Let's get a few things straight.
(In order that you may more clearly imagine me in a lab coat, whacking a chalkboard with a pointer, I will describe myself. I am five foot ten, white as Wonder bread, with those doe eyes the chicks are supposed to go for and matching hair in a ponytail that I have belatedly realized was not such a good idea. You want to see me naked. Sure you do! Maybe you have a thing for guys in lab coats. Come on, who can it hurt?)
The first thing on the chalkboard is What kills a vampire? Well, not much. Sunlight does it. Getting your head lopped off does it. But aside from that stuff nothing ever changes. You're stuck with your stupid dorky haircut and your stupid dorky glasses, even if you are, like me, obscenely handsome despite these defects. That's the second thing on the chalkboard. Your narrator: obscenely handsome.
Then there's Vampires drink human blood. But you knew that.
Finally, the mirror thing, the silver thing, the garlic thing, and the holy-objects thing are not true, and we'd be up shit creek if they were, because mirrors, silver, garlic, and holy objects are all the hell over the place. And I did know a vampire once who slept in a coffin, but she only did it because she thought it made her interesting.
The didactic portion is over. Henceforth you can go ahead and imagine me naked, if you want.
Not all vampires are pallid, bespectacled weenies like me. There is, for example, Trexler. Trexler is austere, caramel-colored, and bald as an egg, and guesses as to his country of origin span half the globe. He has a curious hawkish nose and is under five foot five. You don't have to know that he's a vampire to see that he is not as others are -- it's evident in a host of little ways, such as in the fact that he almost never employs rhetorical questions, and in a few bigger ones, such as in the fact that I am always to be found trailing after him, my pockets weighed down with his cell phone and his Palm Pilot and the keys to his car. Personal assistant is what he calls me, but normal people do not take their personal assistants to parties. Needless to say, Trexler is rich, and people are willing to put up with a lot from him. Also needless to say, everyone thinks I take it up the ass.
On not taking it up the ass: This has never been my idea of a good time, but even if it were, Trexler has nothing to put up there. That is -- which I probably should have covered while I was wearing the lab coat and aggressing on the chalkboard -- vampires don't fuck. Why? Because they're dead, and fucking is reserved for the living. It's that simple.
Why, then, in direct opposition to the dictates of normal society, does Trexler have a pallid, bespectacled weenie follow him around everywhere? The answer to this is simple too. Trexler is afraid of things with buttons. He doesn't like telephones, even ones that are anchored to the wall; when confronted with a personal computer he looks as wary as a dog peering into a phonograph bell. Trexler, you see, is very old, and his ability to cope with new technology expired shortly after the advent of the inclined plane. This is my theory, anyway. Trexler gets very cagey when I try to figure out his age.
But then, I am not very subtle. "So how did you guys build those pyramids?" I'll ask.
"Which ones?" says Trexler. "The Egyptian ones or the Central American ones? Or do you mean" -- his voice drops to a whisper -- "The ones on the lost continent of Atlantis?"
I do know that he is at least two hundred years old because that's how long ago he lived in Bulgaria, in a town called Ibolyovo. Oh, the forested slopes of the Rhodope Mountains, he says, and the stone bridges left by the Romans, spanning little streams -- on and on like this. He himself lived in a crumbling Roman edifice strategically located somewhat further up the picturesque slopes, a squat sort of fortification with violets growing through the cracks. More than for the violets and the bridges, though, more even than for the dilapidated fort above the village -- wind whistling through the arrow slits, no doubt, spires ripping open the clouds that hid the moon -- Trexler loves his Bulgaria because it is there he met his adversary.
About the adversary Trexler is comparatively chatty: he was old, which is to say, perhaps fifty, stoop-shouldered, with his crucifix around his neck, of course, and the stake and the mallet strapped to his back. Up the slope he would trudge, thus armed, and then he would make his way over the ruined bridges and around the crumbling edifice and through the back door that Trexler pretended not to know didn't shut properly. Up and down the corridors he wandered, like his own ghost, heaving up trap doors and peering behind rotting arrases. He was looking for Trexler's coffin, of course. He didn't find it, as is obvious from the fact that here Trexler is, demanding that I call his stockbroker and then relay what his stockbroker says back to him. What the adversary did find, however, were the notes Trexler wrote to him.
