Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk

Published: 2021-07-26 00:00:10
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I N V I S I B L E M O N S T E R S Chuck Palahniuk W. W. Norton & Company New York • London For Geoff, who said, "This is how to steal drugs. " And Ina, who said, "This is lip liner. " And Janet, who said, "This is silk georgette. " And my editor, Patricia, who kept saying, "This is not good, enough. "
CHAPTER O N E Where you're supposed to be is some big West Hills wedding reception in a big manor house with flower arrangements and stuffed mushrooms all over the house. This is called scene setting: where everybody is, who's alive, who's dead. This is Evie Cottrell's big wedding reception moment. Evie is standing halfway down the big staircase in the manor house foyer, naked inside what's left of her wedding dress, still holding her rifle. Me, I'm standing at the bottom of the stairs but only in a physical way. My mind is, I don't know where.

Nobody's all-the-way dead yet, but let's just say the clock is ticking. Not that anybody in this big drama is a real alive per-son, either. You can trace everything about Evie Cottrell's look back to some television commercial for an organic shampoo, except right now Evie's wedding dress is burned down to just the hoopskirt wires orbiting her hips and just the little wire skeletons of all the silk flowers that were in her hair. And Evie's blonde hair, her big, teased-up, backcombed rainbow in every shade of blonde blown up with hairspray, well, Evie's hair is burned off, too.
The only other character here is Brandy Alexander, who's laid out, shotgunned, at the bottom of the staircase, bleeding to death. What I tell myself is the gush of red pumping out of Brandy's bullet hole is less like blood than it's some sociopolitical tool. The thing about being cloned from all those shampoo commercials, well, that goes for me and Brandy Alexander, too. Shotgunning anybody in this room would be the moral equivalent of killing a car, a vacuum cleaner, a Barbie doll. Erasing a computer disk. Burning a book. Probably that goes for killing anybody in the world.
We're all such products. Brandy Alexander, the long-stemmed latte queen supreme of the top-drawer party girls, Brandy is gushing her insides out through a bullet hole in her amazing suit jacket. The suit, it's this white Bob Mackie knock-off Brandy bought in Seattle with a tight hobble skirt that squeezes her ass into the perfect big heart shape. You would not believe how much this suit cost. The mark-up is about a zillion percent. The suit jacket has a little peplum skirt and wide lapels and shoulders. The single-breasted cut is symmetrical except for the hole pumping out blood.
Then Evie starts to sob, standing there halfway up the staircase. Evie, that deadly virus of the moment. This is our cue to all look at poor Evie, poor, sad Evie, hairless and wearing nothing but ashes and circled by the wire cage of her burnedup hoop skirt. Then Evie drops the rifle. With her dirty face in her dirty hands, Evie sits down and starts to boo-hoo, as if crying will solve anything. The rifle, this is a loaded thirtyaught rifle, it clatters down the stairs and skids out into the middle of the foyer floor, spinning on its side, pointing at me, pointing at Brandy, pointing at Evie, crying.
It's not that I'm some detached lab animal just conditioned to ignore violence, but my first instinct is maybe it's not too late to dab club soda on the bloodstain. Most of my adult life so far has been me standing on seamless paper for a raft of bucks per hour, wearing clothes and shoes, my hair done and some famous fashion photographer telling me how to feel. Him yelling, Give me lust, baby. Flash. Give me malice. Flash. Give me detached existentialist ennui. Flash. Give me rampant intellectualism as a coping mechanism. Flash. Probably it's the shock of seeing my one worst enemy shoot my other worst enemy is what it is.
Boom, and it's a win-win situation. This and being around Brandy, I've developed a pretty big Jones for drama. It only looks like I'm crying when I put a handkerchief up under my veil to breathe through. To filter the air since you can about not breathe for all the smoke since Evie's big manor house is burning down around us. Me, kneeling down beside Brandy, I could put my hands anywhere in my gown and find Darvons and Demerols and Darvocet 100s. This is everybody's cue to look at me. My gown is a knock-off print of the Shroud of Turin, most of it brown and white, draped and cut so the shiny red buttons will button through the stigmata.
Then I'm wearing yards and yards of black organza veil wrapped around my face and studded with little hand-cut Austrian crystal stars. You can't tell how I look, face-wise, but that's the whole idea. The look is elegant and sacrilegious and makes me feel sacred and immoral. Haute couture and getting hauler. Fire inches down the foyer wallpaper. Me, for added set dressing I started the fire. Special effects can go a long way to heighten a mood, and it's not as if this is a real house. What's burning down is a re-creation of a period revival house patterned after a copy of a copy of a copy of a mock-Tudor big manor house.
It's a hundred generations removed from anything original, but the truth is aren't we all? Just before Evie comes screaming down the stairs and shoots Brandy Alexander, what I did was pour out about a gallon of Chanel Number Five and put a burning wedding invitation to it, and boom, I'm recycling. It's funny, but when you think about even the biggest tragic fire it's just a sustained chemical reaction. The oxidation of Joan of Arc. Still spinning on the floor, the rifle points at me, points at Brandy. Another thing is no matter how much you think you love somebody, you'll step back when the pool of their blood edges up too close.
Except for all this high drama, it's a really nice day. This is a warm, sunny day and the front door is open to the porch and the lawn outside. The fire upstairs draws the warm smell of the fresh-cut lawn into the foyer, and you can hear all the wedding guests outside. All the guests, they took the gifts they wanted, the crystal and silver and went out to wait on the lawn for the firemen and paramedics to make their entrance. Brandy, she opens one of her huge, ring-beaded hands and she touches the hole pouring her blood all over the marble floor. Brandy, she says, "Shit. There's no way the Bon Marche will take this suit back. Evie lifts her face, her face a finger-painting mess of soot and snot and tears from her hands and screams, "I hate my life being so boring! ” Evie screams down at Brandy Alexander, "Save me a window table in hell! " Tears rinse clean lines down Evie's cheeks, and she screams, "Girlfriend! You need to be yelling some back at me! " As if this isn't already drama, drama, drama, Brandy looks up at me kneeling beside her. Brandy's aubergine eyes dilated out to full flower, she says, "Brandy Alexander is going to die now? " Evie, Brandy and me, all this is just a power struggle for the spotlight.
Just each of us being me, me, me first. The murderer, the victim, the witness, each of us thinks our role is the lead. Probably that goes for anybody in the world. It's all mirror, mirror on the wall because beauty is power the same way money is power the same way a gun is power. Anymore, when I see the picture of a twenty-something in the newspaper who was abducted and sodomized and robbed and then killed and here's a front-page picture of her young and smiling, instead of me dwelling on this being a big, sad crime, my gut reaction is, wow, she'd be really hot if she didn't have such a big honker of a nose.
