Authors: Craig Clevenger
A NOVEL BY CRAIG CLEVENGER
ebook ISBN: 978-1-59692-937-1
M P Publishing Limited
12 Strathallan Crescent
Isle of Man
Telephone: +44 (0)1624 618672
email: [email protected]
155 Sansome Street, Suite 550
San Francisco, CA 94104
© 2005 by Craig Clevenger
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Excerpts from the work of Geoffrey Sonnabend are courtesy of the Museum of Jurassic Technology.
Where the Wild Roses Grow
, copyright Nick Cave. Used with permission from Mute Song, Ltd.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Clevenger, Craig, 1964-
Dermaphoria / by Craig Clevenger.
ISBN 1-931561-75-3 (alk. paper)
1. Los Angeles (Calif.)–Fiction. 2. Loss (Psychology)–Fiction.
3. Criminals–Fiction. 4. Memory–Fiction. I. Title.
Paperback edition: September 2006
Book and jacket design by Dorothy Carico Smith.
Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Some Kind Words for Craig Clevenger’s
T H E C O N T O R T I O N I S T’ S H A N D B O O K
“Clevenger has produced an utterly persuasive and compelling novel, combining the zest and enthusiasm of a new voice with the craft and the guile of a veteran…
The Contortionist’s Handbook
is so accomplished, and in so many different ways, that it instantly elevates Craig Clevenger into the top echelon of writers.”
“I swear to God this is the best book I have read in easily five years. Easily. Maybe ten years.”
—Chuck Palahniuk, author of
“Immaculately detailed and emotionally explosive: this is rolling, riveting stuff, of a piece with stylish, edgy movies like
Requiem for a Dream
“Clevenger delivers images that sear themselves into your mind. The result is a novel that is hard, pure, remarkably accomplished.”
“What sticks about this remarkable debut are its pitch-perfect shock ending and John Vincent himself—his complex, conflicted mind, original voice and unnervingly self-defeating existence.”
Time Out New York
has a tough-as-nails style that recalls classic noir novels by James M. Cain or Cornell Woolrich…no simple trick.”
Dallas Morning News
“Expert writing. Tight, mean, lean and focused. It commands your attention with terse writing. It rewards by providing new insights into how people drift above and below society’s consciousness.”
“Clevenger’s talent is revealed in his ability to create a true testament to the resilience of the human spirit.”
David Poindexter saw to it that I continued to write, above all else. Jason Wood redlined every draft with his merciless eye for detail, as only a good editor and great friend can, and J.P. Moriarty came through when I needed him the most.
I’m forever indebted to Dennis Widmyer and Chuck Palahniuk for breathing new life into my work, which would not have been possible without the sole effort of every author’s dream fan, Wendy Dale. I can only hope I’m half the writer, and half the friend, that Will Christopher Baer has been, my brother in all ways but blood.
My friends and family have been a source of constant support on every level, especially Shannon Wright, Charlie Wright, Jim Matison, Scott Krinsky, Damir Zekhster, Todd Bogdan, Paul Fritz, Becky Fritz, Susan Marshall and David Marshall, and my brother, Mick.
I owe my presence behind the Velvet curtains to Kareem Badr, Roland Gaberz, Mirka Hodurova and Kirk Clawes. The good souls at MacAdam/Cage continue to bring my work to light, thanks to the efforts of John Gray, Maureen Klier, Julie Burton, Melissa Little, Avril Sande, Melanie Mitchell, Scott Allen, Jeff Pappis, Jeff Edwards, and especially Dorothy Smith. Thanks to the bookstore crew, Rayshaun Grimes, Kate Schwab, Wayne Jessup, Susan Zussman and Jeff “Big Sexy” Seibel.
Many thanks for many reasons are due to Ray Bussolari, Jim Lambert,
Jeff Aghassi, Heather Fremling Bowser, Caty Farley, Jamie Bishop, Layla Lyne-Winkler, Brad Gustavson, Jacob Berman, Jimmy Kallos, Dawn O’Brien, Brett Redfield, Brian Wagner, Chris Casilli, Scott Fegette, Logan Rapp, Todd Buranen, Staci Buranen, Sarolyn Boyd and the whole Red Room crew.
