Quo Vadis

QUO VADIS
Jacob Michael King
Issue No. 7 – March 2015

Quo Vadis

He had Bob Ross hair, but I let him fuck me. Maybe thirty-eight, with a paunch and a button-up jean shirt. Also: cowboy boots, and he wasn’t kidding about them.

He had soft eyes and big hands and he wanted me. After the week I’d had, I needed it.

Afterwards, we were drunk and climbed to the roof of his shitty apartment building. We smoked cigarettes in the pre-dawn and leaned back in the lawn chairs he’d set up. Fuchsia clouds scrolled down the purple firmament, starless.

He asked me, “So what was your name at first?”

I asked him what he meant, though I knew. I looked at him. Flushed, he leaned back and said something about how light pollution was beautiful.

I didn’t want to talk about light pollution. I told him my birth certificate said “Joseph,” but that Joseph had drowned in a sea of eyeliner and hormone patches and resplendent wigs. I told him that I had washed up.

“My name,” I said, “is Themis.”

“Themis,” said Bob Ross Hair. Then he smiled and, fidgeting about in his lawn chair, ended up hunching forward.

“Where’d you come up with that?” he asked.

“A peacemaking impulse,” I told him. He wanted more but I didn’t give it. Instead I said, “I’m an abortion driver.”

He looked punctured.

I said, “I mean I drive girls to the clinic. I volunteer.”

He mumbled something about how gratifying that must be.

“Not really,” I said, and now he looked annoyed.

“Okay, so then why do you do it?” he asked. Like he knew where I was going. Like I was being a difficult woman. Like he’d seen a lot of difficult women in his day.

“I’m not being a bitch,” I said, which somehow shook him. “I saw the play last week.”

He looked at me like I was full of shit, like how are you still alive, then? But he didn’t say it.

 ***

These days, the theater was precarious and aggressive. Like a mass shooting or a car bomb. The setting was always somewhere banal: a shopping mall, an office building, places where people would suddenly stop and form an audience.

Actors (dreadfully warped in appearance or vibe or both, often self-mutilated) were appointed. Perhaps they picked themselves – none were available for comment. Anyhow, they’d start performing. Sometimes there was a kind of dream-narrative to the pieces, and sometimes they’d just spit these oblique little aphorisms.

Whatever route was taken, the conclusion, inevitably, was the same: actor and audience would drown in a fatal madness. Everyone, or nearly everyone, would be dead before the curtain.

It was a nasty new way to expire. You didn’t know whom it would hit, or when. For a year, you might find yourself etching patterns into your stomach with a pen-knife. You just wouldn’t think about it. But then your time on stage would come.

***

“I was far enough away,” I said. “But barely. I made it. But I haven’t slept… I mean, if I wasn’t fucked up enough already, right?”

I pinkened as the words escaped me. He’d gotten me to spread my legs without knowing my name. How gauche, to bare myself like this. It painted me as a pouty type, an attention vampire. But still I kept talking.

“Apparently,” I said, “I can’t seem to talk about anything else. So you might as well hear it.”

For a while now, there had been people screaming a couple blocks away. He’d left the windows of his apartment open, and the sound had leaked in during our little rendezvous. It sullied the mood, such as it was, but only slightly. Obnoxious, but not alarming. A gaggle of bums having a fit.

Now the gaggle was closer. We could hear what they were saying.

Different voices, the same refrain:

“Who is the man with no face? Show me this man with no face! Where is the faceless man?” they called.

He stiffened like someone stuck a finger in him.

He leaned back and nodded and his eyes went from almonds to thumbnails. He looked serious, and I felt a pinch unnerved.

“Got any faceless friends you can send their way?” I asked.

“I think I know what they mean,” he said.

I laughed, he didn’t.

“Don’t bother about it,” he said. “Just tell your story.”

“This was last week,” I said. “This was my first day on the job.”

***

There Queen Themis stood, leaning against her shitty car, smoking and just generally looking hot.

