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PURCHASE THE DIGITAL COLLECTION (2013)
James Gordon Farrell
B. 1.25.1935 Liverpool / D. 8.11.1979 Bantry Bay
A 52-year old mining company executive from Alberta spends the American Thanksgiving holiday trapped inside an 11th floor room of the Oberoi Hotel
A little after 2am on Wednesday
he opens a new document on his laptop computer and beings to write a screenplay called “Fucking Joan Crawford.” He is not a crude man. He is not a hairy executive; his man-boar bristles aren’t hidden by Pink. He hasn’t got any bristles, nor anything from Pink. His jowls aren’t dark with menace. A nice man, he doesn’t even swing his arms and only makes a fist to think on.
Shots, screams, explosions—nothing yanks the nerves like breaking glass.
He hasn’t been waiting twenty-five years to write a porno. His father
a body falling past the window in brown shoes
knew a man who knew a man. The story, he supposes it would be called an intimacy now, his father’s telling it that is, the way he did, the when, the winter light on snow drifts blackening a frame of rough-planked doorway—
soak a towel, roll it up, lay it down across the threshold
he supposes it was an intimacy. He’d always thought of it as a marker: not a grand rite of passage, communal pissing after the gunfire
but more like a time-notch. On this day, at this snowbound morning moment, he was old enough to hear the story told his father by a man who knew a man who’d fucked Joan Crawford and it had ruined his life.
Scene four: The lobby, with extras in transit.
A goddess. “The thing you’ve got to remember is she was a goddess back then, a major, major goddess. Or else it doesn’t make sense.” He’d tried hard to picture a goddess, an effort which involved pinning a large set of wings to a resemblance of the other fourth grade teacher, but this part still hadn’t made sense. Yet the story impressed him.
“Never smoke in bed when you’ve been drinking.”
An average guy, maybe a little better looking than average, a good time guy, always plenty of women
not enough women to go around when girls are so expensive to marry off that their mothers abort them, that’s the problem, all these young guys hanging about with no hope of getting near a woman
women and cash, a guy familiar with nightclubs and the ways to a good table—but never a big city guy, never a tough one. An average guy who’s about to fuck Joan Crawford—except maybe he’s got a spark, a little extra something.
Dynamite, let’s hope not.
But would he have had to be special? Would it make what happened afterwards more tragic? Thinking for the screen
Blackberry Alberta: OK in room no change
so much depends on the actor. For the screenplay of "Fucking Joan Crawford," he decides, he’s inclined like his father before him in telling this story to accentuate the average nature of this guy. His spark was common then, a common war virility. “Good causes are good for the good guys:” have him tell her. Or have her tell him.
Scene fifteen: at the bar. Nuts and chocolates sufficient for a week, rationed wisely. Bottled water enough, reserve the open one for tooth brushing. Liquor dehydrates. Stay low, don’t flush the toilet.
Joan Crawford and the slightly more than average handsome man exchanging glances, smiles, across a crowded lobby: she’s been inexplicably stalled by a malfunction in her star propulsion chain, stranded just yards from Calgary’s finest full-service man. She’s lucky. He decides he won’t admit he’s here from out of town.
He can’t help it, he’s too tall and pale. Always has been.
“Isn’t everybody here from someplace else?”
That’s what he’ll say if they get in, exactly. Which takes care of the last words—check, done. Moving on.
He flashes back to the post-9/11 team-building workshop, the one with the stale bagels where he first saw his life as a highlight reel of harangues against his now-called negativity. He’d thought nostalgically of Gloomy Gus, and Moper. From the age of six he'd haunted the outskirts of grown-up talk, tossing bombshells of morbidity into its pauses. “It’s getting late—wonder where they are---“
Maybe they’re all dead.
