The Late Payment

         The thunderstorm is rattling the weathered brick walls of my cell; ghosts clipping the tops of churning Caribbean waves no more than a hundred yards or so from my back wall; intermittent snaps of an electrical whip that would singe my white skin nigger black, if not for the haphazard smears of fossilized mortar that, somehow, manage to hold the bricks together against the rabid ravings of the same Old Testament God who separated Ham from the Kingdom of Men; all the flight and fury of a man writhing forever in his noose; legs trying to kick out in spite of the rope tied between the ankles; neck trying to twist the head from the shoulders; bombast, but the kind that never manages to go anywhere, or to accomplish anything, since even an eternity of muscle spasms, skin turning blue and tongue languishing off to the side as a fat and lazy serpent digesting its last kill, never frees a man so condemned from the noose he had tied for himself. It is a thunderstorm that will never break through the bricks and press me back to the lonely grave from which I had fancied to roam, but it is also a thunderstorm that is never going to go away; forever beating against those soft, psychological defenses with which I had been able to imagine that I had a certain power over the direction of my life; forever reminding me that, notwithstanding my ability to shake off the old fates for quite a few years, to borrow just enough here and there to keep the illusion of a self-made life in a world of shackled sheep led to the slaughter, to imagine myself the only white man in a world of black men on cotton fields as far as the eye can see, it took only one late payment to toss me into this six by eight corner in Hell. There is no more permanent torture; a gray life squirmed just on the edge of a death that is never finally consummated; an old cock stiffened and enlarged inside the trousers of a lynched man, but never able to be anything but a reminder of the very impotence of a life lived so near and dear to the grave; than in knowing that, in the end, the big debt could not be paid on time and the liabilities and the assets could not be balanced. A man borrows in order to try to secure his future from the sins of his past; but, when just one late payment upsets the whole deal, he is left with nothing else really, but his chickens coming home to roost; his pound of flesh being plucked out by devil beaks; his neck grinding into his own noose; his thunderstorm beating into his own walls; in essence, his very life separating out from the future hope that allows a mind every now and then to forget her own sins, clinging slavishly unto the torments of the moment, and yet also bemoaning the fact that the freedom provided by death is no longer in the cards. Just one late payment, and eternal life is no longer a beatific vision above pink pearly gates. Rather, it is a sad and lonely prison sentence without end, where the mind has no choice but to focus in on her own savage impotence and the heart has no choice but to harden into the same weathered bricks that keep out the thunder and the wind; a sentence overseen by a debt collector warden; every brick the interest that can never be paid; every bit of mortar the ironclad contract that binds a man to his creditor. 

         I am crouched in the far corner of my cell. I am writing these words on a yellow legal pad with a dull pencil stub that is even shorter than my right index finger. No doubt I have been given this flimsy writing twig as a precaution, lest I hide in the shadow by the jail door and stab a long and sharpened No. 2 pencil into one of the tequila bloodshot eyeballs of the banana republic piggy assigned to deliver me my breakfast in the morning. The swarthy jefe who runs this joint wants me to write out a detailed confession; several pages of chicken scratch a translator in the front office can type into Spanish by noon; the final draft later “improved” with just enough fabricated malice aforethought, opportunity, and good old fashioned, stomach churning, lip trembling gore to justify a quick two-step to the gallows; but he does not want to lose one or more of his oily oinkers at the hands of the only Gringo ever to be detained inside one of his “sick boar pens,” as he is quite fond of calling his jail cells. A sick boar has no future, but the slaughterhouse; but, until then, it is a horrid beast that needs to be feared.

         And so I am forced to write with this damned stub. And I have no light to aid my ailing pupils but the white lightning that flashes now and then through a rectangular slit near the top of my back wall. For the most part, I am writing in the dark; feeling my own words on the yellow legal pad like a blind man sliding his fingers over brail; wallowing in my memories of recent events but imparting the kind of verbiage that obscures as much as it enlightens; in the end, offering a confession that is sensible only in a nightmare as surreal as the storm outside.

         I do not know much about the swarthy jefe. I imagine dead eyes that are swimming in oily sockets; a mad rush of greased lockets just breezing the gaudy epaulets on his olive green military jacket; a bushy black mustache over gnarly twig lips; dagger teeth yellowed by the Cubans that are forever strangled by his mouth; and long legs stuffed into Italian leather boots and reclined over a desk pockmarked by bullet holes and stained by human blood. He is as much a stone fixture in this joint as the prisoners over whom he presumes to wield his power over life and death; a caricature in a cramped room; a clear image in my mind, even if constructed from the mental chotskies stored in my imagination, that is able to bring about a certain focus to my despair. He is that tangible someone I can fear, and then learn to hate when I get over the shock of being inside of his jail cell; and, perhaps, focusing my hatred on that Caribbean Chimera can keep me just sane enough to know what is happening as they take me to the gallows.

         I know one thing about the swarthy jefe that has not been generated out from my overactive imagination. I heard his name mentioned by one of the oily oinkers in that corrupted Slave Spanish that prevails this far south of the crisp, musical Cuban Spanish spoken in Miami nightclubs. Well, in fact, it is not really his name, so much as his title. He is Hijo del Señor, the Son of the Man, a take on a Biblical allusion that is as brutal as messianic, as if the Chosen One tasked with separating the wheat from the chaff is a drug cartel chieftain and a prison boss. Surely, in a way, there is a purification underway whenever the unwanted competition can be taken out on trumped up charges; a greasing of the wheels that keeps the coke clean and the price primed; and if a stupid Gringo happens to be found with a dead woman on his bed; not just any woman, but the stupid Gringo’s fiancé, and not just any dead but the kind that results from immense, excruciating pressure imposed on her once soft and fertile bosom; then so be it from now to eternity. The Ugly American is no less susceptible to the hard hand of judgment, especially when such is to be wielded by a mustached baboon in a hand-me-down uniform from the Soviet Army (colored olive green to give it just the right Caribbean flair), and so he will be as much a dead man walking as any one of those menial blacks on the vast cotton fields beneath the Palmetto Sun.

         Hijo del Señor wants me to confess to her murder. No one of his minions has said as such to me. God forbid that any one of the uniformed beasts around here should be guilty of suspect tampering. But he had made his wish known all too well when one of the oinkers handed me this yellow legal paid and this dull pencil stub, while two others dragged her smashed corpse into my dark cell and left her face upward on my bed. Island justice is not known for its subtlety, and so I have known what Hijo del Señor wants me to confess since those dead eyes in undecorated olive green (men with medals and epaulets do not need to dirty their fingers with the tasks of handing out paper and pencil and dragging purple blue corpses into dark cells) looked back at me with wide smirks on their faces, bolted the door behind them, and marched hand in hand down the narrow hall, no doubt contemplating the tequila and coke stash to be indulged later tonight.

         It does not truly matter what I write here. I am going to swing heavy and dead on the colonial era gallows for murder most foul, and my twisted corpse is going to be tossed to the sharks (the island version of a mass grave reserved for beggars and political undesirables). They will send a notice to the United States Ambassador, and he will forward the same to the State Department, where it is going to be filed away in a warehouse somewhere. But such diplomatic niceties will not change how that shark crunches my bones, digests my corpse flesh, and discards the best of me with the rest of the sea slime swirling about the waves.

         The problem with this whole scenario is that, in fact, I am not guilty of a murder most foul. I am guilty of a late payment; and for that crime, not even a byline in my criminal report but the be all and end all in the mind of that loony Old Testament God who gets His dirty old man jollies from sordid situations like this one, I shall swing from the heavenly gallows, but never give up the ghost. I had been forewarned; the repercussions are always in the fine print somewhere in the loan document; as much as any man who ever has put his passions before his obligations has been given the head’s up that, if he wanders down that soft, primrose path, then invariably he will fall into the throat clutching weeds along the side. There are no surprises that will relegate a man to heaven or hell, just willful acts and rationalizations, and for me eternity is a big debt paid too late.

         And so I am compelled to recount what I did. It is my eternity; my throat twisting in a noose, and my roped legs kicking into the wind, from that moment I became a debt delinquent to the infinitude of moments beyond the beyond. It is what I am now; a sad tale written in chicken scratch on a yellow legal paid; a real confession fated to be lost in translation when I swing for the wrong crime.

*   *   *

         The rest of my life begins inconspicuously enough. It is one of those dead fly evenings along the Redneck Riviera; the red sun slumping lazily into a thick, buzzing cloud of gnats over still waters; the muggy air smashing old, dried road kill into gray asphalt lumps on the coast highway; the beach trailers wilting into tired trash bins that would not suggest any human habitation, but for the floral bikinis and L.L. Bean overalls hanging heavily from clotheslines, the dismantled Ford F-150s in the driveways, and the jerry-rigged satellite dishes nailed to the same spot on the corrugated iron roofs where the TV antennas had been posted by a previous generation of tropical storm lovers; and everywhere the groans of a time stood still, where blacks remain niggers, good ol’ boys come out at night with their antique Richmond Rifles to hunt the boars that burrow in the old sea slimed beach dunes, and Jesus, the very first Baptist, is everyone’s Best Friend.

         I am hunched behind the steering wheel of the Cadillac I borrow from my younger brother every time I need to close a deal in Panama City. He stores his gas guzzling boats bumper to bumper on his lot just outside of Pensacola; a loss on his convoluted ledger sheet that allows him a tax write-off about as large as the Stetson he has cemented on his big head; and he just grunts and nods when I slouch up to his huge, mahogany desk to ask for the kind of luxury wheels that would be presentable parked in front of the fish bistro where I wine and dine a signed real estate contract out from one of my preferred investors. I have been in a slump for a while; my tattered suit and scuffed boots an indication that for too long I have been on rather close and personal terms with the famine side of the old feast or famine adage that describes how we real estate promoters are compensated for all the time that we spend cracking lobster shells and downing tequila shots with glassy eyed pensioners; my mind mushy by all the lines that I have had to use in order to convince these geezers that a time share on a small and remote Caribbean island is their last real hope of happiness in a world gone stark raving mad with queers marrying, blacks voting, and rag heads infiltrating our White House; but on this particular evening I am able to pat the signed and witnessed papers stacked neatly on my passenger seat and to imagine the steak and seafood platter that I am going to purchase for my fiancé when the escrow closes in about a month. I look out at the sinking sun, but I actually see myself, lifting my chin pompously, and then ordering the sommelier (or what passes for the sommelier at the Red Lobster) in a haughty whisper to bring us the best red wine on the premises. I can see my fiancé blush and take my hand into hers; an alluring look in her slinky eyes; a trembling innocence in her lips; and my clean and perfumed crotch a huge tent held up by a grand oak rooted in a dark knoll.

         I am so consumed with the fantasy that I nearly run off the road and into a Rebel Flag duct taped to a mailbox. I swerve back onto Highway 98 in time to eye a strange hippie shack along the beach side. It is so out of place amidst the trailer park gray, the Stars and Bars, the Jesus Hates Fags billboards, that for a moment I imagine I am driving up to a queer bait retailer in Northern California or Hawaii. My Cadillac is now a Jeep Cherokee. The old country string guitar on my radio is now a grand piano played by John Tesh at the Great Sphinx of Giza. And, even if only for a moment, my heart skips with the careless abandon of an eighteen year old boy on a road trip; my mind open to whatever wanderlusts all those fates on high may choose to instill in me; my soul waxing strong in spirits, some heavenly, some hellish, but all compelling in comparison to the tired gray that prevails everywhere else along this endless stretch of the Redneck Riviera.

         I pull over to the side to take a closer look. In spite of the sudden rush of enthusiasm still springing through my nerves at that moment, I do not intend to remain very long. I need to return the car (still just a Cadillac, notwithstanding the flight of my imagination) and phone my fiancé at her home before too late.

         Also, truth be told, I cannot relax until the signed papers are in my safe.

         I notice first that the roof is hanging over the walls of the shack like the head of a mushroom. It is some sort of mushy earth; a dark mold, perhaps, that had been excavated from the depths and is now sponging in the humidity; not a distinctive form, so much as a fragrance reminiscent of a bed of roses drenched in slime water and left to decay ever so slowly in its own stew. It is like time is slowing down; the Roman Centurions trampling flowers with their plodding feet transformed by a kind of black magic into just as many snails sliming over floral stems; so that the primordial past can catch up to the present, and all the loud exhortations and brawny struggles of a time may be broken back into the thick, oozy soil stew from which they had been born. There is a spirit here; so much a call to that portion of the heart laid waste by the conscious mind of an adult as to seem foreign in its origins and vaguely hostile; not the soft, juvenile mantras of the fairly recent past, like peace, love, and groovy, or turn on, tune in, drop out, but rather the savage stillness of the molten earth before the first trace of microbial life crept out from a glory hole in a swamp somewhere; an amorality, soulless forces of nature working in and through one another over millennia, all that has been broken down by the erosion of centuries as valueless as what has been built up by the very same force; so that I am at once as enchanted as I am made small; charmed as frightened; and lured up the three steps to the rickety porch as urged by a silly voice in my conscious mind to get the hell out of here.

         There is an azure blue door in front of me; a crescent moon floating in a sea of sparkles painted at my eye level; and above my head a hand painted sign that looks like the crayon artistry of a three year old. It is not easy to make out the letters; they are so bunched together as to appear at first as a crimson red blood smear posted to fend off the spirit of death; but then suddenly, as if the result of a subtle shift in my own mind, I am able to decipher a message that in retrospect seems to have been intended for me: Shangri-La. We finance hopes.

