The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove Chapter 11~12
Catfish awoke to find a paint-spattered woman padding about the house in nothing but a pair of wool socks, in which she had stuck several sable brushes that delivered ochre, olive, and titanium white strokes to her calves whenever she moved. Canvases were propped on easels, chairs, counters, and windowsills – seascapes every one. Estelle moved from canvas to canvas, palette in hand, furiously painting details in the waves and beaches.
“Y’all woke up inspired,” Catfish said.
It was past dusk, they had slept away the daylight. Estelle painted by the light of fifty candles and the orange glow that washed from the open doors of the wood stove. Color correctness be damned, these paintings should be viewed by fire.
Estelle stopped painting and raised her brush arm to cover her breasts. “They weren’t finished. I knew something was missing when I painted them, but I didn’t know what until now.”
Catfish cinched his pants around his waist and walked shirtless among the paintings. The waves writhed with tail and scale and teeth and talon. Predator eyes shone out of the canvases, brighter, it seemed, than the candles that lit them.
“You done painted that old girl in all of ’em?”
“It’s not a girl. It’s male.”
“How you know that?”
“I know.” Estelle turned and went back to her painting. “I feel it.”
“How you know it look like that?”
“It does, doesn’t it? It looks like this?”
Catfish scratched the stubble on his chin and pondered the paintings.
“Close. But it ain’t a boy. That ol’ monster the same one come after me an
Smiley for catchin its little one.” Estelle stopped painting and turned to him. “You have to play tonight?”
“In a little while.”
“Coffee?” He stepped up to her, took the brush and palette from her, and kissed her on the forehead. “That sho’ would be sweet.” She padded to the bedroom and came back wearing a tattered kimono.
“Tell me, Catfish. What happened?” He was sitting at the table. “I think we done broke a record. I’m sore.” Estelle smiled in spite of herself, but pressed on. “What happened back then, in the bayou? Did you call that thing up out of the water somehow?”
“What you thinkin, woman? I can do that, you think I be playin clubs for drinks and part the door?”
“Tell me how you felt back then, when that thing came out of the swamp.”
“Scared.” “Besides that.”
“Wasn’t nothing besides that. You heard it. Scared is all there is.”
“You weren’t scared after we got back here last night.”
“Neither was I. What did you feel back then? Before and after the thing came after you.”
“Not like I’m feelin now.”
“And how is that?”
“I’m feelin real good to be here talkin to you.”
“No kidding. Me too. How about back then?”
“Stop doggin me, girl. I’ll tell you. But I gots to go play in an hour and I don’t know that I can.”
“The Blues ain’t on me. You done chased ’em off.”
“I can throw you out in the cold without a shirt if you think it will help.”
Catfish squirmed in his chair. “Maybe some coffee.”
After we gets some distance from whatever chasin us, we stop the Model T Ford and me and Smiley put that big ol’ catfish thing in the backseat – his tail hangin out one side an’ his head out’t’other. Now this ain’t at all what I expected, and Smiley ain’t got the Blues on him, but I’m gettin me a grand case myself. Then I realizes we got us five hundred dollar coming, and them ol’ Blues done melt right away.
I say, “Smiley, I believes we should have us some celebratin, startin with some liquor and endin up with some fine Delta pussy. What you say?”
Ol’ Smiley, like usual, don’t wanna piss on the parade, but bein who he is, he point out we aint got no money and Ida May don’t approve of no pussy more’en a hundred yard from the house. But he feelin it too, I can tell, and before long we headed down a back road to find a bootlegger I know down there name of Elmore that sells to colored folk.
That ol’ white boy ain’t got but two teeth, but he grindin ’em when we pulls up, all mad and wavin his shotgun like we come to bust up his still. I say, “Hey, Elmore, how your lovely wife and sister?”
He say she fine, but lessin we shows some money quick, he gonna shoot him some niggers and get back to her before she cool off.
“We a little short,” I say. “But we have us five hundred dollar come morning iffin you kind enough to give us a jug on credit.” An’ then I shows him the catfish.
That boy liked to shit his pants, and I was hopin he would, just to cover the smell comin off him natural, but instead he say, “I ain’t waitin ’til mornin’. You want a jug, you give me a hunk o’ that catfish right now. A big hunk.”
Smiley and I thinks it over, and before long we got us a half-gallon of corn mash and ol’ Elmore got hisself enough catfish to feed his wives and children and them-thats both for a week or more.
