Chapter 13

To-Do List of the Fashionably Doomed

When you know the future is grim, there is no need for speed. Tommy decided to walk to the financial district. He shuffled along with the hang-dog look of the cosmically fucked.

He walked through Chinatown, spotted three of the Wongs buying lottery tickets at a liquor store, and headed up to the room to get his typewriter and clothes before they returned. His spirits lifted a little when he climbed down the narrow stairway for the last time, but Madame Natasha's words came back to dump on him again: "I don't see a woman in your near future."

It had been one of the reasons he had come to San Francisco  -  to find a girlfriend. Someone who would see him as an artist. Not like the girls back home, who saw him as a bookish freak. It was all part of the plan: live in the City, write stories, look at the bridge, ride cable cars, eat Rice-A-Roni, and have a girlfriend  -  someone he could tell his thoughts to, preferably after hours of godlike sex. He wasn't looking for perfection, just someone who made him feel secure enough to be insecure around. But not now. Now he was doomed.

He looked up at the skyline and realized that he had navigated wrong, arriving in the financial district, several blocks from the Pyramid. He zigzagged from block to block, avoiding eye contact with the men and women in business suits, who avoided eye contact in turn by checking their watches every few steps. Sure, he thought, they can check their watches. They have a future.

He arrived at the foot of the Pyramid a little breathless, his arms aching from carrying his belongings. He sat on a concrete bench at the edge of a fountain and watched people for a while.

They were all so determined. They had places to go, people to see. Their hair was perfect. They smelled good. They wore nice shoes. He looked at his own worn leather sneakers. Fucked.

Someone sat down next to him on the bench and he avoided looking up, thinking that it would just be another person who would make him feel inferior. He was staring at a spot on the concrete by his feet when a Boston terrier appeared on the spot and blew a jet stream of dog snot on his pant leg.

"Bummer, that's rude," the Emperor said. "Can't you see that our friend is sulking?"

Tommy looked up into the face of the Emperor. "Your Highness. Hello." The man had the wildest eyebrows Tommy had ever seen, as if two gray porcupines were perched on his brow.

The Emperor tipped his crown, a fedora made of panels cut from beer cans and laced together with yellow yarn. "Did you get the job?"

"Yes, they hired me that day. Thanks for the tip."

"It's honest work," the Emperor said. "There's a certain grace in that. Not like this tragedy."

"What tragedy?"

"These poor souls. These poor pathetic souls." The Emperor gestured toward the passersby.

"I don't understand," Tommy said.

"Their time has passed and they don't know what to do. They were told what they wanted and they believed it. They can only keep their dream alive by being with others like themselves who will mirror their illusions."

"They have really nice shoes," Tommy said.

"They have to look right or their peers will turn on them like starving dogs. They are the fallen gods. The new gods are producers, creators, doers. The new gods are the chinless techno-children who would rather eat white sugar and watch science-fiction films than worry about what shoes they wear. And these poor souls desperately push papers around hoping that a mystical message will appear to save them from the new, awkward, brilliant gods and their silicon-chip reality. Some of them will survive, of course, but most will fall. Uncreative thinking is done better by machines. Poor souls, you can almost hear them sweating."

Tommy looked at the well-dressed stream of business people, then at the Emperor's tattered overcoat, then at his own sneakers, then at the Emperor again. For some reason, he felt better than he had a few minutes before. "You really worry about these people, don't you?"

"It is my lot."

An attractive woman in a gray suit and heels approached the Emperor and handed him a five-dollar bill. She wore a silk camisole under her jacket and Tommy could make out the top of her lace bra when she bent over. He was mesmerized.

"Your Highness," she said, "there's a Chinese chicken salad on special at the Cafe Suisse today. I think Bummer and Lazarus would love it."

Lazarus wagged his tail. Bummer yapped at the mention of his name.

"Very thoughtful of you, my child. The men will enjoy it."

"Have a good day," she said, and walked away. Tommy watched her calves as she went.

Two men who were passing by, embroiled in an argument about prices and earnings, stopped their conversation and nodded to the Emperor.

"Go with God," the Emperor said. He turned back to Tommy. "Are you still looking for a domicile, or just a woman now?"

"I don't understand."

"You wear your loneliness like a badge."

Tommy felt as if his ego had just taken a right to the jaw. "Actually, I met a girl and I'm going to rent us a place this afternoon."

"My mistake," the Emperor said. "I misread you."

"No, you didn't. I'm fucked."

"Pardon?"

"A fortune-teller told me that there was no woman in my future."

"Madame Natasha?"

"How did you know?"