We, amnesiacs all, condemned to live in an eternally fleeting present, have created the most elaborate of human constructions, memory, to buffer ourselves against the intolerable knowledge of the irreversible passage of time and irretrievability of its moments and events.
Obliscence: Theories of Forgetting and the Problem of Matter
From the first day I saw her I knew that she was the one As she stared in my eyes and smiled For her lips were the colour of the roses That grew down the river, all bloody and wild
“Where the Wild Roses Grow,”
PANICKED AND SWALLOWED A HANDFUL OF FIREFLIES AND BLACK WIDOWS
the inferno had not. Shiny glass teardrops shattered between my teeth while the fireflies popped like Christmas bulbs until I coughed up blood and blue sparks, starting another fire three inches behind my eyes and burning a hole through the floor of my memory. A lifetime of days, years, minutes and months, gone, but for a lone scrap, scorched and snagged on a frayed nerve ending and snapping in the breeze:
Hard as I try, a given recollection’s pictures, sounds and smells, synchronized and ordered first to last, are everything but, swarming back through the cold hole in my brain where they hit the waning light and crackle into smoke. Others wait until dark to show themselves. I can hold a picture’s fragments together for a lucid half second before a light shines through my eyes and they scatter, slipping between my brain’s blackened cracks. One memory after the next turns yellow at the edges and crumbles to flakes at my touch.
I smell rotted pulp, old newspapers crawling with silverfish, the dank, dissolving bindings of books I don’t remember reading. The stench gives me chills that turn to sandpaper on my neck and shoulders. My back burns if I lean the wrong way and I feel bandages but I can’t touch them. My wrists and feet are cuffed to a chair in a room built to the stark schematics of my own head. Peeling walls the color of
fingernails, cement floor, an overhead light with an orbiting moth. I’m alone with three machines. Two are on pause behind me, a third speaks into a telephone near the door.
“I miss you, Snowflake…I love you too…bunches…bunches and bunches…yes, Mommy too,” his baritone whisper like the rumble of a distant train.
The machines are good. Whoever made them has all of my respect. Stunning detail in their faces, each loaded with a databank of behaviors for random interval display, all manner of mannerisms from coughs to sniffs, synthetic-cartilage knuckle cracks, biting lips and picking nails. The odor of static, the electric smell from a bank of new television sets gives them away.
“When I get home…okay, I will. Love you…bye bye, Snowflake.” Faint dial tone, the ping ping of the doomed but determined moth against the lightbulb, then the machine sits in front of me.
“My daughter’s been sick and I’ve been on overtime.” He speaks to me as though I’m a sleeping child and he’s about to kiss my forehead. He slides a cigarette from a pack with gold foil and some French name I can’t pronounce.
“Haven’t seen her for three days.” The snap of his chrome lighter chimes like a coin hitting the pavement. “You smoke?”
He’s engineered for sincerity and affection. The two behind me hide their eyes behind dark glasses, but his are exposed and big, liquid brown, radiating trust along with his voice. He wears an oiled-back, matinee-idol haircut and a tailored suit the deep blue of beetle wings and from across the table my eyes can feel the fabric, soft as a baby bird’s throat. He’s wired to smell like breath mints, cigarettes and expensive aftershave.
A tentacle of smoke gathers into a cloud overhead. It dissolves in the air between us and the smell stings my nose.
“No.” Conscious of my manners with him, I correct myself. “No.
“I wasn’t offering. Word is you can’t remember to chew before you swallow. I’m just seeing for myself. How ’bout it? You remember smoking? Maybe falling asleep after a few drags?”
Shaking my head hurts, pulls at my skin.
“You did it on purpose. Covering your tracks?”
His circuits pause midbreath. The smoke above freezes into a ball of cobwebs. The moth is eavesdropping and I can hear the blood moving through my ears.
“You have any idea why you’re talking to me?”
“Pieces of an idea.” My blood beats louder and I think I’m going to be sick, “Who are you?”
