|Apr/May 2010 Fiction|
Teena Beetleman tries wiping away the snow freezing on her eyelids, but it hurts. She thinks she's either tearing her lids or pulling out her lashes, all of this happening within civilization or nearly so—houses, she knows this, just off this very road somewhere, barns, too, businesses, too, since development is sticking its stinky toe way out here in the country, and more than one giant sausage of hay she could crawl right into where the temperature is said to be a hundred and twenty degrees.
Teena, a summer person and only twenty-six, thinks a hundred and twenty degrees sounds all right, sounds better, certainly, than her car, a Chrysler PT Cruiser not all that old but silent now after one giant thump up there in the engine, a noise so loud it dented the hood and convinced Teena she had no desire to look under that hood, made it clear that help lay not in her hands but elsewhere.
Of course, elsewhere now appeared to be anywhere since she could barely see through the scratchy curtain of her eyelids, and she thought her pantyhose might be freezing since it seemed to be shredding from her legs in tiny strips—and it was pantyhose, too, not flesh. Teena hadn't frozen yet, or frozen partially in the sense of being easy to slice up for a stir-fry or salad. Her mind had its cold moments, but she still knew she had to move from this very Point A to a Point B down the road where a married man whose wife had gone to Ecuador on a short trip (drugs, Teena knew, or connections thereto) awaited her arrival for a nice, secluded weekend of sex and food and music.
Teena had suggested—on the phone—long, romantic walks along the country road he lived on, both of them in furry parkas, cheeks all pink and blushy, and great clouds of brandy-flavored breath pouring from their noses and lips. An hour or two in his hot tub, though, began to sound much better, especially after she lost her one shoe and then the other, walked right out of them, and when she turned around to pick them up, they were gone in a windy swirl of expensive leather and three-inch heels. Some farmer, she thought, would find them in the spring and fantasize over something besides hybrid corn or genetically-modified soybeans.
Unshod, then, and not unlike any number of pioneer women who'd slopped hogs and fed chickens barefoot on frozen ground, Teena had no doubts she'd make it to his—Steve's, Steven Marathon's—house, even if she had to detour temporarily into a neighbor's house for hot chocolate and something besides the gold lamé cocktail jacket barely keeping her back and shoulders warm. You wouldn't have several pure wool blankets I could borrow, would you?
Teena, not at all foolish—possessed, indeed, of a bachelor's degree in athletic training with a minor in Finance—had left the city under sunny skies to make the two hour trip west. A cold day, certainly, but her car, bought new, had always been reliable, and the directions to Steve's place appeared foolproof. Even the initial flutter of soft snow had seemed more romantic than hazardous. It just didn't seem possible to go from comfort to hazard in only eighty-five miles unless you'd booked passage on the space shuttle.
"Hello?" she said into the wind.
She'd seen nothing; just thought it prudent to give some notice as to her presence (children out sledding, you know, or cross-country skiers giving serious thought to the challenges of billiards).
"My feet are cold," she said. "You need to know that."
Someone had once told her that if you ever managed to get yourself lost in a wilderness, you needed to stay put. Give your rescuers only one spot they needed to find and not hundreds. She didn't think that advice applied just now. If she stayed put long enough, then by spring someone could build a state park around her and install a fountain at her feet.
She thought she ought to feel colder and then wondered if the new implant she'd had put in her arm just the other day might be giving her a hormonal warmth. She didn't think a married boyfriend wanted her children; his wife, certainly, would want them less, so the implant had seemed convenient, almost foolproof. Clear minds made those decisions and found reward in a stable life. No scouring the halls of Walgreen's looking for cheap diapers for her.
Teena almost missed the Taco Bell, almost walked right by it with her mind totally turned off to structures: buildings, houses, churches, meth labs, malls, state parks, gas stations, and volunteer fire departments (a career desire lost to a full tuition scholarship at Valparaiso). Her hopes, cranked up by core courses in great literature, wherein ancient heroics might easily deliver Steve to her in a large SUV, had turned distinctly human—strong hands coating her in eucalyptus oil and wrapping her in thick woolens.
Her nose, however, caught the hint of hot grease, and her feet, numb though not yet frostbit, clenched in agony as first one and then the other thumped up against a concrete parking block buried in the (still) soft snow.
