Happy Hour at the World Cafe. 69th and Columbus.
At 4:30 after work that was where we came. Neal from his studio and John from behind his camera over at ABC and yours truly from She Who Must Be Fed — otherwise known as Microsoft Word. Pretty much every day. There were other regulars who’d come and go but we three formed the core of it. We’d stand there talking at the bar, drinking and munching trail mix with Neal feeding the juke a couple dollars now and then to keep the blues and country flowing and so that John wouldn’t start in with his goddamn Frank Sinatra.
You had to be careful with John and Sinatra. He’d play a whole CD and sooner or later he’d be singing along.
And we watched the ladies, of course.
Today was Neal’s day On Point.
“Eyes left,” he’d say.
That was what we did. Stake our claim on the liquor industry, tell jokes and bitch about life in general and listen to sweet blues and watch the women walk by along the hot summer sidewalk. We’d been doing it for years.
The only difference now was that some of the women were dead.
The women. They’re the first best reason to love summer in New York City. The sidewalk outside the big plate-glass window on Columbus brought along an endless procession of them — almost as though they were walking by just for us, just for the appreciation radiating out from inside. Sure, I know what you’re thinking. A bunch of horny sexist pigs. Reducing women to the sum of their sexual parts. But it’s not like that at all. At least not for me. For me there’s a kind of reverence to it. All that beauty and diversity. All those blessings to our little lonesome planet walking around in shorts and tanks and halters. I’m serious.
You ask me, the best that fifty-one per-cent of the human species has to offer can be found right here in the City. L.A. just can’t hold a candle to it. Neither can Boston or San Fransisco. You don’t believe me? Come over to the World Cafe some time and sip your Bud and keep your eyes on that window.
Of course it’s a little different now.
You can mostly tell the dead by the grayish look to the skin or of course if they’ve been mutilated in some way but from the distance of bar to sidewalk not by much else. You might notice that the hair had little sheen maybe. That the sun didn’t catch it right. But you had to get up close to see the clouded eyes or the blue fingernails and you didn’t usually want to get that close. If you did, that was what your sidearm was for. And none of us had shot one in a long time, male or female, old or young, and didn’t care to.
The dead walk briskly in Manhattan, just like everybody else. Thing is, they have no place to go. The law protects them now, at least to some extent, but they’re not allowed to work jobs or have careers. They get foodstamps, welfare, public housing. I pretty much always felt sorry for them. Sure, a small percentage get out of line now and then, would rape somebody , mug somebody, rob a liquor store. But no more than the living.
Most of the bum rap they got came from the cannibalism thing. That’s what the crazy ones would do, kill regular folks and eat them. There was a lot of hysteria over that at first. That’s when the mayor revoked the Sullivan Law and passed the concealed-carry ordinance. But once the Army retrieval squads rounded up the crazy ones you didn’t hear much about cannibalism anymore. Hardly ever.
Fact is, the dead don’t seem to fuck up any more than the living. It’s a simple, primitive prejudice against a minority, nothing more. Sure, you wanted to be careful, just like you wanted to be careful of a lot of things and people in New York. But I’d stopped carrying my own gun a long time ago. A lot of us did.
Still, it was a kind of like a game with us, a bar contest.
Seeing who could pick out the dead ones.
This one sure wasn’t dead. Chestnut hair tied back long and gleaming, tan shoulders glowing in the sun. Curve City too, if you know what I mean. The silky dandelion-print dress seemed spun onto her. Low cut and no bra.
“Jesus,” said John, “are those nipples or fuckin’ spark plugs?”
John could be crude but he had a point so to speak. Her nipples were extremely elongated and hard, like they wanted to spike through the fabric.
“If they’re spark-plugs,” Neal said, “maybe they need to be re-gapped. Know a good mechanic?”
“Notice that nipples are back this year?” I said “For a while you hardly ever saw them.”
John nodded solemnly. “It’s a good thing. It’s a godsend.”