"You mustn't give too much credence to Madame Natasha's predictions. He's dying and it darkens his vision. The plague."

"I'm sorry," Tommy said. In fact, he felt relieved, then guilty for the reason behind it. He had no right to feel sorry for himself. The Emperor had nothing except his dogs, yet his sympathy was all directed toward his fellowman. I'm scum, Tommy thought. He said, "Your Highness, I have a little money now, if you need..."

The Emperor held up the bill the woman had given him. "We have all that we need, my son." He stood and tugged on the ropes that held Bummer and Lazarus. "And I should be off before the men revolt from hunger."

"Me, too, I guess." Tommy stood and made as if to shake hands, then bowed instead. "Thanks for the company."

The Emperor winked, spun on one heel, and started to lead his troops away, then stopped and turned back. "And, son, don't touch anything with an edge while you're in the building? Scissors, letter openers, anything."

"Why?" Tommy asked.

"It's the shape of the building, a pyramid. They'd rather people not know about it, but they have a full-time employee who just goes around dulling the letter openers."

"You're kidding."

"Safety first," the Emperor said.

"Thanks."

Tommy took a deep breath and steeled himself for his assault on the Pyramid. As he walked out of the sun and under the massive concrete buttresses, he could feel a chill through his flannel shirt, as if the concrete had stored the damp cold of the night fog and was radiating it like a refrigerator coil. He was shivering by the time he reached the information desk. A guard eyed him suspiciously.

"Can I help you?"

"I'm looking for the Transamerica personnel department."

The guard made a face as if Tommy had been dipped in sewage. "Do you have an appointment?"

"Yes." Tommy waved Jody's papers under the guard's nose.

The guard picked up a phone and was punching numbers when a second guard came up behind him and took the receiver. "He's fine," the second guard said. "Send him up."

"But  - "

"He's a friend of the Emperor."

The first guard hung up the phone and said, "Twenty-first floor, sir." He pointed to the elevators.

Tommy took an elevator to the twenty-first floor, then followed the signs until he found the right department. An officious-looking older woman told him to have a seat in the reception room, she would be right with him. Then she took great pains to act as if he had been sucked off the planet.

Tommy sat on a black leather sofa that sighed with his weight, chose a magazine from the black stone coffee table, and waited. During the next hour he read a household-hints column ("Coffee grounds in that cat box will fill your house with the delightful aroma of brewing espresso every time kitty heeds the call"); an article on computer junkies ("Bruce has been off the mouse for six months now, but he says he takes life one byte at a time"); and a review of the new musical Jonestown! ("Andrew Lloyd Webber's version of the Kool-Aid jingle is at once chilling and evocative. Donny Osmond is brilliant as Jim Jones.") He borrowed some whiteout from the officious-looking woman and touched up the finish on his sneakers, then dried them under a halogen reading light that looked like a robot's arm holding the sun. When he started pulling cologne sample cards out of GQ and rubbing them on his socks, the woman told him he could go on in.

He picked up his shoes and walked into the office in his stocking feet. Another officious-looking woman, who looked remarkably like the first officious-looking woman, down to the little chain on her reading glasses, had him sit down across from her while she looked at Jody's papers and ignored him.

She consulted a computer screen, tapped on a few keys, then waited while the computer did something. Tommy put his shoes on and waited. She didn't look up.

He cleared his throat. She tapped on the keys. He reached down, opened his suitcase, and took out his portable typewriter. She didn't look up. She tapped and looked at the screen.

He opened the typewriter case, rolled a piece of paper in the machine, and tapped on a few keys.

She looked up. He tapped a few more keys. "What are you doing?" she asked. Tommy tapped. He didn't look up.

The woman raised her voice. "I said, what are you doing?"

Tommy kept typing and looked up. "Pardon me, I was ignoring you. What did you say?"

"What are you doing?" She repeated.

"It's a note. Let me read it for you. 'Couldn't anyone else see that they were all slaves of Satan? I had to cleanse the world of their evil. I am the hand of God. Why else would security have let me into the building with an assault rifle in my suitcase? I am a divine instrument. " Tommy paused and looked up. "That's all I have so far, but I'll guess I end it with an apology to my mom. What do you think?"

She smiled as if hiding gas pains and handed him an envelope. "This is Jody's final paycheck. Give her our best. And you have a nice day now, young man."

"You too," Tommy said. He gathered up his stuff and left the office whistling.

Fashionable SOMA looked to Tommy an awful lot like a light industrial area: two- and three-story buildings with steel roll-up doors and steel-framed windows. The bottom floors housed ethnic restaurants, underground dance clubs, auto-repair shops, and the occasional foundry. Tommy paused outside of one to watch two long-haired men pouring bronze into a mold.

