Rumpus Original Fiction: Swans and Other Lies
Leda meets Patterson in a dive bar named Three Thimbles, just past Atascadero. She is hitchhiking south to Indio for a music festival during a drought, and the gentle hills along Highway 5 are barren and grey-brown like donkey skins. She last traveled this route with her parents as a small child, and without their bickering or the blaring of Carnatic music, the ride is strangely bleak, the cobalt sky unexpectedly vast and cloudless. The truck drivers that offer her rides are entirely taciturn or they regale her with explosive tales about their lives—an unstoppable gush of molten words.
She is drinking a Sidecar and reading Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy when Patterson approaches. On the side of the bar, patrons tack business cards as they pass through town and in front of her is a waxy paper cup full of brass tacks. Patterson tacks a card on the bar right next to her, taking a moment to screw it deep into the wood. She side-eyes the pixelation of the hokey music store logo on the card, and wonders if it’s even real. He asks whether she wants to join him for a round of pool.
“Can’t play,” she says, without looking at him.
“Now how are you going to know that if you don’t try?”
She looks up solely to tell him to fuck off, but he smiles.
He points to her book. “I’ve always been partial to Dionysian art myself.”
Leda graduated from a college in Eugene two weeks ago, and over the course of her years there, has come to realize there are a number of folks who not only prefer wild debauchery, but also look down on those who don’t. She believes—because of the tattooed tendril making its way out from under his long-sleeved shirt—that admitting she prefers the order and clarity and light of Apollonian art and that, left to her own devices, she blasts Katy Perry, not The Velvet Underground—would sound uncool and bourgeois. And, of course, there are Patterson’s murky green eyes and his slightly crooked teeth. She has learned to nod to avoid judgment, and she does so almost reflexively.
Patterson buys Leda another Sidecar. The bartender, a bald, potbellied man in dungarees, shakes his head, presumably at her choice in drinks, but sugars the rim of the glass and goes strong on the Cognac.
Later, they stumble onto the sidewalk. He carries his bass guitar case, and she remembers she has forgotten her book on the barstool, but lets it go. Stars above, mica sparkling below the street lamps. She has rented a room at the Shrinking Violet Motel for the night and she spins around to find her bearings. Nobody else is out at this hour. The streets are wide, stygian, infinite. She turns again and one of her tan, suede boots falls down around her ankle. Patterson drops to his knees and slides the suede up her shin back to her knee, slowly so that the calluses on his palms caress her shin.
“I’m not sleeping with you tonight.”
Within the hour they are kissing in her motel room. He sets his bass guitar down by the bed. She reaches out to touch its glossy lacquered surface, but he quickly moves it out of her reach.
“Got that as a gift while I was in the band, maybe twenty years ago.” He draws her to him. She tugs at his boxers, lightly snapping their elastic. When she comes with a savage shudder, he enters quickly and finishes, lets out a long sigh as if pushing a last squat beneath three hundred pounds.
Patterson sleeps into the early afternoon and she sits on the floor, beside the bed, and fingers the glossy finish of his bass guitar. He wakes and catches her turning it over in her hands.
“Curious, aren’t you? Haven’t you heard what happened to the cat?”
“I’ve got nine lives,” Leda says, shrugging.
His tone shifts as he tells her he is traveling for the thrill of it and invites her to go with him. “Open road—Who knows what we’ll find?”
She thinks of the pixelated business logo for a moment, but he is pulling her into the bed, and by the time they’re finished, she’s put away the nagging sensation that something is out of place and agrees to join him.
They fuck each other in seedy motels with names like Watering Hole Inn and Afternoon Delight Motel and Seven Brides. The sheets on the beds smell like wet dog and cigarette smoke and bleach, odors that cleaning crews attempt to mask with cloying air freshener in scents of pine and rose. The first night on the road and the second and the third, he serenades her on his bass guitar. Later, she won’t be able to remember what the song was, but she will remember the quality of his voice, its high-pitched jagged tenderness, and the way he looks down while he plucks the strings, as if he’s fingering an old girlfriend.