Trexler regrets those notes now. They were not meant to be unkind, in fact they were very nice notes. Sit down, have some wine, isn't the view magnificent? But this is precisely the kind of thing a vampire hunter does not like to hear. It is true that he might have looked out of one of the arrow slits and seen what Trexler himself was never awake to see, the villagers working in the fields farther down the slope; but adversaries are not interested in views, in rare vintages, in the flowers carpeting the side of the mountain; they are interested only in God, and in killing you.
The adversary was from Germany. (If you want to get technical he was from the German part of the Holy Roman Empire, which at the time was on its last gasp, much like the adversary himself.) It was in German that he kept his journal and, presumably, in German that he searched the crumbling fortification in which Trexler lived -- thinking Stein, Stille, Vampir as he shuffled through the echoing corridors. His dental plate, which held the teeth of dead men in place with silver wire, was possibly also German, though it was the English who had most closely perfected the art of repurposing body parts stolen from graves or wrenched from the mouths of war dead. Of course, it's true that the Germans would eventually become world leaders in wrenching the teeth from dead people's mouths, but that wouldn't be until over a hundred years after the adversary died.
Now, I know what you're thinking: you're thinking Please let there be vampire Nazis, please let there be vampire Nazis. Well, you lose. No vampire Nazis. It's still 1797, for one thing. For another, vampires tend to avoid societies where people get reported to civil authorities for acting strange. Even if you were a Nazi, sooner or later there would be a knock on the door and Guten tag, Herr Schwarz, we notice you have taped tinfoil over your windows, what are you doing in here that you don't want anyone to see? And then it's shoved into the back of a van and interrogated under bright lights and before you know it you're nothing but a heap of greasy dust on the floor of a cattlecar. So National Socialism would not have appealed to the undead. More fundamentally, vampires really aren't joiners. Not because of walks-by-night or sad-and-creepy or any of that melodramatic bullshit, but just because the longer you are a member of, say, the Nazi party, the greater the odds that some other Nazi will notice that you never eat. Günter, you are not drinking your hefeweizen, was ist? I don't know what would happen after that, but it wouldn't be anything desirable. Probably sliced open and tossed into vats of various corrosive fluids and whatnot by crazy Third Reich scientists looking to create das Vampirwaffe or something.
Anyway, you may be wondering how Trexler knows the nature of his adversary's false teeth, for example. I have wondered the same thing and only one answer bears scrutiny. Trexler must have broken into his adversary's rooms at night, and I suspect he did it more than once. And as the adversary generally wore the false teeth whenever he was awake, he must have been asleep for Trexler to have gotten a really good look at them. We are forced to imagine my grave and dignified employer sneaking into a crazy old man's bedroom and rummaging through his personal effects. There's no way around it.
Two centuries later, in 1996, I woke up after twenty-three years spent in a traveling trunk on the bottom of Lake Erie. Someone in Ohio dredged me out; a few days later Trexler's doorbell rings and it's please sign here for a waterlogged vampire in a box. I regained consciousness in his bathtub, and when my eyes grew back he handed me my glasses. They weren't even scratched.
* * *
The thing I am whacking with the pointer now is James Fallon, the most fucked-up vampire I know. I feel you should meet him, just for contrast.
The first thing you will notice about James is his truly epic overbite. The word "overbite" scarcely does it justice; the whole top of his face seems to be sliding off his head, fangs foremost. It is, unfortunately, neither a thing of beauty nor a joy forever. Needless to say, James can't leave the house. Nor would I want him to, even if he didn't look so Lovecraftian. See, James is crazy. The second thing you will notice about him is that he is chopping parts of his body off with a cleaver. Maybe you think you would have noticed this first. You wouldn't have. You just have to take my word for it.
