Joyland

a hub for short fiction

Summer of Hate

excerpted from the forthcoming novel Summer of Hate

PART ONE: 2005

1/CATT: HER KILLER

There are some people who like feeling like they’ve arrived at the end of the earth, the opacity of an alien place.

Catt stands outside her room at the Villa Vitta Motel. A slight western breeze off the Gulf flavors the desert morning with promise – a promise Catt knows will seem like a distant memory in the harsh glare of 11 a.m. She’s wearing the same clothes she dropped on the floor after arriving last night – a brown gathered skirt and a cardigan sweater, her “Mexican” clothes – not that these clothes are especially ethnic, but when she’s in Mexico she puts on whatever things she pulls first out of her bag. Catt drove down here in a rush. Her black shoulder-length hair is pulled off her face with a sweatband she found in the gym bag she forgot to unload from her car.

The rooms at the Villa Vitta are set behind stucco arches attached to an awning that offers two feet of shade. Straight ahead, there’s a badly paved two-lane road and beyond it, a blue strip of water.

Looking down the cement strip under the awning, Catt sees she isn’t alone. Outside #10 there’s a plastic lawn chair and a cooler of beer in front of a new Ford 150 truck with Oregon plates. She and her small mixed-breed dog are in #8.

Otherwise, the motel is empty. It’s a Tuesday morning in March 2005 – it’s unlikely this neighbor is here on vacation, he must be working. Even though the town doesn’t look exactly ripe for development, he could be some kind of construction surveyor, which means he’ll be gone most of the day.

Catt feels somewhat safe and relieved. Since she threw her nylon duffel bag in the car yesterday morning she’s put more than 600 miles between herself and the person who threatened to kill her. The person was male, but whenever someone impressed her, Catt rarely focused on gender. Her killer identified this as one of her pr0blems. Moreover, he, the killer, “my killer,” as Catt told herself, would be driving an older black BMW sedan that luckily seemed not very well suited to Baja back roads.

“Is that a threat or a promise?” Catt remembers this as a comeback used by the neighborhood kids she used to run with. The repertoire of repetitive phrases among 11 year olds in her exurban blue-collar town had been somewhat limited, and Catt remembers very little of this. There was also, “Tom Tit,” meaning small, used by Jeffrey Kader when comparing her chest to her friend Nancy O’Reilly’s and the ever-popular “My ass your face,” used by the boys when Catt and her friends fawningly asked for a match to light their Kool cigarettes.

Three and a half decades and several continents later, Catt no longer smokes on a regular basis but she still has small tits, “the kind of tits that will hold up ‘til she’s 60,” as a colleague of hers appreciatively wrote in Index or Purple or Nylon about Charlotte Rampling. But yes – Catt’s current problem was she’d seen her killer’s threat as a welcoming promise. She was tired of running the show, she didn’t know how else to stop. The death she imagined was preceded by pleasure, a dreamy trance ending blackness. It did not occur to her, ever, that the moment of her actual death – which would take place in Acapulco – would involve any actual pain, any stabbing or gunfire. She pictured herself in a hotel room signing binders of trust deeds, her hand invisibly guided by the gaze of her killer, transferring her assets to him.

Within a week of their meeting – which took place in December at the Chateau Marmont in LA – her killer had said, “I want you to surrender control of your finances to me.” This had shocked her at first, but in a good way. As an idea, it seemed totally radical. Wearing a long skirt and boots to comply with her killer’s request that she be barelegged in his presence, Catt felt overdressed when she walked into the lounge bar. Bright boys and girls lounged around the Spanish colonial hearth in gym shorts and pajamas. Her killer was overdressed too, in a black Armani jacket and pleated brown trousers. The jacket was tapered, with a high collar evoking Nehru and Mao. The Chateau had changed since he’d “inked deals” in its rooms as an entrepreneurial media-buyer two or three incarnations ago. Catt was struck by the inflection he gave to these air-quotes, resigned not just to the language but to the lameness of irony itself. They left without ordering. Catt went to the garage and gave the valet $20 to retrieve her car. Muttering something about “dings,” not trusting valets with his black BMW, her killer walked several blocks up the hill. She followed him to a café in a strip mall where they each had one glass of wine. Legs crossed under her long ugly skirt, Catt drew a short breath when her killer handed the waiter his gold Amex card. Would the card come back declined? She was already frightened for him, because even before they left the Chateau, a strange inter-penetration took place between them. Catt saw him see her unhappiness across the table. She felt it leaving her body and entering his, through his eyes. She was stunned by this capability. Her killer was talking about his interests in media properties his acquisitions his patents for remote keyless entry devices filed back in the 70s. He was describing his research initiatives in neurobiology his team of doctors their clinical trials, Beverly Hills Nassau County Long Island, he was about to release a 3-disc CD of his electronic piano compositions which he performed and mastered. Minutes after this transmission took place, Catt noticed her killer’s right eye starting to twitch.

