~Part III

Hunters

Chapter 25

All Dressed Up

Tommy stormed around the loft collecting beer cans and breakfast plates and carrying them to the kitchen. "Bitch!" he said to Peary. "Shark-faced bitch. It's not like I have any experience at this. It's not like there's Cosmo articles on how to take care of a vampire. Bloodsucking, day-sleeping, turtle-hating, creepy-crawling, no-toilet-paper-buying, inconsiderate bitch!"

He slammed an armload of dishes into the sink. "I didn't ask for this. A few friends come over for breakfast and she goes bat-shit. Did I make a fuss when her mother came over with no notice? Did I say a word when she brought a dead guy home and shoved him under the bed? No offense, Peary. Do I complain about her weird hours? Her eating habits? No, I haven't said a word."

"It's not like I came to the City saying, 'Oh, I can't wait to find a woman whose only joy in life is sucking out my bodily fluids. Okay, well, maybe I did, but I didn't mean this."

Tommy tied up a trash bag full of beer cans and threw it in the corner. The crash reverberated through his head, reminding him of his hangover. He cradled his throbbing temples and went to the bathroom, where he heaved until he thought his stomach would turn inside out. He pushed himself up from the bowl and wiped his eyes. Two snapping turtles regarded him from the tub.

"What are you guys looking at?"

Scott's jaw dropped open and he hissed. Zelda ducked under the foot of fouled water and swam against the corner of the tub.

"I need a shower. You guys are going to have to roam around for a while."

Tommy found a towel and wrestled the turtles out of the tub, then stepped in and ran the shower until the water went cold. As he dressed he watched Scott and Zelda wandering around the bedroom, bumping into walls, then backing up and slumping off until they hit another wall.

"You guys are miserable here, aren't you? No one appreciates you? Well, it doesn't look like Jody's going to use you. Whoever heard of a vampire with a weak stomach? There's no reason for all of us to be miserable."

Tommy had been using the milk crates he'd carried Scott and Zelda in as laundry baskets. He dumped the dirty laundry on the floor and lined the crates with damp towels. "Let's go, guys. We're going to the park."

He put Scott in a crate and carried him down the steps to the sidewalk. Then went back up for Zelda and called a cab. When he returned to the street, one of the biker/sculptors was standing outside of the foundry, blotting sweat out of his beard with a bandanna.

"You live upstairs, right?" The sculptor was about thirty-five, long-haired and bearded, wearing grimy jeans and a denim vest with no shirt. His beer belly protruded from the vest and hung over his belt like a great hairy bag of pudding.

"Yeah, I'm Tom Flood." Tommy set the crate on the sidewalk and offered his hand. The sculptor clamped down on it until Tommy winced with pain.

"I'm Frank. My partner's Monk. He's inside."

"Monk?"

"Short for Monkey. We work in brass."

Tommy massaged his crushed hand. "I don't get it."

"Balls on a brass monkey."

"Oh," Tommy said, nodding as if he understood.

"What's with the turtles?" Frank asked.

"Pets," Tommy said. "They're getting too big for our place, so I'm going to take a cab over to Golden Gate Park and let them go in the pond."

"That why your old lady left all pissed off?"

"Yeah, she doesn't want them in the house anymore."

"Fucking women," Frank said in sympathy. "My last old lady was always on me about keeping my scooter in the living room. I still have the scooter."

Obviously, in Frank's eyes, Tommy should be carrying Jody out in a crate. Frank thought he was a wimp. "No big deal," Tommy said with a shrug, "they were hers. I don't really care."

"I could use a couple of turtles, if you want to save cab fare."

"Really?" Tommy hadn't relished the idea of loading the crates into a cab anyway. "You wouldn't eat them, would you? I mean, I don't care, but  - "

"No fucking way, man."

A blue cab pulled up and stopped. Tommy signaled to the driver, then turned back to Frank. "I've been feeding them hamburger."

"Cool," Frank said. "I'm on it."

"I have to go." Tommy opened the cab door and looked back at Frank. "Can I visit them?"

"Anytime," Frank said. "Later." He bent and picked up the crate containing Zelda.

Tommy got in the cab. "Marina Safeway," he said. He would be a couple of hours early for work, but he didn't want to stay at the loft and risk another tirade if Jody returned. He could kill the time reading or something.

As the cab pulled away he looked out the back window and watched Frank carrying the second crate inside. Tommy felt as if he had just abandoned his children.

Jody thought, I guess not everything changed when I changed. Without realizing how she got there, Jody found herself at Macy's in Union Square. It was as if some instinctual navigator, activated by conflict with men, had guided her there. A dozen times in the past she had found herself here, arriving with a purse full of tear-smeared Kleenex and a handful of credit cards tilted toward their limit. It was a common, and very human, response. She spotted other women doing the same thing: flipping through racks, testing fabrics, checking prices, fighting back tears and anger, and actually believing salespeople who told them that they looked stunning.

Jody wondered if department stores knew what percentage of their profits came from domestic unrest. As she passed a display of indecently expensive cosmetics, she spotted a sign that read: "Melange Youth Cream  -  Because he'll never understand why you're worth it." Yep, they knew. The righteous and the wronged shall find solace in a sale at Macy's.

It was two weeks until Christmas and the stores in Union Square were staying open late into the evening. Tinsel and lights were festooned across every aisle, and every item not marked for sale was decorated with fake evergreen, red and green ribbon, and various plastic approximations of snow. Droves of package-laden shoppers trudged through the aisles like the chorus line of the cheerful, sleigh-bell version of the Bataan Death March, ever careful to keep moving lest some ambitious window dresser mistake them for mannequins and spray them down with aerosol snow.

Jody watched the heat trails of the lights, breathed deep the aroma of fudge and candy and a thousand mingled colognes and deodorants, listened to the whir of the motors that animated electric elves and reindeer under the cloak of Muzak-mellowed Christmas carols  -  and she liked it.

Christmas is better as a vampire, she thought.

The crowds used to bother her, but now they seemed like... like cattle: harmless and unaware. To her predator side, even the women wearing fur, who used to grate on her nerves, seemed not only harmless, but even enlightened in this heightened sensual world.

I'd like to roll naked on mink, she thought. She frowned to herself. Not with Tommy, though. Not for a while, anyway.

She found herself scanning the crowds, looking for the dark aura that betrayed the dying-prey  -  then caught herself and shivered. She looked over their heads, like an elevator rider avoiding eye contact, and the gleam of black caught her eye.

It was a cocktail dress, minimally displayed on an emaciated Venus de Milo mannequin in a Santa hat. The LBD, Little Black Dress: the fashion equivalent of nuclear weapons; public lingerie; effective not because of what it was, but what it wasn't. You had to have the legs and the body to wear an LBD. Jody did. But you also had to have the confidence, and that she'd never been able to muster. Jody looked down at her jeans and sweatshirt, then at the dress, then at her tennis shoes. She pushed her way through the crowd to the dress.

A rotund, tastefully dressed saleswoman approached Jody from behind. "May I help you?"

Jody's gaze was trained on the dress as if it were the Star of Bethlehem and she was overstocked with frankincense and myrrh. "I need to see that dress in a three."

"Very good," the woman said. "I'll bring you a five and a seven as well."

Jody looked at the woman for the first time and saw the woman looking at her sweatshirt as if it would sprout tentacles and strangle her at any moment.

"A three will be fine," Jody said.

"A three might be a bit snug," the woman said.

"That's the idea," Jody said. She smiled politely, imagining herself snatching out handfuls of the woman's tastefully tinted hair.

"Now let's get the item number off of that," the woman said, making a show of holding the tag so that Jody could see the price. She sneaked a look for Jody's reaction.

"He's paying," Jody said, just to be irritating. "It's a gift."

"Oh, how nice," the woman said, trying to brighten, but obviously disgusted. Jody understood. Six months ago she would have hated the kind of woman she was pretending to be. The woman said, "This will be lovely for holiday parties."

"Actually, it's for a funeral." Jody couldn't remember having this much fun while shopping.

"Oh, I'm sorry." The woman looked apologetic and held her hands to her heart in sympathy.

"It's okay; I didn't know the deceased very well."

"I see," the woman said.

Jody lowered her eyes. "His wife," she said.

"I'll get the dress," the woman said, turning and hurrying away.

