Edition 8: Serial Fiction: Intangible (Part 3 of 6) by A. A. Garrison
Hack’s machinations are wrapping Jeannie in an ever-tighter net. Her nights and days are full of Lincoln. She recalls her ingracious return to North Carolina, and the slimy events that preceded it. With her mother sickening, surely she’s had enough bad luck, unless that shaman is involved. SY
V. November, 1989
Night in the Tuttle household.
Hack hovers over the sleeping girl, impregnating her with a fresh dreamscape involving Abraham Lincoln. She stirs some as it finds purchase, but remains asleep, her aura pulsing as the dream unfolds, her face mutely quizzical in the way of the sleeping. The shaman leaves her for her mother.
The older woman is a withered version of her exquisite daughter, a frowning comma over the bed. Hack ensures her unconscious, then lowers himself in vibration, becoming quasi-physicality. Bending, he parts her lips and opens his own, as though proposing a kiss, and from his mouth comes a glowing mote colored the gray of dirty snow. With a kind of grace, it floats between the two orifices, and the old woman’s mouth snaps shut. She coughs, moans, and settles. Her aura darkens at once.
Both seeds sown, Hack quits the residence.
VI. December, 1989
Jeannie’s noon break. She reclined on a humble bench at the rear of Budd’s Tavern, lording over the desolate back parking lot. Dull sunlight blanketed the world, made dreary by a curtain of clouds. Her break-buddy, Debbie, a fellow waitress (though not a good one, in Jeannie’s unstated opinion), smoked quietly nearby, her back a boney billboard. A chintzy radio not unlike Mom’s droned some jazzy number Jeannie didn’t recognize, combining with the far thrum of traffic to fill the space conversation would’ve held. Jeannie and Debbie maintained the kind of rapport that sees a “Hi” and a “Bye” and not much else, and that was fine. Mutually.
Jeannie pooled over the bench, drifting. Late last month, she’d permanently swapped shifts with Mary Kipling, landing her the easy-going morning shift and thereby obviating her second wardrobe of clothing. Mornings were nice, but slow, and a pre-noon ennui wasn’t uncommon. It beat dealing with the nighttime drunks though, and she was grateful in any case. Budd’s white-male demographic had become enemy in light of her ill-fated romance with Hollywood.
Hollywood. It sparked the saga of her disastrous year out west, once more letting the tiger out of its cage. This happened now: the memories stalked her from the underbrush of her thoughts, waiting to pounce. Once upon a time, she’d fought them off, by reminding herself that she was innocent, that she was the victim, that she’d been wronged. But lately, she just let them come; time had drained all the fight from her.
The memories weren’t all bad, really; there’d been some happy times out in LA. The day she’d arrived, for instance. It was the high point of her life. Being young, moderately attractive, and bursting with aspiration, her advent to the City of Angels could’ve been one of the movies she’d hoped to star in. The city had smitten her, especially at night, with its street-lit acreage of orange cement, its wellspring of possibility. It was the polar opposite of Ford, the sleepy little Carolina burg she’d ditched in pursuit of an acting career. And, better, it lacked her mother.
Short of flying to China, California was about as far from Mom as humanly possible, and nothing could’ve felt better. This high had lasted well into the first month of Jeannie’s expedition, as she’d sniffed out auditions and lived off the money she’d socked away through high school, and later still, when it was clear the acting thing wasn’t panning out and she joined the legion of disappointed people infesting the place. The devotion was just that strong, nothing less than infatuation. It wasn’t until the calamity of Moonlight Maui that the flame finally died.
Her first role had been a token-paying part in a B-grade horror flick that never went anywhere, in which she was an extra flirting with a rack of clothing. It had been nothing, of course, but she had squealed with excitement, as it had cemented her occupation as Actress. She’d landed a brief hand-modeling gig shortly after, though this was largely a financial venture, doing little for her portfolio. Her apex would be a cornball meat-seasoning commercial. Sporting a gingham apron and an outstretched spatula, Jeannie had spoken four words into the camera—”Thank you, Swammy Seasoner!”—and after five takes and some paperwork, that was that. She suspected she’d been chosen for her matronly shape, but it could’ve been anything. She’d gotten her check a week later, and to this day had never seen the commercial get airplay.
