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Authors: Steve Erickson

Amnesiascope: A Novel (21 page)

BOOK: Amnesiascope: A Novel
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“Some of your movies, perhaps. The hysterical ones.
The Naked Spur
.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
.”

Now he looked up. “That’s what you want?” he said indignantly. “Out of all this”—he swept his arm splendidly over the disarray of his apartment—“you want
The Naked Spur
and
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
?”

“I have a problem. I mean, besides the fact that I’m dying.”

“You don’t understand,” Ventura said, pointing his finger at me. “It obviously hasn’t sunk in with you yet. Besides the fact that you’re dying, you don’t have any problems.”

“Do you want to hear my story or not?”

“Oh why not. Let’s hear your story.” So I told him about the Princess. “You mean,” he said, ripping open a lettuce bag and shoving a leaf into his mouth, “this girl’s been here the last two days?”

“In my apartment.”

“Where have you been sleeping all this time?”

“On the floor.”

“Does Viv know this?”

“No.”

“Oh, Viv
doesn’t
know this. Oh,” he said with relish, “I like this story. Can I ask why she doesn’t know?”

“Because I haven’t told her.”

“Can I ask why you haven’t told her?”

“Well, she’s been sick, and. … Look, obviously I should have told her. I haven’t done anything to feel guilty about, but by not telling her I’ve acted guilty, so now if I do tell her. … She said the other night I sounded funny. If I tell her now, it will confirm her suspicions. Guys don’t sound funny for nothing.”

“No,” Ventura agreed, “guys usually sound funny for something, and usually it’s something women don’t think is very funny.”

“But if she finds out later,” I went on, “even though I haven’t done anything, I still tried to hide it from her, even though there was nothing to hide—”

“My God, and you think I’m more fucked up about women than you are? A man who’s a bad liar even when he’s telling the truth.” He shook his head. “Why don’t you just kick the little hooker out?”

“She has nowhere to go. And she’s afraid of the rain.”

“Yeah, well, you know how long that would stop me. If she was in this apartment, which she never would have been in the first place, she’d have a New York minute to find somewhere to go before I threw her undoubtedly adorable, undoubtedly profitable little ass right out in the street, rain or no rain.”

“Yes!” I cried. “That’s it!
You
could do it, you’re much more of a bastard than I am—”

“Forget it,” he shook his head, shrugging off the compliment and gesturing at the vegetables and papers and will. “I have matters to attend to. I don’t need some pretty child following me around like a lovesick puppy.”

“She won’t follow you around like a lovesick puppy. I know you find this hard to believe, but she’ll sit in a chair reading a magazine like you don’t exist.”

“Fat chance.”

“Well then, even better if she’s following you around like a lovesick puppy. It will make it all the easier for you to kick her out.” Ventura ripped off part of a baguette and bit into a tomato, thinking. “She won’t leave until it stops raining,” I said, despondent.

“It’s going to be raining a long time,” he pointed out. “It’s a big change in the weather pattern. All those volcanoes going off in the northwest last year. Where does she live?”

“She doesn’t live anywhere. She has nowhere to go. She has no one to call, and nowhere she needs to be. She has no problems. Get this: I asked her where she stays, and she said,
I stay wherever I am.

His mouth fell open. “She said that?” He took out his little notebook and wrote it down. “What’s this existentialists name?”

“I don’t know. I call her the Princess.”

He abruptly stopped writing. “The Princess?”

“Can’t you take her for just one—”

“Wait a minute, wait a minute.
The Princess?
” He closed his notebook, set down the tomato he had been eating and wiped his mouth with his hand. Then he threw his head back and laughed for five minutes. When he stopped laughing, his eyes had become lit by a deranged, nasty glint; I could practically hear the knuckles of his mind cracking. “Oh,
well
then,” he sneered, “in that case,
by all means
. Bring the
little Princess
right over.” Unwittingly I had put the situation to Ventura in the only terms he would have ever found irresistible. The Sicilian anarchist in him had been waiting his whole life for a princess to stray across his trained sights, or anyone so unlucky as to think of herself as any kind of princess, whether a local beauty queen or sorority row belle or Sunset Boulevard strumpet; and now, with his life practically passing before his eyes, he wasn’t going to let slip away one last opportunity to deflower her bourgeois pretensions. “I think,” he snarled happily, drawing out every syllable and small spittles of foam forming at the corners of his mouth, “everyone should, just once, have a princess living in his apartment. I mean, if I should expire tonight in my sleep, who better to clean up the
blood
and
bile
and
muck
and
shit
but a princess?”

