the trajectory. Loose-limbed homeboys manhandled the heirloom china. The ragtop was stashed a couple blocks down.
“Erskine?” came his mother’s crackled voice through the line.
Instinctually he recoiled before reassuring himself that she couldn’t see any of this. “Yes, mother. It’s me.” With mothers you never know.
Mothers always know what you’re up to.
“Oh, thank God it’s you.”
“Still me, mom.”
“Are you home?”
“You’re calling me at my apartment.”
“Of course. Of course.”
“Is this a good time?”
Erskine looked around him. A mattress, no box spring, a table, a typewriter, a teapot, a sink, a grisly one-eyed stovetop. A teacup of jasmine, magnificently entwined.
“It’s a great time,” he said.
She was selling the house, she told him, at long last. And she needed the china back. And the linens. He asked her why she was selling the house. He shot a desolate look at the crew of thugs playing keepaway with a family urn and then shot a very quick, non-aggressive look at the one in the corner, who was arms folded and tattoos bared while he crucified Erskine with the Don’t Get Any Ideas eye.
“I’ve had enough,” was her answer. “And your father hasn’t shown up again for a while.”
“Six months,” she lied.
“But I shall need the china because Miss Shirley the stager she says it won’t look good unless it’s staged with the china, you know, and it’s such an old house—”
Erskine put the phone on his shoulder and gave the guy a look. “It’s my mother, man. She’s asking about a special…it’s this thing. A vase.”
By way of a response Erskine got a graphic mime of an enormous cock being jerked off.
“It’s got…” He looked anxiously out the window, and got an idea. “It’s got my Paw-Paw’s ashes in it, for God’s sake.”
“Shit luck,” went the guy, who really was profusely tattooed.
“Look, [Mary Louise was still prattling on against his shoulder] just let me at least grab the ashes out of it? She’s gonna fucking kill me, man.”
He was about to hang his head and return to the desolate sound of his mother’s yarning when the guy said: “You’re a real fuck, you know that?” and motioned toward him to move.
A faint puff of hope leapt in Erskine. “Mom?” he said into the line. “Relax. I’ll get it. I’ll call you later.”
“—and they’re carpetbaggers, these people, tryin to come in and say that color inna round anymore—”
He clapped the phone back in place and grabbed his old ball jacket, from his glory days [his Catholic High shortstop days]. Then he turned down the stairs with his escort at his back like a knife. At the bottom the goons were all wife beaters and cigarettes. The smell of the Pacific wafted off the horizon. He fingered the keys in his pocket.
“Um,” he announced.
The goons stopped, the one on the far side still grasping the urn. “Fuck you want, fuck?”
He explained with no uncertain desperation that he should like to procure his Paw-Paw’s ashes before they collected the last of his debts.
“I know you don’t owe me anything,” he concluded.
That just made them all laugh.
“But if it ain’t too much. To ask.”
It was like a bad sitcom, the way the laughing died down and their mouths slanted at him.
One of the thugs held the vase/urn under his arm and patted it nice and slow.
“Ashes, uh?” he went.
Erskine saw the cigarette dangling from the man’s mouth and understood that he was in no position to count on charity from a loan shark who was known [quaintly] as The Tiburón.
“Just give him the fucking vase already,” came the voice of the thug at his back.
“Sure thing,” the guy said, histrionically dangling the cigarette over it.
“Oh I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Erskine went.
“Do what, dickwad?”
Erskine reflected grimly that his grandfather’s dying wishes included that his ashes be mixed with a huge pile of gunpowder he’d putatively ripped from a federal agent while running moonshine in the Smokys, post Reconstruction.
As the goon took a long last thuggish drag, and let slide the wanton butt from his fingertips, the old brawn in Erskine instinctively remembered its shortstop days, and he sprang in a moment as if going for a ground ball—not in the direction of the gleaming urn, but sideways, behind the dumpster, head tucked and arms earmuffing his skull, just as the lit nib sank into the vessel—and the goons could manage only half a collective caught-by-surprise gape before the vase blasted in every which direction. The guy’s head smithereened into a kind of brain confetti; the rest were thrown from their feet, urn-shrapnel acupuncturing their faces. Erskine’s skull pealed. Spots flew before his eyes. For a moment he wasn’t sure there was ground beneath him.
A minute passed before Erskine found his feet again. At first there was no sound. But there on the ground a bloody assemblage was scattered. Bodies lay prostrate like slumped marionettes. Somewhere near or somewhere far off a car alarm sounded. He looked around. He was the only one standing. That was all the green light he needed.
He turned off, but not before glimpsing the profusely tattooed thug who’d watched him from the apartment since they arrived. He looked like a bludgeoned fish. Their eyes met, the thug’s pair twitching awfully as though trapped in his skull, the rest of his body as still as a mummy. They were the incredulous eyes of one who knows he’s lost the bout. He moved his lips as if to speak, but all they could do was twitch as horrifically as those eyes. Erskine bolted for the ragtop.
