Lies Have Lives of Their Own
It took just six weeks for Samson Hunts Alone, the Crow Indian, to become Samuel Hunter, the shape-shifter. The transformation began with the cowboy on the bus mistaking Samson for a Mexican. When Samson left the bus in Elko, Nevada, and caught a ride with a racist trucker, he became white for the first time. He expected, from listening to Pokey all those years, that upon turning white he would immediately have the urge to go out and find some Indians and take their land, but the urge didn’t come, so he sat by nodding as the trucker talked. By the time he got out at Sacramento, California, Samson had memorized the trucker’s litany of white supremacy and was just getting into the rhythm of racism when he caught a ride with a black trucker who took amphetamines and waxed poetic about oppression, injustice, and the violent overthrow of the U.S. government by either the Black Panthers, the Teamsters, or the Temptations. Samson wasn’t sure which.
Samson was booted out of the truck in Santa Barbara when he suggested that perhaps killing all the whites should be put off at least until they told where they had hidden all the money. Actually, Samson was somewhat relieved to be put out; he’d only been white for a few hours and wasn’t sure that he liked it well enough to die for it. His immediate concern was to get something to drink. He bought a Coke at a nearby convenience store and walked across the street to a park, where, under the boughs of a massive fig tree, amid a dozen sleeping bums, he sat down to consider his next move. Samson was just summoning up an obese case of hopelessness when a nearby bundle of rags spoke to him.
“Any booze in that cup?”
Samson had to stare at the oblong rag pile for a few seconds before he noticed there was a hairy face at one end. A single bloodshot eye, sparkling with hope, the only break in the gray dinge, gave the face away. “No, just Coke,” Samson said. Hope dimmed and the eye became as empty as the socket next to it.
“You got any money?” the bum asked.
Samson shook his head. He had only twelve dollars left; he didn’t want to share it with the rag pile.
“You’re new here?”
“You a wet?”
“Excuse me?” Samson said.
“Are you Mexican?”
Samson thought for a moment, then nodded.
“You’re lucky,” the bum said. “You can get work. A guy stops near here every morning with a truck – picks up guys to do yard work, but he only takes Mexicans. Says whites are too lazy.”
“Are they?” Samson asked. He figured that after persecuting blacks, hiding money, stealing land, breaking treaties, and keeping themselves pure, maybe the whites were just tired. He was glad he was Mexican.
“You speak pretty good English for a wet.”
“Where does the guy with the truck stop? Has he been by today?”
“I’m not lazy,” the bum said. “I earned a degree in philosophy.”
“I’ll give you a dollar,” Samson said.
“I’m having trouble finding work in my field.”
Samson dug a dollar out of his pocket and held it out to the bum, who snatched it and quickly secreted it among his rags. “He stops about a block from here, in front of the all-night diner.” The bum pointed down the street. “I haven’t seen him go by today, but I was sleeping.”
“Thanks.” Samson rose and started down the street.
The bum called after him, “Hey, kid, come back tonight. I’ll guard your back while you sleep if you buy a jug.”
Samson waved over his shoulder. He wouldn’t be back if he could avoid it. A block away he joined a group of men who were waiting at the corner when a large gate-sided truck pulled up, the back already half full of Mexicans.
The man who drove the truck got out and walked around to where the men were waiting. He was short and brown and wore a straw Stetson, cowboy boots, and thick black mustache over the sly grin of a chicken thief. The men who worked for him called him patron, but ironically, the common term for his profession was Coyote.
He scanned the group of men and made his choices with a nod and the crook of his finger. The men chosen, all Hispanic, jumped onto the back of the truck. The Coyote approached Samson and grabbed him by the upper arm, testing the muscle. He said something in Spanish. Samson panicked and answered him in Crow: “I’m on the lam, looking for a one-armed man that killed my wife.” To Samson’s surprise, this seemed to satisfy the Coyote.
The Coyote had been smuggling illegal aliens into the country for five years, and from time to time he encountered an Indian from the South, Guatemala or Honduras, who could not speak Spanish. Not being able to tell one Indian language from another, he assumed that Samson was one of these. All the better, he thought, it will take longer for him to find out.