When a vampire cuts a part of his body off it grows right back, pop! I'm told it's not a pleasant sensation. The dismembered member turns into this greasy dust stuff and hits the carpet with a powdery thud. If you are James, you attend this whole process with a series of twitchy orgasmic noises of intense interest. If you are Trexler, you take James' knife away and send me to get the vacuum cleaner. We have considered locking the knives up -- we only have them for show anyway -- but James' therapist says it would be best for him to learn to resist the urge himself. And if we got rid of the knives he'd just do something else, like cracking his skull with the fireplace poker or slamming his nuts in a desk drawer.
You can see what I mean about him being crazy, but then lots of vampires are crazy. In fact, for all you know I'm crazy, and I'm not a Rinso-white geek at all, but rather a shapely brunette in a latex catsuit, leaping from gargoyle to gargoyle, vanquishing criminals in an attempt to atone for my own dark past. Sure, why not? Why shouldn't my fangs flash in the moonlight as I ruminate on my childhood in fifteenth-century Persia, hawking powdered rhinoceros horn? It beats the hell out of being an English major from Ohio, to wit:
I crouched on the jutting metal brow of what might have been a lion, or an eagle, or even a horse, in the mind of some long-dead architect infatuated with the sleek lines of Art Deco. The mist crept up the side of the building, drawing a shroud over the face of the unanimous night; the wind's caprice twisted my hair into billowing phantoms, lit from below. I waited there as I had waited in the jewel-green heart of the jungles of Borneo, in the squalor of an alley in London, in an abandoned factory filled with boxes of pearl-encrusted masks -- in which country, I have forgotten. In a way I had been waiting since my childhood in fifteenth-century Persia, in the noise and stench of an open-air market where my mother and my brothers and I sold powdered rhinoceros horn to the men who practiced Zoroastrian medicine. Yes, I too was a sleek-lined eagle, watchful for my prey.
Et cetera, et cetera. But the truth is that I would not look good in skin-tight latex, and the only enemy I have, to my knowledge, is a kid who found his girlfriend rummaging around in my pants at a Christmas party. Her name was Erin. I had told Erin that I cracked my spine in a skiing accident and could never get hard anymore, and she was just seeing for herself. He punched me in the face anyway.
Breaking up a relationship by letting a woman jerk you off at a fancy dress party is like saving her life, in that you are responsible for her afterward. Of course, if I'd thought there was any way I could listen in on the conversation she would have ended up having with her boyfriend, I would have wanted to stick around. Honestly, Steve, he was telling the truth, it was like a tube sock full of gruel, that hardly even counts -- but that seemed unlikely. Besides, Trexler likes to rescue people, so he ushered her into the back seat of the Mercedes and we drove off, leaving Steve, or whatever his name was, fuming in our wake.
I would like to say that I spent the remainder of the evening spelunking between Erin's legs, and in a minute I will say that, but first there came the business of getting her from the underground garage to my bedroom. Somewhere between the two was James, and the last thing I wanted was to run into him while in the company of a nubile young breather. James is the reason we can't get anyone to come read our gas meter anymore, but that's a whole story unto itself.
The trouble started in the elevator. Erin had her hands up under my shirt and I was waiting to find out what she planned to do with them when the doors slid open to reveal James, brandishing a knife and leering hideously. That is, I assume he was leering. He was wearing a turtleneck sweater with the collar pulled up over his unfortunate puss.
Erin shrieked and jumped behind me. And you know, here I would like to mention that Jeff Dahmer wore a condom when he fucked those corpses. He was crazy enough to fuck corpses but not so crazy that he didn't use protection, and this weighed against him at his trial. If there were ever a trial involving James I would like to bring up the turtleneck sweater. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, here we have a vampire crazy enough to jump out at girls wielding a knife, but not too crazy to compensate for his overbite.
"I thought I smelled company," said James. Unfortunately, I had no doubt that this was true. She smelled -- you all smell -- like a big fat drippy slice of baklava wrapped in tinfoil. The scent came off her in great pulsating waves; the car was full of it; she was trailing it wherever she walked. Flowers springing from Aphrodite's footsteps.