And after nearly six months of stagnating, that was it, two non-performances and the hand-model stint. So when the Moonlight Maui general auditions had opened up, she’d jumped on it, ready to lap up whatever part was to be had. By then, there was as much monetary incentive as anything; besides her acting going nowhere, she’d been unable to land a day job, and her bank account was on blocks. By the day the audition finally rolled around, she didn’t have enough money for a plane ticket back home.
The auditions had been severely overcrowded, but she was used to this, and it didn’t gnaw at her as when she’d first arrived. She had a bit she used for generals, “The Faces of Jeannie Tuttle,” she called it, a showcase of her talent via a series of vignettes—a little drama, a little comedy, a little ballsy action-adventure heroine—and when it had come time, she’d nailed it, even throwing in some improv at the end. There’d been a charge afterward, and she’d known a callback was coming, would’ve bet money on it. So when the callback had come, it didn’t surprise her; what did, however, was finding it to be a casted part, with real pay. Substantial pay, in fact, enough to buoy her for another few months. Sure, it wasn’t a lead alongside some teen-dream hunk, but it was a Cadillac compared to her previous exploits, and she had accepted without pause. Only later did she learn that it involved nudity, and later still that it would be full-frontal.
This had presented a problem. She’d long ago debated the eventuality, before even coming to La La Land, and had drawn the line at her breasts; in no circumstance would she expose her shame, and, holding to her principles, she was ready to decline the part, lucrative as it was. However, the producers had wheedled her into it. Small, rodent-like men, with greased hair and tremendous aviator glasses, they’d explained how it would be an “ambiguous” shot, zoomed out, alongside numerous other women. “They won’t see nuthin’,” the chief vermin had said, and that was all it took. The first two points had softened Jeannie to it, and the last had caved her completely; there was indemnity in having others share her disgrace, an anonymity. So she’d agreed, despite the question of how Mom and the rest of Ford would react to one of their own baring herself for the world.
The film studio had been like the others she’d come to know, hurried and smug, with a pervasive unfriendliness. This she had dealt with, but things had started south when it came time for the shoot. Standing nude amidst a dozen other women, she’d been hit with conflicted emotions; there’d been anxiety, naturally, along with the locker-room unease of being disrobed in view of others, but there was another feeling as well, a sense of disparity: the other women were thinner than her. Conspicuously so.
Jeannie and the others had been herded into a little bullpen while the set received some final touches, and she’d noticed that, in contrast with her buxom, big-boned self, her partners were all anorexically petite, their emaciated ribs showing beneath augmented breasts. It had filled Jeannie with a knowing dread, and she’d suddenly scented her role in this sleazy pageant, like a cow on its way to the abattoir. But by then it was too late, and she’d had no choice but go through with it.
The shoot had been a steamy shower-scene, Jeannie and her troupe bathing beneath a row of tepid streams, unspeaking. They’d been instructed to turn periodically, presumably to get their flipsides smiling for the camera; it had sickened Jeannie, given the unanimously male production crew, but she’d done it, doing her best to remain saccharine. Then it was done, and she honestly didn’t feel too defiled; she was still the same Jeannie Mae Tuttle, just with a bolstered portfolio and a check in the mail. It was so painless that, after the hour-long shoot—which, she and her fellow beeves were assured, would result in only minutes of salable footage—she was sure her vile suspicions were in error. She had received her pay the next week, called it well-earned, and resumed her quest for stardom, putting the unsettling experience behind her.
Then, just months later, Moonlight Maui had opened, and her worst fears were confirmed.
She’d decided not to see it, on principle, despite it being her big debut, but once opening night rolled around, she’d reneged, as she knew she would. She’d caught her first whiff of something foul upon seeing the movie’s poster. Showing two White Males salivating over an airbrushed blonde, it had screamed teenage tit-flick, and the sight had summoned the nauseating premonition she’d had immediately before the shoot. Still, she’d bought her ticket and entered the theater, installing herself in a dark corner like a troll.