         I am reminded of the signed papers in my borrowed Cadillac. I think that I locked the doors, but I am no longer very sure; and, anyway, it is getting late.

         I am about to turn back, when I make out the OPEN sign at the corner of the draped window by the door. It too seems to have been painted just for me.

         In spite of everything that has happened since that moment, I am still at a loss for words when trying to describe the overwhelming sensation that I felt. I just had to step into the soggy soiled Shangri-La on the other side of that blue door; much like a boy who slaps his heels into a slimy mud puddle, even though he knows all too well the shellacking he will receive from his daddy for being so mischievous; an orgasmic rush springing not from my loins, but from that small, black corner in my mind that relishes the soft whispers of a devil whore, and at the same time a sluggish ripple of foreboding doom that slimes upon my cranky innards, reverberates back into itself, and drips unctuously down to the depths; so that I am at one moment a boy pushing open the door to the candy shop and an old pisser being led by hand into the same mortuary where he will be laid to rest soon enough. I have the whole world before me, but since the past catches up to the present in this strange hippie shack along the side of Highway 98, the whole world before me is a wet cotton field to be harvested by a boy in chains.

         And I am that boy. I know it, since as soon as my wide eyes adjust to the intense darkness inside that shack, the first thing I see on a display table is the one G.I. Joe action figure I had so desired as a boy. It is Snake Eyes; still within its box; its oval, masked face staring back at me with eyes that cannot be seen, not even fancied by a boy with an otherwise bright imagination, and insinuating that the line between heroism and devilry is no more than a fakery in the mind; an illusion to be used by the strong against the weak; a moral sensitivity that is there for no other reason than to keep the dumb sheep in line to the slaughter.

         I can remember the first time I had seen the gray cloud that floats freely between the white and the black. It had been my first adult thought; much too vague at first to be the basis for a lifelong philosophy, but enticing all the same because it had been my first step away from blushing innocence; and, as I stare down at that packaged toy, I sense that I am again experiencing the very initial intimation of my future life. I now know that that future is a six by eight corner in hell; a bit of chicken scratch on a yellow legal pad; an unavoidable trip to an old scaffold by a restless sea. But at that last moment I still had an opportunity to turn a blind eye to the inevitable results of sin, and so I did what all men do.

         May the Good Lord shine your path, lest the blind lead the blind into the ditch, an old shadow cackles gleefully from further inside the shack. Tis dark in here now, but that just makes the light shine so much more joy in the morning.

         I look up from Snake Eyes. I cannot see her at first, not so much because she is veiled, but because of the blend of novelty items, worthless knickknacks, and treasured heirlooms that seem to be spread out as far as the eye can see. I sense immediately that every fragment of the past, big and small, poignant and mundane, may be picked out from a box like gold nuggets from sand, or may be cherished in its singular importance once more beneath a spotlight. There is no loss, when the past creeps up to the present, no trash that cannot be retrieved from the dump, no wet dreams that cannot be as free as the very first blossoms of impending puberty, so that what had grown stale is as fresh as the clear dew at sunrise. There is only the Resurrection: the dead past crawling out from old, tired graves to walk again in the eternal present; the stale things glittering like new in boxes or on display tables; and, finally, the price to be paid for this new lease on life; the loan to be paid back on time; the installments to be satisfied.

         I see a Snickers wrapper that I had thrown into the trash bin on the sixth day of October in the twelfth year of my life. I had been careful to throw away that final bit of evidence of my side trip to a candy store on my way home from school. I see a half eaten Brussels sprout that I had thrown down the sink drain, while my mother had been looking the other direction, on the seventeenth day of April in the tenth year of my life. I see this. I see that. I see it all; and, in an exhilarating moment, I want it all once again at whatever the cost to be borne.

         Ah, a good shopper knows the wheat from the chaff, the old shadow says in response to the wild covetousness that she can no doubt read in my eyes just then. Or he will never ever know the satisfaction of walking out with a bargain. His is the curse to carry too much on his shoulders and to sense way deep down inside that he’s been sold a bill of goods. He’s a cheated man, or so he will tell himself, and no shopkeeper worth her fine name wants her customer to feel so.

         I manage to step out from my own pet memories long enough to see that there is a short and plump blue hair in a granny dress; the gnarly strands above her moon face tied into an old lady bun; her owl eyes magnified by huge, round eyeglasses perched precariously at the edge of her button nose; her crinkly lips twisted into a grin that is just a bit too broad to be altogether sincere; her big, flabby bosom hanging over her balloon stomach in a manner that is reminiscent of an old gypsy or a worn out madam; and yet, incongruously, her fat feet held in check by the kind of sensible black shoes identified with chaste schoolmarms or pious gnomes who serve on altar guilds. Heroism and devilry; purity and sins galore; she is the blessing and the curse of a boy awakening to his manhood for the first time; a granny who hands out a cookie while copping a feel; a witch in a homespun apron who desires nothing more than to do a fair trade in an unfair world; her timeless allure of hearth and home hinted in dead silver dollar eyes, so that I am as enticed to step toward her as I am driven to run back to my car.

         And so I just stand there, a dumb look on my face, a twitch in my mouth that cannot decide if it is going to form into a warm smile or a cold grimace, an impotence so grating that I want to smack my own limp face into my skull. I am not even man enough to do that much; and so by the time the old woman looks up at me from a few inches in front of my stomach, I have no more hope left in me than that she will say or do something that compels me to make a decision, though in retrospect I see that the cage door had been shut and locked already.

         As a good shopper knows the wheat from the chaff, so does a benevolent shopkeeper hand her customer the sharp scythe fit for the task before him, she says with an understanding nod. Tis late and yours is a checklist with items still to be marked. Come, follow me, and I shall give you the garden tool with which finally you will be able to cut out the nonsense and to harvest what is valuable, not here and now, but when a moment of eternal consequence truly is at hand.

         I presume a price tag a few nickels beyond my means, I blurt out lamely.

         No doubt, the old lady responds, while winking at me with her left eye. I have hung a shingle over my door for a long time, and I have yet to meet a man who had enough in his wallet to purchase anything other than a trifle, a trinket with which to charm, perhaps an entertainment to pass a lonely night or two. A purchase that really matters is always paid over time in agreeable installments.

         She takes me by the hand and urges me to follow. Her fat palm feels like sweaty soil, though as in the case of the earth roof hanging low above my head, I am taken foremost with the smell. Her hand odor is dead roses in the slime of a dead fish pond; sulfurous and sweet beneath an acrid sting of warm, decayed sea bass; and yet insinuating the possibility of new life born out from the soggy mulch, rather than the cold and clammy touch of death eternal. Hers is not the lovely, grandmotherly hand of a sweet, old lady, notwithstanding her blue hair, moon face, and owl glasses, so much as a visceral, even strangely sexual, spirit in its own right; a seduction that works on the traces of primordial mind still to be found in the subconscious; a hypnotic allure that is as decadent as innocent.

         Together we walk down an aisle that seems to have no end; knickknacks, discarded trash, long lost treasures, each accorded its rightful spot inside of an impossibly huge showroom, each a substantial or a mundane memory that grabs a hold of my mind for as long as it takes me to stroll from one item to the next.

         Every now and then the old lady looks back at me, grins, and pulls at me to keep up with her. On any other woman, I would expect her grins to generate a blush in her checks and a crinkle in her button nose; maybe even a new cloud of fog in the lenses of her eyeglasses; but when she grins, her face turns bleach white, like every spit of warm blood has been vacuumed out suddenly from her varicose veins. I realize then that hers is not so much an insincere grin as it is a pained grin; a struggle made worse by whatever invisible stone is bearing down on her shoulders and bosom; and I want to hold her as I would my dead mother.

         Finally, we reach the back wall. There is another azure blue door that is an exact replica of the front entrance, except that this one is glowing outward; a soft luminescence that I cannot see so much as feel, when I am no more than inches away; a warm, inviting lure, much like the rose scented bedroom behind the shut door in which an awkward pimple face is about to lose his sad virginity at the touch of an older woman. That sluggish doom with which I had been held in place sometime before is now altogether gone; lifted out from my bowels on the wings of devil smirking angels; so that I am a bated breath and a stiff cock, a prickly, warm skin shedding its last touch of baby soft, and a heady head just top heavy enough on a loopy neck to fall to the wayside by the kiss of a breeze.

         Apparently, the old lady senses how exhilarated I am. She looks up at me with her owl eyes and shakes her right index finger tsk tsk. She appears initially to be morally outraged; her chest inflated like a chicken in a huff; her wrinkled lips plastered into a scowl that looks as if it had been etched into ancient stone by the hand of a pissed god; but then, just as the tension reaches its crest, she relaxes into a good natured sigh. She is a harmless granny recalling with wistful abandon her own loss of innocence, or even an understanding chaperone letting her charge indulge his nature. The back and forth from severe condemnation to loose indulgence is unsettling, but frankly it is also why she is just so beguiling.

         Ah, the Good Book urges us to be fruitful, she remarks in the careful and slow manner of a Kindergarten teacher. But it also warns us not to imbibe. And pray tell, do you know why the fermented grape is the seed of the devil’s vine? Come now. Speak up. If with your tongue you can pad your checking account so well, then surely the same may be brought to the service of your eternal soul. I am afraid I cannot show you what is behind this door without hearing the truth.

         I am dumbfounded. I have no more control over my own mind than to be a sulky boy fidgeting on his sneakers and waiting for the ruler to snap my wrist.

         How the fool may be molded, but the thinker never learns, she laments. I suppose I should just tell you. Tis late, after all, and there is your checklist to be marked. The fermented grape is the seed of the devil’s vine, because drink loosens the mind from her moral bearing, convinces the imbiber that there is in fact no condition to be cleared, no payment to be made before the mad chimes of midnight, no debt to be satisfied before a wandering spirit may be unleashed upon the unmoved seas. The drunk is undone, not by what he does but by what he chooses not to do. It is in his petulant refusal to live up to the small print on the back page that he carves out for himself a dark cell in that endless debtors’ prison we refer to as Hell. And so you want to indulge; to storm into this room; to dive into the arms of the old whore waiting for you in there; but if, first, you do not determine to separate the wheat from the chaff; to remain steadfast for all time in the pursuit of your solemn obligations; to be clear in your own mind, no matter the impulses of the moment, that the Brussels sprouts come before a slice of chocolate cake; then you are no better off than the imbiber wasting his tears at Alcoholics Anonymous and carving out what remains of his sick soul for his six by eight. Look behind you. We have been walking through your past, just the two of us, like pilgrims on a sodden road. And no matter the aisle taken, or the fancies catching your eye at any given time, or the memories coming alive, like ghosts stepping out of the shadows to rattle their chains, we would end up just where we are right now, in front of this very same door, confronted by this very same question. So what’s it going to be? Are you going to imbibe or remain steadfast? Try to reap without paying the piper? Or first balance the old ledger?

         I remember the signed papers back in my borrowed car. I imagine sliding my self-portrait off to the side (my watercolor of my reflection in a mirror from those silly, soft years when I was finding myself, while my younger brother had the smarts to set up the first of his several used car dealerships throughout the swampy backwaters of Pensacola), opening the safe, and depositing the papers beside the stacks of cash that I had managed to swindle out from my prior deal.

         That prior deal had ended up as its own file drawer in a local bankruptcy court; fat lawyers swapping jokes at the country club; retirees losing their stiff necked shirts at the Chinese laundry; but I had been careful to balance my own ledger sheet. I figured out how to break even; to be my own best creditor; and, truth be told, I walked away knowing that I had done something good, precisely because I was willing to be so damned bad just as everyone else’s loose stool at once hit the same old fan. I keep the money, not so much as a safety net in the famine times, but as a reminder that the good life is earned by bloodied hands.

         I pay the piper; I answer the old lady in a defiant tone. I know quite well that the man caught short is offered no safe passage in this cruel world of ours.

         Except to the scaffold, the old lady responds prophetically. 

         I shuffle nervously on my feet. I sense that the hazy sun has set outside, though the blackness always is the same this far inside the Shangri-La, whether it is noon or midnight. All time stands still for a good man so near to his scythe.

         The old lady studies my face intently. Her owl eyes do not blink; and her button nose flares every so slightly, as if she can smell whether or not I am true to my word. There is a knowing smirk in her lips, as if her assessment of me has been preordained and her careful judgment is no more than dramatic pretense; a bit of theater to keep me on my toes; a final tease before unlocking the door.

         Without dropping her gaze, she reaches into her apron and removes a big key. It looks like the kind of medieval ironwork that unlocked gloomy dungeons back in the day. Its rusted exterior looks like dried blood speckles in the subtle glow from the azure blue door, so that it seems as much an instrument of black torture as a key that unlocks the door to that moral decision that defines a life.

         She holds the key above her face; dangling it in her pudgy fingers, as if it is some sort of sex toy; and eyeing me, as if a madam about to introduce a john to her best girl. She is again dancing on the fine line between loving granny and manipulative whore, and she is relishing the confusion she observes in my eyes.

         Ah, even the Handmaiden of the Lord must eat her sprouts first, she says after a while. First business, then fun, such is the order of the stars even above my own head. So let us consummate our good business together, shall we then?