After the Coyote brought his men over the border, he gave them a place to live (two apartments in which they slept ten to a room), food (beans, tortillas, and rice), and three dollars an hour (for backbreaking work that most gringos would never consider doing). He charged his customers eight dollars per man-hour and pocketed the difference. At the end of each week he paid his men in cash, after deducting a healthy amount for food and lodging, then drove them all to the post office, where he helped them buy money orders to send home to their families, leaving them nothing for themselves. In this way the Coyote could keep a crew under his thumb for three or four months before they found out that they could make more money working at menial jobs in restaurants or hotels. Then he would have to go back to Mexico for another load. Lately, however, he had been augmenting his crew with Mexicans who had found their own way over the border, and this allowed him to stretch his time between border runs.
The work was the hardest Samson had ever done, and at the end of the first day, back knotted and hands bloodied from swinging a pickax, he slept in the back of the truck until the patron slapped him awake and led him into the apartment to show him his cot. Sleeping in a room with nine other people was nothing new to Samson, and the food, although spicy, was plentiful and good. He fell asleep listening to the sad Spanish love songs of his co-workers and feeling very much alone.
As the weeks passed he would hear the other men in the room whispering in the dark and this made him feel, even more, that he was the only person in a world of one. He had no way of knowing that they were talking about him, about how they never saw him send any money home, and about how they could take his money and no one would know because he was a dumb Indian and couldn’t speak Spanish. Samson listened and imagined that they were talking about their homes and missing their families. He knew nothing of the Latin quality of machismo, which tacitly forbade the admission of a man’s melancholy except in song.
The plan was to wait until the boy was taking a shower, then go through his pants and take the money. If he protested, they would cut his throat and bury him on the large estate where they were terracing hills into formal gardens. Whether they would have really killed the boy was doubtful; they were good men at heart and had only turned their minds to murder because it made them feel worldly and tough. When the boy was gone their nocturnal whispers turned back to boasts of the women they would have, the cars they would buy, and the land they would own when they returned to Mexico.
Samson was saved on a hot afternoon when the owner of the estate approached the Coyote while the crew was taking a break, eating cold burritos in the shade of a eucalyptus tree.
“Immigration took one of the busboys in my restaurant,” the rich man said. “Do any of your guys speak English? I’ll pay you to let him go.”
The Coyote was shaking his head when Samson spoke up: “I speak English.” The Coyote’s chicken-stealing grin dropped like a rock. He had thought that he would be able to hold on to the Indian boy for a long time, and here he had gone and learned English in his spare time. The boy was worthless now. Better to cut the loss and see what he could get.
To quell their curiosity and dampen their ambition, the Coyote told the rest of the crew that the rich American had bought the boy for sexual purposes, and they all grinned knowingly as they watched Samson ride away in the long white Lincoln.
Samson found that it was easier to be Mexican while working in the restaurant. The work, although fast paced, was not heavy, and he was given a cot in the storeroom to sleep on until he found a place of his own. The owner was content with speaking a pidgin English peppered with Spanish words and Samson answered him by speaking a modified version of Tonto-speak. By this time Samson had also picked up a few essential Spanish phrases (“Where are the spoons?” “We need more plates.” “Your sister fucks donkeys in Tijuana”) which helped him make friends with the Mexican dishwashers and cooks.
From the moment he had arrived in Santa Barbara, a grinding homesickness began to settle in Samson’s heart. When he lay in the dark storeroom at night, waiting to fall asleep, it would rise up and wash over him like a black tide, carrying with it a slithering blind predator that gnashed at the last shreds of his hope. “Forget what you know,” Pokey had told him. With this in mind he set to do battle with his rising hopelessness. He refused to think of his family, his home, or his heritage. Instead he concentrated on the conversations he overheard in the restaurant as he cleared tables and poured coffee. Because he was Mexican, and a menial laborer, he was invisible to the affluent Santa Barbara customers, who spoke openly about the most intimate details of their lives, oblivious to the Spanish fly on the wall….