Aphrodite grabbed my jacket in a panic. Now she smelled like scared baklava. "John," she said. But before I could say anything, James stabbed me.
The knife slid into me and out again, scraping my ribs as it went. A drop of blood slid out with it and vanished. Erin screamed again.
"It's not real," James and I said in unison. For her benefit he shoved the knife into his neck and left it there. Erin stopped screaming, but her arms were around me now tight.
"Erin, this is James," I said. "He is harmless."
"I had a wife once," said James. Once when he pissed me off I picked him up and threw him down two flights of stairs, but he knew I wouldn't do that as long as Erin was around. I would, however, and did, kick him in the back of the knee so that he fell over. It was only for Erin's sake that I was glad he didn't land on the knife and slice his head off.
"James is" -- and this is as far as I got before she was on me; I barely had time to lock the door behind us. I guess self-mutilating madmen turn her on.
"You have sharp teeth," is all she said.
This is the part where I say that I spent the rest of the evening between her legs. For those of you who wonder how, I say get bent, my tongue still works. I've still got fingers. And some things don't leave you, not even after thirty years.
And Erin. Oh, Lord love her, she couldn't have been more gratifying if I had been paying her. She screamed and arched and invoked deities and all that stuff, and came close at one point to ripping my ears off and at another to shoving her thumbs past my eyeballs and right into my brain. It hurt, but you can't tell a woman to take her thumbs out of your eyes, not in a situation like that.
Sometimes, when you're dead, you try looking at porn. You look at it and think "This is a joke, right?" It's like going to a party when you don't drink, which I also do. You stand there surrounded by nervous people pouring anaesthetic into their faces, and you think "Why am I here?" Which when you were alive would have meant "Why am I wasting any portion of my finite life, of the glorious gift given to me by a benevolent Creator, of my chance to cast my lot with all that is good and true, etc." Under the circumstances, though, it just means "Christ, this party sucks."
Erin was full of anesthetic. She lay against me limp as a noodle, her cheek burning against my shoulder. She couldn't have been much older than twenty. I had probably spent more time underwater in the box than she'd been alive.
There's that box again. Why was I underwater in it, you may be wondering. Well, join the club. The last thing I remember is waiting for a bus. That was a Tuesday night, and the next thing I knew I was in a bathtub and a bald guy was telling me it was the future. My goodness! Great swaths of my flesh were buckling and peeling off and turning to sludge in the future. In the future, I looked as if I were composed entirely of wet Scotch tape.
Now, it would be a good story if the person who had stuffed me into a box turned out to be the same person who killed me in the first place, who had decided for one reason or another to just keep killing me over and over again. One night he nails me right in the head with a sniper rifle, like Charles Whitman; the next he sneaks up and cracks my skull with an aluminum baseball bat; eventually he stuffs me into a traveling trunk and pours Quikrete over me and sinks me in Lake Erie, figuring he'll come get me later, but then it slips his mind and whoops, daybreak and suddenly the only person who knew where I am is being dispersed by a guy with a leaf-blower outside the Motel 6.
That's not how it happened, though it sounds like the kind of game James might play with his friends if he had any. (He thinks he has one, but it's just me in the other room on Instant Messenger.) If a person makes you immortal it's usually a good sign that she likes you, actually, and does not want to peg you with a M14. Though when I say she likes you I want you to understand that I mean it in a very specific way, one that does not preclude her killing you in order to keep you around her apartment like a Precious Moments figurine. In fairness, though, the Quikrete seems rather extreme. I don't know who would have done that.
Here are the significant things I left behind when I had the poor judgment to allow myself to be stuffed into a box: my parents; twelve feet of books; my typewriter; and two boxes, both obtained from the liquor store, full of my horrible, horrible poetry. These things all vanished pretty quickly. I also had a girlfriend but here's the unique thing about her: she was still around when I got out of the box. Just not in her previous capacity as my girlfriend.