My second reaction is I'd better have some good head and shoulders shots handy in case I get, you know, abducted and sodomized to death. My third reaction is, well, at least that cuts down on the competition. If that's not enough, my moisturizer I use is a suspension of inert fetal solids in hydrogenated mineral oil. My point is that, if I'm honest, my life is all about me. My point is, unless the meter is running and some photographer is yelling: Give me empathy. Then the flash of the strobe. Give me sympathy. Flash. Give me brutal honesty. Flash. "Don't let me die here on this floor," Brandy says, and her big hands clutch at me. My hair," she says, "My hair will be flat in the back. " My point is I know Brandy is maybe probably going to die, but I just can't get into it. Evie sobs even louder. On top of this, the fire sirens from way outside are crowning me queen of Migraine Town. The rifle is still spinning on the floor, but slower and slower. Brandy says, "This is not how Brandy Alexander wanted her life to go. She's supposed to be famous, first. You know, she's supposed to be on television during Super Bowl halftime, drinking a diet cola naked in slow motion before she died. " The rifle stops spinning and points at nobody.
At Evie sobbing, Brandy screams, "Shut up! " " You shut up," Evie screams back. Behind her, the fire is eating its way down the stairway carpet. The sirens, you can hear them wandering and screaming all over the West Hills. People will just knock each other down to dial 9-1-1 and be the big hero. Nobody looks ready for the big television crew that's due to arrive any minute. "This is your last chance, honey," Brandy says, and her blood is getting all over the place. She says, "Do you love me? " It's when folks ask questions like this that you lose the spotlight.
This is how folks trap you into a best-supporting role. Even bigger than the house being on fire is this huge expectation that I have to say the three most worn-out words you'll find in any script. Just the words make me feel I'm severely fingering myself. They're just words is all. Powerless. Vocabulary. Dialogue. "Tell me," Brandy says. "Do you? Do you really love me? " This is the big hammy way Brandy has played her whole life. The Brandy Alexander nonstop continuous live action theater, but less and less live by the moment. Just for a little stage business, I take Brandy's hand in mine.
This is a nice gesture, but then I'm freaked by the whole threat of blood-borne pathogens, and then, boom, the ceiling in the dining room crashes down and sparks and embers rush out at us from the dining room doorway. "Even if you can't love me, then tell me my life,” Brandy says. "A girl can't die without her life flashing before her eyes. " Pretty much nobody is getting their emotional needs met. It's then the fire eats down the stairway carpet to Evie's bare ass, and Evie screams to her feet and pounds down the stairs in her burned-up white high heels.
Naked and hairless, wearing wire and ashes, Evie Cottrell runs out the front door to a larger audience, her wedding guests, the silver and crystal and the arriving fire trucks. This is the world we live in. Conditions change and we mutate. So of course this'll be all about Brandy, hosted by me, with guest appearances by Evelyn Cottrell and the deadly AIDS virus. Brandy, Brandy, Brandy. Poor sad Brandy on her back, Brandy touches the hole pouring her life out onto the marble floor and says, "Please. Tell me my life. Tell me how we got here. " So me, I'm here eating smoke just to document this Brandy Alexander moment.
Give me attention. Flash. Give me adoration. Flash. Give me a break. Flash. CHAPTER T W O Don't expect this to be the kind of story that goes: and then, and then, and then. What happens here will have more of that fashion magazine feel, a Vogue or a Glamour magazine chaos with page numbers on every second or fifth or third page. Perfume cards falling out, and full-page naked women coming out of nowhere to sell you make-up. Don't look for a contents page, buried magazine-style twenty pages back from the front. Don't expect to find anything right off.
There isn't a real pattern to anything, either. Stories will start and then, three paragraphs later: Jump to page whatever. Then, jump back. This will be ten thousand fashion separates that mix and match to create maybe five tasteful outfits. A million trendy accessories, scarves and belts, shoes and hats and gloves, and no real clothes to wear them with. And you really, really need to get used to that feeling, here, on the freeway, at work, in your marriage. This is the world we live in. Just go with the prompts. Jump back twenty years to the white house where I grew p with my father shooting super-8 movies of my brother and me running around the yard. Jump to present time with my folks sitting on lawn chairs at night, and watching these same super-8 movies projected on the white side of the same white house, twenty years later. The house the same, the yard the same, the windows projected in the movies lined up just perfect with the real windows, the movie grass aligned with the real grass, and my movie-projected brother and me being toddlers and running around wild for the camera. Jump to my big brother being all miserable and dead from the big plague of AIDS.
Jump to me being grown up and fallen in love with a police detective and moved away to become a famous supermodel. Just remember, the same as a spectacular Vogue magazine, remember that no matter how close you follow the jumps: Continued on page whatever. No matter how careful you are, there's going to be the sense you missed something, the collapsed feeling under your skin that you didn't experience it all. There's that fallen heart feeling that you rushed right through the moments where you should've been paying attention. Well, get used to that feeling. That's how your whole life will feel some day.
This is all practice. None of this matters. We're just warming up. Jump to here and now, Brandy Alexander bleeding to death on the floor with me kneeling beside her, telling this story before here come the paramedics. Jump backward just a few days to the living room of a rich house in Vancouver, British Columbia. The room is lined with the rococo hard candy of carved mahogany paneling with marble baseboards and marble flooring and a very sortof curlicue carved marble fireplace. In rich houses where old rich people live, everything is just what you'd think. The rubrum lilies in the enameled vases are real, not silk.
The cream-colored drapes are silk, not polished cotton. Mahogany is not pine stained to look like mahogany. No pressed-glass chandeliers posing as cut crystal. The leather is not vinyl. All around us are these cliques of Louis-the-Fourteenth chair-sofa-chair. In front of us is yet another innocent real estate agent, and Brandy's hand goes out: her wrist thick with bones and veins, the mountain range of her knuckles, her wilted fingers, her rings in their haze of marquise-cut green and red, her porcelain nails painted sparkle pink, she says, "Charmed, I'm sure. If you have to start with any one detail, it has to be Brandy's hands. Beaded with rings to make them look even bigger, Brandy's hands are enormous. Beaded with rings, as if they could be more obvious, hands are the one part about Brandy Alexander the surgeons couldn't change. So Brandy doesn't even try and hide her hands. We've been in too many of this kind of house for me to count, and the realtor we meet is always smiling. This one is wearing the standard uniform, the navy blue suit with the red, white, and blue scarf around the neck.
