Authors: Eric Bogosian
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Notes from Underground
Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll
The Essential Bogosian: Talk Radio, Drinking in America, Fun House & Men Inside
Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead
Drinking in America
SIMON & SCHUSTER
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2005 by Eric Bogosian
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
DESIGNED BY PAUL DIPPOLITO
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Wasted beauty : a novel / Eric Bogosian.
1. Drug abuse—Fiction. 2. Young Women—Fiction.
3. Models (Persons)—Fiction. 4. Narcotic addicts—Fiction.
5. New York (N.Y.)—Fiction. I. Title.
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Is it so small a thing
To have enjoy’d the sun,
To have lived light in the spring,
To have loved, to have thought, to have done…?
“EMPEDOCLES ON ETNA”
on the rim of the monstrous porcelain bathtub and slaps the crook of her Auschwitz-thin arm, trying to raise one pastel green subcutaneous thoroughfare. Stick it in, stick it in, stick it in. Find the blood. The shouts and screams of alley kids vibrate the rank fizzy air. A fat fly swoops through the brick-propped window, exits disappointed. All you have to do is hump one tiny blood vessel with this tiny but extra-sharp metal dick. Like a heron hunting fish she sticks the syringe in over and over, smearing blood all over the place, impossible to see what’s what. Fucking skinny veins. Almost as fine as the needle itself. There are other places, but not sure how to do that. Under the tongue, along the belly, back of the hand, in the neck. Focus, fucking focus! Time is running out. Stomach’s growling, brain’s aching. Gonna shit my panties in a sec.
He pops his head in and says, “You want help with that?” snatching the soot-blackened bottlecap. “LEAVE ME ALONE! FUCKING LET ME HAVE TWO MINUTES PEACE FOR GOD’S SAKE!” The creep withdraws, slamming the door.
Beads of sweat, or are they tears, drop a million miles to the floor while an amazingly busy cockroach scuttles out from under the tub and licks unaware, of course, of how rare this stuff is, packed with molecules of private stock Issey Miyake perfume and this morning’s wake-up dose of diacetylmorphine not to mention the hormones and pheromones of one of the most beautiful girls in the world. And does the bug give a shit? No. Probably all tastes the same.
The most beautiful girl in the world mashes the bad cockroach under her Manolo and spies the promised land. A vein running just south of her sculpted ankle. Could do that. She grabs her own calf, leaning way forward, and slides in the stainless, careful not to go too far and puncture the opposing vein wall. Yeah, that works, that works.
Set the trigger, cock it, the little red bomb of blood blooms up into the clear barrelful of puro. Satisfied with all the intravenous arrangements, she thumbs the plunger, gives the universe a hard shove and it all comes down like a tsunami crushing a beach. In three seconds the heroin runs from ankle to heart and back out to the reticular formation, the hypothalamus, the thalamus, the cerebral hemispheres, showering the cerebral cortex with an ecstatic saturation of opiates and she thinks, OK, gotta get organized. The relief of knowing the dope will arrive is almost as big a high as the dope itself. Then bam, the tidal wave hits and she’s rolling in the drug surf, upside down, all around, lost in the biggest washing machine of ecstasy and perfection known. No thought. No nothin’. She forgets to sit up straight and tilts toward the dingy, dust ball, hair ball, cockroach carcassed, shit floor. Now if everyone will please look out the right side of the cockpit you’ll see the underside of the toilet passing by. Notice how junkie urine has oozed down through the bowl-sweat like streaks of yellow paint, dripping down and then drying away, forming a small brown puddle beneath the sweating stinking pissoir. Please fasten your seatbelts, we’ll be landing soon.
She attains Superwoman eyes and Superwoman knowledge for exactly five seconds. Almost has the foresight to pull the spike out of her ankle before crossing the tipping point and falling onto her photogenically flawless face, though she does avoid the disgusting floor by cracking her most perfect skull on the porcelain with an act of great acrobatic skill, spinning and landing on her back.
She lifts her head and pukes onto her brand-new A/X tank top. She feels really great. Before she passes out, she thinks, I wanna go home.
REBA COOK (THAT WAS HER NAME BEFORE ALL THIS),
and her brother, Billy Cook, watch the car coming up at them like destiny itself. One month to the day after the funeral, Frank Decker is finally showing his grim face, finally making good on his promise to visit the old farm and conduct a proper appraisal. A pall of ignorance and confusion has hung over the sibling orphans. Mom’s probate has finally ended, and Dad’s just begun. Expectations have shrunk. Taxes are due. Winter’s ’round the corner. The future has withered into a little black nut. But Frank has arrived and Frank will know what to do.
Crouching under the cold wet spittle of the late rain, Frank the banker hurries across the lawn, slips on a wasp-eaten apple, kicks it away and mutters, “OK, show me, I don’t have all day.”