At the college library she was a curtain of hair with a girl behind it and under it a book. The hair was a wheatfield and a river of honey and Zeus incarnated in a shower of gold. When she bent her head the gold descended upon the page.
After a few days of this she looked up and saw me for the first time, or I first saw her seeing me. What is it that Shakespeare says? Even so quickly may one catch the plague. He's right, you know.
She doesn't know what happened to me. You can't ever tell them. I know you think you would be able to. I know you think you would stroll over to your girlfriend's house and knock on the door and say The damnedest thing just happened, I got so upset that you were leaving that I went out and fooled around with a girl who turned out to be a vampire and she made me into a vampire too. Maybe your girlfriend wouldn't take your word for it, so you'd grab a cleaver and say Oh yeah? Check this shit out. You could just cut off some of your hair, but you'd prefer to be more dramatic, wouldn't you? You'd go for one of your fingers, maybe the whole hand. And then she'd scream and maybe she'd faint and you'd have to drag her over to the couch and slap her hands a little until she woke up again, and you'd get her a glass of water and she'd drink it, trembling. But then she'd be on your side, you'd face this thing together.
I know I can't convince you of this, but you're wrong. You wouldn't tell her, you wouldn't tell any of them. You just don't.
She must think about it sometimes. She must remember packing to leave for that summer job in California, she must remember me saying "Don't leave me." And then, because I was kind of drunk, "If there is a God, you won't leave me."
She was a curtain of hair with a suitcase under it, her hands moving in and out, packing socks. She said, "I'll be back in two months."
"But what if you're not?" I said. "What if you meet someone less loathsome than me and decide to stay?"
"Then that's your fault, for being so forgettable."
That's the last time I saw her. A week later she was in California and I had vanished. And another few months after that I was in the box. And then it was the future, and she was married, and Trexler was saying to me, "It's called a cell phone, but I haven't the faintest idea how it works."
If any of that is confusing to you, don't worry. Like the My Lai massacre, what happened to me is unique only in its details, and even the details aren't really unique. So my girlfriend left me, that happens to everyone. So I died, that happens to everyone too.
You're wondering, around now, if I'm ever going to get back to Erin. There isn't much to tell, aside from the screaming and the thumbs in my eyes, which I have already covered. She told me her boyfriend was a jerk and I told her I didn't doubt it. She said she was sorry I had broken my back. Then she curled up under my arm and fell asleep.
Nobody loves me, I said, the night I died, but I was thinking as I said it of hair like a sheet of sunlight. I was thinking of the long, slow laugh, of the fingernails bitten short, of words whispered in the dark.
No, that's not true. Those are the things I think of now. After a while you lose the knack of recalling a person, and there are only these images, these adjectives. That night it was different. Nobody loves me, I said, the night I died, but I was thinking as I said it of her, of her.
"Nobody?" said my death.
"Nobody," I said. And that's how I learned that there's more than one kind of plague one may catch even so quickly.
With great ease I can imagine Trexler watching his adversary sleep -- parking himself in a chair, assuming the adversary had one, and watching and thinking What makes it run? The living don't seem as if they ought to work. They are too warm, too odorous, like some febrile piece of machinery. They will melt or explode. Maybe there were vampire Nazis after all, and it was their idea to turn human fat into candles, human skin into lampshades. It would have seemed like a logical progression of ideas.
Erin is about to pass out of my life forever; she is about to shower and get dressed and take a cab back to her apartment, leaving a thousand wilting flowers in the wake of her footfalls; I mention her now only in the interest of making a point. The heart is wise. The heart knows that however solicitous you may be, however gently you may pat her trembling hands and stroke her hair as she clings to you and sobs, one day you'll look at her and think of pelvis ashtrays. You won't want to, but there it'll be. And when she asks you what you're thinking, what will you say?
* * *
Now, if James were telling this story, I think it would go something like this.
- Traditionally a vampire may be defined as a dead body that continues to act.
