City lights shot toward Jordan as he slammed on the brakes. He hit oil or water or something and slid out of the turn at the top of that steep hill on Carrillo doing fifty at least. Burning rubber and fishtailing, the back of the Triumph started coming around and for an ugly second he was sure he was dead, that the TR-6 would smack up against a curb, flip, and go bouncing down the hillside and explode like in some silly-assed action movie.
He got his wits about him, yanking his foot off the brake and steering out of the spin. The Triumph sputtered to the side of the road.
He sat there, engine idling, getting his head clear. Santa Barbara twinkled like colored glass below him.
It was a sign. He needed to turn around, go back home to bed. No good would come of it, but he put the car into gear and continued on.
Jordan arrived, but he lingered behind the steering wheel, straining to see if he had the right house. Sometimes he parked a block away because all of the houses on Carrillo had high hedges or walls to ensure their privacy, but it also made finding the right address difficult, and when he did find the house it unnerved him to head down steep, narrow steps to the ornate wooden door that looked too much like the entrance to a tomb. Something seemed diabolical about that door and the Spanish-style house in general; it played on his secret fear that Mary might eventually get so mad at him she'd slip some arsenic in the wine, or a knife in the ribs.
Theirs wasn't a wholesome relationship; Jordan regretted it for many reasons, but even more so now that he was interested in Trisha. He rang the bell half hoping Mary had given up on him and had gone to sleep. He turned to leave.
Too late -- he heard quick steps; the door opened and there was Mary smirking at him in a tight black slip that revealed her ample cleavage to its best advantage; but it wasn't her breasts he paid attention to, it was that smirk. Mary wasn't a bad-looking woman -- she had a nice shape and a pretty enough face -- but that damn smirk drove him nuts.
"Why are you so late?"
"Two hours late!"
"Two hours? How do you figure?"
"Ten, that's when you said you'd be here."
"You want me to leave?"
She paused to consider his offer, fingers twisting her thick brown hair as she thought it over.
"Yeah, go home. I don't need the aggravation."
"Neither do I," Jordan said, turning to head back up the stairs, but before his foot touched the first step Mary jerked him into the house.
"You asshole! You're staying. I didn't wait all this time for you to walk out!"
She pushed Jordan ahead of her through the dark hallway, almost causing him to fall flat on his face.
"Serves you right," she muttered from behind him.
She rented a room on the ocean side, from the weird-ass owner. Jordan had only seen him a few times but that was enough. So blond he looked bleached of color, dressed like a shaman, leading a workshop of loser New Agers, burning incense, chanting endlessly and purifying themselves by night swims in the frigid ocean water, all of that going on below the bluffs while he and Mary were angrily screwing their brains out.
rdMary pushed him once more into her bedroom and onto her big bed.
"Get undressed!" she said.
"I'm leaving my shoes on," he said, to piss her off.
"Not on my bed," she said, and slid on top of him before he could unbuckle his pants.
"So what's it gonna be, a dry hump?" she asked.
That did it. Whatever self-consciousness he felt with her was gone. She got his fly open and before he could rip open a condom she tossed it aside and worked him in.
"I'm back on the pill; you don't need that."
He didn't feel right barebacking, but he gave in without much of a fight.
"Put your hands on my ass!"
"No, your tits," he said.
He held her breasts, but she pulled his hands off and forced them to her cheeks.
"Grab my ass!"
He did, hard; wanting to squeeze her cheeks until she stopped with the smirk.
"Oh, yeah! That's the trick!" she shouted.
He wasn't giving in.
She couldn't make him come. Not this sex-crazed white girl. She didn't have the power.
"Do it!" she shouted.
He came so hard it hurt. As fast as he came he wanted to go, go so fast she wouldn't notice he was gone until she heard the roar of the Triumph burning out.
She rolled off him, sighing and rubbing herself.
"Man, you pounded me. Guess you couldn't find someone to give it to, horny bastard."
"Yeah," he said, feeling that if she said another word he'd jump right out of his skin.
"You're not going to start with that post-fucking depression. That I don't understand. Why can't you enjoy yourself without making everything such an issue? It's just sex."
"I'm not depressed."
Suddenly modest she pulled the sheet over her breasts and propped herself up with a pillow and stared at him.
"Why are you covering your eyes like you're facing a firing squad?"
"You better not be thinking about leaving. You leave, that's the last time you leave. You don't fuck and leave."
"That's not what I'm thinking."
"What are you thinking?"
