Joyland

New York |

Traces of Hugh

by Greg Chandler

edited by Brian Joseph Davis

Veronica stormed off set and just kept going. She blotted her sweaty, heavily made up face with the linen scrap she kept in the pocket of her costume. Her costume, a copy of a gown worn by Madame de Montespan, a favorite mistress of Louis XIV, weighed fifty pounds. In the film, Summer Felicity, she does not play Madame de Montespan, but a fictional character named Felicity, the mistress of Guillaume Amfrye de Chaulieu, a renowned poet and wit of the 1680s. Craving solitude, she traipsed through a grove of sycamores too embarrassed to acknowledge the prop girls downing Red Bull as they touched up the gold leaf on her palanquin. Fully aware of her mood, of the recent tabloids, of the rustling satin and dust cloud in her wake, they ignored her. Soon they were gone, and with them the klieg lights, the reggae blasting at craft services, and the director, perverted little Timmy, berating Dani, an ingénue ten years her junior. A narrow trail pulled her deeper into the hills. Where was she? Pasadena? Altadena? Practically galloping, she lifted her hoop skirt letting the fabric brush the sage and lemon verbena. The sharp perfume carried her back to their little hideaway, a tent deep within a forest somewhere near Paso Robles, three miles from the nearest road. They’d been evicted from their Los Feliz apartment and burned their bills. Veronica dropped acting class; Hugh quit the police academy. He brought his rifle, a video camera, and a bone to pick. Veronica foraged wild fennel, Hugh hunted quail, and together they lifted bottles of chardonnay from a nearby winery. Every night she’d go through the motions of setting up romantic fireside dinners, and every night Hugh succumbed to his demons. Why in hell did she let him do those things to her? It didn’t feel good, not really, not the whole time, though occasionally there were moments of ecstasy, moments when she felt like pure energy, pure spirit, and not some little nothing from nowhere. She kept moving until she came to a spot where she was alone for as far as she could see. It was difficult to sit on the ground in her costume, but she managed. After their week in the woods Hugh bailed for his parents in Vail, tied another girl to a tree, and wound up in prison for two years. When her career took off, Veronica was sure he’d crawl down off the Rockies and come stalk her. Then six years passed without so much as a drunken call or email. Until now. Her lawyer had the video in his safe, and Hugh had his check; nonetheless, word hit the street. Rumors about a copy had everyone searching the Internet. The studio—a bunch of greedy fucks—in their quest to market seventeenth-century France to twenty-first-century America, actually hoped the video would appear online. To top it all off, her publicist received an anonymous call from an old woman who said Hugh was back in LA. She grabbed handfuls of healthy green plants and squeezed out their juices, restorative chlorophyll for her cells to absorb. How inane everything else seemed when confronted with nature. Trees and herbs, rocks and chaparral, the swarms of gnats going about their business, the hawks darting overhead. She could have her bed moved out to the trail, live isolated from the criticism and tittle-tattle, fake love and fleeting adoration. Veronica! Veronica! Fucking Timmy, he sure loved that bullhorn. She spit on her fingers, kneaded the powdery dirt, and smeared mud across her face. Coming, asshole, she said, trying to stand in all her layers. Before leaving she picked up a stick and scraped a large V into the earth. Part of me stays, she said, tying her linen hanky around the stem of a yellow wildflower.

2.

