BY CESCA WATERFIELD
1. A Late Romance
Tex was late to this life he led. In the nightclubs and storefronts of central Los Angeles in the 1980s, he had come to doubt good women exist. After the imbroglio of a failed marriage, the prodigal repaired to Richmond where his talent for courtship and commerce were overlooked and he eventually grew tired of looking. That’s when he met Ava in a Shockoe Slip bookshop and now all was new.
She found wonder in his early pursuit. Fresh from a horror on Hancock Street, she was hallucinatory, after a man from whom she had briefly rented a room was charged with the murder of a teen girl. To help prosecutors, she wrote an account of the killer’s whereabouts the night the girl disappeared. In the interest of honesty and their flowering romance, she shared it with Tex.
Ah, the amnesty of amor, Ava smiled to herself one autumn afternoon as she stepped onto a bus that would deliver her from dusk to his bright bed. Between the two, she was pliant. Hadn’t he said as much?
It’s like you were made in some laboratory just for me, he had said after coltishly cornering her on the stairs in the house he rented in Church Hill. She fingered a wisp of his mustache, pushed from beneath his playful pinion, and scattered the evening at her heels. At the top, he reached for her arm. You’re not like the others. He dismissed the thought with a wave: You’re — easy.
She smiled and tightened her arms about her, thinking the lazy unseasonal snowfall had brought on this chill. That her heart wobbled at his words for joy. She was learning.
Before Thanksgiving, the lovely new couple stumbled in drunkenly, laughing.
Oh, finally laughing, Ava thought, not thinking. Tex pressed play on his answering machine as they groped in his kitchen. It was a message from his chum who wrote for the Associated Press. Damn, man! The recording punctuated the chilly room. Your new girl’s account about The Killer reads crazy! I’m obsessed with that guy. See what you can learn.
Later she asked him why he had given the piece to a reporter without asking her. Ava,
Tex made clear. This is journalism. You have to learn.
Before final exams, a classmate dropped her off after workshop. Tex appeared at the upstairs window as she stepped outside the idling car. A glass of red wine in his hand was outlined against the far white wall. His gaze was dark. Later they lay together, his breath tickling the fine hairs on the back of her neck. He asked, How are your bowel movements, Ava?
She opened her eyes suddenly, uncertain how she could have misheard, close as they were. So close. From drowsy bliss she was now alert. Your skin hangs, he said. He slid his hand from her hip around to her stomach. Look in the mirror sometime. Your ass isn’t there.
She weighed no less than the day they met. No less, she remembered, than the recent morning he had knelt in the shower to soap her lovingly. She began to scrutinize her belly. In dressing rooms and in the glaze of windows on Grace Street on sunny days, she searched for ways to fix what was wrong. This was no impasse, she knew. This was the constructive opportunity to see herself in the eyes of an honest man. This was love, and she was learning.
One morning she woke to scuffling downstairs. She crept into the kitchen where Tex was crouched before the open refrigerator, chucking items into a bag he clutched with his other hand. She watched, puzzled. Suddenly he turned to her and said with a calm made disconcerting by prickly enunciation, You know I’m un-em-ployed. Briskly, he walked three steps to stand inches from her. Blue eyes fixed at her forehead, he screamed, You don’t wrap my food properly! I should dump you!
Heart pounding, she hurried upstairs to shower. She examined her belly as she dressed. At the front door, he stood barefoot in a robe and took her hand. It was early. I’m just that way when I first wake up. He embraced her. You’ll learn.
Ava stepped onto the porch and kissed him with a grin, one that wavered with each block
she walked in this new city.
He was tired, it was early, it was late.
She was learning.
2. The First Time She Strayed
In the amber light of sinking sun angling through his library windows, Tex was telling
Ava about triumph.
I slept with Wendy O. Williams right before Pat Smear, he said. In fact, you wouldn’t
believe how many women marry rock stars right after dating me. His blue eyes were alight. Ava nodded and gazed around at the Civil War relics, film posters, antique medical supplies, a single human skull, and dozens of books.
From the row of unread Shakespeare lining one shelf, the fuckin Furies, was what Tex remembered. The girls had formed some kind of club, he feared. But he didn’t know. He wasn’t sure. Walking through Church Hill, he offered Ava a picture of his perplexing life before she came along. Bitches have been bane of my fate, he generalized. Specifically, Shapeless sluts who have to fuck to feel good.