The blue heels are on her feet and the blue bag is hanging at the crook of her elbow. The realty woman looks from Brandy Alexander's big hand to Signore Alfa Romeo standing at Brandy's side, and the power blue eyes of Alfa attach themselves; those blue eyes you never see close or look away, inside those eyes is the baby or the bouquet of flowers, beautiful or vulnerable, that make a beautiful man someone safe to love. Alfa's just the latest in a year-long road trip of men obsessed with Brandy, and any smart woman knows a beautiful man is her best fashion accessory.
The same way you'd product model a new car or a toaster, Brandy's hand draws a sight line through the air from her smile and big boobs to Alfa. "May I introduce," Brandy says, "Signore Alfa Romeo, professional male consort to the Princess Brandy Alexander. " The same way, Brandy's hand swings from her batting eyelashes and rich hair in an invisible sight line to me. All the realty woman is going to see is my veils, muslin and cut-work velvet, brown and red, tulle threaded with silver, layers of so much you'd think there's nobody inside. There's nothing about me to look at so most people don't.
It's a look that says: Thank you for not sharing. "May I introduce," Brandy says, "Miss Kay Maclsaac, personal secretary to the Princess Brandy Alexander. " The realty woman in her blue suit with its brass Chanel buttons and the scarf tied around her neck to hide all her loose skin, she smiles at Alfa. When nobody will look at you, you can stare a hole in them. Picking out all the little details you'd never stare long enough to get if she'd ever just return your gaze, this, this is your revenge. Through my veils, the realtor's glowing red and gold, blurred at her edges. Miss Maclsaac," Brandy says, her big hand still open toward me, "Miss Maclsaac is mute and cannot speak. " The realty woman with her lipstick on her teeth and her powder and concealer layered in the crepe under her eyes, her preta-porter teeth and machine-washable wig, she smiles at Brandy Alexander. "And this . . . ," Brandy's big ring-beaded hand curls up to touch Brandy's torpedo breasts. "This . . . ," Brandy's hand curls up to touch pearls at her throat. "This . . . ," the enormous hand lifts to touch the billowing piles of auburn hair. "And this . . . ," the hand touches thick moist lips. This," Brandy says, "is the Princess Brandy Alexander. " The realty woman drops to one knee in something between a curtsy and what you'd do before an altar. Genuflecting. "This is such an honor," she says. "I'm so sure this is the house for you. You just have to love this house. " Icicle bitch she can be, Brandy just nods and turns back toward the front hall where we came in. "Her Highness and Miss Maclsaac," Alfa says, "they would like to tour the house by themselves, while you and I discuss the details. " Alfa's little hands flutter up to explain, " . . . the transfer of funds ... the exchange of lira for Canadian dollars. "Loonies," the realty woman says. Brandy and me and Alfa are all flash frozen. Maybe this woman has seen through us. Maybe after the months we've been on the road and the dozens of big houses we've hit, maybe somebody has finally figured out our scam. "Loonies," the woman says. Again, she genuflects. "We call our dollars 'Loonies'," she says and jabs a hand in her blue purse. "I'll show you. There's a picture of a bird on them," she says. "It's a loon. " Brandy and me, we turn icicle again and start walking away, back to the front hall. Back through the cliques of chairsofa-chair, past the carved marble.
Our reflections smear, dim, and squirm behind a lifetime of cigar smoke on the mahogany paneling. Back to the front hallway, I follow the Princess Brandy Alexander while Alfa's voice fills the realtor's bluesuited attention with questions about the angle of the morning sun into the dining room and whether the provincial government will allow a personal heliport behind the swimming pool. Going toward the stairs is the exquisite back of Princess Brandy, a silver fox jacket draped over Brandy's shoulders and yards of a silk brocade scarf tied around her billowing pile of Brandy Alexander auburn hair.
The queen supreme's voice and the shadow of L'Air du Temps are the invisible train behind everything that is the world of Brandy Alexander. The billowing auburn hair piled up inside her brocade silk scarf reminds me of a bran muffin. A big cherry cupcake. This is some strawberry auburn mushroom cloud rising over a Pacific atoll. Those princess feet are caught in two sort of gold lame leg-hold traps with little gold straps and gold chains. These are the trapped-on, stilted, spike-heeled feet of gold that mount the first of about three hundred steps from the front hall to the second floor.
Then she mounts the next step, and the next until all of her is far enough above me to risk looking back. Only then will she turn the whole strawberry cupcake of her head. Those big torpedo, Brandy Alexander breasts silhouetted, the wordless beauty of that professional mouth in full face. "The owner of this house," Brandy says, "is very old and supplementing her hormones and still lives here. " The carpet is so thick under my feet I could be climbing loose dirt. One step after another, loose and sliding and unstable. We, Brandy and Alfa and me, we've been speaking English as a second language so long that we've forgotten it as our first.
I have no native tongue. We're eye level with the dirty stones of a dark chandelier. On the other side of the handrail, the hallway's gray marble floor looks as if we've climbed a stairway through the clouds. Step after step. Far away, Alfa's demanding talk goes on about wine cellars, about kennels for the Russian wolfhounds. Alfa's constant demand for the realty woman's attention is as faint as a radio call-in show bouncing back from outer space. " . . . the Princess Brandy Alexander," Alfa's warm, dark words float up, "she is probable to remove her clothes and scream like the wild horses in even the crowded restaurants ... The queen supreme's voice and the shadow of L'Air du Temps says, "Next house," her Plumbago lips say, "Alfa will be the mute. " " . . . your breasts," Alfa is telling the realty woman, "you have two of the breasts of a young woman . . . " Not one native tongue is left among us. Jump to us being upstairs. Jump to now anything being possible. After the realtor is trapped by the blue eyes of Signore Alfa Romeo, jump to when the real scamming starts. The master bedroom will always be down the hallway in the direction of the best view. This master bathroom is paneled in pink mirror, every wall, even the ceiling.
Princess Brandy and I are everywhere, reflected on every surface. You can see Brandy sitting on the pink counter at one side of the vanity sink, me sitting at the other side of the sink. One of us is sitting on each side of all the sinks in all the mirrors. There are just too many Brandy Alexanders to count, and they're all being the boss of me. They all open their white calfskin clutch bags, and hundreds of those big ringbeaded Brandy Alexander hands take out new copies of the Physicians' Desk Reference with its red cover, big as a Bible. All her hundreds of Burning Blueberry eye shadow eyes look at me from all over the room. You know the drill," all her hundreds of Plumbago mouths command. Those big hands start pulling open drawers and cabinet doors. "Remember where you got everything, and put it back exactly where you found it," the mouths say. "We'll do the drugs first, then the makeup. Now start hunting. " I take out the first bottle. It's Valium, and I hold the bottle so all the hundred Brandys can read the label. "Take what we can get away with," Brandy says, "then get on to the next bottle. " I shake a few of the little blue pills into my purse pocket with the other Valiums. The next bottle I find is Darvons. Honey, those are heaven in your mouth," all the Brandys look up to peer at the bottle I'm holding. "Does it look safe to take too many? " The expiration date on the label is only a month away, and the bottle is still almost full. I figure we can take about half. "Here," a big ring-beaded hand comes at me from every direction. One hundred big hands come at me, palm up. "Give Brandy a couple. The princess is having lower back pain again. " I shake ten capsules out, and a hundred hands toss a thousand tranquilizers onto the red carpet tongues of those Plumbago mouths.
