Dark Charlieby Laird Hunt
The summer I returned from teaching English in Japan, my Grandmother bought me a spark-blue 1991 Isuzu Amigo with retractable canvas top and on-demand four-wheel drive. As a way of breaking this gift in, and because I was at loose ends, with some converted yen in my pocket, I drove my new vehicle east then south then west as far as the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, where my old college roommate, K., was spending the summer with his sister and brother-in-law. I found K. wearing sunglasses and floating on an inflatable raft in the middle of the sizeable pool attached to the sizeable house he was pleased to have been given the run of. After a few initial “fuck you”s, he instructed me to grab some beers (“bad-boys”) from the fridge and to get my trunks on. There were a great many very cold beers in the fridge. I took one out, popped the lid, and drank until there was nothing left in the can. I did this again twice, gasping each time I pulled the can away from my mouth, then went to put on my trunks. When I joined K. in the pool, he asked me what the fuck had taken so long and I told him I had been working on catching up with him. “Luck with that,” he said, belching vigorously. There was another raft available. We floated around in the pool together for a while, took turns going to the fridge to grab beers, then took a nap, showered, dressed, and drove into town.
The bar K. had in mind served “ice cold draughts,” in pre-chilled Mason jars, and after we had made ourselves the close, personal friends of a few of these, we settled into comfortable leans in a fragrant semi-dark through which the handsome women of Texas drifted as if in some collective dream. They drifted, some of them, yes, in boots, and some of them, yes, in cowboy hats and as K. watched them his eyes grew bright and fierce, and as I watched him watching my eyes began to glaze. Perhaps sensing this, K. turned to me and asked, conversationally, if I had “gone fag,” over in Japan. I had not, and would end the evening in better company than he would, but it took a moment for my mind to come back from where it had been and for my eyes to look away, and if a tall woman and her friend had not come over at that moment I feel fairly certain he would have punched me.
This tall woman and her friend swept K. up and away.
I readjusted my lean and went back to what I had been thinking about. It was a temple, on the outskirts of Tokyo, and I had sat under its eaves during a downpour and listened to a friend tell ghost stories out of Kwaidan by Lafcadio Hearn. It had been midsummer, exactly a year before, and the air the rain had fallen through that day had been so full of humidity already that it had seemed to us sitting there under the eaves that we were escaping river, not rain.
In one story, a woman was made out of snow. In another, the ghosts of an ancient sea battle had come back to life. In a third, a sweet potato vendor had no face.
It had been a long drive to Dallas. My new car did not have an air conditioner. I had driven straight from Asheville, North Carolina, where I had eaten bad barbecue and watched an over-developed 12-year-old girl trying out her new long legs and full bosom on an overweight adult in a booth by the toilets.
K. and the tall woman, minus her friend, came back by me on their way to the bar. K. did, in fact, punch me as he passed. But it was a friendly punch. One of those guy smacks. We had often slugged each other in this fashion in the past. Not quite hard enough to bruise. K. meant to have his way with this tall companion. He didn’t know that her friend was in the cards for him that night and that she, the tall one, was in the cards for me. That he would do beer bongs in a cheap apartment with this friend followed by throwing up, simultaneously with her, into the same toilet bowl.
It was time for me to wake up.
There was a heat in the bar that the air conditioner, clearly set to high, couldn’t cope with. We had all brought it in off the streets with us, were exuding it. There were machines, I knew, that could show how much heat we were giving off. That could put us on a screen and display infrared, heat-seeping versions of us. This ability to give off heat was part of what kept us from boiling alive in our own sweet skins.
This was not said to me by K., who was now at a pool table with his two companions. It was said to me by a blond woman with a ponytail, tank top, canvas pants and combat boots. She had a bruise on her cheek, another on her right bicep and glittery, violet eyes. Her arms were long and muscled. She had muscles in her shoulders and some in her neck. It was clear that, if her canvas pants were to come off, there would be muscles, galore, festooning her legs.
“Charlie,” she said, putting one of her hands out. The other hand had a beer in it.
“I’m not drinking, I’m holding,” she said. “I will hold this and hold this and then I will put it down and walk on out of here because the one I’m holding it for will not come to collect it.”