Don’t make me defend what we did. She was getting on our nerves with her pathetic bragging. It’s not like she’s dead. Jim knocked the breath out of Nat, that’s all, just a lame little shove. She’s sleeping it off in my uncle’s garage. Even so, Jim and me ditched her, and ran four blocks up, two across, and underneath those fancy iron gates. We bypassed the burnt out estate from the ‘20s and made a beeline up the arroyo. Leading the way, Jim kept talking about underground rivers and caverns and the phosphorescent trolls who lived down there. He has this thing about him. He lives in an alternate reality and he likes to take his shirt off. I focused on his back for a while, the freckles on his shoulders. We finally parked it in the dirt where the trees got big and bushy. Proof of a subterranean world, he tells me. We sat there playing with sticks. It was hot and hazy; an hour left of daylight. He didn’t want to hear it, but I had to ask, Will Nat call the cops? It sounds strange, but his bare torso held some power over me. I let him convince me that no cops were coming, that Nat was just wasted on Cuervo and wouldn’t remember a thing. I surrendered, tried to relax, and asked a question that would interest him: Are there ghosts here? Hell yeah! I figured. As he talked, I emptied the sand out of my shoes. My brother knew a dude, Jim said, a dude named Hugh. He came up here with a coven. My brother wanted to come but had to work that night. My heartbeat slowed for the first time in an hour. They wore ponchos and carried fortys. Hugh said they all dropped acid and some Dutch chick freaked out. She tried to ram a steak knife into Hugh’s neck. Crazy bitch wouldn’t stop so Hugh had to smash her skull with a rock. She went down big time. Hugh was totally covered with blood and brain splatter. No one snitched. The police didn’t arrest him? Nah, he got some chick pregnant and ran away. Right here, I said, running my hand over a patch of grass, She died?You can see blood on those weeds if you look close enough. When it gets dark her ghost comes. What, you’ve seen her? My brother brought me here on the anniversary. We were shrooming, but I know what I saw. What? Basically, it was like a hologram. I couldn’t make out her face, but I saw her wrestling with herself, this filmy body right in front of me, but all silent. That’s when I looked over there and the ground was see-through. There was open space between the roots, like an ant farm, sort of, and it was all lit up for like a mile down, and the chick started floating on a river but these burned-up piss-green midgets swam up and sucked her into hell. It was weird. Hey, Jim, why don’t we just sleep out here tonight? Think we can see stuff without shrooms? Hell yeah. I took off my shirt, spread it on the ground, and laid back. Jim took off his shoes and started to heave. I put my hand on his shoulder. Damn tequila, I said, looking through the trees at the pasty sky. We stayed there till midnight seeing nothing but owls and one scrawny coyote. Mostly I watched Jim. But he didn’t watch me. Eventually he staggered back to Nat and I stayed put, squinting, hoping to see a Dutch ghost, but knowing I wouldn’t.

3.

Abby preferred to hike alone, but her sister bullied her into joining a local walking club. Day after day her sister talked of nothing else. Abby took it as a personal insult every time Anne said Come savor the great outdoors, as if she didn’t savor it already. Abby knew the truth: her shy, awkward sister only wanted to use her as a go-between to make friends. But now here she was, and just as she’d expected, snoots and buffoons every last one of them, resentful too, as she was certain their eyes rolled when she introduced herself as Dr. Malloy, Professor of European History at Pasadena City College. After the hike, as soon as they got in the car, she’d tell her sister that her group was nothing but a lot of miserable, homely women. Finally, as they headed up the trail, Abby managed to fall back out of earshot of their shrill voices. Idiots, she said, wishing that tubby veterinarian heard. At the start of the journey the vet had the nerve to insist everyone hand over thirty dollars for the canine cancer center she was trying to get off the ground. Abby had never even met these people before, not to mention it was 8:00 a.m. Too shocked to speak, she pinched Anne’s elbow. Luckily, her sister had three twenties in her knapsack. The trail began to switchback up the side of a mountain. It was rugged, but Abby liked to get her shoes dirty, and she didn’t mind a few pebbles between her toes. It was those women she wanted to keep away from, and her sister was one of them. She’d tell her sister, Yes sir, this is the group for you, but I’ll never lower myself again, not after those looks we got from hikers coming down the trail. Abby hated groups. It’s all just fighting to be top dog. When you walk alone you never have to fight. I’m the president of this club-of-one, she said, tripping over some rocks, falling onto her arm. She blacked out for a minute, came to, saw a blur of trees. Dead silence. Even the birds came to a standstill. A rumble started at the tip of her spine, worked its way up, and exploded in a torrent of cries for help. She realized her arm was broken. Anne! Anne! She felt cold and nauseous. It took some doing, but she sat up, cradling her arm all the way. There, the two rocks that bit me, she groaned, bleary eyed, sick with vengeance. With her good hand she picked up one of the rocks and smashed it as hard as she could against the other rock, and did that over and over for a very long time. Damn you, she said, trying to kill it. Even rocks deserved punishment. After awhile the beating of the rock turned into a kind of music, she thought, an ancient rhythm like the Indians used to make. 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2. As her bum arm swelled up, the other just kept right on beating. Soon it was noon. There was hardly more than a scratch on the bottom rock. Even as she leaned over a clump of dry weeds to upchuck, the magnetism increased. The rock in her hand was gaining dominance. She was losing to its hardness and strength, its indestructibility. It raised and lowered her limb. It had taken over like a giant tumor, a parasite, like mistletoe. Exasperated, she looked across the canyon and saw a woman standing in the chaparral wearing a ball gown that shimmered in the sunlight. Marie, Abby moaned, Marie Antoinette. A man ran up behind the queen, a grizzled Jacobin who clutched his hands around her neck and throttled the life out of her. Abby fainted. A few minutes later Anne appeared, took one look at her sister, and burst into tears. Abby regained her consciousness but was unable to speak. She’s white as a ghost, Anne bawled to the others. The vet took the rock away, laid Abby on her back, and fashioned a sling with the spare socks she kept in her fanny pack. Not until the hospital, having her bandaged arm slathered with plaster, did she realize she’d been squeezing the vet’s hand as they brought her down the mountain on a gurney. This meant one thing. When her arm mended she’d be obligated to return to the group. She didn’t want to, but what choice did she have. A woman like that, a hefty woman, might otherwise take offense and start trouble. Women like that have fragile egos and hostility to spare. It was settled. She’d go back with an offering of new socks. And then she’d find those rocks and throw them over the cliff. Or better yet, she’d bring them home and set one on either nightstand to keep her safe while she slept.