         She turns her back to me, unlocks a padlock, and yanks me into a bright, white walled, crimson red carpeted, square room. The only feature is a display table beneath an azure blue spotlight, and on the display table is a black pearl necklace. It is far from priceless; the black pearls much too round and smooth; the string tied too loosely at the top and the bottom of each of the pearls; but, within the azure blue spotlight, and with the aid of an excited imagination, it is the most precious find. And, even more so, it grows in its importance, as I stare at every one of the pearls and rub them as if they are very sacred rosary beads.

         Everything else is past, the old lady remarks. This alone is your future, a scythe that will clear the chaff, if you make the right decision, or the wheat, if you err. Most men stumble about their sorry lives not really knowing if they are walking through the narrow gate or down the wide path; clueless, until they’re singing in the heavenly choir or wallowing in hellfire; but I am going to make it easy for you to know, if you are clearing the chaff or the wheat in your harvest.

         I hardly hear what she is saying to me. I am mesmerized by the necklace that is dangling from my fingers as if fleshy tendrils sprouting through the pores of my skin. I imagine that I am the only life upon an otherwise deserted, barren island; the sand jagged spikes that cut into my feet; the waves hot ripples in an enormous stew cauldron; an invisible witch stirring the azure blue slime from a rocking chair above the thundering sky; and all the while I am bent at my waist and licking my dried lips. I am a hungry man; starving not for food or drink, but the perfectly round and smooth black pearls that I find every now and then in a handful of dead sand. I am wearing nothing but cut offs and tennis shoes; every inch of my skins above my waist sunburnt lobster red; and I am salivating at the thought of tearing my shoelaces into hair thin strings and tying the black pearls into a necklace; not just any necklace, but the same one that is sprouting from me right now; the necklace that is as much of me as created by me; my future, waiting to be plucked and strung, if only I have the temerity to do what I must.

         You want it, the old lady grins. You want it as much as your next breath.

         I suppose that I do, I whisper, as I awaken from that daydream and shove my eyes away from the necklace just long enough to glance at her twitchy lips. I suppose that I’ve never wanted anything more in my life, though it is all quite senseless. I mean they’re cheap pearls, not much better than the five and dime stuff I see all the time at the beach gift shops along the highway to Pensacola. I don’t mean to be a snob. It’s just that…well…they’re different than any others.

         Come now, the old lady says with just a hint of tired condescension. You have not just sold four thin walls and a rickety sliding door, when you cock step up to the red headed cutie at the escrow office to collect your commission due at the close of the beachfront time share. You’ve sold a dream; maybe a small, inconsequential detour into La-La Land for those who can well afford to dabble several hundred thousand here or there; maybe the seed of a nightmare that is going to mature into a thorny weed that literally coils the life out of a marriage that can ill afford this money splurge; but, regardless, a reality as strong as any fashioned by an imagination still living in the gray matter of an overgrown child in silk stockings and loafers. And even the most parsimonious Jew will take on a careless debt, an ill-conceived fling into fiscal debauchery, if the dream is good enough for him. You make your living on that basic insight, so indeed does your younger brother, and like every harried salesman at least once in his career you will succumb to the same lure with which you have been reeling in all the other schmucks. Do not fight it. Enjoy the illicit act, while it’s still hidden behind the locked door. Tomorrow is time enough to despair today’s indulgence; and, I am sure you know, the conscience never really bites as hard as we fear that it will.

         The old lady has known me, since she stepped out from the shadows; the oldest salesman’s trick, because the customer can never say NO (or at least not an irreversible NO) to a sweet smile beneath a button nose that knows him just as well, if not more, than his own mother; and yet, in this case, the intimacy is all consuming. She may not recall anything more about me than my meandering chicken scratch signature at the bottom of a loan document, when finally I step into the dead heat night with a black pearl necklace in my pocket; but until the very last “I” has been dotted and “T” crossed in our evolving business together, she is going to use every small detail in my own life to negotiate her advantage over me. She is not my friend, not even my lover, though the intensity between us is not unlike two lovers on the cusp of their first kiss. No, she knows me way too well to be so cavalierly defined and set aside in my own mind. Perhaps it is best to think of her as the devil on a moldy rowboat, a coffin of dank earth just bobbing about the sea, reeling me out of the azure blue and into an iced chest, a dark and squalid place crammed with dead fish, a slimy sardine can existence where I am impervious to everything else, but her old lady cackle reminding me to be punctual in my payments and to care for her pearls until the debt is paid.

         I know where this is going to end. I have been on the other end too many times to be naïve. But I absolutely need this black pearl necklace. I need it safe and secure behind my self-portrait at home. I needto be able to feel the pearls and the string, whenever I reach inside to fondle the signed papers and to sniff the stacks of cash. I need to be able to drape the swan neck of my lovely fiancé with the pearls, when finally I take her out to my island hideaway. I need to be able to behold the pearls on her neck the rest of our lives together and to know that I took on the debt and beat the odds; that I am a better man than the soft and queer losers out there who plead holy hell mercy in a bankruptcy court and spend the rest of their lives being denied frequent flyer mileage credit cards in one hapless application process after another; that I am not like those gullible, greedy wide eyes I have been sweet talking and bedding just to close the deals.

         And, somehow, I need to be under her pudgy thumb. I do not even know her name; but I have seen her knowing grin my whole life; the grin that says to me, you ain’t gonna make it, boy, no offense, but you just don’t have it inside those trousers of yours, not like your younger brother with his big Stetson and cowboy boots, not like the red head at escrow with her perky nipples and bling bling, not even like an old shopkeeper who has a shack on the side of the road; and this time I need to be able to shove the last payment into her moon face as the clock chimes in the heavens and to wipe the cursed grin away forevermore.

         Sometimes, a man buys out of lust; other times, out of spite; but on this fine occasion, I sign the dotted line out of both emotions simultaneously; a lust for black pearls; a spite for her knowing grin; and in the blackest six by eight in my own mind, I sense that the two emotions are much the same in the hands of a saleswoman as skilled in the infernal art as the old lady in the owl eyeglasses.

         I do not even know your name, I mutter absently, just before turning the knob to the front door and stepping into the endless night with the black pearls dangling in my other hand. I guess it’s no more than a formality, but since mine is now signed and sealed at the bottom of your loan document, I think it best….

         Tonight, I am Miss Darla McGee, beautiful fiancé of a rising star in island timeshares, sometime paramour still of an old flame named Big Buck, one time western saddle partner with your younger brother, and all around Southern flirt with a penchant for Italian heels that lift my hot air balloons, as if they are not conspicuous enough in my two sizes too small cocktail dresses, the old lady says in a husky fuck me tone that is as alluring as unsettling in my browbeaten head.

         I am taken aback. I just stand there with my hand on the knob; my slow, tired eyes now suddenly wide with startled incomprehension; my mouth a crazy twitch; my other hand holding the necklace like it is a string to a life preserver.

         No need to fret, the old lady smiles, while brushing me out the door with her right hand. I have a knack for secrets; a talent in my trade, as it is in yours; and sometimes it is fun to let the client know that his closet door is not so shut off from view as he would presume. And sometimes, as is the case right now, it is not so much funny ha-ha as it is an extra dab of glue; a little bit more to bind us together; a parting reminder that what’s yours is mine, until you tender that last payment, just as what’s mine is yours, until I acknowledge the satisfaction, sign off any claim to the necklace, and bid you my final adieu. Only then can it be said that what’s yours is yours. Only then will your closet door be so shut off from view that even a nosy shopkeeper with owl eyes will be none the wiser. In my untold years, I have yet to see a man succeed in paying off his debt in time; the debtors’ prison packed three to a cot with the souls I have delivered to the hands of the warden; but who knows? Maybe you’re the one to break the mold, to show me that I have been too proud, to bury me in the same grave in which I have buried so many others. I doubt it, but even I am not so far gone as to toss aside hope altogether. And so I shall root for you as if you are my future groom, my first among several paramours, my devoted paycheck with which to spend a lifetime buying enough Italian shoes to rival Imelda Marcos. I’ll be by your side; and when you fail, as I suspect you will, I’ll shed a solitary tear for your travail.

         I turn back and face her, before she can shut the front door behind me. I have been in a daze ever since I signed the loan document, but suddenly I have just enough temerity to speak with the sure and steady voice of a man who has some control still over his own fate. Perhaps I am just kidding myself, but right then and there I sound impressive enough to knock the shopkeeper back a step.

         I am a man of my word, I bark. I shall not violate a tittle of our contract.

         How Biblical! The old lady teases me. Always remember: the man who is true to the law ends up on the cross. I suspect you will forsake the slow and the torturous; the crowd taunting you to come down from the cross; the centurions rechristening your back a bloody slab of beef; in favor of a comparatively quick snap of the neck on the gallows. But, again, what does this little old lady know?

         And with that she closes the door and switches the OPEN sign to CLOSED.

         I stand there a while, staring back at the shack, rubbing the black pearls inside my pocket, and trying to hold onto every detail of our strange and sordid business together. I fear already that I am going to forget something; a big or a small detail, it does not matter; and I sense that I am inside the trap even now.

         I shake that self-defeating thought from my head; a violent quiver of my skull that looks like a seizure; and I continue to my borrowed car with a subtle, but triumphant, kick to my step. I am going to sleep well tonight, because I am in possession of what I have needed finally to cut out the chaff from the wheat.

         And, notwithstanding my fears, I tell myself simply and straightforwardly that I am a man of the world and shall not breach the contract no matter what.

*   *   *

         I almost had forgotten the black pearl necklace in my pocket by the time I dropped off the Cadillac at the dealership, clutched the signed and the sealed documents against my chest, and slumbered into the backseat of a piss scented taxi emblazoned by a bumper sticker that shouted: Jesus is Coming! Look Busy!

         The whole business had seemed too surreal; maybe a daydream in which I had dabbled while driving along the endless stretch of trailer parks and shanty beach bars and grills; or maybe a pit stop purchase along the way, but certainly not the kind of deal in which I had agreed to several huge installment payments and had handed my very soul over to a devil midget lady as my chief collateral. No, surely nothing that odd had happened about thirty miles east of Pensacola, and there would be no reason for misgivings when the Gulf Coast sunshine beat through my blinds the next morning and smacked me into another twelve hours of broad smiles, knowing winks, meaty back slaps, and closed real estate deals.

         Except that I had tossed the necklace into the safe beside the signed and the sealed documents and the stacks of cash, and had slammed my self-portrait over the safe door, as if wanting to be freed from a slippery snake in my pocket as soon as possible. I even had turned on all the lights; imagining that the glare shrivels snakes back into their moldy holes; and had kept them on until sunrise.

         And when I had called my fiancé, I had fumbled the football on third and long. I barely had passed through the pleasantries; faking a happy to speak with you smile, while jostling the phone so repeatedly against my own right ear that the next day I would look as if I had been knuckle punched in that ear during an ugly barroom brawl; when I had asked her if she had seen Big Buck at all lately.

         She had gasped like Scarlett O’Hara stepping into her boudoir and seeing Rhett Butler go down on Mamie and then had launched into the sugar sweet Ol’ South drawl that is a sure indication of a lie; a charming tale, no doubt, but an elaborate yarn having no other purpose than to turn the tables on any man who is foolish enough to confront a belle directly with her itsy bitsy indiscretions; so that when all had been said and done, I had been forced to blubber into a teary eyed apologize and to tiptoe away from the phone; averting my eyes, lest I see her glaring eyes superimposed over the rotary dial; and, after much fidgeting in my own head, finally tossing a pillowcase over the phone until the next sunrise.

         When I had awakened at daybreak with the kind of throbbing ache in my temples and queasy nausea in my bowels that are typically the result of a crazy ass Animal House Hangover from Hell, I had feared that my gross anxieties from the previous night had been carried into the new day. I had wanted nothing but to grab that cursed necklace, to hail a taxi, and to give it back to the old witch in the sensible shoes. I had determined to do nothing until that should be done.

         And then the phone had rung. I had swept the pillowcase aside without a bit of trepidation. I had put on my big smile and even had cracked my knuckles.

         And by the time I had hung up the phone, I had forgotten entirely all the past drama; the headache and the nausea lifting as if a dead fog breaking apart in an infant sun; and had had no mind, but for that new real estate opportunity just then offered to me; an exclusive right to list the timeshares at the soon to be renovated Happy Allah Family Resort in Guantanamo; and a request to finish off the itsy bitsy details at a three martini buffet lunch at Old Hanky’s Hofbrau.

         Indeed, that phone call had been the start of a wonderful week. I scored a couple of field goals at the lunch; and then that same night with a bouquet of tall red roses in one hand and a pair of overpriced Italian high heels in another, I pass faked the defense that my fiancé had set up for the occasion of our date and ran in the winning touchdown. I did not allay her suspicions (strange that a suspected cheater should be suspicious of her cuckold, but such is the logic of a Daughter of the Confederacy who idolizes Gennifer Flowers as the epitome of a Southern Woman, Oh Bless Her Rebel Heart), and did not even try to stamp out her forked tongues; but I won a gasp, a blush, and a kiss on the heart cushioned sofa in her living room (albeit after she had dutifully removed her lipstick with a sequined tissue). I had left her place that night with a smile on my face and a scent of Big Southern Heritage perfume molded into my white vest and toupee.

         I paid no attention to the black pearl necklace inside my safe even when I unlatched the door and stroked the stacks of cash. Normally, I did not observe it at all. The one time I felt it in the cramped darkness; the rosary beads rolling under my right fingers and palm, as I reach for the Federal Reserve Notes; I had the distinct impression that, notwithstanding the strange circumstance in which I had purchased it, in fact it was little more than silly clutter fit for a trash bin; a cheap oddity that is serving no higher purpose than to remind me that once in a while even I am an irrational buyer; a mistake, perhaps, but certainly not any omen of doom, especially in light of my recent business and personal successes.