“I was thinking about Japan,” I said. I told her my name. She said, “What?” and I told her again.
“Kind of name is that?”
“Scottish. It’s generally a last name. My parents gave it to me for a first.”
“I like it.”
“Has a kind of ring to it.”
“But it’s hard to pronounce, apparently.”
“It’s like being named Earl.”
“I never been to Japan.”
“I spent a year there. Just back. North of Tokyo.”
“I’m not hitting on you.”
“You and your friend can do that back and forth with them others.”
“You saw my friend?”
“I’m in here every night. I’ve seen him before. I see it all.”
There was, of course, music playing, the kind that made you wish, at vague intervals, that you had on boots and a heavy belt buckle and had better posture, and I had already had eight beers when Charlie and I began talking. I say that to provide context, not excuse. Bits and pieces of what we said at the beginning and end of the conversation come back to me. The larger portion of her story, which she told me as we stood leaning against the wall in that late afternoon Dallas darkness, has stayed with me.
“You want to hear a story?”
“About this warm beer I’m holding.”
“What did you say your name was again?”
I said it. K. came by and gave me a wink but didn’t stop. I had thought he might have gotten the urge to move to shot-downing, which would greatly accelerate things, put them into the end game, but, as I say, he didn’t stop.
Charlie told me her story. I’ll leap right to it.
She was from a small town (Churchyard?) in West-Central Texas. Had grown up in a trailer. Standard (as she put it) bullshit. Stepdad and drunk Mom and all bets off. At some point after high school she had found herself at the center of what became at first a local and then a county-wide phenomenon: girl fighting. Every few days she and a dozen or so other girls would drive out to fight each other in the trees. There were boys too who fought each other, of course, but it was the girls—who would take turns pairing off and fighting until one of them said they had had enough—who caught the imagination, and before long, more and more girls were showing up from different parts of the county to try their luck. Charlie fought and beat them all. She had fought black girls, Mexican girls, and foreign girls of all stripes. Hair got pulled, skin got scratched but the way you won fights evening in and evening out was with your fists, and Charlie (as she told me) could hit harder than most. Some girls had lasted a while, the majority had not. She was not huge, as I could see (she said), but she had always been tough and didn’t know how to quit something once she had started. On more than one occasion she had fought two girls at a time. She felt pain, but never got scared. The harder the fight the more she smiled inside during it. She liked the feeling of smiling inside. She hadn’t known it before. Or had forgotten it. The boys, whose fights were, as she had already said, for the most part ignored (“things that kind of happened off to the side”), fell into the role of referees, coaches, documentarians (some brought video cameras), and boyfriends. There was a good deal of cuddling and jolly-making both before and after the fights, and Charlie, champion of the wood, had enjoyed her fair share of the fun.
She had been a little too (she said) “free in her festival ways,” and had had some scares at the end of the month, so that when a boy named Harry Percival had started frequenting the woods and laid his eyes on her and let her know that he liked what he saw and not just because she could whip all comers, she had quit looking around and turned her eye back on him.
“These aren’t real, you know,” she said, breaking off her story and pointing at her violet eyes.
“No more real than a tattoo. I got three of them.”
“I won’t offer to show them to you.”
“Well, there’s one on your arm.”
“I mean the others.”
The one on her arm said, “Dark Charlie,” and showed a woman jack-hammering a heart.
“You want to get another of those beverages?”
“I do. You want something?”
“I never get but the one.”
She was still holding what must have been some seriously warm, flat beer.
I got myself another drink and, as I slurped at it, she went on.
There were two more people besides Harry Percival in her story, she said. One was her kid brother, Little Bingo (he had always been called that) and the other was a six-four monster out of Abilene called Big Girl. Little Bingo figured in the story because he had taken an immediate and unswerving dislike to Harry Percival the first time the two of them had met. Big Girl figured in the story because she had been the first (and last) person to give Charlie a real fight. There were two sides to the woods. Charlie had been fighting on one and Big Girl had been fighting on the other and after a few weeks it was decided that the only way to figure out if Charlie had a real rival was for the two of them to meet. They had met. The fight lasted the better part of an hour. Despite blacking both of Big Girls eyes, Charlie had had her nose and one rib broken. The rib had broken when Big Girl had fallen on her. The fight might have been called a draw, except that when the dust settled, Big Girl cheerfully told everyone that she had been bested.