During each of their meetings in the succeeding months, he wore the same clothes. Since he’d absorbed her unhappiness, Catt’s heart leapt out to protect him.

In the next scene – a jump cut – she pictured her corpse on the cool cement floor, her friends and ex-husband at first rejecting the bland noncommittal police report filed at the crime scene, she pictured the private investigator they’d hire, the clues leading nowhere, the judicial gray zone, not prosecutable, American nationals on foreign soil, anomalies. (She’d made most of her money diving into anomalies.) Eventually these efforts would fizzle. Her ex-husband and friends were artists and college professors. Rationalists all, they were not the type to seek closure. After one or two trips they’d conclude that none of these efforts would bring her back. The PI’s retainer would not be replenished, he’d return to NY or Los Angeles. Doubt, the existential disease of the 20th century, would trump narrative and the case would grow cold.

But since Catt was more realist than fabulist, she understood her actual death at the hands of her killer would be something much slower. It would be a classical feminine death, like a marriage. But the process would be highly compressed: her disintegration achieved in one or two months. (Over the years Catt used her shrewdness and charm to amass a small fortune, a fortune she never saw as an end in itself, but rather a means of supporting herself while advancing her name in the culture industry. She craved independence and hoped, like her trust-funded heroes, to pursue her odd interests without having to grovel for tenure-track jobs or make work that would be widely successful.)

Raised by meek working-class parents, she despised petty groveling and had no talent for making shit up. She wanted to be a “real” intellectual moving with dizzying freedom between high and low points in the culture. And to a certain extent, she’d succeeded. Catt’s semi-name attracted a following among Asberger’s boys, girls who’d been hospitalized for mental illness, sex workers, Ivy alumnae on meth, and always, the cutters. With her small self-made fortune, Catt saw herself as Moll Flanders, out-sourcing her visiting professorships and writing commissions to younger artists whose work she believed in. But she’d reached a point lately where the same young people she’d helped were blogging against her, exposing the ‘cottage industry’ she ran out of her Los Angeles compound facing the Hollywood sign … the same compound these bloggers had lived in rent-free after arriving from Iowa City, Alberta, New Zealand. Loathing all institutions, Catt had become one herself. Even her dentist asked her for money.

When Catt met her killer, she was beginning to wonder if all this shrewdness and charm had served her well. She was a rock, being used as a whetstone for vultures – people who took and gave nothing. Therefore, her killer’s request that she “surrender control of her finances” seemed sublime and aptly radical. Even a slow death at his hands would be preferable because he was putting himself on the line. She saw her descent clearly: Money would be rapidly spent and as it dwindled her killer would grow bored of her utter submission. Her dumb animal state would become oppressive to him. It would end on the floor, not as a corpse but on her hands and knees, hollowed out, begging and lost: she’d be dead but still living. At the time, even this realist-death held a certain appeal. There was nothing petty about it: it was a grand mal. It offered a knowledge she would not otherwise have, which, at the time, seemed like the same thing as pleasure.

Since meeting her killer, she spent several weeks in this delirium. And when she woke up she fled.