Patterson has sleeve tattoos on both arms, intricate jewel-toned illustrations of dragons and griffins and albatrosses, all elongated necks and enfolding wings, and surprisingly masculine. His muscular back has no tattoos, just a long, thick jagged pink keloid running like a highway from the place on his back where a wing would be if he had one to the top of his hipbone.
“How’d you get that?” she asks, pointing. At first his silence seems like a slight. Most people would think he’s out of her league—she is dark and stubby, and he is vaguely leonine, all jalapeño greens and burnished gold. He should compensate accordingly. As the days pass, however, the ugliness of that long scar makes her feel closer to him, like they are more alike than she originally thought.
They wind their way through the Grapevine, driving from Los Angeles to Tucson, where Leda learns Patterson might be psychic. They are sitting in a blue vinyl booth. Overhead is a row of lamps, each shaped like a blowfish. He points out a couple sitting at the bar. The woman has dyed blonde hair with black roots showing, and she is wearing corduroy pants and a hoodie covered with tiny grey dog hairs. The man has a shaggy beard, sideburns, and earlobes sagging with wide black gauges. The woman runs her hand across the man’s arm, reassuring him, then the woman’s hand melts into the man’s arm, disappearing and then reappearing as it moves back and forth. The couple is talking about where they should go to dinner that night.
“They’re from the Bronx,” Patterson says in a low voice. He claims he can do this trick because he toured around the country with a metal band in his teens, hopped freight trains in his twenties. “I’ve been everywhere,” he says. “Go ask them where they’re from.” Leda raises her eyebrows. “Just ask! They won’t mind; people like to yammer on about themselves.”
He drags her over to the couple and they say they’re from the Bronx. The four take tequila shots together. Patterson raises his eyebrows and smiles as if to crow, I told you so. At the end of the evening, the man realizes he’s left his wallet somewhere and Patterson pays for the drinks. Everyone is having such a good time that Leda suppresses her suspicions.
They travel to Las Cruces and then Houston, occasionally taking detours to enjoy the bone and gold desert, the boundless blue sky, and every night they drink at a different dive bar. He teaches her how to play pool. They spend leisurely mornings swimming in motel pools and sampling gas station pastries.
Patterson accurately guesses a white man with dreadlocks doing tequila shots at a restaurant in Ciudad Juárez is from Ukiah. A woman wearing a violet cloche and walking her dog around the park in a small town just outside Big Bend National Park is from Ann Arbor. He guesses the bald, black bartender in San Antonio is from Murfreesboro.
“So where am I from?” she asks him.
“I’m guessing Cupertino,” he says.
“Because there’s a big Indian population there? Well, you’re wrong.”
They are mostly out of money by the time they get to Houston, and they start sleeping in the back of his pickup, parked off the highway, laying their heads down on his rolled up sweatshirts and wrangling both their bodies into a single sleeping bag. In the black exhaustion of those hours, fucking loses its sharp wild intensity and she wants to be cutting; she wants to say, If you’re so psychic, why are we scavenging trash behind bakeries?
They veer off the interstate and start running scams in small inland towns. The first scam involves the bass guitar. Patterson researches the town’s restaurants ahead of time by asking the local bartenders about the best places to eat and what the owners are like. He gets people to chat, and then picks their mark. It is a simple plan. Leda enters a fancy restaurant with the guitar, wearing a sticker bindi—nobody will suspect a traditional young Indian woman of anything, Patterson explains as he sticks it on her forehead.