"What is this?" she said aloud, nearly everything about her still immersed in hard country: vast horizons, empty fields, the grandeur of Steve Marathon's home on a hilltop (nineteen rooms in the main house, seven in the guest house, and four in the pool/hot tub house, he said, though Teena suspected some amount of exaggeration). She couldn't remember if Steve had ever said all those things, but she'd confessed to him in a bar on Hubbard Street one time a certain need for luxury, that she felt born to it and would search for it like some ancient mariner out on a hunt for food less than a year old and not buried in salt.
"Ouch," Teena said. She thought she might have actually screamed, but a great deal of self-awareness had slipped away in the chilling wind. Already she'd had moments where she thought she might be an Arabian mare, either that or an endlessly repetitive iPod in the purse of a young girl, the purse smelling faintly of ozone and used condoms.
"Someone out there?" a voice shouted.
"I might want some help," Teena called out.
"I can't see you," said the voice. "Try walking toward my voice."
The voice then began chanting Taco Bell, Taco Bell, Taco Bell, easy enough for Teena to follow, if slightly disheartening since she'd never liked Mexican food and, in addition, Steve had told her on the phone that very morning that he'd just had some fresh lobster shipped out to his place from O'Hare.
Bacotellbacotellbacotell—Teena, after only a few moments, finally saw the lights of the restaurant along with the boy wearing his cap and singlet and looking very cold. She could see that beneath his cap he was bald, although he did have a small goatee unevenly landscaped onto his chin.
"You should be happy I smoke," he said to Teena, who wasn't sure why she should be happy about such a thing, although she smoked and enjoyed it and also realized her cigarettes were still back in the car—the mystery car now floating toward some wintertime Oz.
"Oh," she said. "Your break. I'm quite grateful. Really."
"Actually it's not much of a break," the boy said. "We've had no business today, none at all."
"Yet, you're here," Teena said.
"The bell rings every day," he said. "That's a slogan. You're not dressed very warm, you know."
"That might explain why I'm so cold," Teena said. "Maybe we could step inside?"
The manager, who, Teena supposed, rang that bell every day, came over to them, and Teena quickly explained about being lost and separated from her car and cold enough they could insert her into their french fryer without fear of serious injury, this dream of a weekend not going so well so far.
"But do you know Steve Marathon?" she said. "He lives here, or around here since I have no idea where I am."
"Steve?" the manager said. Teena noticed he gave an odd look to the boy clerk standing next to her.
"Steve Marathon," Teena repeated.
"You know Steve?" asked the manager.
"I live in the city," Teena said. "We met. We went out. We've done some things together and seem to like it. I've never been to his home, so you can imagine..."
"His home?" the manager said.
"You don't have some spare boots lying around, do you?" Teena asked. "Or even some shoes?"
"Customers always leave things," the manager said. "Curtis? You want to go look?"
"Thank you," Teena said.
"Okay?" said Teena.
"He's, like... married?" the manager said.
"Oh, I know that," Teena said. "We're just—oh—just little moments in each other's lives. Nothing sordid, sleazy." She tried a weak giggle then and added, "Not yet."
"I guess that's a way to put it," the manager said. "Next door. Well, there's a little field, but it's just to the south there."
Teena was quickly out the door then, deciding not to wait and see if Curtis had found any cast off shoes. Steve could take care of that—no question. If necessary, she knew he'd just go out and buy a shoe store and tell her to find what she needed. Generous, he was that, the kind of man, she knew, who respected money only when it was in motion: money doing things, money working.
As to its origins—Steve's money—his jokes about his wife being a drug mule, his story about the time he crashed a plane so loaded with smokeables into a lake that it floated for a day, or his intimations (slyly put) that he knew people with connections "...to pleasure and pain—resources glorious, or resources harsh, Teena"—well, men, she knew, always had stories, and she was certain it wouldn't bother her at all if Steve turned out to be an insurance salesman or an asphalt dealer or a manufacturer of playing cards.
Just little moments in each other's lives, she'd said to the Taco Bell manager. She hadn't thought of it that way before, but it sounded okay, sounded like something that could apply in a lot of places.