There is a recurring belief that certain decisions were made while we were still lost in the womb of our childhoods, Catt wrote in her notebook. (She doesn’t realize it now, but she’ll spend the next several years trying to decode this death wish, as if a discernible sequence of events leading up to this point could be traced.) Transactions were brokered in windowless rooms. Armies of people speaking in bland west coast American accents. Audiotapes washed up at a yard sale. Always, the real story was elsewhere. Las Vegas, Nevada. Phoenix and Tempe. What were the voices describing? A box of instructional manuals found, water-stained, in an old man’s garage. Proliferation of data surpassed proliferation of nuclear warheads. Old metal, junked electronics. Dictation equipment. Deposing as testament. The sloppiness of all this. Political porn. This is the kind of thing Catt gets paid to write about visual art. A semi-name in the culture industry, she does her “best” work zoning out and writing down words that seem to be draped on the surface of things. She has no idea what they mean. She is trying to place more faith in narrative.

The manager’s name at the Villa Vitta Motel is Raoul. Raoul’s a dual citizen of Mexico and the US, of course he speaks perfect English. In his late 20s, he has Baywatch good looks and last worked in San Diego installing phones. Raoul is “new to the hospitality industry” he told Catt when she stumbled out of the car and exchanged $35 for the #8 room key. He also mentions he’s single. In fact, it’s his first day on the job, but he has great plans to upgrade the motel, maybe adding a spa and turning the cavernous dining room into a disco. A bare light bulb swung over the desk. It was 9:30 at night, the town generator up on the hill still hadn’t switched off. Catt wondered what misdemeanor or felony brought Raoul down here. INS problems, drug possession, failure to pay child support? Catt is still at a point at a point where she hasn’t renounced her curiosity. She wonders what group of investors owns the Villa Vitta motel and how Raoul found them. The movement of money being the most obvious forensic trace in any psycho-geography.

Trained as a journalist, she’d rather know things than not and could not stop herself – even while fleeing her probable death – from finding Raoul’s story interesting, less for what he said than for what she surmised he left out. She looks alert, asks appropriate questions, feigning an interest until some real item of interest takes hold. Vaguely she knows this curiosity is something her killer had promised to help her lose. If she’d followed her killer – if she’d signed over the money to him instead of moving the money to an under-tapped market where it would double within 60 days – he would have spared her the effort of summoning up this bright curiosity over and over again, which carries her, ever more tired, through most of her days.
***
It’s around 9 a.m. and the morning sun still hangs over the Sea of Cortez. Catt has a Mexican cell phone but it doesn’t work in this town, halfway down the Baja peninsula, facing east to the Mexican mainland at the dead-end of a desert road. She’s concerned about that. She’ll need to call Bill in Corona later today to check in on his end of her deal.

At first glance the town hasn’t changed much since she came here during the dreamtime, a decade ago. The generator shuts down at 10. This fact was confirmed last night, when the shuddering heater cut out before she’d warmed up the room. She and her small mixed-breed dog huddled together under the blanket she’d thrown in the car. If memory serves there’s a small park down the road, with a wrought-iron gazebo and wooden park benches and colorfully painted discarded tires sunk into the ground.

During the dreamtime, she’d found the place incredibly charming. She and Michel, her ex-husband, had driven down here on a whim, on a tip from two goat-hippies they’d met camping up north on the Pacific side of the peninsula. She and Michel weren’t camping, of course, they were merely exploring: a thing they did well. Trips were what they did best. Every so often they’d rally themselves out of their conjugal misery and take little trips. During these trips their misery faded. Things became terribly vivid, it was a gentle delirium, they saw the world through fresh eyes. “The point is to turn yourself inside out and see the whole world through fresh eyes,” is a line Catt remembers from a play she was in, in her youth. She and Michel hardly turned themselves inside out: they simply got in the car.

“Delirium,” Catt remembers, was the first word she and her killer discovered they shared … Her killer owned and produced electronic music CDs on the Delirium label; she used a form of that word, Delirious, as a user-name on the site where they met. And now Catt really has turned herself inside out: in her delirium, she believes her killer has tracked her investigation of him on the net to her computer. She believes he’s been surveilling her internet search as she cross-referenced each of his lies – each keystroke honing in closer, the IP address, the local server – a primitive counting machine buried inside the circuit board, looking over her shoulder. And the conversations she had with him on the landline at her casita in Campo La Jolla … could they have been traced?