         Well, okay, perhaps it is really not a cheap oddity, I whisper to myself as I am measuring out just how large a stack of cash is going to make up my initial installment payment. Perhaps it is downright expensive; a damned over the top extravagance; a queer indulgence costing me more than a pretty penny or two.

         I remove the large handful of cash from the safe. For the first time since slamming the black pearl necklace into the safe a week ago, I cannot slither my eyes away from the hardened oyster spit held together by loose string. Frankly, I have no illusion that the junk jewelry is beautiful to the eye or gracious to the touch. I know only that it is compelling; demanding; a bitch belle in fine Italian heels coiling both of her strong and masculine hands about my bloodless cock in a move that compels me to scream out: Uncle, Uncle, Uncle, Oh Christ, UNCLE.

         I stuff the cash into a leather satchel just as the old lady had instructed.

         I lock the safe, swing my self-portrait into place, and turn out the lights.

         It takes me a while to find a taxi. If I had been minding my responsibility earlier today, then I would have arranged for a driver; but I did not recall at all my midnight deadline until about ten minutes ago, just as I had slobbered a big and wet (but surely not a lipstick smearing) goodnight kiss over my phone to my blushing bride to be and had set out to squeeze into my sweet dreams pajamas and to boil a pot of scotch and warm milk. I had no more capacity then to make arrangements than to slap my own face and to stumble over to my hidden safe.

         And so now I am forced to wave down the first cash for clunker taxi that passes my way; a rattrap on wheels driven by a greased wrench who is the very image of Cooter from The Dukes of Hazard; and to offer him a hefty bonus if he will iron foot it about thirty miles east on Highway 98 without asking questions.

         He is not so sure. He needs to use both of his hands and a sweaty foot to count the number of speed traps he reckons have been set up to pull over surly drunk good ol’ boys firing off their hunting rifles from their driver side windows and tramps wearing nothing, but platinum blond wigs and stars and bars bikinis on slim bodies greased and oiled for the night by Jim Beam. He knows where all but one or two of the speed traps are located, but it is the one or two that give him the willies, ‘cause it’s his luck they’ll be manned by the one or two niggers who have been handed badges and pistols by the sons o’ bitches in Tallahassee.

         I flap some dollar bills by his right ear. That seems to kindle his Southern Baptist faith enough for him to broaden his toothless grin, to pull his South Will Rise Again cap down his forehead, and to put more Jesus Love into his throttle; his hillbilly screech over the heat cracked asphalt accented every now and then by his triumphant screams of Resurrection Power and an occasional Root a Toot for good measure; his good ol’ boy physique and bearing seeming to transfigure into the look and the feel of a howling wolf, as we stumble through a blackness lit only by the soft headlights in front of us and the stirring gnat stars above us.

         I am a Nervous Nellie the whole time, not on account of his wild driving, but on account of the time. The minute hand seems to move much faster when we are pressed for time; its speed ratcheted up by the hard pound in our chests and the sweat in our lips; so that it takes all of our mental will to slow it down.

         I am distracted finally from my watch by a flickering light off to the side of the road. At first, it is a distant pulse; a beacon in a sea of madness in which I am struggling to hold up my head; but as we approach, I observe that it is the Shangri-La lit inside by a powerful light and flickering in and out of existence in bursts that are repeated more quickly as the minute hand closes in on twelve. I cannot believe what I am seeing, except that this pulse is no madder than all of the sick and sordid emotions bubbling up from my heart and escaping as a cold, pungent sweat stream on my cheeks; no less rational than the need to make my first installment payment before the tolling chimes of midnight; no less forcible than the fear that my beloved indeed may be opening her lips for her old beau, taking his manhood into herself, and offering that warm solace in return that in all of our times together she has never condescended to offer unto my sad soul.

         I cannot speak, but I knock frantically on the right shoulder of my driver. I cannot believe that he is oblivious to the intense light pulse, but that appears to be the case, as he is showing no signs of decelerating from this midnight run.

         He responds just in time to screech to a halt a few yards from the shack. He still seems unfazed by the time warp just outside his passenger side window at that moment; his beast eyes squinting into an unseen point in that blackness up ahead; his iron foot revving the engine for an imminent jump out that racing gate that is as real in his mind as the time warp is in mine; but I do not care for whatever he may or may not see. I pay him his fee and his bonus, stumble from the door, and feel a mix of exhaust and inflamed dust beating against my back.

         I am reduced to a dead stare at the light show in front of me; my eyes a pair of transfixed silver dollars reflecting the bluish yellow rays slicing out from the windows on all sides and the front doorknob; my heart a frost coated stone that has fallen kerplunk into a steamy sick cauldron in the depth of my bowels; my mind a fraying rope that is being tugged between reason and devil screams.

         I snap out from my deadness; leaving the best of my soul writhing on the warm asphalt behind my heels; and hurrying into the light show before the very last of those chimes are able to reverberate in my head. I am Cinderella fleeing her curse just as that frigid shadow is descending on the smiles in the ballroom.

         In spite of my alarm, I hesitate a moment at the doorknob; my body now completely absorbed into a bluish yellow light flicker; my mind lost in the time warp between the here and the now, as the shack vanishes back into the humid sweat and the pungent smells of a black skinned night, and the fantasy moment when all is joy and bliss in the great Shangri-La, as the shack reappears from its own void; my heart steaming and then breaking into charred pebbles inside the cauldron in my bowels; and everywhere at once the fear that I may be too late, indeed born too late, no matter that the minute hand has yet to hit the twelve.

         I drop my chin into my chest and reach for the necklace coiled within my pocket. It is not there. I had left it inside of my safe, and yet I can feel that snake charm sliding in and out of my fingers; the prayer beads comfortably soft and smooth against my warm skin; the string a lovely hair strand pulled out and saved from my woman so beloved; the slight rattle a snake hiss that calls to my mind a luscious marsh dappled by morning dew and yawning into the white sun.

         That is all that I need. Maybe that is all that I have needed ever; a magic charm slithering in and out of my fingers just before leaping into the blackness; the consolation afforded a primitive beast man that the world can be contorted like clay in a potter’s hand, if only a dab of blind faith is thrown into the mix of incantations and campfire dance steps; but, regardless, it is quite well enough, so that I am able to turn the bright doorknob and to step into the midnight sun.

         It is dark and still inside the shack; every item from my past laid out just as before, but the display table lamps off and cold to the touch; so that I sense that I had imagined the entire light show and fear that I may have lost the very last traces of that sanity that will be needed to carry through my end of a deal.

         I’ve never squelched on a bet, I mutter in an apparent attempt to regain my own sense of moral, if not mental, fortitude. And, really, isn’t a loan a kind of legalized gamble; a hard toss of the dice at the roulette table; a last minute Hail Mary hope and prayer that the mistakes of the past can be reconciled with a better future; a joy to be purchased on installments; a ledger to be balanced?

         Enough with the philosophizing, and get back here, a charming belle of a voice calls out to me from the back room. There’s room for you in my hot bath.

         I gasp audibly, and I clutch at my chest. I had presumed of course to see the old lady; maybe materializing out from one of the willowy shadows that are hanging as if worn drapes from the high rafters of this cold and dark showroom; maybe scampering up to me in her witch’s apron and sensible shoes; her cackle snapping my face out from its bloodshot dumbness; but that is the sweet voice, the sugary drawl barely concealing the haughty airs of bigoted judgment, of my beloved. I am about to step into a back room and behold Miss Darla McGee with all the finesse in my bearing of a drunk teetering at the edge of a heart attack.

         I fight back the urge to flee. I am perilously close to the deadline; just a minute or two from the death toll; and I cannot be late without forsaking every last bit of that gentlemanly reserve I have been cultivating since I first took her into my arms and promised a high heel collection rivaling Imelda Marcos’ at the height of her thievery. I am an apprehensive boy stepping into the gray shadow world of lovers and men for the first time; my nostrils trembling at the scent of a mature woman’s perfume; my cock just aching from an excitement bordering on sadistic pain; but I am determined to stand upright, to steady my mad eyes, and to take in whatever I discover back there with all the disenchantment of an accomplished gentleman readying his soul for nothing, but his midnight cognac; a boy masked as a man; an unblemished sheep hidden in the blood of his priest; an innocent assuming all the outward appearance of the charming sophisticate.

         And so I practically skip down the center aisle; paying no heed to all the quaint odds and ends now shrouded in darkness, but still there for the taking, if I should retain even an ounce of interest in diverting down Old Memory Lane on my way to the future; and I knock regally upon the back room door; my sweetly soft knuckles barely clacking the surface; my affectation so eloquent that there is hardly a sound to be heard. I wonder if she has heard me at all, since there is no immediate response from the other side to my ever so demure tat a tat tat.

         Come inside, darling, Miss Darla McGee laughs. There is just enough time for a scandal and a song, if you will indulge me. And, oh, how I treasure all the indulgence that you can spare; the cash in that satchel of yours; and the dream living on in your eyes after you have taken me amidst the wet bubbles and salt.

         I open the door. The carpeted display room is gone. Instead, there is the most beautiful marsh I have ever seen; a slice of Eden landscaped into an azure blue greenhouse; and at the center is a bubbling pond, charmed here and there with champagne bubbles, and lit beneath the surface in such a manner that the color glides seamlessly from one end of the rainbow spectrum to the other. The entire scene seems stolen from a dream; an adolescent wet dream just after an unprepared boy has had his first chance encounter with Coleridge’s Queer Road to Xanadu; and the very unreality of it all dips everything in the subtle shade of menace, a disquieting sense in the back of the mind, a fear veiled in a euphoric heart, but nonetheless spirited enough to break through the mad joy over time.

         Miss Darla McGee is at the center of it all; a nubile swan fleeced in white bubbles; a face tilted into an imagined sunrise; a grin as graced as debauched; and a pair of wide open eyes taking it all in at once, but also imparting into the scene that silvery dullness that bespeaks a decadent soul and a misspent allure; so that she is as much loving as defiling what she loves. She looks over from her sun and seems to pierce my soul with her own; a perverse lust masquerading as love but much more akin to murder; and an invitation to join her in the magical corner on Hell that she has claimed. She is everything, and she is also a solitary hag with rancid teeth and molded skin seeping the last real virtue out from me.

         I grasp tightly the necklace that I imagine is inside my pocket. It feels so real; the smooth beads digging into my skin; the loose string pressing thin blood lines into my fingers and palm; that I wonder if perhaps I actually took it out of my safe after all. I had been pressed for time; focused on the cash that I had to stuff into my satchel; thinking about the taxi I would need to hail; and it seems possible that I had not noticed the snake sliding into my pants pocket just then.

         But I have no time to think about that. I have been captured inside a sick and wonderful dream; a reality so real as to seem like a surreal hallucination in contrast with what we normally think of as real life; and it takes every last inch of my mind to take in just what I am seeing, let alone to understand it in a way that matters to what is left of my moral sensibility. I am on the edge; teetering on the line between keen insight and madness; ticking off the last few seconds.

         And then I see that she is not alone in her paradise. There is a nude man standing knee deep in the pond behind her; a receding hairline on a dumb face, but a body still molded by daily trips to the gym; and there is little deliberation needed on my part to determine that the hunk with the erect snake cock at the back of her head is none other than the infamous Big Buck, her once and future flame, her quarterback when she wants to relive her time as a cheerleader, her filthy roll in the mud, when she is tired of living up to the chaste prissiness and biting charms of a Southern belle in Italian high heels and unblemished lipstick.

         Miss Darla McGee keeps her eyes fixed on mine, as she reaches back with her right hand and strokes his snake into a throbbing python. She smiles like an old and decadent faggot in drag, when she feels his big mushroom head tapping the back of her wet hair. She is toying with me; hurting me; reminding me that I am on the verge of being an impotent cuckold in the face of her devil charms.

         She turns her face toward the cock and opens her mouth in the rapacious manner of a rabid bitch devouring the mutt in her litter. She will not finish him off with oral sex, so much as chew away his manhood and digest the rest of him in her acidic bitch bowels. She is a beast unveiling her thin veneer of a virtuous womanhood and leaving me with nothing, but the faint memory of a chaste kiss shared on a heart cushioned sofa; a fate worse than what she is about to inflict on her beau; an emasculation suffered just in knowing that she has never given me the kind of large and toothy kiss that she is about to bestow upon her hunk.

         I see that I am holding the satchel by my side, just as I hear the midnight chimes in my mind. I had forgotten all about the cash while staring at the gross horror show in front of me, notwithstanding my commitment to the installment payments. I almost had tossed it aside simply to indulge in the surreal moment that had been laid out before me as a temptation to skirt my big responsibility.

         I throw the satchel into the pond. The bag opens, and the brand new and crispy greenbacks float about as if green algae on white bubbles. The wet bills, Benjamin Franklins and Andrew Jacksons wrinkled by the bath salts into witchy gnomes, veil the rainbow colors, so that the pond is a cauldron of green sludge.

         And then everything vanishes, and I am alone on the side of the highway.

         I wander no where in particular; a ghost of a man famished not by liquor or drugs but by the dreamlike quality of my experience; a tortured soul in spite of my success in meeting my deadline; until a taxi heading westbound picks me up and takes me home. I must have had enough sense to give him my address in Pensacola and to pay him his fare, because the next thing I know I am standing before my self-portrait and thinking of the black pearl necklace inside my safe.