Ava listened with interest as Tex talked about old lovers, curious by now at how many harpies he had suffered with kindness and a genuine desire to help. To his rapt audience of one he would say, I’ve got a story for you.
At dinner, he recalled a one-night-stand years ago with an aggressive woman in
Hollywood. Eyes welling he sighed, She didn’t even tell me she was pregnant.
Over drinks at Acapella Pub, he leaned back to bear in mind another travesty that might
finally quench his thirst. Trent Reznor will tell you. He shook his head. She’s no lay. I couldn’t fuck her twice. You know what I mean.
Tex delighted in regaling Ava with lurid tales. He knit another anecdote as they hung
crimson snowflakes on a black Christmas tree. Before meeting my ex-wife, it was a pair of teen girls, he twinkled. They accosted me! Just climbed in! It was his habit to trail off in the middle of a salacious description with a slow shake of his head: You don’t want to know.
But that night he reconsidered. Although someone who fucked you could really be
devoted to you, Ava.
Indeed, Ava agreed, and for the first time since having met him, decided to test his
Tex hung the last snowflake, smiled at her, and toasted, To legends. He leaned in to kiss his girl.
To a legend, Ava declared, ceiling fan reflected in her raised glass.
The next morning, tucked into a couch beneath the window of a Robinson Street coffeehouse, she dialed. Over a cab horn blast, she and a former flame made a date. Lon was a Haitian viola player she’d dated before moving to Richmond. That weekend, they met for an afternoon of music, ate dinner with a mutual friend, then returned to her apartment. She poured Grey Goose – compliments of their friend, who smiled devilishly at the old lovers before slipping out.
In late January, Tex and Ava were in the middle of a movie when her cell phone rang.
She stood up to check it. It’s Lon, she admitted. I’ll just be a sec. To her old love she said, I’m with Tex right now but we can talk tomorrow, and she hung up. Suddenly she felt her heartbeat in the palm of her right hand.
She looked down at Tex and loosened her dress. At the last button, she slid it off, still wearing the scarf to affirm her nakedness. With a kiss, she climbed astride him in the chair. The pneumatic cylinder let out a soft hiss to buoy their weight and movement. He asked sternly as she took him in, Is this what you’ve been waiting for, hmmm? My cock?
Ava murmured a request. Tell me a story, Texas.
What Tex couldn’t know is that she had come to relish his tales of conquest for the way they tickled forth daydreams of what she would wear later for another lover. Ava looked down at him in rapture and whetted memories of who had held her hours before. Images returned to her like smoke. As the song, “Got Me a New Man” came on softly from the iPod on the desk, Tex slapped her ass and said, New Man. Guess that’s the theme of the night.
Moving above him, Ava leaned down, palms on his chest. With her lips, she swept a lock of hair from his ear and whispered, Maybe last night’s too, hmm? Oh, maybe.
3. Hollywood Nights
Tex squared off in his chair, set his jaw with conviction, and asked with grave concern,
Are you ready for it?
Ava stifled laughter. By now, she had spent months observing his hands alternate between pointing fingers to pass blame, and turning his palms up to gesture how the world, women, career, and trends had failed him. She was discovering that many of his most impassioned claims were suspect, and that today’s denials were often direct routes to his past actions. Admittedly, she found him alluring, both his wounds and crimes, even as he wailed about the former and denied the latter.
But she was growing uneasy, unsure why she couldn’t bring herself to feel domestic allegiance to the man. He had long been telling her that if she could give him complete dedication, he could fly. They shared some interests and she cared for him. Sometimes he seemed to care for her. All in all, she hoped to make it work, if only to believe that it ever could.
So that day towards the end, she asked him why 20 years ago, he’d been fired from his big job, the one he often said could have made him a contender. She broached the subject carefully, because she thought the experience would deliver pain upon its reflection, and she didn’t wish to stir unpleasant reminiscence for him. After ensuring she could handle hearing the whole story of how he’d been done wrong, Tex drew a deep breath and looked at her.
A minor character in the subplot, he said, was the anti-hero.
Mistaken friendship was the thrust of the plot.
Cocaine was exposition, climax, and denouement.
A trivial error on his part, he waved. Trivia. Like the tragedy of Achilles, he had simply been tested where he had been pinched for dipping in the river Styx, where he was not baptized. Small flaw in our hero.