As he turned the key over in the ignition, he had to think a moment before remembering the name of the freeway that led back East, let alone where he might find the exit to catch it. Then he roared off back into the direction he’d come, some years before. ▲
WHAT HAPPENED WITH THE PORNO BOOKS SHE READ
At night, when she’s alone, Number 166 reads pornos. Early in the evening, in that dull space between sunset and the end of a zinfandel, she opens the drawer lined with a dozen or so novels (small beach-chair editions with fixed-width fonts and glossy mass-trade covers), and she retrieves which weathered volume strikes her languor. The pages are soggy with sex, with lustful female narrators and the powerful men they can’t resist. Number 166 rolls each word around in her tongue. Take me, Veronica the female protagonist cries. I want to feel you in my mouth. Number 166 wants to feel every word. The fucking and the lovemaking. The goosing, the banging. The bending her over and slamming her against the bedframe. Each word has its own saturated taste. Making love with someone implied a communion, an awe for the thing forked and open before you. Making love to someone implied a process, a fabricating. Something more routine than transcendent. Fucking, though. Fucking was the opposite. Fucking meant feeling everything completely. It meant feeling everything with such carnal imperative its only expression could be violence. And then the grammatical nuances. Making love begged an object—a person in whose complicity or in whose general direction the act was consummated. To fuck was to steal that object for your own. Neither felt the same afterwards. That’s the problem: it never feels the same after.
A recovering pornographer turned film critic. A lonely police officer, who falls in love with the favored call girl of a Sheung Wan gangster. She, the runaway beauty plagued by a broken heart—who resolves to sleep with every man she meets before her boss can hunt her down. Rolf Mansford fingers the spine of the paperback and feels his pulse pick up to a canter. The last time Rolf Mansford ever read fiction recreationally, he was crammed outside a port-facing café in Saigon, and he was fingering a stack of books for sale on the sidewalk. He remembers picking up the book he picked up because it had a pretty cover, and the back description made him hard, and it was the only book in English. He remembers it was gray outside and it was morning, and he remembers the truly unbelievable feeling of being out in the open, among buildings, among air, among people. He remembers it being so superior to the feeling of being on hands and knees, on the jungle floor—waiting for hours, crawling two feet, waiting on the jungle floor for hours more, lifting your finger off the trigger for one half of a minute while your second covered you, and slowly, very soundlessly, taking the cap off the canteen and dribbling a few drops of water down your throat, tilting your neck just enough so when your second when his head snapped back and then split like a melon you had a front-row view before your eyes and face went warm with splatter. Rolf Mansford remembers the things that kept him strong. He remembers reflecting, as he fingered the stained, greasy spine, that the only thing that kept him from turning the gun on himself in that five-year jungle was the thought of his wife in her white wedding dress, with white icing smeared across her nose and a big hunk of the stuff raised in her hand like a snowball. He remembers boarding the plane from Saigon with the new book creased under his arm. He remembers the long flight and the long taxi ride home. He remembers the book was a fast read, but, oddly, he can’t remember a single detail about the plot. There was kung fu involved—that much was certain. He remembers how he was still reading all the way up to the final pages as the taxi pulled in the drive. He remembers how the sky above the house was the same gray as the sky in the world that he had left. He remembers navigating the strange furniture, remembers doubting whether he remembered all those things as they were after all, those things he left behind. He remembers that the book was still under his arm, the rucksack on his back, as he moved up the stairs to the sounds of moaning and grunting, two distinct sounds, the moaning and the grunting, and he tries, but cannot help, not remembering the whiteness of the room as he drew back the door, how the gray spilled in from the open window and took on the strangest blanched-like hue as it tumbled and crashed all over the bed.
Mary Louise had a stellar view of the yard and the way the pond bubbled and shuddered in the dark. Shut in self-consigned exile behind the grimmest curtains since Judith Beheading Holofernes, she had learned to entertain herself in the second-floor guest room of 6364 Beersheba Dr., northeast corner. Oh, Mary Louise had her doubts. She saw him lowered in the ground. With her own two eyes she saw it. Watched the dirt seal the casket shut, the long splinters of rain pitter-patter till the dirt turned to mud. And all she could think about were those two sagging blue-like eyes of his. But then the i-Cloud would boot up again, the ’90s dial-up modem stutter and inveigle, and her eyes would draw back to the lurid blue glow—the shapeliness of a thousand flashing objects competing for the diversion of her grief.
I felt my way to the corner of the room. I don’t know about this, I said to him with a trembling in my voice. But doesn’t it feel so…right, Missus Saul? His eyes flickered…he came around behind me and put his hands on my hips. His grasp was…authoritative. I could feel his enormous member press against my buttocks. I couldn’t explain it, but some wicked part of me wanted him…wanted to feel what it was like to lose myself so passionately and so completely. My mouth went dry. Could he be right? Was this lust that I was feeling? Or was it just…something natural? Something…right?
