For Marian Engel (1933–1985),
Angela Carter (1940–1992), and
Judy Merril (1923–1997)
And for Graeme, as ever
… with wonderful craftsmanship he sculpted a gleaming white ivory statue. … It appeared to be a real living girl, poised on the brink of motion but modestly holding back – so artfully did his artistry conceal itself. … He kissed her, convinced himself that she kissed him back, spoke to her, embraced her. …
“When it gets down to it, these things just don’t feel right. They’re made of a rubbery material that feels absolutely nothing like anything resembling a human body part. They try to make up for that by instructing you to soak them in warm water first and then using a shitload of lube. …”
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
Charmaine feels that Stan ought to sleep in the back because he needs more space – it would only be fair, he’s larger – but he has to be in the front in order to drive them away fast in an emergency. He doesn’t trust Charmaine’s ability to function under those circumstances: he says she’d be too busy screaming to drive. So Charmaine can have the more spacious back, though even so she has to curl up like a snail because she can’t exactly stretch out.
They keep the windows mostly closed because of the mosquitoes and the gangs and the solitary vandals. The solitaries don’t usually have guns or knives – if there are those kinds of weapons you have to get out of there triple fast – but they’re more likely to be bat-shit crazy, and a crazy person with a piece of metal or a rock or even a high-heeled shoe can do a lot of damage. They’ll think you’re a demon or the undead or a vampire whore, and no kind of reasonable thing you might do to calm them down will cancel out that opinion. The best thing with crazy people, Grandma Win used to say – the only thing, really – is to be somewhere else.
With the windows shut except for a crack at the top, the air gets dead and supersaturated with their own smells. There aren’t many places where they can grab a shower or wash their clothes, and that makes Stan irritable. It makes Charmaine irritable too, but she tries her best to stamp on that feeling and look on the bright side, because what’s the use of complaining?
“Why?” Stan might say. “Give me one good fucking reason to cheer the fuck up.” Or he might say, “Honey, just shut it!” mimicking her light, positive tone, which is mean of him. He can lean to the mean when he’s irritated, but he’s a good man underneath. Most people are good underneath if they have a chance to show their goodness: Charmaine is determined to keep on believing that. A shower is a help for the showing of the goodness in a person, because, as Grandma Win was in the habit of saying,
And then she would say,
And they would make the popcorn, and Grandma Win would say
That didn’t last, though. The happiness. The safeness. The now.
Stan twists in the front seat, trying to get comfortable. Not much fucking chance of that. So what can he do? Where can they turn? There’s no safe place, there are no instructions. It’s like he’s being blown by a vicious but mindless wind, aimlessly round and around in circles. No way out.
He feels so lonely, and sometimes having Charmaine with him makes him feel lonelier. He’s let her down.
He has a brother, true, but that would be a last resort. He and Conor had followed different paths was the polite way of saying it. A drunken midnight fight, with
In Stan’s view – his view at that time – Conor was next door to a criminal. But in Con’s view Stan was a dupe of the system, an ass-kisser, a farce, and a coward. Balls of a tadpole.
Where’s slippery Conor now, what’s he doing? At least he won’t have lost his job in the big financial-crash business-wrecking meltdown that turned this part of the country into a rust bucket: you can’t lose your job if you don’t have one. Unlike Stan, he hasn’t been expelled, cast out, condemned to a life of frantic, grit-in-the-eyes, rancid-armpit wandering. He always lived off what he could mooch or filch from others, ever since he was a kid. Stan hasn’t forgotten his Swiss Army knife that he’d saved up for, his Transformer, his Nerf gun with the foam bullets: magical disappearances all, with Con’s younger-brother head going shake shake shake from side to side, no way, who, me?
Stan wakes at night thinking for a moment that he’s home in bed, or at least in a bed of some sort. He reaches for Charmaine, but she isn’t there beside him and he finds himself inside the stinking car, needing a piss but afraid to unlock the door because of the voices yammering toward him and the footsteps crunching on gravel or thudding on asphalt, and maybe a fist thumping on the roof and a scarred, partly toothed face leering in the window:
And then Charmaine’s terrified little whisper: “Stan! Stan! We need to go! We need to go right now!” As if he couldn’t figure that out for himself. He keeps the key in the ignition, always. Rev of motor, screech of tires, yelling and jeering, pounding of heart, and then what? More of the same in some other parking lot or sidestreet, somewhere else. It would be nice if he had a machine gun: nothing any smaller would even come close. As it is, his only weapon is flight.
He feels pursued by bad luck, as if bad luck is a feral dog, lurking along behind him, following his scent, lying in wait around corners. Peering out from under bushes to fix him with its evil yellow eye. Maybe what he needs is a witch doctor, some serious voodoo. Plus a couple of hundred bucks so they could spend a night in a motel, with Charmaine beside him instead of out of reach in the back seat. That would be the bare minimum: to wish for any more would be pushing it.
Charmaine’s commiseration makes it worse. She tries so hard. “You are not a
“But not to everyone,” Stan would say. “Not to fucking everyone.”
Not to rich people.
They’d started out so well. They both had jobs then. Charmaine was in the Ruby Slippers Retirement Homes and Clinics chain, doing entertainment and events – she had a special touch with the elderly, said the supervisors, and she was working her way up. He was doing well too: junior quality control at Dimple Robotics, testing the Empathy Module in the automated Customer Fulfillment models. People didn’t just want their groceries bagged, he used to explain to Charmaine: they wanted a total shopping experience, and that included a smile. Smiles were hard; they could turn into grimaces or leers, but if you got a smile right, they’d spend extra for it. Amazing to remember, now, what people would once spend extra for.
They’d had a small wedding – just friends, since there wasn’t much family left on either side, their parents being dead one way or another. Charmaine said she wouldn’t have invited hers anyway, though she didn’t elaborate because she didn’t like to talk about them, but she wished her Grandma Win could have been there. Who knew where Conor was? Stan didn’t look for him, because if he turned up he would probably have tried to grope Charmaine or do some other attention-grabbing stunt.