Good, though, to have his place near, the snow falling harder now, even crunchy, icy. She noticed a fence made of barbed wire, and she supposed that was the field the Taco Bell manager had mentioned. Pretty sure that she was on the road, and with the fence in view, she walked, regrets fluttering about like the snow that she hadn't waited for Curtis to find some old groaner's forgotten sneakers or the flip-flops left behind by some pencil-thin teen squeaker, a certain amount of confidence that she could handle almost anything life tossed her way beginning to clash with the weather.
That thing there, then, whispering in and out of view—a barn? A farm barn? Did Steven have an actual farm and a straw hat and cats eating mice and dead pigs hanging in a shed somewhere looking like surgically removed penises (she'd seen a picture somewhere, its source no longer remembered), or big bowls of cobbed corn on the table along with cherry pie and smoky ham, mashed potatoes, pickled chard, and a cadre of skinny men drinking coffee who slept in a bunkhouse and went to town on Saturday nights for draft beer and free bowls of pretzels?
Or, she wondered, can the snow make you hallucinate?
Teena had been raised to think about pretty. She thought about that as she approached the building, the barn-building, perhaps a gatehouse with a porter who signed you in and gave you directions to the main house, or, in her case, who might in all good courtesy plunk her down on one of those snowblowers or whatever they were called and give her a ride.
But pretty: that was important, and she'd lost her made-up prettiness about the same time as she'd lost her shoes. Could settle, though, for wilderness pretty if it came to that, showing up at Steve's door all snow-flecked and pink of cheek with some feisty "brrrr's" and a request for hot chocolate before sex. Maybe Steve wouldn't mind rubbing her feet, her frozen feet, so they wouldn't shock him once they were in bed and beginning to explore how imaginative they wanted to be with each other (always an exciting, initial part of having someone new in your life).
Teena, of course, given her background and training, knew a great deal about the hopes and dreams of a whole bunch of anatomical beginnings and endings: nerve clusters, bodily openings, things that could stretch just so.
"Hello?" she said near a small door next to a big door.
Simple politeness is the first knock on any door, and Teena had yet to open the door. She felt at sea (or at snow, but that didn't sound like the same thing) with these country ways, with shoes blowing right off her feet, with fast food available in the middle of nowhere, and here, right inside the door, a thing that looked like a torpedo or a cigar, noisy as all get out, but blowing air, though, hot, fresh, country air right up against her legs and under the skirt that came only to mid-thigh although it had been on sale, only $89.95 and down from she couldn't remember, possibly thousands and thousands of dollars.
It occurred to Teena that this whooshing tube with its hot exhaust would make for the most wonderful fuck, not exactly possible, but then, what's an imagination for? Hot air, yes—Blow me, came to mind, then left quickly—blasting every obscene grain of frigid chill out of her body. The room was warm, very warm. Teena noticed, too, that it was a room and small at that, more like a business room with a desk and computer terminal and printer and telephone. Something as might be expected began to crack within a whole batch of fanciful images—Steve in robe, slippers, and ascot; a comely maid in slacks and blazer showing her the bath, the heated toilet seat, and the walk-in shower with shower nozzles going from floor to ceiling; a theater with multiple wall screens of digital perfection and Surround Sound™; perhaps a brace of Corgis tended by a valet in tails wearing latex gloves.
Another door, though. The dream had not yet ended. She opened it and found herself in a huge room colder than the cold outside and filled, there to her left, with hanging carcasses of big animals. Steaks, Teena thought. Dead steaks. Unusual enough. Teena, however, could still find romance in thinking that love, real love, could begin not only in the Board of Trade downtown where she worked and where she'd met Steve and where he'd told her he'd been dreaming about her for years, about the very sheen of her skin, her dark hair, her blue eyes, her hips that made him want to buy every chair she'd ever sat on—it could also begin, if you were bold enough, perhaps reckless enough, in death and evisceration. Teena had that now in front of her, and she felt a warm feeling in her crotch and her butt (even discounting the portable heater she wasn't, still, all that far from) as liberating images floated through her mind.
