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Everyone knows that when a certain kind of single American female on a Mexican holiday drinks too much tequila she will get a tattoo. And when she is in a sybaritic seaside town like Puerto Vallarta with a girlfriend, they will get matching ones. The women in question were an attractive pair. They had fallen into the sensual thrall of Mexico for nearly a week and into the sensual thrall of each other’s arms whenever the door closed behind them in their cliff top hotel just north of a curving, white sand beach ringed by gentle green hills. They were visiting from the dry precincts of the Mojave Desert in Southern California and the aromatic salt breezes wafting in off the Pacific Ocean released the gossamer ribbons binding all of their gringa inhibitions. The single woman, lithe, alluring and in her early twenties, and her married lover, two decades older but no less attractive, had spent the warm early December days playing tennis, tanning beneath deferential palms, splashing in the turquoise waters, and chasing the flavorful local seafood with endless pitchers of margaritas, each night at a different local bar that catered to the crowds of well-to-do tourists who flocked to these shores each winter. And every evening, pleasantly buzzed, they would stroll back to their hotel, past Tango Tattoo, a raffish place nestled between a florist and a souvenir shop, which displayed a sign in English that read Your Design or Ours. The drawings offered by the artisans at Tango drew inspiration from the locale and featured a variety of mythological, architectural, and religious motifs borrowed from indigenous culture. Mayan, Incan and Aztec creatures vied for space on the tattoo parlor walls with, skulls, serpents and saints, Day of the Dead-inspired designs proliferated alongside popular cartoon characters and
flowers of such vivid reds and yellows, they seemed to emit a scent. Intoxicated by the combination of anonymity and alcohol, the women would dare each other to step inside and each time they would laugh and keep walking. But this was their last night before they would take the plane back to Los Angeles, the connecting flight to Palm Springs, and car rides back to their separate lives. The holiday had been a lark, taken at the behest of the single woman and paid for by the married one, whose husband thought she was deserving of a break with a girlfriend and remained unaware of his wife’s Sapphic proclivities. Their revels now were ending and this finality lent a sense of portent not evident in the course of the previous week. The married woman was not happily married and this splash of freedom had been mitigated by her knowledge of its impermanence. She was going to be returning to her family the next day; running off with another woman, making the kind of drastic change that most people never even contemplate, was simply not in her character. But the thought of commemorating this week of liberty with nothing more than some photographs to be stared at forlornly, accompanied by the sounds of her husband’s snoring, nearly made the wedded woman weep. For the unmarried, a tattoo acquired on a Mexican holiday requires no explanation. A married person vacationing without their spouse has no such luxury. Upon the return home, there will be an unavoidable moment of reckoning when the human canvas can only hope that the body art will find favor. So credit her for crossing the threshold of the tattoo parlor, where she hesitated, second-guessing her impulse until her lover suggested that they get matching tattoos. If I get one, the younger woman had asked, will you? If I pull up my white linen skirt and let this tattoo artist do his magic, won’t you? Whether it
was the week of sunlight and salt air, the aroma of tanning butter mixed with Chanel #5, or the sense memory of her companion’s dexterously probing tongue as they lay naked and entwined, she could never be certain, but when the needle whirred and the point pressed against her skin with just enough pressure to delicately break the surface the married woman knew that whatever happened between the two, for better or worse, they would be forever linked. The wife and mother chose a manga design of a kitten. Because who, really, would object to that? And not on her supple bicep, the top of her breast, the base of her spine or any of the other places popular for the flaunting of body art but, rather, because she was nothing if not discreet, on her left buttock where no one save her spouse would ever see it. Later that night, in the aftermath of having their bottoms painfully and repeatedly pierced and stained, the lovemaking was a little more physically uncomfortable than usual and they both woke up sore, with terrific hangovers and varying degrees of remorse. If the youthful instigator of the tattoo caper had hoped the inking would bond the two women, this supposition was quickly deflated by the emotional distance of her companion who was out of bed, showered, packed and waiting in the lobby within half an hour of waking. The older woman didn’t want to talk about what they’d done and when the younger woman tried to joke about it, suggesting they come back next year to get matching ones on their opposite cheeks, her friend didn’t smile. They rode in silence to the airport and on the flight to Los Angeles the older woman compulsively scrolled through digital editions of newspapers and magazines on an electronic reading device, unable to settle on anything for more than a few minutes, while
the younger one listened to personal affirmations on an iPod. They made awkward conversation in the departure lounge at LAX and on the short flight to Palm Springs, the older woman pretended to sleep. On the sidewalk in front of the terminal the younger woman tried to kiss her erstwhile lover lightly on the lips but the older one, still slightly hung over and in residual pain from the needle, turned her head and they managed only a desultory brushing of ears and hair. Then they took separate taxis home, one to a complicated marriage, an oft-absent husband, and a child who gave her little comfort; the other to an empty house. Their reunion would not be a happy one.