A suicide load of Darvon slides down into the dark interior of the continents that make up a world of Brandy Alexander. Inside the next bottle are the little purple ovals of 2. 5milligram—sized Premarin. That's short for Pregnant Mare Urine. That's short for thousands of miserable horses in North Dakota and Central Canada, forced to stand in cramped dark stalls with a catheter stuck on them to catch every drop of urine and only getting let outside to get fucked again. What's funny is that describes pretty much any good long stay in a hospital, but that's only been my experience. Don't look at me that way," Brandy says. "My not taking those pills won't bring any baby horses back from the dead. " In the next bottle are round, peach-colored little scored tablets of 100-milligram Aldactone. Our homeowner must be a junkie for female hormones. Painkillers and estrogen are pretty much Brandy's only two food groups, and she says, "Gimme, gimme, gimme. " She snacks on some little pink-coated Estinyls. She pops a few of the turquoise-blue Estrace tablets. She's using some vaginal Premarin as a hand cream when she says, "Miss Kay? " She says, "I can't seem to make a fist, Sweetness.
Do you think, maybe you can wrap things up without me while I lie down? " The hundreds of me cloned in the pink bathroom mirrors, we check out the make-up while the princess goes off to cat nap in the cabbage rose and old canopy bed glory of the master bedroom. I find Darvocets and Percodans and Compazines, Nembutals and Percocets. Oral estrogens. Anti-androgens. Progestons. Transdermal estrogen patches. I find none of Brandy's colors, no Rusty Rose blusher. No Burning Blueberry eye shadow. I find a vibrator with the dead batteries swollen and leaking acid inside.
It's an old woman who owns this house, I figure. Ignored and aging and drugged-out old women, older and more invisible to the world every minute, they must not wear a lot of make-up. Not go out to fun hot spots. Not boogie to a party froth. My breath smells hot and sour inside my veils, inside the damp layers of silk and mesh and cotton georgette I lift for the first time all day; and in the mirrors, I look at the pink reflection of what's left of my face. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest one of all? The evil queen was stupid to play Snow White's game.
There's an age where a woman has to move on to another kind of power. Money, for example. Or a gun. I'm living the life I love, I tell myself, and loving the life I live. I tell myself: I deserved this. This is exactly what I wanted. CHAPTER T H R E E Until I met Brandy, all I wanted was for somebody to ask me what happened to my face. "Birds ate it," I wanted to tell them. Birds ate my face. But nobody wanted to know. Then nobody doesn't include Brandy Alexander. Just don't think this was a big coincidence. We had to meet, Brandy and me. We had so many things in common. We had close to everything in common.
Besides, it happens fast for some people and slow for some, accidents or gravity, but we all end up mutilated. Most women know this feeling of being more and more invisible everyday. Brandy was in the hospital for months and months, and so was I, and there's only so many hospitals where you can go for major cosmetic surgery. Jump back to the nuns. The nuns were the worst about always pushing, the nuns who were nurses. One nun would tell me about some patient on a different floor who was funny and charming. He was a lawyer and could do magic tricks with just his hands and a paper napkin.
This day nurse was the kind of nun who wore a white nursing version of her regular nun uniform, and she'd told this lawyer all about me. This was Sister Katherine. She told him I was funny and bright, and she said how sweet it would be if the two of us could meet and fall madly in love. Those were her words. Halfway down the bridge of her nose, she'd look at me through wire-framed glasses, their lenses long and squared the way microscope slides look. Little broken veins kept the end of her nose red. Rosacea, she called this. It would be easier to see her living in a gingerbread house than a convent.
Married to Santa Claus instead of God. The starched apron she wore over her habit was so glaring white that when I'd first arrived, fresh from my big car accident, I remembered how all the stains from my blood looked black. They gave me a pen and paper so I could communicate. They wrapped my head in dressings, yards of tight gauze holding wads of cotton in place, metal butterfly sutures gripping all over so I wouldn't unravel. They fingered on a thick layer of antibiotic gel, claustrophobic and toxic under the wads of cotton. My hair they pulled back, forgotten and hot under the gauze where I couldn't get at it.
The invisible woman. When Sister Katherine mentioned this other patient, I wondered if maybe I'd seen him around, her lawyer, the cute, funny magician. "I didn't say he was cute," she said. Sister Katherine said, "He's still a little shy. " On the pad of paper, I wrote: still? "Since his little mishap," she said and smiled with her eyebrows arched and all her chins tucked down against her neck. "He wasn't wearing his seatbelt. " She said, "His car rolled right over the top of him. " She said, "That's why he'd be so perfect for you. " Early on, while I was still sedated, somebody had taken the mirror out of my bathroom.
The nurses seemed to steer me away from polished anything the way they kept the suicides away from knives. The drunks away from drinks. The closest I had to a mirror was the television, and it only showed how I used to look. If I asked to see the police photos from the accident, the day nurse would tell me, "No. " They kept the photos in a file at the nursing station, and it seemed anybody could ask to see them except me. This nurse, she'd say, "The doctor thinks you've suffered enough for the time being. " This same day nurse tried to fix me up with an accountant whose hair and ears were burned off in a propane blunder.
She introduced me to a graduate student who'd lost his throat and sinuses to a touch of cancer. A window washer after his three-story tumble head first onto concrete. Those were all her words, blunder, touch, tumble. The lawyer's mishap. My big accident. Sister Katherine would be there to check my vital signs every six hours. To check my pulse against the sweep second hand on her man's wristwatch, thick and silver. To wrap the blood pressure cuff around my arm. To check my temperature, she'd push some kind of electric gun in my ear.
Sister Katherine was the kind of nun who wears a "wedding ring. And married people always think love is the answer. Jump back to the day of my big accident, when everybody was so considerate. The people, the folks who let me go ahead of them in the emergency room. What the police insisted. I mean, they gave me this hospital sheet with "Property of La Paloma Memorial Hospital" printed along the edge in indelible blue. First they gave me morphine, intravenously. Then they propped me up on a gurney. I don't remember much of this, but the day nurse told me about the police photos.