Attire:

Leopard tights hugged thigh and calf to meet matching maryjanes that clicked subtly, like fingers snapping. An alligator cover-up over a pink spaghetti strap over a C cup bra over breasts full and soft that even the cis girls envied. Then that explosion of pink hair (monstrous and fabulous, positively regal) which she’d bought last week and wore for the first time today.

Sure, they looked. The shopping-bagged Goodwill demographic with its unwashed hair. One man was hunched over a bench, jeans bowed in a grinning crescent, teasing his fuzzy ass. He’d finished his microwave burrito, was kissing rice from his fingers when he dared to scoff.

Then the bus pulled up. Something tiny and scared stepped off: Latin, with long black hair and black eyes; sneakered, with nice jeans and a t-shirt that had “Go Girl!” written on it in sequins. If she was seventeen, she looked young for it.

And so Queen Themis, maryjanes snapping and pink locks bouncing, walked right up.

“I’m Themis,” she said. She extended her arm to an elegant sickle. Go Girl met it with a touch limp and brief.

Well, this was unpleasant. Themis knew you didn’t meet girls like her every day, and her skin had thickened accordingly. She’d become inured to the open mouths and stammers, even to the occasional, misplaced gender pronoun. But Go Girl looked at Themis like she had something in her teeth.

“I’m your driver,” Themis said, and waved to her car. They started walking.

Go Girl asked for a cigarette, so for a minute they leaned on her car and smoked. From her handbag (which was blind-you shiny, dreadful) she drew a phone and started texting.

Now Themis, not a nosy woman, was looking at the phone because it was a nice one. She suspected that Go Girl was blessed with affluent parents and the plebeian taste of the nouveau comfortable. But, during this briefest of glances, she did happen to see the word “tranny” being typed.

“I like your lipstick,” said Go Girl like she was looking at some shit drawing by the daughter she wouldn’t have, telling her it was beautiful.

Themis wanted to read that bitch like a priest reads the liturgy to unwashed pagans. She wanted to take the bitch to school and fail her so she’d repeat the grade and learn some more. But Themis held her tongue.

Instead, she said, “Thanks,” and fingered lips glossed with a glittery emerald. She took a deep breath and another drag and glared bullets at the burrito man with his ass hanging out. He looked Themis over with lust and hate commingled. This is what she got for leaving the house.

***

Go Girl dissolved when they got in the car, collapsed into Themis. And the car was hot, but Themis would feel weird – what with Go Girl’s little nails, their polish chipping, digging needily into her alligator cover up – shifting about to grab the keys and turn the engine.

Queen Themis felt her anger supplanted. Not by pity, but by awe: she felt affectation in the girl’s display, the niggling itch that she was performing. Go Girl’s desperation was secondhand, cribbed from television and YA novels. But then she told Themis she’d been raped, and Themis melted.

And Themis cried too, because she knew what that was like. Many times.

Once she’d been held down as a gang of ballcapped animals kicked her ass and knifed her jeans open and tore her panties and breached her. The blood, the shit, the way they’d stomped on her cock. One had cut her face but his hands shook from conscience or innocence or both. He was as gentle as someone cutting your face could be. Scabs for a couple months, but no scars.

***

 

When I told Bob Ross Hair, I would of course reign in this autobiographical flourish. I’d just say, “I’ve been to that rodeo,” take a drag and sigh like I’d lived too much to look this good.

His intensity was unnerving. He blinked about once a minute.

And the bums, or whoever they were. They sounded like they were right outside, still screaming for the man with no face.

 

So Themis hugged Go Girl tighter, chiding herself for her bitchiness. Go Girl said she was embarrassed and Themis said no and petted her hair.

They started driving, and Go Girl was quiet. Themis said she could smoke in her car, so Go Girl rolled down the window. Themis gave her a cigarette.

“It’s all my fault,” said Go Girl.

Queen Themis, having heard that one before, called bullshit.