*   *   *

         Really, is the necklace inside my safe? Or to be more accurate, is it only inside my safe? I mean I’m pretty sure I did not remove it with the stack of cash last night; not a clear memory one way or the other, but that seems a bit more probable than the alternative scenario; and yet I felt it inside my pants pocket; fondled the beads and the string like a pilgrim standing before his private altar of repose; stroked it like a pervert committing an illicit act in his own shadows.

         And now I am laying on top of my bed; alone and naked; bathed in a hot, unforgiving sunrise beam breaking through the shades; and I can feel it hanging from my right hand against my thigh. It is there; hidden in the glare of sunlight; removed from my line of sight by no more than a subtle shift in space and time at this very moment; and yet it is as much there as the prickly hairs on my skin.

         I step away from my bed and reach for my underwear inside a drawer. It is in there, too, cold, smooth beads and loose string entangled in my old briefs, a snake slithering into the corner and out of sight when I specifically look for it.

         I put on my suit and tie. It is inside the lining of my suit jacket; perhaps, just perhaps, sewn into the jacket by a sweathouse drone pretending to be just another dumb peasant on the job, but in fact working with that old shopkeeper to keep me on edge; or perhaps fallen through a hole in my inner jacket pocket as a result of nothing more conspiratorial than moths inside a stuffy closet. But what matters if it is conspiracy or fate? Isn’t it there, regardless, to remind me that I am a marked man; stamped and sealed; bound to pay the old bitch inside the back room unto the last penny? Hasn’t it been there since I signed away my freedom for what? For what really, a momentary indulgence, or a deep seated, suicidal drive to succumb to the wave of a debt that will never be satisfied? Am I a medieval ascetic carrying about the instrument of my own purgation? Or am I a modern sadist squeezed bloodless and mad by the instrument of my own sin?

         I try to drink away these questions; dropping cognac into my coffee, and drowning my chapped lips in the steamy brew; but I can taste the smooth black pearls bobbing about the syrupy cauldron. And I can hearthem rattling with ice cubes inside my freezer. And I can smell them; seaweed salt, like shellfish that have been picked out from the bristling foam of a receding wave; floating from out of the cracks in my kitchen floor. They are invading every one of my senses but my sight; black pearls inside my blind spots; rocks invisible to every eye but the one inside my imagination that perverts and magnifies into cold and smooth shibboleths of terror; not the general fear in a mob, but the peculiar fear in an individual mind that cannot be shared; the fear that is loneliness; the fear that is a hell shut off; the fear let out in a scream that no other man can ever heed.

         I stumble into the office; make my morning sales calls; even pinch a cute butt in a leather skirt in the snack room; but the necklace is that static rattling in the background of every phone conversation; that strange smell bleeding out from the water cooler; that cold and smooth sensation in my right palm, when I push down on the toilet lever and observe the better part of my soul flush back into the primordial swamp from which she had been born. It is everywhere; and no matter how often I take a swig from the firewater hidden in my desk drawer or shoot the shit in that brute, masculine manner meant to strangle and to spit out those brain cells capable of moral restraint, it is reminding me that another installment payment will be due soon enough and that the next time I may be a minute or two too late; my contract breached; my moral scale tipped decidedly into the way of fire and brimstone; my Tissot then stopping just after midnight, so that every time I search out the time I am reminded of that ultimate failure.

         I give up the workday around half passed one. No real estate opportunity is going to close; no cute butt is going to feel mushy warm in between my index finger and thumb; until I confront the old bitch and make her rip that contract; just rip it into the spaghetti strips tossed out from windows over Times Square; and then push her down to her bony knees and force her to give me the loving I surely deserve. There is nothing else, until that happens; nothing under the hot Florida sun; nothing in the whole of the universe; but the black pearl necklace, cheapo beads on loose string, as hidden from my view as imprinted in my mind.

         I am going to return that necklace; but as soon as I am one of the sweaty dress shirts and loosened ties on the charred frying pan that we Floridians refer to as a parking lot (or sometimes, when the monsoon spirals northeast from the Gulf of Mexico, as an alligator landing strip), I decide that there is no reason to return to my safe at home. It may be in there, beside my stack of cash and real estate documents; but it is also slithering in and out of the sweat pond beneath my right armpit; a snake hiss vibrating my tight shirt collar; a moldy mix of sour fish and ripened leather smells that first winces and then, incongruously, calms my nostrils with my own patented take on eau de natural. It is going to be snug as a bug in a rug inside my right hand; my blessed rosary beads hand as much as my defiled self-love hand; when I snatch her out from her shadow and force her to sign a release form. It is going to be there, until I am free at last to live that amoral and unattached life that is the key to success near the Redneck Riviera.

         And so I snag a taxi instead for my younger brother’s used car lot outside the city line. I am a sick sweat hog in that cramped backseat; my breathing hot and bothered, like a boy setting out for his first rendezvous with a married lady in red high heels and black pantyhose; my beet red power tie torn off and then stuffed unceremoniously into my inner jacket pocket; my cheeks flushed in the same beet red color, as if a white boy turned black at the end of his tight rope.

         I pay the fee; stagger passed the front desk girl (a former Miss Pensacola holding onto the barest trace of her former beauty with the old platinum blond caught in a wind tunnel look); and then barrel into my younger brother’s office with all the abandon of a wild man turned loose from his former composed life.

         I stop in my tracks and clutch the black pearl necklace that is now, once again, slithering inside of my pants pocket. I am wide-eyed and speechless; the heels of my boots sliding in my own sweat puddle; and I just want to storm out.

         But I cannot leave in a huff. I cannot even slink out like a beaten dog. All that I can muster is the strength to stand there; my mouth opened stupidly; my eyes those of a girl in ponytails first seeing her papa buck naked in the shower; and, anyway, my younger brother has seen me and has indicated that he wants me to stay a while, maybe pull up a cozy seat and light a cigar until he is done, or maybe just stand there twiddling my thumbs until the last of his silly grunts.

         He is laying back on his desk chair; his legs sprawled over a clutter of old purchase agreements; totally naked, but for the cowboy boots laced extra snug over his smelly feet and lower legs, and the Stetson stapled over the sweat line at the top of his forehead; and his Old Rebel Cockle Doodle Doo, hoisted as tall and proud as the Stars and Bars he raises every sunrise in his luscious green and coiffed front yard, and now adored by one of the Bikini Bunnies who soap spuds the Caddies on his lot every afternoon. He does not moan so much as grunt, the guttural cry of a caged bear, as the Bikini Bunny smears her sad grin against his crotch hairs. He never looks down at her bobbing blond bouffant; a hairstyle so long out of style as to be decadently retro; but rather takes in the car salesman of the year certificates on his black walls and the framed and matted black and white of himself with an obviously well aged and slow witted Ronald Reagan. In his adoring contemplation of that photograph; his mind racing back to the time he came to within a few votes of taking the Young Americans for Freedom helm and bedded a Senator’s wife at a National Republican Convention; he is able to get as close as he ever will to the experience of an orgasm; not a full, ecstatic, spiritual release; not even a warm spurt; but a kind of lazy, complacent sense, a Southern drawl in his mind, that intimates that he is and will be forevermore one of the handful of winners in a universe overpopulated by pathetic losers of one stripe or another. After all, winners are able to hire Bikini Bunnies; winners are able to keep just enough cash for clunkers in stock to generate the kinds of losses that make tax bills go away; and winners are able to saddle up with their own brothers’ fiancés, whenever the pickings are poor on a dull Saturday night.

         He winks at his older brother. He loves the son of a bitch, but he realizes that he’s one of the pathetic losers, as surely one of the goats destined for Hell fire as the platinum blond whores and the niggers. And so as much as he adores him, he just cannot wink at him as he would one of his equals. No, the best the shrub deserves is one of his contemptuous winks; you know, the one that states in no uncertain terms that I’ve got what you’re never gonna get; the perverted, slow motion wink of a man relishing in his decadence and reminding his inferior that, no matter the same blood that they share, he can never be in on this fun.

         I know exactly what he is telling me with that saucy sick look of his. I’ve known it ever since I first saw him in our mother’s arms. It is the look that says to me: You were here first, but I’m running this joint we call life, and you’ll be better off just doing what I tell you to do or slinking out of my goddamned way.

         It takes a while; seems like an eternity; but my younger brother is finally bored with the hussy lips wrapped around his pole, and nudges the Bikini Bunny back to work with a tap of his left knee against her stomach. She does not look put out by this gesture; her dumb smile remaining plastered on her rosy face as she is gathering her bikini bottom and stilettos; and it occurs to me that the big chew may have been as much a tiresome chore for her as any of the other tasks the Boss Man demands of his Bikini Bunnies. Regardless, she does not see me at all; really, does not seem to see much of anything, but the pretty in pink photo she keeps framed and matted behind her dim eyes; as she skips back out to the car wash and rejoins the goon gaggle that passes for talk among Bikini Bunnies.

         My brother folds his arms behind his Stetson; leans back so far in his seat as to be on the verge of falling onto the floor; and stares contemptuously at me with his half shut eyes. His Old Rebel Cockle Doodle Doo remains as cocked and loaded as before; a stiff mushroom throbbing in front of his belly button; an old but still dangerous snake hissing venom at that hapless loser who is figuratively standing with his hat in his hand. His soles are caked in the very same mud that he had unearthed when first walking the perimeter of his used car lot; the gray dirt as much a trophy as the items on the walls; the mud creases configured as broad grins, as if to tell me that I am not even as worthy as the dry Indian turds and the nigger road apples from which my brother will reap what he has sowed.

         So you here to buy one of my boats? My brother spits, and then chuckles.

         What? I asked, perplexed, still not able to look away from his mushroom.

         Don’t mud lick my ass, my brother says with a slight curl on the edges of his lips. I heard all about your big sale; old slave quarters converted by a bunch of jihad camel jockeys, financed by a chinky bank, and resold as family friendly timeshares to kikes on the panhandle; a goddamned, global village when money is changing hands; and all the lawyers and realtors just smiling Negros ‘till their commission checks arrive in the mail. I could never do what you do; selling sick and twisted dreams; sort of like underarm sweat that everyone pretends smells like perfumed pussy. My customers know what they’re buying; every last detail, no matter good or bad, there for their bloodshot eyes to read in the small print on the back side of the form; but you don’t disclose the dried shit that’s gonna hit the fan when the sad sack tells his wife he’s squandered their boy’s college fund on a timeshare in the Caribbean; and you don’t disclose how the old bitch of a mistress is gonna demand so much more once she’s become comfortable to the good life down there; and the dream purchasers are gonna have to find out for themselves how the pineapple heads down there are cheating them at their every move. God, what a business! But who am I to begrudge a boy his check in the mail? So you’re gonna be rolling in crisp greenbacks in a few more weeks; a sow kicked into a pen full of perfumed road apples; and you’ll want to buy that old bitch you’ve been borrowing from me these past several months; just cruise the 98 with the style that only an owner can have; picking up whores at the old Florabama and discarding them all battered and bruised and nigger lipped in an abandoned trailer park always a skip ahead of the law. ‘Cause you know as well as any white man in these parts that the law remains blind to the social crimes, all the grab ass and the coon hunts, perpetrated by gentlemen in Caddies. They pick up the Klan every now and then, ‘cause them crackers drive beat up Fords and marry beat up skanks; but the boss man, the gentleman with fine, polished leather and automated windows, well he never even has to turn his fair nose up at a speeding ticket. You see I don’t sell dreams. I sell reality; how the world in these parts works; and I just know that once you’re in the Ritz you’re gonna be tired to begging a ride from your younger brother. You’re gonna be tired of just washing in and out of here like the gulf shrimp on the Redneck Riviera; oh, just dead dog tired my Bikini Bunnies don’t so much as wink one of their whore eyes in your direction; and you’re gonna do something about it. Take that bull that’s been chuckling snot at you all these years; just grab him by the horns and force him to the ground; ‘cause you’re not a quarter the man that I am, but when all is said and done, you come from the same loins, and that means something real in these parts. No washed up Injun or lazy Mexican blood flows in your veins, so blessed we are. And our forefathers were handling the leather whip, not crying for nights on end from the open wounds. So I know you’ve got it in you to be an owner; one of the sheep, when the goats are packed off to the squalid hell that has been prepared for them; one of the white men, when the rest of the world, oh God forbid, is overrun by the Cat’licks, the Coons, and the Jews who control them; a brother with my surname; a boy for whom our Boss Man shall be proud.

         Well, nothing’s real ‘till escrow closes, I mumble, while continuing to be entranced by his throbbing mushroom. I mean I’ve been down this road enough to recognize that there are plenty of potholes between here and the finish line.