“You know, Ashley has been having an affair with her plastic surgeon for six months and…”
“If I can get my legal ducks in a row, I should be able to push the convention center through the city council and…”
“I want the bathroom Southwestern, but Bob likes Art Nouveau, so I called our attorney and I said…”
“I know the offshore drilling is ruining the coast, but my Exxon shares have split twice in two years, so I said to my analyst…”
“Susan and the kids went to Tahoe, so I thought it was the perfect chance to show Marie the house. The bitch spilled a whole bottle of massage oil in the hot tub and…”
“I don’t give a damn whether they needed it or not. If you do your job right you can sell air conditioners to Eskimos; need has nothing to do with it. Remember the three m’s: mesmerize, motivate, and manipulate. You’re not selling a need, you’re selling…”
“Dreams,” Samson said, coming out of his shell to finish the sentence of a young insurance sales manager who had taken his agents to lunch so he could chew their ass. Samson surprised even himself by speaking up, but the man at the table seemed to be giving the same speech that he had heard from the powder-blue dream salesman. He couldn’t resist.
“Come here, kid,” the man said. He was wearing a wash-and-wear suit, as were the other five men at the table. A half-dozen acrid aftershaves clashed among them. “What’s your name?”
Samson looked around the table at the men’s faces. They were all white. He decided at that moment to use a new name, not the Mexican name he had taken, Jose Cuervo. “Sam,” Samson said. “Sam Hunter.”
“Well, Sam” – he extended his hand – “my name is Aaron Aaron. And I’ll bet with some training you could outsell every man at this table.” He put his arm around Samson’s shoulders and spoke to the rest of the group. “What do you say, guys? I’ll bet you each a hundred bucks that I can take a busboy with the right attitude and turn him into a better salesman than any of you hotshots inside of a month.”
“That’s bullshit, Aaron, the kid’s not even old enough to get a license.”
“He can work on my license. I’ll sign his applications. C’mon, hotshots, do I have a bet?”
The men fidgeted in their seats, laughing nervously and trying to avoid Aaron’s gaze, knowing from Aaron’s training that the first one to speak would lose. Finally one of them broke. “All right, a hundred bucks, but the kid has to do his own selling.”
Aaron looked at Samson. “So, kid, are you ready to start a new job?”
Samson tried to imagine himself wearing a suit and smelling of after-shave, and the idea appealed to him. “I don’t have a place to stay,” he said. “I’ve been saving so I can get an apartment.”
“I’ve got it covered,” Aaron said. “Welcome aboard.”
“I guess I could give my notice.”
“Fuck giving notice. You only give notice if you’re planning to come back. You’re not planning on moving backwards, are you, Sam?”
“I guess not,” Samson said.
At twenty-five, Aaron Aaron had already accumulated fifteen years of experience in the art of deception. From the time he skimped on the sugar at his first lemonade stand to the time he doubled the profits on his paper route by canceling his customers’ subscriptions, then stealing the papers out of a vending machine to continue the deliveries, Aaron showed a near-genius ability for working in the gray areas between business and crime. And by balancing dark desires with white lies he was able to sidestep the plague of Catholic conscience that kept him from pursuing an honest career as a pirate, which would have been his first choice. Aaron Aaron was a salesman.
At first, Aaron’s only interest in Samson was to use the boy as an instrument of embarrassment to the other salesmen, but once he dressed the boy in a suit and had him trailing along on sales calls like a dutiful native gun bearer, Aaron found that he actually enjoyed the boy’s company. The boy’s curiosity seemed boundless, and answering his questions as they drove between calls allowed Aaron to bask in the sound of his own voice while extolling the brilliance of his last successful presentation. And too, the rejection of a slammed door or a pointed ;no; seemed softened in the sharing. Teaching the boy made him feel good, and with this improvement in attitude he worked more, sold more, and allowed the boy to share in the prosperity, buying him clothes and food, finding him an apartment, and cosigning for a loan on a used Volvo.
For Samson, working under the tutelage of Aaron was perfect. Aaron’s assumption that no one beside himself had the foggiest idea of how the universe worked allowed Samson the opportunity to hear lectures on even the most minuscule details of society, information he used to build himself into the image that Aaron wanted to see. Samson delighted in Aaron’s self-obsession, for while the older man waxed eloquent on the virtues of being Aaron, it never occurred to him to ask Samson about his past, and the boy was able to surround himself in a chrysalis of questions and cheap suits until he was ready to emerge as a full-grown salesman.
As the years passed and his memories of home were stowed and forgotten, learning to sell became Samson’s paramount interest. And Aaron, fascinated with seeing his own image mirrored and his own words repeated, failed to notice that Samson had become a better salesman than himself until other companies began approaching the boy with offers. Only then did Aaron realize that most of his income was coming from the override commission on Sam’s sales, and that for five years Sam had trained all the new salesmen. To avoid losing his golden goose, Aaron offered Sam a fifty-fifty partnership in the agency, and with this added security, the business became Sam’s shelter.