The night, and the story, might have ended there, except that not a minute after their fight had ended, another one broke out. Little Bingo, who had come out to watch the fight, had sucker-punched Harry Percival and now Harry Percival was doing his best to smack Little Bingo’s head against a tree. Both Charlie and Big Girl helped break it up, and in the heated aftermath, Charlie had taken Harry Percival’s part and had let herself go off with him to get her ribs bandaged and nose looked at. While Charlie was at the emergency room, Little Bingo had downed a quart of Everclear, had railed incoherently to anyone who would listen against Harry Percival, and had stumbled off into the dark.
When he hadn’t come home by the following afternoon, Charlie had returned to the woods where Big Girl, both her eyes nearly swollen shut, told her about Little Bingo and the Everclear. As it turned out, it was Big Girl, not Harry Percival (“Fuck no I ain’t helping,” he had said), who went with Charlie to look for Little Bingo and who, when they learned he had hitched a ride early in the morning to Dallas, offered to drive Charlie the two-and-a-half hours to the city. Even when they reached Dallas, Big Girl had refused to simply drop Charlie off and had promised to stick with her until Little Bingo had been found. They had made quite a pair (Charlie told me), lurching from bar to bar looking for Little Bingo, Charlie hunched over her broken rib, her nose swollen to twice its normal size and “looking like it ought to be deep fried,” Big Girl barely able to see out of her eyes.
Their search had stretched over days and had finally led them to this bar where Little Bingo had played pool with the intent of hustling a pair of cowboys he had been too stupid or desperate to realize were hustlers themselves. The game had ended (Charlie had learned), when Little Bingo had gone to the bar where he had asked for a beer on credit, had been refused, then, at their request (one of them had smacked him in the face with a pool cue), had followed the two hustlers outside. No one had seen him or the two hustlers again. This had been more than a year ago.
“He was my baby brother,” Charlie said, holding up the warm beer.
I didn’t say anything.
“Like I said, I’m bad at quitting.”
I nodded. I had a good deal of beer in me and was trying to keep my eyes from crossing. There was a story in what she had told me but I wasn’t quite sure what it was.
“And what about Big Girl?”
“She went back to the fights and took up with Harry Percival. Last I heard they was ruling the wood.”
“That’s a sad story,” I said.
“Damn straight it’s sad,” she said.
“Do you still fight?”
She looked at me, a little surprised, then said, “Of course I do.”
“I’d like to see you fight.”
She smiled and told me that where she was fighting these days was private. That the arrangement was different than it had been in the woods and that you had to be invited.
“You could invite me,” I said.
“No I couldn’t,” she said.
Half an hour later I was pulling up at some low-end condos with K. and his two new friends, and a half hour after that I was in a swimming pool (not the one that belonged to K.’s sister) with the tall girl K. had been hoping to end the evening with. After we had frolicked for a while she invited me to come up “and put a cap on the night,” in her place. I went up. She dropped her suit on the white tile floor and told me to do the same. Then she said, “Let’s wrassle.” Wrassle we did. For quite some while. In the end the wrassling wasn’t too successful. Not too spectacular. There was some serious droop happening. Some hefty sag and yawn. We both pretended to sleep then. As we did that I tried to get my mind back under the eaves with my friend during the rainstorm in Japan. I could make it rain that river or I could put us under the eaves but I couldn’t do both. I settled on the eaves. After my friend had told me the three stories I had tried to tell him one. It was about a man who meets death in the marketplace and tries to run. The place he runs to is where death was expecting him. I did not tell it well but I got the ending right.
“Hello, darling,” Death says.
A week and many Miller Lites later, K.’s sister told him that either the dumb-ass partying stopped and he got a job or he was out on his ear.
“I got tender ears,” he told me.
