Take eight Gallons of Ale; take a Cock and boil him well; then take four pounds of Raisins of the Sun well stoned, two or three Nutmegs, three or four flakes of Mace, half a pound of Dates; beat these all in a Mortar, and put to them two quarts of the best Sack; and when the Ale hath done working, put these in, and stop it close six or seven days, and then bottle it, and a month after you may drink it.
Rawlings tries to get his bearings. He is sure he is in a very large building. Something in the drafts of the central air tell him there are other exits besides the one Huanatoca wants him to use. He presses his ear to the door. The same low rush of vented air pervades. But far within is a small dry scribbling noise. It would sound like someone writing with a pencil if the tempo weren’t so fast and regular. They could only be scratching series of lower case l’s or i’s. A code? Someone digging? But Rawlings, with his time-hewn professional instinct for such things, (concussed, grogged, and pre-pneumoniatic as he may be) senses the room is vacant. There is no subtle interruption to the central air’s current, no pulsingly black void of latent energy. A curtain cord swaying and dancing against the wall maybe. The fingers of a tree branch taking dictation against the outer wall? Rawlings decides to just barge in. The door is locked. No footsteps reply. No clothing rustles. But the scribbling becomes louder and faster. And another sound joins in: The gagged moaning sound. Only now it is high-pitched, guttural. ‘There is someone inside! We are trying to reach one another.’ Rawlings throws his shoulder into the door over and over. When he hears Huanatoca’s Phils squealing across the linoleum he pounds the door.
When Huanatoca hits the hallway mouth at speed like a downfield fullback she looks like a jungle casual rhino on the rampage. As Rawlings oozes down the door in utter quivering horror hoping the symptom suite of quease, fever, and concussedness will take full and irrevocable sway of his neck-down in merciful antecedent to Huanatoca’s shoulders, knees, and bile, he is once again given an inexplicable moment of clarity; the sort of attachable memory of humming cluefulness which often attends the dispassionate moments when we are forced to be resigned to our fate. The greater chaff of extraneous thought is heaved to the air, blown then burned. Vital stalks of fact and priority remain. The sun catches one and then another. There is little time before destruction, oblivion. He is once again flying through the parkblock air and remembering the commemorative buckle Seven-Foot Slim had indicated with two outsized thumbs. Rawlings had been in Slim’s office for ten minutes. They had just completed a tour of the library. Slim is about to conclude a meandering exposition on what he would like to see Rawlings (that is Pauling) take from the voluntary/work-release library experience. It isn’t a stretch for Rawlings to play indifferent here but he doesn’t want to overdo it and have Slim notice and go on some corrective tangent when he seems about ready to conclude. Slim has told Rawlings about his enthusiasm for amateur rodeo. Every year, he explains, he competes in the Local’s Jamboree Division of the Molalla Buckaroo. To do so Slim takes June off from the library, packs his Ford Bronco with the tack decorating his garage, and drives nine hours to the southeast corner of the state to train in The Burns’ Boys Bronc Bustin’ Bootcamp. Slim had concluded (if not steered the whole time) his distinctly un-self-conscious autobiographical flight with a credo: “Work hard. Play hard.” This would have been unremarkable if not for the sheer context of the six weeks that had followed. Slim was a reticent manager, easily trod upon by the careerist book jockeys with unionized assurance and not a damn’s worth of self-consciousness about it. He repeatedly deferred to staff in non-strategic ways. There was nothing of the cowboy’s confidence brandished and self-stamped by those two well-calloused and curving thumbs. No sardonic hickspit lingo of the routinely and happily back broken, just the soft dumb lilt of the put upon country fried forced to talk now to talk and occasionally write for a living . Not a hint of the absolute swaggerdoccio he showed while crossing his Astroturf backyard and measuring off the rope-lengths between the produce crate he’d been standing on and the lassoed sawhorse fifteen yards away. He was in utter stylistic opposition to the countrified hard-living (but still-God-fearing-mind-you) hand whose Harney County file corroborated with paragraphs of youthful drunk and disorderlies, peace disturbances, and speeding tickets in every other rodeo town northwest of the Platte. Not that a man couldn’t change, sure. In fact, the radicality of the transformation was almost cliché: There’d been some chasteningly felonious moment out on the circuit where Slim had vowed to reform. He’d scored a G.E.D. and logged some community college. He traded the mockingly unlassoable expanses of Oregon East for the confines of the Portland grid and then Troutdale cul de sac. He had tamped down the wild in order not to destroy himself too soon. It is a reverse-romantic trope. We look at him and think of what we lose by having a surrogate sinner be so humbled. When we spy him swatting the rear of the corn-silk blonde watching for the deck we think “at least he has his consolations, his little old freedoms.”