“I’ll spank your bottom just for thinking that!” His aunt Rosemarie. Her sister Peg was the prophetic one: maybe his father’s side thought he was poaching. His mother-mingled blood, his boy-ness let him in for the harangue: Evil-Eye Fleegle. Misery-bird. To Uncle Mike he was the Little Ghoul, red Michael of the rock collecting kit when he turned eight. After which he no longer found grown-up talk of any interest whatsoever
(“Then put your mineral down and eat your beans!”)
unless it involved rocks or minerals and even then, most grown-ups knew so little. When his father told him about the man who’d fucked Joan Crawford, probably he hadn’t listened to a grown-up talk for weeks. Sunk in visions of the incredible find—the emerald bigger than a baby’s head, the back field virtually paved in uranium—the rafts of reporters, the prizes, the fortune, the full professorship at twelve—he’d slept with his rock hammer under his pillow, a fanatic. Children are—
children. The police should start firing streams of gold coins through the windows, make a more enlightened response to the mood here. Neverland is burning and the lost boys have slipped with the flames into scenes that have no place for them: wedding parties and grandparents’ suites, board meetings, paid employment. Fight a nightmare with a wish fulfillment.
Let him be coming from a wedding toast, the couple lacking immediate family having asked a crowd of friends to a downtown hotel near the registry office. Let his lips have lingered a little too long on the new bride’s for his buddy the new husband’s liking. Let him be looking to feel less rotten about this as quickly as possible while his mouth still tastes of lipstick and frosting and watery scotch. Stronger liquor and a woman: let him be self-prescribing when he meets Joan Crawford’s eyes.
Darshan they call it here, when the goddess looks back at you.
He’s having to build to the fucking from scratch. His father didn’t tell this part, maybe didn’t even care how it had happened to occur. This from a man who kept up a years-long correspondence about the chemical composition of manna with someone who’d issued a pamphlet about it from Brooklyn—even for him some miracles were past explaining.
The voice not quite in his head saying don’t answer the door, sending him under the bed, keeping him there through the worst parts of yesterday—what to call that?
Or maybe his father dismissed any significance from an event so patently and purely random. Privilege on the one hand, dumb luck on the other, and in between a field of evasions infinite, collisions incalculable. The particle from Alberta dreams it’s been chosen—a hero.
Or would a hero have answered the door?
Beyond the Do Not Disturb sign, past the litter of hosiery and half-drained glasses, a tracking shot lingers tastefully at the margins of the title scene. So far from being a porno it’s almost comical, this story kept his high school years chaste. “Don’t Fuck Joan Crawford” he’d have called it then, back in the days of major themes identified, back during the long, long nights of driving in circles through torment. While glossy elastic candy-breathed beings emitted strange heats that rearranged his vital organs, he’d kept eyes front and hands on the wheel. The perfect gentleman, cooling ardor at contact, he’d delivered a string of goddesses to their front porch steps with their favors all but unsampled. His eventual prom date, still a friend, teaches evolutionary biology these days: she e-mails him from Boston of her department chairmanship and her wife Tamar.
1703 new messages on his Blackberry: there’s hers. Reply: safe no worries quiet outside almost over now lets hope
College, self-recrimination and the triumph of science: if goddesses don’t exist—and they did not—then it was his duty to experiment and learn. Laughable, really—and the laughter wasn’t something he’d ever forget—to have let himself be spooked out of high school sex by an old movie star story. What was he anyhow? The question raised questions which caused him discomfort until he’d answered them: Fine.
safe, fine, safe, fine, 40-some times, can’t do this all day, what an interruption—
Fine? Extraordinary! The stud from Alberta rolls onto his back and communes with the light fixture. Stupid, primitive little gimmick, it’s so unnecessary now that his body is the Sun. Light fixtures, they’ll all have to go: hang mistletoe in their place, or punching bags, or mynah birds in cages, and he’ll just smile and smile to beat the darkness.
A question from the airport drifts back: If sunlight is an antiseptic, then does Mumbai smell of something healing? Not anymore, not from the Oberoi Hotel anyway. All he’s smelled for days it seems is fire. He would never have thought he’d miss Mumbai’s startling all-pervasive stench but—oh, how he misses it. His eyes are teary.
So he’d been fine with fucking, fine with practice; and his life hadn’t been ruined. Once, one of his first times, he felt he’d approached immolation. It happened again, three times, with his wife now ex-wife, always very early on a Sunday morning for some reason.
“What’s the good of science if it makes you old?”
