Gilda's Dream It seemed to happen in a foreign country in the south somewhere. Argentina maybe: Spanish was being spoken, also German, English, Italian, French, who knows what all, so perhaps it was some other place, or no real place at all. I was in the men's washroom, doing a kind of striptease. Apparently I was very good at it. What was odd about it, though (and, by the way, about that time the war had ended, as though to make the striptease possible, or even necessary), was that I had started from the bottom up, so to speak, planning to ease myself to the top, but my face remained completely covered. Except for my eyes, which stared out and somehow, at the same time, stared back at themselves: stared, that is, at their own staring. Well, it was a washroom, there were probably mirrors. "Put the blame on dames," I proposed, arousing a general disgust. The attendant, pointing at my oddly numbered testicles (I make my own luck), called me a "peasant." Perhaps he meant well, but hadn't I just saved his life? Or somebody's anyway, it was not clear (more like shadows on the wall). Nothing was clear except for the danger I was in. I was breaking into little pieces, and not all of them seemed to be my own. "You can't rule the world, Gilda, by passing the shoe." What? I felt haunted. Who was this man who frightened me so, the one hiding in the stall behind the louvered door? I knew he was watching me through the slats, because I could see myself through his eyes. From that perspective, I was both threatening and desirable, so I understood that the fear in the room belonged to the room itself and not to me. Suddenly I felt free, utterly free! I fired the washroom attendant! I shot the Germans! I tossed my head and removed a glove, overswept by the funniest feeling -- I was back together again! But then I heard the click of the secret weapon, and realized that my surrender to him (this had already taken place, it was not completely decent) had disturbed the categories. I'd gambled and lost. My pride, my penis, my glove, my enigmatic beauty, my good name, everything. There would be no going home. . . Inside the Frame Dry weeds tumble across a dusty tarred street, lined by low ramshackle wooden buildings. A loosely hinged screen door bangs repetitiously; nearby a sign creaks in the wind. A thin dog passes, sniffing idly at the borders of the street. More tumbleweeds. More dull banging. Finally, a bus pulls up, its windows opaqued with dust and grease. The creaking sign is heard now but not seen. Down the street, a young woman opens a door and peers out, framed by the darkness within. There is a furtive movement on a store roof, martial music in the distance. The door of the bus opens and two men step down. After a brief discussion, one of them shoots the other. Meanwhile, a matriarchal figure waits at the gate of her house like a mediating presence, somber yet hopeful. The sound of a cash register suggests a purchase. In the distance, a riderless horse can be seen, its flanks trembling and glistening with sweat. More martial music, steadily approaching. The figure on the roof is an Indian. A tall man is holding a limp woman in his arms before a window. A couple swirl past, arms linked, singing at the tops of their voices. There is something startling about this. The sky darkens as though before a storm. A richly dressed lady exits the bus, followed by her Negro servant. The Indian leaps, a knife between his teeth. Someone is crying. It is a man, seated at a dinner table with his family, seen through an open doorway. The martial music augments as a marching band comes down the street, trumpets blaring. The Negro servant lifts down several valises, trunks, and hatboxes. Watched by the gunslinger, four men stride vigorously out of one building, the door banging behind them, and enter another. Beneath the back wheel of the bus, the pinned dog lifts its head plaintively, as though searching for someone who is not present and perhaps could never be. A boy with a slingshot takes aim at an old man delivering an unheard graveside soliloquy. Before this, the distant horse was seen to neigh and shake its mane. And then the martial music abruptly ended. Now, the rich lady enters the dilapidated hotel, surrounded by attentive bellhops and followed by her Negro servant, struggling comically with the baggage. A card-player, angry, throws his cards in the dealer's face: trouble seems to be brewing. Somewhere a garbage lid rattles menacingly in an alleyway. All of this is surrounded by darkness. The singing couple swing past again, going the other way, dressed now in identical white tuxedos, crisply edged. Thunder and lightning. The surviving member of the marching band retrieves his battered trumpet and puts it defiantly to his crushed lips. The gunslinger turns to reboard the bus, but is held back by the grizzled old sheriff. What occurs between them is partly hidden behind six young women who, flouncing by, turn their backs in unison and flip their skirts over their heads as though to suggest in this display the terrible vulnerability of thresholds. Is there laughter in the brightly lit hotel lobby? Perhaps it's only the rain beating on tin roofs. The sheriff has shot the Indian. Or an Indian. The bus has departed and several of the doors along the street have closed. Behind one of them a tear glistens in an upturned eye. A strange-looking person walks woodenly past, crossing the rain-slicked tar, staring straight ahead, his arms held out stiffly before him. Down the street, the door opens again and a young woman peers out: the same door as before, the same dark space within, a reassurance that is not one. Beneath the creaking sign, visible once more, a man now pulls a hat brim over his eyes and steps provisionally down off a wooden porch. There is the sound somewhere of suddenly splintering glass, a piano playing. The dog with the broken back, its search forsaken, lowers its thin head in the pounding rain. And the banging door? The banging door? Lap Dissolves She clings to the edge of the cliff, her feet kicking in the wind, the earth breaking away beneath her fingertips. There is a faint roar, as of crashing waves, far below. He struggles against his bonds, chewing at the ropes, throwing himself against the cabin door. She screams as the cliff edge crumbles, a scream swept away by the rushing wind. At last the door splinters and he smashes through, tumbling forward in his bonds, rolling and pitching toward the edge of the cliff. Her hand disappears, then reappears, snatching desperately for a fresh purchase. He staggers to his knees, his feet, plunges ahead, the ropes slipping away like a discarded newspaper as he hails the approaching bus. She lets go, takes the empty seat. Their eyes meet. "Hey, ain't I seen you somewhere before?" he says.