He’d met Mrs. Slim somewhere out on the circuit. She had followed geographical suit after a long letter or two during the second semester. She now worked at nursing home on the hill lurched over Olde Town. But the wild had remained in her eyes. She ran the home like a wagon train cookie; alternately crass and militant, but unmistakably stoked by stores of innate joie de vivre and pep to be universally respected, if not occasionally loved. She pressed her advantage with dungarees and sealed the deal with tight denim tops. She brought Harney with her and didn’t give a damn about salting her language and eating out “lazy old, mush-mouthed coots and dears” if she had to. Not once had she offered up her incongruity and visited Slim at The Troutdale Library or watched him speak (stammer is more like it) during the Troutdale Chamber of Commerce of meetings or the Troutdale Optimists luncheons. Their opposition would have been too stark. She would charm while folded into a very droopy question mark. Mrs. Slim, Queen of Corn Silk, that trademark ass-swat says you are his little stored away gem, a beneficence of a carved out home-life. Spying on them through the monocular, Rawlings couldn’t help but feel the jealous tumbles. They had a spark not one of the seven other Chambermen, 14 Optimists, the Mayor himself, and any other even tangentially connected Nobles of the Kingdom (but for the King himself) Rawlings had trained the monocular and lip-reading skills on. They were all upstandingly likely in this their bergful life. The Slims, happy as get out, only fit in because even bergs need to have their star power and sex appeal. Exceptions serve to reinforce the dominant mode.*
*Troutdale markets itself as an escape from the ideological rigamarole of Portland, where exceptionalism is the perceived (and thereby marketed) norm.
Floating through that parkblock air the first time the gesturing fingers buckleward had no cause to register. The Slims were the reassuring anomaly. Mr. Slim was, if anything, a victim of the stultifying normalizing force of the mediocre Troutdale Dream. To have the penned up cowboy foisted on his final pre-concussed thoughts seemed to be a reiteration of recent dissatisfactions. ‘You fly through the air as though this has anything to do with it.’
But sinking to the now welcoming plush of the Tapatio girl’s carpet he returns to Slim’s gesture retrospectively. There was just too much damn cord wood in those arms to so convincingly play the sap to our urban milquetoasts turned job-confident and union militant. He replays everything the former cowhand said. He remembers that during the tour Slim had pointed out the various eateries in the shopping center. “Library employees and volunteers receive a 10% discount at a number of Cherry Park restaurants.” He’d pointed out the participants, which had included Tapatio and four or five other places. “It isn’t exactly haute cuisine but it’ll give you a bellyful.” Who’s to say what influences some book time and library crewing will do for un-eddycated. But “haute?” He’d pronounced it without lick of self-consciousness, like he’d been saying it his whole life. No amount of acculturation is going to make a cowboy let that French fried word sound so crisply snapping yet subtly postponed at the ‘t’ led up to by the ghost, the mere implication of an ‘oe’ sound soft as a croissant’s innards. It had been so immaculate Rawlings’ bunk and hiccup tuned ears (humming pitch forks in even the necessary moments when his burdened brain necessarily checks out or just plain goes elsewhere) had registered not a blip of incongruity. The enunciation felt of a part with the nervous, soft spoken country lilt. But, in this blessed and bile-mixing retrospect rug and puddleward, the ‘haute’ made no sense unless Slim had a pile more eddy-cation than the file showed or the man had either oft visited, had cause to speak frequently of, or hailed near on and thereabouts in Indiana’s second city, Terre Haute, aka The Land of Bird. Moreover: Who in the heck works hard in the library? Certainly not a ranchy with exemplary hands. He should be pronouncing it like Swaff…Oat……Swafford? Cuisine? Haute? …Tapatio?
“Work hard: Play hard.”
Slim’s voice echoing in the dilution of his consciousness.
“Work hard: Play hard.”
Echoing and mixing with the sound of the gagged and whimpering ally on the other side of the wall and meshing into the staticky hush of the fibers. The dull drum of Huanatoca’s stampede. Thinking of his lone remaining friend while dimming to black.
“Covers, Tige, Old Buddy. All covers. And food poisoned to boot.”
