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Authors: Marc Laidlaw

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The Orchid Eater

BOOK: The Orchid Eater
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THE ORCHID EATER

By Marc Laidlaw

 

 

 

 

 

Freestyle Press

“Write like yourself, only more so.”

 

 

 

marclaidlaw.com

ISBN: 978-1-5323-1078-2

 

This ebook edition
published in 2016 by Marc Laidlaw

 

Copyright
©
1994 by Marc Laidlaw

 

First U.S. edition published by St. Martins Press in 1994

 

All rights reserved, including without limitation the right to
reproduce this ebook or any portion thereof in any form or by any means,
including information storage and retrieval systems, whether electronic or
mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented. If you would like to use
material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written
permission must be obtained by contacting the author at marclaidlaw.com.

 

This ebook is protected by U.S. and international copyright laws,
which provide severe civil and criminal penalties for the unauthorized
duplication of copyrighted material. Please do not make illegal copies of this
book. If you obtained this book without purchasing it from an authorized
retailer, please go and purchase it from a legitimate source now and delete
this copy. Understand that if you obtained this book from a fileshare, it was
copied illegally, and if you purchased it from an online auction site, you
bought it from a crook who cheated you and the author.

 

The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any
similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by
the author.

 

Cover design
©
2016 by
Nicolas Huck (
www.huckworks.com
).

 

Cover photocollage
created by Marc Laidlaw based on a photograph found on Wikimedia Commons having
been released into the public domain by its creator, J.L. DuBois.

 

 

For Robert S. Gillespie

 

And for my brother Brian

 

(This book owes its life to Tim Ferret)

 

Sandstone
walls appear in leaping bursts of bluish light that come with a roar and fade,
like the flame of revelation in a nightmare that shows a monster’s grin for an
instant, then shuts off and strands you in darkness.

This is a
darkness full of laughter, full of fingers digging into your flesh, pinning you
to the ground.

When the
light flares again, you see a blue tongue of flame licking from the nozzle of a
blowtorch. Hissing and spitting, it kisses your cheeks, singes your eyebrows,
then goes away somewhere out of sight.

Somebody
says, “Get his pants.”

You can’t
believe where the flame goes next. . . .

1

 

The reek of
the Greyhound’s chemical toilet woke him shortly after dawn. The aluminum door
banged open and an old man emerged in a cloud of cigarette smoke, hacking into
a handkerchief. He dropped down in the seat next to Lupe.

Looking down
and sideways through half-open lids, pretending to sleep on, Lupe saw a pint
bottle clamped between knees so bony that a three-inch gap showed between the
skeletal thighs. Filthy checkered trousers hung slack from the bones.

A fly
buzzed, circled, and settled on the old wretch’s undone zipper. Scabby
sunburned hands with swollen knuckles worked at the bottle cap, and suddenly
Lupe smelled rubbing alcohol. He gagged, twisting away from that and all the
other odors, urine and sweat and infection mingling like a human compost from
which anything might grow.

A hand fell
lightly on his leg. He sat up, blinking at the old man, seeing thin hair dyed
red, a scalp spotted with freckles that looked like burst bloodscabs, his nose
a mass of blue webs and pores. He wore a tattered suit, gray shirtfront stained
with coffee, vomit, booze. The hand stayed.

“Hey, kid.”

Lupe stared
at him, digging deep into the pocket of his coat, finding his security there.

“Want to
make some easy money?”

With his
bottle open, wafting its medicinal odor across the seats, the old man went
working his fingers into the flaps of his gaping fly. Before he could do any
more than that, Lupe laid his switchblade on the checkered lap.

“Now, now,”
the old man said. “Now, now.”

The blade
looked as if it might float up between them, under its own power.

Lupe turned
back to the window. The old man, wheezing and groaning, struggled out of the
seat and down the aisle. A few rows toward the front, the geezer stopped and
looked down into another seat. “Hi there, sweetie-pie.” He lowered himself out
of sight.

Rubbing
gummed eyelids, dreams in full retreat, Lupe looked out through a tinted window
blurred by a million tiny scratches and the accumulated breath of ten thousand
riders. The bus was on a narrow two-lane highway, headed down a dry canyon
where night’s shadows had already begun to evaporate. The low sun laid its
fingers on the crowns of hills, making dead weeds shine like gold. Tire tracks
scored the grass, running parallel to power lines. Green clumps of cactus,
penned in by barriers of sagging barbed wire, huddled together like frightened
sheep in the shadows of weathered ridges.