Tommy had only been in the Safeway once before when it was still open: the day he applied for the job. Now it seemed entirely too active and entirely too quiet without the Stones or Pearl Jam blasting over the speakers. He felt that his territory had been somehow violated by strangers. He resented the customers who ruined the Animals' work by taking things off the shelves.

As he passed the office he nodded to the manager and headed to the breakroom to kill time until it was time to go to work. The breakroom was a windowless room behind the meat department, furnished with molded plastic chairs, a Formica folding table, a coffee machine, and a variety of safety posters. Tommy brushed some crumbs off a chair, found a coffee-stained Reader's Digest under an opened package of stale bear claws, and sat down to read and sulk.

He read: "A Bear's Got Mom!: Drama in Real Life" and "I Am Joe's Duodenum"; and he was beginning to feel a pull toward the bathroom and the Midwest, both things he associated with Reader's Digest, when he flipped to an article entitled: "Bats: Our Wild and Wacky Winged Friends" and felt his duodenum quiver with interest.

Someone entered the breakroom, and without looking up, Tommy said, "Did you know that if the brown bat fed on humans instead of insects, that one bat could eat the entire population of Minneapolis in one night?"

"I didn't know that," said a woman's voice.

Tommy looked up from the magazine to see the new cashier, Mara, pulling a chair out from the table. She was tall and a little thin, but large-breasted: a blue-eyed blonde of about twenty. Tommy had been expecting one of the box boys and he stared at her for a second while he changed gears. "Oh, hi. I'm Tom Flood. I'm on the night crew."

"I've seen you," she said. "I'm Mara. I'm new."

Tommy smiled. "Nice to meet you. I came in a little early to catch up on some paperwork."

"Reader's Digest?" She raised an eyebrow.

"Oh, this? No, I don't normally read it. I just spotted this article on bats and decided to check it out. They're our wild and wacky winged friends, you know?" He looked at the page as if to confirm his interest. "For instance, did you know that the vampire bat is the only mammal that has been successfully frozen and thawed out alive?"

"I'm sorry, bats give me the creeps."

"Me too," Tommy said, throwing the magazine aside. "Do you read?"

"I've been reading the Beats. I just moved here and I want to get a feeling for the City's literature."

"You're kidding. I've only been here a few months myself. It's a great city."

"I haven't had a chance to look around much. Moving and everything. I left a bad situation back home and I've been trying to adjust."

She didn't look at him when she talked. Tommy assumed at first that it was because she found him disgusting, but after studying her he realized that she was just shy.

"Have you been to North Beach? The Beats all lived there in the fifties."

"No, I don't know my way around yet."

"Oh, you have to go to City Lights Books, and Enrico's. And the bars up there all have pictures of Kerouac and Ginsberg on the walls. You can almost hear the jazz playing."

Mara finally looked up at him and smiled. "You're interested in the Beats?" Her eyes were wide, bright, and crystal-blue. He liked her.

"I'm a writer," Tommy said. It was his turn to look away. "I mean, I want to be a writer. I used to live in Chinatown, it's right next to North Beach."

"Maybe you could give me directions to some of the hot spots."

"I could show you," Tommy said. As soon as he said it he wanted to retract the offer. Jody would kill him.

"That would be wonderful, if you wouldn't mind. I don't know anyone in the City except the other cashiers, and they all have home lives."

Tommy was confused. The manager had said that she had recently lost a child. He assumed that she was married. He didn't want it to appear that he was trying to make a move on her. He didn't really want to make a move on her. But if he were still single, unattached...

No, Jody wouldn't understand. Having never had a girlfriend before, he'd never been tempted to stray. He had no idea how to deal with it. He said, "I could show you and your husband around a little and the two of you could have a night on the town."

"I'm divorced," Mara said. "I wasn't married very long."

"I'm sorry," Tommy said.

Mara shook her head as if to dismiss his sympathy. "It's a short story. I got pregnant and we got married. The baby died and he left." She said it without feeling, as if she had distanced herself emotionally from the experience  -  as if it had happened to someone else. "I'm trying to make a new start." She checked her watch. "I'd better get back up front. I'll see you."

She stood and started to leave the room.

"Mara," Tommy called and she turned. "I'd love to show you around if you'd like."

"I'd like that. Thanks. I'm working days for the rest of the week."

"No problem," Tommy said. "How about tomorrow night? I don't have a car, but we can meet in North Beach at Enrico's if you want."