“It is,” Go Girl said. “He has a girlfriend and his girlfriend’s a cheerleader. He plays football. He’s like Mr. High School. He’s Mr. Perfect and nobody would believe it but we were in his room and he came on to me. He kissed me and I turned away but then he started kissing my neck. I said no but he said he couldn’t stop, that I was so pretty that he couldn’t stand it. He told me he’d been in love with me, like, forever. Like he knew me since middle school and he’d always been in love with me. He was giving these compliments but his hand was over my mouth and he was pushing my head into the floor. I wanted to scream but I couldn’t even say anything. Like I wasn’t even that scared yet because I was, like, just shocked. And then…” Go Girl started misting up again before the final “he raped me.” She drew a soiled kleenex from her purse, dabbed her eyes and hunched. Then came more sobs.

Queen Themis felt her bitch light glow red-hot.

Poor Themis. Her heart was an island in a sea of sarcasm and piss. Now a turd had washed up on its tender shores. As the turd could speak and weep and smoke, she mistook it for human and let it dry on her beach.

But now the turd had lied, and this Queen Themis could not forgive.

“What were you wearing?” Themis asked.

“What?” said Go Girl.

“I mean when you got pillaged. I was wearing a miniskirt the last time.”

She was quiet for a second. Themis wondered if she’d bite back.

“Just shorts,” she said.

“No shirt?”

“I mean, yeah,” she said. Now a pinch (but just a pinch) of frustration. “I mean, I had on a sweater.”

“Must’ve been the shorts. I bet they were tight. You’re pretty enough, you should watch what you wear. At least for a few more years.”

Themis combed through her pink wig, grinned and kid-punched Go Girl’s shoulder.

“Chin up, honey,” said Themis. “Nobody’s perfect.”

Silence all the way to the clinic.

Queen Themis wondered if this whole volunteer bit was an attempt to understand a paradox of womanhood. Themis had a cock, and it was poison to her. It dangled like a tumor between her legs. She remembered being a teenager, splaying scissor blades on either side of it, hating herself for not going through with it and wishing her bulbous deformity (and it was growing) would just fall off. What she wouldn’t give for an ovary. But here were women who’d have the miracle of their sex scraped from them and lobbed in a biohazard bin.

Oh, she knew they had their reasons. But she would’ve whored herself or robbed banks to hold a baby that was hers. She knew this was selfish. In moments of self-reproach, she wondered if her chromosomal affliction wasn’t just.

They came to the clinic. Go Girl opened the door before they stopped moving.

Themis would probably get a talking-to later: Go Girl pretty much ran her lying ass inside. Not a curtsey, not a “thank you.”

***

Bob Ross Hair was all enraptured. It got me a bit queasy.

What, with the gaggle outside and all, screaming (and now it was pretty much a chant, horrid and guttural) for the man with no face.

“And then you could just feel it happen,” I said. “I was okay and the people in the clinic were okay. I was still at the edge of the clinic’s parking lot. Maybe by like a foot.”

***

Queen Themis sat for a minute with the engine running and the passenger door open. A mood had fallen. Oh, it was sweet, and she swam in it.

She must’ve been hexed. She felt a spell worm its way inside and pop her volition. She walked from her still-purring car.

There was a park across the street. If dirty needles and used condoms got your slippers twinkling, this was the place for you.

But something was happening. Cars were stopping and people were getting out. The street between the clinic and the park was clogged. So were the sidewalks, but there was a space cleared in the middle so Themis could see.

Themis saw a woman in a bathrobe. Older, with a thick chin and a round frame. The severed snout of a cow was mounted to her forehead, perhaps by superglue. Viscera dangled in her eyes like bangs.

The woman said, “I am not myself.”

A man stood on either side of her. The man to her right faced her, and the man on her left faced away.

“I am burdened with your nagging, and by the rhythms of your body. The disgusting particulars of your humanity diminish you,” said the man to her left.

“I am enraptured. The droop of your eyes, the flat uncomeliness of your breasts, they sing to me. You are not poetry: you are the source of all poems,” said the man to her right.

“I can never be seen,” said the woman. “I am unknown. I am recognized only by what I am not.”

The woman undid her robe. She knelt. She was naked underneath, and a string was stitched by an amateur hand from her vulva to the top of her sternum. The wound puffed. Blood seeped. A sewing needle, still threaded, glinted on the end of the string and hung just below her chin.

“I have no other means of seeing,” said the man to her left.

“Perhaps there is an inner light,” the man on her right said.

