“Estrella tells me you have to go back to Marsella.”
“Oh yeah? I did what I was hired to do.”
“OH YEAH? OH YEAH?” screamed the parrot.
“If you die before that bird, I swear I’ll feed it to my cat,” Philemon said.
“You don’t have a cat.”
“I’ll get one.”
“Oh Philemon, you sound just like your father.”
“I told you never to say that.”
“Don’t use that tone with me.”
“I’ll use whatever tone I feel like.”
“DON’T YOU USE THAT TONE!” added the bird.
“How do you live with that thing?”
“It’s the nearest and dearest creature to me,” Rhoda Steed declared. “Except for you, my only-est son.”
Philemon Steed pushed himself away from the table.
“Don’t you want more potato salad? Look, there’s so much fried chicken left. I made enough for an army.”
“Mother, I’m full. Okay?”
“Save room for pie.”
“I made your favorite. Banana cream with chocolate chips.”
“Great,” he moaned, feeling the aching bulge of an overfed gut. “That’s all I need.”
“You make some coffee, son.”
Philemon obeyed. He knew there was no sense in arguing. Major watched him closely, suspicious of every move.
“That bird gives me the creeps.”
“He sees into your soul is all.”
Rhoda and Philemon sat in the den where the TV talked non-stop in the corner like an old, neglected relative.
“Estrella wants you to go back soon.”
“I don’t believe this.”
“So you’ll go, of course.”
“What is it with you and Estrella? You think you can run my life? Well, I’m sick of it.”
“So are we. Quit screwing up and we’ll leave you be.”
“I don’t believe this.”
“More pie, dear?”
The plane took off. Philemon Steed was on it. He had the same feeling in his stomach that Philemon Steed in 1703 had when the rapscallion reluctantly boarded ship and set sail for the New World, as it was called in those days. A sick, angry, no-other-options feeling in which the future decides for itself what it wants to consume: slaves, servants, whores, petty thieves, those who can’t read, those who lie, those who know the truth. The future has a rapacious appetite for simple people and simpletons, for the slick and the silly, and for the indentured such as Philemon Steed, at your service please.
Go. Go was the word on everyone’s lips. Where the word, go, is not to move forward but merely to obey. Go to America. A life sentence, not a dream come true. Go to America or else. Go—a four-letter-word. So he went. Lonely among hundreds of others driven off the British Isles and away from the continent of Europe, massed together like singular cargo devoid of soul, desires, or dreams. When Steed set sail in 1703, few knew about it. Even fewer cared.
More than three hundred years later, and nothing had changed. Philemon Steed got on the plane and only two people—and one parrot—knew about it. None of them really cared. But they would have if he wasn’t on that jet to Marsella. Especially Major. The parrot was tired of Philemon shirking his duties so typical of a spoiled son. And tired of his inane complaining, his sophomoric swearing, his self-centered concerns. The bird was sick of the son-of-a-bitch, as he so fondly thought of the man. In fact, Philemon Steed occupied most of Major’s thoughts, he being a thoughtful parrot.
Major was devoted to his beloved mistress, Rhoda Steed. He adored her. She represented the tropics to him, the humid rains, the overcast days, the jungle cacophony that vibrated among the reeds in the river, the leathery hide of the palm trees, the unstable marshland that gave whenever anything more than a butterfly landed on it.
Rhoda was Major’s homeland. She spoke his language. She reeked of moist darkness. She was so much bigger than him that his respect for her equaled that for a python or an alligator. She was a force, but a loving one. And she didn’t seem to mind that he bit her regularly. It hurt her. He knew it. She smacked him on his beak every time. But he still got to sleep with her. And bite at her neck. Or her damp armpit. Or that shriveled thing near it she called a breast. Poor Rhoda Steed, thought Major. Went and gave her lifeblood to a pathetic son named Philemon.
Unlike his early ancestor, this Philemon Steed traveled first class. And typical of every other trip he took, the exclusive passengers stared at him. He never could figure out why. His fly wasn’t open. They couldn’t possibly know he had only one change of underwear in his briefcase. And no way could they know the key to a locker at the Marsella airport was taped underneath the briefcase lining. Maybe they knew he carried a picture of Estrella Vespertina in his wallet. A picture of her naked. For good luck, that was all. Anyway, it wasn’t any of their business.