4.

Hugh Jr. found a clump of tall weeds to hide in. Crouching down, out of breath, he saw a tortoise at his feet eating a purple flower. This was a very exciting find, as no one had ever told him tortoises lived in the canyon behind his Gramma’s house. He liked slow animals best. Red lines on the tortoise’s shell baffled him at first, and then he realized the words Heavy Metal had been painted on in big thunderbolt letters. He’d never seen anything so out of place. Kids didn’t listen to heavy metal much anymore, which meant it might’ve been on there for twenty years. But he was in the middle of war games with his cousins—they always made him play Osama—and had to concentrate on his survival. Petting the hard shell, he decided to come back later—if his cousins didn’t kill him—to rescue the tortoise. And then Parker sprang out of nowhere and chased him with a spiked club. That was yesterday. Today he’s back looking for the tortoise. He has a cardboard box from his Gramma’s garage with pictures of humidifiers and blanket-wrapped babies on it. Near the weeds, under a bush with leaves that looked like crabs, he set out the plastic Jack-o’-lantern plate normally reserved for candy corn. He arranged shredded cabbage and carrot shavings, a dead roach, and a ball of raw ground pork, until it looked like a fancy salad he’d seen in a magazine. Sitting on a rock, waiting, he thought of the signs kids stuck on his back, like kick my ass, I’m all girl, I stink like barf, and kill me now. Undressing at home he’d find the notes and burn them over the toilet. The tortoise wasn’t so lucky. Although Heavy Metal was better than Step on me!, the other tortoises knew he was different, and they probably snapped at him because of it. Animals ganged up on the odd one out, like runt dogs, and sparrows that reek of human hands, total rejection. He’s sure the tortoise will prefer his walled in backyard to the dangers of the canyon. Every day he’ll provide fresh lettuce, and buy Turtle Wax to keep him shiny and youthful. Gramma won’t mind; she never goes out back. Hemiola, that’s what he’ll name it, after a record album he saw in the garage. Hemiola sounded girly, not that he even knew its sex, but around his cousins, just to be safe, he’d call it Felix. Once he got Hemiola home, he’d scrub the shell with a brush dipped in turpentine. That is if Hemiola ever showed. Hugh Jr. waited most of the afternoon, getting up now and then to search the area. He thought of what Gramma said before he left: “They called from Colorado. Seems your daddy might be back here in Altadena. Run for your life if you see him.” He hadn’t seen his dad since he was five, and wasn’t sure he’d run if he did see him. Dusk was coming. Flies gorged themselves on the pork, and black ants hauled the roach away. Boys howled in the distance. His guts knotted up. Hemiola, come on, it’s getting late, I’m here to help you. He recognized the whoosh of air rifles. The hollering got closer, snarling, too, a sound only his cousins made. There was nowhere to hide. Gunshots came between taunts and cheers. He remained utterly still until after dark. Finally the boys were gone. He dumped the food and set the plate in the box. In perfect cursive he wrote WAIT FOR ME in the dirt with a stick. In the morning he’d return. On his way to the trail, with only moonlight to guide him, he found Hemiola tipped onto his back, his soft underbody riddled with BB’s. Jerks! he shouted, scooping up the tortoise. He didn’t cry. Funerals were nothing new to him. He put Hemiola in the box and headed towards home.