Down at the seafood restaurants along the marina, the tanks bubble in the windows, buff with fish. Erskine is paused before the restaurant window, the lights on the water dancing in hot pinks and blues in the window’s reflection. The ghoul-lipped mastodon of the sea—“A Florida Gulf special”—rejoins his gaze. The mastodon sails toward the existential wall of the tank like an enormous unwieldy bath toy. Upon dead-ending at the glass existential wall, it pauses gapemouthed as if contemplating its options. It’s too big to pivot on its fin without striking the two lateral walls and getting stuck there, so it has to do the ichthyic equivalent of a 12-point turn to compensate for what it lacks in turning radius. Instead of just being sad, the whole scene is uncomfortable at the same time because the fish, with its one big eye, appears excruciatingly self-conscious about its being too fat to turn like all the normal fish around it can. What’s more, the fish is clearly aware of Erskine’s making a spectacle of its grief. Erskine wants to tell the fish that he does not mean it and he’s sorry, that he’s watching in empathy and not in sport. For a moment he actually tries this, telepathically. Through the window, on the far side of the tank, on the other side of another glass existential wall, Erskine can see the muddled forms of tablecloths and ties and, whatever you call them, theater dresses or something, rippling in and out of view. Does the self-conscious fish stuck making a 20-point turn see these creatures too, Erskine asks himself. Does it apprehend the white, starched fate that awaits it? Unlike critics, who begin op-ed pieces for The Atlantic with sentences like “This is why hip hop is the most innovative genre in music today,” dollar-novel smut writers eschew magniloquence entirely, goes Erskine to the fish. The great misfortune about the American essay is that anyone with a critical or literary book to his name can stand socks-bared on a podium like The Atlantic, or be a senior editor at The Atlantic and write an occasional disquisition for The Times, perhaps when Nicholas Kristof is on book leave, and pontificate about who or what segment of society harbors what ill will toward this or that other without supplying any data or anything even somewhat divorced from anecdote to support what reeks polemically of good old American identity politics. No one should get published just to write about what they “think”. It doesn’t mean anything. Everyone “thinks”. You’re getting published because of your privilege at having landed a degree and having persisted in the shit of meritocrasophistry long enough to luck yourself an audience. Why Erskine’s driven to think this thought while watching the pathetic self-conscious fish attempt a 200-point turn is a matter of pure speculation.
Number 166 put on the scarlet hijab and made as if to slip out the door. Her hand on the knob, she thought about the motel owner, with his beady eyes that watered like anime gifs. She decided to slip out the window. The morning paper lay gnarled in the claws of an agave plant. “TURTLE BEACH RAPIST” VICTIM COUNT CLIMBS TO 6. It was fucked up, yes, it was fucked and it was incomprehensible that this was what life had come to, fleeing one man and stalking another, especially one of them being dead, or at least widely believed to be so, that part, it was indubitably fucked yes sir and it was sad, in a prosaic sense. Nevertheless there were oceans. There were oceans and there were waves, and ways of swimming in the waves, which is to say ways of losing yourself in the waves in ways that felt like the waves were actually hugging you, actually not losing you at all—there were ways that you could disappear into a whole dark ocean at nighttime, the whole dark of it, and you could be happy there and also you could be loved. Well this is what life has come to. In the end there’s nothing sentimental about it, just people getting spat out of a great cosmic goo like waves from the ocean, disembarking on the shore, crashing on the shore, faceplanting on the shore, getting utterly fucked by the shore and sapped dry by it or returning to the goo, whichever. The shore has nothing against anyone, it’s just the way things work when shores and waves happen together, it’s a mathematical relationship really, shores and waves, the condition of their happening together. It’s the lot of waves to crash against the shore for such a brief time, only to sink back to where they came from or break apart into a billion tiny fractions and dissolve. In fact you should be grateful, it’s a privilege to feel what it’s like to crash so hard and so intently. Feel the water clogging your ears and then not clogging. You go pee just to feel and just well in some sort of symbolic useless defiance of those old wives’ tales of flesh-eating microbes that swim up your vag. At some point you come up for air. Put on your clothes again. Feel your pocket for the starfish that’s still there, sigh of relief, it’s still there, it’s yours, it’s how you remember where you came from, remember?
Number 166 crept her way back through the darkened motel. She fingered the lock to room 166; the door gave and sent a chill rippling over the threshold. With a tentative step forward she loosed the hijab from her scalp. The room had a breeziness to it, a vacated-ness. Like someone had been there just moments before. Instinctually she went for the drawer. A single chink in the row of novels glared like a missing tooth. Her heart set off against her chest. There was no sign of forced entry; everything was just as she’d left it. The typewriter, the closet full of disguises, a mostly finished Franzia. The window was still in its place. She felt dizzy and sat on the sill until the sun came up over the dazzling pond.
Come morning, without sleeping, she climbed the stairs to the rooftop of the Mermaid Motel again, and it nearly sent her skin running for cover to find the caped guy there.
“You again,” he said first.
“Jesus Christ you scared me,” she said.
He was standing in a manner suggestive of great posterior balance, and the acne scars on his face appeared craggy in the morning light.
“I see I’m not the only one who knows about the secret rooftop Olympic pool,” he said. “Now I know you’re not here to see an albatross, are you?”
She was quick on her feet. “That’s a creepy pick-up line, and you’re not attractive enough to pull it off.”
