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Chapter 22 - Mr. 72

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The girl with the stopwatch keeps calling the Dan Banyan guy until he comes out the bathroom door with water running down his face, soap foaming along his hairline, with what’s left of his hair pasted down flat to the sides of his head. The clipboard girl’s standing at the top of the stairs, outlined against the open door. Those lights on the set too bright to look straight at. From behind her, the light’s dancing around her dark shape. The girl keeps calling for Dan Banyan by his number, 137, until he starts up the stairs, still scrubbing wads of wet paper towel against his forehead.

Every guy’s looking someplace else, from the brightness and the sight of Detective Dan Banyan sniffing, mopping his eyes with both hands, his shoulders rolled to the front and shaking, his mouth saying, “… it’s not true ...” between big breaths that jerk and catch in his throat.
To look someplace else, I stoop down, reach down with one hand, and grab his autograph dog where it’s landed on the floor. Only it’s too late, oil off some guy’s feet or spilled soda or cold piss tracked out of the bathroom, something’s soaked into the stuffed dog and blurred the names that used to be Liza Minnelli and Olivia Newton-John. The dog’s skin all blotched and bruised with dark shapes and spots.
With nobody looking, the 137 Dan Banyan guy disappears into the light, his forehead still wrecked from Mr. Bacardi drawing the word “HIV” there.
On his dog, you can’t tell anymore how much Julia Roberts loves him. The canvas body feels wet, cold, and sticky, and where I touch its skin my fingers turn black.
Talking to Mr. Bacardi, I say, Dan Banyan’s going to want his dog. I say, So my mom can autograph it.
Mr. Bacardi only just watches the door after it’s shut, the top of the stairs, where Dan Banyan’s gone. Still looking at that door, Mr. Bacardi says, “Kid, your old man, did he ever have that classic sex talk with you?”
I tell him he’s not my dad. My holding the dog out to him, he won’t take it.
Still watching that door, Mr. Bacardi says, “Best advice my old man ever gave me was"—and he smiles, his eyes still on that door—"if you shave the hair back from around the base of your dick, hard or soft, you’ll look two inches longer.” Mr. Bacardi shuts his eyes, shakes his head. He opens his eyes, looking at me now. Looking at the dog in my hand, he says, “You want to be a hero?”
On the dog, the wet parts keep dissolving words, turning Meryl Streep into more mixed red and blue ink, purple bruises the color of blood blisters, the track marks and cancer my adopted dad would paint on an itty-bitty train-model needle freak.
Spreading the fingers of one hand, waving his hand to show me the whole underground basement, Mr. Bacardi says, “You want to save every dude down here?”
I only want to save my mom.
“Then,” Mr. Bacardi says, “give your mom this.” And he taps one finger against the gold heart hanging from the chain around his neck. The chain stretches tight, stiff as wire, to fit around his big neck, and the heart sits up against his throat, so tight that when he talks, every word makes the gold heart rattle and jump. “Give her this,” Mr. Bacardi says, making the heart dance, “and you’ll walk out of here rich.”
Fat chance.
By mistake, I told my adopted folks about the movie shooting here today, and right away their boots were on my throat, saying how if I even left the house today they’d disown me. They’d change the locks and call the Goodwill to send a truck for my clothes and bed and stuff. My bank account I have, it needs their signature for me to take out any money, since it’s supposed to pay for college. After my adopted mom told about catching me with that secondhand Cassie Wright inflatable sex surrogate, that was their condition for letting me have a savings account. Any money I got paid mowing lawns or walking dogs, I had to put into that account, where I can’t spend it without their say-so.
Telling this to Mr. Bacardi, I’m working my way toward the food they got laid out. The dips and candy. After buying these roses for my mom, I don’t have the price of a large pizza. Filling up on taco chips and cheese popcorn, I say how my plan was to show up today and rescue her, save and support my mom so she’s not forced to do porno, only now I can’t even buy my dinner.
Smearing cheese log on crackers, dipping celery sticks in ranch dressing, I keep talking, telling Mr. Bacardi that what’s in that brown paper bag with my number, 72, that’s everything I own in the world.
Balancing the bouquet of roses, I’m spearing toothpicks into little wieners.
Holding the wet autograph dog under one arm, I’m wiping barbecue sauce on garlic bread.
Mr. Bacardi’s eyeing me. He’s making wrinkles with his forehead and a frown with his mouth. He reaches one hand to behind his neck. Then reaches back with his other, both hands touching the back of his neck, the hair of his armpits showing, gray stubble. “Hold on,” he says, and the chain around his neck goes loose, comes apart. Mr. Bacardi dangles the gold heart, swinging from the chain hanging from his hand. He holds the heart out to me and says, “Now you have this: your key to fame and fortune.”