Up the road a spell and this old whore name of Okra givin us the same speech about money, plus she sayin we need to take us a bath before she let us anywhere near her girls. And I comes back with the five-hundred-dollar story. She say five hundred dollar tomorrow and we can come in tomorrow, but if we want some pussy tonight, she want a hunk of that old catfish in the back. Them hos can eat some catfish too, I’m tellin you. I thought Smiley finally gettin the Blues on him when I hears him sayin how he give up a hundred dollar worth of catfish just for a bath. But that his choice. He wait in the car ’til I’m done and we head off to find a place to sleep ’til morning when we can cash in the fish.
We pulls down a side road into some bushes, and we commencin to get us some sleep after a drink or two, when who come out the woods but a whole bunch of boys wearin them white sheets and pointy hoods, sayin, “Nigger, I guess you didn’t read the sign.”
And they tie us up to that ol’ catfish and make us drag it back in the woods to a big ol’ fire they got goin.
That sho’ a chill, I gots to tell you. To this day I can’t walk by sheets hangin on a line without my backbone freeze up. I knows we sho’ gonna die now, sayin my prayers and all best I can, while them boys kickin me in the mouth an’ such while eatin catfish pieces what they roasted on sticks.
Then I feels it and the kickin stops. I see ol’ Smiley lyin in the dirt, coverin his head with his arms, one ol’ bloody eye lookin’ over at me. He feel it too.
Them Klansmen staring into the woods like they long-lost momma gonna come out, big ol’ grins on they faces, half of ’em rubbin they dicks through they pants. And she come out, all right. Big as a train, a howl like to make your ears bust and bleed. She take two of them in the first bite.
I don’t have to write Smiley no letter. Before we can say somethin, we up and runnin, still tied up to what left of that catfish carcass, running back for the road. We finds us a knife in the car and we gets loose lickety-split – Smiley crankin that ol’ Model T and me behind the wheel workin the choke. Hollerin and screamin comin out the woods sounding like music now, them Klansmen gettin all eat up.
Then it get quiet, just the sound of our breath and Smiley crankin the Model T. I’m yellin for him to hurry, I can hear that thing crashin though the woods. And finally, the Model T cranks over, but I can hardly hear it, ’cause that old dragon thing done broken out the woods and lets go a roar. I tells Smiley to get in, but he run back to the back of the car.
“What you doing?” I say.
“Five hundred dollar,” he say.
And I see he throwing the catfish in the backseat. That stinky thing ain’t nothin but a head now, so Smiley throw it in by hisself. Then he makes to jump on the running board and I looks over and he just snatched out the air. Gone. And them jaws coming down for the second time when I pull that ol’ Model T in gear and take off.
Smiley gone. Gone.
Next day I find that white man say he pay five hundred dollar for the catfish, and he look at that big fish head and jus laugh at me. I say I lose the best friend I ever had, he better give me my goddamn money. But he laugh and tell me go away. So I hit him.
Took that old fish head to court with me, but it don’t make no difference. That judge give me six months in jail – hittin a white man and all. He tell the bailiff, “Take Catfish away.”
They call me Catfish since. I don’t tell the story no more, but the name still there. Had the Blues on me ever since, but they ain’t no makin amends. By the time I get out, Ida May die of grief, and I ain’t got a friend alive. Been on the road since.
That thing on the beach, make that sound, she lookin for me.
“It’s a male,” Estelle said. She didn’t know what else to say.
“How you know?”
“I know.” She took his hand. “I’m sorry about your friend.”
“I just wanted him to get the Blues on him so we can make us a record.”
They sat there at the table for a while, holding hands.
Catfish let his coffee go cold in the cup. Estelle ran the story around in her head, both relieved and fearful that the shadows in her paintings now had a shape. Somehow, as fantastic as it was, Catfish’s story seemed familiar.
She said, “Catfish, did you ever read The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway?”
“He that boy write about bullfights and fishing? I met him once, down Florida way. Why?’
“You met him?”
“Yeah, that sumbitch didn’t believe that story neither. Said he like to fish, but he don’t believe me. Why you ask?”
“Never mind,” Estelle said. “If this thing eats people, don’t you think we should report it?”
“I been tellin folks about that monster for some fifty years, ain’t no one believed me yet. Said I was the biggest liar ever come outta the Delta. I’d have me a big house and a stack of records if not for that. You call the law and tell them ’bout this, they gonna call you the crazy woman of Pine Cove.”
“We already have one of those.”
“Well, ain’t no one gonna get eat but me, and if I lose this gig ’cause they thinkin I’m crazy, I have to be movin on then. You understand?”
Estelle took Catfish’s cup from the table and placed it in the sink. “You’d better get ready to go play.”