Then she was gone and two pretty smiling Goths walked by dressed in black, chrome nubs glittering in their vampire-red lips. It’s eighty degrees out there and they’re wearing black. They were holding hands.
“You gotta love this town,” I said, smiling.
We turned back to our drinks and talked about Tom Waits on the juke. Neal had seen him fall off his piano stool in Nashville. Whether it was part of the act was still open to question.
John let out a low whistle. “Can you say chest fruit?”
“No, but I can say mammiferous,” I said. “Can you?”
“What she needs,” said Neal, “is an exemplary and thorough breast examination, care of Dr. Neal, to be promptly followed by regular pants-sausage injections on a daily basis.”
“What if she’s a vegetarian?” said John.
“Then I’ve got a plantain that’ll change her life.”
“You guys are terrible,” I said.
“Listen to him,” John said. “We’re terrible and he’s standing there cross-legged.”
Then it was back to the drinks and talk again. Cigarettes had gone up nearly fifty cents. Rent control was once more being threatened in the legislature. ABC grips were considering a walkout. The usual New York bullshit.
Then, “Eyes left,” again.
“Call it,” John said. “Dead or alive.”
“Alive,” Neal said but then his squint grew narrower.
I knew she was dead before she was halfway by the window. “Dead,” I said. Easy on the eyes at first, sure. But then you caught the autopsy staples showing in the gap between the top of her jeans and the bottom of her peach blouse. She glanced in at us and you could see it in the eyes.
“The winner!” said John. “Anna, get this gentleman another Dewar’s on me and another Heiny for myself.”
“What am I,” Neal said, “chopped liver?”
“And a plate of chopped liver for Dr. Neal of the exemplary breast exams.”
These guys. I mean, you can’t take them anywhere.
Anna knew us all pretty well by then though and poured refills for everybody. No chopped liver made an appearance. We drank.
“Gustavo told me a story last night,” Neal said. “About those apartments over the flower shop. Hey, where the hell were you two guys last night, anyway?”
John shrugged. “I was home doing the Sunday Times crossword puzzle and listening to ole Blue Eyes. What, you go out every night? I had to work today. Not everybody’s an artiste and makes his own fuckin’ hours. Some of us gotta work in the morning, y’know?”
“I was on the computer,” I said. “Online from about ten to midnight. They did another Dead Chat last night.”
Neal made a face. “Why do you bother with that shit?”
“He’s a voyeur,” John said, “of the dead.”
“No, I just like hearing what they have to say. And let me tell you, they have some stories. When they start writing novels I’m really fucked.”
We looked. “Hubba hubba,” Neal said.
A real head-turner. Tall and sleek with mile-long legs walking along like a runway model in this sheer off-the-shoulder top and flowing organdy dress. Lots of jewelery and fiery red hair.
The redheads always get to me.
Behind us Anna laughed. “You perverts! She’s dead!”
She was right. When she turned her head you could see the long unhealed gash along the side of her throat. Like somebody had tried to cut her head off but didn’t quite make it.
“So much for hubba hubba,” I said.
Neal ordered a plate of fried calamari and Anna went to place the order with the kitchen. We watched her too. Anna was quite a looker herself but way off bounds. You didn’t mess around with your bartender.
“So? Like what?” John said.
“Those stories you were talking about. These Dead Chats. What’s so fuckin’ interesting?”
“Okay. Take this guy last night. Ninety-two years old, starved to death in his own apartment. Got out of bed one morning, got dressed, wanted to take a leak but his bedroom door wouldn’t open. He starts yelling for his nephew, who lives with him. Nephew’s only sixty-four. No answer. So the old guy opens his bedroom window, takes a four-story piss, then goes back to pounding on the door and yelling for his nephew. Who still doesn’t answer.”
“Where’s the nephew?”
“I’m getting to that. So this poor guy’s trapped in his bedroom with no phone and no food and nothing but a John Grisham novel to keep him company. Can you imagine that? He’s trapped in there for a week with John Grisham. So finally he just lies down on his bed and dies.”
