Wouldn’t you know it? I’m not even married to Cassie Wright and already I’m about to become a widower. To the young actor 72, I say, Please. Please tell me that was merely an M&M candy he gave Bacardi. “Potassium cyanide,” says the talent wrangler as she leans over to pick up a paper napkin off the floor. “Found naturally in the cassava or manioc roots native to Africa, used to tint architectural blueprints in the form of the deep-blue pigment known as Prussian blue. Hence the shade ‘cyan’ blue ...”
Hence, she says, the term “cyanosis,” used to describe the blue tinge of someone’s skin after she’s been poisoned with cyanide. Instant and certain and forever, death. On the monitors hanging above the room, echoing and empty save for the three of us, a full-breasted Cassie Wright plays a stern ward nurse, righteous and tyrannical in her starched white uniform and sensible shoes, who brings joy and freedom to the residents of a men’s mental hospital by giving them all blow jobs. A classic of adult culture called One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nuts. I say how much I love this movie. And the young actor 72 says, “What are you talking about?” He says the film we’re watching is about a feisty young pitcher who earns herself a starting spot on an all-male softball team by giving her teammates blow jobs. Squinting, standing on my tiptoes and peering to see the screen above us, one of my hands still clamps on the edge of a folding buffet table. My anchor. A landmark in the dark room. Actor 72 says, “This movie’s called The Bad Juiced Bears.” He says, “Are you blind?” It doesn’t matter if Bacardi gives Cassie the pill or not, the wrangler says, stacking paper cups and stuffing them with crumpled napkins. She says the production might already have its dead body. A dead man, walking. Some man about to collapse at any minute. Cyanide, she says, travels as ions through the bloodstream, binding to the iron atom of the enzyme cytochrome c oxidase in the mitochondria of muscle cells. This union changes the shape of the cell, denaturing it to the effect the cell is no longer able to absorb oxygen. Effected cells, primarily the central nervous system and the heart, can no longer produce energy. For my reality show, after Cassie and I are married, I ask, How about calling it Sex Pot and the Private Dick? Gathering empty potato-chip bags, balling them up, and stuffing them into a black garbage bag, the talent wrangler says, “Most cyanide poisoning occurs transdermally.” Looking at actor 72, she says, “How do you feel?” Any weakness? Any loss of hearing? Weakness in his hands? Sweating, dizziness, or anxiety? Cyanide is what killed those nine hundred people in the Jonestown mass suicide of 1978. Cyanide killed the millions in Nazi concentration camps. It killed Hitler and his wife, Eva Braun. During the Cold War of the 1950s, American spies were issued eyeglasses with thick, clunky frames. If captured, they were trained to casually chew the curved earpieces, where fatal doses of cyanide were cast inside the plastic. It’s these same horn-rimmed suicide glasses, the wrangler says, that inspired the look of Buddy Holly and Elvis Costello. All those young hipsters wearing death on their nose. The moment the wrangler says “Jonestown” the actor and I look at the punch bowl, half empty, cigarette butts and orange peels floating in the pink lemonade. About my new reality show with Cassie, I ask what if we call it Under-Cover Coupling. I ask does that sound too racy for network television. And actor 72 says, “What’s trans ...” “Transdermal,” the talent wrangler says. “It means ‘through the skin.’” Wiping up crumbs with the edge of her hand, clearing the buffet tables, the wrangler says how most cyanide poisoning happens through people’s skin. To the young actor, she says, “Smell your hand.” The kid cups one hand over his nose and sniffs. “No,” the wrangler says, “smell the hand in which you held the pill.” The actor sniffs his other hand, sniffs again, and says, “Almonds?” That smell of bitter almonds is the potassium cyanide of the pill reacting with the dampness of his hand to form hydrogen cyanide. Already, the poison’s leaching into his bloodstream. “I’ll just wash my hands,” the actor says. And the wrangler shakes her head, saying that’s not the only place the pill touched. Not the only sweaty spot on his body dense with pores and nerve endings. About my future reality show with my future, maybe dead wife, I ask why don’t we call it Mrs. Curves and the Flat Foot. Actor 72 looks from the wrangler, tucking his chin to his chest to look straight down at his crotch, saying, “No way.” The wrangler blots a