Authors: Steve Erickson
I wake up in Viv’s bed, but when I reach for her I find my wrists are bound to the bedposts. I can’t help giving my arms a good tug to see if they come free, to make sure I haven’t just tangled myself up in the sheets. For a while I lie there staring up into the blackness of whatever is across my eyes, and for what seems like a long time nothing happens at all. In the night air I’m a little cold, since I don’t have anything covering me: “I’m cold,” I finally break down; there’s no response. After a minute or so I’m suddenly certain Viv isn’t in bed at all. After another minute I’m certain Viv isn’t even in the apartment. Then I remember, dimly echoing out of the last moments of whatever dream I was having before I woke, the sound of a door opening and closing. I cannot be sure, there in the dark, whether I’m actually afraid. In my mind I begin to see, more vividly than I’ve ever seen before, Viv’s loft, all her mannequins and steel sculptures, the towers and obelisks and pyramids with their exotic feathers and little windows that peer in at pods and pearls. Naked and bound to Viv’s bed I see them surrounding me in the dark; and as more time passes I become more acutely aware of the waves of the ocean in the distance, the muffled wet whir of helicopters in the fog overhead and, far away, gunshots.
It begins to rain.
After a while I lose sense of time. I’m not sure if I’ve laid there thirty minutes or an hour, or three. Then I hear steps outside the door, and the door opens, and then I hear steps coming up the stairs of the overhanging platform, and it doesn’t take long to figure out they are the steps of more than one person. I can’t tell if she has turned on the light. The only thing I’m certain of is that someone is with her, and for some time there’s no sound at all, as though they are standing by the bed looking down at me. Nothing is said. After a few moments they go back downstairs and there is the clinking of glasses and the sound of something poured, and then I hear them walking around below. Whoever is with her expresses no surprise at the situation. Flashing through my mind is the morning out on Pacific Coast Highway in my car with Sahara from the Cathode Flower, and Viv declaring they would have their revenge; but I really have no idea whether it’s Sahara. It could be anyone. It could be Sahara or one of Viv’s friends or a woman she just picked up in a bar: “Hello, my name is Viv and I have a naked man at home tied to my bed.” I’m still trying to decide if I’m afraid, when the warm mouth I feel almost makes me jump out of my skin, because I hadn’t heard them come back up to the bed. I assume it’s Viv’s mouth but I can’t be sure. It takes in so much of me it alarms me. My erection feels like a betrayal, a sign of how easily my psyche will sell me out for a rush. And then I feel both of them and there’s no knowing which is Viv, who I still trust, and which is the other one, who I have no reason to trust, and what is the alchemic confusion of both of them intertwined, least trustworthy of all. I’m vaguely aware of being inside one and then maybe the other, or maybe it’s the same, each of them climbing on top of me and having their turn, and then one of them putting me inside her and the other straddling my face and putting herself in my mouth. I think I recognize the taste of Viv; I’m almost sure it’s Viv’s hand stroking me when I come. She knows what it’s like for me to come this way, not inside her but out in the open, with her watching, except now there is someone else watching too, a stranger I will never know, or someone I may know but who will always have been a stranger to me in this moment. At the moment of orgasm Viv knows I want to hide; but there’s nowhere to hide now, with my wrists and ankles bound. My exposure is excruciating.
“Everything you are,” someone whispers in my ear, “is in my head.” Someone else kisses my mouth, and then the other one kisses my mouth, and I think to myself, They’re both Viv: there are two of her now. I fall back to sleep.
When I wake, I’m untied. The blindfold is gone. The gray light of either morning or afternoon, I’m not sure which, fills Viv’s loft; it’s still raining. Viv is not next to me in bed but naked on the couch downstairs. No one else is there, but two half-drunk glasses of wine sit on the cabinet next to the refrigerator. My legs and my cock are streaked with lipstick; I go into the bathroom and wash, and then, still wet, kneel by the couch and kiss Viv the way she kissed me hours ago. She clutches my hair in her sleep.