She was right. He wanted to leave more than anything he had ever wanted in his life.
"Mary, I got to go. I have to prepare for my class tomorrow."
She began to cry.
"I'm not going to argue. I'm not going to get mad at you. But you know you can throw everything we have away if you walk out on me."
God, he wanted to go.
"Why don't you face it? You're scared to admit we have a relationship. So, you run."
"What are you talking about?"
"You don't want to admit you have feelings for me."
"I admit that. I have feelings for you."
"But you're not serious."
"I can't be serious. I explained that."
"What, that you can't be serious about a white girl?"ar
He couldn't bring himself to respond. Instead he pulled the pillow over his head and unexpectedly started to drift off.
He woke later that night feeling her ass pressed against his crotch, grinding slowly, so slowly he suspected she might be sleeping and the grind was a horny reflex. He twisted a bit until he was inside of her. He did her slowly, hoping, fantasizing that she'd sleep through it and he wouldn't have to listen to her rant about their relationship. The women he had the best sex with were the ones he wanted to run the fastest from. He was doing her comfortably and effortlessly, rapturous without the effort. No weight of responsibility, just the pleasure of luxurious carnality, but at the peak of the pleasure curve he thought of Trisha and her virginity; twenty-one and still a virgin.
How did that happen?
Christian family? The isolation of being a black girl in a very white world? The idea of her having that kind of restraint appealed to him, not because she was fresh or he'd be the first. It was that he imagined she had to be more uncomfortable about her sexuality than he was self-conscious about his own. They'd be perfect together. It had to be better than sleeping with people who make your stomach churn.
Fully awake, Mary slammed into him harder and harder, a piston of passion.
It was almost like magic; as soon as he came, the feeling of being trapped like a rat returned.
"Did you like that...?" she whispered, turning her head for him to kiss her.
"It was great. . . ."
"Every night. You can come over every night and have me all you want."
"That sounds great," he said, without conviction.
A long moment passed.
"Are you still seeing that sorority girl?"
Jordan had forgotten he had mentioned Trisha to her.
"I'm not seeing her the way you think."
"What...you're not fucking her?"
"She's a virgin."
"Oh, a challenge?"
"It's not like that," he said, regretting ever mentioning Trisha to Mary.
"You think this Trisha is it, don't you?"
"I didn't say that."
"An African American girl from Santa Barbara; she probably comes from a family with a little money. You must think you've hit the jackpot."
Jordan rushed out of bed and dressed so fast he had to stick his boxers into his pocket.
"Yeah, I know. This is it," Jordan said, slamming the door on his way out. Mary talking to him about Trisha got him feeling more the self-loathing dog than he thought possible.
He drove home, racing over the seaside hills more relieved with each mile he put between them.
He opened the door of the dumpy duplex on Milpas and took four or five steps into the dark living room, kicked something soft, and sprawled face-first onto the dirty carpet.
"Oh, man!" he heard a voice say, and a big burst of a gasp. A light came on and there was Ned, his housemate in his boxers, laughing at Jordan and the crumpled man at his feet. It was a very confused Arturo. Jordan helped him up off the floor.
"Sleeping in front of the door? What's up with that?"
Arturo checked himself over, dusting off his suit. He seemed to always buy the same sharkskin suit, narrow lapels and cuffs, a kind of Man from Uncle, sixties, secret-agent thing.
"I was pretty buzzed. Next to the door seemed like a good idea."
"Yeah, he's been downing mixed drinks at an art opening," Ned said.
"Miko was there."
"Miko? She's still torturing you?"
"Oh, man, you don't know. Now she's going out with some dumb-ass surfer painter who cleans hot tubs."
"Nothing lower than a hot-tub cleaner," Jordan said, with a straight face. He had to clean hot tubs just last quarter when a course he was supposed to teach was canceled.
"He picked a fight with this big doofus," Ned added.
"He thought I was some kind of punk!"
"Yeah, he threw you into a hedge."
"Ned had to hold me back."
"Yeah, the next time he threw you over the hedge. Art tells me he's gonna say hi to Miko, next thing I know it's like Daffy Duck charging this big beef-eating white boy. Art's got a lot of heart. He stood up to him and got thrown about ten feet."
Art slumped onto the couch, already starting to nod.
"That's what happened. This stupid couch hurts my back," he said, sliding to the floor again.
"What hurt your back is getting tossed like a beach ball."
"I made my point."
"What's that? You can take a licking and keep on ticking?"
"You nitwits leave me be. I need my sleep."
