Authors: Steve Erickson
I was just gliding by when, first like a small leak the earth had sprung, and then in a stream, the base of the hillside behind her suddenly exploded in a torrent of water and mud. The underground Laurel Canyon subway channel had broken through, and in seconds the Princess was completely washed away, like she was never there at all; horrified, I still couldn’t help bursting out laughing. Mud splattered my windshield and the water that crashed out into the street carried my car a few feet before I got some traction back—and then, not three feet beyond my headlights, her head bobbed up out of the water in the middle of Sunset Boulevard, the look on her face completely dazed, too shocked to really register what had happened. I opened the car door and grabbed her by anything I could get my hands on, her arms, her sweater, her hair. Along the Strip in the windows of shops and small office buildings, people watched amazed. The surge of the water slowed but my car still felt like it was trying to float away, and as I pulled her into the car the Princess, a tangle of wet hair and clothes, was spitting up brown water, gasping and coughing. For all I knew she was drowning. As soon as I had her in the car all I wanted to do was get off the Strip and down the hill to where I lived, just hoping that if she was going to choke to death she would at least do it before we got to the Hamblin so I could dump her by the side of the road.
But she wasn’t dead when I parked the car in the garage. For several seconds I sat in the driver’s seat trying to get my bearings, while in the back seat she continued gasping and sputtering and blowing water out her nose. Between hysteria and asphyxiation, she was regaining her breath before her senses. After ten minutes of listening to her coughs and sobs and wheezes and curses I got her out of the car, where she went hysterical again at the sight of all the water in the flooded garage from the backed-up drain pipes. I got her up to my place where she barely had the presence of mind to know she needed to go to the bathroom; she was in the bathroom a long time. After a while I knocked on the door. When she didn’t answer, and I had knocked again and she still didn’t answer, I finally said, “You have to tell me you’re all right so I don’t break the door down.”
“I’m all right,” I heard her voice from the other side. Finally she came out. She was still wet and her hair was still a tangle, and she was still coughing and trying to get water out of her lungs. She had taken off her wet clothes and wrapped herself in a towel. I got her my bathrobe. She took it and went back into the bathroom and came back out with the robe on. She stood lost in my gray bathrobe in the middle of the apartment. “Do you want to lie down?” I said.
“Well you can go in there,” I said, pointing to the bedroom. Without looking at me, she went back into the bedroom. “You can close the door if you like,” I called after her; she didn’t close the door so, a while later when I heard her sleeping, I closed it myself. I gathered up her wet clothes from the bathroom floor and took them to the cleaners down at the end of the street, and when I returned the bedroom door was still closed. A few hours later, when it was beginning to get dark, she emerged long enough to go to the bathroom again and into the kitchen to get a glass of water, and then disappeared back into the bedroom; around midnight I pulled some blankets out of the closet and made myself a place to sleep on the floor in the front room.
I called Viv. She was tired, in more pain from the burning in her stomach, and I made a mistake: I didn’t tell her about the Princess. “You sound finny,” she concluded, and as we continued talking about nothing particularly important except how she was feeling, I don’t think I stopped sounding funny. In the middle of the night, in my sleep, I thought I heard the telephone; but when I woke the ringing was gone, and I wasn’t sure whether it had been a dream or not, and looking out the tall windows at the night and the clouds and the moon overhead I thought for a moment that I was back in the Seacastle, right after the Quake. I sat up to look for a small feral blonde in the doorway who I would come to know as Viv, before I realized I was on the floor of my apartment. It took a second to remember what I was doing there. It was a while before I went back to sleep; the next time I woke it was early morning and the Princess was sitting in my big black chair, still wearing my gray bathrobe, staring out the windows.
I sat up from the floor. “Are you all right?” I said. She stared fearfully out the windows at the clouds, as though dreading a downpour that seemed only moments away. Finally she acknowledged me with a quick look, pulling the bathrobe tighter to her before returning her gaze to the sky. “I wish it would stop,” she said, though not really to me; she glanced over at the entryway, which certainly hadn’t stopped dripping, and where I had covered the wet carpet with rags and a couple of buckets. I got up off the floor and pulled on my clothes, and gathered up the sheets and blankets where I had slept. “Do you want anything?” I asked.