Philemon steadily sipped French champagne and the flight attendant just as steadily kept refilling his glass. The woman next to him drank much faster than he did. She was dressed like a man—suit and tie, white blouse, very short hair. Thick black mascara weighted her eyelashes. On the floor in front of her feet was a small pet carrier.
“Who you traveling with?”
“’Scuse me?” she drawled.
“In the cage there?”
“Oh, that’s Killuh, my dawg.”
“Nice. What kind is he?”
“She. It’s a she. And she’s paht Pomeranian, paht Pit Bull.”
“Take a look.”
“No, that’s okay. I don’t feel like bending over. I’ll take your word for it.”
“Whatever jerks your bird,” she slowly drawled.
The flight attendant passed the dinner menu around to all the first-class passengers.
“Nice tie you got there,” Philemon resumed.
“Where do you shop?”
The woman looked him up and down. “Not where you do, I can assure you.”
“I know. That’s why I asked. I need some fashion tips, see. A clothing counselor, that’s what I need.”
“Try someone else.”
“Sorry. Maybe I should listen to my mother and not talk to strangers.”
“Maybe you should,” she said slowly.
The flight attendant returned.
“I’ll have the filet. Very rare,” he ordered. “She’ll probably have the pasta primavera.”
“Hardly. Roast pork, please.”
“Ah, a carnivore.”
Her lip raised, almost forming a smile.
“You can give Killuh some of yours. We both love bloody meat,” the woman drawled.
Marsella is a terraced town on the Cuaca River.
November waits along the shore.
This year, November is warm.
Ana Garcia’s house is warm—
thick, stuffy, and airless.
Flies buzz inside her door.
Flies buzz outside the door.
Ana sweeps and scowls and sweats.
Fly wings and more cover the old cement.
Philemon was enjoying an early morning brandy with his coffee as the plane neared its destination. He didn’t expect to feel so good, especially going back to Marsella. But then getting out of town always gave him fresh insight and restored his energy. At least, for a little while. Yes, everything was perfect.
The woman next to Philemon leaned closer to him. Philemon tilted his head thinking she was about to whisper and coo in his ear.
“There’s one thing you can be sure of,” she growled.
“Talk to me.”
Her voice hit his eardrum like scalding water.
“Right now— somewhere in the world —some disgustin’ man is beatin’ a woman — and gettin’ away with it.”
She sat back and glared at him.
The fine brandy suddenly burned in Philemon’s throat. “I guess this means we won’t be staying in touch?” he coughed.
She straightened her tie and laid it back to rest between her hard, pointed breasts.
“I’ll be sure to nominate you for Mensa,” she drawled.
Joe Brazil rounded up his cows for early morning feeding. Their bodies blurred in the dense fog. Puffs of bovine breath dented the morning thickness. Each cow moved slowly, preceded by its own personal cloud of warm, expelled air suspended just ahead of its muzzle.
Joe’s mind was on other things. The blood pudding that morning was runny. His wife, Luzanne, had been making it perfectly every morning for the last thirty years. Joe’s mother, Angelina Brazil, saw to that long before he put the ring on Luzanne’s finger. A family requirement of sorts. Before any woman was allowed to take the name of Brazil, they first had to be able to eat blood pudding. If they could stomach it, and that was all that was required, just to swallow it and be able to keep it down, then they would be taught how to make it for their man.
Joe forked hay into the feeding trough. The cows rushed towards the food the only way heavy beasts know how, in a sped-up slow motion and in perfect unison. Had Joe pondered that at the time he would have realized it was the same way he and Luzanne made love. But Joe Brazil was not a thinker in that way. What bothered the Portuguese rancher was weak blood pudding. A man’s morning should never have a weak start. In the last few days, Luzanne had definitely been slipping up on her wifely duties. The cows shoved their heads between the steel dividers and, in unison, ate their hay.
When Joe Brazil got back to the house, his wife was crying.
“Luze? What is it?”
She didn’t answer.
“Are you okay?”
She violently waved him away.
“Well, I’ll be out in the barn if you need me.” He gladly retreated to a safer structure full of facts and logic like tools, hay, a pick-up truck, and assorted ranch equipment.