In the pictures, these big eight-by-ten glossies as nice as anything in my portfolio. Black and white, the nurse said. But in these eight-by-tens I'm sitting up on a gurney with my back against the emergency room wall. The attending nurse spent ten minutes cutting my dress off with those tiny operating room manicure scissors. The cutting, I remember. It was my cotton crepe sundress from Espre. I remember that when I ordered this dress from the catalogue I almost ordered two, they're so comfortable, loose with the breeze trying to get inside the arm holes and lift the hem up around your waist.
Then you'd sweat if there wasn't a breeze, and the cotton crepe stuck on you like eleven herbs and spices, only on you the dress was almost transparent. You'd walk onto a patio, it was a great feeling, a million spotlights picking you out of the crowd, or walk into a restaurant when outside it was ninety degrees, and everyone would turn and look as if you'd just been awarded some major distinguished award for a major lifetime achievement. That's how it felt. I can remember this kind of attention. It always felt ninety degrees hot. And I remember my underwear.
Sorry, Mom, sorry, God, but I was wearing just this little patch up front with an elastic string waist and just one string running down the crack and back around to the bottom of the patch up front. Flesh-tone. That one string, the one down the crack, butt floss is what everybody calls that string. I wore the patch underwear because of when the cotton crepe sundress goes almost transparent. You just don't plan on ending up in the emergency room with your dress cut off and detectives taking your picture, propped up on a gurney with a morphine drip in one arm and a Franciscan nun screaming in one ear. Take your pictures! Take your pictures, now! She's still losing blood! " No, really, it was funnier than it sounds. It got funny when there I was sprawled on this gurney, this anatomically correct rag doll with nothing but this little patch on and my face was the way it is now. The police, they had the nun hold this sheet up over my breasts. It's so they can take pictures of my face, but the detectives are so embarrassed for me, being sprawled there topless. Jump to when they refuse to show me the pictures, one of the detectives says that if the bullet had been two inches higher, I'd be dead.
I couldn't see their point. Two inches lower, and I'd be deep fried in my spicy cotton crepe sundress, trying to get the insurance guy to waive the deductible and replace my car window. Then, I'd be by a swimming pool, wearing sunblock and telling a couple cute guys how I was driving on the freeway in Stingray when a rock or I don't know what, but my dri-ver's-side window just burst. And the cute guys would say, "Whoa. " Jump to another detective, the one who'd searched my car for the slug and bone fragments, that stuff, the detective saw how I'd been driving with the window half open.
A car window, this guy tells me over the eight-by-ten glossies of me wearing a white sheet, a car window should always be all the way open or shut. He couldn't remember how many motorists he'd seen decapitated by windows in car accidents. How could I not laugh. That was his word: Motorists. The way my mouth was, the only sound left I could do was laugh. I couldn't not laugh. Jump to after there were the pictures, when people stopped looking at me. My boyfriend, Manus, came in that evening, after the emergency room, after I'd been wheeled off on my gur-ney to surgery, after the bleeding had stopped and I was in a private room.
Then Manus showed up. Manus Kelley who was my fiance until he saw what was left. Manus sat looking at the black-and-white glossies of my new face, shuffling and reshuffling them, turning them upside-down and right side up the way you would one of those mystery pictures where one minute you have a beautiful woman, but when you look again you have a hag. Manus says, "Oh, God. " Then says, "Oh, sweet, sweet Jesus. " Then says, "Christ. " The first date I ever had with Manus, I was still living with my folks. Manus showed me a badge in his wallet. At home, he had a gun.
He was a police detective, and he was really successful in Vice. This was a May and December thing. Manus was twenty-five and I was eighteen, but we went out. This is the world we live in. We went sailing one time, and he wore a Speedo, and any smart woman should know that means bisexual at least. My best friend, Evie Cottrell, she's a model. Evie says that beautiful people should never date each other. Together, they just don't generate enough attention. Evie says there's a whole shift in the beauty standard when they're together. You can feel this, Evie says. When both of you are beautiful, neither of you is beautiful.
Together, as a couple, you're less than the sum of your parts. Nobody really gets noticed, not any more. Still, there I was one time, taping this infomercial, one of those long-long commercials you think will end at any moment because after all it's just a commercial, but it's actually thirty minutes long. Me and Evie, we're hired to be walking sex furniture to wear tight evening dresses all afternoon and entice the television audience into buying the Num Num Snack Factory. Manus comes to sit in the studio audience, and after the shoot he goes, "Let's go sailing," and I go, "Sure! So we went sailing, and I forgot my sunglasses, so Manus buys me a pair on the dock. My new sunglasses are the exact same as Manus's Vuarnets, except mine are made in Korea not Switzerland and cost two dollars. Three miles out, I'm walking into deck things. I'm falling down. Manus throws me a rope, and I miss it. Manus throws me a beer and I miss the beer. A headache, I get the kind of headache God would smote you with in the Old Testament. What I don't know is that one of my sunglass lenses is darker than the other, almost opaque. I'm blind in one eye because of this lens, and I have no depth perception.
Back then I don't know this, that my perception is so fucked up. It's the sun, I tell myself, so I just keep wearing the sunglasses and stumbling around blind and in pain. Jump to the second time Manus visits me in the hospital, he tells the eight-by-ten glossies of me in my sheet, Property of La Paloma Memorial Hospital, that I should think about getting back into my life. I should start making plans. You know, he says, take some classes. Finish my degree. He sits next to my bed and holds the photos between us so I can't see either them or him. On my pad, with my pencil I ask Manus in writing to show me. When I was little, we raised Doberman puppies," he says from behind the photos. "And when a puppy is about six months old you get its ears and tail cropped. It's the style for those dogs. You go to a motel where a man travels from state to state cutting the ears and tails off thousands of Doberman puppies or boxers or bull terriers. " On my pad with my pencil, I write: your point being? And I wave this in his direction. "The point is whoever cuts your ears off is the one you'll hate for the rest of your life," he says. "You don't want your regular veterinarian to do the job so you pay a stranger. Still looking at picture after picture, Manus says, "That's the reason I can't show you these. " Somewhere outside the hospital, in a motel room full of bloody towels with his tool box of knives and needles, or driving down the highway to his next victim, or kneeling over a dog, drugged and cut up in a dirty bathtub, is the man a million dogs must hate. Sitting next to my bed, Manus says, "You just need to archive your cover-girl dreams. " The fashion photographer inside my head, yells: Give me pity. Flash. Give me another chance. Flash. That's what I did before the accident.