5.

It doesn’t matter where you look, every square inch of earth has some riches to give up. Today’s sand and granite is tomorrow’s oil and gold. I was up there sifting, beer in-hand, Dodgers on the radio winning six to five, when the call came in. My tenant was under arrest and the sheriffs needed to have a word with me. This was my hysterical wife relaying the news. Turns out Hugh was building a bomb in that little bungalow I own here in Altadena. Not only that, but he may have assaulted a girl. The details were unclear, though she did add that a mob of TV news reporters had surrounded the police station, and that a celebrity may somehow be connected. I knew it would come to this, I did, and yet I failed to follow Cheri’s advice to evict him. I liked him. His SSI paid the rent, so why boot him just because he smokes coyote meat in the backyard. Cheri almost puked that time she saw the raw haunches in his fridge. But the guy was poor, and he found some meaning to life in the survivalist thing. In fact, he told me about this spot. He said, Go sift up there. I saw turquoise, jade, and malachite. But watch out for my coyote traps. I was enjoying his spot, doing my thing. Now he’s in jail. Come to think of it, I was a little concerned when I saw a set of handcuffs on the coffee table. But who knows what constitutes normal sex for young people these days. Cheri said it couldn’t wait till later. Come to the station right now! But how often do I get to watch the sun go down without the kids begging for burger money, Cheri riding my ass about the lawn, and some tenant interrupting my dinner with another backed up toilet? We’ve been married twenty years and I still got pressure on me like you wouldn’t believe. My wife’s uncle was a millionaire—he invented that slogan Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie, and Chevrolet—which means I’m expected to be one too. Can’t we all just get relaxed?, I say, thinking of that guy from the LA riots. If Hugh were smart he’d have spent more time here in the arroyo with his traps and less time making trouble in Altadena. Damn, it took me only twenty minutes to realize I’d found paradise. Not that I would’ve come up without the promise of semi-precious stones. Now that I’m here, I lose interest in the game, a tie in the seventh, and turn it off. A new saying comes to me: Money equals quiet. I know how that sounds, but you have to ask, What drives a guy to build bombs and rough up women when he can hike up here to unwind? I put everyone out of my mind; I just sift and listen to the bugs. I turn over a typical grey rock and find a streak right down the middle, a blueberry sandwich. I find eight more, as I think of the belt buckles and bolo ties they’ll become, the ones that go for five hundred bucks in the shop at Caesar’s. But this spot has given all it can, so I crawl into the bushes looking for more. The sunset is gorgeous. Man oh man, do I feel good. Back in the green stuff I narrowly miss Hugh’s trap, all medieval with ferocious steel teeth. No way am I deactivating that shitkicker. It’s good he’s in jail. I crawl backwards to my bucket of loot. I grab another beer from the ice chest and just kick back against a boulder. I start to dream about the Old West, of me driving a stagecoach, delivering a group of young dancing girls safely across Death Valley. Indians attack, but we outrun them. We find a sinkhole and bathe each other. As I sponge a redhead’s shoulder, a mean snap and yelping-for-all-hell sends me to my feet. The coyote’s paw is almost severed. I want to free the poor guy, but Cheri’s always talking about rabies and the return of the plague. So I call the humane society. Waiting for them to come, I feel terrible watching the coyote suffer. All I can think to do is take the plastic cup my ravioli came in and fill it up with beer. At first he growls, but the alcohol fumes soothe him, and his tongue slides into my icy Heineken, and it flaps up and down till the cup is empty, and he rests his frothy chin in my hands.