After she finished sobbing, Luzanne Sistrunk Brazil patted her eyes with cold water. A letter from Paul, her oldest son, lay like a small headstone on the bed. He had been serving as a priest in a Marsella parish along the Cuaca River—a long, long way from the cold, damp green ranch land and small towns where he grew up. Luzanne knew something was wrong a few days ago. She had had a feeling, an eclipse of perception where what was clear went into shadow, and out of the darkness came a sense of dread. She read the letter again:
I hope you are well. And Dad. I miss you
all. But especially you. This will probably
be my last letter to you. I write because I
believe you love me and will forgive me. I don’t
know if God will. But I know one thing—I can
never forgive myself.
I killed a man. Not even a man. A child,
really. He was barely in his teens. I can’t go
into it now but if I could I would gladly kill
myself. For some absurd reason when I think of
suicide, a voice booms THOU SHALT NOT KILL.
And I think, thou shalt not kill one’s self but anyone else
is fair game? Pray for me, Mother, for I now live
outside His protection.
May He bless you and the rest of the family.
Always your ever-loving son,
Marsella is a terraced town on the Cuaca River. Airplanes land miles from town. Everyone who has a car is a taxi driver. Or so it seems. Even Refugio who is sixteen and drives his dead father’s old Volkswagen. For some reason there are many German cars in Marsella. Not just VWs but Mercedes too. No matter what kind of car, tradition requires cramming as many family members, neighbors, friends, and dogs into it before setting off. The Volkswagen bug was a special challenge. If it had a sunroof like Refugio’s, there was almost no limit to how many Marsellans would ride with him, even if it was just to the bottom of the hill where the police station was and the bus station was and the open-air market and not to forget the library. Marsella had no train station or prison or video store like larger towns. But it had the library, long ago donated by Señora Christina America de Pallauda, the town’s beloved spiritual healer (and former whore, thanks to a revelation and conversion from the passionately religious Señor Bravista). And it had the stadium.
Philemon Steed arrived in Marsella and, for a moment, was glad to be there. Anything to get away from the carnivorous Killer and her equally carnivorous mistress. He sniffed the air: not too bad—which was cause for worry. Business must be down. Or else everyone is dead. No one’s left to kill. No one’s left to do the killing. Yeah, sure. That’d be the day. He not busy being killed, is busy killing.
Not that the life-stopping, life-taking, life-severing, life-sacrificing actually took place in Marsella. It didn’t. It occurred beyond the town limits where the gourds begin to grow. Death by machete took place in a congestion of trees at higher elevations. Death gathered in distant ravines. Death also frequented the town dump situated between here and there. In the midst of rotting pig flesh, rusted car doors, broken glass, shattered mirrors, a gutless washing machine, dog carcasses, and mounds of bloodstained sheets more than one man had died, his blood seeking its own level other than within the body, for the body no longer had a need for blood, so blood filled the empty eye socket of a decomposing sow. Or blood dyed the soiled sheets a brilliant crimson in the one clean, white fold compressed between the man’s severed head and the dead pig.
The VW bug lunged into the town center. Refugio was barely visible above the steering wheel. Philemon’s head stuck through the open sunroof. He held on with one hand since the passenger door often flew open for no reason.
He knew that scream. The voice was operatic, enormous, passionate, and delightfully musical. Amazing it came out of a skinny young girl.
“Pheela-Mon! You come back! I am so happy!”
Philemon extracted himself and his briefcase from the man-compacting vehicle.
She hugged him harder than he did her. He was afraid to. He didn’t want her to get the wrong idea. Jessamina followed him like a dog every time he was in town. She had been doing this since she was eight. Now she was almost fifteen. And maturing by the minute.
“How ya doing, kid?”
Her huge teeth gleamed back at him. Refugio solemnly watched, wishing it were him she was so glad to see.
“So how’s my little Popaluca?”
Jessamina burst into a trill of giggles. She loved being called his mistress. Everyone in town believed it too. Why not? He sent her money every month so no one else would touch her. By Marsella rules, Jessamina’s body belonged to the American, Señor Steed.
“You kiss me this time, Pheela-Mon?”