Not far from the newspaper’s office you can grab a boat down the sunken subway. The city keeps trying to board up the old Metro entrances, but people just come along and rip the boards down. Ever since the tunnels flooded years back after the subway was first built, sidewalks have rumbled like they would to a train, except it’s the sound of the underground canals rushing from the Valley through Laurel Canyon to the Fairfax Corridor, then branching east to Hollywood and Silverlake beyond that, or south to Baldwin Hills. There the tunnels fork again: one winds toward the ghost marina and the other picks up the L.A. River and continues on toward San Pedro and the harbor. Sailing down the southward canals from any of the makeshift docks that riddle the underground, you pass transients living in catacombs and old abandoned subway cars floating in the grottos. Siamese-twin lizards skitter across the tunnel ceiling, and the deep white bleached roots of the trees that line Crescent Heights and Sixth Street crack through the subway walls. If you take the boat all the way out to Santa Monica the subterranean river deposits you out into the steaming bay, where a cobalt sky explodes above you and the city looms up in back, wreathed by a mane of smoke. Over the years, through the millions of fractures in the walls that line the sunken tunnels, canal water has seeped into the ground until the whole city stands in a big black lagoon of quicksand …
Viv tells me about a dream she had. In this dream her father has been murdered; in retaliation she sets the killer on fire in the middle of her loft. As he burns, with the light of the fire washing the walls until they run like the colors of a painting, the killer turns into me, though it’s not at all clear whether I was the killer in the first place. Viv is very disturbed by this dream; I think I’m most surprised that she feels compelled to tell me about it, as though it’s a confession, or something I’m obligated to explain or account for. “But it was a very pretty fire,” she assures me.
We decided to leave L.A. for a few days. We drove out of the rain that began falling the night I was tied to her bed, and left it behind us in the Cajon Pass, hitting Las Vegas that evening where we got a room high in one of the casino towers. From the back seat of the car Viv declared she had no interest in gambling whatsoever, but two days and a couple of dozen Bombay Sapphires later I had to pry loose her death-grip on a slot machine finger by finger. Nights we spent at an old strip joint in Downtown called the Golden Garter; the girls weren’t bad, not emaciated California blondes but dark Nevadan Rubenesques. I was not lured by any strange women into the casino swimming pool, and we were not buried under the rubble of an earthquake; but I did have a bizarre dream of my own one night, if not as incendiary as Viv’s. I dreamed I was trapped in a long dark room. Making my way to the end of the room I was desperately trying to open a door which was outlined by light from the other side, when I heard someone call me. Over and over someone called as I pounded on the door, until the sound of my name became so persistent that I woke up. Barely conscious, I realized I was standing at the window of our room and Viv was talking to me. She had gotten up to go to the bathroom and then in the bathroom heard sounds in the front room and rushed out to find I was standing at the window pounding on it, trying to get out. Since our room was eleven floors up, it was just as well I didn’t. Befuddled, like an old man losing his mind, I just stood there in the dark until Viv took me by the hand and coaxed me back to bed. …
When we drove back to Los Angeles, the same rain was still falling. It was the kind of rain L.A. never has, one storm after another sweeping up from Mexico and in from the sea, dousing all the backfires. Now the whole city bulged, pocked by footprints full of water and rumbling with the sound of surging canals below; between storms the air filled with a hiss from the steam rising off the rings, and when the sun broke, a shroud of golden light hovered over the city. The houses on the distant hillsides above the steam looked like small white villages floating in the sky, and then the hillsides gave way from the rain and slid to earth, and the floating villages vanished into the air. The rain was a lucky break for Viv, who found the moat of fire surrounding Jasper’s house conveniently extinguished just in time for the erection of her Memoryscope, which she brought to the outskirts of the city by truck and hired hands. Jasper was nowhere to be seen, but her stepfather watched from the house tower; he shook his fist at her, yelling something that couldn’t be heard. The Memoryscope stands ten yards from the house and ten yards above the ground, pointed east to a morning sun that never shines anymore, waiting to reveal its first memory in the rip of a sunlit dawn. Almost immediately after putting up her Memoryscope, Viv developed a burning in the pit of her, above the belly and below the rib cage—not far, I suppose, from her heart. It was as though, in a dream, she had set the center of herself on fire.