I nodded and drove him over to the local Piggly Wiggly where they were looking for baggers. When he had come back out in a red, white, and blue apron, we shook hands and I drove off, meaning to make for Colorado, where my sister lived. I hadn’t gotten much farther than Ardmore though when I turned the Isuzu west then felt my way south, looking for flashes of color and fists flying in the trees. I had had two head-busting dreams about Dark Charlie since that night in the bar, and I had gone back three times, without luck, to look for her, and my horoscope that morning had suggested I consider the way of the stars (west?). Colorado and my sister weren’t going anywhere, and the Isuzu was still undented and fresh-smelling, and K. had half convinced me that Dark Charlie had just been crazy and that there wasn’t any Big Girl or Harry Percival or woodland battles, so I thought I would just go have a little look-see. “Look-see,” was one of K.’s words. He liked to put on a Texas twang as he said it. Also, he liked to tell people he had grown up in Texas (not Southern Indiana) and had created a legend for himself, a splashy one that involved Austin, a cherry red Ford Mustang, tennis stardom, a huge pecker, and the homecoming queen.
It took me a while to find Churchyard, which was one of those abandon-all-hope American towns you run through a couple of times before you can believe it’s the one you’re looking for. One of those towns that is just a few shacks and trailers, a forlorn phone booth, a couple of faded billboards, and kids, some of them none too young, running around in their underwear. I pulled the Isuzu up at a roadhouse and immediately attracted a small group of car enthusiasts who lost all interest in me and my “pussy wagon,” when they heard how small its engine was. They didn’t want to fight about it though and I was able get directions from them.
My small-engine Isuzu presently conveyed me to a shabby stand of trees a couple of miles west of town. I parked on a tire-scrawled patch of bare grass by a capsized oak and rusted, toad-stool grill and walked into the trees. The wood was bigger than it had looked from the outside and before long I couldn’t see the car. I walked and walked and saw no fighting, heard no crowd, smelled no blood. I did pass dirt rings, empty Pabst cans, and a few flattened popcorn sacks. Not much. But then I realized the hill I thought I had been staring at had a head of sandy hair and was wearing a pair of boots the size of small cars. The hill stirred when I went closer, the sandy hair was shaken a little, and a face was revealed, a face that was small of nose and wide of eye.
“I was hoping to catch a fight,” I said to the face.
“No more fights here,” it said.
“Why did they stop?”
“Because I whipped everyone then ate them.”
Big Girl. Who else could it have been? When I put this to her she neither confirmed nor denied it. What she did do was sit up, lean back against a tree that sagged dangerously under her weight, and ask me if I had any beer.
I told her I did not.
“I’d go and get some myself but I can’t move anymore than you just saw.”
“Can’t you?” I said.
“I’d eat you if I could. You would already be et.” She belched when she said this and I was knocked to the ground.
“You ought to run into town and get me some beer,” she said.
“I met Charlie.”
She kind of craned her head over and gave me a closer look.
“Charlie, huh?” she said.
“Yup,” I said.
“She still in Dallas?”
“What do you mean was?”
“She might still be, I don’t know. I only met her one time.”
“She whipped me once, you know. Whipped me pretty good.”
“A stand-off is how she put it.”
Big Girl didn’t answer. The woods were quiet. It struck me that she must be breathing very softly, big as she was, for me not to hear her.
“What I’d like,” said Big Girl, swiping a little at the air with her enormous fists, “is another crack at that tough little bitch. I think I’d take her now. I think I’d rule the day.”
“She said you went off with her boyfriend.”
“Harry Percival? That limp-dick shrimp salad? He was the first one I ate. I got back here from Dallas and I got hungry. He tried to wrassle me and I ate him for breakfast. At first the fighting girls lined up to try their luck at me, then after a while I had to go round them up. Got some out of their beds. Brought ‘em back out here. Fighting’s for the woods. I fought them all right. Sat on ‘em, squished ‘em, and et ‘em. Go get me some god-damned beer.”
I drove back into town, bought three cases of beer at the roadhouse and took them to Big Girl. She pointed at a bathtub sitting on its side near her, told me to open the beer and pour it in. When I had righted the tub and cracked open and poured out all 72 bad boys Big Girl’s arm came out.
“Shove it closer,” she said.
I shoved it. She picked it up by the far end, craned it over close, took a surprisingly dainty sip, then set it back down.
“Have some your own self,” she said.
I leaned forward, cupped my hands and scooped up a mouthful. I had it to my lips when she grabbed me. Held me up by two fingers like I was a corn chip in front of her face.