Call me a big liar, but before the accident I told people I was a college student. If you tell folks you're a model, they shut down. Your being a model will mean they're networking with some lower life form. They start using baby talk. They dumb down. But if you tell folks you're a college student, folks are so impressed. You can be a student in anything and not have to know anything. Just say toxicology or marine biokinesis, and the person you're talking to will change the subject to himself. If this doesn't work, mention the neural synapses of embryonic pigeons. It used to be I was a real college student.
I have about sixteen hundred credits toward an undergraduate degree in personal fitness training. What I hear from my parents is that I could be a doctor by now. Sorry, Mom. Sorry, God. There was a time when Evie and me went out to dance clubs and bars and men would wait outside the ladies' room door to catch us. Guys would say they were casting a television commercial. The guy would give me a business card and ask what agency I was with. There was a time when my mom came to visit. My mom smokes, and the first afternoon I came home from a shoot, she held out a matchbook and said, "What's the meaning of this? She said, "Please tell me you're not as big a slut as your poor dead brother. ” In the matchbook was a guy's name I didn't know and a telephone number. "This isn't the only one I found," Mom said. "What are you running here? " I don't smoke. I tell her that. These matchbooks pile up because I'm too polite not to take them and I'm too frugal to just throw them away. That's why it takes a whole kitchen drawer to hold them, all these men I can't remember and their telephone numbers. Jump to no day special in the hospital, just outside the office of the hospital speech therapist.
The nurse was leading me around by my elbow for exercise, and as we came around this one corner, just inside the open office doorway, boom, Brandy Alexander was just so there, glorious in a seated Princess Alexander pose, in an iridescent Vivienne Westwood cat suit changing colors with her every move. Vogue on location. The fashion photographer inside my head, yelling: Give me wonder, baby. Flash. Give me amazement. Flash. The speech therapist said, "Brandy, you can raise the pitch of your voice if you raise your laryngeal cartilage. It's that bump in your throat you feel going up as you sing ascending scales. She said, "If you can keep your voice-box raised high in your throat, your voice should stay between a G and a middle C. That's about 160 Hertz. " Brandy Alexander and the way she looked turned the rest of the world into virtual reality. She changed color from every new angle. She turned green with my one step. Red with my next. She turned silver and gold and then she was dropped behind us, gone. "Poor, sad misguided thing," Sister Katherine said, and she spat on the concrete floor. She looked at me craning my neck to see back down the hall, and she asked if I had any family. I wrote: yeah, there's my gay brother but he's dead from
AIDS. And she says, "Well, that's for the best, then, isn't it? " Jump to the week after Manus's last visit, last meaning final, when Evie drops by the hospital. Evie looks at the glossies and talks to God and Jesus Christ. "You know," Evie tells me across a stack of Vogues, and Glamour magazines in her lap she brings me, "I talked to the agency and they said that if we re-do your portfolio they'll consider taking you back for hand work. " Evie means a hand model, modeling cocktail rings and diamond tennis bracelets and shit. Like I want to hear this. I can't talk. All I can eat is liquids.
Nobody will look at me. I'm invisible. All I want is somebody to ask me what happened. Then, I'll get on with my life. Evie tells the stack of magazines, "I want you to come live with me at my house when you get out. " She unzips her canvas bag on the edge of my bed and goes into it with both hands. Evie says, "It'll be fun. You'll see. I hate living all by my lonesome. " And says, "I've already moved your things into my spare bedroom. " Still in her bag, Evie says, "I'm on my way to a shoot. Any chance you have any agency vouchers you can lend me? " On my pad with my pencil, I write: is that my sweater ou're wearing? And I wave the pad in her face. "Yeah," she says, "but I knew you wouldn't mind. " I write: but it's a size six. I write: and you're a size nine. "Listen," Evie says. "My call is for two o'clock. Why don't I stop by some time when you're in a better mood? " Talking to her watch, she says, "I'm so sorry things had to go this way. It wasn't all of it anybody's fault. ” Every day in the hospital goes like this: Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. Sister Katherine falls in between. On television is one network running nothing but infomercials all day and all night, and there we are, Evie and me, together.
We got a raft of bucks. For the snack factory thing, we do these big celebrity spokesmodel smiles, the ones where you make your face a big space heater. We're wearing these sequined dresses that when you get them under a spotlight, the dress flashes like a million reporters taking your picture. So glamorous. I'm standing there in this twenty-pound dress, doing this big smile and dropping animal wastes into the Plexiglas funnel on top of the Num Num Snack Factory. This thing just poops out little canapes like crazy, and Evie has to wade out into the studio audience and get folks to eat the canapes.
Folks will eat anything to get on television. Then, off camera, Manus goes, "Let's go sailing. " And I go, "Sure. " It was so stupid, my not knowing what was happening all along. Jump to Brandy on a folding chair just inside the office of the speech therapist, shaping her fingernails with the scratch pad from a book of matches. Her long legs could squeeze a motorcycle in half, and the legal minimum of her is shrink wrapped in leopard-print stretch terry just screaming to get out. The speech therapist says, "Keep your glottis partially open as you speak. It's the way Marilyn Monroe sang "Happy Birthday" to President Kennedy.
It makes your breath bypass your vocal chords for a more feminine, helpless quality. " The nurse leads me past in my cardboard slippers, my tight bandages and deep funk, and Brandy Alexander looks up at the last possible instant and winks. God should be able to wink that good. Like somebody taking your picture. Give me joy. Give me fun. Give me love. Flash. Angels in heaven should blow kisses the way Brandy Alexander does and lights up the rest of my week. Back in my room, I write: who is she? "No one you should have any truck with," the nurse says. "You'll have problems enough as it is. but who is she? I write. "If you can believe it," the nurse says, "that one is someone different every week. " It's after that Sister Katherine starts matchmaking. To save me from Brandy Alexander, she offers me the lawyer without a nose. She offers a mountain climbing dentist whose fingers and facial features are eaten down to little hard shining bumps by frostbite. A missionary with dark patches of some tropical fungus just under his skin. A mechanic who leaned over a battery the moment it exploded and the acid left his lips and cheeks gone and his yellow teeth showing in a permanent snarl.
I look at the nun's wedding ring and write: i guess you got the last really buff guy. The whole time I was in the hospital, no way could I fall in love. I just couldn't go there yet. Settle for less. I didn't want to process through anything. I didn't want to pick up any pieces. Lower my expectations. Get on with my less-than life. I didn't want to feel better about being still alive. Start compensating. I just wanted my face fixed, if that was possible, which it wasn't. When it's time to reintroduce me to solid foods, their words again, it's pureed chicken and strained carrots. Baby foods. Everything mashed or pulverized or crushed.