Ned laughed and headed back to his bedroom.
"I wouldn't have missed that for the world," he said, and shut the door.
Jordan turned to leave but Arturo called to him.
"Hey, you have a spare blanket?"
Jordan nodded and pointed to the sleeping bag on the far end of the couch.
"Oh, yeah. Ned put that out there for me. I thought it was a pillow."
Jordan turned off the light.
"Hey, Jordan, I never see you lovesick. What's your secret? 'Cause I hate living like this."
"It's all about controlling your emotions," he said, as though he knew what he was talking about. If Art was asking him for advice, he must be really fucked up.
"Did it work with that Jamaican girl? Didn't she borrow your credit card to get a plane ticket to visit her man in New York?"
"Yeah, I almost forgot about that."
"And didn't she hit you in the head with a trash can in the lunchroom of the college?"
"Yeah, but that was a plastic trash can, not one of those metal ones."
"Yeah, and what about her posing nude for an art studio after you asked her not to, then she got down with the instructor?"
"Okay, what's your point?"
"'Least you were smart enough to get away from her. Me, I still hang around like a sad dog trying to get Miko to come back to me, but she likes messing with my mind. She even tells me how surfer boy likes to have sex with her."
"She told you that?"
"He's an anal man."
d"She's into that?"
As soon as Jordan asked the question he felt like he was taking advantage of Art. If Art was sober Jordan wouldn't be asking him about the love of his life's sexual likes and dislikes.
"She says she just screams."
"She shouldn't be telling you that kind of shit."
"She says her screams get him excited. She likes that, gets her off."
Jordan heard Art sobbing like a little kid in the darkness. "Art, I got a half of a fifth of Jack Daniel's."
"Great," Art managed to say between sniffles.
Jordan found the dust-covered bottle on the bookcase without having to turn the light on, but he almost kicked Art again handing it to him.
"You want a cup with some ice?"
"No, it's more pitiful this way. Down on my luck, drinking stale whiskey, crashed out on a dirty carpet, wondering why the world is so down on the Mexican."
"That's pretty pitiful."
"Thanks, Jordan, you're a real pal."
"Don't mention it."
"How's that cutie pie Trisha treating you?"
"We're doing okay."
"Oh man, she's fresh to the game. You can shape her the way you like."
"You sound like a pimp."
"Yeah, being a loser at love makes you bitter."
Jordan woke to a knock.
"Hey, J -- get dressed. We've got to make a run," Ned yelled through the door.
"It's eight in the morning."
"It's an emergency."
Jordan put on his pants and opened the door. Ned looked more irritated than Jordan felt; early light meant a lot to him. Every morning Ned painted landscapes on the north campus, and he had on his artist uniform, paint-stained sweatshirt and jeans.
"It's sick. Phil lost a finger at the Art Co-op in Summerland."
"That's messed up, but what are we supposed to do about it?"
"Art wants us to go with him to find it."
"Don't paramedics do that?" Jordan asked.
"Not unless you pay extra."
Soon they all crowded into Art's VW Bug and started south on Milpas.
"Your cat ate the finger?" Jordan asked.
"Not my cat. It could be any cat. They have lots of cats out there. My cat doesn't fuck with raw food," Art replied.
"But it could have been your cat. Maybe those other cats are messing with her mind. Your cat's probably gnawing on a knuckle as we speak," Ned said.
A mile from the freeway Art abruptly turned into the drive-through of a Jack in the Box.
"I need a big cup of ice and a breakfast burrito," Art said to the Jack. "You guys want anything?"
"You got a strong stomach," Ned said, "but I'll take a coffee."
"Me too," Jordan added. "But do we have time for this?"
"You have to make time for breakfast," Art said.
Ned coasted off the freeway, exiting toward the ocean south of Santa Barbara. Summerland, as sun-washed and ocean-cooled as the prettiest beach towns along the coast, had a reputation for being a very haunted town, and rumors of a half-dozen covens, headless horsemen, and haunted restaurants enhanced that reputation. What attracted Ned and Art and fired them up like Summerland was heaven was the offer of subsidized art studios. "Converted barns, plenty of loft space!" was the selling point, the economy of living above one's work like a dime-store owner. Art unlocked a barn door, pulled the wide door open, and they stepped inside. Once there, Ned and Jordan shrugged, reluctant to start the search for the bloody finger.
"I'm checking the table saw. Phil found two, but the index finger's missing. We're supposed to put it on ice," Art said, as he held up the huge soft-drink cup.