Now, after twenty years with the business as his only security, Sam was going to Aaron to sell his shares. As he entered Aaron’s office he felt a deep soul-sickness that he had not felt since he had left the reservation.
“Aaron, I’ll take forty cents on the dollar for my shares. And I keep my office.”
Aaron turned slowly in the big executive chair and faced Sam. “You know I couldn’t come up with that kind of cash, Sam. It’s a good move, though. I’d have to keep paying you out of override, and with interest you wouldn’t even take a cut in pay. I don’t think you’re in a position to negotiate, though. In fact, after the call I got this morning, I think twenty cents on the dollar would be more than fair.”
Sam resisted the urge to dive over the desk and slap his partner’s bare scalp until it bled. He had to take his fallback position sooner than he wanted to. “You’re thinking that because Spagnola can put me with the Indian I have to sell, right?”
“But just imagine that I ride this through, Aaron. Imagine that I don’t sign off, that the insurance commission suspends my license, that criminal charges are filed and my name is in the paper every day. Guess whose name is going to be right next to mine? And what happens if I maintain my association with the agency and the insurance commission starts looking into your files? How many signatures have you traced over the years, Aaron? How many people thought they were buying one policy, only to find out that their signature showed up on a different one – one that paid you a higher commission?”
A sheen of sweat was appearing on Aaron’s forehead. “You’ve done that as often as I have. You’d be hanging yourself.”
“That’s the point, Aaron. When I walked in here you were convinced that I was hung anyway. I’m just making room for you on the gallows.”
“You ungrateful prick. I took you in when you-“
“I know, Aaron. That’s why I’m giving you a chance to stay clean. Actually, you’ve got more to lose than I do. Once your files are open, then your income is going to become public knowledge.”
“Oh!” Aaron stood and paced around to the front of the desk.
“Oh!” He waved a finger under Sam’s nose, then turned and walked to the water cooler.
“Oh!” He kicked the cooler, then returned to his chair, sat down, then stood up again.
“Oh!” he said. It was as if the single syllable had stuck in his mouth. He looked as if he were going to launch into a tirade; blood rose in his face and veins bulged on his forehead.
“Oh!” he said. He fell back in the chair and stared at the ceiling as if his brain had pushed the hold button on reality.
“That’s right, Aaron,” Sam said after a moment. “The IRS.” With that Sam moved to the office door. “Take your time, Aaron. Think about it. Talk it over with your buddy Spagnola; he can probably give you the current exchange rate of cigarettes for sodomy in prison.”
Aaron slowly broke his stare on the ceiling and turned to watch Sam walk out.
In the outer office Julia looked up from applying lacquer to her nails to see Sam grinning, his hand still on the doorknob.
“What’s with all the ‘ohs, Sam?” Julia asked. “It sounded like you guys were having sex or something.”
“Something like that,” Sam said, his grin widening. “Hey, watch this.” He opened the door quickly and stuck his head back in Aaron’s office. “Hey, Aaron! IRS!” he said. Then he pulled the door shut, muffling Aaron’s scream of pain.
“What was that?” Julia asked.
“That,” Sam said, “was my teacher giving me the grade on my final exam.”
“I don’t get it.”
“You will, honey. I don’t have time to explain right now. I’ve got a date.”
Sam left the office walking light and smiling, feeling strangely as if the pieces of his life, rather than fitting back together, were jingling in his pocket like sleigh bells warning Christmas.
Like God’s Own Chocolate I’d Lick Her Shadow Off A Hot Sidewalk
In spite of the fact that he was losing his home and his business, and was precariously close to having his greatest secret discovered by the police because of an Indian god, Sam was not the least bit worried. Not with the prospect of an evening with Calliope to occupy his thoughts. No, for once Sam Hunter was voting the eager ticket over the anxious, taking anticipation over dread.
Calliope lived upstairs in a cheese-mold-green cinder-block duplex that stood in a row of a dozen identical structures where the last of Santa Barbara’s working middle class were making their descent into poverty. Calliope’s Datsun was parked in the driveway next to a rusy VW station wagon and an ominous-looking Harley-Davidson chopper with a naked blond woman airbrushed on the gas tank. Sam paused by the Harley before mounting the stairs. The airbrushed woman looked familiar, but before he could get a closer look Calliope appeared on the deck above him.
