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Authors: Jim Nisbet

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Prelude to a Scream

BOOK: Prelude to a Scream
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The Damned Don'
t Die


Lethal Injection

Death Puppet

The Price of the Ticket

The Syracuse Codex

Dark Companion

The Octopus On My Head

Windward Passage

A Moment of Doubt

Old and Cold

The Spider′s Cage


Poems for a Lady

Gnachos for Bishop Berkeley


(with Alastair Johnston)

Small Apt

(with photos by Shelly Vogel)

Across the Tasman Sea


Laminating the Conic Frustum


The Visitor

For more information, as well as MP3s of

The Visitor” and “The Golden Gate Bridge,” visit

This edition first published in paperback in the United States in 2013 by The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc.

141 Wooster Street

New York, NY 10012

For bulk and special sales, please contact [email protected], or write us at the above address

Copyright © 1997 by Jim Nisbet

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review written for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast.

Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available from the Library of Congress

Manufactured in the United States of America

1 3 5 7 9 8 6 4 2

ISBN PRINT: 978-1-59020-199-2

ISBN EPUB: 978-1-4683-0814-3

Thanks to the inimitable Dennis Jakob for the Gottfried Benn poem; to Drs. Andrea Hanaway and Brian Grossman for stimulating medical advice; to Dr. Arthur Baker for a tale of cannulation; to Adam Osborne for
fusion viper
; to George Malone for his Tom Collins recipe; to my father, JD, who has always believed; and to my brother, Jack, who has always listened.

Thanks also to Tom Raworth for thinking it up in the first place and, in the second, for permission to quote from
in think
, which originally appeared in
, Copyright 1974, 1977.

♦ ♦ ♦

Everything Happens to Me
, by Tom Adair and Matt Dennis. Copyright 1941 (Renewed) by Music Sales Corporation (ASCAP). International copyright secured. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

This one is for Robin Cook

1931 - 1994

On the tomb of a student, named Novillo, there was
an inscription half effaced by the passage of time, “God has interrupted his studies to teach him the truth.”

Curzio Malaparte,

Bon Weekend

Chapter One

. A
had been, always would be.

In matters drive-by the Tenderloin has always been a place to deal. Day or night, war or peace, plague or maternal remonstrance, its sidewalks serve.

On this particular night, weather had briefly made a difference. An hour after dusk a violent storm scoured the streets. The creatures washed up under awnings, in doorways and bars. For another hour sheets of rain, wind-blown until they shredded, gave the district the feel of a ruined armada, as if, its rigging in tatters, its crews cowering, the entire enterprise might founder into the black asphalt. For an hour nature asserted herself in an inconvenient, unmarketable form. Yet, in the subsequent drizzle, like a field of storm-nourished poppies, the trades blossomed again.

Tires hissed and horns honked and all light redoubled in the liquid spangle. Girls and pseudogirls scanned the beaded fields of lacquered steel for the eyes they could pick out through mottling safety glass, eyes that might reflect a groin's signal to a work boot or tasseled loafer, its command to lift off the accelerator, to cause the machine to coast and slow, to redden a brakelit face caught behind a wet windshield.

Friday night was Stanley's night for sex, and drive-by
fellatio was his choice. Not the missionary position,
not sodomy, not the grunting of athletic endeavor, not theatrical groans, not sweat bucking off the tip of his nose, not a damp sheen in the little dimples at the base of a spine, not a circular mauve davenport with pale yellow
and a brass-framed smoked mirror on the scarlet ceiling, not champagne and caviar and a lot of adenoidal commentary concerning Debussy's evocation of the fountains that sob with ecstasy in Verlaine's poem, not candle wax dripped on nipples, nor violent trysts naked under raincoats in piss-etched phone booths: none of these things interested him. For Stanley Ahearn, drive-by fellatio would do fine, sordid and simple, with maybe a hissed obscenity for imprimatur like the wax seal on a papal bull. He'd thought about these things. Outside the cab of a pickup truck the idea of sex attenuated. Something there was about the smells of transmission fluid and the mildew between the floormat and the rug, of defroster-baked invoices on the dashboard, of the whole miniclimate overwhelmed by a really cheap perfume.