“Be that as it may,” Erskine said, “you might be interested in this.” He nodded in the direction of the house, and she turned around to see what he saw. There, off in the distance, nearly all the way up to the edge of the woods, a fifty-something woman had herself kneeled at the base of what 166 recognized to be some kind of obelisk, and she was smearing the stone with some sacramental something or other.
“Honey,” he informed her.
Erskine passed her the binoculars and she ventured a look. It only took her a second. “Carolyn Callahan Prince,” she mouthed aloud.
“You know her?”
“The daughter of L.T. Prince? Come on,” 166 replied. “That’s how I knew to come here. It was the only detail in the obit. They buried him here. Or supposedly.” When Erskine didn’t say anything, she went on, “What, are you gonna pretend you’re not here for the same thing?”
“Remind me,” he went. “I have a dreadful sense of purpose.”
She turned to Erskine and scrutinized his substantial figure. “You must be a fanatic too.”
“Actually, I kind of hate the man.”
“I’m one of those people.”
“Would it help if I told you I don’t think he’s really dead?”
“Is that supposed to help?”
166 shrugged. “I thought you might find him less repulsive if he still had some life left to live.”
“The truth is, I’ve been looking for him for a long time.”
“And then you read his obituary in the paper.”
“And realized he was living two towns over all this time.”
“And you decided you’d come and find him.”
“But now that I’m here, I’m not so sure I want to find him.”
“I’m more interested in the ‘not really dead’ part, personally.”
She extended a hand. “Name’s Louanne. I hunt ghosts.”
Erskine replied that she could call him Ras.
“Razz. Okay. What are you, besides an L.T. Prince hater?”
“Hate was a strong word. I guess I’m just like you. Famous author famously devolves into a hermit? There’s all kinds of intrigue surrounding that story. I had to find out more.” Louanne looked suspicious. Erskine said, “Did you say you knew him?”
“Oh. Not in any lasting way.”
“Wouldn’t that be a conflict of interest? In your line of work? Hunting a ghost you used to know.”
“I don’t follow you.”
“I mean, if you’re attached too much to your subject.”
Louanne shook her head as if it were the only thing she knew with certainty. “He wasn’t much alive then, either.”
“What do you do with them when you catch them? The ghosts?”
“Oh,” she said gloomily. “Most of them just want someone to listen.”
Erskine winced. “Sounds alive enough to me.”
Some frayed moments passed, she staring dully at the house, he staring somewhere through the binoculars. Her hand was going to town on that starfish. “Do you believe in doppelgangers?” she said at last. When he didn’t say anything, she went, “I just have this…feeling. You know that feeling I’m talking about?” He turned to her and did his best to look quizzical. “That feeling when someone’s watching you.”
“At the risk of sounding intrusive, is it possible you feel that way because you hunt ghosts for a living?”
“I’m not some weird paranormalist,” Louanne said. “It’s just a hobby. By the way.”
“We all have our eccentricities.”
“I write a sex column for a living. And I live with a con artist.”
“But I ran away. Now he says he’ll kill me if he ever catches up to me. I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” she concluded.
“What does that have to do with doppelgangers?”
She neglected to tell him her putative alibi for shacking up at the Mermaid Motel involved following a certain “Turtle Beach rapist,” or so the papers dubbed him.
“Have you ever heard of that theory about parallel universes?” she said with a quick expellation of her breath that wasn’t exactly like a sigh. “How for every event that happens in this universe, there’s this other universe—infinite universes—where that same event doesn’t happen? And it keeps on not happening, altering everything that comes after? I mean everything?” She went on. “I just have this feeling that someone’s out there—another me. Like a me that split off from me a long time ago. That’s somehow stuck in this universe, still. I am likely not making sense now.”
“Last night, for example. I was riding my bike through the neighborhood. It was completely dark, of course. And I came up to the house.”
Erskine knew no one just “came up” to 6364 Beersheba Dr. The place occupied the last lot on an Amish-dark suburban road that dead-ended into a no man’s land of cypress forest.
“And I heard something, so I stopped and hid behind a bush to check it out. Then a woman came out with a shovel.”
“And she just started…”
Louanne’s brow resembled what Erskine Prince reckoned looked like an up-close endoplasmic reticulum. “…Digging,” she went.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“You haven’t told me yet, so.”
“At first I didn’t get a good look at her. Then I did.”
“Just so we’re clear, are we still talking about ghosts?”
“Jesus you ask a lot of questions.”
“I would hate to jump to conclusions,” was his answer.
“I consider myself a marginally sane person. That’s all I’m saying. Marginally.” The woman named Carolyn Callahan Prince was rosy-posying her way back through the yard. “But last night, I saw a woman digging a hole in that yard over there, and then the moon broke through like something out of a gothic novel. And she looked straight at me.” Louanne paused—for genuine fluster or for thespian effect, he couldn’t tell. “…And that woman’s face was mine.”
Erskine watched the reticulate folds of her eyebrows quiver and vex themselves into a veritable cartography of reticula. She summarized: “I consider myself functionally sane.”
Below, Carolyn had finally managed in the most circuitous fashion to twirl her way into the house, leaving a trail of muddied footprints behind her.