“Pleeze! For everyone to see!”
“I do it for you, Jessaminita!” Refugio blurted.
She waved him away.
Philemon bent over and quickly kissed her on the cheek.
“Hey Refugio! Gracias for the ride. Hasta mañana, okay?” Philemon dropped a few pesos through the open sunroof and Refugio lurched off in the Volkswagen.
“Littorella say we no chinga so you are not a man and me not your popaluca.”
“Littorella would stick her nose into the back end of a goose if she thought there was something in it for her. Tell her she knows nothing about nothing. Nada. And tell her just because she’s chingad everything in sight doesn’t mean you have to. Jeezus.”
“Jesus,” the girl repeated softly.
“Okay, kid? Remember that. You start doing what Littorella does and I stop sending diñero. Tu esta finito. Comprende?
“Si,” she said, hanging her head.
“Now c’mon, let’s go.”
Philemon took her by the hand as if she were a small child and they walked quickly to the hotel. “You can sleep in my room tonight.”
Jessamina clapped her hands and squealed.
“On the floor. Now wipe that pout off your face. If you’re worried about Littorella, you can tell her any story you want. Okay? I don’t care. Maybe she’ll keep her pretty face out of my business if she thinks we’re doing it. I just want to get to work tomorrow without any hassle. Claro?”
“Okay Pheela-Mon! I love you!”
“Yeah kid, yeah.”
Jessamina clung to Philemon’s free hand with both of hers. Her rapidly changing stick figure lunged alongside him, all teeth gaily exposed, her large brown eyes absorbing his physical presence next to her, with her, hand in hand, she loved him, no other woman in Marsella could have him, not like she did. At least no one else had chinga with Señor Steed. He was the American, crazy as a pendago , who never touched any of Marsella’s females no matter what age, even though he could have many of them for a few pesos or a comida corrida and a couple bottles of cerveza.
The girl squeezed his hand between hers. She loved him. This time she knew it for sure. Within her bony belly the coiled-up snake of desire had awakened and raised its head. The creature began to pulsate but not yet stir. For now the snake was content to remain coiled in the hot belly of a budding female.
The snake knew best — lay dormant and hibernate for as long as possible. Once uncoiled, the road stretches ahead, wide and burning, full of traffic, with no choice but to cross the road. Once desire is unleashed, there seems to be no choice but to fling that desire over the road to the other side, and then maneuver across. It might take all day. It might take a lifetime.
Sooner or later, Jessamina—like millions before her—will risk everything to cross that road of desire. If she doesn’t, she better kill the snake, or make an obedient pet out of it because there’s no in-between with the snake of desire. If you aren’t its master, then it will eat you alive from the inside out.
Steed and his little friend crossed the zocalo—a weary central square of broken paving stones with a church on one corner and a cantina on another, clumps of weeds, bleak walkways of hard-packed earth, a couple of wooden benches with slats missing, and a cement fountain in the middle, empty of water and full of random trash.
The zocalo could hold forty coffins at one time, laying side by side and end to end. No one, dead or alive, was there now—only a slight breeze crept across the square, then turned and prowled along the perimeter as if searching for a clue.
Philemon stopped for a moment and took it all in. Here he was, joke of jokes, back in Marsella. The champagne he had on the airplane now soured in his gut. Philemon hesitated. Jessamina held her breath. She knew better than to move. Or breathe. One block down, the police station was dark and still, same as the men who occupied it. There would have been more signs of life if it had been an abandoned building.
“Here we are,” he muttered, spitting dust out of his mouth.
A statue of Christ listened from above, perched as He was on the corner of the church.
“Why am I having to go through this again?”
Christ watched from the church above. Jessamina raised her eyes to the statue bolted to the wall. She crossed herself.
“Come on, kid.” He nearly yanked her off her feet in his rush to get to the hotel. Christ watched the dust turn into fists behind them as they disappeared around the corner.
“I want to sleep. Then I want to get up and eat and figure out what’s happening. But first, I want to drink. Take this money and get me something strong and dark. And without any worms in it. And be sure to get some food for yourself, chica.”
Beaming, Jessamina ran off as Philemon Steed entered the Rio Vista Hotel.
To be continued….