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Authors: Steve Erickson

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BOOK: Amnesiascope: A Novel
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What the hell. At least I got one good laugh out of the whole thing. Drifting off to sleep I have to laugh that the city out there beyond my window is eaten up by the “secret” of Sally’s wedding. People wondering and worrying when I’m going to find out, staying clear of my intersections with my secrets and waiting for my collision with the biggest secret of all. I see them scurry from shadow to shadow, avoiding any conversation in which the Big News could manifest itself at any moment. Suddenly, in retrospect, a thousand unfinished sentences make sense, a thousand abrupt questions that I have been asked—“Uh, heard from Sally lately?”—suddenly have a reason for having been asked. Revealed in a new light are a thousand awkward pirouettes and nimble dodges that struck me at the time as a little odd. The sap in me, of course, wants to take them off the hook as usual, wants to relieve them of their anxiety, call them all up and assure them: It’s OK, I know now. You can come out of hiding. But I’m going to resist that impulse for a while. I’m going to let them stew awhile, the longer the better. The fact that it’s
no
t a secret anymore is now my secret. I’m not so angry they didn’t tell me, but it does seem they ought to pay a price for it. If it were me, I would expect to pay such a price.

I wonder whether Viv knows, and if not, whether I should tell her. For such a long time she has felt herself in the shadow not so much of Sally but my love for Sally, the two of which become more distinctly different as time passes. Maybe she’s thinking, How will he feel when he finds out? How do I tell him without sounding gleeful …? Or, if she doesn’t know and I tell her, will she then wonder what it
means
, imagining meanings that don’t even exist? To tell Viv interjects Sally into our lives in a way that does us no good—or ejects Sally from our lives in a way that frees us forever … but right now I don’t know which. So for a while I will leave Sally in the soundless shadows, and spare Viv the one last entrance Sally must make before she makes one last exit.

Goodbye. It’s one thing to have gotten over you. It’s another thing to get over having loved you. Now I say goodbye to our past that I could never quite say goodbye to before, and to whatever dubious future might have once been attached to it. I put it with all my other dubious futures; I have a vast collection of them, lined up on my shelves in empty silver balls. I pick them up, shake them and they don’t make a sound, and that makes me smile. Every once in a while someone tries to slip one in that rattles with a false promise, like a petrified dead bug trapped inside; and I just open the window and heave it to the Hollywood Hills, where by now there must be a junkyard of such futures that rattle with one false promise after another. I’m back to the present, the one true living moment in a continuum of death—dead pasts, dead futures, dead memories, dead expectations. In an ironic world, you will think I’m being ironic when I say it’s good to be alive. But there’s nothing ironic about it. I would like to think I haven’t become so bankrupt as to replace a dead innocence with a dead irony, the first of which distinguishes children, but the second of which distinguishes monsters.

It was in Berlin when I first came across the American Tarot. The cards were tacked up on the wall of a German punk’s flat. A year or so ago, driving home one afternoon from my acupuncture session in Little Tokyo, my body buzzing with the bedlam of toxins pricked loose by all the little pins I’d had stuck in me, I stopped in Hollywood and stumbled into a tattoo joint on Ivar. I wandered from one wall to the next staring at the hallucinatory designs. The young woman who ran the tattoo shop had jet black hair and eyes that lit up like the sun through the dirtiest pane of a stained glass window; in the fashion of the neighborhood all her teeth had been filed to points. Talking with her about the designs on the walls, I asked her about the American Tarot. She had never heard of it. There and then I made it up for her, the major arcana and the suites, the Snakecharmer and the Boatman and the Moll and the Slave, the Witch and the Bounty Hunter and the Black Lieutenant and the Salem Mistress, the King of Stars and the Knight of Bridges and the Queen of Rifles and the Princess of Coins. The tattoo artist started drawing them as fast as I could come up with them, until the counter was papered with them; and we hatched our plot then, that she would tattoo the whole tarot on the women of Los Angeles, until the entire deck was dealt and wandering the city. Every once in a while I drop by the shop on Ivar to see how it’s going. And when I’m driving the streets and I see the young hookers and runaways and waifs who are all fleeing their names, I name them: I imagine that this one is the Blind Hitchhiker and that one the Ripped-Dress Debutante, their secret personae etched on them in secret places. The last time I went by the tattoo joint I had a revelation. It was filled with that peculiar odor I had been smelling in the streets of Los Angeles for some time, without being able to identify it; and I realized it was the smell of color soldered to flesh. …

