“Did all that stuff actually happen? . . .
Or did you just—kind of dream it all up?”
“What’s the difference?” he says to me.-Sam Shepard, “Saving Fats,” Day Out Of Days
1. Her dad likes film noir
Her dad likes film noir. Loves the femme fatales. He laughs out loud at the corny dialogue, the tough-talking guys who smoke and brawl, the street girls down on their luck. He loves smoke, fog, intrigue, the whole mood. The Chinese manservant smoking a bong. Undulating twists and turns in the plot. Gangs vying for power in the city. Gold diggers, the whores—he loves them all. Watching these films on VHS, he forgets for a short while about the confines of his present state, the leg held captive in its brace with its straps and buckles, the metal clamps. The movies return him to his youth in the thirties, where he [End Page 107] grew up outside of Detroit. He loves the ladies in these films, their glamour, their hardness, their need to survive—the way they use sex to buy love, or pay the rent. He finds it moving, the way these women rely on looks. Because even if the bitch is without redemption—a real dragon lady, a killer, an evil dame—well, underneath the hard exterior lies a broken heart, and he’s a big sucker for a broken heart, in any form. He loves these shady noir ladies more than his own mother, more than his own sweet, apple-cheeked wife. He rumbas with Lana Turner, does the cha-cha with Rita Hayworth, sambas with Ava Gardner; he foxtrots with Betty Grable in the dance hall of his mind. He dances with these chicas, their hair long and smooth as glass, covering up one eye; he dances with them in some dreamed-up theater in the sky. Because he can’t in real life—rotten luck, contracting polio a year before the Salk vaccine turned up. For this reason he can’t dance with his own wife, who goes off every morning in an oversized shirt to work for minimum wage, painting pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge on handmade mugs and plates and bowls for Bay Area tourists. He can’t dance with her—not now, not ever.
Instead, he jitterbugs with Veronica Lake, in a parallel life.
2. One story
One story she can’t remember herself, but which she’s been told time and time again, was that supposedly, when she was three or four, her family went to Michigan, and stayed at her grandmother’s place. There was a lake, a lighthouse at the end of the beach, pure, pine-tree fragranced air, cormorants; and on the narrow strip of stony, white beach, there was a tiny, flat-bottomed rowboat. Navy blue, built in the forties. Made from old wood.
And—according to her dad, who loved to tell the story—she would push this miniature rowboat upside down, so that the flat surface of its underside faced the sky, and step onto the turned-over boat, raise her arms in the air—and dance. You made your own little stage from a boat, he told her, time and time again. Why did I do that? she asked him, Who was I dancing for? [End Page 108]
Who knows? For the Gods, I suppose . . . Then he would pause and make a gesture, as if half-heartedly tracing a wisp of smoke. For the clouds. For the winds of the beach. He’d shake his head, smile, stare inwardly at the memory. It gave me immense pleasure to watch you do that, he’d told her.
Immense pleasure, he said.
Joe sits in front of a table, directly across from her. Two guns in the holsters at his side, belly hanging over his belt, black pants, a beard. Tinted glasses, so even indoors under the fluorescent office lights, the lenses darken, go slightly off-color. Single dollar bills go flip-flip-flip through a counting machine, Saturday night, flip-flip-flip they go. So fast that in three minutes the machine counts five hundred and ninety-two...