“So then he comes back, right?”
“Right. And you know what they say. Sometimes they’re stronger than when they were alive. So he pushes at the door and this time it opens. What’s been blocking the door is the nephew. He’s dead on the floor from a heart attack.”
“How come he didn’t come back like the old man?”
“See, the nephew had a plate in his head from a war injury. So when he fell down behind the heart attack his head slammed into the radiator knob. Pops the plate right out of his skull along with half of what’s inside. Rats made short work of whatever was left.”
John laughed. “I dunno whether you call that good luck or bad. For the nephew I mean.”
“Got me. Depends on your point of view, I guess. Most of them seem pretty content, though. At least they’re walking around.”
“Eyes left! Quick! Man, is that one hot dish or what?”
John and I looked. Then gagged.
“Yeah, one hot dish of ground chuck,” John said.
She was roadkill in a sundress, probably pushing three hundred pounds and all of it rot. One eye was gone and so was her lower lip. At least she’d done her hair up nice. Neal was having a good old time though, laughing at our expense.
“Now that’s what I call a wood-killer,” John said.
I had to look away. “Jesus, I bet she leaks, leaves a trail of drippings. There oughta be a law against the ones like that.”
“The dead aren’t toxic, remember?” Neal said. “Nobody knows why but they’re not. So there’s no reason there should be a law, you bigot. Come on, now. The dead are people too.”
He was mocking me. I probably deserved it. I could get a little preachy sometimes on the subject of the dead. There were laws to protect them these days and I agreed with those laws. A lot of people didn’t. But sometimes it got to be a little much even for me, seeing the really maimed or rotten ones like this. I once saw a guy walking down Broadway carrying his guts in front of him in a wicker basket.
“You were saying something about Gustavo and last night? Something about the flower shop?”
His calamari had arrived in front of him and Neal was nibbling the batter off a piece of squid to expose the grey-black tentacle. That wasn’t pretty either.
“Oh, yeah. Last Saturday he’s sitting here in the bar tossing back a few tequilas and notices a couple of squad cars pull up over there. They don’t have their lights on or anything but he just happens to notice them and while he’s talking up some woman beside him he keeps an eye on them. Comes from growing up in Spanish Harlem — you watch the cops. Anyway, they’re no sooner out of their cruisers when the old lady who runs the flower shop comes out and she’s yammering away and keeps pointing up to the third-floor apartment over the shop.”
“That apartment’s been empty for years,” John said.
“So what happens next?” I said.
“The cops — four uniforms — go up into the apartment and they’re in there a while. The old lady’s still outside wringing her hands and looking like she’s gonna have a heart attack right then and there. So Gustavo says fuck it, leaves his drink on the bar and walks over and asks the lady what’s going on and the lady tells him that she keeps hearing this loud banging sound coming from upstairs. She’s spooked. The apartment’s wiring’s bad and nobody’s supposed to be up there. She’s too scared to check it out herself so she calls the cops.
“Finally they come back down, and three of them are carrying kids wrapped in blankets. Little kids. A few minutes later an ambulance arrives. Turns out the kids are a year old, two years old, and about three years old — two boys and the oldest one’s a girl. Their parents went dead two days ago, OD’d on heroin and then came back with brains so fried they were totally retarded, wandering around and jabbering and bumping into walls. But that’s where they were living, in the old apartment over the flower shop. Squatters, sneaking in and out at night.”
“So they died. And came back…?”
“Five days later. But for those five days…”
“Oh shit. Nobody to take care of the kids. They’re lucky they didn’t starve to death.”
“Right. And the apartment’s a total shithouse. Gustavo talked to one of the cops and I guess it was pretty grim. Garbage all over the place, clothes and dirty diapers and human shit all over the floor. The three-year-old told them that they were drinking out of the toilet bowl. Sinks hadn’t worked in years.”
“What’d they do with the parents?” John said.
“Dead junkies walking? Took ‘em straight to the ovens. Can you believe it? Stuff like that happening right across the street?”