“I’ll be right back!” I cried. I rushed back to my suite to get her. If I hadn’t been so elated I might have almost felt sorry for her, except that I knew, of course, it was Ventura who really didn’t stand a chance. The Princess knew it too. She was long past being impressed by me or Ventura or any man; the only thing that intimidated her now was the wet two-hundred-foot journey from my corner of the hotel to his. “I like it
here
,” she said matter-of-factly in the doorway of my apartment, staring down a dark hallway that had become as drizzly as a rain forest, before I made it clear that her only two choices were Ventura or the street. She dressed for the occasion. In her high heels and black skirt and tight silver sweater she slipped right past him into his apartment like he wasn’t even there, and I thought I actually saw a flicker of doubt cross his eyes, like maybe now he was no longer the only person in the universe who didn’t know that he didn’t stand a chance. The rest of the day I hid behind lock and key, begging the sky to stop the rain before Ventura would be prying my door off its hinges with a crowbar and tossing her little body back into my flooded entryway.

Time passed. The rain fell. The ceiling in the hallways appeared to sag. Small brown rivulets ran down from where my walls met the roof, and I could barely keep up anymore with emptying the buckets and mopping up the carpet. Sure enough, thirty-six hours later Ventura hadn’t gotten rid of the Princess either. “After all,” he tried to insist, most unconvincingly, “it’s tempting fate or karma or whatever you want to believe in to just kick someone out on the street when you’re dying. A little too close to the hour of judgment—right under God’s nose, so to speak.” As to whether he was sleeping with her, “well,” he allowed, “of course she acts like she isn’t interested in me at all, but I know better. I can’t get mixed up in that, though. Besides,” he added bitterly, “you didn’t happen to mention to me that thing you told her.”

“What thing?”

“That business about being treated decently for a change, or whatever it was. She told me about that, you know.”

“I didn’t think she had the faintest idea what I was talking about.”

“That was a
terrible
thing to say. Now even if I wanted to sleep with her I couldn’t, because you went and said this
thing
. Now if I sleep with her, I’m a heartless old fuck while you’re some kind of … paragon.”

He was getting me back with that last part, of course; he knew how I felt about paragons these days. More time passed. The rain kept falling. I crossed the storms and the city to the Bunker, where Viv spent longer and longer periods in her loft lying flat on her back in bed; the burning came and went like the weather, durations of pain growing longer as the durations of relief grew shorter. In the twilight of his life Ventura had taken up again with his Sufi goddess, so now and then the Princess was returned to my suite: he and I tossed her back and forth like a live grenade. By this time she didn’t give the rain outside a passing glance; rather she directed her attention to what she considered the growing deficiencies of her stay at the Hotel Hamblin. Eating her way through my refrigerator, she offered an increasingly sardonic commentary on the culinary selection. Considering the sheets and towels something less than mountain-spring fresh, she deposited them in a pile in the entryway, soaking up the rain water and waiting for me to launder them. For someone who had nowhere to go and no one to call the first twenty-four hours, she now talked on the telephone all the time, in conversations that were either interminable or unsettlingly businesslike, at peculiar hours of the day or night. One afternoon, another girl showed up. She had cropped black hair and wore thigh-high pink boots and a pink lace minidress with nothing underneath. When I answered the door she didn’t say a word, slipping past me into the apartment like I was the doorman. She and the Princess had a touching reunion. The two sat around all afternoon eating cashews and crackers and calling out to the manservant for Diet Cokes, catching up on old times and, I suppose, old tricks. I was about to ask why the Princess didn’t stay with this other girl, where they could reminisce about the glory days of Hollywood prostitution at greater length, when it occurred to me with horror that the other girl might also be one of these Nietzschean I-stay-wherever-I-am streetwalkers, and Ventura and I could wind up stuck with both of them. I breathed a sigh of relief several hours later when the girl in the pink boots and pink lace dress finally left—at the very moment Dory happened to be coming up the stairs. Dory looked at her and looked at me and looked back at her, while catching a glimpse of the other nearly naked girl in my doorway.

