Salambo and the Barbarians / Tattoo You / Rat Mouth


Chapter III

Rebecca had plans. Just like you. She read Decartes, and she wrote a few striking poems. She fell in love with stupid boys, and before long found herself neglected and bored on the fringes of a pointless relationship that she saw no road leading to fixing. It amused her to read that John Cowper Powys just left a wife in England when he moved to the USA and became fabulous, hanging out with novelists and singers. The book had simply said the marriage wasunsatisfying. How easy.

Rebecca had been light as a bird her whole life and could cross even the thinnest ice after anointing her heels with the crushed wings of dried flies and maybe some essential oils. She had been an ancient princess in another life, or so she liked to imagine. Though she more firmly believed that she certainly understood the misfiring love of barbarians.

Rebecca wasn’t drinking anymore, and she wasn’t in love anymore, and she was working on the cigarettes. She took care of her son, and fed her addiction to one thing, horror movies.

She preferred older ones, but, was partial to anything that really scared the piss out of her. Each time she lay awake expecting beasts to come through the window, she swore she’d never sit alone in the dark watching zombies attack again, but soon enough she’d find herself back at it.

Listening to the baby snoring on the monitor, she sits bolt upright at two A.M. and squints into the darkness of the tiny hallway distinctly imagining how fast a hungry creature could be on her, rushing at her, pouncing, and devouring. Hardly even time for a scream—not that anyone would hear—or a reach out for a trusty kitchen knife. She could almost see it. And now she wanted daylight fiercely, wanted the night over with, wanted to be able to start breakfast for little Brian get on with routine. She wipes a trickle of sweat from her brow.

The monster is low to the earth, shadowy, and multiply armed. Limbs reach out from every direction. Huge gleaming eyes and a large slavering mouth round out the terror. Rebecca searched for this beast in movies and books, but never found him. Definitely a him. And definitely focused on thoroughly having her. Boogieman didn’t cut it.

By morning, with the sun streaming through the windows, she’d quickly dismiss her middle of the night freak-out and be already sorting over new movies listed on her app loaded onto her trusty ten year old Macbook. Even now, studying the lobbycards, reading the synopses, comparing notes, and tutting when they seemed just a little too familiar.

“It’s the same movie, this ridiculous creature in the woods chasing the kids again,” she smiled at little Brian who dribbled saliva-loaded applesauce all down his bib. He gripped at the bowl, and the edge of the highchair, as if he were hoping to tear it all apart with his bare mitts. But she pulled the movie up anyway, and while she managed kitchen affairs, she watched the kids running through the woods being menaced by werewolf puppets. There was the “jock guy”, the “nice guy”, the “goofball comic guy”, the “floosy”, the “good girl”, and the “tough girl” who Rebecca picked to survive, but the movie throws a little twist and the werewolves miss the “good girl” and eat the “tough girl” instead. Of course all the werewolves had been the townsfolk who hadn’t been particularly friendly to them as they headed up to this remote family-owned cabin for a weekend get away. And that made no sense, wouldn’t a town of werewolves be wanting to advertise their woodland cabins to bring in edible morsels from the city? Rebecca was certain she could write a better movie, the damned black beast of the early morning hours was way scarier.

Little Brian busily manhandles a rubber doll on his floor towel central to a ring of throw pills Rebecca built around him. She ticks off her duties for the day, take the money for the record sale to Cobb’s Auto Repair, pay the repair bill, pick up the Transport, take remaining funds to the grocery store. Visit Mom at two P.M. check about job with Annie at the flower shop, while Mom watches Brian.

Was this the life you planned? Fuck no, but when is it? Maybe instead of all that Adderall shoved into that flunky, Kevin, she’d been able to get something that boosted some IQ points she’d have had a man to help her through this friggin’ … She presses her temples with index fingers and halts her pointless review. Kevin was a disaster, and only little Brian remains, a glorious product of a terrible idea. Sometimes an earthquake can uncover treasure. And where is Kevin now? Jail. The record sale is only one payment back for his string of goddamned overpriced ski-jackets, booming car stereos, and drugs. Again, she presses her temples, stop, girl. Just stop. Take a breath, we are moving on.

“Are you ready to go shopping, little buddy?” she coos at her son, who looks up with burbling, sweet bliss. I am his world, she thinks with an immeasurable, wet-eyed conscience. I gotta keep this shit together.

The walk to Cobb’s isn’t far, and the sun isn’t directly blazing overhead yet. Her heels are no longer anointed with essential oils and magical parts of animals, they just don cheap running shoes and they just push a stroller rather than running with elfin dexterity over the obstacles. It’s the last day of July, and rent is due.