That wasn't all to the room, however, because from the center to the wall on the far right—Steve in the center of the room right there (thank God, she thought) with two Hispanic women, the three of them wearing white dusters—she saw tables, the kind of folding tables she'd eaten many a meal on in churches and in college, and the sort she'd registered at for conferences and conventions with folders of useful information being given to her along with name badges she could string around her neck. On each table then another carcass though nothing suggestive of chops or roasts or prime ribs: human carcasses, bodies, human bodies, none of which were moving, so the thought that Steve might be... that he could be into... that in the name of all that was holy that didn't include spreading her legs, this grandiose hunk could be involved in necrophilia or necrolalia or necroblogging or any of the other fanciful packages death wrote itself into, that all began to wobble a number of concepts never covered in even her elective courses and certainly not her idle thoughts. Her Steve? Technically, of course, Steve was not hers yet, but it was not hard to imagine that all this flesh in front of her could well involve a truly monumental cash flow.
Bodies. Not even Teena's near-death walk in the winter world could fabricate this scene, complete with Hispanic women in white coats washing down these corpses, some of whom looked freshly dead while others didn't, though Teena confessed to herself a total ignorance of anything like the stale dead or the too-long dead. As an occasional vegetarian, though, with lobster permitted, Teena felt herself surrounded by altogether too much meat.
"Hi, Teena," Steve said, his greeting followed by an echo in what Teena could only imagine was a true warehouse, the wares not quite the sort of thing shipped over from China and sold at a discount in Wal-Mart.
Steve said something to one of the women at his side and then walked quickly up to Teena, his arms wide as he embraced her. Teena didn't quite look for meat hooks or restraining devices in Steve's hands, but the thought occurred to her.
"I wanted to prepare you," Steve said. "I even had the camera turned onto the parking lot so we could see when you drove in."
"Some problems," Teena said. "I think my car blew up. I had to walk. Really, I had to walk quite a way."
"Poor sweetie," Steve said. "I'll find someone to look after your car. You feel really cold, honey."
"I am," Teena said, her eyes no longer averting their gaze, no longer trying not to see what she knew she saw. "I feel like I just walked into a comic book or a really strange movie."
"Visions of yourself hanging from the ceiling and ready for market?" Steve said.
"Um, not exactly," said Teena. "It's just that—over there you what? Kill cows? Is that what you do?"
"For restaurants," Steve said. "Very fine restaurants. We only deal with prime beef."
"Do I know anything about that?" Teena said.
"I hope not," said Steve. "You should know that when you eat in certain places, the meat's really, really good, and that's why you like it, and that's why you go back. Truthfully, in this business, that's the only expertise that counts."
"I don't eat meat, Steve," Teena said.
Steve looked away from Teena for a moment, then leaned down close to her ear and whispered, "I don't either."
Teena remembered Steve saying something about "this holy duty" and then saying a whole lot more right after she'd said, "And that side of the room?" where all the people bodies were. She remembered thinking of them that way, as bodies and not carcasses. Carcasses were there on the left, hanging and cold, and the bodies were on the right, at rest on long tables. The difference seemed important.
"One of those things no one thinks about," Steve said. "Medical students, science students, researchers, laboratories, they all need human bodies for their work, but they don't just come in the mail, you know."
"So you..." Teena began.
"...clean them, prep them, and package them," Steve said.
"You package them?"
"For delivery," Steve said. "Quite respectfully, I might add."
"Of course," Teena said.
With his arm on Teena's waist then, or her lower back, or, really, pretty much on her butt as she felt it, Steve walked her over to one of the tables, the long conference tables with room enough to cover all manner of business, the floor warmer than the outside yet still cold on her feet and what was left of her pantyhose.
Then Teena thought: I'm not sure about this work you do, and I'm not sure how much I want to know about it. Just a female, Steve, that's me, a wild mix of gartered femininity and dogged ambition. On a good day I could be bottle-fed curled up into a man's crotch, or I could be meeting with bankers to develop my plan for opening a chain of physical therapy clinics. I rarely read, and I don't watch television...
"She was quite beautiful, wasn't she?" Teena said as they approached the nearest table, a woman lying there with perfect skin, her breast implants still issuing an invitation to a party it would no longer be wise to attend.
"With advanced degrees in semiotics and linguistics, I believe," Steve said. "A professor at a small college."
"She was sick?" Teena said.
"She simply died," said Steve.
"Simply?" Teena said.
"Touch her, Teena," Steve said.
Teena had no qualms about touching the woman's body, only a strong reservation as to why she would do that, what large or small purpose might be served in the touching. She said, "Is this your mansion?" Teena asked.