- Behavior attributed to vampires includes the consumption of blood, entrails, flesh etc., molestation of livestock and other property, and the climbing into bed with and strangling or otherwise molesting members of the community, especially those closely affiliated (e.g. family members).
- Possible means of killing the vampire (wampyr, upir, vrykolakas, Nachzehrer, Blutsauger, etc.) throughout Europe include removal of the head, separate burial of the head and the body, dismemberment, covering of the body with poppy seeds, insertion of garlic into the orifices, disposal in water, nailing or tying down of the limbs, staking through the heart, driving of a nail through the skull, removal of the heart, removal of the heart and boiling of the heart in wine, removal of the heart and boiling of the heart in wine and replacement of the heart in the chest, and cremation.
- Of those methods of disposal in the second group, only one was considered foolproof in the prevention of behaviors in the first group, that being cremation.
- In a modern crematorium, in a purpose-built oven, at sixteen hundred degrees Fahrenheit, it takes forty-five minutes to an hour to render an adult human body to ash and little bits of bone. So imagine a bunch of half-starved Silesian peasants, trying to cremate the chopped-up chunks of some rotten body with nothing but brushwood. It must have taken days, and imagine the stench. Do you think they put bodies on the spit? After all, any part touching the ground wouldn't burn, because it wouldn't get oxygen. And who turned the spit? Did they make the next of kin do it? The people in the Donner Party made sure that no one had to eat a relative, so maybe they used the same logic and didn't make the widow turn the spit. They must have had to work in shifts to keep the fire from going out. They would have been all, "Your turn to toast the dead guy, Vasily."
If he did not actually posit the line "Your turn to toast the dead guy," James would nevertheless have gotten quite excited by this point, as this is a subject dear to his heart. He will probably have begun exhibiting some physical signs of enthusiasm by now as well. James' physical signs of enthusiasm include tapping his feet, biting his fingers, and rubbing his hands together like Pontius Pilate. He will do some or all of these things as he tells you about Peter Plogojowitz.
- Peter Plogojowitz died in 1725, in a Serbian town called Kisiljevo. They buried him, but people kept thinking they saw him around. It was the typical superstitious peasant bullshit -– they could tell that death caused more death, but they thought that literally meant the dead clawed their way out of the grave and killed other people. In this case they said Plogojowitz was lying on people as they slept and choking them.
- Actually, first he went to his wife's house and asked her for his shoes. She gave them to him, and then she moved away. This part at least is fairly realistic.
- Eighteenth-century Serbs exhumed so many corpses that it was practically the national sport. So why do we know about this case? Because a government official came in from Austria to witness it. They didn't do so much exhuming in Austria, so I guess they were curious.
- Plogojowitz is hauled up out of his grave, and because he doesn't stink, and because his mouth is full of blood, they decide he needs more killing, so they stake him first and then burn him.
- Of course he was never a vampire to begin with, they were just a bunch of malnourished Serbs with night terrors, but nevertheless reports of Plogojowitz strangling people cease after he is reduced to ashes.
- What are we to make of this? Are people superstitious idiots for thinking bloated corpses in boxes in graves can get out and kill them?
Keep in mind that James would never state any narrative even this coherently. He would break off in the middle to talk about his butterfly collection or to accuse you of having misunderstood him when he said that cancer possesses a degree of intelligence and that because of this it will never be cured. But I believe I have captured what he would say if he were not quite so insane, yet still insane enough to want to discuss the dismemberment of corpses. The only part I have left out is the part where he talks the hard-on Plogojowitz got when they staked him, because I figured you’d want to be spared that. I certainly would, if I were you.
But I realize that I have omitted some very important information -- information that, again, I should have given you while I was wearing the lab coat. (Are you still picturing me naked? I devoutly hope you are. Go on, you might as well; I was only twenty-two.) It is simply this: I have never killed anyone.