“So what was the banging sound?”
“The banging sound the old lady heard.”
“Oh jesus, yeah. The three-year-old was whacking cockroaches with a hammer. That’s what they ate.”
My stomach went sour. John was shaking his head. But it was just another case in point as far as I was concerned. Some people were total fuck-ups, alive or dead.
Even after the roaches-as-babyfood story Neal still had the munchies. He ordered two more sides. Oysters on the half-shell and grilled octopus.
I ordered another drink.
I guess we were all getting pretty tanked. The ass-end of Happy Hour was long gone and it was getting dark. We listened to Jagger singing “Midnight Rambler” on the juke. The bar was filling up. Now that the sun was going down most of the action was coming in. Down at the end, Madeline was sitting with her current squeeze and we heard her laugh at something he said, the same phony laugh she always used on them, a lawyer’s laugh, dry as a ten-page brief. Madeline drank zombies. She thought that was pretty funny.
“Be honest,” John said. “You ever make it with one?”
“With a dead woman?” I shook my head. “Never. But Burt did. You know Burt, he’ll fuck damn near anything.”
Neal laughed. “Burt? That psycho’s so perpetually horny he’d probably fuck this plate of octopus.”
“Better finish it quick then,” John said, “case he comes in. Burt say it was any good?”
“Said it was damn good, actually. Wasn’t what he expected, her being dead and all. I guess it got pretty lively. Of course he had his Colt under the mattress just in case. He said they’re not cold inside the way you’d think. More like room temperature.”
“Stands to reason,” John said.
“Get one at high noon this time of year, I bet she cooks,” said Neal.
“But what about winter? Be like sticking your johnson in a Slurpee.”
“It’d be different, that’s for sure.” He shrugged and sucked down an oyster. Then his eyes bugged and he swallowed fast. “Eyes left,” gentlemen,” he said. “I mean really left!”
“Christ in a coffeeshop,” John said. “She looks like…she looks just like…”
“…Daryl Hannah,” I said. “Oh my god.”
And for a moment I thought the tall willowy blonde peering in through the window really was Daryl Hannah. The resemblence was utterly uncanny. The long wild hair, those thick parted lips, that graceful neck, those big bottomless eyes.
Neal damn near knocked over his scotch.
“She’s looking right at us!” he whispered.
I was loaded enough to shoot her a smile and raise my glass. Neal and John just gawped at her.
“Know what, fellas? I’m not sure she’s looking at us,” John said. “I think she’s looking at you, slugger!” He slapped me on the back. Hard. Scotch spilled. Ice tinkled in the glass.
But he was right. It was me she was looking at. Our eyes held for a moment.
And then she was gone.
John slapped me again, easier this time. “Don’t take it too hard, old buddy. You know the babes. One minute you’re Mr. Chick Magnet, you’re fucking Fabio for a second, and then…”
“Chopped liver,” said Neal.
“That’s right, chopped liver. Maybe she caught one of your two grey hairs. Thought you were old enough to be her daddy.”
“I am old enough to be her daddy.”
“Nah,” said Neal. “She took one look at our man here and realized he was out of her league. That she’s outclassed all the way. Huffed off probably to pout about it.”
“No she didn’t,” said John. He was looking over my shoulder.
“She didn’t huff off. She’s coming in.”
I turned and there were those eyes on me again, directly focused on mine like lasers coming toward me. There was something deliberate and almost predatory about the way she walked. The designer jeans were so tight they looked sewn onto her hips and legs. Long, long legs. Daryl Hannah legs. I get my share I guess but I knew I didn’t deserve this. God was either smiling or laughing at me. I didn’t know which.
She stopped directly in front of us and her gaze took us all in.
“Who’s got the balls to buy me a drink?” she said.
“Why does it take balls?” I said. First thing that came to mind. The scotch speaking.
“Because after a couple I might be more than you can handle. When we go back to my place, that is.”