The first half of the movie was as she’d suspected, the plot involving the penile staples of beer, cleavage, and fast cars, including a guitar-driven soundtrack. Then came the shower scene. It was the climax of a long, increasingly smutty sequence, a group of males unveiling their hidden-camera surveillance of a co-ed shower, coaxing smiles all around. Jeannie had marveled at the difference production made: what had been an uneventful shot of her and the other girls bathing silently—like a weird church service, she’d thought at the time—was given life onscreen, exploding her preconceptions. There were several lecherous pans of the tableau, with a quirky-sounding synth lightening the mood, and Jeannie was just barely visible, little more than a dripping mane of brunette hair above her chesty frame—much as she’d hoped for, really. When the voyeurs had picked out their favorites in the lot—all but slobbering, in accordance with Hollywood’s perception of male sexuality—a supporting male had specified one of Jeannie’s contemporaries, a blonde who may have been the same gracing the sleazy poster, and an explicit head-to-toe had followed. Jeannie could almost hear the susurrus of new erections.
Next was the obligatory follow-up zinger, a tactic employed to ease the guilt and degradation one might experience in the wake of full-frontal nudity. As the token overweight male had, as a matter of course, specified his pick of the litter, one of his friends had interrupted: “Aw, piss off, Rind. There’s your girl.” Then the shot cut to none other than Jeannie, alone, focused on her buttocks. Her butt was admittedly attractive, to the point of her considering it an asset, but in the context of the starveling women surrounding her, it had looked as big as a circus tent, her body cartooned in the manipulative way of film.
The cutaway had triggered a gunshot flood of laughter, both on-screen and off, acid over Jeannie’s person. It had set off alarms in her head, all but smoke from her ears, and just when she thought it couldn’t get worse, the movie-her turned before her close-up had ended, revealing her most personal self for the world to see. The detail had been incredible, enough to discern the filament of her pubic hair and the rubbery folds of her labia, all but turning her vagina inside out.
There’d been nothing in Jeannie’s two decades to prepare her for the indignation that followed. She’d bolted from the theater before the laughter had fully died; crying, livid, violated beyond words. She’d been sure that every eye was on her, that the reprehensible crowd had turned in their seats to raise horrid fingers—to the fat chick, ha-ha, look at her run. On the upside, she’d been able to hold back the puke until the sidewalk. A week later, she was on a plane back to North Carolina.
Ironically, the flight home had rivaled the night at the theater, Jeannie knowing the grim inevitability waiting at the other end. Mom hadn’t sounded the least bit surprised when Jeannie had called to announce her return (because “things hadn’t turned out”). In fact, Jeannie had caught a note of pleasure in her mother’s voice, and that meant trouble. If there was one thing worse than a pissed Mom, it was a vindicated one.
It had weighed on Jeannie throughout the flight, so much the Sword of Damocles; it was a throwback to when she’d first decided to leave, when Mom had dispensed a boiling sermon about the iniquities of The City. Jeannie had expected an encore the night she arrived home, but, to her surprise, Mom had given only a curt greeting and gone to bed, as if Jeannie was returning from the market. This silent treatment had continued for days afterward, turning Jeannie’s surprise to dismay: she knew Mom had a bomb up her sleeve, could smell it on her. Oddly, that was the worst of it, the waiting, knowing that Mom was readying a verbal nuke to detonate when Jeannie least expected it. Her sleep evaporated, she couldn’t eat, a gut-wrenching anxiety nibbled at her waking life. You’d think she was awaiting a firing squad—which, in a sense, she was.
This had lasted an agonizing two weeks, after which Mom made her move. In retrospect, Jeannie thought the delay had been to get her, Jeannie, complacent, make her think her old Mom was too clam-shelled from reality to know her daughter had appeared nude in a nationally syndicated film. But no, two weeks, and it had all come out. It had been after dinner on an otherwise mundane Thursday night, while Jeannie was doing the dishes—an underhanded move on Mom’s part, taking the postprandial route. You always expect these things before or over a meal, never after, when the juices are flowing and your defenses are down. But that’s when Mom had struck, unleashing her accumulation of “I told you so” and “what were you thinking”—and that was just for Jeannie’s leaving in the first place. The movie had spawned a second outpouring, no less ferocious.