“…And what happened then?”
“What do you mean what happened then? She climbed in. She climbed in the hole. I climbed in the hole. Some mindfucking cosmic double of myself climbed in.” He asked where the hole was. She pointed. “Back where that statue is.”
Erskine understood. He weighed his potential responses. “That’s no statue,” he settled on.
“…What do you know about it?”
“Look again,” he said, and handed her the binoculars. “That’s the grave you’ve been looking for.”
Number 166 squinted into the rising sun.
THINGS COULD HAVE BEEN DIFFERENT
Things could have been different. That’s for sure. He could have never left Raleigh. He could have not been issued a restraining order. He could have not disobliged the district court of Wake County to dole out a forcefully-worded subpoena in his name. In the end there could have been a lot of things. But the truth was he got tired of sitting in a darkened Jimmy outside the guy’s house on ninety-degree summer evenings manically stroking a 12-gauge. Things are tiring when your wife enters and exits the same door every night and you aren’t on the other side of it. Things could have been different.
The Mermaid Motel, for example. He could have not fled the authorities. Could have not wound up in Florida, a massive taser-shaped magnet of a state for the derelict and the uninsured—could have not bought a condemned lot for practically nothing and converted the derelict house into a one-star roadside inn. But where would Rolf Mansford be now? Not holed up in the closet he called his room, grasping the weathered paperback as his palms sweated and his hands trembled. Not reading the part where Veronica describes, in luscious first-person, her insatiable fantasy to make love in someone else’s wedding dress, someone else’s ring.
…My eyes widened as I beheld his monstrous member unsheathe from his pants… It was then that I knew I had fallen under his spell.
Is there anything I can do for you, Miss Saul? …Anything at all?
The forecast for that afternoon was sunny, but a rival weatherman called for rain. Erskine went to see the fish again. The restaurant was closed, but the tank was there alright. The mastodon assailed him with humiliated eyes. You, too, Rasputin? said the eyes. But that’s not even my name, Erskine explained. I don’t care what your name is, you’re a chump who’s left your mother to rot all her life in a condo in Nashville, where her only joy was her four grandkids. I know, Erskine said. You’re right, you really are. And your sister—have you thought about calling Carolyn lately? She doesn’t believe in phones, he protested. She lives on a commune. Yeah, and you ran off to South America and like, learned kung fu or something, so you can’t really talk, now can you? …Can I ask you something? Make it quick, I’m at the end of the tank again and I can see you thinking up something hurtful to say. It’s my father. What about him? I thought I wanted to find him, too. But what good is a man who’s turned into a ghost? I’m a fish, what the hell do I know? When we were young, we had a house in South Carolina. We would go there, the five of us—Mami and Pappie, and Jackie and Carrie and me—every summer we’d go down. He would never get in the water. All he would do is sit in that white wicker rocking chair and write. Hmph. Sounds boring as hell. I wanted to be just like him. Even when he disappeared for months at a time, I still wanted to. I thought if I wrote a great novel, just like he did, it would act like some sort of smoke signal to bring him back. I thought, If only I can prove myself to him. Well we know how that turned out, don’t we? Let me ask you—if you got so close to the truth about something really important, but when the time came and you got to sensing the truth wasn’t going to heal you, would you still go through with finding it out and all? That’s the thing with you humans. You’re cursed. You’re cursed with the ability to think about what you’re thinking, and all it does for you is cause you problems. You mean it’s better just to live life, and let the truth have its way with you. You’re really thickheaded, you know that? You think that there’s some “truth” floating out there for you to find. There is no truth, compadre. There’s only tanks, and the invisible walls they’re made of. You can look all you want, but in the end you’re only looking—you’ll never know what the other side is like, so long as you’re looking through those walls. But you weren’t born in a tank, so what are you saying? The fish ignored him. Why do you go by Rasputin, anyway? Erskine thought about that. It’s a kind of nickname. From that time in the Cono Sur. Yeah, you found those letters your father wrote to your mother, the day you came home to help her move. Yeah, well. That’s where I got it. What, are you some kind of magician? I think it’s more that no one could say my name in Spanish, Erskine said. Rasputin – the Nine-Life Prince. That’s right. Well there you have it. Now are you just gonna stand there, or can I wheel my fat ass around without you tourists gawking at me all the time?
Noon came. Things were getting strange at the Mermaid Motel. “Did you see?” Rolf Mansford said as Number 166 tried to slip by.
She kicked herself for acknowledging him. “Did I see what?”
“The Turtle Beach rapist,” he said with something that sounded like reverence.
“What about him?”
“I’m not sure I really want to know.”
“They found her upside down.”
“…I—I have to go.”
He looked at her for a second, and at the white Amish bonnet and near-white dress splashed with blue.
“Just be careful,” Rolf Mansford said.
“If there’s anything I can do for you…”
She excused herself. She looked both ways and then stepped outside. She began walking down the sidewalk that curved into the Amish community. When she’d gone far enough out of sight, she cut across a side street—then doubled back toward Beersheba Dr. She kept her head down as she walked, quickly, passing all the smallish Amish houses on the street, the mailboxes that read Yoder Family Residence in block letters, if there were mailboxes at all [prevailing postal attitudes depending]. She kept walking until the house reached her periphery, and she stopped before it and drew a big breath. She walked past the sunflowers, past the sawgrass where she’d hid the night of the digging. She walked right up to the door.