He wondered if he was a patient in a hospital. Then he wondered why that was his first instinct. Couldn’t he be in his own bed? If he had the energy to roll on his side might he startle at the mountain of her long rolling hip? The long-linened climb to her shoulder Kilamanjaro? An exploratory elbow to the east met no resistance but who knows what quarter of the matrimonial plains he might’ve rolled to or, more likely, been pushed to.
Rocking to his left and right he tried to gain momentum. Creaking springs sounded particularly coarse in the low, close chamber. Someone could be listening on the other side of the wall. He would be discovered. But then why would someone be inside their apartment? And then he re-remembered: 14 years. Snapping his head into the last rock he half-hoped he was dreaming the bit about the fourteen years as he rolled to her side of the bed to protect her. He fell for what seemed a long time.
He woke to someone grunting nearby. They seemed to be in pain, desperate. Muffled squeals were now on his side of the wall. The high-pitched squeaking was painfully close and made his head ring. And this is a different room, isn’t it? The darkness is flat and mostly black with a sourceless line of white light beginning just above his throbbing left temple and stretching away and behind him.
He cannot move his arms or legs. Someone has restrained
him. He seems to have been rolled on his side and up against a wall. The other person in the room has been detained also. They are gagged and poking him in the shoulders and back, urging him to move. The squeaking sound becomes frenetic; a mouse in its electrified wheel. All the while a low register period bell is clanging and distorting inside his head. The beat of approaching footsteps on the other side of the wall does not build long enough to be identifiable. When the door lock above Rawlings is suddenly engaged it as though train cars have coupled just above him while he is tied to the tracks below. Rawlings jerks and spits.
“Gah! Gahhhhhh! Gahhhhhhhhhh!”
Teresa Huanatoca looks down at Rawlings flailing in her guest linen. The yelling has stopped but he continues twisting himself more tightly into the sheet and comforter. She can’t help but savor this. ‘Just look at the gringo mummy go,’ she thinks. ‘He sure can play the fool.’ When she touches the toe of her sneaker to his shoulder he hops an inch off the ground.
“Gaaaaaa! Ow-gaaafff! Gaaaaaaafff!”
Huanatoca bends down and gives Rawlings a little shove between the shoulders.
“Alright, shut up! Shut up, already!”
Rawlings spits out two more “gawfff”s and goes very still. Huanatoca carefuls a hand in to try to free his head. The linen is damp and cold. Rawlings’ breathing is heavy. Her fingers plumb for the source. They run into something cold and hard. She pulls out a small plastic white noise machine spilling out static and set to OCEAN. She unplugs it then delves back into the linen. This time her fingers shock cold at what feels like a small, long-haired animal. Not trusting the sense of it she takes a fistful and pulls. She slowly reveals a section then a chunk then a long, flowing spread of Rawlings’ scalp.
She shocks at Rawlings’ sound and then at the entire wig she is juggling in her hands.
Rawlings begins flailing again.
“Gaaaaaa! Gaaaaaa! Gaaaaaa!”
She throws the wig across the room and against the wall. Rawlings is wheezing like he is about to hyperventilate.
“Shut up-shut up-shut up! Shut up!!!”
His legs are free and cycling madly in the air. Huanatoca kicks at them, tries to pin one down but this freaks Rawlings out all the more. She cannot get a hold on him much less free him. When she tries to get Rawlings on his back so she can straddle his chest Rawlings bucks her off his hip and she is thrown into the wall. As she rubs her tenderized head Rawlings cycles away in the shussing sheets. Huanatoca stands to leave the room and lock the door behind her.
Fifteen minutes later the door unlocks. Rawlings is shirtless, bald, and shivering in bed. His back is to the wall and his arms are crossed over his chest. A quadrilateral of hall light bisects his ashen and stubbled face. He stares ruefully at Huanatoca.
The woman he knows from Tapatio, who he has only ever seen in a red apron, tan highwaters and a matching shirt, is in what he considers to be aggressively casual ware; a red plush sweatsuit with the fat yellow insignia of the Sir Philip line (so much like a fat Achilles wing) stitched to the chest. Flawlessly white, pneumatic high-tops (with the brand wing stitched in silhouette) glow from the pedestal of this Counter General in Repose. The corded hands he has only ever seen flashing and larden lie loose at her sides, palm out, her long fingers curling in jointed C’s. The counter-kitchen angularity has been lubricated by a hot shower and coordinated into loose cushion. (Rawlings flashes his nostrils in search of Ivory soap.) Also, unbent from the counter, this woman must be close to six feet tall. He’d’ve had Tapatio Huanatoca at 5’6, 5’7 tops.
