“Researchers suggest that mosquitoes may have killed nearly half of the 108 billion humans who have ever lived across our relatively brief 300,000-year existence.” She just had to write that down. It was in the Times, so it was the same as a fact. “Mosquitoes have been around for more than 100 million years.” She wrote that down, too. Big numbers comforted her. “Mosquitoes are our apex predator.” Cool.
Apex predator made her think of a supermarket serial killer. Don’t go down the cereal aisle. That man in the incongruent suit lurking near the Coco Puffs. Sometimes, the news could make her mornings. The Mr. Coffee had gone rouge on her a couple of days before, refusing to brew, so she had to resort to French press. A Parisian gym, a man in a beret lifting his lover like a barbell. Just a normal morning. The half-and-half had spoiled, turning the coffee in her mug into a ying/yang thing of umbra and curds. It was going to be one of those days. The few donut holes left in the box were petrified.
The air-con was off to cut back on the electric bill, but Joanna didn’t mind. She was comfy in just a cotton wife-beater T-shirt and gym shorts. Underwear was not intended for the tropics, and lately L.A. was the tropics. Tropics, from the Latin tropos, to turn, like the half-and-half. No air-con meant all the windows were open, closing the distance between inside and outside. It was Sunday. She’d drive out to Van Nuys to see Uncle Jeffrey, then maybe head on up into the hills, get out of town to look down on it.
Joanna was of the opinion that you could only love something that could love you back. You could appreciate, like, admire, even covet inanimate things; but “loving” them—and all that ought to mean—was pointless, impossible, absurd. She wasn’t sure about pets. Can you love a slave? Hate was different. You could hate whatever you chose. Hate had a big brush. The pleasure of hate was selfish, not reciprocal. You owned hate; you gave love. She didn’t hate L.A.—what’s the point? —and she couldn’t love it. She just drove through it.
Joanna was pretty sure Jasmine was not the woman’s original given name. She was too old to have had hippie parents and she wasn’t black. From her southern accent, the name on her driver’s license was more likely something like Vicki Jo or Peggy Sue. Pretty pretty Peggy Sue. Only she wasn’t pretty, not any more anyway, maybe once, a pudgy high school cheerleader. If she wanted to name herself after a tea, maybe she could have gone all the way with Chamomile or Oolong. Adopted or ascribed first names—Ace, Dolly, Dude, Venus, Brad (she’d met far too many Brads), Sonny, Stormy, Dutch, Chastity, names no parent would ever slap on a baby—were common in L.A.
AKA Jasmine had moved in on Uncle Jeffrey a few years before. Joanna both thought of her little and thought little of her. She hadn’t killed him yet anyway. Uncle Jeffrey was Joanna’s only remaining family; as she was his. It was solely by happenstance that they both had ended up here in this concrete desert. They were both from lower-case elsewheres. They had never been close. There was nothing magical or mystical about their geographic congruence. It was just one of those wrinkles in chaos that provide seers with suckers.
Uncle Jeffrey now had tubes running into his nose. Or was it out of his nose? That scene from Catch-22 with the guy in a full-body cast, where a passing nurse just switches the bottles from the tube running out of the cast with the tube running into it. That scene was so Zen. Uncle Jeffrey’s tubes tried to be invisible but ended up at an oxygen tank he had to drag around with him on a miniature golf cart. He still smoked. He took the tubes out first. Jasmine was there, dressed in a muumuu and moaning about the heat. Jasmine steeping. Joanna tried to ignore her, hold her tongue. It was part of her battle with herself not to be irksome.
— * —
The word beleaguered comes from the Dutch for surrounded camp. Surrounded by what? By them, of course, the opposite of us. Them, our natural enemy. If a positive is meaningless without a negative, a man is nothing without an enemy. Uncle Jeffrey was wearing a VFW hat with a fighting-something logo and embroidered bill. Vietnam Veteran it said in gold braid. Joanna had never seen him wearing it before. She hadn’t even known he was a vet.