“Got me some supper,” she said. She dangled me up close to her teeth, every last one of them as big as my head, then gave a little laugh (that blew back my hair) and tossed me onto the ground.
“I’m just funning. I only eat them I fight. And certainly not those that run into town and bring me back beverages.”
I had been flung 25 feet, had landed badly, had had the breath knocked out of me and, just generally, fuck.
“Huh,” I said.
“What did you come out here for?” she said.
“To see fights.”
“Ain’t no more fights in this woods.”
I could see that. I told her I could see that the fights looked finished. They are, she said again. She then told me she had it in mind to catch herself 40 winks.
“Grab me a good snore,” she said.
I left the woods, went into town, and used the payphone.
“Hidey ho,” said K.
“Get down here,” I told him.
“Get down here where?”
One thing about K. is that he would come if you called. In fact he more or less dropped the phone, got out of the pool and into his sister’s car.
“You’re in your swim trunks,” I said those hours later when he arrived.
“I love driving bare-chest,” he said.
“I gave him a Winnie the Pooh t-shirt and he flip-flopped his way into the roadhouse with me. While I was waiting for him I struck it up with some of the aforementioned locals. They all nodded at K., said his ride (his sister’s turquoise ‘74 Camaro) was more like it, and went back to interrogating their Bud long necks. K. ordered a round and they all nodded at him again.
“Fuck am I doing here?” he said to me.
“Drink up first,” I said.
We drank. We listened to a story from the rowdy who had called my ride a “pussy wagon.” The story was about a sailboat that had been washed 100 miles inland by some hurricane in the long ago. He had visited that sailboat during his army days. The sailboat had been propped upright and converted into a bar. You had to go through a path cut out of a cane field to get there. There was something in the way he told the story that turned the sailboat bar into the one we were standing in and the drinks that had been sitting on its bar into the ones sitting in front of us. We all picked up our bottles and took a long drink and looked out the portholes at the wind moving through the sharp, oozing cane, then K. and I left (they all nodded) the sailboat, walked through the cane, and we got in my car and drove to the woods. When we got there K. looked at the capsized oak and toadstool grill and called me a cocksucker and said there was no fucking way, etc., that he was going into the woods in the middle of the night, but after a minute when I started off he followed me.
There was plenty of moon and the trees were scrabbly and barren of leaves: each of us left a nice shadow on the ground. The fighting rings looked golden in the soft light.
“What’s that noise?” K. said.
“Let’s stop a minute,” I said.
“Look at that over there,” K. said. “It’s a fucking bathtub.”
“Let’s just sit here a second.”
“Sit here? I have to be at work in the morning.”
We had stopped in the middle of one of the fighting rings. Despite his protests, K. sat with me in the middle of the ring.
“Listen,” I said. “I’m going to tell you a story.”
K. didn’t answer. He seemed to be looking up at the sky.
“It’s about Circe and Scylla and a guy named Glaufkos.”
“What the fuck?” K. said.
“Circe loved Glaufkos but Glaufkos loved Scylla. When Circe found out, she made Glaufkos sit on a rock for ten hundred years.”
“A hundred years?”
“Ten hundred years.”
“That’s a thousand.”
“So it is.”
“I’m just fucking saying.”
“But here’s the good part.”
“All the lovers who died at sea during that ten hundred years were arranged around him.”
“Lined up, piled, transported there. The place was magic so they didn’t rot.”
“Well, that’s good. I like that.”
“So this guy comes along.”
“The one on the rock?”
“No, another guy, Endymion. This is from Keats.”
“Endymion comes along and when he gets there Glaufkos holds up a parchment and says, ‘I’ve been expecting you. It’s written, in this scroll. Now we can wake the others.’”
K. didn’t say anything. He had stretched out on his back and had his hands behind his head. I had this good feeling. Not that I was back in Japan, sitting under the eaves with my other friend, watching the rain pour down: it was something else. There I was. There we were. Drunk as lords in the woods. Good enough.