puddle of spilled soda, using a handful of napkins. The wrangler picks up unopened condoms, red, pink, and blue condoms, and drops them into an empty popcorn bag. Actor 72 sniffs his hand again, then leans over. With his other hand he stretches out the waistband of his briefs. Bending over, his spine a curve of knobs under his skin, the actor inhales a long breath through his nose. He bends over again and takes another long, long sniff. Standing straight, he says, “I can’t get close enough.” To me, he says, “Do me a favor?” He says, “Sniff my nuts?” The talent wrangler is grabbing up handfuls of spilled candy—jawbreakers and candy corn and gum balls rolling around loose on the buffet tables. “Please,” actor 72 says to me, “my life depends on it.” Wouldn’t you know it? This would happen only after I found out I was heterosexual. If the young man ate candy, the wrangler says, that’s probably what’s kept him alive so long. Glucose is a natural antidote to cyanide poisoning. Based on anecdotal evidence, glucose binds with the cyanide to produce less toxic compounds. Actor 72 sprints to the buffet table and stands next to my hand where it’s clamped on the table’s edge. There his fingers scramble to collect the leftover Lemonheads and Skittles, the fun-sized Butterfingers and Hershey Kisses, and cram them into his mouth. Chewing Red Vines licorice and jelly beans, his mouth gummy and sloshing with spit and sugar, the actor turns to me, saying, “Please.” Around wads of thin mints and chocolate turtles, he says, “Just smell me, okay?” The mad monk Grigory Rasputin, who seduced and manipulated the women of the Russian court with his reported eighteen-inch penis, the wrangler says the corrupt monk survived several plots to kill him with cyanide because each assassin mixed the poison in something sweet: sugary wine or candy or pastries. Mixing the toxins with their most effective counteragent. At this moment, the wrangler says, Branch Bacardi would merely need to insert the pill inside Cassie Wright. Whether it was swallowed or otherwise, Cassie would suffer giddiness, confusion, headaches. Cassie’s skin would turn a faint blue, and her heart would race as it tried to feed her cells more oxygen they couldn’t absorb. She’d lapse into a coma, suffer a heart attack, and be dead within a few words’ time. “Even if you do sniff his nuts,” the wrangler says to me, “not every human being can detect the smell of hydrogen cyanide.” From outside, somewhere above and beyond this place, comes the wail of sirens, getting louder, sirens getting closer. The talent wrangler reaches across the table, picking up half-eaten cupcakes. Pizza crusts. Soggy maple bars licked clean of their frosting. The sirens arrive here, wailing just beyond the concrete walls. “If you intend to approach Ms. Wright,” the wrangler says, speaking to me, “don’t imagine you can just waltz into her life.” She stoops to pinch something off the floor. Frowning at it, held between two fingers, she says, “Some crazy person chewed up the condoms . . . ?” And I shrug and say, It takes all kinds. Scraping up a wad of gum, using the toe of her shoe, she tells me how it took her months of trying to meet Cassie. How Cassie mentioned a child she’d given up for adoption, how that was the biggest mistake of her life, something Cassie could never repair. It wasn’t too much effort to guilt Cassie into making this movie, to leave that lost child a fortune. To wrap up and clean up the mess of Cassie Wright’s sad, wasted life. The sirens so close by now, so loud, the wrangler has to shout. Still wiping up crumbs, scrubbing sticky strands of candy off the tables, the wrangler shouts, “It’s only hate makes you that patient.” She shouts that nothing except a lifetime of festering anger and hatred would give you the determination to wait around corners for hours, rain or shine, to loiter at bus stops just in case Cassie Wright happened by. To get revenge. The sirens cut off, leaving us in silence, the wrangler, actor 72, and I looking at each other in the empty room. And, whispering, but still loud in the new quiet, actor 72 says, “You’re her.” The actor 72 swallows his mess of sugar and spit and says, “You’re Cassie Wright’s lost baby.” Saying, “And Cassie doesn’t even know.” Crushing an empty aluminum can in one fist, the wrangler says, “Correction ...” Smiling. She says, “As of this minute, I am that very wealthy lost little baby.” The talent wrangler—her nose is Branch Bacardi’s long, straight nose. Her black hair is his. Her lips are his lips. I ask how come she knows so much about cyanide. And wouldn’t you know it, actor 72 sprints to the bathroom to scrub his balls.