She smiles up at him. "Perhaps."
"I got it." He takes the cigar butt out of his mouth. "You're a hoofer over at Mike's joint."
"Yeah -- the gams was familiar, but I couldn't place the face."
She smiles again, a smile that seems to melt his knees. He grabs the leather strap overhead. "I help out over at Father Michael's 'joint,' as you'd say, Lefty, but --"
"Father --? Lefty! Wait a minute, don't tell me! You ain't that skinny little brat who useta --?" It's her stop. She rises, smiling, to leave the bus. "Hey, where ya goin'? How'm I gonna see you again?"
She pauses at the door. "I guess you'll have to catch my act at Mike's joint, Lefty." She steps down, her skirts filling with the sudden breeze of the street, and, one hand at her knees, the other holding down her fluttering wide-brimmed hat, walks quickly toward the church, glancing up at him with a mischievous smile as the bus, starting up again, overtakes and passes her. Her body seems to slide backwards, past the bus windows, slipping from frame to frame as though out of his memory -- or at least out of his grasp. "Wait!" The driver hesitates: he jams his gat to the mug's ear -- she's like his last chance (he doesn't know exactly what he means by that, but he's thinking foggily of his mother, or else of his mother in the fog), and she's gone! The feeling of inexpressible longing she has aroused gives way to something more like fear, or grief, frustration (why is it that some things in the world are so hard, while others just turn to jelly?), anger, a penetrating loathing -- how could she do this to him? He squeezes, his eyes narrowing. Everything stops. Even, for a moment, time itself. Then, in the distance, a police whistle is heard. He takes his hands away from her throat, lets her drop, and, with a cold embittered snarl, slips away into the foggy night streets, his cape fluttering behind him with the illusory suggestion of glamour.
There is a scream, the discovery of the body, the intent expression on the detective's face as, kneeling over her, he peers out into the swirling fog: who could have done such a heinous thing? The deeper recesses of the human heart never fail to astound him. "Looks like the Strangler again, sir -- a dreadful business." "Yes. . ." "Never find the bastard on a night like this, he just dissolves right into it." "We'll find him, Sergeant. And don't swear." People speak of the heart as the seat of love, but in his profession he knows better. It is a most dark and mysterious labyrinth, where cruelty, suspicion, depravity, lewdness lurk like shadowy fiends, love being merely one of their more ruthless and morbid disguises. To prowl these sewers of the heart is to crawl through hell itself. At every turning, another dismaying surprise, another ghastly atrocity. One reaches out to help and finds one's arms plunged, up to the elbows, in viscous unspeakable filth. One cries out -- even a friendly "Hello!" -- and is met with ghoulish laughter, the terrifying flutter of unseen wings. Yet, when all seems lost, there is always the faint glimmer of light in the distance, at first the merest pinprick, but soon a glow reflecting off the damp walls, an opening mouth, then out into sunshine and green fields, a song in his heart, indeed on his lips, and on hers, answering him across the hills, as they run toward each other, arms outspread, clothing flowing loosely in the summery breeze.