“So together they tore up the parchment into tiny pieces then sprinkled them over all the lovers, the rows upon rows of lovers killed at sea and now lying, ruby-lipped and alabaster-skinned around them. When they had done this the lovers began to wake. They sat up. The sea thundered distantly around them. ‘We’ve done it,’ Glaufkos whispered. ‘We’ve woken them.’ ‘Look,’ Endymion said. They looked. All the lovers, now standing, were looking at them. Waiting to be led back up out of their long, long dreams into the light.”
I had shut my eyes while I was speaking. I opened them. K. was sitting up again. He had an eyebrow raised. I waited for him to make some comment, to say fuck or bastard, but he didn’t, and his eyebrow went back down and he crossed his arms and belched, then sighed.
“Do you want to fight?” I said.
“Thought you would never ask,” he said.
We stood and squared off.
“Don’t forget I have to be at work,” he said.
“Oink, oink,” I said.
I tried to think how Charlie or Big Girl would have done it. Feint or jab? Roundhouse or karate chop? Throw or joint-lock? Head-butt or ear-slap? I could see over K.’s shoulder to the bathtub. As I watched, and as he lunged, I saw it slowly, daintily rise itself up off the ground.
Dark Charlie and her brother Little Bingo had been at sea for some weeks when the storm hit. Dark Charlie called out for Little Bingo to haul in the sail but he had his head over the side of the boat and the wind caught the sail smack in its fat middle, picked them up and carried them through the sodden skies for many a mile. When it finally set them down (with a great splash) they went careening across a flooded landscape, skirting drowned houses and submerged trees. When the wind stopped and the waters receded they found themselves in a cane field.
“God damn,” Dark Charlie said.
“Let’s open a bar,” said Little Bingo.
They righted the sailboat, stood it up on a base, cleaned it, wired it, and cut a door into its side. Then they scythed a path through the cane, ran into town for supplies, put up their sign, and watched them roll in.
Many years went by. Little Bingo died and Dark Charlie retired. Her old flame Harry Percival took over the daily running of the bar and sent out emails to all and sundry to come patronize them. Big Girl was one of the ones who came. They got her in but that was all the space they had. She drank the place dry then started calling out for Dark Charlie.
“Come on and fight, Charlie, you tough old bitch,” she yelled. She smacked her fists on the table and broke it. Harry Percival ran to get Dark Charlie but Dark Charlie wasn’t there. He found a note that read, simply, “I’ve gone to find Little Bingo.” Harry Percival did not return to the sailboat. Big Girl had grown during her time in the sailboat and could not be got out. One bright September day, with the cane waving all around her, she shoved her feet down through the bottom of the boat, smashed her head up through the top and walked off toward the sea. None of them were ever heard of again.
Or so I was told by a short, fat guy wearing an Iron Maiden tee shirt in a sailboat shaped bar that stood in the middle of a cane field a dozen miles from Galveston.
“Every word of that is true,” he said. “This here is a replica of the original vessel. What you could call it is a homage.”
“All right,” I said. “Now let me tell you a story.”
“Ain’t nothing you can say can beat that one.”
“No, probably not.”
“You would have to tell stories all day and all night until you hit one could top it. Especially with the homage here for us to stand in. That’s the clincher.”
I had been in Texas for weeks and weeks. Every time I tried to leave I got turned elsewhere. The day before I had fought someone in a gas station parking lot. Well, the fight wasn’t much. There was some shoving, five or six “fuck you”s, and not much more. It was about who got to use the Car Vac first. I did.
“Let me try,” I said. “To top it I mean.”
“I don’t know, brother, I don’t know,” he said.
“Once upon a time a man was stabbed to death,” I said.
“All right, all right,” he said.
“There was only one witness.”
“Only she suffered from a condition.”
“She couldn’t tell people apart, all their faces looked the same to her.”
“Shit. You’re making that up. This here’s stories that happened.”
“Like Dark Charlie and Little Bingo?”
“You calling me a liar?”
“Like Big Girl and Harry Percival?”
We were drunk. That was the other thing—being drunk. I’d been drunk when I made my move on the Car Vac. I’d been drunk every day I’d been in Texas.
“You want to step outside?”
“That’s the way they say it in Indiana, too.”
“Fuck you talking about?”