After that, the women in the building began to take more note of the nymph who didn’t wear very much and constantly crossed back and forth the length of the hallway from Ventura’s place to mine. My mind became bombarded by epic, ever-maniacal fantasies of johns showing up in the middle of the night and crazed vengeful pimps banging on my door and vice squads crashing in through the windows on ropes. Desperate, Ventura and I cooked up a scheme to try and foist the Princess onto Dr. Billy. We took him out to dinner at a fancy restaurant with high chandeliers and roaring fireplaces and waiters who wore capes, where we kept buying him snifters of imported Armagnac which he happily consumed while waiting for the other shoe to drop. Naturally it turned out to be a waste of time; we had counted too much on a nature that wasn’t nearly as debased as he liked to profess it was. “Let’s pretend first of all,” he said, savoring his Armagnac, “that I’m not married. You remember Jane, the woman I married? Even if I wasn’t married, as I understand it, you,” by which he meant me, “went and said a
thing
to her. Isn’t that right?” he asked Ventura.

“He definitely said a thing,” Ventura confirmed.

“It was a slip of the tongue,” I replied miserably.

“You can’t go around making outbursts like that,” Dr. Billy argued, “without ramifications. By saying this
thing
you’ve tied all our hands, if you see what I mean. Even if I wasn’t married, there’s nothing I could do now with this girl anyhow, after you’ve gone and said this thing, without me being some sort of vile asshole.”

“She’s used to vile assholes,” I assured him.

“Let me ask you something,” he went on, drinking faster now. “What do you suppose will happen when word of your little arrangement gets out? What will Viv think? What will your girlfriend think,” he said to Ventura, “whoever she happens to be at the moment? What about the women living in your hotel, or the ones at the newspaper? If they think there’s a Cabal now, wait till they find out you’re passing a hooker back and forth between you.”

“It’s not an arrangement. We’re not doing anything with her.”

“May I have another Armagnac please?” Dr. Billy called to the waiter. “You know as well as I that no one will believe that,” he said, turning back to us. “No, it’s obvious you guys are sitting on dynamite, and you just want me to climb on with you.”

“It’s absurd,” Ventura growled. “We’ve got a hooker we’re not having sex with who we have to keep secret because no one would believe we’re not having sex with her.”

“Worse than that,” I said, “we have to keep her secret because no one would believe that we kept her secret in the first place because no one would believe us.”

“I hate to tell you this,” Ventura declared to me with enormous satisfaction, like he didn’t hate it at all, “but this is your fault.”

“What made you bring a hooker home anyway?” Dr. Billy asked.

“I explained that,” I said.

“Oh right,” Dr. Billy replied, “I remember now. You were saving her life or something. It was a humanitarian mission. You were a regular … what was the word?” he said to Ventura.

“Paragon.”

“You were a paragon.”

“He felt sorry for her,” Ventura snorted.

“The guy who keeps telling us he’s not a romantic anymore,” Dr. Billy guffawed. Ventura guffawed back, although I don’t know what the hell he was laughing at, slumped over his desk at night and snoring in his spinach leaves while the Princess slept in his bed. At any rate, the only thing Dr. Billy was going to help us do was empty our wallets while he drank everything put in front of him, so Ventura and I went back to taking the Princess off each other’s hands whenever we could, while waiting for the rain to stop. Instead it just came down like a drumbeat for the approaching moment when the whole thing would blow up in our faces. The women in the Hamblin were giving us dirtier and dirtier looks every morning the Princess strolled down the hall from Ventura’s place to mine, in her heels and tight little black shirt; and on the phone with Viv I was sounding more funny, not less.

One night I took the Princess with me to a movie I had to review. In a screening room up on the Strip, not far from where I had first bailed her out of the water that fateful afternoon, a ponderous Czech film engaged her attention ten or fifteen minutes before she began squirming in her seat. “This movie’s boring,” she finally complained at a clearly audible volume; I ignored her. “This movie’s really stupid,” she insisted a few minutes later, to which I leaned over and whispered “Be quiet” as the other people in the screening room began looking at us. “I hate this!” she cried after another minute, and in the seat behind us the long-time film critic of the city’s big daily paper leaned forward and warned, “If you can’t be quiet, I’ll have you removed.”

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