They run through fields of clover, fields of sprouting wheat, fields of waist-high grasses that brush at their bodies, through reeds, thick rushes, hanging vines. He is running through a sequoia forest, a golden desert, glittering city streets, she down mountainsides, up subway stairs, across spotlit stages and six-lane highways. Faster and faster they run, their song welling as though racing, elsewhere, toward its own destination, the backgrounds meanwhile streaking by, becoming a blur of flickering images, as if he and she in their terrible outstretched urgency were running in place, and time were blowing past them like the wind, causing her long skirts to billow, his tie to lift and flutter past his shoulder, as they stare out on the vast rolling sea from the ship's bow, arms around each other's waists, lost for a moment in their thoughts, their dreams, the prospect of a new life in the New World, or a new world (where exactly are they going?). "We're going home," he says, as though in reply to her unspoken (or perhaps spoken) question. "We'll never have to run again."
"It hardly seems possible," she sighs, gazing wistfully at the deepening sunset toward which they seem to be sailing.
Their reverie is rudely interrupted when pirates leap aboard, rape the woman, kill the man, and plunder and sink the ship -- but not before the woman, resisting the violent advances of the peg-legged pirate captain, bites his nose off. "Whud have you dud?!" he screams, clutching the hole in his face and staggering about the sinking ship on his wooden peg. The woman, her fate sealed (already the cutlass that will decapitate her is whistling through the briny air), chews grimly, grinding the nose between her jaws like a cow chewing its cud, the sort of cow she might -- in the New World and in a better, if perhaps less adventurous, life -- have had, a fat old spotted cow with swollen udder and long white teats, teats to be milked much like a man is milked, though less abundantly. Of course, what does she know about all that, stuck out on this desolate windblown ranch (listen to it whistle, it's enough to take your head off) with her drunken old father and dimwit brothers, who slap her around for her milkmaid's hands, saying they'd rather fuck a knothole in an unplaned board -- what's "fuck"? How will she ever know? How can she, cut off from all the higher things of life like finishing schools and sidewalks and floodlit movie palaces and world's fairs with sky-rides and bubble dancers and futuramas? But just wait, one day. . .! she promises herself, tugging tearfully on the teats. She leans against Old Bossy's spotted flank and seems to see there before her nose a handsome young knight in shining armor, or anyway a clean suit, galloping across the shaggy prairie, dust popping at his horse's hooves, coming to swoop her up and take her away from all this, off to dazzling cities and exotic islands and gay soirees. She sees herself suddenly, as a ripple courses like music through Bossy's flank, aswirl in palatial ballrooms (the dance is in her honor!) or perhaps getting out of shining automobiles and going into restaurants with tuxedoed waiters who bend low and call her "Madame" (the milk squirting into the bucket between her legs echoes her excitement, or perhaps in some weird way is her excitement), or else she's at gambling tables or lawn parties, at fashion shows and horse races, or, best of all, stretched out in vast canopied beds where servants, rushing in and out, bring her all her heart's desires.
But no, no, she sees nothing at all there, all that's just wishful thinking -- some things in this world are as hard and abiding as the land itself, and nothing more so than Bossy's mangy old rump, even its stink is like some foul stubborn barrier locking her forever out here on this airless prairie, a kind of thick muddy wall with rubbery teats, a putrid dike holding back the real world (of light! she thinks, of music!), a barricade of bone, a vast immovable shithouse, doorless and forlorn, an unscalable rampart humped up into the louring sky, a briary hedgerow, farting citadel, trench and fleabitten earthworks all in one, a glutinous miasma (oh! what an aching heart!), a no-man's-land, a loathsome impenetrable forest, an uncrossable torrent, a bottomless abyss, a swamp infested with the living dead, their hands clawing blindly at the hovering gloom, the air pungent with rot. He staggers through them, gasping, terrified, the quicksand sucking at his feet, toothless gums gnawing at his elbows, trying to remember how it is he ended up out here -- some sort of fall, an airplane crash, an anthropological expedition gone sour, shipwreck, a wrong turn on the way to the bank? Certainly he is carrying a lot of money, a whole bucketful of it -- he throws it at them and they snatch it up, stuffing it in their purulent jaws like salad, chewing raucously, the bills fluttering obscenely from their mouths and the holes in their flaking cheeks.
The money distracts them long enough for him to drag himself out of the swamp and onto higher ground, where he finds an old ramshackle clapboard house, its windows dark, door banging in the wind. He stumbles inside, slams the door shut, leans against it. He can hear them out there, scratching and belching and shedding bits and pieces of their disintegrating bodies as though appetite itself were pure abstraction, made visible in but fettered by flesh. A hand smashes through a window -- he swings at it with a broom handle and it splatters apart like a clay pigeon, the wrist continuing to poke about as though in blind search of its vanished fingers. He shoves furniture up against the door and nearest windows, locates hammer and nails, rips away cupboard doors and shelves and table tops, nails them higgledy-piggledy across every opening he finds, his heart pounding. When he's done, the woman frying up pancakes and bacon at the stove says, "I know how you feel about traveling salesmen, dear, but wouldn't it be cheaper just to buy one of their silly little back-scratchers and forget it?" He sighs. The air seems polluted somehow, as though with artifice or laughter. Is it those people outside?