MONDAY, OCTOBER 29
Chapter One In the desert the sun is an anarchist. Molecules madly dance beneath the relentless glare. Unity gives way to chaos. And every day, people lose their minds. But you wouldn’t know this in Palm Springs, California. A hundred years ago a wasteland, home of the Cahuilla Indian tribe and a handful of white settlers who had relocated to this desolate outpost from points east. Today a golden oasis drawing privileged tourists from cooler climates in search of sunshine, clean air, and a place apart from the rest of the world. In air-conditioned cars they cruise exclusive neighborhoods gaping at perfectly restored mid-century modern homes that cling to the inhospitable land. The verdant lawns are neat as graves. The streets are quiet as Heaven. You would think nothing ever happens here. You would be wrong. On a heat-blasted afternoon in late October Jimmy Ray Duke positions himself to the side of a political rally in the Save-Mart parking lot just off the Sonny Bono Memorial Highway. Average build, dressed down in a loose black tee shirt, green cargo pants, and running shoes. Behind dark sunglasses his bloodshot eyes regard Harding Marvin, Police Chief of nearby Desert Hot Springs, who stands gun barrel straight on a riser that makes his six-foot four, two hundred and forty pound frame appear even more imposing. Shaved head looming over a dress blue uniform, Marvin, known to one and all as Hard, is energized as he steps to the microphone in front of nearly hundred people. Jimmy has listened to Hard speak innumerable times because he used to work for him. Their
professional relationship did not end well. “Election Day is one week from tomorrow,” Hard booms, perspiration running in rivulets down the side of his broad face. “And on that day we’re going send some new blood to the United States House of Representatives. We’re going to send a message to the elites that the same old same old doesn’t cut it any more. We got the other side running scared now. Well, they can run…” He waits a moment for the expected cheer that materializes on cue. Jimmy watches as Hard lets it caress him like the supple hands of a Thai masseuse. The Chief concludes with the inevitable words about the opposition’s inability to conceal their whereabouts. The appetite for recycled hokum at political rallies being bottomless, the cheer momentarily reignites, before Hard proclaims, “This is someone who supports a strong defense, supports a strong dollar – and as a law enforcement officer this is particularly important to me – she is a supporter of the death penalty.” The crowd loves this and another cheer blooms then subsides back into percolating anticipation. “It’s a great pleasure to introduce a gal who is gonna kick butt from here to the other side of this great country. Ladies and gentlemen, she’s hell in high heels” - more shouts and whoops. This is an image they love, hell, fancy shoes, the cloak of religion pierced with stilettos neatly summing up the exploitable duality. Then: “Give it up for Mary Swain.” Hard steps back with a flourish and leads the applause. She glides to the microphone and Jimmy notes the burnished skin, the blinding smile, the five hundred dollars worth of blond streaks, fitted red blouse set off against the matching white linen skirt and jacket that wrap her like cellophane. Then he envisions her without any of it. Which he knows is the whole idea. Mary Swain thanks Chief Marvin then turns to the crowd and says, “What a great day
in the American desert.” Signs wave adorned with her name, cell phones are held skyward, people taking pictures. Jimmy wonders how any sane person could come out to hear a politician talk on this scorching afternoon. Breathes deeply, tries to relax. He has been attempting to meditate lately and to this end has been struggling through books about Buddhism. Exhausted from another bad night’s sleep, he’s here for a reason: to practice seeing life clearly without an emotional charge on his way to liberation from suffering. Jimmy watches the show for the next twenty minutes as Mary Swain performs with a mixture of stories, jokes, and fire, pulling, tweaking, and working the crowd into a supine mass of quivering optimism. Her voice is friendly, homespun. It invites you in, asks you to sit down and pours you a cup of coffee. It confides in you, says you and I are friends. It says you, the voter, have an ally as beautiful and shapely as I and together we will share the bounty with which God has gifted us. She learned this flimflam from her husband, a master of the high-end grift. Shad Swain became rich selling sub prime mortgages to bad loan risks then bailed before the con imploded. They met ten years ago when Mary was working as a stewardess on his Gulfstream 6 and now have four photogenic children. My opponent went to Washington and forgot about you, the people who sent him. After I win, we can all forget him, but I won’t forget you, the real Americans! The real Americans? What is that supposed to mean? Jimmy doesn’t care for Mary Swain’s brand of sexed-up palaver and he’s as real as any American. But the crowd devours the red meat, communes with Mary, and then in lieu of a cigarette they rhythmically chant: ma-RY, ma-RY, ma-RY while her gleaming smile widens. The candidate, lustrous chestnut mane tumbling over broad shoulders, downshifts to a crinkly