“They say ‘You want to step outside?’ and then they either step outside or patch it up. It’s like getting smacked by a glove. Not too much patching it up. There were guys at my high school who liked to go around in the dead of winter wearing nothing but tank tops trying to get guys to step outside with them. They would cruise for a while in their tank tops and jacked-up cars, then stop off at McDonald’s or Burger King to see who wanted to step outside. One of those guys tried to step in on my then-girlfriend. He did it by teasing her. Relentlessly, day in and day out. I was a couple of years ahead of him at this period and had a size advantage. That being the case, all that was required was a little face-to-face time, a little talk. We didn’t step outside. Later it would have been different. He grew and grew and I was glad that he had lost interest in my girlfriend. I saw some guys in Japan wearing tank tops and thought of those guys going around grim Frankfort, Indiana, in their jacked-up cars. These guys in Japan had Mohawks and wore chains and wrist leather. They were sitting on the edge of a culvert and I went running by. One of them pumped his fist and said, “faido.” I heard “fighto,” and turned around to give them a look. They didn’t give me any look back, didn’t give me any smile either. Just said “faido,” again. Well, “faido” doesn’t mean fight, as I learned the next day from one of my students at the language school. They had been, this student told me, encouraging me. “Faido,” was a word of encouragement and not all young men in Japan grinned when they spoke. Another student of mine asked me if I wanted to travel with him to Australia. He had a huge ostrich farm and we would fly business class to get there. I begged off. He asked me why I didn’t want to go. I said I had an obligation to the language school. He said he was presenting me with an opportunity, one I shouldn’t walk away from. I can see now that he was right, but I did walk away from it though. In the evenings I was trying to turn myself into a writer. Fat fucking lot of good that did me. But there, every evening, I sat. One story I was working on was about a couple, drawn together by some suicidal impulse, who very calmly start to hit each other. The woman smacks the man in the face, the man smacks the woman. The situation is controlled, they do it at regular intervals, the sessions start to serve as a kind of clock for them, something to punctuate the long, incomprehensible days of their early adulthood. I took that story into the Tokyo Writer’s Workshop and got scorched for bringing in something that involved a man smacking a woman. Never mind the reciprocity, never mind the surround of the story, as I tried to articulate it.”
“Man smacks the woman?” he said.
“Didn’t play too well. I had to back down. Admit I was stupid and probably vaguely criminal to have written about it.”
“Son of a bitch had tried that on Charlie or Big Girl he would have found hisself dead.”
“It was a kind of game they were playing.”
“The woman set the terms, the situation was controlled. They did it once each day with candles lit. Might have even lit some incense.”
“Dead, dead, dead.”
We finished our drinks and he suggested we drive down to the coast. No way I should have gotten in the Isuzu with a key in my hand but we made it. The water wasn’t clear. We sat down on the sand.
“Now that’s some goddamn view,” he said.
“I’m going to rewrite that story,” I said.
He passed out but I sat there, looking out at the Gulf. Instead of The Man and The Woman it would be Harry Percival and Dark Charlie. I would work in Little Bingo and Big Girl too. Hell, I would work in the sailboat. There were some out on the horizon. All of them had orange sails. I left him sleeping on the beach. I shouldn’t have but I did.
Once upon a time Harry Percival punched Dark Charlie and she punched back. Little Bingo heard about the punching and tried it out on Big Girl. There was a double funeral service. Dark Charlie and Big Girl wore veils and led the procession, which was just them, the coffins, and the undertaker.
Or, once upon a time I fell asleep drunk in my car near the Texas coast. I dreamed that all of the animals of the region, not excluding the denizens of the deep waters, came and climbed on top of my car. My only escape was to sink into the seats, ooze down through the undercarriage, drip into the side ditch, escape far away into the impossible earth. My friend K. was there. He had found a swimming pool and some things—things I didn’t like the look of—to float on. Even though he was already in the pool he had a t-shirt on that read, “Don’t Mess With Texas.”
“I’ve been expecting you,” he said. “It’s written, in this scroll.”
LAIRD HUNT is the author of four novels including Ray of the Star. Vacant Lot, his translation of Oliver Rohe's short novel Terrain Vague came out in the fall of 2010, as did a reissue of his first book, The Paris Stories, and the French edition of his third novel, The Exquisite.