“And the body, a collusion of accidents, serves only to obscure it,” said the man to her left.

“Find my substance,” said the woman.

Now Themis noticed the fingernails of the men. They were long and whittled to sharp points. They must have taken years to grow.

They dug into the woman’s meaty trunk, and before long she was disemboweled. Her intestines spilled onto the sidewalk. She did not move or blink.

The men stood. The woman slackened and fell forward.

“Lord, where are you going?” Asked the man on the left.

“Your substance eludes me,” said the man on the right.

Among the spectators was a police officer. He moved through the stopped cars and people and stood facing the men. He drew his pistol and the men knelt. He shot them both in the head, and turned to the crowd.

“Find my substance,” he said. He took the gun in his mouth and fired.

Then there was frenzy. The crowd tore and bit at each other. They disrobed and mounted one another on the backs of cars or on the pavement.

One man had opened the gas cap of his car and put his mouth around it. Three men were on the other side, tipping the car until his mouth was filled and he stood and spat gasoline on them and on himself. Someone brought a lighter and fired them up.

The burning men disrobed and fucked until their muscles were burned away. Others went to them and caught fire themselves. They walked through the crowd, spreading it, until everyone was burning.

***

I told him that I’d spent the last week recovering. Drinking cheap brandy, pretending to read. I told him I had stared absently at so many walls or windows and that, tonight, I figured a plowing might do me good.

I sighed, and hoped he’d make a joke or get heated for a second round. Just below us, the gaggle was sounding.

“The man with no face! Who is the man with no face?” one yelled.

A wispy smile from Bob Ross Hair. I felt something clever coming.

“Makes you wonder,” he said, “you know, when the play really started.”

I said it didn’t, really.

“If you think about it, that little girl you drove to the clinic was acting the whole time. Just like a play. And you were her audience. I mean, we’re all acting. You wear your hair and your make-up and shit. You use your voice in a certain way. I do, too.”

“Have I told you that I think you’re brilliant?” I asked, hoping he’d find his way to the nearest gasoline orgy.

“All that bitterness? That’s just acting, too. You’re acting right now. The play goes on until you die. I mean, really, what’s the difference? That the actors in those plays…that they die? I mean, don’t we? Don’t we just take longer? At least with them things are, well, I guess ‘cathartic’ is the word I’m looking for.”

“I’m certain,” I said, “that ‘cathartic’ is the word you’re looking for. Now that you’ve found it, I hope you don’t mind me stepping out.”

I touched his leg, but Bob Ross Hair was stiff. He’d suddenly paled. He looked like an exorcist might do him good.

Sirens. Muffled, distant, and then closing in. The sirens stopped, but the lights still spun. The sound of a car door opening.

And then, from the megaphone, “Would the man with no face please step out of the building? Please. Would the faceless man come?”

“I think I know what they mean,” said Bob Ross Hair. He was glazed over, taken.

“I do,” he said, “I think. Like those nails on the men. They’d been growing them for years. It was a preparation, in itself a performance. But when did it begin? Does one prepare, or is one prepared by something backstage? What distinguishes an actor? I think… I think I know what they mean. Look.”

He turned his chin up. Under his beard there was stitching sewn from jaw to jaw. In the darkness of his room I had not seen it.

“Feel free to fuck off anytime,” I said.

“I’ve stopped lying,” he said, and now it was my turn to look punctured.

“You,” said Bob Ross Hair, “you condemn the liar when you were born a lie. You, a woman: your body lies to you. It says that you are a man. All flesh is yolked with untruth. A foul hallucination… a collusion of accidents…”

He stood. He started tearing at the stitching, muttering all the while, “I think I know… I think I know what they mean…”

Blood fell from him, and I started walking.

A girl like me always knows where the exits are. There was a door on the far side of the building, well-lit, with no gaggle.

This was a show I didn’t care to see.


Jacob Michael KingJacob Michael King lives in Southern California. His work is forthcoming in Permafrost Magazine and Shroud Quarterly. His novelette, “Postmortem,” will be available as an ebook from Onyx Neon Press. His fiction has recently appeared in Cactus Heart.





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