An
outcropping of wind-gnarled sandstone drifted past, looking like beige dough
that had been folded on itself a billion times before hardening. His pulse
quickened when he saw that the doughy rock was pocked with holes like mute gray
mouths. No true caves among them—even the deepest looked no better than a
shallow shelf or pocket—but the sight made him straighten in his seat to search
the hills more carefully, fully awake now. The stink of the old man’s booze and
trousers was finally starting to leave him. Face pressed against the glass, he
sucked in the tepid recirculated air that seeped up from vents below the
window. He could almost smell the stale cool desolation of real caves somewhere
near, the deep winds blowing up from underneath the world. He would find them,
sniff them out. Dr. Brownhouse would be proud to learn how Lupe had conquered
his fears. He had mastered them completely.

The hills
piled up higher the closer they came to the coast. Headlamps of Mercedes,
Porsches and BMWs cut through the persistent gloom at the bottom of the valley,
purring past and then gone. The hollows in the hills were dense with
vegetation, dusty pines and eucalyptus with peeling silver bark and leaves like
long green daggers. The first houses appeared among the trees, rusted cars and
catamarans on wheeled trailers parked in dirt lots around them, surfboards propped
against fences. The bus passed a boatyard, then a corral where several grimy
horses stared sleepily at traffic. No Porsches parked down here in the canyon.
Wind chimes of abalone shell and colored glass dangled from the eaves of
dark-shingled shacks with clumsy driftwood fences. He could almost hear the
chimes, a sound like chattering teeth. On came junkyards full of metal scrap in
advanced decay. Then what might have been a churchyard, its bare parking lot
prickly with crosses, presided over by a battered trailer with black
hand-lettering all over the side.

Lupe pulled
a Baggie of dried figs from his pocket and began to chew, wishing for something
to help wash them down. An old scavenger with the look of a faded athlete—bare
chested in a baseball cap, his sunburned teats hanging nearly to the waist of
his shorts—sauntered down the highway as though it were midday, stabbing beer
cans with a spike and dropping them in a burlap sack. Lupe shuddered. Old men!

Above the
eucalyptus and the auto shops, he could still see the hills; but no more
sandstone, no sign of caves. On the ridges, seeming to revolve into sight, were
buildings of stained wood and glass and polished steel gazing west toward the
sea. Others, just as elegant, bore roofs of curved Spanish tile, whitewashed
stucco walls, arched gateways. Porsches up there, he’d bet.

The hills
stepped back from the road. Four lanes now. Ahead he saw the square, drab,
ordinary buildings of the town.

The driver’s
voice crackled from a speaker: “Bohemia Bay. We’ll be stopping here five
minutes before heading on to San Diego.”

Lupe had
seen plenty of bus stations. They had a way of turning their surroundings into
slums. It was as though a gas emanated from the lounges, souring the faces of
old houses that might otherwise look merely quaint, exhaust fumes turning green
lawns gray. It was no different here. The shacks in the canyon had looked
comfortably weather-worn, but for the space of one block around the bus station
Bohemia Bay had the look and feel of a ghetto.

Standing at
the edge of the parking lot, knapsack over his shoulder, Lupe leaned against a
cyclone fence and stared down into a dry aqueduct as he finished the last of
the figs. The cement channel was deep enough to accommodate raging winter torrents,
but it held nothing now except a trickle of stagnant water; banks of sandy mud
held fast to a litter of blown-out tires, beer bottles and bloated wood. A
rancid briny stench hung over the canal, a stronger but staler version of the
smell that blew up the streets from the beach. Across the viaduct, a black
child peered down at him from a tenement window that backed up directly on the
foul-smelling trickle.

Inside the
station Lupe bought a cup of scalding cocoa from a machine. The phone book,
stolen from the booth, was survived by a frayed tether of steel cable. He
drank the chocolate in two gulps—pouring it past his tongue, head tipped
back—and studied a large yellowing map of the town mounted on a bulletin board.
Later he would buy a pocket map, but for now this gave him a sense of the
place, a thinly inhabited crescent with empty land on one side and emptier sea
on the other. When he could see it with his eyes closed, he went back out.

The morning
air was humid and warming, though a sea chill lingered. The canyon road led
straight toward the beach; beyond a traffic signal, he could see the silvery
swell of waves. Their sound carried faintly. Shops were opening. He passed a
florist, a dress shop, a five-and-ten, two ice cream parlors. Across the street
from the beach, a Jaguar came rolling out of a corner gas station. Lupe spotted
a phone booth at the nearest edge of the lot; the directory was still intact.

A kid in a
greasy blue uniform, with long sun-bleached hair under his blue cap and skin
tanned brown as Lupe’s, watched him approach the booth and pick up the book.
Lupe could feel the attendant staring as he paged through the D’s.

Diaz.

There was
only one of them, first initial “S.”