The worst part of the walk is crossing six lanes of Route 70. The neighborhood isn’t dangerous, no dogs are loose, and even old Esmeralda was off someplace sleeping this morning, she’d be spared the wacky god-bless-yous and spare-change begging from the smelly old man who cross-dressed as a bag lady and lived among the small houses and unkempt hedges in the dilapidated neighborhood somewhere, somehow. But, Rebecca marveled at the trees. While the houses were beat, the trees were mature and full canopied, and overlapping the sidewalks.

She popped out behind the Bo-jangles and lined the stroller up for the crossing, punching the button. Right here there had once been a crazy drunk driver who rammed the Bo-jangles with his car and actually killed a lady police officer standing in the dining area.

Why does everything have to be about power? Pleasure has a pure place on the stage, Rebecca thought—rather randomly while watching the cars zip past at well over seventy miles an hour in a forty-five zone. Where’s a cop when you need one?

Finally, the light changed and she pushed forward, shooting glances left and right as the traffic backed up at the light. The cars surged forward inches at a time like bulls testing their tethers. As she reached the center of the highway the light changed and the traffic resumed. Now she stood on the island between the flow North and South (actually labeled as East and West). She watched the oncoming traffic, standing within touching distance of the closest lane. The drivers, wearing sunglasses, on cell phones, wearing headsets, eating muffins, smoking cigarettes, blasted past. Occasionally, men made eye-contact she did not maintain it, she did not suggest anything to those desperate hungry animal looks. She turned in her faded jeans, looked away, fussed with Brian, got his shade just right, stuck his pacifier in. Finally, the light changed again and she got across, now there was one more side road to cross and she’d be at Cobb’s.

She rolled Brian into the air conditioned lobby and asked the young clerk in the blue mechanic’s shirt for Mr. Cobb.

“Hey there, Becka!” the large man, seventy, puffing on a cigar came out, his skin permanently stained a dark color, his hands large and wrinkled and as though inlaid with mascara to highlight the ridges and callouses. “Howarya, how’s the little guy there?”

“Fine! I can pay for the car.” She fussed for the cash.

“Oh that’s fine, good to hear,” he rustled around under the counter and came out with a work order, a listing, it had a payment on it already, and a balance. Rebecca started counting out the twenties.

“I’m not gonna charge you the storage this thing kicks out,” he took out his pen and scratched off the fourteen dollar a day storage fee, which was close to another hundred and fifty bucks.

Rebecca hadn’t even been aware of a storage fee, and felt herself blush harshly, “Oh thanks, thanks a lot!”

“Yeah, we go back, don’t we!” the old man crowed, “how’s Kevin doing?”

“He’s doing OK.” Rebecca searched her mental inventory, does Cobb know where Kevin is? Does he know how long he’s been away?

“Ah, good.”

It’s just chit chat and the old man doesn’t really care he just picks up the two hundred and eighty bucks and totals out the bill.

“Mr. Cobb take this extra twenny and buy some coffees for the guys, you know, on me.”

“Oh now that’s mighty nice of you, Becka they boys’ll be right pleased with that.”

And now she has her keys. Released.

“You take care now!”

At the run down Pontiac mini-van Rebecca got the sliding door open and situated Brian in his car seat. He was sleepy, and wasn’t terribly interested in anything except the pacifier.

“Good boy!” she sung to him.

She got into the driver’s side and immediately found black greasy prints on the steering wheel. She wiped them off with a sigh on a towel she carried in the car. The car smelled a bit of cigar. She reached up and wiggled the air-freshener shaped like a mini-skull and crossbones out of its plastic cover. It basically stank of patchouli but it was way better than most.

The car started, and the Rolling Stones Tattoo You CD she had left in the player started loudly, old Keef Richards belting out how some chick was his rock and roll. The brakes felt tight again, she eased out of the parking lot feeling a slight thrill of the freedom of being behind the wheel of her own car.

Now she’d have to make enough cash to get it registered again, but at least it now had been inspected. Of course, none of the money spent on this thing over the past couple of weeks had anything to do with the fact that the car still had no AC and still burned oil. It always hurt to spend money and not solve all the pressing issues.

Mr. Cobb friggen loved him some goddamned Kevin. And by being in proximity to goddamned Kevin, the old man kinda did Rebecca a favor too. But, he wasn’t going to do work that wasn’t going to be paid. Who would? Even if the baby is cute. Even if the mom ain’t bad either. She smiled to herself, checking her eyes fast in the rearview. Not too red around the slate blue. Lately she’d been looking kind of weepy, and that just wouldn’t cut it. No one liked weepy. She pasted a bit of her hair back into the tight knot she’d made of it early this morning, and went back to the road.