An elbow-shaped chin is raised to a nearly Mussolini-ishly obtuse angle. She turns on the light and Rawlings wincingly takes in the bare blue room. Huanatoca’s chin traces slow arcs in the air to investigate the room. The linens are heaped in one corner. Maize-colored vomit is smeared and dripping down the opposite corner and collecting in a pool half-covered by Rawlings balled up shirt. Under the window small fragments of glass are mixed with the parts of what used to be the white noise machine. After processing each of these scenes Huanatoca’s head makes a little calibratory joggle before proceeding. Rawlings thinks her as capable of dispassionate cruelty as any humanoid mantis. Huanatoca bends down and rises holding out Rawlings wig. This does not change his opinion.
“Who needs bars on a third floor window?”
Huanatoca steps into the room and closes the door behind her. She looks him in the face. This is a different woman than the counter jockey. Where her body seems to exist in service of her hands, her head is run by a long, thin nose slightly bent in the middle. Its sculpted point indicates perpetual south to a small pursed mouth. High cheek bones pull the surrounding skin tight and severely to. Olive-brown eyes carry lids who fall less frequently and far more slowly than most. Thick, untended brows arch incongruously above. (They seem too soft, too generous to live among the rest.) A black helmet of jug-shaped hair tapers away from a fluted neck. Eight scissor snips around the perimeter and four straight across the bangs is her sole head-wise vanity. Rawlings fails to not find her arrestingly ugly to the point of beauty. She speaks less quickly and with less of an accent than she does behind the counter.
“Would you like a clean shirt?”
There is an unmistakable regality to the word, a savoring of her grounds and station. Clean.
“Go to Hell, lady.”
Rawlings eases himself to the edge of the bed. His arms swim through the air as he lurches to his feet. The legs are full of jelly and he is ready to puke again.
“Stay in bed.”
Her sentences blur into one word. She may as well be the OCEAN machine.
Rawlings takes a few tilting steps towards the door she is blocking. He is waving her aside with one hand and shielding himself from the nuclear sun of the bare bulb above. Huanatoca moves to the side and opens the door. Rawlings steps through.
The hallway and carpet are the same blue. Three more bare bulbs divide the stretch into regular zones of lividity and shadow. A closed door is floodlit by each. Using the wall as a crutch he gentles towards the second bulb. He realizes he is not wearing shoes when a central air vent gives him the hotfoot. When the door behind him snaps into place he does a humiliating little dance on the iron grate. If Huanatoca laughs or sucks up a breath behind him he cannot hear it over the blowing air. He rests against the second door.
“My shoes and coat.”
Huanatoca briskly drafts past him leaving Rawlings shaking. There is a residue of her back-kitchen carriage as she tally not- quite-marches down the hall. Rawlings thinks ‘She really knows how to put the ‘fuck you’ in her stride doesn’t she.’
Huanatoca places the loafers before Rawlings so that he can step into them. She practically dances behind him (‘She’s gleeful, the woman is gleeful!’) and holds his trench open tilting her head like a goddamn complacent matador. Rawlings almost backhands her when he snatches the coat from her and rips it on. He thinks he sees the woman give him an infuriating little deferential bow out of the corner of his eye.
“Go open your front door.”
Huanatoca puts an unmistakably sarcastic right angle to her elbows to double-time it down the hall, through a darkly orange-lit foyer type chamber leading, even more darkly, in three other directions, fairly hops over the threshold into the northerly chamber where her Sir Phils squeak over dark brown linoleum masquerading as brickwork, and into some unseen area that, acoustically, sounds a country away from the bosomy comfort of this warm, local Door Number 2 and the doorknob he clings to as he would a trusted confidant. The terribly distant and small sounds of twisted latches and thrown deadbolts sprouts a bilious pod of quease in the southwest intestines pressed against this now possibly complicit and very cold knob. Such are the shifting loyalties of unknowable lands. Huanatoca’s contralto echoes down the chambers in waves of piercing stabs.
She is probably off with Tiger now, throwing a stick deeper into the surf than he might. The canine roommate never fully cottoned to the human woman who had introduced the predatory concussion of high heels and the gossipy birdcall of girlfriend telephony to his and Rawlings’ soft pop rhythms. Years in now and the old boy still hams up the hangdog routine every time the bedroom closet slides open; his slow, sad-mouth turn towards and indictment of the source followed by the exaggerated dip Rawlingsward as if to say ‘will you ever do something about this?’ But he’ll be avid as ever sprinting through the shallows to hurdle a sneaker wave to paddle the deeps and drag the jetsam too big for his mouth back to shore for more, please god, more. And she will be unnecessarily stern with her “Drop it! Drop it now!” and make Tiger squirm until he is absolutely still, staring down the blameless animal with a testing look only slightly less subtle than the one reserved for humans. And Rawlings will remember she has never once referred to Tiger by his name, not even once.