Too easy. In
L.A. he’d had to look for days before learning that Sal had left the city
around the same time he had. It was the first time a little whitebread town
like this had ever made his life easier. Sal must be feeling pretty safe here,
so far from the old neighborhood, to go listing his name. Guess he figured he’d
put everything behind him.

Lupe tore
off the lower half of the page, taking what he needed. He wasn’t too good at
remembering numbers.

“Hey,
asshole,” said a voice.

He turned
and saw the pump jockey standing behind him.

“The fuck
you just do?”

The boy was
taller than Lupe. He had strong arms, grease-smeared hands. Lupe didn’t say
anything, only stared up into eyes like pale blue broken crystals. The sun
topped the hills right then; he felt its first rays burning on the back of his
head. He could almost smell burning hair.

“What are
you anyway?” the boy said. “You a guy or a girl? Takes some kind of nerve for a
faggot like you to go ripping off public property like that.”

Lupe started
to step around him. The kid grabbed him by a sleeve.

“Where you
going, greaser faggot?” Fingers clenched in the baggy sleeve of Lupe’s green
army-surplus jacket, twisting him closer. “You look like a girl, you know that?
Do you even shave? Come on, you fucking queer, hand it over.”

Lupe’s hand
was in his pocket where he’d tucked the phone book page. His fingers stroked
the warm bone handle as he thought of the cold polished metal folded up inside
it. His thumb played across the silver button in the handle, stroking it as he
would a nipple. He hadn’t wanted to waste it on the old man, but now . . .
given this and the burning . . .

The sun felt
like a blowtorch turned up to full, searing the back of his skull, boring into
the center of his brain, destroying the wall between the halves. He caught the
stink of charred flesh and blood.

Caught
unsuspecting in Lupe’s shadow, the kid thrust out his hand again. “Stupid
fucking homo, give it here.”

Lupe took
his fingers from his pocket and started to lay the crumpled paper in the pump
jockey’s hand, imagining that it was the blade of the knife. Seeing the silver
cut down into the fleshy whiteness of the grimy palm, seeing the blood well up.

He looked
into the pale blue eyes, seeing them full of respect now. And fear. A rich mix
of emotion in those humiliated eyes. He had tasted this blend before; not that
any two were ever exactly alike. The flavors of fear could keep him busy
forever, tasting them, stirring up new varieties.

Then the
pump jockey grabbed Lupe’s wrist and fingers and started bending them back. The
paper dropped to the ground. Pain chased the fog of dreams from Lupe’s eyes,
and as his vision cleared, he saw that there was no respect in the pump
jockey’s face, not really. No fear of him, either. Only an angry, smirking
disgust.

He wished
for his knife, but it was too late.

“Stop,” he
gasped. “Stop or . . .”

“Or what,
faggot?” The kid’s face swam closer; Lupe’s fingers were going to break. “Or
what?”

A car glided
up to the pumps and beeped its horn.

The pump
jockey dropped Lupe’s hand and backed away, grinning. “You’re welcome to try
me, cocksucker. I see you around here again, I’ll show you
or what.

He turned
away, exulting in Lupe’s humiliation, striding proudly toward the pumps. For a
moment Lupe couldn’t feel the sun, which was a relief even in his misery.

But the
feeling wouldn’t last. He couldn’t stand here all day. It would be hot and
bright soon, hotter than he liked it, his shadow withering as noon approached.

More cars
pulled in off the street. The kid hustled to handle them, and a stocky older
man, also in uniform, rushed out of the station office to help.

With no one
looking his way, Lupe bent and snatched up the crumpled phonebook page, stuffed
it back in his pocket. Aching fingers stroked the blade.

“I saw
that!” the pump jockey called. The other man grabbed him, steering him toward a
customer, sparing Lupe another assault. “Next time, faggot! Next time you’re
mine!”

Lupe ran
across the street to the beach, looking back once to see the pump jockey
watching him as he violently sponged a windshield.

Lupe was
shaking now. His guts were all twisted. Hard to keep calm. At least the sun
didn’t seem to burn, and he couldn’t smell the charring.

He walked
over a patch of grass, then a splintered boardwalk, and stepped down onto sand.
His steps turned slow and awkward; it was like moving into a dream, except for
the sand grains already chafing in his boots. A string of pelicans bobbed up
and down on the waves; otherwise the shore was deserted. The sun cast his
shadow ahead of him onto the sand, beside the longer shadow of a tall white
lifeguard lookout that reminded him of a prison gun-tower. One of the windows
was broken, a corner piece of glass missing. Something gray hopped around
inside, then stuck out its head and flew toward him. It was a seagull, carrying
what looked like something bloody in its beak. As it swooped overhead he saw
that it was part of a hot dog, dripping ketchup. He felt a small
disappointment.

BOOK: The Orchid Eater
9.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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