THE CASE OF THE BUTTERFLY
A potter's a guy with a fat belly. He's got a thing for undershirts that bulge like his skin to the utmost of tautness. And then there's the cave pigs, the lardos with curlers and bowling jackets who like to hang out at laundromats and shopping malls.
Now, I'm a header. The kind that likes to lounge in the attic. Life's a pantomime of holograms, providing you keep the proper perspective. You take yourself seriously and poof, you're a glummer, your face sags into that shape on its own, no spark of will to give it form. You're a cave pig, only thinner.
That's where the will comes in. I will, 'cause I can, so I do.
Now, my lady, I realize, is turning pig, getting a little flabby on the willing side. How can I get involved, she says, when I don't even know it's there?
Like maybe it's something in the drinking water. That's what I told her.
That's when the shit started flying, her arms whirling like a fan. She's never thrown anything before. Lucky for me. Every shot's a mile off. Even so, I decide to bail out. Chute two, 'cause it would hurt too much.
It all started when she asked me about getting married. Not that she wanted to tie me down or anything, she just wanted kids.
If that isn't roping, I don't know what is.
She said, "I knew you'd never marry me!"
And I said, "Precisely. From the start I've been saying knots were not for me. So you knew."
"But I didn't believe you."
"You didn't trust me."
"I thought I could change you."
"Then what the hell did you see in me in the first place?"
She shakes her flabby head. "But what's wrong with me?"
"Nothing," I smiled. "I like you as you are."
"Bastard!" She starts pleading. "Why won't you marry me?"
I thought she was being dense, so I told her, about her willing to get flabby.
She said, "I can't help it!"
That's when I said, "It must be something in the drinking water then."
She didn't like that.
So the dishes took flying lessons.
Not many survived.
There's a rally in the afternoon, an anti-nuke rally. I'm there, just looking.
There's an amazing number of people. No cave pigs. No potters. Not true. A few potters of a different kind, with tables set up on the sidewalks, selling clay mugs with coffee in them for ten bucks apiece.
Somehow, organic and peace go together.
So do money and morals.
I'm sitting under a horse's raised hoof on a monument to some hero. There's a lot to see.
My eyes are the film, my brain the editor, and my memory the ever-changing final draft. Viewing is an art. Not like those flicker faces always glued to their television sets; the editor's dead or on vacation with the payroll. They get involved from a distance. Jumping distance. So they can bail out anytime. They're wearing three chutes, to be sure. One string - it needs too much, second string - it hurts too much, and third and easiest to reach - it costs too much. All that string and you're roped.
Not me. If the plane's going to crash, I'll teach myself to fly.
Armand's there, standing over by the potter's stand, watching her. Armand's a specialist. He watches only women. That's like seeing with only one eye. Not me. If it's there, I watch it.
It takes me a while to notice because she's so still, but some girl's sitting under a tree watching me. I watch her watch me.
She's got long flat hair like a sheet of copper bent around her head. Her mouth's interesting though. Like a Mona Lisa, noncommittal. I like that. She's young too. I like that even more. Fewer ropes. Her eyes don't move, on target, even gaze, like two moons, cold and clear.
I jump down from my horse and walk over to her.
"What do you see?" I say.
She looks me up and down, her mouth a wound about to bleed.
"A watcher, I guess."
She's cool. Like a pool that doesn't move.
"You a kin of Auntie Nuke?"
"A distant relative."
She's a header. No doubt now.
She says. "Are you a nukie?"
"Nukes are nature's way of saying good-bye."
She smiles for the first time, like a red leaf falling on a pond.
"So what are you doing here?"
"Looking for someone."
My turn to smile.
"What do you do when you find him?"
"Take him home."
I jump to my feet. "Let's go."
She takes my hand and pulls herself up.
We have to pass through the crowd to get where we're going.
She stops. There's something going on in the middle. Someone's got a cardboard missile on his shoulder. An old guy with a blue beret and medals all over his chest is shouting. He's calling Mr. Missile a commie and then he starts shoving. That's just what the cops are waiting for. They come muscling in. A couple are on horses. The crowd gets a mind of its own, starts heaving like a beast.
Time to check out. But Copperhead pulls my hand and starts snaking through the crowd towards the middle.
I'm thinking this girl's got more nerve than brains. But she's got a purpose.
The cops have grabbed Mr. Missile while Johnny Legion continues to berate him. A boy scout on a horse is trying to get between them, telling the old madcap to go home.