To distract herself from the dragon next door, Molly had put on her sweats and started to clean her trailer. She got as far as filling three black trash bags with junk food jetsam and was getting ready to vacuum up the collec-tion of sow bug corpses that dotted her carpet when she made the mistake of Windexing the television. Outland Steel: Kendra’s Revenge was playing on the VCR and when the droplets of Windex hit the screen, they magnified the phosphorescent dots, making the picture look like an impressionist painting: Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Le Grande Warrior Babe perhaps.
Molly froze the frame on the gratuitous shower scene. (There was always a shower scene in the first five minutes of her films, despite the fact that Kendra lived on a planet almost completely devoid of water. To address this problem, one young director had gotten the bright idea of using “anti-radioactive foam” in the shower scene and Molly had spent five hours with whipped Ivory Snow suds being blown on to her by an offscreen Shop-Vac. She ended up playing the rest of the film in a Bedouin burnoose to cover the rash that developed all over her body.)
“Art film,” Molly said, sitting on the floor in front of the TV, dowsing it with Windex for the fiftieth time. “I could have been a model in Paris in those days.”
“Not a chance,” said the narrator. He was still around. “Too skinny. They liked fat chicks back then.”
“I’m not talking to you.”
“You’ve used half a bottle of Windex for this little trip to Paris.”
“Seems like cheap travel to me,” Molly said. Even so, she got up and took two glasses from the top of the TV. She was taking them to the kitchen when the doorbell rang.
She opened the door with the rims of the glasses pinched in one hand. Outside, two women in dresses and heels and lots of hair spray were standing on her steps. They were both in their early thirties, blonde, and wore stiff smiles of either insincerity or drug use, Molly couldn’t be sure which.
“Avon?” Molly asked.
“No,” the blonde in front said with a titter. “I’m Marge Whitfield, this is Katie Marshall, we’re from the Coalition for a Moral Society. We’d like to talk to you about our campaign to reinstate school prayer. I hope we haven’t caught you at a bad time.” Katie was in pink. Marge in pastel blue.
“I’m Molly Michon. I was just cleaning up a little.” Molly held up the two glasses. “Come on in.”
The two women stepped in and stood in the doorway as Molly took the glasses to the sink. “You know, it’s interesting,” Molly said, “but if you put Diet Coke in one glass, and regular Coke in another, and let them sit for, oh, say six months, then come back, there will be all sorts of green stuff growing on the regular Coke, but the Diet Coke will be as good as new.”
Molly returned to the living room. “Can I get you two something to drink?”
“No thank you,” Marge droned in robot response. She and Katie were staring at the paused image of a wet and naked Molly on the television screen. Molly breezed by them and flipped off the television. “Sorry, an art film I made in Paris when I was younger. Won’t you sit down?”
The women sat down next to each other on Molly’s tattered couch, their knees pinched together so tight they could have crushed diamonds to powder.
“I love your air freshener,” Katie said, trying to pull out of her terror. “It smells so clean.”
“Thanks, it’s Windex.”
“What a cute idea,” Marge said.
This was good, Molly thought. Normal people. If I can hold myself together for normal people like these, I’ll be okay. This is good practice. She sat down on the floor in front of them. “So your name is Marge. You don’t hear that outside of detergent commercials anymore. Did your parents watch a lot of TV?”
Marge tittered. “It’s short for Margaret, of course. My grandmother’s name.”
Katie jumped in. “Molly, we’re very concerned that our children’s education is totally without any spiritual instruction. The Coalition is collecting signatures for reinstatement of prayer in school.”
“Okay,” Molly said. “You’re new in town, aren’t you?”
“Why, yes, we’ve both moved here from Los Angeles with our husbands. A small town is just a better place to raise children, as I’m sure you know.”
“Right,” Molly said. They had no idea who she was. “That’s why I brought my little Stevie here.” Stevie was Molly’s goldfish who had died during one of her stays in County. Now he lived in a Ziploc in her freezer and regarded her with a frosty gaze every time she retrieved some ice.
“And how old is Stevie?”
“Uh, seven or eight. I forget sometimes, it was a long labor.”
“He’s a year behind my Tiffany,” Marge said.
“Well, he’s a little slow.”
“And your husband is…?”
“I’m so sorry,” Katie said.
“No need, you probably didn’t kill him.”
“Anyway,” Katie said, “we’d really like to have your signature to send to the state senate. Single mothers are an important part of our campaign. And we’re also collecting donations for the campaign to have the Constitu-tion amended.” She put on an embarrassed smile. “God’s work needs funding too.”