"Write down the address." She took a slip of paper and a pen from her purse and handed it to him. He scribbled the address and handed it back to her.

"What time?" she asked.

"Seven, I guess."

"Seven it is," she said, and left the breakroom.

Tommy thought: I'm a dead man.

Jody turned in front of the mirror, admiring the way the LED fit. It was cut down to the small of her back and had a neckline that plunged to the sternum, but was held together at her cleavage with a transparent black mesh. The saleswoman stood beside her, frowning, holding larger sizes of the same dress.

"Are you sure you don't want to try the five, dear?"

Jody said, "No, this one is fine. I'll need some sheer black nylons to go with it."

The saleswoman fought down a grimace and managed a professional smile. "And do you have shoes to match?"

"Suggestions?" Jody asked, not looking away from her reflection. She thought, I wouldn't have been caught dead in something like this a few months ago. Oh hell, I'm caught dead in everything now.

Jody laughed at the thought and the saleswoman took it personally and dropped her polite smile. An edge of disgust in her voice, she said, "I suppose you could complete the look with a pair of Italian fuck-me pumps and some maroon lipstick."

Jody turned to the dowdy woman and gave her a knowing smile. "You've done this before, haven't you?"

After a visit to the shoe department, Jody found herself at the cosmetics counter where an ebullient gay man talked her into "doing her colors" on the computer. He stared at the screen in disbelief.

"Oh my goodness. This is exciting."

"What?" Jody said impatiently. She just wanted to buy some lipstick and get out. She'd satisfied her shopping Jones by reducing the woman in evening wear to tears.

"You're my first winter," said Maurice. (His name was Maurice; it said so on his badge.) "You know, I've done a thousand autumns, and I get springs out the yin-yang, but a winter... We are going to have fun!"

Maurice began piling samples of eye shadow, lipstick, mascara, and powder on the counter next to the winter color palette. He opened a tube of mascara and held it next to Jody's face. "This one's called Elm Blight, it approximates the color of dead trees in the snow. It complements your eyes wonderfully. Go ahead, dear, try it."

While Jody brushed the mascara onto her lashes, using the magnifying mirror on the counter, Maurice read from the Winter Woman's profile.

"'The Winter Woman is as wild as a blizzard, as fresh as new snow. While some see her as cold, she has a fiery heart under that ice-queen exterior. She likes the stark simplicity of Japanese art and the daring complexity of Russian literature. She prefers sharp to flowing lines, brooding to pouting, and rock and roll to country and western. Her drink is vodka, her car is German, her analgesic is Advil. The Winter Woman likes her men weak and her coffee strong. She is prone to anemia, hysteria, and suicide. " Maurice stepped back from the counter and took a deep bow, as if he had just finished a dramatic reading.

Jody looked up from the mirror and blinked, the lashes on her right eye describing a starlike Clockwork Orange pattern against her pale skin. "They can tell all of that from my coloring?"

Maurice nodded and brandished a sable brush. "Here, dear, let's try some of this blush to bring up those cheekbones. It's called American Rust, it emulates the color of a 63 Rambler that has been driven on salted roads. Very winter."

Jody leaned on the counter to allow Maurice access to her cheeks.

A half hour later she looked in the mirror, rotated now to the non-magnified side, and pursed her lips. For the first time she really looked like a vampire.

"I wish we had a camera," Maurice gushed. "You are a winter masterpiece." He handed her a small bag filled with cosmetics. "That will be three hundred dollars."

Jody paid him. "Is there somewhere I can change? I'd like to see how I look with my new outfit."

Maurice pointed across the store. "There's a changing room over there. And don't forget your free gift, dear, the Needless Notions Lotion Collection, a fifty-dollar value." Maurice held up a plastic faux-Gucci gym bag full of bottles.

"Thanks." Jody took the bag and sulked off toward the changing room. Halfway across the store she picked up the sound of the dowdy saleswoman from evening wear and turned to see her talking to Maurice. Jody focused and could hear what they were saying over the crowd and Christmas Muzak.

"How did it go?" asked the woman.

Maurice grinned. "She went away looking like a Donner Party Barbie."

The woman and Maurice exchanged a gleeful high five.

Bitches, Jody thought.

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