The villain was somebody else in the cast. It seemed to her, the culprit was his negligence. But these two, they always used different names. He called them right out loud.
How is it his fault you were fired? Ava asked.
He’d come get me! Tex exclaimed wide eyed. He made me do it!
This time Ava laughed openly. How old were you?
What does that matter? he asked, palms up, fingers open wide. He was always there! He stared open-mouthed at her, then shrugged. You don’t understand.
It was true, she didn’t. Empathy and her own experience with blaming others led her to
accept how, two decades ago, Tex might have failed to recognize his role. But somewhere along the road that unraveled into this afternoon, he might have considered who lost the big job that day: himself.
She was young and often confused, but it seemed that by now, time should have ground down his coarse defense into a talcum of introspection. She feared for the man who sat before her today, maintaining innocence with lips smeared in proverbial blood.
Artlessness is free. Accountability, on the other hand, brings pain, at least momentarily. She knew why this memory brought him none. He hadn’t looked into his truth, so the cost of doing so – the sting of admission – was nowhere to be found.
Tex often informed her, in so many decibels, that she reminded him of his ex-wife who had left him years ago. It hurt her early on, but as weeks passed, she started to wonder what the woman might say about moving on.
His road was a circle.
Ava liked to ride forward, wind in her hair.
4. Smoking a Fag in the English Garden
I am a man, he announced, lowering a black glistening top hat to bow deeply. I am a man
who seeks evolution.
He said he worked to develop the spheres of intelligence, humanity, and eros. Pre-Raphaelite art was his uncommon specialty, but in truth, he could also claim bass guitar, British classical music, and American history as advanced avocations; Anglophile and cinephile as identities; And of course, from such a lifestyle, he had inherited a reputation as a cocksman of note. Verily, his noms de guerres were numerous, he confessed. They included “Master Malice”and “Il Dottor Diabolical,” And a few more, he added suggestively with a twist of his moustache. But you, my dear, may call me Texas Wicked, he granted.
She said her nickname was Scout, she was pleased to meet. As she queued up her favorite new CD on the portable player, he looked down at it and inquired, You identify as an American Southerner? He awaited her answer, tidied his hair in consolation, and stared at her aghast. I don’t associate myself as such, he made clear, beyond my vast research into the Civil War. He lifted his chin to address a display case of French Minié bullets in the library and then stopped, lit by an idea. But you know…
It had happened: He’d experienced a second thought. I do like a Southern moustache. He
was on the move now, giving it real deliberation. I would like to be that famous guy…He
struggled to remember the name. Reliably, fame and notoriety comprised a dual ferry in his mind and brought forth the name. Doc Holiday! Yeah! I would like to be Doc Holiday 99 percent of the time.
All she wanted was a good time, he later told everyone who was tired of listening. Sure
enough, come Tuesday, she was gone.
On Wednesday, he stood in his kitchen alone. Fuckin’ hayseed. He screwed up his mouth
to chew on a lime twist and bit into an ice cube. Clodhopping tart. Who’s that other Alabama scribbler? He tried to recall. Some Indian?
Nothing came to him, so he shrugged. Books are for the fine silhouette they cut. Libraries
exist merely for the recall of data so that an appearance can be made, so that a fact can be delivered across the room in spite of the dearth of understanding in its utterance. Literature? Only self-pity and blind gratification bring forth questions. Questions like, Why me? Why won’t somebody take me home?
Chewing over the chasm between what he deserved and what shite gobbled him up in spite of his scrupulous behavior, he located his bumbershoot and hat.
Contemplating a final leap into the abyss that swam toward him across the channel of a Lee-Enfield gun barrel, he suddenly guffawed with contempt and poured three fingers of Beefeater’s. He swirled it in the glass, then tossed it past his lips before muttering incoherently between them. He exited the kitchen door and stepped out into the backyard and the sun.
He caned and carved around the English garden. She only wants to blip the throttle.
He groused past the birdbath and glanced in. She only wants drunks and wannabes.
He paused by the phony gravestone he had installed in the backyard, lit a Dunhill, and flung the match into the birdbath. Knuckleheads, panheads, ape hangers, and fat boys 99 percent of the time.
He headed for 23rd Street, rounding the alley that ran out to the curb, then suddenly clapped his hand to his mouth and froze. It was that one percent that got him. That one percent just might blow his mind.