“Hi,” she said. She was barefoot, wearing a white muslin dress loosely laced in the front. A wreath of gardenia was woven into her hair. “You’re just in time, we need your help. Come on up.”
Sam took the stairs two at a time and stopped on the landing, where Calliope was wrestling with the latch on a rickety screen-door frame that was devoid of screening but had redwood lattice nailed across its lower half, presumably to keep out the really large insects. “I’m having trouble with the dinner,” she said. “I hope you can fix it.”
The screen door finally let loose with the jattering noise one associates with the impact of Elmer Fudd’s face on a rake handle. Calliope led Sam into a kitchen done in the Fabulous Fifties motif of mint enamel over pink linoleum. A haze of foul-smelling smoke hung about the ceiling, and through it Sam could make out the figure of a half-naked man sitting in the lotus position on the counter, drinking from a quart bottle of beer.
“That’s Yiffer,” Calliope said over her shoulder as she headed to the stove. “He’s with Nina.”
Yiffer vaulted off the counter, on one arm, fully eight feet across the kitchen to land lightly on his feet in front of Sam, where he engaged a complex handshake that left Sam feeling as if his fingers had been braided together. “Dude,” Yiffer said, shaking out his wild tangle of straw-colored hair as if the word had been stuck there.
Feeling like a chameleon that has been dropped into a coffee can and is risking hemorrhage by trying to turn silver, Sam searched for the appropriate greeting and ended up echoing, “Dude.”
In jeans, a sport shirt, and boating moccasins with no socks, Sam felt grossly overdressed next to Yiffer, who wore only a pair of orange surf shorts and layer upon layer of tan muscle.
“Calliope biffed the grub, dude,” Yiffer said.
Sam joined Calliope at the stove, where she was frantically biffing the grub. “I can’t get the spaghetti to cook,” she said, plunging a wooden spoon into a large saucepan from which the smoke was emanating. “The instructions said to boil for eight minutes, but as soon as it starts to boil the smoke comes out.”
Sam waved the smoke from the pan. “Aren’t you supposed to cook the noodles separately?”
“Not in the sauce?”
Sam shook his head.
“Whoops,” Calliope said. “I’m not a very good cook. Sorry.”
“Well, maybe we can salvage something.” Sam removed the pan from the heat and peered in at the bubbling black magma. “Then again, maybe starting over would be a good idea.”
He put the pan in the sink, where a trail of ants was invading a used bowl of cereal. Sam turned on the water and started to swivel the faucet to wash the intruders away when Calliope grabbed his hand.
“No,” she said. “They’re okay.”
“They’ll get into your food,” Sam said.
“I know. They’ve always been here. I call them my kitchen pals.”
“Kitchen pals?” Sam tried to adjust his thinking. She was right – you couldn’t just wash your kitchen pals down the drain like they were ants. He felt like he’d been saved from committing genocide. “So, I guess we should start some more spaghetti?”
“She only bought one box, dude,” Yiffer said.
“I guess we can eat salad and bread,” Calliope said. “Excuse me.” She kissed Sam on the cheek and walked out of the kitchen while he stared at the ghost of her bottom through the thin dress.
“So, what do you do?” Yiffer asked with a toss of his head.
“I’m an insurance broker. And you?”
“And what?” Yiffer said.
Sam thought he could hear the sound of the ocean whistling through Yiffer’s ears as if through a seashell. “Never mind,” he said. He was distracted by the sound of a baby screaming in the next room.
“That’s Grubb,” Yiffer said. “Sounds like he’s pissed off.”
Unable to see the second b, Sam was confused. “I thought grub was biffed?”
“No, Grubb is Calliope’s rug-rat. Go on in and meet him. Nina’s in there with J. Nigel Yiffworth, Esquire.” Yiffer beamed with pride. “He’s mine.”
“My son,” Yiffer said indignantly.