If someone brought up the subject of sex while Stanley was absorbing radiation from the television, he'd agree with anything said, just so long as no thoughty chat came between him and the screen. But when his head was clear, when someone raised the subject of sex with Stanley Ahearn, in between, say, the second and third whiskey, or during halftime, he wouldn't say a word but think to himself with the utmost clarity, give me drive-by fellatio with a complete stranger and, insofar as we have control over these things, preferably with a woman, and, all other things being equal, give me the rest of my life to be alone. In a pickup truck at night in the rain, somewhere in the Tenderloin or, if you can get the girl to trust you that far, at speed on the freeway while she's performing it—it was more than a tolerable experience; it made for a decent Friday night. After work and before food, with a couple of whiskies in between, at speed on the dark freeway with Percy Sledge on the radio singing
When a Man Loves a Woman,
the left arm crooked out the open window and angling back to the pint, the whiskey in its bottle animated by the vibrations of the steering wheel, and one of those precisely vulcanized Japanese condoms of infinite ductility, of sanguine impermeability, and the edge of an infinite loneliness afterwards like a front of weather over Wyoming—the
optimum embodiment,
as they say down at the patent office, of sex without

A pint of Bushmills for her to gargle. Make her feel wanted and warm and all Prozacky inside. Anything more—conversation, the name of a home state, some encouragement for the Forty-niners or the Giants, even so much as a banality about the weather—and a relationship had begun. If the idea of marriage loomed over all Stanley's habitude like the specter of an avalanche over a sleepy alpine village, he spent all his time antipodally, sufficiently distant from the threat of the paired recliner chairs, the microwaved food, the dwindling gallon of
Andrei Rublev
vodka, the surprisingly heated argument over the sex appeal of a newscaster erupting through the murderous lassitude devolved of a marriage made for the sake of halving the rent.

If a reactionary cliché of marriage was enough to rob any evening of its magic, the mandate of prophylaxis had been a terrible thing. At first, he'd had to use his imagination when girls brought up the subject. Get her to put it on for you, sure. Get her to work it over with her hand first, too. But, in the end, a quick study, he'd learned to provender the glove compartment with the thin Japanese ones, the tip of each embossed with the kanji for
The girls won't spend the money necessary to get the superior—which means
—ones. The girls carry the prophylactic equivalent of an inner tube for a bicycle tire—much cheaper. Twisted like a licorice whip by the twin strands of his sensitivity and paranoia, what a guy wants is the strong, lubricated, space-age thin, flavored ones, that taste exactly like a mint daiquiri made with Rebel Yell and toothpaste, for the maxima in sensation and distance. A twelve-pack of the really good ones can run to forty dollars. “Cheaper than a kid,” he would invariably say to the sales clerk, who would invariably be not amused. Can't be natural membrane, either, has to be synthetic. The human immunodeficiency virus penetrates sheep intestine like a bullet penetrates silk. It's not a joke, prophylaxis. But neither is looking at the world through a sheet of glass.

A girl liked to see them, actually. They put a certain distance between a girl and her work.

These mint-daiquiri jobs were the ones he'd started out with. He still kept a few of them in the glove compartment. But he had long since augmented them with a jalapeño flavor certain hookers liked. True, it kept them warm on those particularly brutal nights, when the cold and the damp were enough to give a girl pneumonia, let alone spiritual torpor and goose-flesh (a turn-on, to a certain kind of fella) or even chilblains, standing on a street corner in a bun-hugging mini with her blouse tied just under her boobs and heels high enough to park her blisters along with her sinuses in the jet stream. But the truth is, jalapeño fumes clear a coked-up sinus. A girl likes to breathe when she's giving head. Jalapeño's the one on the right. No, don't turn on the light. Darkness is for people who couldn't care less about what they make it with, as much as it is for people in love. Darkness suits people with illusions no less than it suits people with goals.

In a doorway at Taylor and Turk two plainclothes cops in pineapple shirts and pastel windbreakers cornered a miniskirted thing with a white rat stole and heels like two sequined banana clips while a third cop radioed for the paddy wagon. Double-parked not twenty yards upstream was a Cadillac with a too-tall black thing leaning into the driver's window. Her gold lamé mini looked like it was wrapping two anisette lollipops, the skinny twin stalks depilated for payday, so tall she had to turn her wig sideways to get it in through the car window. Neither the gold mini thing nor the one with the two cops was female—not that the cops cared either way; this was San Francisco, after all. There was too much of everything in this neighborhood: plenty of work to go around, and plenty to let go.

The light at the top of the block was red. As Stanley waited, a bleached blonde he'd never seen before stepped off the curb and rapped at his passenger window. He leaned over to roll it down.

“Wanna date, honey?”

“Just a little head.”