I guess we all came pretty close to losing our drinks through our noses on that one.
Bar-tramp, I thought. Either that or a prostitute. Though I’d never seen a whore who looked as good as she did. But when they came onto you that hard, you knew something was wrong. Ordinarily it was an instant turn-off. Not with her, though. Not with some Daryl Hannah look-alike. With this one it went the other way. You just had to play it through. See where it went.
“You sure know how to make an impression, lady,” John said.
“Thanks. I’ll have a Hurricane. Who’s buying?”
I was. I introduced her to John and Neal and told her my name. She shook hands like a man, hard and abrupt.
“And you?” I said.
She laughed. “You care about my name? You guys really give a damn about my name? Come on. That’s not what you care about.”
The smile softened it some but she was still being an asshole. Haughty, arrogant, maybe buzzing on something stronger than a Hurricane — whatever the hell that was. Maybe even crazy. In a bar you got used to seeing them now and then.
She asked what we did for a living. Another turn-off under most circumstances, asking right off the top that way. But we told her. Artist, cameraman, writer. She didn’t seem particularly interested or particularly uninterested either. Just seemed to take it in. Normally you tell a woman you’re a writer the next question is what do you write. Not with this package. She nodded and drank and pretty soon the first one was gone so I ordered her another.
Her long slim fingers plucked at a piece of Neal’s grilled octopus and she swallowed it down. Didn’t ask. Just took. Her privilege.
John offered her his bar-stool. She said she’d stand, thank you. And that was fine with us because leaning on the bar the way she was her breasts were straining one way through the tank-top and her butt the other. In those jeans it was a sight to see. She was beautiful.
I didn’t like her one bit. But she was beautiful.
Her blonde hair glowed, a lucious fog about her head. She smelled like musk and roses. Her eyes were so damn bright they seemed to blur like neon whenever she moved her head.
Men are from Mars, they say. And woman are from Venus. War on the one side, love on the other. Well, sometimes that’s simply not the case. Sometimes it’s the woman who wants a conquest sexually speaking. Wants sex the way a man will. Doesn’t care to be wined and dined, doesn’t want to hold hands in the park and get flowers on Valentine’s Day, couldn’t care less for kissy-face and all that lovey-dovey bullshit.
She wanted what we wanted. You didn’t see it every day. It was intriguing.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said to me.
“I know what you’re thinking. You do play the game, don’t you? Most of you guys do.”
“What game? What am I thinking?”
Her entire face seemed to give off light. “You’re thinking, ‘is she or isn’t she?’”
I just looked at her. I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about.
“Is she or isn’t she what?” John slurred. By now he was piss-drunk.
Her gaze scanned us.
“Is she or isn’t she dead?”
She reached over for Neal’s cocktail fork and no! I thought as she buried the fork into the wide-open palm of her left hand, slamming it through like a ball into a baseball glove and suddenly I could see the tiny pitchfork tines sticking out the other side.
She didn’t even flinch.
She just kept looking at me. And smiled.
“Fooled you, didn’t I. All three of you.”
I think we breathed then. I know what we must have looked like, open-mouthed, staring down at her hand while she pulled the fork out again and tossed it on Neal’s plate. There were still a couple of oysters there. She held her hand up and turned it, showing us the bloodless punctures.
“Fooled us?” Neal said. “Ma’am, that’s an understatement.”
What you have to realize is that for us this girl was a fucking bombshell, and I don’t just mean in the looks department. If anybody in this freaky city were experts on telling the dead from the living we figured it was us, or at least that we were well into the running. And we didn’t have a clue — not with her. She was right. She’d fooled us all completely.
“Your skin,” I said, “your hair…?”
“Diet supplements. Magnesium, Vitamin E and Potassium mostly. Some of us are learning.” She sighed. “Okay, boys, who wants to blow this pit-stop and get on with it?”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “If you’re dead, how come you’re drinking…whatever the hell it is you’re drinking and…?”