After a moment she said, “I had some cereal.”
“What’s your name?”
“Why?” she blurted. She fully intended to sound hostile. Instead she couldn’t help sounding afraid and confused, as though the experience of the previous afternoon was not only still sinking in but had so fundamentally rattled her she wasn’t sure how to answer the question even if she wanted to. Exactly which name did I mean? Her working name? The name she would take when she became a movie star? Her real name, assuming she could remember it? I took a shower and dressed and washed the dishes, emptied the buckets and changed the rags in the entryway, all while she sat in the chair looking out the window. “I’m going down to the cleaners to get your clothes,” I told her, to no answer, and headed out so I could get back before the rain started, walking down the street and picking up her skirt and sweater and stockings and underwear. I was now eagerly anticipating getting the Princess out of my apartment. When I got back twenty minutes later, she was not in the black chair anymore or the bathroom; I was a little dismayed to find her back in bed, lying on her side staring at the walls. She very much appeared as though she had no plans to go anywhere any time soon. I stood at the side of the bed looking down at her with her clothes in my arms. “I don’t like the dripping,” she said.
I cleared my throat. “Your clothes are clean now. I can take you anywhere you need to go.”
“I don’t need to go anywhere,” she answered, staring at the wall.
Reluctantly I hung the clothes in the closet. “There’s a telephone,” I pointed at what was pretty obviously a telephone sitting on a low glass shelf right next to the bed, “if you need to call anyone to come get you.”
“There’s no one to call,” she said. She looked up at me for really the first time. She brushed her hair from her face and, slowly and casually, moved the sheets of the bed off of her. She was naked. She looked impossibly young. “You can, if you want,” she said.
“It’s all right,” I shook my head.
“Are you a fag?”
“Don’t you like me?”
“Don’t you think I’m pretty?”
“Yes, I think you’re pretty.”
“Then why not?”
“It’s all right, I said.”
“But why not?” She said, “I’m not sick, if that’s what you’re afraid of. I don’t have anything.”
“That’s not it.” I was getting angry.
“So why not?”
I was getting angry and I wasn’t even sure why. “Because,” I sputtered, “it’s all right for a guy to treat you decently every once in a while without you having to fuck him for it.” She appeared completely confounded by this. “Do you want to sleep some more?” I sighed.
“I just want to lie here,” she answered, pulling the sheets back over her. For the rest of the day she didn’t come out of the bedroom. Later that night, finally showing signs of life, sitting at the table inhaling some scrambled eggs and a plate of toast, she began to talk a little, though it was the usual talk I had no use for—about a brother in jail, a sister hooked on junk. … The last thing I wanted to hear about was her young depressing life. Studying her, I couldn’t tell if she was sixteen or twenty-two or anywhere in between. “Don’t you work or anything?” she said between toast, as though wondering what the hell I was hanging around all the time for. “I’ll have a Coke.”
I got her a Coke from the refrigerator. “I work for a newspaper.”
“I’m a writer.”
“What do you write about?”
“You write about movies?” she said.
“I’m going to be in the movies someday.”
“What do you write about the movies?”
“I write about whether I like them.”
Her fork was poised in mid-air, and she peered up at me through her blonde hair. “
You write about whether you like them?
You mean, you go to movies, and then you write about whether you like them.”
She started to say something but stopped, certain she couldn’t have possibly heard right.
I took the bull by the horns. “Tomorrow we’ll take you wherever you need to go.”
“I don’t need to go anywhere,” she said.
“There must be somebody worrying about you.”
“There’s nobody worrying about me.”
“Where do you live?”
“I don’t live anywhere.”
“Where do you stay?”
“I stay wherever I am.” She brushed her hair from her face. “Whoever I’m with.”
“We can take you to a counseling center or something. Where they can help you with your problems.”