"What do you mean?" said Steve.
"I had the impression, I'm sure you said that we would be... I mean, hot tubs... heated toilet seats... lobster?"
"Just touch her, sweetheart," Steve said.
Teena noticed the body wore cotton booties, so she said to Steve, "Do you have more of those?"
"Oh my," Steve said after looking down at Teena's feet, bright pink where they weren't a tinge of blue. "Of course."
"Where should I touch her?" Teena said.
As with everything else that seemed so odd in this place, it struck Teena that she'd never asked that question before, had never given any thought to touching a woman whether alive or not alive. This woman, too, didn't really seem all that dead to her. She seemed unmarked except for what must have been a nicely done caesarean, that and the occasional mole, a few freckles. Her pubic hair was untrimmed, so Teena put her age at over thirty, maybe forty, aware that the world was filled with exceptions to everything, and the woman did have the breast implants, which suggested... what? A career boost? The needs of a husband? Self-esteem concerns? Pump up the breasts and the lips, then jam the little vacuum wand into the thighs and hips and drain out an inkling of obesity, a soupçon of indulgence? We—women, all of us, yes, indeed—can do it all even if the impudence of a blizzard slows us down a bit.
Still, the woman (wouldn't it be nice to have her name displayed on her, whether something dignified in a name badge or at least a Magic Marker "Annie" or "Justine" or "Tiffany" or "Madge" scrawled on the belly?) just seemed prepared, that was how Teena wanted to put it, as though for a long time she might have been incomplete but was now ready to go: open eyes, sit up, politely request some clothing, and you're on your way.
Teena felt a hand on her ankle and looked down to see one of the Hispanic women slipping a booty onto her foot. If not a mansion, Teena thought, this was certainly a place where a woman got a lot of help—or women. Yes, they were that, all of these pre-packaged research dollies were women.
A specialty? Steven only packaged women? Did the providers of corpses to labs have specialties the same way some car dealers dealt in SUV's or pickup trucks while others did not? What about children? Or sharks and cats? She'd worked on a shark in an undergraduate biology course, an experience not at all profound even with the class having its (predictable and recurring, their professor said) rumor that someone had found a hand in their shark's belly.
After the other foot was bootied, Teena looked down and said, "Thank you."
"Where do you live?" Teena finally asked Steve.
That he might work in one place and live in another would be obvious to anyone, Teena knew, except that he'd labeled his sheet of directions, the ones that would have taken her directly here had her car not blown up, as Steve's Elegant Manse.
"In the back," he said. "Quite comfortable quarters, actually. You'll be impressed."
Quarters? Teena didn't think she'd ever known anyone who'd lived in quarters. Sounded military, perhaps monastic. She might have thought financial except that her punning instincts had departed at about the time her PT Cruiser had stopped cruising.
Teena placed her left hand on the dead woman's face, the act not at all lacking in synchronicity with the lavish, romantic weekend she'd had in mind, just different—
First, I saw all these dead cows and then learned a great deal about dead women and some of the things that can happen to a dead woman, not the least of which is that you end up as show-and-tell in Anatomy 453 or with radioactive marbles stuffed up your vagina at Fermilab near Aurora. Then we ate—lobster, cherry crepes, asparagus—and made love as a blizzard howled outside the walls. My hormonal implants, by the way, worked perfectly as a whole litter of little Steves and Stephanies fell exhausted to my uterine floor. I confessed a good many childhood secrets to Steve, even the one about how I used to sleep with my brother's football between my legs. When my brother found out about it he didn't make fun of me at all. He just took the football and charged his friends a dollar if they wanted to hold it. Then Steve told me how he'd struggled as the illegitimate child of a four-star general of the army, and a princess from one of those Middle Eastern countries people worry about a lot these days. Sometimes these dreams I have make me think that living isn't worth all the fuss. We just do it, and you never know how it's going to work out. What if Steve's home had been a steam vent on lower Wacker Drive in the city? Would it have been ethical for me to say, "I'm sorry. This isn't what I expected"?
—which made her think the whole thing might have been in her mind, desire among the great set designers on the scene, and truthfully she couldn't remember all the conversations she and Steve had had. A meat packing operation? Had he said that?