She knocked. Nothing happened and she knocked again. She was about to leave when she heard the knob creak and the door ease open. Mary Louise Prince stood in the doorway looking like a mix between an acetic and a swan. The shawl with the ornamental mink-fur balls the size of donut holes dangled from her shoulders.
“Oh I’m so sorry,” Louanne bumbled. “I was looking for the owner.”
The quixotic craze on Mary Louise’s face fell into a scowl. “What’d he do this time?” Louanne didn’t immediately find a response. “—Is it the drugs again?”
“Is…this the house of the Prince family, or?”
“Oh you must mean Carolyn. Well come in, come in,” she said with an oblique gesture. Louanne hesitated, but the woman kept prattling on. “Do you know my daughter? They’re not in. I never know where anyone goes off to in this house. One minute they’re up at all ungodly hours, the next they’re off catching the ark. Are you coming in?”
“Oh I shan’t bother you,” Louanne said in her most demure accent.
But Mary Louise had seemingly lost her Southern sensibilities. “Nonsense. The machine’s gone to fuck again anyway. I have nothing to do.”
“You know what happens when you get old? You get more attached. Not less. You want everything to go your way.”
She led the two of them through a room stuffed with every kind of candleholder and shag rug imaginable.
“Fuck if Carrie didn’t get the goddamn hoarder gene,” said Mary Louise.
Louanne followed her into the kitchen. Mary Louise went for the kettle. “You want some tea or something?” Her wrinkles sagged preposterously. “It’s Irish breakfast.” Louanne watched her slam twin whale-shaped mugs on the counter and sling two absurd dollops of whipped cream in their general direction.
“Let’s go to the porch,” she said. “That’s all I ask, is a fucking porch to sit on. But then you’ve got these hippies here. Christ God. And foreigners. What are they doing here? That’s all I want to know, what are they all doing here?”
She imposed a cup onto Louanne’s palms and then she sloshed a glug of Jack Daniel’s into her own. They moved to the porch. “I don’t know either,” she went on. “But Carolyn, I’ve never been able to figure her out. She’s the goddamn lunatic of the family, that’s for sure.” She thought about it. “Then again, there’s Erskine. Christ Jesus, there’s Erskine.” She downed the cup with a single tilt.
“Sorry—did you say ‘Erskine’?” asked Louanne.
[Smacking her lips] “Christ befucking Jesus, the things he’s put me through. Oh I’m sure. I’m sure it never crossed his mind he might be leaving his poor mother all alone. But what does he do? He disappears without so much as a thank you card. Fell off the face of the godbefucked earth. Wonder where he got that idea? The men in this family! One moment he was standing in the driveway, yelling at the movers in Spanish. His Spanish was goddamn awful. Next thing I know he drives off. He didn’t even bring back the china!”
Louanne was trying to multitask absorbing her raving banter while taking a mental Xerox of the vista from the porch and the grassy expanse of yard that stretched beyond it. The statue—the headstone—stood in plain sight at the edge of the woods.
“The men in this family,” Mary Louise intoned.
“I didn’t know,” she said, contemplative. “Where is he now?”
She hocked a loogie from her marbled throat and sent it sailing in a resplendent arc across the lily pads. “Now what are you here for again? Are you selling something? If you’re selling something, you can pack it up now. I won’t let another whoring trinket in this house.”
“Oh ma’am, I’d never. I was here for Carolyn, ma’am.”
Mary Louise shot her a shimmering cockeyed look. “Are you from the university?”
“Oh thank the Lord. That place is overrun with the lower classes. One of the girls here—what’s her name—oh Jesus H. Fuck, my godbeshitted memory. It’s the first to go, you’ll see. The rest is all a parade.”
“…Well if Carolyn does happen to come back—”
“Oh, don’t worry about me. Mrs. Prince’ll die soon enough. Then you’ll all be rid of me. But I’ll finally rest. Right after I smack Mr. Prince across the cheek. That’s all I ask, a nice clean shot at him. Then I can walk through the gates with him. God knows he’s lying in a ditch somewhere off the main drag in purgatory, waiting for me to come bail him out.”
Just then a terrifying crash sounded from below and behind them—from the basement, from the floorboards.
“What on hell was that!”
“Is someone here??”
A huge gust of wind roared across the porch, snatching the mugs right out of their grasps, smashing the whale-tail handles into pieces.
“This is it! This is it!” Mary Louise was jumping up and down with a vigor unbecoming of her age.
“This is what! This is what!”
She yelled over the wind, “This is the sign! Flaming whores of Nazareth, if it isn’t the christfucking sign!”
The table toppled over. If not for the two poles holding up the corrugated tin roof, Louanne and Mary Louise Prince would have been swept away. They held on as though that were what someone ought to do in such a crisis. Mary Louise was horizontal.