“I don’t have any problems.”
“There might be someone who can make some arrangements for you, so you don’t have to do this.”
“Do what?” Narrowing her eyes she said, “What do you mean, so I don’t have to do this? What’s wrong with what I do? You know,” she managed her most insinuating tone, “I’ll bet you’ve driven by my corner before, haven’t you? I’ll bet you’ve driven by a lot, checking me out. As a matter of fact, didn’t I do you in the car a couple of months ago?”
“You see,” I explained, “I’m a lot older than you, so you can spare me the shocking streetwise philosophy. I’m not talking about whether it’s wrong in general, I’m talking about whether it’s wrong for you. And you never did me in the car. The only thing you ever did in my car was get your little ass pulled out of the water yesterday when you were about to wash down Sunset Boulevard.”
“I already said thanks,” she muttered petulantly, though she hadn’t said any such thing. She got up from the table, standing in the kitchen. “I don’t have anywhere to go,” she said, suddenly sounding like she could get loony again, like when she first got here. “I stay with a guy until he’s done with me and then he pays me so I can get a room somewhere, in a motel or something, if I don’t get another john right away. There’s no point having my own place because I’d never sleep there anyway.”
I didn’t want her to get loony again. “OK.”
“I don’t have any money—I’ve lost two days’ work being here.”
“Oh, well, gee, I’m really sorry about the lost work.”
“If you gave me the money for two days’ work, maybe I could go.”
“Five hundred dollars.”
“All right, all right,” she said. “It’s not my fault you won’t fuck me for it.”
“I thought that was for saving your life, and letting you stay here.”
She looked down and started picking at the ends of her hair. “It was,” she said in a little voice. She looked up and stared bleakly out the window. “I can’t leave yet.”
“When can you?” I snapped.
“When it stops raining,”
she wailed. And there it was: she was the rain’s hostage and I was hers. I let her stand there in the kitchen crying a good half-minute before I got up from the table and handed her a napkin to wipe her face. Let’s talk about it tomorrow, I told her as gently as possible. I kept thinking maybe the rain would break and then she would want to leave. As she headed off to the bedroom and I once again hauled the sheets and blankets out onto the floor of the front room, she looked at them once before disappearing and said, “It’s not my fault you sleep on the floor.”
The next day it was raining harder than ever. The Princess, however, wasn’t paying quite as much attention to the rain anymore. She wasn’t regarding it with quite the same wide-eyed terror. Thumbing nonchalantly through one magazine after another, she seemed to have almost forgotten about the rain, which I took to mean she felt securely enough ensconced under my roof that the rain rather bored her now. The day passed: she slept, she ate, she read magazines, she took a bath, she read more magazines, she slept some more. She brushed her hair, she did her nails while draped across my big black chair, she turned the radio up one end of the dial and down the other and over and over to whatever station happened to suit her, which none ever did for more than five minutes. She soon seemed quite comfortable with the whole set-up, and the more at home she got, the farther my gray bathrobe slipped from her body until, by the end of the second day, she was casually walking around wearing nothing at all.
On the phone, meanwhile, Viv sounded worse. Her stomach was on fire as doctors subjected her to a battery of tests and found nothing. “Viv is sick,” I told Ventura, back in his dripping doorway. “She’s dying,” he answered, not looking up. “I’m dying, you’re dying.” He was sitting at the table in his apartment intently sorting out old papers and letters; he actually had off both his hat and boots, taking care of his final affairs in his socks. Along with the papers and letters the table, which was usually piled with books and articles, was now covered with lettuce and carrots and tomatoes and zero-fat salad dressing, as well as a baguette from the corner bakery. Sitting among the roughage was a very legal looking document; it was his will, which he had already begun to write. “Are you leaving me anything?” I asked.
“Why should I leave you anything?” he answered. “You’re the guy who gets rid of everything. By the time
die, you won’t have anything left to leave anybody. You’ve already made up your mind you’re not leaving anyone a single fucking thing.”