America recedes into the past. History recedes into the future. From my rooftop at dusk in ravaged L.A. I see America and history in the distance, a horizon of dust pulling farther away. On the monitor every once in a while I pick up a broadcast from back east where, among the rest of the nations populace, L.A. has become just a dim recollection. Out blips the image of some politician, making the usual stern proclamations the dead make to the living.

They kept telling you it was a war for the soul of America, but you didn’t believe them. They kept saying you were the Enemy, but you wouldn’t accept that, because you just didn’t feel like an enemy. Now you know they meant every word, and more. Now, as the Twentieth Century slips America’s hold on it, you have become the Enemy they always said you were; and in the receding history that you see from your rooftop, you can’t help being impressed. No one with a highly developed sense of his own hypocrisy can help being impressed how the amoral have become the New Moralists, how the spiritually malevolent have become the New Righteous. You can’t help being impressed how the New Patriots have consolidated their power and profit in the name of an idea someone had for a country a couple of hundred years ago, or the name of a cracked visionary who died for love a couple of thousand years ago. Of course it might prove embarrassing if he were to actually return as they claim to believe he will, living among the very trash these paragons hate and despise: the hookers and junkies and abandoned teenage mothers and muttering crazies who have nowhere to live but the street, the once-beautiful young men emaciated by plague, the suffering and forsaken souls he would cradle and comfort as they die the agonizing deaths in which the “moral” and the “righteous” and the “patriotic” revel. But the New Paragons have probably concluded that there really isn’t all that much danger of him showing up any time soon; and so every one of them can come beaming in on the airwaves these days with a little more confidence, sounding a little tougher and sitting a little more ram-rod straight, like he has a ruler up his ass to measure to the last millimeter not only the distance from his rectum to his heart but which of the two is smaller and tighter and more constricted. And then after a while you have to admit maybe you’re not so impressed by them anymore. After a while you have to admit maybe you’re beginning to get your fill of these gibbering corpses, and you just wish there was another thousand miles of Mojave between them and you. You have to admit you would just as soon set the desert on fire and rip up all the highways leading into town and lay a black smoke screen across the eastern sky, so there was no possibility whatsoever any of them could ever get in.

In other words, I couldn’t help saying yes when Viv asked me to write her movie. I couldn’t help but like the idea of such a movie flickering in and out of monitors all over America. Network Vs. signed her to make a short fifteen-minute pornographic film about a woman artist who paints portraits of nude female models while they tell her their fantasies; then at the end of the film when we finally see the artist’s paintings they aren’t portraits at all but scenes of fire—sparks, blazes, infernos, tendrils of flame rising skyward. … It was all Viv’s idea. I take no blame nor credit for it. “That sounds great,” I said when she explained it; I could see the whole thing in my mind.

“You really think so?” said Viv.

“I can see the whole thing in my mind.”

“You can?”

“Absolutely.”

“In your mind? The whole thing?”

“Absolutely.”

“Good,” she said, “you’re going to write it for me.” Sneaky little vixen. Now I was stuck. It had been years since I’d written anything but movie reviews, unless you count that
Death of Marat
business, and at first I tried to hem and haw my way out of it. Later, after I actually started writing, my doubts only grew. Over the days and weeks I turned out many pages of splendid camera shots, amazing dissolves, spectacular fades: desolate lunar plains turning into bare thighs, spheres over sand dunes turning into breasts over bed sheets, a background rumble of ominous machinery revealing itself as the murmur of voices, all interspersed with images of paints being mixed and brushes splattering furiously upon white canvases. In my last scene the repressed artist finally attacks the painting with her hands, her fingers running through the fiery reds—which Viv later pointed out a real painter would only do at the risk of toxic poisoning. After three weeks I had written two minutes worth of the damnedest cinematography you’ve ever seen, leaving thirteen minutes in which I realized, to my great resentment, I was expected to supply characters who actually said things to each other and activity that bore some vague resemblance to a narrative.