         An, Jesus Coon Christ, my brother scoffs, waving his right hand derisively in my direction. Always moaning that Golgotha is just around the corner ‘cause the Man has given you nothing in this lifetime, but a crown of thorns and a stiff cross. But you remember what the Good Book says. Even at the very end, Jesus had it in Him to slither down from His cross; put on a big dog and pony show for the onlookers, like He did when He gave back to Dead Lazarus his briefcase and tie; and yet He stayed up there to the bitter end. He stayed there, so the Jews could writhe in bloodguilt for the rest of their years, and the white men in high stockings and flintlock rifles could tame the wild beasts who had fallen away so far and wide from Eden. But what do you propose to accomplish by assuming all the cuts and the bruises of a slave man’s death? Do you think the kikes will wail in their hellfire, when finally you meet your Maker? Do you think the gentlemen in soft loafers and Khakis will tame any more saber tooth tigers and sea dragons ‘cause you remained your younger brother’s welfare queen the rest of your silly life? It’s time you plant just a seed of faith in that gray matter of yours; move a whole lot of mountains into the sea; bang Bikini Bunnies in between building up your fortune and saving the world; and accept, just accept like you do the very truth that Jesus Christ is your personal Lord and Savior, that the documents you have stuffed in that safe of yours are as good as the oil pumped out of the dark sands of Araby; no, even better, ‘cause the signer may be a jihadist with a sick penchant for white girls, but the deliverer is a good son of the Gulf Coast and a blood descendent of the Old Confederacy. You’ve got too much legacy; a white man’s pride; to be undone at the last moment by some God forsaken pothole in the road. Or do you doubt that the Father protects His tribe and saves each and every one of them from the snares of the black devils hiding in the long weeds?

         I try to think about the signed and sealed documents in that safe; but my own will notwithstanding, my mind shifts over to the black pearl necklace next to them. And then I feel them again inside my pants pocket. And I observe how there a black pearl inside each of my brother’s half shut eyes; the pupil curved and smoothed, until the last trace of sentient life has been covered over by the black hole; the perfect roundness insinuating a death that cannot be avoided in the end, a debt that cannot be satisfied, a contract upheld even unto the grand finale, no matter how much I may try to sweat and to toil out from an old web.

         I must look anxious, because my brother smiles more broadly. He always finds a certain perverse joy in my most vulnerable moments, like a spider must feel when it knows that the hyperventilating fly in its trap will never buzz free, or a master must feel the second before he first snaps his whip on a black back.

         You don’t look so good, my brother says, feigning empathy, as he strokes his throbbing mushroom with his right palm. Would you like something to drink?

         Have you ever turned down the wrong road? I ask, while attempting ever so subtly to remove my eyes from his cock. Maybe swerved off the main road in the mistaken belief that the scenic route truly would be worth the extra miles? And then, after taking a few scary turns, maybe missing an ongoing truck by no more than the paint on your door, have you ever wanted to return to that main road before you totally lost your way? I mean I know it’s hard to imagine, but….

         I’ve made it a rule that every road is my own; my brother teases me silly and then chuckles out another mouthful of slimy spit. I’ve driven a whole lot of roads in my years; turnpikes, scenic highways, country dust bowls; but the gray asphalt is always the same; the median line the same shade of yellow; even the good ol’ boy Deputy Do-Right in the speed traps always the same old beer belly wrapped snug as a bug in the same old Khaki top and Sam Browne belt. But it’s my road, you see, ‘cause my one hand is on the wheel, and my other is on the shift, and my foot is fondling the accelerator ‘till the engine gives up her ghost. Driving is the kind of illicit sex the good old pastors tell us to avoid before they sneak back to their dirty magazines; what we all know is so wrong, but feels so right, especially after hours when the moon is our only guide; and so in the end every driver’s got to make his choice: Is he the rapist or the raped; the man on top or the whore on bottom; the man with his GPS programmed for his personal stash of white lightning and antique rifles, or the boy with his GPS programmed for his cunt wife waiting for his limp ass to slink over to her supper table? Not a tough question, really, ‘cause every man knows deep down inside if he’s a foot or a pedal, and how he reacts to that self-awareness explains just about all the drama that exists in this crazy world of ours. So you see I’m not concerned with your question and think it’s a pathetic, God forsaken shame that you should be.

         I’d like to borrow the Caddie, I mumble, as I stare down at my boots in a sorry ass effort to avoid his condescending look. I’ll return it before this sunset.

         My brother reaches into his desk drawer with his right hand. He snatches a car key and tosses it in my direction like a zookeeper feeding his caged beast.

I catch it in midair; but then I feel his pre-cum all over the soft keychain and drop it onto the floor in between my boots. I stumble to pick it up from the floor. I am a weakling four eyes missing the very first baseball pitch ever tossed in my direction, and I do not even have to look up to see the sneering eyes that are turning at once towards me. I have known those dark eyes all my sad years.

You make sure you return it well before sunset so that my Bikini Bunnies can wash your sad stink out of it ‘fore I show up in the morn, my brother snarls. There’s nothing worse than smelling defeat before my first cup of French roast. 

I shuffle out from the black office, wiping the pre-cum on my pants, and mumbling a half-assed thank you. I hate how much I fold in front of my younger brother; my skin feeling like a collapsed accordion wrinkling into itself; my soft tissue and muscles seeming to deflate; but, even more so, I hate the snake that is at once slithering inside of my pants pocket and then burrowing into my neck from the inner lining of my jacket. I hate how I see dead black pearls instead of living pupils in people’s eyes. I hate how the water cooler at the end of the hall is full of black pearls, instead of purified water, and how the two Bikini Bunnies gossiping near the snack room are swallowing black pearls in paper cups. All of this is madness, of course, a surreal nightmare bleeding into the daytime hours and twisting the conscious mind into a queer caricature of its own rational self; everything mired in fun house mirrors; the line between what is real and unreal so contorted by this change in mind perception as to be in essence nonexistent.

I manage a twitchy smile, as I pass by the front desk girl, but she pays no attention to me. She has her face buried in a phone directory; but I am certain, not even a whisper of doubt in my mind, that she is looking up the 800 number to something illicit; maybe even fat pigs rolling in the mud perverted; and that it is best for me to avert my eyes before this damned snake wrapping about the inside of my shirt collar manages to strangle out from my throat the very last of my self-delusions; my last grasp of the idea that I am selling promising dreams, instead of poisonous snake oil; my last intimation that, indeed, it is possible for me to pay off the debt in time and to secure my own little patch of Shangri-La, one step ahead of the tax man, and lover enough for the fairy belle in my arms.

I drive off the lot and turn down Highway 98. It is sweltering hot; the old devil heat that plays on the sour mind as much as on the sweat ponds spreading out from the armpits, so that everything beyond the windshield seems to be no more substantial than a ghostly mirage left over after a solar boom flattens the world back into the wasteland from which it had been born; the only sound out there the vicious shriek of a vulture scaring off its competitors before it swoops in for the road kill that has been barbecued on one side by the dry heat shivers sizzling up from the asphalt; the air heavy and still, an invisible wall that needs to be battered, rather than the source of oxygen for the blood that feels as if it is coagulating instead of flowing through the veins; and the eternal arch of blue sky above an umbrella pressing downward, trapping the oppressive heat into an infinitesimally small corner in the mind, and rending the troubled soul from her cooked flesh, so that there is nothing but disembodied anxiety rumbling down a long stretch of highway in search of a salvation that is no longer there, a lovely belle long since defiled by her hot lusts, a Shangri-La long since charred into its hollowed shell, a hope charcoaled black and tossed out with the odds and ends.

And so I am not surprised that I find no trace of the shack along the side. I am not going to be let off the hook so easily; not going to be able to give back the black pearl necklace and to smooth everything other by sharing a few jokes and pleasantries with a kind, old woman over chamomile tea; just like my soft-headed clients over the years have not been able to get out of their signed and sealed contracts after facing the wrath of their wives or figuring just how much the installment payments are going to sap their savings over time. I am bobbing about the sea with the rest of the clueless dreamers out there; searching a vast horizon for my dream timeshare; mumbling on and on about how this excursion really makes a lot of sense; and trying to ignore the gnawing teeth of the doubt that is alive and well inside of my bowels. I spend the rest of this hot afternoon driving up and down the same stretch of Highway 98, because the alternative is to give up the quest and to succumb to the despair feasting upon my worn soul.

I return the Caddie before sunset. The Bikini Bunny pays no regard to me as she dips her sponges into a bucket, smears soap bubbles over the windshield, and wipes off the muddied suds with her exposed knockers; the bubbly mounds on her nipples shimmering charcoal grey in the purple haze of a falling sun, like a wet dream that has lost its flavor with the advancement of age, or like an old sex act that is just odd and puerile in retrospect; and even though I realize just how truly cartoonish she is with her greasy soap suds and dirty blond bouffant, I am incensed to be regarded as no more substantial than one of the mirages of a still hot and sizzling dusk. I am puffed; a hot headed rooster; inflamed with the madness that arises for no other reason than to mask the beast cries of despair.

And I could slap the bitch; slap the bubbles off of her nipples, and land a straight uppercut that would knock the dirty blond bouffant off of her airy light scalp; and maybe I would have felt fine, or at least grounded in the real world, as a couple of Deputy Do-Rights stiff armed me from the scene in a pair of tight and scalding hot handcuffs; but I knew that that would be only a temporary and ultimately inadequate remedy for the black pearl sickness slithering all over my sweaty skin just then. I had one final grasp of rational morality within my mind; one last moment in which I could choose clearly the good from the bad decision with respect to a particular circumstance; and I chose to downcast my eyes and to walk away without so much as curling my fingers into a fist. I did not feel all that good. I felt weak, impotent, even punch drunk; nothing that might shove a man on the edge toward the righteous path; and so by the time I stumbled into my home, and stared at my self-portrait (no longer really covering the safe, not in my eyes anyway, as I practically could see the black pearl necklace sliding in and out of the real estate documents and coiling around the stacks of cash), my tenuous grip on virtue had been loosened; that black pearl snake coiling around every one of my fingers, one at a time, and whipping them back from the palm; and I had no more in me than to be crushed by the unsatisfied debt and to take a certain someone down in the hole with me. I would go through the motions of a good debtor; showing up at the shack just in time to pay the next installment on the loan; passing a smile and a few pleasantries with my creditor, if she had the mind to show up at that time; but all the time plotting the downfall of that certain someone when invariably I failed to make one of the payments on time.

*   *   *

I do not remember much about the next several days. It is a wild haze of black pearl snakes slithering in and out of the warm sweat stains on my skin, or hissing at me from within dark corners, or staring into me from the dead, black eyes that are literally everywhere. I have a vague memory; well, perhaps it is a fragment from one of my demented dreams, as I am descending into a madness from which I am unlikely ever to recover before the noose snaps my neck into a cold and unforgiving eternity; but whatever it is, I just know that at one point I start to hiss at my self-portrait whenever I walk in front of it. It is not an angry, embittered hiss; not even particularly loony (though, God knows, I take on a lot of other strange and unsettling quirks at that time); more like a hiss among two lovers; a testament of a shared fate between a man and his sin, both designed, molded by the potter’s wheel before time, to suffer in a remote jail cell on the outskirts of hell, both called to be the penalty paid when the contract has been breached; a man and his sin coiled together as if cheap pearls on loose string; a novelty bereft of street value, but priceless in the eyes of those whose love has been seeded and nurtured in lustful hisses and slithering hearts; a done deal on nothing more substantial than a beachfront shack, four walls and glue destined to fall like wet cardboard in the next hurricane, but fancied in the afterglow as if the purchase of a slice of heaven; ultimately, an indulgence, which is all that really binds a man and his sin in the end, a decision to step off a righteous path and a wild passion for the entangling weeds and the slippery snakes to be found off the paved road. The joy of an indulgence is in knowing that it is just wrong, no profit to a soul, and I regale in that joy every time I hiss at my self-portrait, or writhe with the snakes, or just contemplate the enormity of an unpaid debt.

The next thing I know for sure I am standing before my self-portrait; just the epitome of a well coiffed, Southern gentleman in my jacket, vest, trousers, and boots; my wide eyes every now and then glancing down to the minute hand on my Tissot; my body remaining outwardly calm; my mind, nonetheless, racing out to the Shangri-La that no doubt will be flickering in and out of its space and time along the side of the road and biding me to turn the doorknob and to step into my own personal showroom. I want my trip out to the shack to be timed so perfectly that I arrive on the scene just as the Shangri-La starts to break in and out of the silence; approximately ten minutes before midnight from what I can deduce from my last trip to the proverbial woodshed; and then I want to knock on the door to the back room just as I sense that the midnight chime is going to reverberate within my mind. I want to hand over the cash as that last bell tolls. 

And why so close to the edge? Because I want to see the undeniable look of disappointment in her eyes when I just manage to remain in accord with the terms of our contract. I want to be able to smile, knowing that someday sooner than later I shall stumble on this or that provision in the fine print, but regaling in my short-lived victory over her in the meantime. Maybe that is all for which a lowly fly in an elaborate web may hope; a fly sensing in its little fly mind that the web extends as far as space and time in every direction; a fly knowing that it is not going to escape the fangs of the famished spider just now commencing its slow but persistent walk over to this corner of the web; but a fly shouting its buzz buzz buzz war cry in the face of its victorious enemy, even if for no other reason than to be doing something as its fly mind snaps the thin strings, one by one, that had been able to ground it into its only little take on sanity. I am well dressed; gentlemanly in posture; a sprinkled cherry on top in the form of a fine and handsome grin plastered on my rugged face; but as I swing my self-portrait aside, and turn the combination to the safe, I cannot shake the image of myself as a dirty fly (albeit a dirty fly whose little wings are tucked beneath its jacket) accomplishing no more than to prolong the inevitable; a dirty fly that is able to hiss like a snake; a dirty fly hissing like a snake as it is devoured by the one and only spider that has the countenance of a wry shopkeeper outside of Pensacola.