I don't kill people, I just kind of mug them, say at the bus station. There she is, just the right height, looking up at the departures board, and there's her neck, not that I get precious about the neck -- and you step up behind her just a little too close, and in go the teeth, just like that. It only takes a minute, and they don't notice, I think. If they do they don't remember afterward. They just get a little bit sleepy. Don't operate heavy machinery for a while, you want to say to them, or Can I buy you a cookie? But you can't say that kind of thing to a person at three in the morning. It would be strange, and remember what happened to Günter.
But there's not a mark on her, I promise.
Of course, accidents sometimes happen.
I said that James was telling this story, so let's rejoin him after he's done talking about his morphos and painted ladies. Peter Plogojowitz is all very well, but what about you, who has your shoes? And since this is a more lucid version of James he will tell you about sagebrush and waterfalls, the majestic toothy jag of the Sierra Nevada, night skies sopping with starlight, noon skies hot and bright as molten silver. He'll get maudlin about it. Here, out in the desert, is where James turned into a vampire. He didn't take it well. When he arrived in our living room it was with his hands tied behind his back and duct tape over his mouth.
"That's a bit much, isn't it?" asked Trexler. It was not. As soon as the duct tape was removed James began to ululate like a woman wailing for her demon lover -- and he continued to do so, on and off, for three more nights, during which time we had to confine him in the basement. When he began speaking normally he told us that he'd killed a woman by accident. He drank her dry, because he didn't know any better.
It's easy to consider this incident and decide that it's what made James crazy. Personally, I think he would have been crazy anyway. Plenty of people commit homicide and feel bad about it afterward, but hardly anyone turns into a such a nut. Jeff Dahmer comes to mind again: he killed people and ate them, just like James, but at least he was able to hold down a job.
The government official who witnessed the exhumation of Peter Plogojowitz had to come up with a polite phrase for that hard-on. The first time I saw James after Erin left, he greeted me with it: "Wild signs?"
I ignored him. Sometimes this works.
"I heard her screaming," he said. "They like you."
He sat down in the armchair opposite me. I had Ben Jonson up between us like a shield. Thy baths shall be the juice of July-flowers,/Spirit of roses, and of violets,/The milk of unicorns, and panthers' breath/Gathered in bags and mixed with Cretan wines. It was no good: there he was, his hands wringing each other like washcloths.
"They like you," he said again.
I threw down my shield. "What do you want?"
"Bring me one," he said. "Just for five minutes. I don't care who."
I just laughed at him. For reasons that should be obvious by now, James is not allowed to touch real people. There are other ways, distasteful ways perhaps, even gruesome, but not as gruesome as arterial spray on the ceiling, and definitely not as gruesome as trying to figure out what to do with an exsanguinated corpse.
"I wouldn't hurt her," said James. He had stopped wringing his hands; he was trying very hard to look trustworthy.
"God, no," I said. James grabbed my book before I could pick it up again.
"It's easy for you to say that," he said. He began sawing the spine of the book against his arm. "You can do whatever you want to them. You could butcher them like poultry and each little piece would beg for more. I heard her. I can't even touch one."
"Look at yourself, of course you can't," I said. "There wouldn't be any coyotes this time to get rid of the body."
He flung the book back at me. He was biting his lower lip, gouging little holes in it.
"Maybe we could compost her," I suggested.
The doorbell rang; James fled; the peephole revealed a scowling young man of about twenty on our front step. "Where is she?" he demanded.
Of course! It was Erin's boyfriend, who just twenty-four hours earlier had punched me in the face. Had punched me in the face, causing me to fall backward and crack my head against a cast-iron garden bench, in fact; which, if I had been a different person, might have caused serious injury, hospitalization, brain damage perhaps. And yet here was young Lochinvar, heedless of potential lawsuits, making demands of my eyeball. "I made her breakfast and drove her home," I said.
"No, I really did. Scrambled eggs."
"Let me in, I need to talk to her. Erin!" He had backed up onto the lawn and was yelling at the second-story windows. I could smell him, honey and brandy, a roast duck or a fruitcake. And at Christmas, too. James crept back in, sniffing.
"Is that her boyfriend?" he asked.
"James," I said, "this is your lucky day."