Artists, Tommy thought. He had never seen a real artist, and although these guys looked more like bikers, he wanted to talk to them. He took a tentative step through the doorway.

"Hi," he said.

The men were wrestling with a huge ladle, the two of them gripping the long metal handle with asbestos gloves. One looked up. "Out!" he said.

Tommy said, "Okay, I can see you guys are busy. 'Bye." He stood on the sidewalk and checked his map. He was supposed to meet the rental agent somewhere around here. He looked up and down the street. Except for a guy passed out on the corner, the street was empty. Tommy was thinking about waking the guy up and asking him if this was, indeed, the fashionable part of SOMA, when a green Jeep pulled up beside him and skidded to a stop. The driver, a woman in her forties with wild gray hair, rolled down the window.

"Mr. Flood?" She said.

Tommy nodded.

"I'm Alicia DeVries. Let me park and I'll show you the loft."

She backed the Jeep into a spot that seemed too short for it by six inches, running the wheels up over the curb, then she jumped out, dragging after her a purse roughly the size of Tommy's suitcase. She wore sandals, a dashiki, and multicolored Guatemalan cotton pants. There were chopsticks stuck here and there in her hair, as if she were prepared at any minute to deal with an emergency stir-fry.

She looked at Tommy's suitcase. "You look like you're ready to move in today. This way."

She breezed by Tommy to a fire door beside the foundry. Tommy could smell the patchouli in her wake.

She said, "This area is just like Soho was twenty years ago. You're lucky to have a shot at one of these lofts now, before they go co-op and start selling for a million dollars."

She unlocked the door and started up the steps. "This place has incredible energy," she said, without looking back. "I'd love to live here myself, except the market's down right now and I'd have to sell my place in the Heights."

Tommy dragged his suitcase up the steps after her.

"Do you paint, Mr. Flood?"

"I'm a writer."

"Oh, a writer! I do a little writing myself. I'd like to write a book myself some weekend, if I can find the time. Something about female circumcision, I think. Maybe something about marriage. But what's the difference, right?" She stopped at a landing at the top of the stairs and unlocked another fire door.

"Here it is." She threw the door open and gestured for Tommy to enter. "A nice work area and a bedroom in the back. There are two sculptors that work downstairs and a painter next door. A writer would really round the building out. What's your take on female circumcision, Mr. Flood?"

Tommy was still about three topics behind her, so he stood on the landing while his brain caught up. People like Alicia were the reason God made decaf. "I think everyone should have a hobby," he said, taking a shot in the dark.

Alicia jammed like an overheated machine gun. She seemed to look at him for the first time, and did not seem to like what she saw. "You are aware that we'll need a significant security deposit, if your application is accepted?"

"Okay," Tommy said. He entered the loft, leaving her standing on the landing.

The loft was roughly the size of a handball court. It had an island kitchen in the middle, and windows ran along one wall from floor to ceiling. There was an old rug, a futon, and a low plastic coffee table in the open area near the kitchen. The back wall was lined with empty bookshelves, broken only by a single door to the bedroom.

The bookshelves did it. Tommy wanted to live here. He could see the shelves filled with Kerouac, and Kesey, and Hammett, and Ginsberg, and Twain, and London, and Bierce, and every other writer who had lived and written in the City. One shelf would be for the books he was going to write: hardbacks in thirty languages. There would be a bust of Beethoven on that shelf. He didn't really like Beethoven, but he thought he should have a bust of him.

He resisted the urge to shout, "I'll take it!" It was Jody's money. He had to check the bedroom for windows. He opened the door and went in. The room was as dark as a cave. He flipped the light switch and track lighting along one wall came on. There was an old mattress and box springs on the floor. The walls were bare brick. No windows.

Through another door was a bathroom with a freestanding sink and a huge claw-foot tub that was stained with rust and paint. No windows. He was so excited, he thought he would wet himself.

He ran out into the main living area where Alicia was standing with her hand on her hip, mentally shoving him into the pigeonhole of abusive barbarism she had made for him.

"I'll take it," Tommy said.

"You'll have to fill out an  - "

"I'll give you four thousand dollars in cash, right now." He pulled the wad of bills out of his jeans.

"How many keys will you need?"

Chapter 14

Two Losts Do Not Make a Found

Consciousness went off like a flashbulb of pain: a dull ache in her head, sharp daggers in her knees and her chin. Jody was slumped in the shower. The water was still running  -  had been running on her all day. She crawled out of the shower stall on her hands and knees and pulled towels out of the rack.