Had she missed it or simply tumbled it around in her mind? Had she made of Steve something far more successful than even he might have dreamed: CEO, private jet, private train car, private girl sanctioned by the wife, herself busy running drugs up from South America? The wife of your lover (Teena thought this could be a useful rule of life) will never fare well under scrutiny.
Still, a person's work was just that—not always a choice but the way you cut your cloth and filled out your face. No need to tell tales about it, but if you do and the young girls come to you and discover a lack of private luxuries, well then, buster, don't be surprised if they walk right out that door.
Teena wasn't naïve about the power of booties in a blizzard, but she did have them now and felt confident that, at the very least, she could make it back to Taco Bell—as much civilization as she needed—and make arrangements for a motel somewhere in the area, along with a tow truck, a garage, a continuing education certificate, a 403(b), a mail-order marriage to a Russian shepherd, and a strong commitment never to go out with anyone again simply because he was good-looking, employed, educated, spoke grammatically, had roots in the area, an address, and seemed regularly to be giving something back to his community. Time to up the criteria, yes, ma'am.
Who ought to touch your face once you're dead? This naked woman was going to be probed by students. The allure of her tits would shift from sex to science, and that didn't seem at all good. As the poor dead woman herself might say, That was not my intent.
"Do you put her in something?" Teena asked Steve.
"A bag," he said. "Quite special. Some of them even have prints on them. You know, tasteful designs."
Teena thought about that and decided that nothing about death should ever be considered in good taste.
"Do you ever get them mixed up?" Teena asked. She'd already noticed that the door to the little office and front entry had been locked with a bolt.
"Get what mixed up?" Steve said.
"Those," Teena said, pointing to the hanging beef carcasses. Then, looking directly at the women on the tables in front of her, she said, "and these."
"Two separate crews," he said. "They don't even talk to each other."
"One of these tables, then," Teena began, "that one down there, the empty one, that's mine?"
"Would you have it be yours?" Steve said.
"This may not be a good moment for clever questions, Steve," Teena said.
"Just pretend I'm your doctor and I have nothing good to report," Steve said.
"Or my mechanic," Teena said, trying, for the moment, to lighten the mood.
"Your car's already been towed, you know," Steve said. "It's right in back but the engine's blown. Too bad."
"It's not like I have the money to get it fixed," Teena said. "That was my whole point in getting a newer car."
"Real bad," Steve said.
"Does it hurt?" Teena asked. "What you do?"
"I think so," Steve said. "No one ever gives it up easily."
"That's good, isn't it?" Teena said. "I mean, you wouldn't think so, but it really is."
Chasing herself right into a blizzard, Teena thought. What had that been all about? Getting a man? Following a dream right into the reality of a sociopath? No, Steve would reject that, she thought. Simply a businessman taking care of one of the world's marginal, if vital, needs.
"I like to think so," Steve said.
He then added that the demise is always certified, thus clearing the way for things like life insurance, estates, wills, or probate. Relatives receive a comforting if tragic story as to how everything was so terribly quick that the body wasn't recoverable.
"I don't have any relatives," Teena said. "My parents died a long time ago, and my brother's missing in Iraq."
"This is an industry," he continued. "There are standards and ethical practices, even conferences we attend every year. The universities, especially, require accountability. We do that. We also do a very nice obituary."
"So I'll have a story?" Teena said.
"Take your clothes off, Teena," said Steve.
Teena felt two of the Mexican women at her side, their hands ever so lightly on her clothes—her skirt gone, yes, her coat that had been such a wrong choice, then her blouse that had been a good choice. She hadn't thought of being naked in front of Steve this way, not in a small crowd or with thoughtful attendants, though she did remember thinking something about a maid and a valet, the sort of people who always knew everything that was going on but would never tell a soul. Fit, though—she was that—well-conditioned with all internal systems healthy and full of life. Perhaps she'd become a before person in counterpoint to various diseases or unhealthy habits: clear arteries, clean lungs, a vibrant liver; scarless, too, and unbunioned, unbent, unbroken, and even naturally curly hair.
Perfect, yes, with finally a way to put that perfection to use.
"Thank you," Teena said to Steve.
"Do you think I should scream?"
"Only if it comforts you, Teena," said Steve.