A gust of air puffs through his pelt and cools his newborn body; the sheet subsides and she has left the scene. Lemon colored light seeps out the bottom of the bathroom door like something shed in her ablutions. As she slips into a raiment more comfortable, he prepares a compliment of fresh desire.
It’s all about humiliation. Whoever let this happen they will never live it down, whoever felt safe before never stop feeling stupid—not lucky, not spared—worthy of finger pointing and jeers.
“Nothing special.” As four syllables commence the ruin of his life he watches Joan Crawford watching his mouth and see it defenseless. Anything it tries to put on now will be too late. Years later though the snow of a barroom TV he’ll watch a man describe his own death during gall bladder surgery: “If only,” he’ll answer, “you always floated.” He’d stayed pinned to the sheets with a working wound in his face and her eyes on it, while his good buddy the light fixture got to ogle the tableau. If only he’d thought to fill his dick with helium—and another refill denied.
Another blast knocks his empty water bottle to the bathroom floor. He’s been sitting cross-legged in the tub with his laptop computer. His knees are stiff and he risks the upright steps into his room required to check his view. The Indian Ocean through billows of tarnish still gleams like polished tin.
There is that Leviathan which you have made for the sport of it.
Is Mumbai still his favorite city? A geysering racket of rotor blades sends him back to the tub undecided.
Fucking Joan Crawford is like a cruel practical joke that you play on yourself. The victim suffers a lifetime mental chorus of truisms: Look but don’t touch. Know your limits, your place. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Unreflective action types turn reader, beguiled by jacket copy into thickets of non-fiction bestseller prose. Things stick: The system stacked against you. Crooks in charge. Analogies to variously accurate accounts of praying mantis mating behavior. From Kipling, the female of the species; from myth, the waxen wings. Like an aggressive super-rash, the fallout effects of fucking Joan Crawford disfigure the imagination and stunt the growth of Fun.
A man alone in a hotel room far from home feeding words to himself.
Fun people, he considers, are the ones still hoping to fuck their Joan Crawfords and expecting deep inside that it will happen soon. The lucky strike, the sudden elevation and the leisured bliss that follows in the form of swimming pools and proffered flesh and banquets simultaneous and never ceasing: here’s the storyline repeating in their heads like rainbows in a book of children’s art. Happily inattentive to things as they are but perilously close to desperation, always, the fun are a menace.
Drunken holiday parties. Exploding bazaars. The atmosphere clotted with ash and confetti admits a perpetual twilight in which the disillusioned are condemned to crouch.
“What do you do, when every day for the rest of your life feels like a letdown?,” his father asked the winter. The little boy listened closely. He knew that coming down the mountain men were millionaires, but when they got to town they turned out to have nothing but fools gold in their sacks; so it had been with this goddess man. Their heartsickness he could recognize and feel the greatness of its likelihood: he’d already begun to arm himself against it with a hammer and some expertise, a naturally negative child.
Blackberry Alberta: assume deals off
Back in his suit with his eyes newly blinkered, Calgary’s best-looking castrate crosses from the elevators to the lobby doors and steps out into three decades or so of diminishing small time. He sells, from the road or from fly-by-night shops, a succession of products: life insurance for farmers; bible society subscriptions; radio sets; labor-saving gadgets with patents pending and motors combustible; television sets on payment plans. For a time he sells blue sticks of glass cleaner at boat and auto shows.
Vanaprastha, they call it here, when you go off to live in a forest.
He keeps late hours by himself. He takes willing women but furtively and never for long. He drinks and sometimes in a bar he tells what happened.
With time, the goddess he fucked assumes the form of a goddess to fear, a shrill teeth-baring screamer and roller of schematic eyes. So should she have kept him? Had she made a mistake? He can never make himself believe this past the second highball.
Now that it seems like it might be over, what happened?
Could he have saved her? Her features strain to fill the contours of her name; one night he sees she’s become almost laughable. He’d laugh, too, if she weren’t wearing his blackened skull on a chain: his godhead goddess.
I stayed upstairs in my room to write a screenplay about this man who knew a man my father knew.
Consolation Site: Best Booker
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