“Ain’t,” he said. “I dodged that piece of shit. But I liked the hat, bought it on-line. Now when I go out, nobody hassles me. I call it my invincibility cap. Now I’m not just some broken-down old reprobate; I’m a disabled war hero.”
“You’re a lying pre-corpse,” Jasmine said and left the room.
“It’s amazing, justly amazing, the respect everyone has for veterans,” Uncle Jeffrey said. “Sometimes men will give me a little salute, and I’ll salute ‘em back. Real vets probably.”
“Just the hat?”
“Just the hat. I don’t claim anything else. You know what you’ll never see? A vet wearing his baseball cap backwards. That would be like raising the flag upside down.”
There was an endearing randomness to Uncle Jeffrey, a mercurial, almost chameleon ability to be anyone he wanted to be, any American anyway. Today he turned into the prototypical patriot—the hat. It was like real-life improv. He even mocked his younger self as a pinko pansy, as if he was talking, third person, about someone else. The last time she had visited he was wearing a black soutane and one of those four-corner pillbox hats priests used to wear and apologized in detailed length for the sins he’d committed on altar boys. Another time, he was dressed in a suit and a red tie, with an American flag pin in his lapel, and became a politician, spouting cliches in broken sentences. Of course, he had come to L.A. to be an actor. Joanna wondered if there was a term for Uncle Jeffrey’s peculiar affliction, beside twisted talent. Joanna came by mainly to be his occasional audience, a corporal work of mercy.
Today Uncle Jeffrey wanted to go out, to show Joanna the effectiveness of his new disguise. She had put on a short-sleeve blouse over her T-shirt, but she was hardly dressed to go public. “Oh, just my diner over on Sepulveda. She refuses to cook because of the heat.” Of course, he had to take his oxygen tank. “Part of the outfit.” They left without telling Jasmine.
— * —
“Knock ‘em dead,” “Break a leg,” “Killer act,” “Dynamite!” The subtlety was cloying. That’s entertainment. What a weird industry. A luxury is something you could live without, like entertainment. Maybe like feast food, now and then throughout the year, on special communal occasions. But as daily fare? Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of being entertained. It wasn’t that many generations ago when entertainers—musicians, actors, athletes, vaudevillians—were among the least respected and poorest paid professions. But now, reality withers in entertainment’s shadow. The celebrity pantheon is almost exclusively occupied by entertainers.
Not that it meant anything to Joanna. Not that anybody wanted to hear it. It was just curious. Over lunch, Uncle Jeffrey confessed—or was he actually bragging? –that his only screen performances had been as an extra, especially corpses. “I do a good corpse,” he said. “The secret is I just take a nap. Sometimes, when the scene is over, they have to wake me up.” Joanna paid for lunch. Uncle Jeffrey had forgotten his wallet. It was the least she could do for a vet.
Joanna appreciated that Uncle Jeffrey was immutably unknowable. There was no need to know who he actually was behind all his veils of disguise. As she was driving him back home, he said no, he wasn’t going there, and he directed her to an address in North Hollywood, a neighborhood a few degrees of swank beneath his own. He had taken off his VFW hat and its persona.
The place they stopped in front was from another era but well preserved, one of those Spanish-style apartment blocks, complete with overgrown cacti and spear-leafed succulents basking in the late afternoon blaze. It was above the street, beside a vacant, overgrown lot. A curving terracotta staircase led up to it.
“Help me get this sucker up the steps, would you?” Uncle Jeffrey said as he wrestled his tank caddy out of the back. At the top of the steps, he invited Joanna in “for a cold drink, say hello.” She demurred but he insisted. She wasn’t on any schedule, so she went with him into the courtyard and to an apartment door at the far end.
The woman was small, tiny actually. A few inches shorter and she’d be a midget. She had striking violet eyes. Her long white hair was cinched in a braided chignon. She was wearing an emerald green kimono. “Absalom,” she said, “I was expecting you, so, of course, I didn’t think you’d come.”