The dining room is paneled in warm brown oak and a fire roars in the brick hearth. She lingers over the possibility of a medium rare burger and a beer, but decides it might blow her cover, and orders a mixed green salad, a Coke. and a slice of yellow cake frosted in chocolate buttercream. Heavy barrels of wine line the back wall. She flirts with the waiter for the hour she spends eating. At the end of the meal, her heart pounding and a ringing in her ears, she pretends she forgot her cash back at home. The waiter waves over the plump restaurant owner, euphoric and distracted from a recent Lotto win—or so a bartender a town over told them. She shows the owner how valuable her 1960s bass guitar is on a website accessed through his smart phone. He is genial, lets her leave the bass as collateral for the meal. When she leaves, Patterson swoops in and offers the owner $20,000 for the Fender Jazz bass guitar in the corner, telling a story about Jaco Pastorius’s Bass of Doom and the sweet focused sound of the instrument—he even plays the owner a tune to demonstrate—and when the owner demurs, explaining the bass isn’t his, Patterson leaves a business card from when he worked at a music store. Leda returns thirty minutes after he leaves, and the owner offers her $5,000 for the guitar.
Leda telephones her mother from the swanky Shreveport hotel they stay that night. Fingering the complimentary vanilla-frangipani lotions on the oak dresser, Leda tells her it will be at least another month before she comes home. Her mother, a practical engineer, expresses concern that Leda has no plan for her life, no concrete job in the wings. In the background, Leda can hear the familiar sound of her father listening to NPR, the wheezing and barking of the French bulldog they bought after she left home. She tells her mother that it’s a long life, and there’s time enough for all that when she returns home. “Love you,” she says, and hangs up.
Patterson is busying himself unpacking his clothes and putting them in the mahogany dresser.
“Won’t you miss your guitar?” she asks Patterson, realizing suddenly that he must feel unsettled without it. He looks a little sad, and says he’ll buy another one when he has more money. He doesn’t offer to split the money with her, although he does pay for anything and everything she wants. She thinks of bringing up the inequity, but decides not to say anything since after all it was his bass they used.
Other scams follow, crafted while lying in hotel room beds, lying face-to-face, or while hiking through the green humidity or while drinking fernet or absinthe at upscale bars. The liquors leave Leda dehydrated and dizzy. The scams prove to be the inverse of his other trick. Persuasion requires almost as much observation as divination since the things that convince people to trust you are bound up with who they’ve been, what they’ve seen, where they want to be.
Patterson says this trick is new to him, too. Just think, if they make enough money with these tricks, they will be able to travel abroad.
Everything changes in Mobile, three weeks and five days after they first meet. They are visiting his redheaded aunt, his mother’s youngest sister. She lives with her son and his family in a planned community where occasionally an alligator comes up from the creeks and attacks a toddler. The son’s wife cooks a Southern feast on the night they arrive—fried okra, grits, fried chicken, a ham, and pie. After putting her grandchild to bed with Gillian Welch’s lilting “I’ll Fly Away,” the aunt notices Leda’s sweater and asks what designer it is. Leda shrugs and says it’s secondhand, but the aunt’s eyes are glinting.
The aunt smokes pot on a front porch lit with fireflies and Patterson joins her in a folding chair. The aunt asks Leda, “You ever tried chewing tobacco?” Leda shakes her head no. “Next time y’all visit, we’ll get you some.” The aunt notes briefly that Indian girls like Leda are quiet, and she teases Leda about never having eaten potted meat. “Spam’s a delicacy,” she says. Leda likes the aunt. She is mesmerized by the cold blinking lights, the croaking of the frogs, and the rattling thrum of the cicadas. The aunt explains they emerge from their subterranean burrows every thirteen years. “We know lean times are on their way when we hear them rumbling up through the earth,” she says. The screen door creaks slowly open and then slams shut. Patterson has gone inside.
After a few minutes, the aunt starts talking about her childhood. She tells a story about her crazy father, Patterson’s grandfather, and how he had once chased his four children through the graveyard with a rifle at midnight. “Annie pulled me behind a headstone and we hid there all night,” she says. Annie is Patterson’s mother. Leda’s parents have dramatic tales too—about village life in Tamil Nadu, the southernmost state in India, about unrequited love and tigers attacking babies—but they would never share them with a random stranger. The aunt’s generosity is warming. Leda hugs the aunt before turning in for the night, and she feels herself dissolving into the aunt’s tough bony shoulders, melting into the smell of marijuana and spring lilac perfume. When she pulls away, she has left something behind; some part of her has sunk into the woman’s shoulders, never to reemerge.
The next morning, the aunt and her daughter-in-law take them on a tour of the grand antebellum mansions of Mobile—white Greek Revival homes with plain pillars and white porch rails. Leda is covered in angry red insect bites from the night before and trying not to scratch her arms and legs raw.
They are stalled in front of one of the mansions, fantasizing about the chandeliers and the circular staircases inside, when the aunt drops the n-word so casually Leda thinks she has imagined it. But then the aunt drops the word again, and again, a grenade each time. Leda is surprised and uncomfortable. She looks at Patterson in profile, and sees he is not shocked at all. The aunt and daughter-in-law continue their conversation about the interior of the homes. Leda wonders how the aunt will talk about her when she is not there. She knows the word was not directed at her, but she worries over it, turning it over, considering it in different lights, wondering if she is overreacting—she cannot banish the word from her thoughts. It occurs to Leda that an elaborate show is being put on for her, a California girl, a dark foreign girl—the food, the music.
The aunt turns around and looks into the back seat at Leda and Patterson. “I used to ride bikes with my older sisters in this neighborhood when I was a little girl. One time, they went ahead, and I just walked into the house through the servant’s entrance. Nobody was there, so I climbed up the circular staircase to the second floor. The chandelier overhead was so big and bright it was like a snowball made of stars and fire. I thought I could touch it, and I leaned over the bannister, holding my hands out. I reached and reached, and almost fell over the railing when a little boy who lived there pulled me back. I ran right out of there as fast as I could.”
Leda nods. She can see this in the aunt: the ghost of that young girl reaching for a ball of stars on the ceiling, the little boy pulling her back so that she won’t fall.
Later that night, Leda and Patterson lie in the narrow guest bed together, uncomfortable under the nubby sheets, the mosquitoes devouring them. Above them is a needlepoint wall hanging that depicts a house. Over it in pastel pink script it says, Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.
Leda asks whether they can return to the Left Coast.
Patterson turns to face her on the starched pillow and the cold moonlight backlights his blond hair. His face is in dark shadow so that she can’t read his expression.
“You don’t really want to go back, do you? We’re having so much fun on the road.”
“You’ve done all this before, and you’ll do it all again,” she says and hides part of her face in the pillow.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Go to sleep.” He turns over and he throws an arm around her. That business card Patterson gave the restaurant owner. Her original take on it, banished by lust and adrenaline, returns to her. Is it a genuine business card from a music store sales job as he claimed, or was it a card manufactured on Photoshop to create an elaborate illusion, a scam he knew in advance he would run and has run many times before with other girls in other places? Patterson’s arm is heavy on her chest, and she stares at the curved shadows on the ceiling, listens to the cicadas until dawn.
On the following night, Patterson’s gaunt cousin, who drives a big rig, takes his mandatory rest break. He gathers the family to play pool in the basement. The basement is mummified in cobwebs, and stinks of mushrooms and standing water, and its periphery is piled with a jumble of cardboard moving boxes. The aunt thuds down the narrow stairs, carrying a six-pack of Coors and a jumbo bag of Fritos.
She pulls rolling paper out of her pocket and shakes some bud into it, as her son sidles around the table, racking up the balls.
“I got something from one of the guys at work to make this more fun,” the son says.
The aunt laughs. “You do have that bonus coming due.” Patterson grabs three cues leaned up against a cobwebby corner of the basement, and hands two to his aunt and cousin.
Leaning the cue on the table, the cousin sprinkles some crystals on the green line and rolls it up, licking the edge of the paper to seal it. He lights the joint.
“Your son wanted to come down to get his goodnight kiss,” the cousin’s wife calls, as she lumbers down the stairs. His son—tow-haired and already in his powder blue pajamas, exuding sweetness and milk— pads towards his father, and the father swings him up and kisses all over his head, then swats him on the bottom, pushing him towards the stairs.
“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, kids,” the wife says, gesturing at her husband’s anemic pink lips as the smoke swirls between them.
“Too late,” he says, exhaling, and takes another drag before handing the joint to his mother. A faint aroma—acetone and doughnuts burning and cat piss—floods the basement. He looks around the room after the wife and son are gone, and notes that Leda’s hands are empty.
“Grab a cue,” the cousin says. He won’t make eye contact with her. Unnerving. She floats through the dust motes towards the fourth cue, still hanging in the dark corner.
“Oh, she can’t play,” Patterson says.
“What are you talking about?” Leda asks. “We’ve played a bunch of times.”
“Well, all right, I didn’t want to say it straight up, but you’re not very good.” He turns to his cousin and says, “There are times she can’t even make contact.”
“Like my wife,” the cousin says.
“You can play on my team, honey,” the aunt says to Leda.
They play eight ball, and as the night wears on, the mood is increasingly raucous, and the basement is smoky. Nobody is tired except for Leda, who is thinking about a few snapshots Patterson has in his wallet of playing his bass in a band. She realizes she never bothered to compare the real Fender Jazz bass to those pictures to see if it was the same one, or a replacement. She takes a handful of Fritos and a sip of her beer.
“She’s not that bad,” the cousin tells Patterson. He is bouncing on the balls of his toes and drinking his fourth beer.
“I can’t believe you would say I can’t play,” Leda says. “And truth be told, your aunt’s better than you.”
“She is that,” Patterson admits.
“We’re leaving tomorrow.”
“Gonna let your lady talk to you like that?” the cousin asks, taking his shot.
“We’ll see,” Patterson says, with an edge in his voice.
Leda smiles and sets down her cue. “I’m beat,” she says. “Thanks for the game, guys.”
When she gets upstairs, she opens Patterson’s wallet. She looks at the snapshots of Patterson with his band. They look like real aged photographs, but the bass, the one he had for so many years, looks different—blonde wood instead of a deep red and black finish.
At daybreak, they head along the coast towards Biloxi, steaming down the I-10 in the pickup. Patterson doesn’t turn on the radio or put in his CDs. They drive in an oppressive silence. The beaches are flat and paler than sawdust, a little ugly, with long docks running out into the placid waters and an array of gleaming sails rising from the boats moored there.
“I’m feeling lucky!” he says as they approach the bright, hulking casinos. “Let’s hit the tables and go to the beach.” She is pretty sure that he would want to hit the tables whether or not he was feeling lucky, but she mumbles her assent. Maybe the philosophy, the art, all of it, is a long con because he has intuited that her parents are rich, maybe he read her the way he reads their marks.
They stop at a casino that rises above the ocean, plate glass windows gleaming, like a wide silver spacecraft. Patterson has a craving for crawfish and they find a restaurant that sells them boiled. She orders a diet root beer and sips it slowly, trying to make the sweet sassafras taste last. A waiter brings Patterson a plate of crawfish. They lie there with their bright red shells and necks intact. He offers her some crawfish, but she shakes her head and watches him dive into the plate, twisting the heads off the necks and sucking the juice from the opening. Next he cracks the shell on the tail and stuffs the meat into his mouth. He sucks the claws.
“Sure you don’t want some?” he asks. “It’s stupendous.” She feels like she’s about to vomit.
They hit the blackjack tables. Patterson likes blackjack because the only person he has to read at the table is the female dealer. Easy.
“Do you want to play?” he asks. He hasn’t asked her what’s wrong, or what she’s thinking, or what she’d like to do. When she shakes her head no, he asks if she wants to go to the spa and hands her a hundred dollar bill. She can hear him flirting with the dealer as she walks away. She doesn’t visit the spa, but wanders in and out of stores, eying the merchandise and thinking about how much it would cost to buy a plane ticket home. Certainly more than one hundred dollars, but that might cover the cost of economy train fare or a bus. She thinks of all those days on a bus, backtracking to her ordinary, sterile suburban life, the life she grew up in and grew out of, and the idea of going on, the way she always has, disappearing into her childhood room with its framed Degas prints and Andrew Lang fairytale books and white writing desk, seems simultaneously comforting and horrifying. She could take the elevator upstairs and ring her parents, ask them to wire the money for airfare—they wouldn’t make her beg or anything—but she feels too ashamed to explain that her adventure has turned sour, just as her mother feared it would, and to return home defeated.
She returns to the hotel room and flops on the bed, burying her face in the pillows, and takes a long nap, her sleep suffused with dreams of Patterson’s tattoos unpeeling from the skin on his arms, lifting off his body and flying away, leaving only that ugly pink keloid behind. When she wakes her mouth is bone-dry and her head pounds from sleeping too long. Patterson is changing into clothes.
“How’d you do?” she asks.
He takes out bills, unfolds them and swats at them with his hand. “We’re goin’ big tonight,” he drawls.
They hang out in an old-fashioned bar, draped in crimson velvet with a zinc bar. Roy Orbison’s voice plays on the jukebox. Crying over you. Patterson orders a top-shelf habanero pepper margarita and turns to her.
“May I have this dance?” he asks.
They revolve around in the center of the dark room, the only ones dancing. The wall behind the zinc bar is backlit with violet light that makes the bottles of spirits shimmer, and slowly that wall, all the walls, recede into the distance. As she presses against Patterson, she feels her feet softening, losing gravity. He’s embracing her, willing her to disappear, swallowing her. Her arms pressed around his shoulders sink, disappearing into the red and white checks of his shirt like butter in a hot pan, into the smell of his damp hair, like wet hay, and the zingy spiciness of his shaving cream.
Leda wakes before Patterson, as she always does after a night of heavy drinking. Her thighs are sore. She can’t sleep, and she feels grateful for that. He sleeps soundly and quietly, naked under the single white sheet, his blond hair gleaming against his neck, and she tugs a paisley comforter over him. She pulls on her T-shirt and hoodie and slides her jeans over her hips, the clothes she wore when she met him. She steps into flip flops she picked up at a drug store and leaves her suede boots and the new clothes she bought along the way, hoping that by leaving the illusion of her return she will buy more time to run.
On the dresser is Patterson’s brown leather wallet, and the corners of bills are poking out of it. The air conditioner is on, but her palms are sweating, moisture collecting in the whorls on her fingers. She carefully slides most of the bills from the wallet and folds them and pushes them into her jeans pocket.
A sound from the bed and she turns, her skin burning hot. She opens her mouth to explain. But he has only burrowed deeper under the covers. She worked up the marks too, and should have been given half the spoils. She can hear her own heart gonging in her chest, and is surprised that he doesn’t sense that anything is amiss. She tells herself that Dionysian that he is, it could very well be him sneaking out and abandoning her in a hotel. With her backpack, she slips out of the hotel room, and releases the handle slowly. It makes a quiet clicking sound.
The sun is warm and the air like wet cotton and salty. A bracing sea breeze swirls up towards her face. Leda convinces a businessman loading his suitcases into a yellow taxicab to let her share the cost of a ride to the airport. The sugar beach and warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico stretch out, deep and boundless and sparkling through the scratched cab window. She imagines for a moment that Patterson will come running after the cab, screaming that he’s been robbed, perhaps crying and heartbroken, but just as quickly she realizes this would be ridiculous. It has only been a little over a month, even if it feels like a lifetime. Far more likely—he will wait for a while, and then he will understand what has happened. She glances through the back window of the cab. The silver casino is shrinking into the middle ground, and then disappearing into the distance. Noting his plush, dark red leather briefcase and his elegant, burnished cufflinks, Leda turns to the businessman to make light chitchat about where he is from and where he is going. Patterson read her after all, and surely he must have guessed she was capable of this.
Rumpus original art by A.D. Puchalski.