Billy nods and the three make their way toward the orchard. Eighteen of the original apple trees, toughened by cruel upstate winters, still stand. Old and diseased, they insist on bearing fruit. Their wood is hunched and gnarled, lopsided where the rotten limbs have dropped off. But their buds still set, eager for another year of honeybees and sunshine, another season of crisp produce whether or not anyone’s around to gather it.
The brother, the sister and the banker tramp through the defeated acreage, as if immersion among the old trees will help them make sense of it all. Reba, unlike red-haired Billy, is as tall as her dead dad and as blond as her dead mom. What a year. First Mom, her delicate nodes devoured by malignancy, took sick and died. Daddy chucked a handful of dirt onto the coffin, waited exactly six months and then started coughing blood into a wrinkled handkerchief. It only took Daddy eight months to follow Mom into the ground.
Reba, Billy and Frank survey the property while the rain thrums into the surrounding brush and grass. The orchard is soft and dead like a corpse, the soil congested with glacial till and ancient arrowheads. Staghorn sumac has invaded the chinks in the lichen-covered stone walls. Red cedar and swamp maple saplings have sprung up where a hundred years ago the adjacent fields lay flat and perfect. A corroded Ford LTD is parked permanently by the empty corncrib.
Amid the rain-hiss, something snorts and a spooked three-point buck crashes through the scrub, showing them his tail. This time of year the big boys make themselves scarce, but the scent of the rotting apples, even the sweet twigs, are too tempting for the deer to stay away.
Frank picks his way through the wet weeds, aimless. Reba whispers to Billy, “Walks like he’s got something shoved up his crack, like an old man. He’s not even forty! And why doesn’t he smile ever? Looks like an old troll.” Billy shushes her as Frank turns his black eyes their way.
Rain falls straight down now. Birds either gone south or silent. No sound of anything except the rain. Frank squints into the wetness. Reba sneaks another glance at Billy, who furrows his brow in warning. Finally Frank wipes his face with a pocket handkerchief and shouts, “OK. I seen it. And I’m getting cold.” He heads back toward the house, carefully negotiating the clinging whips of wild rose.
The men push into the kitchen and Reba follows, chagrined to find a bean tin of bacon grease sitting on the countertop, a spray of damp coffee grounds staining the sink. The air smells of unwashed ashtrays and stale beer. A curling strip of wallpaper marks the spot where Billy plans to install paneling. A fluorescent fixture flickers overhead. The place has all the tidiness of a cat box.
Frank draws a glass of water from the tap, studies it before bringing it to his mouth. The wet clings to his lip like the slobber of a senile idiot. He runs a palm over the countertop. Reba wants to say, “Feeling for toast crumbs, Frank? Appraising the woodwork?”
Frank says, “I have an opening.” His flat eyes turn to Reba, not Billy, for a response.
Billy says, “But what about the apples?”
“Apples?” Frank spits out the word. “What are you bullshitting about, ‘apples’? Billy, you’re not going to tell me you get apples off those old trees.”
Billy checks his shoes. “We go to the city once a week and sell ’em in the farmer’s market.”
Frank sips, scowls, empties the glass into the sink and places it on top of the spilled grounds. “Billy, you got an empty thousand-gallon tank in the basement and the price of heating oil just went up. Not to mention you got a property tax bill due since June, you got a mortgage and a second mortgage which I told your daddy was ill advised. There’s insurance for the van. You’re not going to cover that with no apples. And don’t plan on living on the life insurance for too long, either. Ten thousand doesn’t go that far and you’ve already spent half of it.” Frank addresses Reba for the first time since he’s come up the drive, “Reba, how old are you now?”
“I’m twenty. Almost twenty-one.” You know exactly how old I am.
“Ever since your mom passed, I haven’t been able to find anyone as dependable. You need a job.”
Reba tries to smile and she feels herself grimace. “I don’t have the qualifications for banking, Mr. Decker.”
Billy blurts, “She works with me on Saturdays. That’s when we go down to the market. I need her there.”
Frank says, “OK. No Saturdays, I’ll give you that. That make you happy? It’s not a problem. Reba, be there at eight on Monday. Wear something nice.”
Frank moves toward the door and Reba calls to him. “Mr. Decker? What about the farm? What do you think it’s worth? Approximately?”
Frank sucks a tooth, checks his watch. “Approximately? This place? Well, a rough estimate would be approximately: zero. People are trying to escape the damned county, not move in. Take my advice, don’t even put it on the market, or you’ll regret it.” Turning away, he says, “I’ll see you on Monday. And better make it seven forty-five.” Frank slips out the screen door, letting it slam behind him.