“Are we alone?” he asked.
She didn’t answer but stepped aside and gestured for them to enter. Inside was as chilled as an operating room.
— * —
Belief is weird, isn’t it? You hear people say, you got to believe…in something. Why? You can know things. You can even sense things you don’t actually know but you have your suspicions about. But if you say you believe something, you are admitting you don’t actually know that. “I believe it is raining” is not the same as “It’s raining.” Is it raining or not? If I walk outside without an umbrella, do you believe I might get wet? Belief is a sort of surrender to the safety of uncertainty. Lies exist to promote belief. And people pick all sorts of wacky things to believe—the Earth is flat, Satan is real, Jews are evil, the Pope is infallible, there’s gold in them thar hills. Joanna could only guess that people indulged in beliefs because they needed relief from certainty, from reality, especially the reality of death.
Joanna did not believe—she knew—that the incense she smelled was sandalwood. Uncle Jeffrey—or Absalom—did not bother himself with introductions, and their hostess just looked up at Joanna and then turned away. It happens sometimes, between women; there is an instant electrical discharge of disdain. It is primordial, hormonal, visceral, mutual, and real. Joanna felt the jolt and deflected it right back. She considered just turning around and leaving, but the apartment’s interior was intriguing, a hybrid chapel/bordello. Drapes were drawn on all the windows. The lighting, such as it was, was all indirect. Candles flickered in the air-con breeze. She lingered. Uncle Absalom sat down on an ottoman and started removing his shoes.
“Dig your décor,” Joanna said to the short priestess’s back as she walked away.
Without turning around, she answered. “Absalom, why did you bring this woman here?”
“She’s my niece. She delivered me. I thought….”
“She should leave. She has no soul.”
Well, that was quick, Joanna thought. “Absalom is shedding his soles right now,” she said.
The woman pivoted so quickly that her bracelets jangled. “There is no humor in this house!”
“That’s for sure. But don’t worry. That wasn’t very funny, just a venial pun.”
Uncle Jeffrey was sitting there, looking up at them, one shoe off, one shoe on.
“This is a temple. You pollute it,” the woman said. “Jests are Satan’s prayers.”
“And to which god, then, is this whorehouse dedicated?”
“Satan’s spoor, soulless zombie. Absalom!”
It was on. “Sacrificed any virgins recently? Oh, I forgot, this is L.A. Any pagan babies, then?”
Uncle Jeffrey didn’t move. It struck Joanna that he was enjoying this. He would. Was it unreal enough for him?
“As long as I am here, maybe you could explain to me what it is that I’m lacking. This soul thing.”
“Of course, you wouldn’t know. It’s your essence, that piece of God inside you, the immaterial part that survives the corporeal self.”
“All of the above, including immortality? Wow.”
“Every living being has a soul.”
“And they’re all immortal?”
“No, only human souls are immortal.”
“Not you. I could tell immediately.”
“But if it’s immaterial, how can you tell?”
“Out. Out of my house.”
Joanna left, leaving Uncle Jeffrey behind. So, soul, being immaterial, was just an idea, a word for something imagined, unknown, unmeasurable, indefinite. It didn’t even define a feeling or an emotion. It could be anything, even nothing. Joanna opted for nothing. It was just another one of those beliefs, like the tooth fairy. Joanna envisioned a ship filled with dentures, the DDS Charon.
— * —
Joanna didn’t know L.A. well enough to have her favorite spot in the hills above. So she drove and wandered and ended up just where other people went and then tried to get as far away from them as possible. She parked and in the gathering dusk hiked up an unofficial trail into the chaparral. Uncle Jeffrey had left his veteran’s cap on the passenger-side seat. She had put it on when she left the car. Now, alone, in the dark, looking down on the lights of America, she turned it around, bill and braid behind her, so that she could see the sky. There are no stars in the L.A. sky, just the reflected glow of too many people below.