You are what you eat. The nurse brings me the personal classified ads from a newsletter. Sister Katherine peers down her nose and through her glasses to read: Guys seeking slim, adventurous girls for fun and romance. And, yes, it's true, not one single guy specifically excludes hideous mutilated girls with growing medical bills. Sister Katherine tells me, "These men you can write to in prison don't need to know how you really look. " It's just too much trouble to try and explain my feelings to her in writing. Sister Katherine reads me the singles columns while I spoon up my roast beef. She offers arsonists. Burglars. Tax cheats.
She says, "You probably don't want to date a rapist, not right off. Nobody's that desperate. " Between the lonely men behind bars for armed robbery and second-degree manslaughter, she stops to ask what's the matter. She takes my hand and talks to the name on my plastic bracelet, such a hand model I am already, cocktail rings, plastic I. D. bracelets so beautiful even a bride of Christ can't take her eyes off them. She says, "What're you feeling? " This is hilarious. She says, "Don't you want to fall in love? " The photographer in my head says: Give me patience. Flash. Give me control. Flash. The situation is I have half a face.
Inside my bandages, my face still bleeds tiny little spots of blood onto the wads of cotton. One doctor, the one making rounds every morning who checks my dressing, he says my wound is still weeping. That's his word. I still can't talk. I have no career. I can only eat baby food. Nobody will ever look at me like I've won a big prize ever again. nothing, I write on my pad. nothing's wrong. "You haven't mourned," Sister Katherine says. "You need to have a good cry and then get on with your life. You're being too calm about this. " I write: don't make me laugh, my face, I write, the doctor sez my wound will weep.
Still, at least somebody had noticed. This whole time, I was calm. I was the picture of calm. I never, never panicked. I saw my blood and snot and teeth splashed all over the dashboard the moment after the accident, but hysteria is impossible without an audience. Panicking by yourself is the same as laughing alone in an empty room. You feel really silly. The instant the accident happened, I knew I would die if I didn't take the next exit off the freeway, turn right on Northwest Gower, go twelve blocks, and turn into the La Paloma Memorial Hospital Emergency Room parking lot. I parked. I took my keys and my bag and I walked.
The glass doors slid aside before I could see myself reflected in them. The crowd inside, all the people waiting with broken legs and choking babies, they all slid aside, too, when they saw me. After that, the intravenous morphine. The tiny operating room manicure scissors cut my dress up. The flesh-tone little patch panties. The police photos. The detective, the one who searched my car for bone fragments, the guy who'd seen all those people get their heads cut off in half-open car window's, he comes back one day and says there's nothing left to find. Birds, seagulls, maybe magpies, too.
They got into the car where it was parked at the hospital, through the broken window. The magpies ate all of what the detective calls the soft tissue evidence. The bones they probably carried away. "You know, miss," he says, "to break them on rocks. For the marrow. " On the pad, with the pencil, I write: ha, ha, ha. Jump to just before my bandages come off, when a speech therapist says I should get down on my knees and thank God for leaving my tongue in my head, unharmed. We sit in her cinderblock office with half the room filled by her steel desk between us, and the therapist, she teaches me how a ventriloquist makes a dummy talk.
You see, the ventriloquist can't let you see his mouth move. He can't really use his lips, so he presses his tongue against the roof of his mouth to make words. Instead of a window, the therapist has a poster of a kitten covered in spaghetti above the words: Accentuate the Positive She says that if you can't make a certain sound without using your lips, substitute a similar sound, the therapist says; for instance, use the sound eth instead of the sound eff. The context in which you use the sound will make you understandable. "I'd rather be thishing," the therapist says. hen go thishing, I write. thank you. And then I ran away. This is after my new cotton crepe sundress arrives from Espre. Sister Katherine stood over me all morning with a curling iron until my hair was this big butter creme frosting hairdo, this big off-the-face hairdo. Then Evie brought some make up and did my eyes. I put on my spicy new dress and couldn't wait to start sweating. This whole summer, I hadn't seen a mirror or if I did I never realized the reflection was me. I hadn't seen the police photos. When Evie and Sister Katherine were done, I say, "De foil iowa fog geoff. And Evie says, "You're welcome. " Sister Katherine says, "But you just ate lunch. " It's clear enough, nobody understands me here. I say, "Kong wimmer nay pee golly. " And Evie says, "Yeah, these are your shoes, but I'm not hurting them any. " And Sister Katherine says, "No, no mail yet, but we can write to prisoners after you've had your nap, dear. " They left. And. I left, alone. And. How bad could it be, my face? And sometimes being mutilated can work to your advantage. All those people now with piercings and tattoos and brandings and scarification . . . What I mean is, attention is attention.
Going outside is the first time I feel I've missed something. I mean, a whole summer had just disappeared. All those pool parties and lying around on metal-flake speed-flesh-tone lumps of ice in the freezer bin. I dig around until I find the biggest turkey, and I heft it up baby style in its yellow plastic netting. I haul myself up to the front of the store, right through the check stands, and nobody stops me. Nobody's even looking. They're all reading those tabloid newspapers as if there's hidden gold there. "Sejgfn di ofo utnbg," I say. "Nei wucj iswisn sdnsud. " Nobody looks. EVSF UYYB IUH," I say in my best ventriloquist voice. Nobody even talks. Maybe just the clerks talk. Do you have two pieces of I. D.? they're asking people writing checks. "Fgjrn iufnv si vuv," I say. "Xidi cniwuw sis sacnc! " Then it is, it's right then a boy says, "Look! " Everybody who's not looking and not talking stops breathing. The little boy says, "Look Mom, look over there! That monster's stealing food! " Everybody gets all shrunken up with embarrassment. All their heads drop down into their shoulders the way they'd look on crutches. They're reading tabloid headlines harder than ever.
Monster Girl Steals Festive Holiday Bird And there I am, deep fried in my cotton crepe dress, a twenty-five pound turkey in my arms, the turkey sweating, my dress almost transparent. My nipples are rock kind is wearing this sleeveless Versace kind of tank dress with this season's overwhelming feel of despair and corrupt resignation. Body conscious yet humiliated. Buoyant but crippled. The queen supreme is the most beautiful anything I've ever seen so I just vogue there to watch from the doorway. "Men," the therapist says, "stress the adjective when they speak. The therapist says, "For instance, a man would say, 'You are so attractive, today'. " Brandy is so attractive you could chop her head off and put it on blue velvet in the window at Tiffany's and somebody would buy it for a million dollars. "A woman would say, 'You are so attractive, today'," the therapist says. "Now, you, Brandy. You say it. Stress the modifier, not the adjective. " Brandy Alexander looks her Burning Blueberry eyes at me in the doorway and says, "Posing girl, you are so Godawful ugly. Did you let an elephant sit on your face or what? " Brandy's voice, I barely hear what she says.