There’s no getting away from a sense of things breaking down. … Around the same time Viv started getting sick I woke one morning to find that not only was L.A. raining but the Hotel Hamblin as well. The entryway in my suite was leaking and the woman next door was virtually washed out, her mattress floating around her apartment like a soggy raft. Of course there was nothing to do about this, since anarchy now reigned in the building along with the rain, what with Abdul hiding from the posse of women that stalked the premises searching for him—not that Abdul was in charge anymore anyway, nor that it ever mattered when he was. “It’s raining in the hotel,” I informed Ventura in his doorway, which answered with a pronounced drip on the top of my head. Ventura was sitting in the same chair he always sat in, in the same hat and cowboy boots; it was clear he couldn’t care less about the rain. In a minute he would explain how the aberrational proximity of Antarctica to one of the moons of Jupiter had tossed the hemisphere’s whole weather system off kilter, and we could expect relentless, Biblical rain for seven years. But he didn’t go into all that; he had a couple of more important announcements. The first and least interesting was that he was dying.
He’s made a number of declarations of this sort in the time I’ve known him; I think he’s barely escaped death on thirty or forty occasions. If it’s not creeping stomach rot or a cancer nobody’s heard of, it’s his heart beating in an unduly eccentric fashion. I’ve come to take news of Ventura’s pending demise metaphorically: one of his most famous pieces for the newspaper began on the front page in big black letters, YOU, NO MATTER HOW HEALTHY OR RICH OR SMART OR BEAUTIFUL, ARE GOING TO DIE, followed by a six- or seven-thousand-word elaboration for whatever local narcissists were still under the illusion they were immortal. This isn’t to say I don’t take dying seriously myself. It isn’t to say I don’t think about it all the time, or that a day has passed since I was about eight when it hasn’t crossed my mind. At this particular moment, for instance, I was trying to decide if drowning in my own apartment was, as deaths go, more ridiculous than it was exotic, or more exotic than it was ridiculous, with the drip drip drip on my head in Venturas doorway persuasively making the case for ridiculous. I could tell, though, that Ventura didn’t think he was going to drown in his apartment; he was contemplating the prospect of going sooner than that. It was the blood this time. The doctor, Ventura explained, had informed him he had blood “the consistency of cream.” He said this again, and noticeably brightened; the writer in him couldn’t resist the poetry of it. “Blood the consistency of cream,” he said for the third time, lowering his cowboy boots to the floor. He was smiling now. He was
. The romantic
of it. He was a walking cholesterol time bomb, a ticking butterball; he started working it over in his mind, pacing the room, giving it a little extra Sicilian flourish each time. “Blood the consistency of cream.” He loved it! His face was a grimace of ecstasy.
He was less ecstatic about the second bit of news, and that was what worried me. It is when things are breaking down in the abstract that Ventura is most sanguine, so when he said without any real joy in his voice that something was up at the newspaper, I had a bad feeling this wasn’t just one of Ventura’s run-of-the-mill apocalypses. Ventura couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but Freud N. Johnson appeared to be agitating himself into a final psychotic assault on Shale’s job, eyes peeled and fingers twitching for the hair-trigger excuse. “This would not be a good time for me to have to quit,” was all I could say, contemplating my state of affairs at the moment. “Doesn’t Johnson know what would happen if he fired Shale?”
“He’s moved way beyond that kind of rationality,” Ventura answered. “Firing Shale has become an impulse he has to satisfy, like the impulse to walk into a post office and start shooting people. If anything, he’s convinced himself that
will happen, that writers threaten to quit all the time in these situations and then never do. Which of course he’s right about.” I couldn’t say I knew for sure what Ventura would do if Shale were fired; I’m not even sure he knew, and that was what was really throwing him. For Ventura, quitting the newspaper might be a kind of death altogether more serious and real than blood the consistency of cream. Soon he was trying to talk himself out of his pessimism—“Well, nothing’s probably going to happen for a while”—which was so out of character as to be
A sense of general crisis approached on the horizon. Over the next couple of days I realized I was inhaling without fully exhaling, and in the meantime the rain didn’t stop. It was raining in the halls of the Hamblin, the stairs became creeks; driving across the city I skidded and swerved around one disaster after another: flooded intersections, broken water mains, cresting sewers, streets buried under mud slides, springs bubbling up from the subway rivers underground. One afternoon during a brief lull I was heading home, passing Sunset and Laurel not far from where Scott Fitzgerald lived when he wrote for the movies, past the Chateau Marmont and the Cathode Flower and, standing on the northern side of the boulevard, the little Princess of Coins. I guess she was trying to drum up business while there was a break in the weather. She was typically fetching in a little black skirt and tight silver sweater, gazing eagerly up and down the Strip.