“Oh,” Sam said. He resisted the urge to sit down on the floor and wait for his confusion to clear. Instead he walked into the living room, where he found Calliope sitting on an ancient sofa next to an attractive brunette who was breastfeeding an infant. The sofa was lumpy enough to have had a body sewed into it; stuffing spilled out of the arms where the victim had tried to escape. On the floor nearby, a somewhat older child was slung inside of a blue plastic donut on wheels, which he was gaily ramming into everything in the room. Sam gasped as the child ran a wheel up over his bare ankle on a kamikaze rush to destroy the coffee table.
Calliope said, “Sam, this is Nina.” Nina looked up and smiled. “And J. Nigel Yiffworth, Esquire.” Nina pulled the baby from her breast long enough to puppet-master a nod of greeting from it, which Sam missed for some reason. “And that,” Calliope continued, pointing to the drunk driver in the blue donut, “that’s Grubb.”
“Your son?” Sam asked.
She nodded. “He’s just learning to walk.”
“I named him after Jane Goodall’s son. She let him grow up with baboons – very natural. I was going to name him Buddha, but I was afraid that when he got older if someone met him on the road they might kill him.”
“Right. Good thinking,” Sam said, pretending that he had the slightest idea of what she was talking about and that he wasn’t wondering in the least who or where Grubb’s father was.
“Nina moved in when we were both pregnant,” Calliope said. “We were each other’s Lamaze coaches. I was farther along, though.”
“What about Yiffer?”
“Scum,” Nina said.
“He seems like a nice guy,” Sam said, and Nina shot him an acid look. “As scum goes,” he quickly added.
“He only lives here sometimes,” Calliope said. “Mostly when he doesn’t have gas money for his van.”
Nina said, “We’re having a yard sale day after tomorrow to raise some money to get him out of here. You might want to look at the stuff down in storage before the sale, pick up a bargain before it gets picked over.”
Yiffer entered the living room munching on a loaf of French bread. He stood next to Sam and thrust the bread under Sam’s chin. “Bite?”
“No, thanks,” Sam said.
“Yiffer!” Calliope said. “That bread was for all of us.”
“Truth,” Yiffer said. He held the loaf out to Calliope. “Bite?”
“You ruined their dinner,” Nina said, letting J. Nigel’s head drop and wobble.
Yiffer grinned around a mouthful of bread and gestured toward Nina’s exposed breast with his beer hand. “Looking good, babe.”
Nina reattached J. Nigel and said to Sam, “I’m sorry, he’s only like this when he’s awake.” To Yiffer she said, “Take some money out of my purse and go down to the corner and get a pizza.”
Sam reached for his wallet. “Let me.”
“No,” Calliope and Nina said in unison.
“Cool!” Yiffer exclaimed, sandblasting Sam with a spray of bread crumbs.
“Go!” Nina commanded, and Yiffer turned and bounded out of the room. In a moment Sam heard the screen door open and footfalls on the steps.
“Sit down,” Calliope said. “Relax.”
Sam took a seat on the couch next to the two women and for the next forty minutes they exchanged pleasantries between the screaming demands of the babies until Nina handed a damp J. Nigel to Sam and left the room. Like most bachelors, Sam held a baby as if it were radioactive.
“That fucking asshole!” Nina shrieked from the other room, frightening Grubb, who screamed like an air-raid siren. J. Nigel was following suit when Nina returned to the living room, her purse in hand. “He took my rent money. The asshole took all my rent money. Can you guys watch J. Nigel for a minute? I’ve got to go find him and kill him.”
“Sure,” Calliope said. Sam nodded, adjusting J. Nigel for long-term holding.
Nina left. Calliope turned to Sam and over the din of screaming infants said, “Alone at last.”
“I think J. Nigel needs changing,” Sam said.
“So does Grubb. Let’s take them into Nina’s room.”
Sam had slipped into the personality he referred to as “tough and adaptable,” one he reserved for the more chaotic and bizarre situations he had encountered in his career. “I can do this,” he said with a grin.
He hadn’t changed a baby since the days on the reservation when he used to help with his cousins, but when he opened J. Nigel’s diaper the memory came back on him like a fetid whirlwind, and he had to fight to keep from gagging. The adhesive strips on disposable diapers were a completely new adventure and he found after a few minutes that he had diapered his left hand perfectly while a squirming J. Nigel remained naked to the world. After changing Grubb and returning him to his plastic donut, Calliope liberated Sam from the diaper and started on J. Nigel, who giggled and peed like an excited puppy at her touch. Sam sympathized.