At that instant, I just adore Brandy so much. Everything about her feels as good as being beautiful and looking in a mirror. Brandy is my instant royal family. My only everything to live for. I go, "Cfoieb svns ois," and I pile the cold, wet turkey into the speech therapist's lap, her sitting pinned under twenty-five pounds of dead meat in her roll-around leather desk chair. From closer down the hallway, Sister Katherine is yelling, "Yoohoo! " "Mriuvn wsi sjaoi aj," I go, and wheel the therapist and her chair into the hallway. I say, "Jownd wine sm fdo dcncw. The speech therapist, she's smiling up at me and says, "You don't have to thank me, it's just my job is all. " The nun's arrived with the man and his I. V. stand, a new man with no skin or crushed features or all his teeth bashed out, a man who'd be perfect for me. My one true love. My deformed or mutilated or diseased prince charming. My unhappily ever after. My hideous future. The monstrous rest of my life. I slam the office door and lock myself inside with Brandy Alexander. There's the speech therapist's notebook on her desk, and I grab it. save me, I write, and wave it in Brandy's face.
I write: please. Jump to Brandy Alexander's hands. This always starts with her hands. Brandy Alexander puts a hand out, one of those hairy pigknuckled hands with the veins of her arm crowded and squeezed to the elbow with bangle bracelets of every color. Just by herself, Brandy Alexander is such a shift in the beauty standard that no one thing stands out. Not even you. "So, girl," Brandy says. "What all happened to your face? " Birds. I write: birds, birds ate my face. And I start to laugh. Brandy doesn't laugh. Brandy says, "What's that supposed to mean? " And I'm still laughing. was driving on the freeway, I write. And I'm still laughing. someone shot a 30-caliber bullet from a rifle. the bullet tore my entire jawbone off my face. Still laughing. i came to the hospital, I write. i did not die. Laughing. they couldn't put my jaw back because seagulls had eaten it. And I stop laughing. "Girl, your handwriting is terrible," Brandy says. "Now tell me what else. " And I start to cry. what else, I write, is i have to eat baby food. i can't talk. i have no career. i have no home. my fiance left me. nobody will look at me. all my clothes, my best friend ruined them.
I'm still crying. "What else? " Brandy says. "Tell me everything. " a boy, I write. a little boy in the supermarket called me a monster. Those Burning Blueberry eyes look right at me the way no eyes have all summer. "Your perception is all fucked up," Brandy says. "All you can talk about is trash that's already happened. " She says, "You can't base your life on the past or the present. " Brandy says, "You have to tell me about your future. " Brandy Alexander, she stands up on her gold lame leg-hold trap shoes. The queen supreme takes a jeweled compact out of her clutch bag and naps the compact open to look at the mirror inside. "That therapist," those Plumbago lips say, "the speech therapist can be so stupid about these situations. " The big jeweled arm muscles of Brandy sit me down in the seat still hot from her ass, and she holds the compact so I can see inside. Instead of face powder, it's full of white capsules. Where there should be a mirror, there's a close up photo of Brandy Alexander smiling and looking terrific. "They're Vicodins, dear," she says. "It's the Marilyn Monroe school of medicine where enough of any drug will cure any disease. " She says, "Dig in.
Help yourself. " The thin and eternal goddess that she is, Brandy's picture smiles up at me over a sea of painkillers. This is how I met Brandy Alexander. This is how I found the strength not to get on with my former life. This is how I found the courage not to pick up the same old pieces. "Now," those Plumbago lips say, "You are going to tell me your story like you just did. Write it all down. Tell that story over and over. Tell me your sad-assed story all night. " That Brandy queen points a long bony finger at me. "When you understand," Brandy says, "that what you're telling is just a story.
It isn't happening anymore. When you realize the story you're telling is just words, when you can just crumble it up and throw your past in the trashcan," Brandy says, "then we'll figure out who you're going to be. ” CHAPTER F O U R Jump to the Canadian border. Jump to the three of us in a rented Lincoln Town Car, waiting to drive south from Vancouver, British Columbia, into the United States, waiting, with Signore Romeo in the driver's seat, waiting with Brandy next to him in the front, waiting, with me alone in the back. "The police have microphones," Brandy tells us.
The plan is if we make it through the border, we'll drive south to Seattle where there are nightclubs and dance clubs where gogo boys and go-go girls will line up to buy the pockets of my purse clean. We have to be quiet because the police, they have microphones on both sides of the border, United States and Canadian. This way, they can listen in on people waiting to cross. We could have Cuban cigars. Fresh fruit. Diamonds. Diseases. Drugs, Brandy says. Brandy, she tells us to shut up a mile before the border, and we wait in line, quiet. Brandy unwinds the yards and yards of rocade scarf around her head. Brandy, she shakes her hair down her back and ties the scarf over her shoulders to hide her torpedo cleavage. Brandy switches to simple gold earrings. She takes off her pearls and puts on a little chain with a gold cross. This is a moment before the border guard. "Your nationalities? " the border-guard guy sitting inside his little window, behind his computer terminal with his clipboard and his blue suit behind his mirrored sunglasses, and behind his gold badge says. "Sir," Brandy says, and her new voice is as bland and drawled out as grits without salt or butter.
She says, "Sir, we are citizens of the United States of America, what used to be called the greatest country on earth until the homosexuals and child pornographers— "Your names? " says the border guy. Brandy leans across Alfa to look up at the border guy, "My husband," she says, "is an innocent man. " "Your name, please," he says, no doubt looking up our license plate, finding it's a rental car, rented in Billings, Montana, three weeks ago, maybe even finding the truth about who we really are. Maybe finding bulletin after bulletin from all over western Canada about three nut cases stealing drugs at big houses up for ale. Maybe all this is spooling onto his computer screen, maybe none of it. You never know. "I am married," Brandy is almost yelling to get his attention. "I am the wife of the Reverend Scooter Alexander," she says, still half laid across Alfa's lap. "And this," she says and draws the invisible line from her smile to Alfa, "this is my son-in-law, Seth Thomas. " Her big hand flies toward me in the backseat. "This," she says, "is my daughter, Bubba-Joan. " Some days, I hate it when Brandy changes our lives without warning. Sometimes, twice in one day, you have to live up to a new identity.
A new name. New relationships. Handicaps. It's hard to remember who I started this road trip being. No doubt, this is the kind of stress the constantly mutating AIDS virus must feel. "Sir? " the border guy says to Seth, formerly Alfa Romeo, formerly Chase Manhattan, formerly Nash Rambler, formerly Wells Fargo, formerly Eberhard Faber. The guard says, "Sir, are you bringing any purchases back with you into t

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