She’d agreed he could meet her at the casita near four hours south of LA to seal their master-slave pact.

From there they’d catch a plane from Tijuana to Acapulco, where Catt would “advise him on the purchase” of an estate that would be used as an experimental treatment facility for clinical trials of her killer’s new anti-aging miracle drug, Nuranex, age management therapeutics for a new generation of health-care, but even though Catt never gave him directions to Campo La Jolla before calling it off she imagined her killer’s black BMW gliding past the old drunk asleep in the light of a black & white transistor TV in the guard shack under a poncho. The car would come to a smooth quiet stop outside of her house, #93-D, it would be around 10:30 at night and this time she pictured actual violence, physical pain, maybe a knife.

(The public records she searched on the computer revealed two charges of spousal battery her killer had faced a few years before – this item appeared after the fraud litigation against him, but before his attorneys filed multiple lawsuits to recover their fees.) Eventually Catt enlisted the help of a friend who worked for an espionage bureau. “This,” her friend said, “is a really bad guy.” Perusal of classified databases revealed bad debts to the Soviet mafia, $1.8M received and disbursed six months before, bankruptcies filed by shell companies. Catt imagined her killer hunted and angry.

The restaurant (soon to be turned into a disco) is closed. It’s the off-season. Catt figures she’ll walk around town and find something to eat. A cocina familiar in somebody’s living room? Fish tacos? She goes back in her room to look for a hat and her wallet. This takes awhile. When she comes out, her neighbor in room #10 is walking up the dirt drive, waving.

Dino is roughly Catt’s age. White guy, broad-chest, looks like an old hippie, but with an edge. He’s wearing a faded short-sleeve button down shirt, which indicates business. He’d heard her arriving last night. “Well,” he says, coming up on the porch, “so you’re the new neighbor.” There’s an ice-chest of beer outside his door, and a thermos. It’s 9:30 a.m. Correctly assessing her preferences, Dino offers her coffee. It’s delicious, like Thai coffee, made with evaporated milk and Catt drinks it gratefully. Dino tells her he gets it from Lourdes, the cleaner and desk clerk, when she comes in at 7. He’s apparently been here awhile.

Dino opens his screen door and pulls a second lawn chair out of the shadows of Room #10. They sit in the shade drinking coffee. It’s pleasant. Dino recites the recent events of his life while they both survey the sexual possibilities of this situation. He’s here to set up a clam-farming operation but there have been certain problems. He arrived six weeks ago and hired a team of unemployed fishermen to dive and take measurements, he’s paying them by the week but the work was suspended today … something about the district police, documentation, heavy equipment.

There’s a vaguely ecological cast to this project, also a community basis, the creation of jobs, though he stops short of using the word “sustainable.” He speaks no Spanish, which seems somewhat, odd? Dino, it seems, would rather fuck Catt than not for lack of anything better to do. He mentions something about his ex-wife, as if marital status would be a factor. Thinking ahead, Catt pictures them on the #10 bed, sweating. It’s a peripheral image within the circle of possibility, not very compelling. Meanwhile his Seattle partner has stopped returning his calls and the factory they purchased in Ensenada last month to process the clams may not have been owned by the Japanese sellers, the attorneys are saying the trust deed was not a legitimate instrument. Catt recalls a cartoon from her childhood, was it Mr. Magoo?, a little man talking about clams when he really meant dollars. “That’ll be 100 clams,” but then again wasn’t clam also a slang word for pussy? “There’s a large Asian community in Ensenada,” Catt comments to Dino. “In fact, the migration dates back to the Great Japanese Abalone Shortage at the dawn of the 20th century.” Sensing the sexual case has already closed in her mind, Dino starts talking about his 15 year old son, great kid just made the high school varsity team etcetera.

Dino’s not very smart. Catt wonders where he got his money. Later, she’ll take a walk into town and when she returns, Dino will be drinking beers on the porch with another American who looks like his twin. For the rest of the time Catt stays in this town, Dino will be hanging around. They won’t speak again.