Werewolves, zombies, and vampires. Doesn’t anyone have anything more interesting? What kind of monster was her monster? This shadowy, multi-armed, big mouthed, gleaming eyed, humanoid—but grotesque—powerful, fast and hungry thing that stalked her. She had no idea what to call it. It was far scarier than anything she’d seen recently, though it certainly smacked of a certain Lovecraftian style mixed possibly with Gollum. Like a Shoggoth and Gollum combined, she thought. It had intelligence, it definitely was teasing her.

Rebecca had long hoped for a remake of the old Jeffrey Combs fronted From Beyond film, but people seemed to only want the same things over and over. It’s time for a Lovecraft revival.

And now she had to hear about her sister Eva’s perfect pregnancy and marriage. She steeled herself with a beatific smile and nod. Eva was competitive about her birthing little Heather, competitive about her diet, about her apparent health, even about her living near to a Wal-Mart which for some reason was a sign of tremendous good sense.

Rebecca sometimes wished Eva some delicious ill will. She hoped, occasionally, that Eva and Robert, who enjoyed some modest boating as if they were wealthy socialites hobnobbing with Kennedys, would sink. She sometimes wished Robert would turn up sobbing wondering where Eva was, and where Eva was was in the belly of a sea-beast. Something tentacled preferably. And not because she wanted to move in on Robert, but just because she had nothing against him personally, he seemed to be doing his best under the circumstances.

Eva was telling mom and Rebecca about the unusually wonderful curative effects of hemp. She said hemp about ten times in a minute just now. But as soon as Rebecca was asking for a citation, where did you get this information? Eva was on to the deadliest things known to man, GMOs! As Heather yawns in Eva’s arms little Brian shits himself, stinking the place up and Eva wonders aloud about his diet.

“You’ve got to watch those corn products, it’s all loaded with GMOs! You gotta buy organic!” Eva nods narrowing her eyes at her sister.

“Oh, I picked up some of that cereal you said he likes,” Mom says, rising from her chair and heading dreamily to the cabinet.

“Oh Mom you shouldn’t do that,” Rebecca says weakly.

“You should just throw that stuff out,” Eva guffaws, “seriously, this is killing us!”

“He likes it, and it’s not expensive,” Rebecca smiles her beatific smile, neutral, meaningless. Go die.

“Fine, don’t listen to me, I do research on this stuff all day long,” Eva says loudly.

“Eva, you work in insurance, aren’t you a receptionist?” Rebecca smiles even more sweetly.

“I can research as well,” Eva attempts to match the smile but fails fluttering her pretty eyelashes.

“It’s just some cereal, Eva, relax,” Rebecca tries again while Mom scoops up Brian to take care of his diaper. “Mom, you don’t have to—”

“It’s no bother, I’ve changed a million diapers,” Mom scoots to the bathroom where she’ll settle the boy on the rug and handle the stinking poo.

“It’s not just about the cereal, Becky, you don’t take any of my advice! You’re going to regret it, and you’re already basically a welfare case!”

OK it’s on.

“Eva, if it wasn’t for Robert you’d be a welfare case too. You’re a skill-less moron who thinks she’s some kind of jumped up—”

“Fuck you! You do one successful thing before you lecture me, bitch! I run my own business!”

“Eva, those goddamned hemp products you sell do not constitute your own business, they’re a scam!”

“It’s not a scam! I’ve got journal articles—”

“I’m not talking about the health benefits, I’m talking about the fact that they make you buy it all and then convince you to push it on your friends and family to recoup your losses, don’t you see that?”

“You can’t create a real business without incurring some upfront costs,” Eva nods authoritatively.

“Your house is full of that stuff, isn’t it?” Rebecca turns as Mom sings from the bathroom.

“What’s that, Mom?”

“He’s quite a little man!” Mom giggles.

This means Brian got a wee hard-on from the diaper change. Rebecca rubs her temples quickly, eyes closed.

“I’m just telling you, you should listen a bit, you always just attack me.” Eva goes into her therapist mode.

“I attack you?”

“You do and you don’t even see it, you should try some of these aroma theraputic essential oils, Oh! I have a bergamot with me!” Eva spins on her heels and while cradling her sleeping baby, digs around one handed in her baby satchel. “It’s really good, you put it in tea.”

“Eva, please,” Rebecca slouches at the kitchen table.

“What, I want to give you something? Jesus, you can’t even take a gift?” Eva’s face, so much like her face has always been, kind of ageless, she looks exactly as she did when they were kids running across the swamp ice. Of course, she’s only thirty-five, not exactly aged.