Jeannie was the talk of the town, Mom had said. Moonlight Maui had come to the local cinema, causing a stir unto itself, given its salacious content, but that was nothing compared to the blast wave that had followed, when one of the tramps was identified as none other than Jeannie Mae Tuttle. Her schoolteachers knew. Pastor Wainright knew. Jason Mayfield, her high-school sweetheart, knew. Everyone knew. There were plenty of “sluts” and “whores” in Mom’s homily, as well as a host of synonyms (Jeannie suspected a thesaurus), but Jeannie had taken them commendably, keeping her head high as she waited to have her say. She’d prepared a rejoinder, plus a contingency of recriminations, long in advance, and she thought they held water, even in the cold scrutiny of her mother’s court. Abrasive as Mom could be, Jeannie thought the woman would mellow after hearing her daughter’s side of things: how Jeannie had been hard up, deceived by the producers’ persuasions, and then raped via camera eye. After suffering Jeannie’s father, Mom had a thing about men and exploitation, and Jeannie thought it her ace in the hole.
But Mom had heard none of it. After the storm had passed, the judgments still sizzling Jeannie’s ears, Mom had hobbled from the kitchen and into bed, waving off Jeannie’s repeated attempts to speak her piece. Jeannie had been devastated but unsurprised; it was classic Mom, eager to unload and quick to stonewall. Jeannie had wanted to scream, just as she’d wanted to scream at every swinging dick she’d come in contact with since the theater, man and beast alike. But she didn’t scream. It was a discipline she’d learned early in life: if people could be screamed into reformation, Dad would still be around.
It had been over three months since the gloves had come off, and there’d been no further fireworks; yet there’d been no make-up, either. The two bided the days with silence and routine, speaking little, seeing each other only at meals—more like roommates than family, Jeannie thought. They had the rapport of strangers sharing a cab, very much like Mom and Jeannie’s father just before the divorce. Too much like them. Jeannie had gotten her old job at the bar, just days after her arrival, and it had been a godsend, giving her somewhere to go and something to do, even if it was Budd’s. And there was Cory, too, who had provided some much-needed support. Still, life in the Tuttle household wasn’t easy; an elephant had colonized their living room, and it showed no sign of leaving.
And now, on top of it all, there was this Lincoln business—the dreams, the weird coincidences, harassing her nearly every day. She supposed it an invention of stress, perhaps a latent breakdown. And wouldn’t Mom love that, seeing little Jeannie crash and burn in her sins. It would be like Christmas morning for the woman—
Budd’s back door croaked open, returning Jeannie to the now. She startled in her seat, and the toxic thoughts scattered off. The door banged shut and feet clomped from Jeannie’s right, Mickey and Tyler, the manager and dishwasher, respectively. She wasn’t surprised to see them out here; business was nonexistent this morning.
“Jeannie,” Mickey said in greeting, and trundled past, rotund as ever. Tyler said nothing; the white male seemed to clam up in Jeannie’s presence, she’d noticed. He wasn’t the first.
“Hey, Mick,” Jeannie said, genial as she could manage. Mickey was a man, but one of the good ones, like Doobie. He’d given her the job, as it were, and had turned out to be quite approachable, always hearing out the waitresses and their collegial shift arrangements. A big loveable black man, like a pit-bull in both physicality and character, he had a sterling reputation amongst the staff, almost paternal.
In concert, he and Tyler produced cigarettes, lit up, and filed respectfully to Debbie’s intimated smoking area. Debbie mumbled acknowledgement and slid over.
The radio’s jazz ended, giving way to an upbeat announcer.
“Alvin Jones here,” a gravelly hepcat intoned, “comin’ at ya’ from W-B-A-T, the bat.” A bat screeched from the station’s soundboard, tiny in the openness.
“How’s yer Ma?” Mickey asked Jeannie after a long drag on his cigarette, not turning from the wilderness of the lot.
Good question, Jeannie wanted to say. Just when Jeannie thought her plate was unequivocally full, Mom had taken sick late last month, complaining of headache and fatigue. “It’s like someone’s poured acid in muh head,” she had become fond of saying, incessantly. The bizarre illness had robbed the woman of her spunk, and though this should have been a boon for Jeannie, she hated to see her mother in such a low. It could just be flu, but with Mom pushing sixty and in generally atrocious health, there was no such thing as a benign illness. It at least told Jeannie there was still love there; she found it amazing how fast her resentment had, like a falling curtain, disappeared at the thought of losing Mom.