She sat on the bathroom floor and dried herself, blotting away the water with rough terry cloth. Her skin felt tender, almost raw. The towels were damp from fourteen hours of steam. The ceiling dripped and the walls ran with condensation. She braced herself against the sink and climbed to her feet, then opened the door and stumbled through the room to the bed.

Be careful what you ask for, she thought. All the regret about waking up a little too alert, coming out of sleep like a gunshot, came back on her. She hadn't thought about falling asleep in the same way. She must have been in the shower at sunup, dropped to the shower floor, and stayed there throughout the day.

She sat up on the bed and gently touched her chin. Pain shot up her jaw. She must have hit it on the soap dish when she went out. Her knees were bruised as well.

Bruised? Something was wrong. She jumped to her feet and went to the dresser. She turned on the light and leaned into the mirror, then yelped. Her chin was bruised blue, with a corona of yellow. Her hair was hopelessly tangled and she now had a small bald spot where the water had worn away at her scalp.

She backed away and sat back on the bed, stunned. Something was wrong, seriously wrong, beyond her injuries. It was the light. Why had she turned on the light? The night before she would have been able to see herself in the mirror by the light filtering in under the bathroom door. But it was more than that. It was a tightness in her mouth, pressure, like when she had first gotten braces as a child.

She ran her tongue over her teeth and felt the points breaking through the roof of her mouth just behind her eyeteeth.

She thought, I'm breaking down from lack of... She couldn't even make herself think it. This will get worse. Much worse.

Now she could feel the hunger, not in her stomach, but in her entire body, as if her veins were going to collapse on themselves. And there was a tension in her muscles, as if piano strings were tightening inside her body, sharpening her movements, making her feel as if she would jump through a window any second.

I've got to calm down. Calm down. Calm down. Calm down.

She repeated the mantra to herself as she got up and walked to the phone. It seemed to take an incredible effort to push the zero button and wait for the desk clerk to come on.

"Hi, this is room two-ten. Is there a guy in the lobby waiting? Yes, that's him. Would you tell him I'll be down in a few minutes?"

She put down the phone and went to the bathroom, where she turned off the shower and wiped down the mirror. She looked at herself in the mirror and fought the urge to burst into tears.

This is a project, she thought. She turned her head and looked at her bald spot. It was small enough that she could cover it with a new part held by a couple of hairpins. Her bruised chin might require some explaining.

She started to run her fingers though her hair to facilitate the preliminary untangle, fighting the tension in her arms that seemed to be increasing every second. A large moth buzzed into the bathroom and went for the light above the mirror. Before she knew what had happened, she snatched it out of the air and ate it.

She stared at her reflection and was horrified by the red-haired stranger who had just eaten a moth. Even so, a warmth ran though her like good brandy. The bruise on her chin faded as she watched.

The first thing she saw when she turned the corner at the lobby was Tommy's grin.

"Good," he said. "You're dressed for moving. I like your hair pinned up like that."

Jody smiled, and stood awkwardly in front of him, thinking she should greet him with a hug, but afraid to get too close to him. She could smell him and he smelled like food. "You found a place?"

"An incredible loft, south of Market. It's even furnished." He seemed as if he would burst with excitement. "I used all the money; I hope that's okay."

"Fine," Jody said. She just wanted to get him alone.

"Get your stuff," he said. "I want to show it to you."

Jody nodded. "I'll be just a minute. Have the desk clerk call a cab."

She turned to leave. Tommy caught her by the arm. "Hey, are you okay?"

She motioned for him to move within whisper range. "I want you so badly I can hardly stand it."

She pulled away and ran up the steps to her room. Inside she gathered what few belongings she had and checked herself in the mirror one last time. She was wearing jeans and the chambray blouse from the night before. She unbuttoned her blouse and did a straitjacket escape from her bra, then buttoned the blouse halfway up. She stuffed the bra into her day pack and locked the room for the last time.

When she returned to the lobby, Tommy was waiting outside by a blue DeSoto cab. He opened the door for her, climbed in, and gave the driver the address.

"You're going to love it," he said. "I know you are."

She moved closer to him and held his arm tightly between her breasts. "I can't wait," she said. A tiny voice in her head asked, What are you doing? What are you going to do to him? It was so faint and foreign that it might have come from someone outside on the street.

Tommy pulled away from her and dug into his jeans pocket, coming out with an envelope. "Your check's in here. I didn't open it."

She took it and put it in her day pack, then moved on him again.

He scooted to the door and nodded toward the driver, who was watching them in the rearview mirror. "Forget him," Jody whispered. She licked Tommy neck and shuddered with the taste and warmth of his flesh.

"I couldn't get your car out of impound. It has to be the owner."

"Doesn't matter," she said, nuzzling into the space under his jaw.

The cab stopped and the driver turned to them. "Six-ten," he said.

Jody threw a twenty over the seat, reached over Tommy and opened the door, dived out and dragged him out of the cab after her. "Where is it?"

Tommy just had time to point to the door before she pushed him at it. She climbed on his back as he unlocked the door, then bolted past him and dragged him up the steps.

"You're really excited about this, aren't you?" he asked.

"It's great." She stopped at the fire door at the top of the stairs. "Open it," she commanded.

Tommy unlocked the door and threw it open. "This is it!"

She went through, catching the front of his shirt and pulling him in.

"Look at all these bookshelves," he said.

She ripped his shirt off and kissed him hard.

He pulled up for air and said, "The bedroom doesn't have any windows, just like you wanted."

"Where?" she demanded.

He pointed to the open door and she pushed him through it. He fell face down on the bare mattress. She flipped him over, hooked her hands into the waist of his jeans and ripped them off him.

"So you like it?" he asked.

She ripped her shirt open and held him to the bed, one hand on his chest while she took off her own jeans. She climbed on him and muffled his next question with a kiss.

He finally got the message and returned her kiss and tried to match her urgency, then didn't have to try at all. She pulled away from the kiss as her fangs unsheathed, then guided him into her as he moaned. Jody growled deep in her chest, pushed his head to the side and bit him on the neck.

"Ouch!" Tommy shouted. She held him down and snarled into his neck.

Dust from the old mattress filled the air and was stirred by the movement of their bodies.

"Oh jeez!" Tommy shouted, digging his fingers into her bottom. Jody answered him with a catlike scream as she came, then fell on his chest and licked the blood that dribbled from the punctures on his neck.

She twitched and shuddered while he repeated, "Oh jeez," over and over again between gasps. After a few minutes she rolled off him and lay on the bed feeling the warm nourishment running though her.

Tommy rubbed his neck. "That was great," he said. "That was incredible. You are  - "

Jody rolled over. "Tommy, I have to tell you something."

"You're beautiful," he said.

Jody smiled at him. The urgency was gone now and she was feeling guilty. I could have killed him, she thought.

Tommy reached over and touched her lips. "What's that on your teeth? Did you hurt yourself?"

"It's blood, Tommy. It's your blood."

He felt his neck again, which was completely healed. "My blood?"

"Tommy, I've never done anything like that before. I've never been that way before."

"Me either. It was great!"

"I'm a vampire."

"That's okay," Tommy said. "I knew this girl in high school who gave me a hickey that covered the whole side of my neck."

"No, Tommy. I'm really a vampire." She looked him in the eye and did not smile or look away. She waited.

He said, "Don't goof on me, okay?"

"Tommy, have you ever seen anyone tear a pair of jeans like that before?"

"That was my animal attraction, right?"

Jody got out of bed, went to the bedroom door and closed it, shutting out the light from the living area. "Can you see anything?"

"No," he said.

"Hold up a number of fingers. Don't tell me how many."

He did.

"Three," Jody said. "Try again."

He did.

"Seven."

"Jeez," he said. "Are you psychic?"

She opened the door. Light spilled in.

"You have an incredible body," Tommy said.

"Thanks. I need to lose five pounds."

"Let's do it again, without our shoes on this time."

"Tommy, you have to listen to me. This is important. I'm not kidding you. I am a vampire."

"C'mon, Jody, come over here. I'll take your shoes off for you."

Jody looked up at the ceiling. There were open steel beams twenty feet above. "Watch." She jumped up and grabbed on to a beam and hung. "See?"

"Jeez," Tommy said.

"Do you have a book here?"

"In my suitcase."

"Go get it."

"Be careful. You could fall."

"Get the book, Tommy."

Tommy went into the living area, looking up at her as he walked under. He returned with a volume of Kerouac.

"Now what? Come down from there. You're making me nervous."

"Close the door and open the book."

He closed the door and the room went dark again. Jody read a half page aloud before he opened the door again.

"Jeez," he said.

She let go of the beam and dropped to the floor. Tommy backed away from her to the bed and sat down.

"If you want to leave, I'll understand," she said.

"When we were making love... you were cold inside."

"Look, I didn't mean to hurt you."

Tommy's eyes were wide. "You really are a vampire, aren't you?"

"I'm sorry. I needed help. I needed someone."

"You really are a vampire." It was a statement this time.

"Yes, Tommy. I am."

He paused for a second to think, then said, "That's the coolest thing I've ever heard. Let's do it with our shoes off."

 

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