I reach into the safe and grab more cash. The bills feel hard and smooth, as if they are black pearls tied together by loosed string into the shape and size of greenbacks. The back of my hand brushes against the real estate documents, and they too feel like black pearls coiled together in such a way as to seem like signed and sealed papers. Even my own hand is no more substantial than cheap beads dangling on flayed skin string from the bones in my fingers and my palm, so that I practically can hear the brittle tips of my fingers chipping into osseous dust particles, and my hand beads rubbing up against the other black pearls, as I grab ravenously at the cash and toss it into my old briefcase in my other hand.

That had been her instruction; part of the fine print on the back page of the form; the first installment payment delivered in a satchel; the second in an old briefcase; and the third; well, as for the third, I shudder at the thought, as I am not so sure I have what it takes to fulfill that term. As the Good Book says, not just to the elect in Christ Jesus, but to the damned who package timeshare shacks as beachfront dreams, sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof; and so I latch the briefcase, lock the safe, return the self-portrait, and step into a hot and muggy night that seems to have been born out from the primordial void for no other reason than to be the backdrop for my next trip to the Old Shangri-La.

I have no problem hailing a taxi. It seems to have been waiting for me in front of my home, even though I have no memory of making such arrangements ahead of time. And even more strangely, the driver sets off at once toward the shack along the side of the coastal highway; and I am red letter Gospel certain, so help me God, that I never so much as intimate where he should take me just then. It is as if everything has been set into motion; old fate given free reign to mold my life on the potter’s wheel, until I should be cast into the eternal flame with all of the other discards; and I am quite literally along for the ride with no more to offer my creditor than the fine cash bulging the seams of my briefcase.

Every now and then I glance at my Tissot, but the minute hand seems to be stuck a few minutes before midnight. It is as if God, or the devil, or that old lady waiting for me down the road, has been so very gracious as to grant me all the time in the universe in order to be on time. I can just lay back and enjoy an unhurried drive eastbound on Highway 98, because I am going to arrive on time and fulfill my obligation. I can even practice my victory smile; the pleasant nod and the kind words that I shall bestow upon my adversary before stepping back into this unforgiving night; because tonight is mine for the plucking, to be sure.

I observe what looks like a white star bursting out from the confinement of Shangri-La. It is a pinprick in the distance at first, but it evolves soon enough into a heavenly oasis parked along the side of the road; a ravenously dead field of joy; a Siren call to every one of my senses to abandon any last vestiges of my old sanity and moral restraint; a paradise for the damned where the semblance of a brilliant love star is there for no other reason than to mask how the wicked creditor goddess drives every one of her debtors further into the deep; and the most amazing aspect of this experience is that the more I realize that this is all poison for my soul, the more I want to step inside and bathe in my own sickness and unavoidable demise. Everything about me is the heaven reserved for queer suicides; the exaltation of self-annihilation; the angelic praise song at the base of the golden throne a haunting death tone repeated into eternity as beats on a drum and intimated visually as the still and lifeless whiteness of this fallen star before me. In this white light, there is only one thought: I am death; my life all the flesh in the universe ever to turn waxen and purple beneath the pressure of an unsatisfied debt; my breath the gas farting out from the ass of a dark debtor swinging from a noose; my soul the invisible hand by which matter decomposes into dried shit stains on tumbleweed; and God forbid that I should not glory this fate written in the fine print and, even now, shackling my mind to my despairs.

Because what else do I have, but this singular moment? The future is just the inevitability of breach; not tonight, to be sure, but not too long; the past is every whimsical dream and seedy advantage just now shown to be futile, if not altogether illusory, in comparison to the sheer enormity of this death light; the present nothing more than stepping out of the taxi and abandoning all hopes in time for the final descent. So bleak; so miserable; and yet so truly the result of my own free will, my John Hancock on the contract, my attestation that I have not entered into this agreement under coercion, duress, or false promise, that I cannot but reign as the god of my own sacrifice and the warden in my own hell.

I had expected the shack to be flickering in and out of existence; but the still, white light before me is even more spellbinding, because it feels here like the minute hand of time has been suspended; everything freeze framed roughly a minute or so before midnight; the universe at this very point along the road a paper façade having no more substantiality, no more future, than whatever my suicidal, self-absorbed mind may impart unto it on this hot and stuffy midnight.

I do not even hear the taxi drive off; or smell the exhaust cloud that the taxi leaves behind as a memento of our time together; or feel the blistering hot air that clings to my face like a mask, more so than it flows in and out from my lungs. All of my senses seem to have shut down, except for my sight; or maybe, to be more accurate, a death fantasy projection that floats in front of me right now as something that can be seen objectively, but that in fact is no more than a white light pulse in my own imagination; and I wonder if this is what it is like to be dying: the senses shutting down, one by one, until there is nothing but an imagined white light at the end of a tunnel, or as in this case on the side of the road, and a growing dread that even that will be lost when the void takes over.

And with that thought I break out from my overriding sense of comfort. I drop my victory grin, look down at my Tissot, and walk up to the front door. All of a sudden time is of the essence; the minute hand seeming to move faster on its last lap to the midnight finish line; the idea of time standing still seeming to have been all along a vicious hoax, as if God, or Satan, or the silver dollar eyed witch has been enjoying a loud chuckle at my expense since the evening began.

I step into the showroom. Everything that I have ever owned, or wanted, or even momentarily contemplated, is drowning in a thick, still, white light the like of which is not so much a bursting star, as I had first thought, as an endless sea of clumpy, warm milk. I am not walking through the showroom so much as I am wading through it; my eyes barely able to make out the many novelty items buried beneath all this goo; my skin hot and clammy, not from the temperature outside the shack, but from the rancidness of my own past inside the shack; my only firm memory the first time I drank a glass of milk after its expiration date.

I stumble into the backdoor; the beast bump on my forehead temporarily slapping me out from my impending dread; and I search for the minute hand on my Tissot. It takes me a while to find it, because everything within my eyesight is so clumpy and white; and I fear that it may be a minute, or a half-minute, or even a few seconds, passed the midnight deadline. In my perverted imagination at that moment, I am a crazy death row inmate who had thought that he would be riding the white lightning sometime later, but who is just coming to see that his date with that hooded executioner is now and that he may be dead already.

I make out the minute hand; God only knows how I manage to see a thin, black line amidst all this confusion; and realize that it is just shy of midnight. I sigh in relief, glance down at the briefcase in my hand, and open the backdoor.

The display room is the everlasting reach of white sky in every direction.

It is the sense of floating midair, more so than anything that can be seen by the human eye and snagged into the mind. It is a timeless limbo that has yet to be molded by the potter’s hand, because it is the future still to be. It is also what will be when every past hope and self-serving delusion has been swamped by dead milk and forever hidden from the mind; what will be when my feet are no longer grounded on any core principles or creedal tenets; what will be when my life has been disembodied from anything but the void slithering snakelike in my black heart; what will be when there is nothing but a man and his necklace.

And then suddenly my eye catches something; only a white speck against the white background at first, but soon enough a long and beautiful ghost horse galloping through limbo; a ghost horse flaring hot and heavy sex steam through its nostrils; a mane flaming gold sparks over its warm and silky coat; an Italian, high heeled shoe encasing every one of the hooves. My brother is on the golden saddle; his thighs rubbing sensuously against the coat; his cavalier smirk forcing my eye away from the fact that he is totally nude but for his Stetson and boots.

And Miss Darla McGee is sitting on his erect crotch; his mushroom penis a dagger sliding in and out of her ass in sync with the ghost horse gallop; her silly girl smile forcing my eye away from the fact that she too is totally nude but for her loose, flowing, diamond studded hair and the Italian high heels on her feet.

My brother cups her heaving balloons with his abnormally large hands; an amazing feat given the cartoonish bigness of her mushy milk faucets; and Darla responds with a little girl giggle that evolves into a guttural witch’s cackle. The two of them so enraptured suggest the heads of a mythical perversion beast; an ugly man-woman sex imp; a bastard child of the Zodiac Gods and Goddesses for which there is no representation on Greek columns or Roman arches, but which has been intimated throughout the ages by the leering snarl of sex deviants and other social outcasts. The two of them so intertwined; an image reminiscent of black pearls on loose string coiling in on itself; suggest the complete confusion; the ravenous despair masked in cock thrusts and silly giggles; that results when a man drives off the beaten path and imagines the off road trails to be his own.

I hear the midnight chimes in my mind. I open the briefcase by my side.

And Darla McGee looks at me; her silver dollar eyes glistening dead light; her knowing smile arching into her blood rosy cheeks; her silky body writhing in the decadence, not only of her illicit lover poking in and out of her soft ass, but of her cuckold bending downward to unleash the stacks of cash in his briefcase; her illicit lover a petty thief in comparison to her cuckold, because that sweaty Stetson cupping her breasts and ramming his rod is guilty of stealing a small bit of pleasure in the here and now, but that slick timeshares salesman in her gaze is guilty of trying to pay off the past and to buy out the future with nothing but gentlemanly decorum and cold, hard cash. There is no love in her stare; no life in her eyes; just the sickening sweet bliss of wallowing in sin mud and dreaming that the whole affair is another flight of fancy on a fair ghost horse in open air.

The crisp greenbacks float up and away from my open briefcase. For just a moment, they hang in the air as green specks against the whiteness; and then the ghost horse gallops over to them, flares its nostrils, and inhales the money, one bill at a time, until there is nothing left of my second installment payment.

Everything vanishes, and I find myself standing on the side of the road in the moon glare. I touch myself just to see that I am actually there. I look down at the briefcase by my side and observe that it is open and empty. I bend down and latch it shut; my fingers trembling at the effort; my breath as haggard as if I had been running miles along the highway; my sick mind swirling in a hopeless confusion that is reminiscent of a crazed rattler trying to snap at its own rattle; a black pearl rattler; a black pearl rattler held together by loose string; a loony hiss seething out from a forked tongue to tempt the mind into its final descent.

I hiss at the cold and dead moon in the sky; imagining that I am standing before my self-portrait at home; and then, realizing where I am, I hail the next taxi that I see. I slump into the backseat and hiss at the driver; my incoherence turning the black driver ghost white; my quirky fit culminating in a sad chuckle that sounds something like a cross between a horse whinny and a snake hiss; all the while clutching the briefcase close to my chest like it is a shield fending off the ghosts of the future yet to come. I sit there, until the scared shitless driver musters enough courage to pull me outside his taxi; and then I limp back home; my right foot sliding through the grass, not because I have been hurt physically, but because my whole body has been contorted by sin into the semblance of an anguished moon beast; coldness and death slithering through my veins; despairs unimaginable whispering strangely seductive charms into my right ear; and just everywhere the dead stare and the knowing grin of that little, old lady creditor to whom I had signed away my freedom and my moral responsibility once upon a time. No matter where I walk; no matter when I make it back home, tear off my clothes, and slink under the sheets; she will be right there, chuckling at my predicament, tightening the noose, as assuredly as I slide my right foot into the future that cannot be bought out. She will be right there, waiting for me with a cup of chamomile tea in her hand, and a gallows heart beating cold in her soul.

*   *   *

I do not recall very much about how and when I made it back to my bed, though I am sure that I could view the first intimations of sunrise as I scrambled for my keys at the front door. I looked back over my shoulder; expecting to see that old witch looking up at me from the street level and chuckling; but instead catching a glimpse of a purple shudder in the cool blackness, a ripple spreading out from the horizon, a future about to wash over me like a rabid beast wave in an otherwise still sea. I have hated the glare of a full and brilliant sunrise; shut eyes wincing from the heat of a light beam breaking through the tiny creases in between blinds; dreams shattering in mid-sentence and imparting nothing, but a vague and disquieting sense that an important tale has been denied its proper conclusion; but I have never feared a sunrise, like a vampire stumbling back to his coffin in the nick of time after a long night on the prowl. I know what I have been trying to avoid all my life; what I have been trying to elude by buying the kind of future that has nothing to do with my own past, as if a dream really can spring out of nowhere based on nothing other than a signature and a cash stash in a safe; and what I know is precisely this: the future is cruel, unforgiving, and ripened by betrayal; the future is a loan defaulted and a creditor demanding all that is due; the future is a timeshares salesman cuckolded and a dividing of the assets by a divorce court judge; the future is timeshare properties collapsing in a hurricane and irate owners demanding redress; the future is a walk to the old colonial gallows and a loony calm in just knowing that it is all about to be over; and, finally, the future is awakening from the noose and seeing that even death does not spare a man the sunrise that slaps the eyes, opens the safe, and gives the serpents free reign to hiss temptations and to slither into our secret places.

And so I recall that I literally ran into my bedroom, shut the blinds tight, and slept about twenty-four hours; my mind belabored in craven ghost screams masquerading as surreal dreams, but my body remaining sunken and still, like a corpse the second before its skin turns waxen and blue; my forehead dripping a trail of tears that indicates fevered nightmares on the edge of a hell pit; and in my right ear a small and charming voice; just the sweet tone of a little old lady shopkeeper; telling me that it’s going to be alright, the sun following the moon in its course across the sky, the seeds yielding the harvest before the first rains of winter, the past flowing seamlessly into the future and providing me the soft contentedness that is the true mark and leisure of a successful man, if I put my fears aside, stop fretting the black pearl necklace in my possession, and realize just how much it is an opportunity for me. What do I really want? Whose charm can I win just by draping the black pearls on a neck at the right place and time?