Eva continues digging in her bag as Mom returns with Brian.

“All better! No more stinky!” Mom sings tickling the happy boy as she shoves him into Rebecca’s arms. “He’s getting to big for me, I can barely move him already.”

“Yeah, the stroller is a godsend.”

“Here it is! This is good stuff!” Eva shakes it and seems as happy as she’s ever been to produce this tiny bottle of scent. “Just take it, you’ll thank me for it later!”

Rebecca does not anoint her heels with it.

Leaving Brian with Mom and Eva for a few, she zips over to Annie’s shop near the seafood place, and consults with Annie about a few hours during the week, watching the shop, selling the gardening supplies. It looks easy, and it’s a step up from the Dairy Queen. Annie is willing to be very flexible, being a long time friend of the family. Annie inherited the shop from her parents who moved to Boca Raton. Rebecca always wanted to know why that place was called “rat mouth”.

“The cone flowers are just about done,” Annie smiles pointing, “so now I need to move the zinnias into their spot, always keep the freshest up front, you know.”

“I’ll do that right now,” Rebecca says with enthusiasm, and desperate to be helpful, desperate to be doing something useful, she starts picking up the cone flowers, and not knowing where to put them, looks confused.

“Becky you don’t have to just now, we’re just talking, we can do it when you know what hours you have,” Annie chuckles.

“Oh, Annie, I’m just so wanting to be doing something,” Rebecca says putting the cones back.

“I know, hon, and you will,” Annie hugs her and for the first time in a while it feels like a real kind of human contact, something other than just balancing the baby.

“Mom’s going to take Brian for the afternoon, I was thinking I could be here from like two to five or six?”

“That’d be perfect for me! I won’t ditch you right away on your own, we’ll do it together for a couple weeks and then I’ll let you run the shop.”

Rebecca’s heart soared. She hadn’t felt anything like useful in so long. “Thank you, Annie.”

“It’s gonna be great!” Annie laughed.

Later, once little Brian has fallen asleep, Rebecca sets about choosing the entertainment. She brings up the ChickFlicks website (strong enough for a man, but made for a woman) after zipping past the news pop-ups: a caged hunting scandal in which a former politician, rich-bitch has big cats flown to her ranch in Alberta so she can shoot them, a famous pro-wrestler passing away long before his time along with the requisite allegations of potential harms from steroid abuse, and finally, the worst of the set, something like over five hundred rape and abuse charges filed against Gene Simmons and other members of the old rock band Kiss. The ladies of Kiss, as they’re being called, allege drugs were provided them, and that the fellows took distasteful advantage of them while they were just under-aged fan-girls. Didn’t the rock music demon himself brag of such back in the day? Before my time, Rebecca mused.

Skimming past remakes of remakes that were just remade, more werewolves (seen it), zombies (just gross, not scary), and romantic vampires (yawn), she settles for a no name cast in a sort of “mole people” monster flick. The cover depicts a young woman being pulled under the earth, into what looks like good gardening mix, her arms flailing. A Roger Corman style catch-phrase “Tunneling for you!” emblazoned across the women’s hands. Rebecca snorts and brings it up, starts the stream, balancing the Macbook on her knees as she sags back into the sofa.

This is the best time of the day, the cigarette (just one) is lit, the Fresca is popped, and maybe she’ll allow herself a Payday nut bar. She cocks an ear for Brian and the little monitor is quiet.

Rebecca is already planning her little review of the flick, trying to recall the names of the actors from the ancient mole people movie. She’ll check the online movie database, she picks up her pen and makes a note about the uninteresting trope of the same pretty young people each movie, the same types so clear, every shark, cabin in the forest, and zoo animal gone rabid movie with the same band of killable kids. You just want them to hurry up and kill them off, there is no other particular storyline to follow.

In the old Lovecraft stories people could dig a hole and find horror. Or they could could just go out the back door to a Louisiana swamp and black people would conjure up a beast. Lovecraft kind of had it made, people were willing to accept just about anything ethnic people did as evil. Our modern versions of racism aside. These days attempting to be over-placating, imagining a group of teenagers in the horror film of every ethnicity is equally annoying in its overweening desire to be righteous.

Camera-eye monster views are of course super-cheap to do, and this mole monster movie is making a lot of use of a filtered camera being shoved around at ground level, following girl’s ankles and knocking grass stems out of the way. What’s this thing called again? Oh, From Underground. Very explicit, brings to mind mushrooms. Of course, Lovecraft was kind of expert at making fungus terrifying.