“I live in a trailer,” Molly said.
“We understand,” Marge said. “Finances are difficult for a single mother. But your signature is just as important to God’s work.”
“But I live in a trailer. God hates trailers.”
“He burns them up, freezes, them out, tears them up with tornadoes. God hates trailers. Are you sure I wouldn’t be hurting your cause?”
Katie giggled. “Oh, Mrs. Michon, don’t be silly. Just last week I read where a woman’s trailer was picked up by a tornado and dropped almost a mile away and she survived. She said that she was praying the whole time and that God had saved her. You see?”
“Then who sent the tornado in the first place?”
The two pastel women squirmed on the couch. The blue one spoke first. “We’d love to have you at our Bible study group, where we could discuss that, but we have to be getting along. Would you mind signing the peti-tion?” She pulled a clipboard out of her oversized purse and handed it over to Molly with a pen.
“So if this works, kids will be able to pray in school?”
“Why, yes.” Marge brightened.
“So the Muslim kids can turn to Mecca seven times a day or whatever and it won’t count against their grades?”
The blue and pink pastel ladies looked at each other. “Well, America is a Christian nation, Mrs. Michon.”
Molly didn’t want them to think she was a pushover. She was a smart woman. “But kids of other faiths can pray too, right?”
“I suppose so,” Katie said. “To themselves.”
“Oh good,” Molly said as she signed the petition, “because I know that Stevie could move up to the Red Jets reading group if he could sacrifice a chicken to Vigoth the Worm God, but the teacher won’t let him.” Why did I say that? Why did I say that? What if they ask where Stevie is?
“What? He’d do it at recess,” Molly said. “It’s not like it would cut into study time.”
“We are working on behalf of the One True God, Mrs. Michon. The Coalition is not an interfaith organization. I’m sure that if you had felt the power of His spirit, you wouldn’t talk that way.”
“Oh, I’ve felt it.”
“Of course. You can feel it too. Right now.”
“What do you mean?”
Molly handed the clipboard back to Katie and stood up. “Come next door with me. It’ll only take a second. I know you’ll feel it.”
Theo’s hopes of finding Mikey Plotznik rose as he drove through the residential areas of Pine Cove. Nearly every neighborhood had two or three people out searching with flashlights and cell phones. Theo stopped and took reports from each search party, then made suggestions as if he had the slightest idea what he was doing. Who was he kidding? He couldn’t even find his car keys half the time.
Most of Pine Cove’s neighborhoods were without sidewalks or street-lights. The canopy of pine trees absorbed the moonlight and darkness drank up Theo’s headlights like an ocean of ink. He plugged his handheld spot-light in the lighter socket and swept it across the houses and into the vacant lots, spotting nothing but a pair of mule deer eating someone’s rosebuds. As he drove by the beach park – a grass playground the size of a football field, surrounded by cypress trees and blocked from the Pacific wind by an eight-foot redwood fence – he spotted a flash of white moving on one of the picnic tables. He pulled into the parking strip beside the park and pointed the Volvo’s headlights, as well as the spotlight, at the table.
A couple was going at it right there on the table. The flash of white had been the man’s bare ass. Two faces turned into the light, eyes as wide as the two deer Theo had surprised earlier. Normally, Theo would have driven on. He was used to finding people “in the act” in cars behind the Head of the Slug, or parked along the more rugged strips of coastline. He wasn’t the sex police, after all. But tonight he was irritated by the scene. It had been almost a whole day since he’d had a hit from his Sneaky Pete. Maybe it’s a symptom of withdrawal, he thought.
He turned off the Volvo and got out, taking his flashlight with him. The couple scrambled into their clothes as he approached, but didn’t try to es-cape. There was nowhere for them to go except over the fence, where a narrow beach was bordered on both sides by cliffs and washed by treach-erous, freezing rip tides.
When he was halfway across the park, Theo recognized the fornicators and stopped. The woman, a girl really, was Betsy Butler, a waitress down at H.P.’s Cafe. She was struggling to pull down her skirt. The man, bald ing and slack-chested, was the newly widowed Joseph Leander. Theo flashed on the image of Bess Leander hanging from a peg in the spotless dining room.
“A little discretion’s in order here, you think Joe?” Theo shouted as he walked toward them.
“Uh, it’s Joseph, Constable.”
Theo felt his scalp go hot with anger. He wasn’t an angry man by nature, but nature hadn’t been working the last few days. “No, It’s Joseph when you’re doing business or when you’re grieving over your dead wife. When you’re boning a girl half your age on a picnic table in a public park, it’s Joe.”