“Eating octopus?” Her eyes narrowed. “You believe everything you hear? What? We can’t go into bars but you can? We don’t like a drink now and then? You buy into all those moronic stories about how we can’t eat anything but human flesh? Isn’t that the same thing as saying all Irish are drunks, all blacks like watermelon? I’d hoped you guys were a little more evolved than that.”
I saw her point. She was whitebread just like us but now that she was dead she was different too, she’d slipped into a new minority group — and one we little understood. So who were we to make judgements about her?
“It’s a different society now,” I said. “We hear things about you, you hear things about us. I guess the only way any of us is going to get it right is to talk to one another.”
“Oh, gee, isn’t that sensitive,” she laughed. “Get real. You don’t want to understand the dead any more than we want to understand you. There’s plenty of what I guess you’d call common ground though.” Her eyes went to my pants. “ Isn’t that what this is all about?”
She was putting it right on the line. I wondered why the living so rarely did that. Why we always played these goddamn games.
“I hear you,” I said. “You call it.”
The next piece of octopus she picked off Neal’s plate she seemed to swallow whole.
“Okay. Who’s going home with me?”
The question was for all three of us but she directed it straight at me. Those eyes again. A beautiful, perfect dead girl’s eyes.
“Who wants to know what it’s really like…to do it with someone like me?”
I finished my drink and called for the tab. “She’s not beating around the bush,” I said, sounding a whole lot more confident than I felt. “Gentlemen? Neal?”
He shook his head. “I’m a married man, boys. No can do.”
His face went blank. You could practically hear his brain ticking off the countless possiblities, all the pros and cons. Then he stood up.
“I’m there,” he said.
We paid and followed her to the street.
It was hot that day but the night seemed hotter still. The streets were more crowded than usual, a forced march of barhoppers searching out liquid relief.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” I said, “how did you…?”
“Die?” The question didn’t faze her. “Brain tumor. Simple.”
I wanted to ask her more. It was common wisdom that it was the brain that mobilized the dead and that destroying it was how you put them down for good. So it stood to reason that any damage there, like a tumor, would at least cause some dysfunction. But she was functioning perfectly. I wondered why.
I didn’t ask, though. Too clinical, too damn anti-erotic. And we were moving along at the fast pace she set for us like a couple of slightly woozy dogs trotting behind their mistress.
Booze, beauty and forbidden sex. It’ll make a dog of you every time.
“Can you believe we’re actually doing this?” I whispered to John.
He shot me a look and a grin. “Well, yeah!”
“I dunno…something’s not right.”
“Hey. You’re the one who’s always mouthing off about how the dead should have equal rights. So what about equal shtupping rights? She wants some action, we’re the guys who’re gonna give it to her. And she’s the one who asked for it. So what’s the problem?”
It made sense, I guess.
He nudged me. “And if she gets froggy? Relax.” He flipped up the front of his shirt and I saw the snubnose stuck in his belt.
“Come on, guys,” she called over her shoulder. Her voice lilting like a song. “I mean, exactly who’s dead here?”
She lived in a split rowhouse up on 89th and Amsterdam. Welfare housing. Not exactly a total dump but pretty damn close. Her high heels tapped up the stairs. You could smell piss faintly in the dimly-lit stairwell – did the dead still piss? – and half-erased graffiti swirls decorated the walls. Nothing to deter us. Not when you could look up and see that Class-A butt riding up and down in those jeans. We were beyond the point of no return now. That primordial toggle in the male brain had been switched to the on position for the duration.
She unlocked triple deadbolts. It looked like somebody’d smeared shit on the door. I hoped it was just more bad graffiti. Then she opened the door and switched on the lights and stepped inside. For a moment we just stood there.
“You gotta be shitting me,” John said.
Inside it looked like the Presidential Suite at the St. Regis. Whatever that might look like. Russet wall-to-wall carpet, long sable couches, finely crafted Hepplewhite furniture and one of those fifty-inch-screen tube tv’s in the corner. Some pretty high-end art hung from the walls and the curtains could’ve been Byzantine tapestries.
We stepped inside.
“Some joint,” John said.
Our hostess didn’t respond. She just stood there appraising us while we moved into the room and looked around. I finally stated the obvious question.
“I thought that…that the dead lived on public assistance.”
“Only because that’s all that people like you will allow us.”
“Hey! What’s this ‘people like you’ bullshit? You invited us here, remember?” said John.
“True. I don’t have to appreciate your politics though, do I.”
“No, you don’t. Though my buddy here’s a liberal Democrat. But how about you cool it with the big bitch attitude, okay? Be nice.”
She nodded, smiling. “Okay. Back to the subject. You wanted to know how I can afford all this, right?”
She slipped the tank-top up over her head. Underneath she was naked.
“How do you think?” she said.
John groaned. “Ah, I should’ve known. A fuckin’ hooker. Hey, are we fuckin’ morons or what?”
“That’s not the deal,” I told her. I was seriously pissed off. “You came on to us and all we did was go along. We don’t pay for it.”
“You will tonight,” she said.
She slipped a big semi-auto out from behind the phone stand by the door in less time than it takes me to swallow. The gun had a long black can on the end of it. A silencer.
She pointed it at John. “And Johnny,” she said, “don’t even think about pulling that little pea-shooter in your belt. Between your shirt and your beer-gut that thing’s been harder to miss than what passes for your dick. Thumb and forefinger, champ. Take it out and drop it on the floor. Slow.”
John hesitated. She cocked her gun.
“If you don’t, I’ll punch so many holes in you you’ll whistle when the wind blows. Count of three, tough guy. One, two…”
He parted the shirt, reached down and dropped the gun to the floor.
“Now wallets. Toss ‘em over here by my feet.”
We did that too. You didn’t have to have a doctorate from M.I.T. to figure out now how she’d furnished her apartment. She wasn’t a whore, she was an armed robber, luring guys to her apartment and then ripping them off.
A dead armed robber.
And we knew what she looked like. And we knew where she lived. She wasn’t letting us out of here alive.
John looked at me and I looked at him. And I thought we were saying something a whole lot like goodbye when she fired the shot into his chest. The silenced report sounded like a single light clap of hands. He went down like a wall of mason blocks. She’d hit him directly in the heart, blood arcing a yard up out of the bullethole.
I watched the arc dwindle. To nothing.
“I hope you sad fucks have some decent credit cards.”
Now the gun was one me. She was enjoying this. Her nipples were as long as thumbnails. I wondered if she’d always been this way or if the tumor had turned her vicious.
“Listen,” I said. I was shaking. “We can work this out somehow. We can…”
“Shut up.” She fired two more rounds into the side of John’s head. The side of his skull blew off and brains like old clotted oatmeal flecked with red were suddenly all over the floor.
I understood the russet carpet.
“Wouldn’t want him to come back. Would we? The world’s a better place without that drunken troll.”
All I could do was stand there expecting to die in seconds. I couldn’t move. I felt stupid and slightly sad, like I’d lost an old friend. And not John, either.
“So now me?” I managed to say. “Just like that?”
She laughed. “You mean, ‘after all we’ve had together?’ Not necessarily.”
She was holding the gun almost lazily — like you’d hold a phone receiver you weren’t exactly going to use right away. But there was a good ten feet between us. If I went for it I’d be dead on the floor right next to John.
“You can’t get out,” she said. “The door locks automatically, the windows are barred and you can yell and scream all you want to but let me tell you, the neighbors won’t complain.”
Of course not. The neighbors were all dead, like her.
“So what do you mean, ‘not necessarily?’”
She shrugged a smooth bare shoulder. “Whether you live or die depends on you.”
My stare told her I didn’t get it.
“I see assholes like you every day. We’re not even people anymore, to you we’re not even human. We’re nothing more than a bunch of animals.”
“That’s not true. Yes, there are tons of bigots out there. But I’ve been trying to tell you all night long. I’m not one of them.”
I was pleading for my life, not my principles. And she knew it.
“Sure you are. You’re no different. Liberal Democrat, my ass. The proof is the fact that you’re here in the first place. You goddamn guys, you all think it would be a riot to have sex with the dead. Something to laugh about, something you can brag about to your buddies. Well guess what? Here’s your big chance.”
She ran her finger down the gunbarrel.
“And if you do a real good job, I won’t kill you.”
It was crazy. It made no sense. It was what we’d come here to do in the first place and now she was turning it into some kind of weird life-and-death challenge. But could I believe her?
What choice did I have?
Strangest thing was, I knew I could do it. Even with the gun in her hand. Even with John dead on the floor. I could put the blocks to her then and there. I looked from her mouth to her breasts and was I hard already.
Maybe death and fear are aphrodesiacs.
I took off my shirt and dropped it to the floor. I slid off my belt and dropped that too. “All right,” I said quietly and took a step toward her. She started to laugh.
“You should be so lucky!”
Now I really was lost.
“Not with me, you jackass.” She reached for a door back near the drapes that opened to a block of darkness. “Mom? Billy? Come on out.”
Their stench preceeded them. I could barely breathe.
“Mom burned up in a car accident,” she said. “My brother Billy drowned in the Hudson. But they both came back. I take care of them now.”
They shuffled across the room, knelt awkwardly at John’s body. The woman had no face at all, just char. Her body looked like a skeleton covered with blackened bacon. The boy’s flesh was mostly green and hung slack now that he’d lost his floaters’ bloat over a naked ribcage that seemed stuffed with meatloaf. Two eyes gleamed from a mottled blood-pudding face. And what we’d heard about the dead — that they were sometimes far more powerful than they’d been in life — was true. Effortlessly these two palsied ruined creatures opened John’s gut and pulled things out of him and then for a while there were nothing but munching noises until she broke the silence.
“Mom likes it hard and fast,” she said. “But not too hard. You know, pieces could fall off. You’ve got to be careful.”
The faceless thing looked up at me through black clotted eyes and did something with its mouth that might have been a smile. I could see the crisped breasts, the scorched sex between its stick legs.
“And Billy’s gay. Try to get him off with your mouth, otherwise he’s gonna put the whole thing up your ass. Ouch!”
Already its cock was getting hard. The glans looked like a spoiled green tomato.
They both began to crawl in my direction.
“You’re the one who wanted to have sex with the dead,” she said. The gun was cocked and pointed at me. “So get to it.”
She kept her promise — she obviously didn’t kill me. So I guess I got it right. They keep me in the back room now with Mom and Billy, shackled.
I hear her bring in other guys all the time. None of them last long. I hear a pop and that’s the end of them. So far I’m they’re favorite. I figure she must have singled me out after all that evening at the bar. And the sex? It’s horrible, sure, it’s hideous. But it’s better than being their next meal. You’d be surprised what you can do if it means staying alive just one more day.
But their appetites are…awful, tremendous.
My only hope is that Neal’s out there somewhere looking for me. Looking for his buddies, John and me. That he’s got the cops onto it, maybe. That somehow, against all odds he’ll find me. That maybe one of these days she’ll slip up, make a mistake — she’ll go by the World Cafe again and Neal will be On Point that day at the big plate-glass window watching the ladies go by in their short summer skirts and tees and tank-tops and see one who looks just like Daryl Hannah.
Meantime it’s winter now. The City’s cold in winter.
And it’s very cold in here.
Copyright (C) 2001 by Dallas Mayr and Lee Seymour.
( Eyes Left can also be found in the collection Sleep Disorder, featuring the collaborated works of Jack Ketchum and Edward Lee. )
The Russian Translation of Eyes Left can also be found at Darker Magazine.
For more information on the careers of these two fine, outstanding authors please see: Jack Ketchum and Edward Lee. This piece is presented under agreement with Jack and Lee under the provision it not be shared or reblogged elsewhere.