grin, satisfied and sure. She’s saying “We will take this fight to the heart of the beast” and they’re devouring it, the we, the fight, the beast, each element of the rhetoric bringing them along with this avatar and her promise of power and release. Jimmy sees Mary Swain gazing out over the undulating mass of citizens; the white faces, the brown ones, all of them full-throated despite the afternoon heat thrusting from the blacktop like a death ray, and hears the call for renewal, prosperity, and faith. Mary Swain is magnetic, a natural performer and Jimmy catches himself enjoying her act. He knows she is just a politician selling the usual swill, but it’s hard to take your eyes off this woman. He marvels at the cool appearance. His armpits are moist with perspiration but Mary Swain looks dry as the desert air. Her bearing is a runner’s, erect, shoulders back, chin to the wind. And her legs. Jimmy has never seen legs like that on a politician. Her hemline stops several inches above her knees, the better to highlight supple calves that curve into a pair of red pumps. Jimmy figures Mary Swain’s a little younger than he, late thirties, but spas, trainers, and botox lop ten years off. She looks more like a character in a video game than a candidate for the United States House of Representatives. Jimmy observes Arnaldo Escovedo, slicked back black hair and reflector sunglasses, walking toward him. A middleweight Golden Gloves fighter twenty years ago and now a police detective on the Desert Hot Springs force, the man still moves lightly on the balls of his feet. They exchange a collegial nod. “You like her?” Jimmy says. Arnaldo raises an eyebrow, lets Jimmy know, yeah, he likes her. Jimmy chuckles, asks if he’s on duty and Arnaldo nods. The job: mingle with the voters, look for suspicious behavior, mixed nuts that might want to blast their way into the news - make sure nothing untoward happens. Before he resigned from the force, Jimmy would have pulled this detail, watching the
crowd, on the lookout for the overly excitable or mentally defective. He’s still on alert out of habit. But the crowd is raucous, not unruly. Arnaldo asks Jimmy what he’s doing here. No challenge in his tone, only wants to know. “Just an interested citizen,” Jimmy says. “Trying to spook the Chief?” “Not on purpose,” Jimmy says. “Better not let him see me talking to you,” Arnaldo says. He grins at Jimmy and continues his circumnavigation. “Just can’t get enough of Hard Marvin, can you?” Jimmy looks over and sees Cali Pasco standing next to him. Tight jeans and a white tee shirt hug her slender figure and she wears a pearl gray lightweight blazer over it to hide the shoulder holster and the Beretta it contains. The cowboy boots give her another inch of height. Thick brown hair pulled back in a ponytail that falls through the back of a blue baseball cap makes her look younger than her thirty-two years. “Sergeant Pasco,” Jimmy says, grinning. “Detective Sergeant,” she says. “You want to fight about it?” Playing, a gleam in her brown eyes. “I don’t want to get my ass kicked so early in the day.” They always liked each other when they were colleagues and Cali appreciated that Jimmy never tried to sleep with her when he was married. “So you got promoted?” “Hard forced some guy out, I think Jimmy Duke was his name.” Probing with the joke, and he doesn’t walk away. “So there was an opening.”
“They’ll make anyone a detective these days.” “Helps if you’re a girl.” Cali gives him a smile, keeps ambling along the perimeter of the crowd. He likes how she carries herself, the ease with which she moves, that she can sling it and take it and come back for more. I was talking to my oldest daughter about what it means to be an American, and you know what she said to me? It’s about freedom! Jimmy glances to where Hard Marvin is standing, behind the candidate. Sees the man looking at Mary Swain with the combination of awe and lust that seems to be the effect she has on males predisposed to her philosophy of a muscular military and no taxes. Notices Hard is fiddling with his wedding ring like he wants to take it off. Imagines the Chief is going tantric on Mary Swain in his head as he stands at attention behind her and the thought nearly makes him laugh. Jimmy believes himself to be immune to the candidate’s charms. Mary Swain reminds him of the popular girls back in high school, batting eyelashes and sweet poison tongues. It’s not that he dislikes her actively, other than in the way he dislikes all politicians, the hurly-burly of government not something to which he pays much attention. Whenever he bothers to listen to a politician, it all runs together. America’s Future, God, My Opponent is against what you love. And Mary Swain seems a little angry, which is something to which Jimmy does not respond well. He notices the crowd today has become angry, too, and Mary Swain feeds off them as she launches into her closing, draws herself up to her full height – five foot nine in heels – and exhorts them to take back the government from the socialists and atheists and all the un-patriotic operators who have betrayed their sacred trust because our best days are in front of us and if they vote for her it will be