She gave him and the interior the once-over. No obvious handcuffs, chains, knives, footlockers, oversized syringes, nets or guns in view, she said, “Twenty bucks.” By the light of the hotel marquee behind her and the taillights of the airport shuttle bus in front of them she wasn't bad looking, with no visible Adam's apple. Stanley unlocked the passenger door.

A rouged face miraculously un-fissured by the rainwater, which rolled over her complexion like tequila over travertine, contemplated Stanley—the pause before the abyss; or better, another tiny pause before another tiny leap. The rain abruptly slacked off to intermittent ticks on the thin sheet metal over their heads, it could have been the audio track for the apostrophes spilling over the brim of a neon martini glass above a bar named the OVERFLO', across the street.


A cloud of cheap perfume wicked through the humid air like acetone through a cotton diaper, a Southwestern accent escaped the red lips. “Honey,” the accent said, “I'd lip-twist a cutie like you for $19.95, and I got the nickel to prove it.”

Her tone, her demeanor, the cast of her eyes, they all added up to one thing, honey, Stanley thought: a girl in over her head, too young to be talking tough like that.

Sugar, she honestly might have replied, you got twenty years on me, but I'm getting older faster than you are.

Put a Southwestern way, he silently insisted, you're all hat and no cattle.

Look, she didn't say: you want a blowjob or not?

“Let's go.”

She slammed the door.

Stanley drove through the intersection.

“Brrr,” she said. “Myself, I wouldn't mind a little heat.”

He pushed the defroster to high, which placed enough demand on the truck's electricals to dim the headlamps slightly.

“Thanks.” Her voice shivered. After a block she said, “I had a disk drive on my first computer, where I worked after high school? Sounded just like that heater.”

Stanley handed her a Dixie cup and the whiskey. “Fill the cup and give me the bottle.”

She did so.

He gestured with the bottle. “It's okay stuff.” He fit its neck to his lips and tipped it.

She watched him carefully, noting the level of fluid in the flask before and after he drank.

“You don't have to worry.” He puckered his lips, appreciating the whiskey's sting on a cold sore inside his cheek. It might have been perspicacity, that narrowed her eyes. “That so? Have another.”


“You're welcome.”

When he lowered the pint a quarter of it was gone.

She threw back the Dixie shot.

“Yup,” she said, coughing once. “Listened to that disk drive all day long for six-fifty an hour. Drier in that office than in here, though,” she reflected. “Warmer, too.”

Day job, thought Stanley. High school, marriage, kids — day jobs.

“Whew!” she said. “My goodness! That's good whiskey, mister.”

He handed her the bottle. “Have another.”

She took it, poured. “No,” she said, but threw back her second cup anyway. “
ometimes whiskey on these steroids makes me a little

Stanley kept his face straight ahead, but his eyes slid over to the right. “Steroids, huh?”

“Yeah. Hipnogynazones, or something. Thing in Polk Gulch gave 'em to me, said they would make my tits grow. I'm a little shrill, though.”

He heard the unmistakable click of pills trapped in a film canister. Here's a girl, thought Stanley, naive enough to buck Ahearn's First Assumption for Self-Preservation, which is, Never break more than one law at a time.

“They sound just like a rattle,” she giggled. “Nuff to make a baby laugh and a bachelor man jump.” She shook her fist. “Genetic craps. Ya wanna play?”

“Where you from?”

“Colby, Colorado.”

“Daddy a cowboy, was he?”

“Ain't seen him to ask.”

“Lived here long?”

“Three months.” She rattled the fist.

“Finish the drink.”

“Oh,” she said in a little voice. “All business. Hombre de negocios. Well, it's gone.”

“Help yourself.”

She refilled the cup. “Eagle flies on Friday, huh mister?”

He watched her turn it up. Her throat was smooth and straight. No whiskers. Pretty, almost. Young, for certain.

Her mouth sagged visibly. “Sheeee…” she said, almost to herself. “Gotta get straight…”

The roots of the hair behind the ears were dark and curly, the lobes shapely, the eyes small and cute though narrowed defensively, the nose a little peyote button.

She watched him watching her. After awhile, her eyelids slowly descended to half-mast.

“What else you on?”

Her eyes sprang open, her voice, a little girl's, whispered, “On…?” She turned as if to watch the wet city unfold over the windshield. Her hand covered his thigh as she did so.

“Yeah,” he said softly, turning north on Polk, driving slowly. “On.”

“Oh,” she said, gently kneading his thigh. “Steroids, hormones, whiskey, coke, vitamin C, stress B, Valium, hypothermia… whatever.…”

BOOK: Prelude to a Scream
8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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