Goddamn it. I know she is a salesman whispering snake oil into my ear at my most vulnerable moment. I know that the person who promises opportunity is the chief python among a coterie of harmless garden snakes; the one keeping a poison pack at the back of its throat; the one spitting out its dreck as needed to ensnare a fool into his opportunity. I know because I have been that python; and, even now as I write these words, I am as much that same python as when I had worn fine, white suits and had sold Caribbean dreams over those proverbial three martini lunches. So, yes, I know she is full of it, even as I am dripping hot sweat on my pillow, but I want so much to believe that I choose to let down my guard and to take in the sweet honey. I decide to love the lie; and though I had on my blinders then, I can say now that loving the lie is the last love a man will have in his heart as the devils grab him by the elbows and drag him to that cold and dark flame that had been set aside for him before the advent of time. It is a perverted love, to be sure; but, oh, how it calms a troubled heart and papers over a nagging moral qualm, all in the service of expedience and advantage, all in the pursuit of a once in a lifetime opportunity a fair man knowshe deserves.

I awaken from the dark night of my soul mildly contended and refreshed. I decide that the surreal visions that I have had at the Old Shangri-Law are just dreams, born out from my anxieties about my fiancé and my finances, and now able to be set aside for what they are. Not everything has been a dream. I have no doubt that there is a black pearl necklace beside the real estate documents and the stack of cash in my safe. I have no doubt that I am paying off the black pearl necklace in installments and that those payments are made in the course of midnight runs to the hippie shack by the road. But there are no queer visions in a back room; no black pearl snake slithering inside my jacket; no black pearl pupils staring back at me from within dead eyes. Most importantly, there is not going to be some sort of calamity if I am late with one of my payments; no loud trumpet blaring in the sky; no seventh seal broken; no more discord than an old lady leaving a message on my answering machine and reminding me then to pay up what is due. That is what happens in real life all the time, and that is all the peril that I shall face, if I happen to slip up on this or that term in our contract.

A few days later, I see the hippie shack along the side of the road, while I am driving out to a business meeting in Panama City. I am taken aback a brief moment precisely because it is so very normal; just another quaint shop on the Redneck Riviera; and as I slow down the Caddie a bit to take a closer look, I see that the little old lady proprietress is poking out the front door and talking up a storm with a happy tourist; perhaps offering up directions; perhaps sharing just a bit of local lore. Regardless, whatever the little old lady is saying just then, it too seems to be eminently normal; not the stuff of a black hatted witch playing out a wretched card that she hides up her sleeve; not an intimation of a certain and unavoidable doom, if I happen to fall while travelling off the beaten track.

There is a hiccup over the next few weeks; but it has nothing to do with the black pearl necklace, or so I tell myself then. I am told in no uncertain tone that, notwithstanding the signed and the sealed nature of the documents inside of my safe right now, my commission is not going to clear escrow until after my scheduled weekend with my honey bunny. Everything will be as fine as a dab of hummus on rye, the rat squealing Arab tells me over the phone. It’s simply that one of the banks in the transaction will take a bit longer than expected to clear a check deposit. We’ll all get together and laugh about this hiccup over a single malt scotch and Turkish coffee blend; maybe pick up some blonds at Florabama and show them the real meaning of the Iron Sheik; you know, paint the Florida gulf coast a queer shade of jihad red, as we plan out our future deals together.

All fine and good, except that I do not want to postpone the weekend at my Caribbean hideaway, especially since I cannot quite shake my suspicion that Miss Darla McGee is still seeing her old beau and my younger brother every now and then. She is the charm that is never purchased and locked away, but rather negotiated over, while other interested buyers stay near the cashier in case our sales banter just happens to fizzle. And, truth be told, the last few Italian high heels I bought her did not measure up to the earlier purchases; and I can see in how she looks at me that she is wondering if my bank account has fallen on bad times. A priceless black pearl necklace handed over in the course of a romantic supper at a Caribbean hideaway; a big wave crashing upon the rocks beneath us just as she is unraveling the coiled pearls from inside the gift box; a moonbeam reflecting off of the smooth surface of the pearls just as her soft lips curve into an expression of regal approval; will go a long way towards allaying those fears.

The solution is simple enough. I use the cash left in my safe to pay for all the unforeseen expenses in our long and romantic weekend together, and then I use the huge commission check the following week to make my third and final installment payment on the loan. Sure, the last payment will be late. Sure, the little old lady will be cross, until I win her over with my winning grin. But really what is the alternative when my status is at stake? What am I to do then, when the price of doing what is right is to fall on my sword before my pouting fiancé?

On that fateful day, I leave work early with no other thought in my mind than a spirited determination to win the heart of my honey bunny once and for all time. There is a skip to my step, as I return to my home and stare a moment at my self-portrait. I had been averting my eyes from my self-portrait since the morning I came to my senses and decided that there is nothing to fear in an old lady shopkeeper; perhaps then motivated by a superstitious dread of reopening my previous bout of madness; perhaps later caught up in the good feeling of my renewed sanity and not wanting to upset that precarious apple cart by focusing in on what had tipped my balance in the first place; but, regardless, I had been acting as if there was nothing behind the watercolor that might be able to grab a hold of my soul and pull me into the darkness. But now is the time; a moment that is rare enough in any man’s life, let alone in my own, where I can grasp an opportunity and ride it out to the end or where I can stay on the sidelines; and, taking in a deep breath, I decide that the former alone is what turns a life into a cause, a reason to live beyond simply a fear of death, a reason to paste a big, broad grin on my face that hints at the madness writhing beneath my own skin.

Because, really, what is the opportunity here? Is it to win the heart of an avaricious shrew just long enough to exchange vows at a floral altar somewhere along the coastline, so that then I may spend the remainder of our married life together suspecting her infidelity and appeasing her tantrums? Or it is really to burden her neck and shoulders with the heavy weight that I have been carrying? Do I want to win her love or secure her damnation? I think the former, but that twitchy grin on my face suggests the latter; and I practically can feel the heart in my chest freezing into a cold rock and crackling into the dust of a dead man.

I borrow the Caddie and pick her up at her place. She barely dignifies me with a hello. She is aggrieved; a disconsolate belle; a madness feminized by the crimson blush in her cheeks and the quiver in her knees; all twittering stockings and lace, because the leather strap on one of her Italian high heels has broken; no doubt the result of the heavy hand of one of her negress maids; a reason for an inquest and a termination, not necessarily in that order; and a source of sick blubber lips and heavy eyes, while we are driving to the airport to hop into my Piper Archer and to fly over to my hideaway in the Caribbean. We manage just a few words in between her sobs; no more than a platonic handshake upon her doormat, before she folds her fingers back into fists; and quiet stares into a hot and humid haze off in the distance; the road and air trip much more suggestive of an old, married couple returning to their tired haunt by the sea, instead of a pair of young lovers indulging their dreamy lusts; the whole affair inspiring that cold and hard knot in the pit of my stomach that in later years will mature into an ulcer or a cancer, but for the smooth feel of black pearls hidden in my pants pocket. I fondle the necklace fairly often during the trip in part because I know that my honey bunny is much too self-absorbed to notice the extent of my self-love and, even more so, because I sense already the despair of no longer having the snake charm safe and sound inside my safe. I am conflicted, not by passing on my sin to my belle by my side, but by no longer having that sin all to myself.

We are standing together on my balcony later that same evening; smiling stupidly into the warm Caribbean breeze that is flying up from the ocean below and hinting at the thunder storm still beyond the horizon; swimming in and out of the slinky bottle of vino tinto that we have shared already between us; when I notice how the moon barely manages to bleed through the cloud cover and, in a moment full of portent, smile glibly and remove the necklace from my pocket for my beloved to behold. I hold it before her eyes like it is a hypnotic charm; a living thing already playing with her mind; and I gesture for her to take it off of my hands. I have never been more seductive than at that sublime moment, not even when pulling the wool over the eyes of my clients; but at the same time, I have never been so dead. I am a beautiful corpse in an immaculate, white suit; a Southern gentleman arisen from his grave and yet coiffed enough to charm an old flame; a smiling devil dandy already writhing in the hell of my own dreams, and inviting the bitch in a flowing white dress before me to join with me there.

She swoons. The black pearl necklace indeed enchants in the moonlight; but when she steps inside and studies the gift in the bedside mirror, it is simply junk jewelry from a roadside shack; maybe appropriate for the Yankee tourists, who do not have enough culture in their blood to distinguish a quality diamond from a flint of charcoal; but an insult to a lady born and bred in the soft cradle of Southern resentments and high minded proprieties. She is too proud to drop a tear. She just looks back at me, tenses her lips, and squints her flaming eyes, beautiful in their infernal scorn, into the look and the feel of an incensed snake just waiting to pounce out from its hole in the ground. She despises me with all the fortitude of a Southern lady for her long suffering husband; and, right then, it is clear that she will marry me, exchange a vow and a platonic kiss before an altar and a reverend, if only so as to be able to torment me into an early grave.

We do not say much over the next few hours. We let the bottles of wine; tossed cavalierly over the balcony in a futile attempt to feel as if we are having more fun with one another than we actually are; do all the speaking for us; and indeed the bottles say everything that needs to be said. They say that, yes, the line between frivolous abandon and despair is as thin as the glass molded into a bottle of vino tinto. They say that, yes, the sound of glass breaking is much the same as the sound of a head split open in a fit of lust. They say that, yes, there is a living corpse to be observed in the face of a lady snarling her narrowed lips into a slur as much as in the face of a lady widening her eyes into a lustful grin.

Oh, the paradox of a lady; the bitter asp slithering in the heart that is so full of feminine love; the conundrum in soft rouge and silly lace that so tosses a masculine meant born and bred to be steady in a storm. But I bide my time; no more chagrin allowed than an occasional rush of blood to my cheeks in reply to one of her tearful outbursts; and I stare out at the moon every now and then to measure the time that remains until midnight. I could look at my Tissot, but my inner voice tells me that on this fateful night the moon will indicate the time a lot more clearly than anything a Swiss engineer could ever hope to fashion with his hands. After all, tonight is the night that one man’s sin passes onto the neck and the shoulders of another; a kind of Good Friday in reverse, a debt not paid, a contract breached, a death that leads not to the salvation of many but to the damnation of one; and nature tells this primordial tale so much more clearly in how the moon glistens cold at her high point and sounds the initial thunder roll.

I clutch at my heart as the thunder gurgles up from the invisible horizon.

It is the midnight chime for which I have been waiting all night. If I had a conscientious bone left in my body, a glimmer of light still in my soul, then just now I would be opening the back door in the shack and feeding the last stack of cash into whatever vision awaits me there. But I am damned; dead in sin; just a stupid grin on my face to acknowledge that the contract has been breached not accidentally but willingly; and so I am here instead of there and happy to know that the consequence for my late payment will be shouldered by the teary eyed bitch sitting on the edge of the bed beside me. I do not know what may happen to her; maybe everything; maybe nothing; but it is her plight now, her onerous cross to bear, and that thought inspires my last glimmers of joy before the end.

The end is swift and just. Sin hangs heavy, and so it does on her thin and delicate neck. The black pearl necklace takes on the weight of ages; each pearl a stone pulled into her skin by a force even stronger than the gravity of the red sun at the very end of its life; each pearl a smooth blackness as clammy cold as the still void before the first intimations of the spirit. The black pearl necklace sinks into her skin and bone; a sound like crackling ice on the surface of a pond frozen for the winter; a blood gush from her breasts like air slithering out from a pricked balloon; a scream muffled by a collapsed tongue; a fast teeth chatter that calls to mind a ghost wind blowing through the jaws of an unearthed skull; but, more conspicuously, a pair of blank eyes, silver dollar eyes, witching eyes, the infernal stare of a lady who is at first astonished, but who then, just as the darkness overcomes what is left of her soul, knows the old curse that has been hung about her neck and wills the same curse to be hung about the neck of the timeshares salesman fiancé with whom she will be bound in eternal damnation.

*   *   *

But that is where she is wrong. She is not damned. She is not really here with me. Oh, sure, her corpse is over there; a feast for squealing rats coming in out of the rain; an inducement to confess my crime and to embrace the gallows without the necessity of a kangaroo court; but the curse that I had tried to gift unto her; the weight that I had hung over her neck and shoulders; is once again slithering in and out of the wet spots on my skin. It is surely not in her chest, as otherwise the oinkers would not have been able to lift her into my jail cell and to plop her onto my bed. It is where it has been destined since I first noticed a quaint hippie shack along the side of the road and decided to take a quick look.

Soon enough, I too shall wear that black pearl necklace around my neck, though in my case the smooth, black pearls will feel like scratchy rope, and the loose string will cinch tight on my larynx. I too shall not be able to scream, as a result of a collapsed tongue. I too shall hear my own neck crackling like broken ice on a frozen pond. I too shall hear blood gushing out from ragged cuts on my neck like warm air from a pricked balloon. I too shall hear my own loosed teeth chatter like ghost wind through dead jaws; my last cry the wail of ages; my last despair the fart bursting out from my orifices and slithering into an ocean gust, as the guards cut me down from the rusted, old gallows eroding into the shore.

And when I am dead, I shall look down from wherever I happen to be and see that wrinkled moon face; those silver dollar eyes behind owlish glasses; the blue hair tied into a bun; the tense lips twitching at the ends into that knowing grin; the smile of a seasoned creditor who always reaps her due; the charm of a witch balancing her ledger, before returning home for a spot of chamomile tea.    

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Published by Michael Sean Erickson

I write, act, and produce films in Los Angeles. Everything else is conjecture.

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