“Don’t feel bad,” she said. “The last time we let Yiffer baby-sit he duct-taped J. Nigel’s diaper on and we had to use nail-polish remover to get the adhesive off.”
“I haven’t had much practice,” Sam said.
“You don’t have any kids?”
“No, I’ve never met anyone I wanted to have kids with.” Sam wanted to smack himself for saying it. Remember, tough and adaptable.
“Me either,” Calliope said. “But Grubb is the best thing that ever happened to me. I used to drink and do a lot of drugs, but as soon as I found out I was pregnant I stopped.”
Sam looked for an opening to ask about Grubb’s father, but none came and the silence was becoming awkward. “That’s great,” he said. “I had my own battle with the bottle.” Actually it hadn’t been much of a battle. Aaron had insisted that social drinking was part of the job, but each time Sam had gotten drunk he was haunted by the stereotype of the drunken Indian that he thought he had left behind. It had been ten years since he’d had a drink.
“I’m going to put these guys down,” Calliope said. “Why don’t you go in the living room and put some music on.”
In the living room Sam found a briefcase full of loose cassette tapes. Most of the tapes were New Age releases with enigmatic titles like Tree Frog Whale Song Selections by artists with names like Yanni Volvofinder. With further digging he found one called The Language of Love by a female jazz singer he liked, but when he opened the box he found that the tape had been replaced with one called Catbox Nightmare by a band called Satan’s Smegma, obviously a Yifferesque selection. Finally he found The Language of Love languishing boxless in the bottom of the case and popped it into a portable stereo on a bricks-and-boards bookshelf.
Calliope returned to the living room just as the first song was rising in the speakers. “Oh, I love this tape,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to make love to this tape. I’ll be right back.” She left the room again and returned in a moment with an armload of pillows and blankets, which she dropped in the middle of the floor. “Grubb sleeps in my room and he won’t be asleep for a while.” She began to spread the blankets out over the floor.
Sam stood by, trying to fight the objections that were rising in his mind about the speed at which things were progressing. She just assumed that he would say yes; it made him feel like – well – a slut. Then again, if this beautiful girl wanted to make love with him, who was he to object? Okay, so he was a slut; he was a tough and adaptable slut. Still, there was one thing that bothered him. “What if Yiffer and Nina come home with the pizza?”
“Oh, I don’t think they’ll be home that soon. This first time will be pretty fast.”
“Hey.” Sam thought he might have just been insulted, but on second thought he realized that the girl had just voiced something that he had really been worrying about, without even admitting it to himself. On second thought, she had relieved the pressure on him to perform.
Calliope finished fluffing the pillows, then unlaced her dress and let it drop to the floor. She stepped out of it and went to the stereo, where she turned up the volume, then she crawled naked under the top blanket and pulled it up to her neck. “Okay,” she said.
Sam sat on the couch, stunned. She was stunning. But where was the seduction, the deception, the sweet lies and tender posturing? Where was the hunt, the cat-and-mouse game? Sam just stared at her and thought, This is entirely too honest.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“Yes, it’s just kind of…”
“You want me and I want you. Right?”
Who did she think she was? You can’t just go around blurting out the truth like a prophet with Tourette’s syndrome. He said, “Well, I guess. Yeah, that’s right.”
“Well?” She threw the covers back to make room for him.
Sam leapt off the couch and fought his way out of his clothes. He was under the covers, taking her into his arms, before his shirt settled to the floor. At the touch of her skin, her warmth, he felt every muscle in his body tense, then melt against her. He kissed her for a long time with none of the fumbling or awkwardness that he expected. He entered her and they began to move together in slow rhythm to the music. Calliope let out a long, low moan and dug her fingers into the muscles of his back. He joined her in the moan and pushed deeper, losing suddenly any thoughts or images or reservations, damn near losing consciousness to the warm, dark rhythm. A door slammed, violently shaking the windows of the apartment.
Sam pushed up on his arms. “What was that?”
“Nothing,” she said, pulling him down.
Another door slammed, louder than the first. Sam pushed up again. “They’re home.”
“No, that’s downstairs. Please.” She wrapped her legs around his back and pulled him tight.
Distracted, Sam began to move again and Calliope moaned. A door slammed, glass shattered, and J. Nigel began crying in the front bedroom.
“What in the hell was that?”