“Holy shit!” Louanne exclaimed.
“Some subtle job this is, O Prince of Peace!” Mary Louise cried.
When it seemed they could hold on no longer, the wind fell away just as quickly as it came, and the two of them went crashing to the ground. “Ow,” said Mary Louise, sumac-red stigmata emblazoned on her wrists. “Now that’s what I’m talkin about!”
“Anyone wanna tell me what’s going on here?” Louanne shouted breathlessly.
“Stop shouting—here, sit up. There you go. You younger generation—what are you, fifty? Oh fuck-be-damned, that was some Ecstasy of Avila shit there!”
“But what kind of sign? What kind of message??” The whole of Louanne’s paranormal investigations hadn’t approached a display of thaumaturgy so extravagant.
“Hush. That’s the man upstairs telling me I’m not eking out my days here in vain. Patience, is what that was.”
“And prudence. You’ll see. You’re young and you’re naïve, but you’ll see.”
“God works in mysterious ways.”
“Fistfucked whores of Babylon, does he ever.”
Did Rolf Mansford feel just a little aroused by the scene where Veronica shimmies out of her sheer white jumper and lets the swarthy professor of eighteenth-century Gothic literature make her his housewife? Sure. But despite his spectacular cock he could not think of anything sexy. Not Veronica with her top off against the air con, not the women he had loved before. And he had loved them. Each and every one, in their own ways. He imagined their faces, their totally unique bodies—some pear-shaped, some curved like the crest of a shimmering wave, and some with browned and earthworn skin and tongues like ripe red mangos. He put the novel down and looked out the window. Afternoon was already slipping into evening. The sun was coasting down its pulley’s length of sky. He got up. He poured himself a cup of coffee from the stove. He went outside to smoke two cigarettes and he came back and looked through the window again. He stood there for some time like that, looking through the window. Then he picked up the dog-eared novel and made his way down the hall.
At the Bi-Rite he moved through the fluorescent aisles. The 250-pack of Viperhead .45 bullets were out of stock, so he asked the manager for Kapp’s. Kapp’s were in stock, the manager confirmed. Allow me to direct you to the aisle. I’d appreciate that, Rolf Mansford said. That what you’re looking for? I’ll give you a discount. Half off the second. That so. Whatta you say? Alright. You’re gonna like em. Them Kapp’s’re lighter in the chamber, light on the wrist. Alright. Paper fine? I usually ask – Choke a fish or kill a tree? – but we’re out of plastic. But that’s my line, normally. You’ve been very helpful today. Will there be anything else for you? No, Rolf Mansford said. No, that will be all.
He slid into the front seat. He sat there for some time gazing languidly across the concrete, speckled with broken liquor bottles here and there—Goldschlägers and Cutty Sarks, Olde English 800s. He reached beneath the seat and retrieved a folded turban-like length of cloth and unfolded it and spread its contents across the one long front seat. Slowly, he began loading bullet after bullet into each chamber, loading them into the handguns with the tenderness of a lover’s caress. Occasionally he would look up to see the flecks of sun scattered across the parking lot in each palmful of glass. When he was done with the last bullet, he sat there admiring it all for a bit, then he popped open the chamber again, and he went back unloading each and every bullet in the exact reverse order. When he loosed a bullet from the chamber, he placed it back in the Kapp’s 250-pack shaped like a matchbox. The sun was beginning to disappear across the edge of the horizon. He stopped to watch it. After some thought he turned the key over in the ignition. After some thought still, he moved his hand from the steering wheel and idled it over the gearshift. Then he seemed to decide whatever it was he was deciding, and he shifted the stick into gear and drove the sumac-red Jimmy across the parking lot.
“Well. If you’d tell Carolyn I came by…it’s that we’re starting up a neighborhood watch group, what with all the break-ins in the paper. We thought she’d like to know about the first, meeting.”
Mary Louise wasn’t listening. “I’ve got to get ready,” she said. “Any moment he could come. I’ve got to look good when the Lord comes swingin that sickle-shaped scythe.” She was vigorously brushing her hair in the mirror, her hands dashing about the étagère, dashing back and forth among the rouge, the lipstick, the crusty mascara.
“Mr. Prince will surely be beside himself when he sees you.”
“Bah,” she went. “That man’s still drunk from the nineties.”
She gave her marbled figure an appraising look-see. Louanne stood behind her and caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror over the matriarch’s shoulder. In a different world, she might have been her daughter. In a different world, she might have been the woman named Carolyn Prince.
I just have this feeling that someone’s out there—another me. Like a me that split off from me a long time ago. That’s somehow stuck in this universe, still.
The indefatigable widow turned to face her. “You seem nice. I’m glad we had this chat.”
“Oh I so agree.”
“Now you just come back anytime now, you hear.”
“Though I’ll likely be dead by then.”
“I can feel it in the air.”
“Any day now, which is why I gotta be prepared. Gotta look a lady when you’re ridin through the pearly gates.”
She led her to the door. Louanne promised to return. Then she walked up the hill to the slowly darkening lot.