“My name is Detective Nicholas Anslinger.”
The slack in my chains is barely enough for me to reach his outstretched hand, sheathed in a synthetic polymer, mimicking my own skin.
“You can call me Detective,” he continues. “Tell me these pieces.”
I remember fire, but not starting one.
“I can’t remember,” he says. “I’ve heard this before.” His brown eyes don’t blink. They stay locked onto me. The damp draft unfurls a ribbon of cigarette smoke and coils it around my face.
“Let’s start with the spiders. How many have you made and how many are still out there?”
Which is stranger, that Anslinger thinks I’m God or that he can chain God to a wheelchair beneath a spotlight?
“Try this,” he says, leaning forward, “we found the galaxy.”
He’s right, I am God. It’s all coming back to me. Darkness and light, floods, seven days and angels feuding amongst themselves for my favor. I lost my temper and the firestorm killed my precious dinosaurs. Work it out, learn to compromise, I told them. After the platypus, I disbanded the committee and stayed solo. This created resentment, a permanent
rift in the organization.
Anslinger reads from a notebook, “1964 Ford, two-door, hardtop, candy apple red Galaxie 500, registered to one Eric Ashworth. Fully restored, if you don’t count the blown back windshield and scorched paint.” He snaps the notebook shut. “Nice ride.”
I’m not God. I’m Eric Ashworth. It’s all coming back to me.
No, it’s not.
My head goes dark so the bugs will come crawling out. I squint through the blackness. I remember the sound of God cracking open the sky and shaking the earth. A ball of fire rising from a flaming house. Nails melting like slivers of silver wax. Beams and shingles collapsing into a pile of burning dust and the earth spitting them into the air. The angry fire boulder rolls down from the sky toward me. I run, choking back the spiders and fireflies fighting their way up my throat. More bugs will drop from the air at any second. Armored insects with polished, carbon fiber heads, giant eyes that shine like black mercury and can see in the dark.
A phone booth surrounded by nothing, and beyond the nothing, darkness. An invisible swarm burrows into my back, chewing through my skin as I call for help from the phone in the middle of nowhere. A light hits me from behind. I turn, face to face with a six-foot storm trooper mantis covered in armor plating, locked onto me with black goggle eyes. I crush it with the heavy plastic receiver before it eats my head and learns everything I know.
As little sense as this makes to Anslinger, it makes less to me.
“Your car was the only vehicle parked outside that house, of which there is nothing left. You assaulted the state trooper who found you at an abandoned gas station talking into a dead telephone. You were about an hour on foot from the burn site. The middle of the night, you could have died of exposure.”
“I killed a bug.” The bandages burn, my mind’s eye sees a stretch of oily black blisters and the healthy skin peeling back like the paint on these walls.
Pieces come together. Okay, I’ve got it. They crumble apart. I move my thumb, then try to remember moving my thumb. Got it again. Play each preceding second one by one. Whole minutes, chunks of hours follow suit, binding to the fresh fragile moment before until the sequence holds.
My feet and wrists strapped to a bed frame surrounded by bags, tubes and beeping boxes. A machine dressed in white lets me suck on ice chips and says I’m going to be okay. They cut skin from my legs and sewed it onto my back, he says. Another machine in white asks me questions and shows me photographs so I can make up stories for them. I draw pictures, work puzzles and piss into cups. The machine gives me a notebook. Writing things down will help my memory. The first machine slides a syringe into one of the tubes. I follow the surge of liquid down to the crook of my elbow but nothing’s there but a wad of cotton held with tape, my hands cuffed below a metal table and Anslinger sitting across from me.
My brain tries to kick-fire itself into working again. Nanostorm lightning burns the memory nest to a cinder, the drones thrown to their backs, legs kicking the air.
“This is the part where we sweat you, tag team good cop, bad cop,” Anslinger says. “Those are the rules, right? Not my style. You’re not in good shape. You rest for a while and we’ll talk again.”
Anslinger grinds out his cigarette.
“I’ve been looking for you, or someone like you, for some time. Beginning to think you were an urban legend. Don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s good to finally meet you.”