“Nothing. Not now. Make love to me, Sam.”
The house shook with the impact of a slamming door, then another, and Grubb began to cry as well. Sam winced, and came completely without pleasure. “Sorry,” he said as he rolled over onto his back. Calliope stared at the ceiling for a moment as if she was bracing for the next impact. When it came she leapt to her feet and stormed naked out onto the balcony.
She bent over the railing and shouted, “Why are you doing this?”
Sam turned down the stereo and listened. Another door slammed, shaking the house, then a pathetic male voice came from below. “You’ve got someone up there. You slut.”
“Don’t talk to me that way. I don’t act this way when you have someone down there.”
Sam wanted to join her on the balcony, come to her defense (“Hey, buddy, she’s not the slut here!”), but he couldn’t seem to locate his pants.
“You whore!” the male voice said. “I’m taking my son.”
“No, you’re not!”
“You’ll see,” the voice said. Another door slam. Sam flinched. He was getting a little shell-shocked trying to put the pieces of this mystery together between slams.
“Jerk!” Calliope screamed. She stormed inside, slammed the door, and breezed by Sam on her way to tend to Grubb and J. Nigel. Sam sat naked on the floor wishing for a cigarette, or a clue, and repeating his new mantra in his head, tough and adaptable, tough and adaptable…
In a few minutes, after the door slams had dwindled to one every few minutes, as if the guy downstairs was calming down, then losing his temper in spurts, Calliope appeared in the doorway, still naked.
“We need to talk,” she said.
Sam was dressed now, desperately yearning for a cigarette, but he’d left them in the car and he wasn’t about to pass the maniac downstairs without more information. “That would be good,” he said.
Calliope picked up her dress and slipped it on, then sat down on the couch. “You’re probably wondering who that is downstairs.”
For the first time she seemed really uncomfortable, and Sam felt for her. “It’s okay. I’ve had some trouble with my neighbors recently. It happens.”
She smiled. “I used to be with him. He’s Grubb’s father.”
“I gathered that.”
“I was doing a lot of drugs then. He was exciting: riding his Harley, tattoos, guns.”
“I left him when I found out I was pregnant. He didn’t want me to have the baby and he didn’t want me to quit getting high.”
“But why move upstairs?”
“I didn’t. He moved in downstairs. You’re the first man that I’ve had over since the split. I didn’t know he’d act this way.”
“Why don’t you move?”
“You know how Santa Barbara is. I couldn’t even pay rent here if it weren’t for Nina, let alone come up with first, last, and a cleaning deposit.”
Sam could see that she was still embarrassed. “You could ask the landlord to remove his doors. It would be quieter.”
“I’m sorry. I really wanted it to be nice.”
“Maybe I should go.” Despite the weirdness, he didn’t want to leave.
“I wish you would stay. When Grubb goes to sleep we can go in my room. If we’re quiet…”
“I’ll stay,” Sam said. “He won’t come up here and shoot us, will he?”
“No, I don’t think so. He keeps talking about getting custody of Grubb. Killing us would look bad with the judge.”
“Right,” Sam said. So what if she had been involved with a psycho. At least it was a psycho who thought ahead.
Calliope led Sam down a hallway to her room at the back of the apartment. “I’ll get us some salad,” she said, leaving Sam to sit on the twin bed next to the crib where Grubb was drowsily gnawing a pacifier. The room looked like it had been decorated by a Buddhist monk from “Sesame Street.” On top of the dresser sat effigies of Buddha, Shiva, Bert, Ernie, and Cookie Monster, as well as an incense burner, a small gong, and a box of Pampers. A stuffed Mickey Mouse on the dressing chair wore a necklace of quartz crystal and a rawhide ring that Sam recognized as a Navaho dream catcher. The walls were hung with pictures of the Dalai Lama, Kali the Destroyer, and the Smurfs.
Looking around, Sam felt tempted to construct an excuse and bolt. Now that he’d had a moment to think about it, his tough and adaptable veneer was feeling pretty thin. If he could just get back to normal for a while he’d be okay. Then it hit him: there was no normal to return to. The controlled status quo that had been his life was no longer there; it had been shattered by Coyote, and Coyote was out there somewhere. Calliope, and all the chaos around her, had made him forget. Even with Smurfs, psychos, and kitchen pals, the forgetting was worth staying for.