"Gee, Dad," his son pipes up, ironically admiring his handiwork, "does that mean I don't have to go to school today?"
"I'm sure you can find your usual way out of the attic window and down the drainpipe, Billy, just as though it were Saturday," replies his mother, and again there is a disturbing rattle in the air.
"Hey, come on," the father complains, "it's not funny," but he seems to be alone in this opinion. He has the terrible feeling that his marriage is collapsing, even though the bacon's as crisp as ever. Or, if not his marriage, something. . .
"Hey, Dad, that's terrific!" exclaims his daughter, coming down for breakfast. "It looks like a giant tic-tac-toe board. What's it supposed to be, some kind of tribute to hurricanes or something?"
"That's right," says the mother, "it's called 'Three Sheets to the Wind.' Now, why don't you take it down, dear, and let the dog in. She's been scratching out there for an hour."
"Wow, speaking of sheets, I had the weirdest dream last night," says the daughter, ignoring the hollow static in the air. Her father shrinks into his chair, wondering whether the problem is that no one's listening -- or that everyone is. "I was in this crazy city where everything kept changing into something else all the time. A house would turn into a horse just as you walked out of it or a golf course would take off and fly or a street would become a dinner table right under your feet. You might lean against a wall and find yourself out on the edge of a cliff, or climb into a car that turned out to be the lobby of a movie theater. Some guy would walk up to you and change into a pizza or a parking meter in front of your very eyes. Billy was in it, only he was sort of like a pinball machine and to shoot a ball you had to give a jerk on his peewee."
"That's stupid! Pinball machines are girls!"
"Maybe that explains the bed-wetting," sighs his mother.
"You were in it, too, Mom. You were in a chorus line in a kind of scary burlesque show, in which all the dancers were collapsing into blobs and freaks. One of your breasts seemed to slip down and slide out between your legs and you kept yelling something like 'Get a bucket! Get a bucket!' Dad wasn't in the dream, at least I didn't recognize him, but somebody who was pretending to be him kept hammering on the door and saying he was 'the loving dad' and please let him in. But I knew it was just a werewolf who was trying desperately to change back into a human and couldn't. See, everything kept changing except the things that were supposed to change."
"Speaking of your father, where is he? Wasn't he here just a minute ago?"
"I don't know. He wasn't looking very good. Sort of vague or something."
"Oh boy! Can I have his pancakes, Mom?"
"Well, I hope he paid the mortgage this month."
"Anyway, there were these midget league baseball players who turned out to be prehistoric monsters, and all of a sudden they attacked the city, only even as they went on eating up the people, the whole thing turned into a song-and-dance act in which the leading monster did a kind of ballet with the Virgin Mary who just a minute before had been a lawn chair. The two of them got into a fight and started zapping each other with ray guns and screaming about subversion on the boundaries, but just then the ship sank and everybody fell into the sea. You could see them all floating down past these enormous buttocks that turned out to belong to a dead man in a bathtub. Don't ask me who he was! Well, it occurred to me suddenly that if everything else was changing I must be changing, too. I looked in a mirror and saw I could flatten my nose or pull it out to a point, push my chin up to my forehead, stretch my cheeks out like wings. Still, I felt like there was something that wasn't changing, I couldn't put my finger on it exactly, but it was something down inside, something I could only call me. In fact there had to be this something, I thought, or nothing else made sense. But what was it? Who was down there? I was curious, so I asked the woman I was with to tell me what she thought of when she thought of me. I told her it couldn't be anything physical, my scars or my cock or the shit-streaks in my underwear, it had to be something you couldn't touch or see. And what she said was, 'Well, I think of you as a straight shooter, Sheriff, but one who can't stop lustin' after the goddamn ineffable.' "
"She said that, hunh?"
"Shitfire, Sheriff, what'd you do?"
"Well, I shot her." He hacks up a gob and aims it at the spittoon. "When a woman starts askin' me to change my ways -- ptooey! -- I change women." He tosses down his drink, leans away from the bar, cocks a wary eye on the swinging doors. "But now tell me somethin', podnuh -- is that just my bowels movin' or is this saloon goin' somewhere?!"
"I'm afraid nothing stands still for long. So, just buckle up and enjoy the ride, ma'am."