morning in America again and our nation will reclaim it’s destiny as a beacon in a darkening world. God bless you, God bless our troops, and God bless the U.S.A! Jimmy remains in his position near the riser as the rally breaks up. He has nowhere to go, figures he’ll see if Hard spots him and whether Hard will say anything if he does. Mary Swain shaking hands with the sweaty crowd, people taking her picture, shouting encouragement. Jimmy watching Hard at her side, the sun glinting off his shiny head, shaking hands, too, smiling, backslapping; working it like someone with something to prove, someone who wants to matter. A few minutes go by, Jimmy standing his ground, Mary and Hard still pumping hands. Most of the throng has drifted back to their cars, but there’s still a scrum of diehards near the front who need their personal hit of the magic. Jimmy’s waited long enough, pushes in, elbows through. Hard spots him and his smile freezes in a rictus of alarm. The Chief’s right hand drops to his sidearm, a Glock 9, Jimmy realizing the man thinks I might be a shooter. And he’s a little disappointed, his feelings hurt, because Hard, who knows him for godsakes, believes the slightest possibility exists that he could go Lee Harvey Oswald on Mary Swain. Jimmy wondering if Hard is actually going to make a move toward him but the big Chief holds his position. Mary Swain gripping the hand of a retiree in a Hawaiian shirt and a tan baseball cap with gold stitching that reads U.S.S. Ronald Reagan, the man trembling with excitement and gratitude. Then Jimmy thrusts his right hand out and the candidate takes it in hers. “Good luck, Mary,” Jimmy says, holding his left hand away from his body where his ex-boss can see there’s no weapon in it. “I hope I have your vote,” she says, her white teeth blinding.
“Oh, sure,” Jimmy says. He notices the slim hand with the French manicure, smells her cocoanut sunscreen. Up close, the visceral Mary Swain Experience ignites. Jimmy lets go and just breathes her in for a brief moment, the hair, the perfect skin, and that infinite smile. Then blink she moves down the line, and Jimmy snaps out of it instantly. Now he and Hard are face to face for a moment full to bursting and he thinks, yes, people these days are gun-toxicated and ready to rock and he knows Hard knows it, sees him twitch, the man already wound tight as a blasting cap, ready to explode, and Jimmy, with the inborn mischief of a guy who doesn’t know how to stay out of trouble, can’t help himself. So he winks. In that moment he senses the other man’s discomfort and revels in his own enjoyment at having caused it. Jimmy cares how Hard reacts. Wishes he didn’t but, yes, he cares. He is still a prisoner of the idea that any of this matters. He understands this kind of delusion is not the way of the dharma. By his reaction to Hard Marvin, Jimmy knows that freedom from suffering is not imminent. Yet he yearns for freedom. And what is more American than that? Walking toward his pickup truck, he hears “Uncle Jimmy!” and turns to see Brittany, the seventeen-year old daughter of his brother Randall. Skinny and vibrant, with an appealing grin, Jimmy thinks she’d look better without the magenta dye in her shoulderlength light brown hair but keeps that thought to himself. In her uniform of Converse sneakers, a plaid skirt with ripped fishnets and a baggy tee shirt with the name of some band he doesn’t recognize emblazoned across the chest, she is indistinguishable from the average teenage girl save for the oblong spiral notebook in her hand. Brittany asks him what he’s doing at the rally and he tells her it’s his duty as a citizen to hear every
candidate’s line of blather. She gazes at him intently when he says this, staring right into his eyes as if she is not only taking in this information but also parsing it, extrapolating, and contemplating how it can be used to her advantage. To her uncle, she does not seem like an ordinary teenager but something more purposeful. It’s slightly unsettling. When he asks her why she isn’t in class since it’s a Monday morning and the law of the State of California requires she be there, Brittany informs him that she’s doing a school assignment. She accepts his offer of a lift back to Palm Springs Academy. Jimmy drives a blue 2002 Ford pickup with a dented front fender and a busted taillight he’s been meaning to repair for weeks. Brittany settles into the passenger seat and on the ride she talks to him about politics (“What kind of freak goes into that line of work?”), her parents (“kind of annoying”) and the colleges she’s thinking about applying to. Most of the schools are on the east coast and have fancy pedigrees. But maybe she won’t go to college at all, she tells him. Her grades are excellent and her board scores, too, but doesn’t the world belong to the entrepreneurs, the self-starters, new gods of the wild and relentlessly entertaining American pageant who bend reality to their implacable will? And they don’t teach those skills in college, do they? Jimmy listens and nods, impressed with his niece. He drops her off and watches as she walks across the lawn and into the glass and steel building of the Upper School. Brittany almost makes Jimmy wish he were a father. Of course, that would mean he’d be yoked to his ex-wife Darleen for the rest of his life. He knows the kid who’s worth that hasn’t been born.
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