Billy picks a beer from the fridge and follows Frank. Deserted, Reba overhears the rumbling of the solemn voices on the porch. Like the way people talked at the funerals. Heads close, looking at the ground. There’s not going to be any money. With my share, I could have gone anywhere. Now I’m going nowhere.
In the wet orange dusk, torn ribbons of cloud garland the sun. Through the kitchen window, the awesome hairy witches of the orchard stand in silhouette. Beyond the apple trees, the poplars are straight and tall, festooned with ropes of fox grape. The leafy wild vines shimmer with a sure promise of slow death. If not this year, then next.
Reba digs out an icy brick from the freezer and runs hot water over the pink and yellow slab of frozen flesh, letting it soften under her thumb. Above her head the rolly-eyed Felix-the-Cat clock swishes his stiff tail, marking time, second by second. The fridge growls just as Frank’s car starts up outside. So that’s that. I will swab the green and dirty-white linoleum tiles, thaw and fry the food, sponge Billy’s pubic hairs off the toilet, iron his work shirts. And I will stand behind a counter at the bank all day, just like Mom did. I’ll take my cigarette breaks, a half hour for lunch and all the peppermints I can eat. Maybe someday I’ll grow a few tumors of my own.
Reba scratches a matchstick on the wall, jabs it into the hissing gas. The tiny blue imps puff and she slips the chunk into the skillet’s puddle of oil. The old skillet, the cabinets, the stove—they’ve all been here as long as I have. What if I forget how to remember what day it is? How would I know if it was today or yesterday or ever?
Felix’s tummy reads seven forty-five. With the cooking fork her mom held a thousand times, Reba maneuvers the seared lumps of chicken through the sizzling fat. Her heart races. I own a piece of nothing. I am part of something that is nothing. Nothing plus nothing is nothing.
The door bangs and Billy is beside her. “Well, that’s that.” He eyes the skillet. “I’ll puke if you fry chicken legs again.”
Reba offers no options. “With baked beans. And I got those nice frozen artichoke hearts you like.”
“Who says I like artichoke hearts? I don’t even know what the fuck an artichoke heart is. I hate artichoke hearts. Artichoke hearts make me puke.”
“Everything makes you puke.” Bits of flying oil sting Reba’s arm.
“That’s right, it does. Fuck.” Billy’s face flushes pink.
“You want hot dogs, then? Just tell me what you want, Billy.” You’re not going to blame this on me.
“You gonna take Frank’s job?”
“As far as I can tell, you two made up my mind for me. And besides, I don’t have a choice, do I? Unless you’re planning to lose the cable TV and our phone and our heat. And like the all-knowing Decker said, it’s gonna get pretty cold in February.”
“I’ve got a lot riding on that apple business and it’s a good business. I’ve built it up. People come by looking for my product.”
“It’s a gold mine, we all heard you.”
Billy digs another beer from the fridge, slams it. Jars and bottles tinkle within. “Fuck the chicken legs, I’m going out.”
“Hey, I work hard all fucking week, I have a right. In case you missed it, I’m at that damn gas station every day. That’s how the bills get paid. I’m not gonna stay cooped up in this slum. This shithole.”
“So you don’t want chicken?” If he hits me, at least it’ll kill the boredom.
“You going deaf now, too?”
“Too?” Hit me. Come on. Please.
“Laughing at me behind my back. Too good for everybody. Too good for a job with Frank…”
“I thought you don’t want me working for Frank!”
“I can’t carry you forever, you know.” Billy’s bulk looms, his eyes wet with anger. “You’re useless. You don’t clean. You don’t fucking work. You just lay around and read your stupid female magazines. Guys don’t even like you ’cause you’re so fucking stuck up and anorexic.”
“I’m not anorexic! Don’t say that.”
“You’re skinny enough to be. You’re just a skinny, lazy, good-for-nothing cunt.”
Reba feels the heat in her face. “If Daddy heard you talking to me like that, he’d skin your ass.” I know what I am, I don’t need you reminding me.
Billy whips his empty at the trash can, misses, a slash of beer foam tattoos the wall. For a moment, he stares at the can on the floor as at some kind of enemy, then scoops it up, furiously shoves it into the bin, and finds a third in the fridge. “OK, bitch. She-cat. Whatever you are. But no one wants you. And I’m stuck with you. And Daddy isn’t here, is he? So you’re stuck, too.”
Reba sponges the beer off the wall. “When should I expect you home?”
“I’ll be home when I’m home. You just be ready to hit the road first thing ’cause I’m not waking your bony carcass.”
“Don’t you be telling me to be ready. You be ready. You’re the one with hangovers.”
“You’ve never seen me drunk.” Billy snatches up the van keys and thumps out. The whack of the slamming screen door is followed by the whinny of the loose fan belt and the crunch of tires easing down the gravel drive. Reba flips the hunk of white-edged flesh into the sink and snaps off the gas.