Ah, the first “kill” a lovely girl sunning in the grass, dragged part of the way to a hole. Camera-eye zooms up to her feet, and then she’s attacked. You don’t see the creature, which is classic form, and the sequence ends with her scream on reverb. Rebecca chuckles. This one’s not going to do it for me, she thinks.

But do what? She scrunches her little toes in dirty socks and lays her legs out letting the Macbook sit on her flat tummy, tilting the screen toward her a bit more. It’s hot, so she puts a small pillow under it, making sure the fan can still cool.

The kids are wandering about looking for the lost girl. They find her towel, her personal stereo, but no sign of her. Yeah, killer mole from underground not your first choice?

Rebecca wants another cigarette. She controls herself, tries hard to resist it. But the movie sucks. It suddenly hits her that one of the actors is an alumnus of that awful Star Is Borntelevision show, where pretty people go sing, and someone like Madonna decides if they should have a career or not. They should not. The kid’s name is a blank, and it was probably flashed at her just a few minutes ago.

The baby squawks. Rebecca cocks her ear, it’s just a typical baby squawk probably nothing. No he’s making some noise. No, now he’s done, probably passing some gas.

OK, now good stuff is going on in the movie, it’s dark, and lots of camera-eye movement, the kids running about squalling, and doors are being bashed. The monsters, seem to be refugees from the old Killer Shrews design. Guys wearing carpet on their backs, and crawling about, grabbing at the chicks’ legs. The boys beat away on the things and they retreat. But it’s the darkness and the creepiness and the overall helplessness that Rebecca almost hates to admitloving. The roller-coaster ride, strapped in and just having to go where it goes. She’s not fond of the gore though. So many movies exchange good creepiness with piles of bloody stuff. It’s cheap, and so bad movie-makers rely a lot on dropping hamburger and squirting red juice around.

Another chick goes down, hamburger and red juice. This group of teens only has two boys the rest were sexy, hot ladies. And they were attempting to be forward thinking by having two of the beauties in a relationship, though, it wasn’t much more than hinted at onscreen. Horror movies tend to be stalwartly conventional things, so any deviation from the formula is well appreciated by the aficionado.

Then one of the boys, the one Rebecca liked for being a poor man’s Antonio Banderas, gets gutted. He stares off blandly, gurgles some fake blood, keels over as the remaining kids scream.

“Booo,” Rebecca says softly. More hamburger and ketchup.

On her back at two A.M. she dabs a bit of sweat off her brow. Her monster is not a mole man, or a killer shrew. And he’s after her in particular. It’s personal. There are no teens to hide behind. She squeezes herself into a ball under her comforter. She is paralyzed, certain this black beast is waiting on her, just waiting. For what? Why not just pounce? She feels her blood pounding in her temples, she notes herself ventilating a little unsteadily.

And then something odd happens, the room begins to vibrate a bit. She pulls the cover off her head and sees that it’s not just her imagination but in fact a real tremor, she leaps out of bed and rushes to the baby, but the baby is so peaceful she dares not touch, and she’s uncertain of her senses. She goes to the kitchen, to the bathroom, to the living room, to the bedroom all in a flash.

She opens the front door of the house and steps out under the massive sweetgum and looks up at the vibrating stars. Is it some kind of heart attack? She holds her chest and checks her breathing, but other than being elevated, it’s fine—no pain. She chides herself the cigarettes, she chides herself not keeping up with her yoga and walks. But the stars vibrate, they glitter spectacularly, and there’s Esmeralda, or a statue of him/her near the edge of the cross up by Summit and Gilbert Avenues. And then, as if just by thinking it, Rebecca was there too, studying the old motionless derelict. And then Rebecca found herself at the Mexican restaurant peering in the windows at the red booth seats, and then behind the Bo-jangles, and then, in a flash, she’s at Caraleigh Park, jeesus! …

And then back in bed. No more vibration. She wipes sweat from her forehead. She jumps up, pads to the kitchen after peering in on Brian, and rips open one of the Paydays on the table and shoves it in her mouth chewing and chewing. What the fuck was that?

She pours herself a tall glass of OJ and sits at the table. The clock says two forty-five. Her feet hurt, she looks down and sees she’s cut herself, blood congealed on the toes and sole of her right foot. She goes to the bathroom and washes it in the tub. Sure enough a clear slice just under the toes on the ball of the foot. After applying some Hydrogen Peroxide and imagining the bubbling means it’s killing germs, she bandages herself. She can’t remember feeling quite so hungry. Back in the kitchen she grabs at the second Payday candy-bar and chews that up as if it were the finest meal she’d had in years.

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