But there is no riled up barking pre-toss, no scattershot of surf, no hanging silence of a woman v. dog standoff, just the mesmeric surf wash…wash…washing over him in a pool of shussing sleep. But wait, there is a muffled noise at the eastern edge of this; the small metallic squeak-creak of a mechanism in need of oil. It reminds Rawlings of the rusty old seed dispenser the P & R guy pushes down the parkblocks each spring. Or the telltale strain of an Otis pulley as the elevator climbs the intervening floors, clatters by and rises, pauses…waits…and approaches again to whisper intolerant little asides about the residents and riders of the building he’s sitting stake to this time; nasal, arthritic old warhorse machines having a way of becoming near boon companions on the longer ended hauls in the yawningly depopulated halls and anonymous lobbies of the wee hours. Rawlings considers how he and his quarry are ridiculous little orts slipsliding through a mountainous city of labyrinthine steel and cog; how we assemble the parts to and push the button of the mechanisms we have hemmed ourselves in with. The beach is supposed to be a break from all that. But so unoccupied and abandoned, Rawlings feels lonely…boundless. He shrinks himself to the scale of her medieval complex and descends cool, cracked stairs into a long roofless hall blasted with sun and sparkling. A man-sized sand flea skitters away. Spear-fishing sandpipers might be about so he starts jogging. At the end of the hall is another staircase. He climbs a pail-shaped tower. The air inside is hot and close. He climbs for what seems a long time before reaching the roof. Far taller towers, all shaped like sand pails, surround him and disappear into the sky. He slides on his stomach to peek over the edge. A massive lake is rising and falling around a low hill. The western half of the lake is in shadow behind a hideous, red-painted head of a stone gargantuan. Rawlings feels queasy, bottomingly Lilipeutian. We are so pathetically tiny within our magnificent urban sculptures. He pinches at the entombing sand. We are as granular, microscopic, and diffuse but far more vulnerable. Sand is pulverized into gem, man squashed into smear. The tide might come in and she may never return. He could bottom into floating oblivion. Anything is better than being encased and abandoned. Buildings and tombs alike are false company. They exist to enclose and suffocate, not to console us of what we have lost. Does she realize he falls asleep at the beach, not to give her the gift of his vulnerability, but to give her another chance to resist the temptation to be cruel? He pictures her looking genuinely happy as she throws the ball deeper into the ocean. Rawlings shapes his hand to Tiger’s head, reaches to remove the sunglasses, and thumbs himself in the eye.
There are no sunglasses. His eyes are open to a bottomless brown dark. Then he remembers. She has never met Tiger. They don’t have a dog. He refuses to go to the beach with her anymore and only eats river-going fish. Moreover, if it had been her that buried him (again) he would not be able to move his hands like this. And come to think of it, this is not sand at all but some sort of fabric twisted around his hands. Was this some new variation of the torture? Had she hogtied him to see if he would squeal? He moved his feet. They were surrounded by the same fabric but not restrained. He took a deep breath and there was no dull crack in the sand layer, just the rustling of fabric. He listened. The shussing of the tide continued. But it did not give him the old quease. And the air did not have that blood-salt smell he associated with her and their beach days. Then he remembered more. He hadn’t seen the woman in 14 years. Momentarily, he was wrapped in the old wet blanket of depressive isolation and surrounded by his own ceaselessly non-consoling thoughts and memories. In the crucial moment where we could sink fully under he shook it off, engaged the old cover. Something’s amiss Rawlings. Look likely. There’s duty here.
He listened closely. There wasn’t a tide at all. It was more like quiet static from a radio. And the little squeaking metallic sound was still there and had become faster and more irregular sounding, even malfunctioningly frenzied. Also, and he was probably wrong here, but it sounded like there was gagged and making desperate little grunting noises. And they were not far away but at a remove, perhaps in a container or on the other side of a wall. Yes, he was inside. He looked right and left and though he could not see anything the darkness gained more shape. There was a thin grey frame about five feet away; a window with blinds perhaps. Above was a dull glow; a ceiling. His body was supported by a cushion, possibly a mattress. The static sound was underneath him and equally loud from either side of what he took to be a twin bed.