Erskine kept thinking about the fish. He had a dream about the old bastard, prostrate on a plate, swimming in a soy broth, scallions and strips of ginger piled on its shimmering scales in obscene stacks. The stiff, gruesome eye gawked at him. How could you do this to me? the eye asked. Although, gawked was most likely not the word. He jolted awake. It was only then he realized Louanne was the most beautiful woman to walk into his life for he didn’t know how long. He had to see her again. He sat up in the bed. With a belabored sliding motion evocative of a beached whale he declined himself onto the floor beside the bed. Whereupon, chest to carpet, he put his ear flush against the carpet as if listening for the ocean inside a seashell. As soon as he put his ear down he heard the phantom growl of the door to room 166 unhush and then creak its way open to the shuffling of feet. Then the door hushed again and the feet went forth padding beneath him. Some erratic shuffling movements followed, discernible through the carpet. For a time it sounded as if the person below were walking in circles. Then the movements would stop again, as if that person were waiting to hear if Erskine was there. And then—nothing. Erskine hoisted himself from the floor. He started out the door.
I’ve been thinking about what you said, he practiced in his head.
About what? she asked.
Doppelgangers, he practiced.
But when he knocked on the door to room 166, nothing stirred on the other side. He went around. He inched his nose up to the window all slow. All he found was an empty room, the bed made up and everything. He could hear the whoosh of cars pummeling the highway, a young boy creaking on the courtyard swing set. A lone radio piping from an idled truck had nothing to offer but Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Murder on the Dance Floor.” There was something terribly wrong with this picture, he thought. Something terribly, horribly wrong. Maybe it wasn’t just one part. Maybe it was every last bit that was wrong.
The creaking stopped all a sudden. Erskine turned to see the boy hop off the decrepit swing set and reach into a pail at his feet. He poked around in it for a few moments, then he seemed to lose interest and took off around the corner of the parking lot, leaving the neon red beach pail at the base of the swing set. “Hey—” Erskine started. But the boy disappeared. The pail was left staring back at him with some strange, plastic, disconcerting energy. He found himself limping toward it. As he limped, he imagined peering into it, imagined it stuffed like a giant restaurant tank, brimming with flounder and crab and snapper. He imagined putting his nose up to the glass and finding that the mastodon had vanished, escaped into life or into death. “You got free,” Erskine might have said aloud. “Someone finally ordered the Florida Gulf special.” The way he imagined it, no other ghoul-lipped specimen occupied the tank where the mastodon had reigned; instead, smaller fish, whole rippling flags of them, rippled back and forth in its place. The ties and theater dresses still cast their refracted shapes on the other side like Cubist portraits. But before he could get too introspective, a clerically dressed waiter appeared in the window and jumped to find Erskine standing there. He seemed for one moment to recover his cordial composure, but he saw what Erskine was wearing and his nascent smile unwound itself. Then he reached a long pole into the tank before Erskine and snagged a red lacquer-eyed snapper with his net. The snapper went pliantly. Even out of the water, sucking at the air, it was still pliant; pliant still when the waiter gave Erskine a look and turned on his heel and faded into the Cubist panorama.
But none of that happened, of course. Erskine peered over the rim of the neon red beach pail and the whole scene he’d imagined for himself washed away. At the bottom of the pail, splayed in a shallow bed of sand, lay a squiggled black-like shape. He bent to pick it up. Holding it up to his face in the dying light, Erskine beheld the supple prongs of a four-limbed starfish. It lay draped and mangled in the palm of his hand. One of the appendages was severed to the nub. But the starfish clung to his palm for dear life. The tube feet bristled and groped; a frail appendage tried to coil itself around Erskine’s splayed finger.
With the starfish cupped in one hand, the pail swinging from the other, he limped his way around the parking lot. The boy was nowhere to be found. The light was truly fading. He limped all the way to the Mermaid Motel lobby.
Rolf Mansford was at the front desk wearing a plaid shirt, staring out a window. Erskine said good evening. Rolf Mansford turned to look at him. “I wondered if you had a hose,” Erskine said. “That I could fetch some water with.” He nodded toward his palm. Rolf Mansford gazed at the fine crenulations streaking the creature’s maimed parts. It looked like a relic from another world, all the life crusted over. “Let me see,” Rolf Mansford said. He plucked it from Erskine’s palm. The tiny tube feet unfastened without a fight.
Rolf Mansford weighed the thing in his palm like he was lifting a small dumbbell. “Sorry,” he said. “This one’s gone. Dry as a bone.” He tapped it to demonstrate.
“It was just alive,” Erskine mouthed in reply.
“Yeah, I’m sure it was.” Rolf Mansford tossed it up in the air and let it thump on the counter. The noise it made was empty, shell-like.
Erskine’s eyes remained square on the starfish. It lay in a squiggled pile.
He turned to Rolf Mansford. “Is Louanne here?” he asked. Rolf Mansford looked back. “Who?”
“I wanted to know if you knew about another guest,” Erskine said.
Rolf Mansford drew his gaze out the window, where all he could see now was a patch of black. “Louanne,” he said slowly, as if the name confounded him. “No, I don’t.” His gaze was fixed. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know who you’re talking about.”