Swinging the heart so it flashes in the TV light, he says, “Imagine never having to work another day in your life. Dude, can you? Picture being rich and famous from today forward.”
My adopted mom, I tell him, she’s such a hypocrite. The day she caught me with the sex surrogate, she’d come home from her cake-decorating workshop. Her and my adopted dad sleep in rooms other than each other’s, since forever. My adopted mom stops me from surfing the Web, afraid I’ll get more corrupted, and her cake-decorating workshop hires a visit from a baker who does erotic cakes, those sex cakes of naked people for a joke, where, instead of asking for a corner piece or a frosting flower, everybody jokes they want the left testicle. Such a hypocrite. After that, she’s in the kitchen practicing boiled-icing scrotums and lemon-curd assholes, mixing food coloring to make clits and nipples. Wasting gallons of buttercream frosting to squeeze out row after row of foreskins on sheets of wax paper. You open our fridge, and inside you’ll find sheets of labia, leftover lengths of thigh or butt cheek, same as the kitchen of Jeffrey Dahmer.
My adopted dad would be in the basement, detailing tiny German nurses, nail-filing their breasts down flat, painting their fingernails dirty, and blacking out their teeth to make underage prostitutes. My adopted mom would be dyeing shredded coconut to make pubic hairs, or twisting the end of a pastry bag to pipe red veins down the side of a devil’s-food erection.
The wet autograph dog leaks a trickle of watery ink down my side, my leg, the inside of my arm.
And Mr. Bacardi says, “Take it.” Holding the gold heart in my face, he says, “Look inside.”
My fingers sticky with powdered sugar and doughnut jelly, I’m still holding the little pill Dan Banyan gave me, cupped in one hand, the drug for when I need to get my wiener hard. While I’m juggling the bouquet of roses, the wood pill, and the wet dog, my fingernails pry at the gold heart until it pops open. On the inside, a baby looks out, just a squashed wad of skin, bald, the lips puckered, wrinkled as the inflatable sex surrogate. Me. I’m this baby.
The heart still warm from Mr. Bacardi’s throat. Slippery with his baby oil.
On the other inside sits a little pill.
Just a plain little pill. Inside the heart.
“Potassium cyanide,” Mr. Bacardi says.
He says to hide it in the paper funnel of my flowers.
“Cassie’s a born masochist,” he says. “It’s the greatest gift a son could give her ...”
I don’t know.
She wants it, he says. She begged him to bring it, even gave him her necklace to sneak it in here.
Mr. Bacardi says, “Say it’s from Irwin, and she’ll know.”
I ask him, Irwin?
“That was me,” he says. “It used to be my name.”
He says to give it to her and she’ll die and I’ll walk out of here a rich dude. I’ll have enough money, I won’t need a family, I won’t need friends. If you’re rich enough, Mr. Bacardi says, you don’t need anybody.
The baby inside, all wrinkled and lumpy. The smooth little pill.
What Cassie Wright didn’t want versus what she does want.
What she threw away versus what she’s asked for.
Mr. Bacardi says, “Your ma’s nothing if not strong-minded. She wanted liposuction, I paid for it. She wanted boob implants, I paid. All that money to suck out fat and inject plastic.”
The baby’s picture, she’s wore it around her neck for most of her life.
Mr. Bacardi says, “It was Cassie wanted to shoot a porn loop to escape her folks’ house. Cassie asked could I score her something to help relax.”
The baby’s nose, my nose. The fat chin, my chin. The squinty eyes, mine.
My mom swallows this pill, maybe only bites down on it, and her muscles paralyze. She can’t breathe on account of her diaphragm’s stopped, and her skin turns blue. No pain or blood, and she’s just dead.
My mom’s just dead. This here’s the last world-record gang-bang movie ever. She’s a dead hero, and we all go into the history books.
“Added benefit,” Mr. Bacardi says, “nobody has to follow the diseased teddy-bear dude.” He says, “You’ll be saving lives, kid.”
All I need to do is hide the cyanide in my flowers, give her the flowers, and say they’re from Irving.
“Irwin,” says Mr. Bacardi.
I say we’ve got a big problem.
The wet autograph dog, it’s printed the name Cloris Leachman on my side skin, only backwards. Next to that’s printed “You mean the world to me,” only in reverse.
“I swear,” Mr. Bacardi says, “it’s what she wants most.”
That baby looking up at both of us.
And I say no. The problem is the light, the dim light down here. Cupped in the palm of my hand, the cyanide and the wood pill, I can’t tell which is which. What’s sex and what’s death—I can’t tell the difference.
I ask which one to give her.
And Mr. Bacardi leans in to look, both of us breathing hot, damp air into my open hand.

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