“I – we – things have been so difficult. I don’t know what came over us – I mean, me. I mean…”
“I don’t suppose you’ve seen a kid around here tonight? A boy, about ten?”
The girl shook her head. She was covering her face with one hand and staring into the grass at her feet. Joseph Leander’s gaze darted around the park as if a magic escape hatch would open up in the dark if he could only spot it. “No, I haven’t seen a boy.”
Technically, Theo knew he could arrest them both on the spot for indecent exposure, but he didn’t want to take the time to process them into County Justice. “Go home, Joe. Alone. Your daughters shouldn’t be by themselves right now. Betsy, do you have a ride?”
Without uncovering her face, she said, “I only live two blocks away.”
“Go home. Now.” Theo turned and walked back to the Volvo. No one had ever accused Theo of being clever (except for the time at a college party when he fashioned an emergency bong out of a two-liter Coke bottle and a Bic pen), but he was feeling somewhat less than clever for not having investigated Bess Leander’s death more carefully. It was one thing to be hired because you’re thought to be a fool, it’s quite another to live up to the reputation. Tomorrow, he thought. First find the kid.
Molly stood in the mud with the two pastel Christian ladies looking at the dragon trailer.
“Can you feel it?”
“Why, whatever do you mean?” Marge said. “That’s just a dirty old trailer – excuse me – mobile home.” Until a second ago, she had only been concerned with her powder-blue high heels sinking into the wet turf. Now she and her partner were staring at the dragon trailer, wide-eyed.
They could feel it, Molly could tell. She could feel it too: a low-grade sense of contentment, something vaguely sexual, not quite joy, but close. “You’re feeling it?”
The two women looked to each other, trying to deny that they were feeling anything. Their eyes were glazed over as if they’d been drugged, and they fidgeted as if suppressing giggles. Katie, the pink one, said, “Maybe we should visit these people.” She took a tentative step toward the dragon trailer.
Molly stepped in front of her. “There’s no one there. It’s just a feeling. You two should probably go fill out your petition.”
“It’s late,” said powder blue. “Maybe one more visit, then we have to go.”
“No!” Molly blocked their path. This wasn’t as fun as she thought it would be. She had wanted to freak them out a little, not harm them. She had the distinct feeling that if they got any closer to the dragon trailer, school prayer would be losing two well-groomed votes. “You two need to get home.” She took each by a shoulder and led them back to the street, then pushed them toward the entrance of the trailer park. They looked longingly over their shoulders at the dragon trailer.
“I feel the spirit moving in me, Katie,” Marge said.
Molly gave them another push. “Right, that’s a good thing. Off you go.” And she was supposed to be the crazy one.
“Go, go, go,” Molly said. “I have to get Stevie’s dinner ready.”
“We’re sorry we missed meeting your little boy,” Katie said. “Where is he?”
“Homework. See ya. Bye.”
Molly watched the women walk out of the park and climb into a new Chrysler minivan, then she turned back to the dragon trailer. For some reason, she was no longer afraid.
“You’re hungry, aren’t you, Stevie?”
The dragon trailer shifted shape, angles melting to curves, windows going back to eyes, but the glow wasn’t as intense as it had been in the early dawn. Molly saw the burned gill trees, the soot and blistered flesh between the scales. Soft blue lines of color flashed across the dragon’s flanks and faded. Molly felt her heart sink in sympathy. This thing, whatever it was, was hurting.
Molly took a few steps closer. “I have a feeling you’re too old to be a Stevie. And the original Stevie might be offended. How about Steve? You look like a Steve.” Molly liked the name Steve. Her agent at CAA had been named Steve. Steve was a good name for a reptile. (As opposed to Stevie, which was more of a frozen goldfish name.)
She felt a wave of warmth run through her amid the sadness. The monster liked his name.
“You shouldn’t have eaten that kid.”
Steve said nothing. Molly took another step forward, still on guard. “You have to go away. I can’t help you.
I’m crazy, you know? I have the papers from the state to prove it.”
The Sea Beast rolled over on his back like a submissive puppy and gave Molly a pathetically helpless look, no easy task for an animal capable of swallowing a Volkswagen.
“No,” Molly said.
The Sea Beast whimpered, no louder than a newborn kitten.
“Oh, this is just swell,” Molly said. “Imagine the meds Dr. Val is going to put me on when I tell her about this. The vegetable and the lizard, that’s what they’ll call us. I hope you’re happy.”
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the cat. “We’re all mad here. I’m
mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
– LEWIS CARROL,
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland