Fiction by Spencer Dew
  Music by Guthrie Lowe
  Art by Claudia Drake
'Art'  2006 Claudia Drake

Christmas and Easter


Liza wears chalk powder, only, and feels overdressed. The men on either side of her have synthetic seashell penis sheathes, cast in polymer, plus some equally plastic feathers in their hair. They, too, have some chalk on, but smeared, streaked, a war paint effect, while hers is solid, a coat of white, pure as powdery snow on the slope of Vail, Aspen, Telluride, all of which are places she’d rather be, this being the night before Christmas, she being not so Jewish that she doesn’t dream of Santa Claus, and this particular shoot being smack in the middle of the Everglades, with frogs and alligators and lanky, knife-beaked birds making their tubercular noises everywhere, the temperature somewhere above unpleasant despite the crew members on hand with paddle fans, getting paid to nonchalantly ogle her breasts, thighs, and pubis on the pretext of checking for sweat, something Liza long ago conditioned her body not to do.

So this is Christmas.

Through the sound system a tape plays, her ex-boyfriend’s band, Hangman’s Noose, doing a cover of an old Future Rape Victims’ song: Sheer Lunacy. “Trapped in a rising tide of hemlines,” etc. When Liza dances, she just jerks from side to side, legs planted, letting her hips seemingly pop out of their sockets, then back again. When she sings, she doesn’t bother over the words themselves, just a string of smooth vowels. She knows all the lyrics to this song and is a little annoyed she can’t dance now, on this wooden platform, floating above the muck, the swamp, the bull alligators, blue herons, water rats, predatory cats, etc. Plus snakes, snakes to the end of snakes, a whole catalogue of snakes – Liza knows, someone left a field guide in the nightstand of her South Beach suite.

Liza loves Christmas, the whole Christmas season. What she longs for most is a way out of history, a retreat, with no tvs or books or anything, just friends and service workers and good food and music, some simple sporting activity and a nice spa/workout facility. Also, she likes wearing sweaters, big ones, with high necks. Plus she’s fond of scarves, ski caps, speculative mathematics, and receiving oral sex.

As for her feelings about Christmas, she was warned against it, as a kid, being the offspring of exactly two atheist parents, plus three grandparents and six great-grandparents all rounded up and/or finished off by the Nazis. Only her maternal grandmother avoided the camps, but she lost an eye in the blitz on London, had a failed first marriage with a Ukrainian pogrom survivor, and later wrote a well-respected volume on the systematic slaughter of European Jewish communities by knights or whatnot on their way to the Crusades. So Christmas was never a very big holiday in the family.

What Liza likes is the commercial magic of it, that glossy image of childlike wonder that stands as evidence for the possible existence of such wonder even while it somewhat shabbily substitutes for such wonder itself. She’s really thought it over, has pondered it, contemplated. Plus, on the religious front, her education in Jewish miracles was mainly limited to stories of war. There are the Maccabees, who didn’t end up so happy. There is Judith and Jael and Joseph and David, spies and harlots and concubines cut to pieces. There is something about the sun standing still and something about walls crumbling down – such a history-centered sense of spirit, what with slaves racing through the sea and God hanging out on the rocks, handing down fairly detailed regulations regarding diet and work schedules. She likes to sing exclusively in vowels; a scripture composed completely in consonants just seems so alien to her, so oppressive with its hammered-in sense of responsibility. While that television ad with the kid on the frozen pond, ice skating among the animated animals, hand-in-hand with the franchise clown… that is the sort of thing she could run up to and hug.

She longs for a place without the weight of meaning, without centuries of accumulated human viciousness or, really, any of nature’s bloody-clawed antics. Instead of the red-eyed swamp birds spearing fish, she imagines some cartoon wildlife, in soapy pastels, faces curled back with identifiable emotions, humming distinct, up-tempo tunes. She wants to be in Vail, Aspen, or Telluride, some perpetually new and pleasantly numbing landscape, bright like an empty page, day or night, with beautiful people, Jacuzzi jets, hot rock massages, and champagne. She wants a sky chock-full of scrambled, senseless constellations, a wreck of stars.

Maybe there are stars here, too, at the sunken wet end of America, but she can’t see anything in the glare of the lights.

Somewhere – along the crooked, cobbled streets of some Dickensian, European place, frayed and with mismatched patches – bells toll Christmas morn. Meanwhile, she stands in some design student’s maniac vision, all chalk and mangroves, the photographer overly-uppered-up and ranting with ample arm gestures about archetypes, about savagery and brutality and the conquest of the vagina.

Tomorrow’s shot is in a fake cave, with real tigers, from a traveling show. It will be inside, all day, in air conditioning, and with a bar nearby.

In the meantime the men on either side of her are told to prostrate themselves, knees and elbows on the ground, hands at her feet. There is the rustle of artificial feathers. There is the desperate choking noise that one of the technicians identifies as cougars making love.

Before her ex-boyfriend became her ex-boyfriend, there was nearly a month in Las Vegas, which he promised would be pure fantasy, at an utter remove from the world. This was after the last war had started, badly, and before the next one got off the ground. This was the period between the protests and the riots, back when we still had Los Angeles, and she was living there, modeling and modeling and deleting messages from her father about the need for revolution. Then her beefy ex-marine boyfriend, the guillotiner/bassist of Hangman’s Noose, told her he was taking her to Vegas, where they have reproductions of all the world’s wonders and drinks are always free. So Liza filled her purse with paper scraps – receipts and price tags, bits of barcode, old ticket stubs, matchbox tops from nightclub admirers – and she went off to develop a system of gambling. They rode in electronic gondolas at night, her then-not-yet-ex-boyfriend crooning new bits of songs dedicated to her, about her, some of which were being played now, on the platform in Florida, with the worshipful men still on their knees, with chalk still sweat-free along the undersides of her breasts and the backs of her knees.

“Slobbering at the gates of your moon-sluiced reservoir,” etc. He wasn’t a great bassist, and he was a worse songwriter. As a marine, he came up fifty-fifty. Of the two wars he fought in, one was won, one lost. Liza didn’t blame him for that. The scene in the suite above Circus Circus, with his penis between the paid girl and the old college football buddy – that she blames him for, at least in the sense of assigning responsibility. Harboring resentment is another issue, and one she tries to free herself from through various cleansing practices and exercise routines, plus her two personal meditative techniques, one of which involves numbers and predicting their significance vis-à-vis a variety of wager-able realities, the second of which is less contemplative and more cathartic, involving confrontations with men in crowded restaurants, claiming certain sins and associations as their own, or anonymously scribbling messages, in lipstick, on mirrors or across the windshields of parked cars. It all has something to do with subjectivity, a therapist had said. Sometimes Liza writes in frilly cursive, things like “Thanks for last night,” “Missing you,” or “Lots of love.” Sometimes she writes in block print, capitals, “U R NEXT,” “SOON” or, spaced carefully across the span, “U + FAMILY ALL GOING 2 DIE.” Thus she brings havoc into the world, as, through gambling her grocery bills and grandparents’ dates of death, she channels down a certain extra-historical order, calming in its incomprehensibility.

After the shoot, Liza rides back to Miami in the back of a very long, white car, drinking pomegranate juice splashed with vodka and predicting the card order in round after round of solitaire.

The next morning, the fake cave, tigers instead of men.

That afternoon, the men are back, on either side, in some kind of khaki pelt – maybe gazelle skin, horse leather.

After Christmas, depression sets in. The tree is removed from the penthouse piano bar, Liza gets too drunk, dials up the ex-boyfriend, leaves message after message, then turns on her suite tv, watching footage from the wars as well as – on a chemically-inspired insomniac jag – three different documentaries: all about the Chaldeans, all about the Visigoths, and all about the Turks.

Then there is an easy beach shoot, then another, then the crew returns to the swamp for footage of Liza knee-deep in black muck, wearing a piece of laundry cord as a top, her hands held above her head, bound with some of the same.

The music for today’s shoot is by one of the tech guy’s ex-boyfriend’s band, and he’s pretty shaken up about it, because the song makes reference to their first kiss, in Vegas, atop a half-scale reproduction of the Eiffel Tower.

The company has hired canoes full of Indians with spear-like sticks, chemical deterrent, and handguns, charged with circling the area, keeping Liza from getting eaten. They seem to take their job seriously.

Liza, for her part, doesn’t really care. She moves her toes in the warm mud and tells the tech guy something soothing about the patterns of empire, civilization and its decline. She suspects now that it’s possible to work out mathematics for even history’s most random acts. A comet crashing into the earth. Plagues, religions. Waves of slaughter and reprisal. A dictator afraid of ghosts. A girl in a silver slip dress scribbling death threats on a Cadillac. There are always thousands of thousand of equations at play, from economics to the chemistry of pheromones. She says it’s silly to feel too bad about anything in Vegas. In this world, submission is determined.

The photographer likes that. It matches the theme. He tells her to say it again, then again. The shoot goes on till early afternoon, after which Liza is toweled off and the Indians are sent paddling home.

Flying to Vail, finally, some hours later, looking down at the lit gashes of cities in the night, Liza dreams of skating across a frozen pond, flanked by penciled stallions, musical notations floating through the air. In her dream, there is a house made out of jellybeans and fruit chews, a split level built into a rise of pure white frosting, at the edge of a wilderness of mint chocolate chip ice cream. Her ex-boyfriend comes to her, wiggling down the pink wafer chimney, dressed in red fur. He gives her a licorice stick and some tentative cunnilingus, then pulls from the chimney a big black sack.

“Here’s what I have for you,” he sings, and then the belching of frogs and the growling of cougars and roaring of gators and the shrieking of birds drowns out whatever he says next, as he opens the thing, dumping out its contents on the peanut brittle ground. Skulls roll around, bones clatter down on each other, cracking dryly, turning to dust.

Liza takes the candy from her mouth. It is now peppermint, and sharpened at the end from sucking.

So, as the plane touches down on a private airstrip surrounded by new-fallen snow, Liza dreams of shoving a peppermint stick into Santa’s ear, and of his blood spasming out, hot and black, like swamp mud.

She sings the vowel sounds of several carols down the first slope. By the second run some kind of prince or duke or sultan has proposed to her, in much earnestness, under the icy, myth-bright sky, doing the best he can, considering his accent and her physical charisma. That she rejects him only makes his love burn brighter, or so he claims, his knees on a flayed polar bear skin, her thighs clamped around his ears.

She rethinks her opinion on Christmas, naïveté, greed, deception, materialism. It’s Easter that her family really hated, that season of blood libel and massacre, Golgotha, malted milk eggs, giant rabbits, and meditations on the slow death of God.

Christmas, she thinks, is for those who whistle jingles, gullible consumers, idolizers of childhoods lost. Christmas is about expectation fulfilled in a frenzy of wrapping bows and flashbulbs.

But Easter, Easter, with fake plastic grass and cheaply dyed baby chickens for sale, with men being flogged on outdoor stages and all the superfluous ham and weeping, Easter is about waiting for something that will never come, two negative integers claimed to render promise of a positive, but not yet, not yet, and meanwhile the whole of history unfolds around you and one death spikes up, exponentially, to centuries of deaths and a handful of fertility charms and hot buns branded with the mark of execution.

The miracle of delay, infinite deferment. There is a mathematical significance to it all, something that transcends mathematics, always n+1. In that sense, Easter is certainly the most appropriate holiday for our time.

A brooding young Mediterranean man, good with his hands, known to have a bit of a temper, fond of wine and beautiful women.

Sugar, simulation egg yolks suspended in sugar, simulation egg whites, all locked inside a chocolate, simulation egg, the whole cycle of the thing, like a caramelized placenta or sweetened uterine fluid.

She lets the prince’s royal seed dribble off her chin and onto the dead rug.

Some hours later she will tell all of this to her ex-boyfriend’s answering machine, slurring and with her arm in a sling. Then some hours after that, another minor miracle, she will consider New Year’s, the two days that straddle the clean slate of a calendar, resolutions and the newly unresolved. She will forget all about Christmas, and Easter, and the sultan or prince or whatever he was. She will find herself in a hot tub with a software designer, and she will consider, again, the eternal idea of beginnings.