By the time I knew I’d gotten in too deep, it was too late. The station fronted Viv some money and drew up a production schedule, which meant I had to finish a script by the end of the month. In search of an inspiration I started crossing back and forth from one time zone of the city to the next, prowling the clubs and coffee houses and topless joints that spring up overnight in the ashes of the Black Passages; I don’t know if I really expected to be inspired or just hoped that by a stroke of good fortune someone would mug me and bash in my brains and put me out of my misery. I didn’t get
that
lucky; but almost. I was at the Feverish one night, down at the corner of Fountain and Formosa, when Jasper walked in. Now populated with punks and musicians and after-hours strippers, the Feverish was a Chinese opium den back in the 1910s that became a Hollywood bar in the 1930s; yellowing autographed photos of expired B-movie stars line the booths, and a pool table sits in back next to a platform where every once in a while someone gets up and recites the worst fucking poetry you’ve ever heard. On this night I was there, in came this big disheveled rag doll of a girl. Tall and defiantly round, with blonde hair and torn stockings, she wore around her neck a necklace that didn’t match her earrings that didn’t match each other, none of which matched the three or four rings on her fingers.

She strolled over to the table next to me and sat down, ordered a glass of wine and smoked a cigarette awhile. I just scribbled nothing at all in my note pad in order to appear busy, until she looked over and said, What are you writing? at which point I told her a little of the story about the artist and her models, and waited for her to ask a couple of questions. It was all I could do not to leap across the table, grab her by her enormous breasts, rip her open and reach inside and pull out an inspiration, because the moment I saw her I knew she had one; I was desperate, and just barely canny enough to know this wasn’t a woman who appreciated anybody else’s desperation but her own. We talked awhile and I ordered us another couple glasses of wine and nearly sprayed mine across the table when she said, “You must know a lot about women to write a story like that.”

I looked to see if she was joking. “Well,” I pulled myself together, “let’s say I know just enough to know I’d have to be an idiot to say I know very much about women.”

It only got worse when she said, “I mean, comparing women to men, for instance.” She had this way of slipping in and out of a sly look, the same way she slipped in and out of a slight accent, which sounded German; the look she did with her eyes, narrowing them and then growing wide with them again before she smiled, “Leaving aside the obvious.”

“Well …” I started, and couldn’t think of anything that wouldn’t say a lot less about women than it did about me. I went for an easy one first. “Women are braver than men,” I finally suggested.

“Everyone knows
that
,” she answered.

“They have more imagination.”

“Really?”

“I don’t mean they’re more creative. I don’t know whether they’re any more or less creative. I mean that, more than a man, a woman can reimagine herself.”

“Women are always changing,” she nodded. “And after a while men don’t change at all.”

“No,” I had to agree, “for most men the train pretty much pulls into the station about the time they’re twenty-five. Whereas for women it continues on down the track for the rest of their lives.”

“Yes.”

“They’re stronger and more resilient,” I offered, another easy one.

She sipped her wine and waited. “Those are the good things.”

“Yes.”

“You didn’t suppose,” she smiled, “you could fool me by just mentioning the good things, did you?”

“Well …” I fumbled. “Women are less forgiving.”

“Yes.”

“They’re less willing to take responsibility for their contradictions.”

She didn’t say anything to that.

“They’re less romantic.”

“They’re less romantic?”

“Of course that isn’t necessarily a good thing or a bad thing.”

“Women are less romantic than men?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t
think
so.”

“Actually, it’s the only thing I’m reasonably certain of.”

“I don’t know any woman who would agree with that.”

“That’s because for a woman, romanticism is a pattern of behavior, or maybe even ritual, whereas for a man it’s a matter of life and death. Assuming he’s the sort of man who was ever willing to die for anything in the first place.”

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