"So that's why we stopped," Ned said.
"Just doing my duty," Art said, and went off to the table saw.
Ned and Jordan sipped coffee and wandered about, looking over the cluttered, sawdust-covered floor, nudging around in a desultory search.
Art returned, chewing some ice from the Big Gulp cup.
"See anything?" he asked.
"The table saw was finger free. Phil might be out of luck."
All three of them focused on a cat walking on the paintings stacked along the wall.
"What's it got in its mouth?" Ned asked.
"I don't see anything in its mouth," Jordan replied.
Art flung some ice and the cat disappeared behind racks of draped, dust-covered paintings. They headed toward the rear of the barn studio near the kitchen where the clutter was more mazelike.
"Hey, Art, is that yours?" Jordan asked, pointing to a long horizontal oil of a brown man in peasant white slumped onto the back of a galloping horse.
"Just finished that one. That's my great-great-grandfather escaping from Mexico. He got shot in the Revolution."
"A war hero," Jordan said.
Art shrugged. "He fought on the wrong side. He headed north and stayed."
Art led them to the blood-stained table saw.
"Maybe we should look around here again," Art said, and he and Ned began an earnest search at the base of the table saw.
Jordan knelt and sifted through the sawdust; hoping for failure, he made another halfhearted attempt. This time he touched the finger. Jordan shot up, backpedaling into a rack of paintings. Calming himself he returned and bent to pick it up. He hoped that maybe it had slithered away. But there it was, waiting on him to get around to wrapping it up in the ball of tissue paper in his hand. To get on with it, like he needed to get on with everything else. The bloody little stub of a finger seemed to wiggle as he picked it up.
"Ice! Where's the damn ice!" he shouted.
Later at the hospital, a nurse ran with the finger like it was about to explode. They waited like expectant fathers for word on the fate of the finger.
"Glad it was you who found it. Phil's cool and all, but finding body parts...I'm not with that," Ned said.
"I didn't want to find it. It touched me."
"Touched you? Stop lying," Ned said. "What else is it going to do? It's just a finger."
"I think Jordan's right. It's Summerland. The place is haunted. That finger is too," Art said, and left to see how the operation was going.
Ned and Jordan watched the crowd grow in the emergency waiting room as the morning passed, teenagers waiting for treatment clutched broken arms from skateboard splats and bike accidents.
"How's Phil paying for this? Does he have insurance?" Jordan asked.
"Naw, he's broker than me. What artist has insurance?" Ned asked.
"I teach and don't have it," Jordan replied.
"That's why I'm leaving. I can't live like this forever. I love it and all but sooner or later you need more, like a job with health care and a house with a water heater that gives more than ten minutes of hot water. I need a sister to be down with. If I stay here cutting shrubs and working on rich white folks' estates I might as well be a bagman, put all my stuff in a shopping cart with my art degree, and find some hole in the ground to live in," Ned said.
"That sounds like a plan. Why didn't you think of it before?"
"Jordan, don't be an asshole."
"You're gonna miss it when you're gone."
"You just don't want to be the only Negro hanging out at the cafes scamming white chicks," Ned said, laughing.
"It's not as simple as that. It's hard to find many black women here. Plus, all the brothers are chasing them anyway."
"That's why you got to get hooked up with Trisha. She'll straighten you out. Settle you down."
"Yeah, that's just what I need. Settle down right now and sprout some roots," Jordan said, sarcastically.
"You can't be an exile from black life forever. This is a good life if you don't want more than beautiful mountains and the ocean," Ned said.
"Listen, wherever I live there's gonna be black life because I'm black and I've got life. Unless I'm mistaken and somehow I've become a dead white man and didn't notice it. People move around; Mexicans live in Chicago, Jews live in Utah. Why can't black people live in Santa Barbara?"
"Watch, when I come back to visit, you'll be tanning and surfing and eating bean sprouts," Ned said.
Art returned, smiling.
"All the fingers are back on. He can blow his nose or beat off with either hand."
"Aw, Art, you sick," Ned said. "Art, you still need a place to stay?"
"Yeah, I can't keep crashing on your couch."
"Here's your new roommate," Ned said, pointing to Art. "Art, try to act black for him so he knows what he's missing."
"Act black? It's hard enough being Mexican. Everybody thinks I'm a waiter."
"Maybe it's the suit. Either a waiter or a mortician," Ned said.
"Do I get a break on the rent? I'll be soul brother number one."
Copyright © 2002 by Jervey Tervalon