Funny: she’d been questioning her love for her mother, and then this. It rivaled the Lincoln coincidences.
“Hangin’ in there,” Jeannie replied, a little curt. If there was one thing she didn’t want to discuss, it was Mom. With each day her bug lingered—it, too, was hangin’ in there—it cemented a costly visit to the doctor’s, and discussing it would ultimately lead to the question of money. Of which there was little.
When Jeannie said nothing more, Mickey nodded and smoked, reading her hesitation.
A not-uncomfortable silence fell between the four Budd’s employees, possible in a small town, and Jeannie had begun slipping back into herself when Mickey spoke.
“Maybe you oughta call into that,” he said, puffing smoke the color of Mom’s hair.
Jeannie looked up from her woolgathering. “Beg your pardon?”
Using his cigarette, Mickey indicated the radio. “The radio contest. Givin’ away two thous’n bucks.”
The radio rejoined her perception, like a ship from thick fog: “…and if you’re the thirty-third caller, I’ll be sending you a fat check and Barry Turner’s new album. That’s 1-800-555-2947.”
“Why don’t you call in?” Jeannie replied, smiling politely.
Mickey shrugged his flabby shoulders and raised his cigarette–Cuz I gotta stay here and smoke, darlin’.
Jeannie was considering her choice of excuses when a rude backfire blasted from the street, begging the attention of all four heads, the smoking ones making contrails. The culprit, a rust-mottled work van, pulled from the Burger Boy next door, exhaust belching out. Jeannie almost ignored it, but a design over the side-panel snared her eye: HONEST ABE MOVERS, in uninspired black lettering above a local phone number.
Jeannie’s stomach jumped, and she swallowed a gasp. Once again: Lincoln. It was everywhere, one hit after another like raindrops, too much to be chance; this was a genuine phenomenon. Her skeptical core rejected it, as usual, with trite retorts about watching too many movies or needing meds, blah blah blah, but every new instance had been eroding that voice. And now this, another…what, Lincoln-bomb? Whatever you called it, it was a sign.
“Okay,” she heard herself say, to Mickey, accepting his challenge.
“Atta girl,” he said, and showed her his enormous teeth.
She left the bench for the ancient payphone at the lot’s margin, digging in her pinafore for change (Budd’s lacked a phone of its own). The announcer’s smoky voice looped through her head: 555-2947, 555-2947. Her rational self started bitching again, and she let it; a queer certainty had befallen her, a sort of faith.
She lifted the handset, slotted a quarter, and dialed: 1, 800, a flurry of 5’s, 2, 9, 4…but the last wouldn’t come. Her finger pressured the 7, enough to lighten the nail; but she just couldn’t press it home.
Hit it! that skeptical voice cried. Hit it and be done with this crud. But she couldn’t. It wasn’t time, she knew, thanks to that strange new stirring inside her.
Seconds passed, the skeptic going on and on…then another backfire shouted from the street—the Abe Mobile, passing in the opposite direction.
Jeannie made a noise, and her finger stabbed the 7 and fell anticlimactically, again hers. She stood drunkenly in the booth, listening to the chirping line. The skeptic kept on: Wasting your time, sweetheart. Wasting your time, wasting your time—
The line lit with the gravelly voice of the radio announcer. “Hello there,” the man said, sounding wholly different over the phone, somehow more real.
Jeannie’s heart stopped. She returned a meek, breathless hello.
“May I get your name, caller thirty-three?”
A sunburst opened inside Jeannie, and she smiled for the first time since the movie—though not because of the money, nor its guarantee of Mom’s medical care, or the crackling high that comes from being a winner. She smiled because she wanted to believe. Really, really wanted to believe.
A.A. Garrison is a twenty-nine-year-old man living in the mountains of North Carolina. His short fiction has appeared in dozens of zines, anthologies, and journals, as well as the Pseudopod webcast. His horror novel, The End of Jack Cruz, is available from Montag Press. He blogs at synchroshock.blogspot.com.