She lets go of my hand, dodges around the horse and grabs the missile where it's fallen on the ground.
She comes back smiling, holding that thing in her arms like a toy she's won at the fair.
"Let's go," she says and flicks her hair aflashing in the sun.
I shake my head and follow. Those eyes bear watching.
"What's your name?" I say.
We're lying on a mattress, staring up at the cardboard missile. She's hung it from the ceiling, pointing right at the bed.
"Does it matter? Call me what you like."
"Okay, you're Tinkerbell."
She laughs and rolls over to me. "And this is my magic wand." She gets a good grip.
"I'm flying! I'm flying!" I say in a falsetto voice.
She laughs but doesn't let go. She's waiting for me to rise.
I oblige, and we fly united.
On her wall is the strangest thing. It's a wooden case with a photograph in it. There are other things in there too, like a miniature parachute, a bill from a flying club, and a label from a bottle of champagne. The picture is of farmers' fields from fifteen hundred feet up. The case has even got a name, "First Jump".
"Hey," I point at it with my thumb, "did you do the jumping?"
"This sort of a three-dimensional scrapbook then?"
"You might say that."
She's looking under the fringe of the bedclothes for a match.
"What do you do, anyway?" I turn to her.
"I'm a photographic artist."
"Oh, you mean click, poof."
"Not really. More than that." She's serious now. "I take pictures then I build stories around them."
I just nod.
She explains, "Think of them as gestalt portraits, frozen moments that reveal everything." She finds the matches and pops a joint into her mouth. "Their meaning is in the interplay between the photo and the objects. It brings them back to life because your perception constantly changes." She shakes the match out and exhales a great cloud of pungent gas then hands the joint to me. "I capture more than the image. I capture the personality as well. My specialty is portraits."
"You've done more of these?" I say as the smoke rolls through my teeth.
"Yeah, about thirty. That one was my first. It's the only one of me. I've got an exhibition at the White Water Gallery. That's why this place is so bare right now."
"You make money at this?"
She looks at me a little funny. "No. I make friends." And laughs. "Come here."
The walls of her apartment are stark white, bristling with nails where her "portraits" used to hang. Every surface is littered with the weirdest things, like a doll's head with the eyes missing, like shriveled talons with the hawk missing, like a baby's shoe coated in rainbow sparkles, like a huge collection of plastic swizzle-sticks, like pieces of a purple wig, and countless other things I can't identify. Everywhere I look bizarre is looking back.
I stay overnight. Home is where you make it. Besides, my old lady is becoming an old lady. She needs a little stirring up.
Tink goes off to the gallery early after being up half the night. I get up at noon, wandering around her place, just looking.
She's intriguing, no names, just games. I like it. We're both free, no strings attached.
The only string on me is a purse string. You got to have money to live, especially in this city.
I'm a night watchman in a mattress factory. I watch the backs of my eyelids a lot.
I have to work tonight, in fact. As soon as the moon comes up, I turn into a productive citizen. But it's watching and that's my specialty, watching inside, dream movies, like a studio where every room you walk into has something different playing.
But first, I have to see Armand. He knows every girl in town. I want to know more about Miss Tink.
I know Armand. He's at the craft fair, watching the women. He tends to favour the long and lanky kind with the flowing Indian dresses and the repressed libidos. It's like a volcano, he says, when you start stoking the fire. Rumble, rumble, roar, roar, tiger time. And after, they're like kittens, always pushing themselves under your hand for a stroke. Not my style. I like a woman with a mind of her own. One who makes her own style. The butcher not the pig.
He's there. Hairface, looking a mess. He's the kind women love to improve. Lost little boy looking for momma. But he's sly, like a fox. He never works. His women support him.
He's leaning over a table of butterfly cases pretending he's interested. There's a woman talking to him, her hands flitting under his nose from case to case.
I watch and wait.
There are more butterflies suspended on a backdrop behind her. Monstrous things, with huge eyes gawking from their wings, iridescent coral blue and moonlit forest green, skewered by silver pins.
Finally, Armand stands flashing his toothy smile. She glances at her watch and smiles back, another fly about to get entangled.
Armand walks away from the table.
He peers over his shoulder, embarrassed. He ignores me and walks to the door.
We're outside in a parking garage. Armand stops to light a cigarette.
"What do you want?" He looks me over, empty face hidden in a cloud.
"About what?" His words are punctuated with smoke.
"About a lady."
"I don't know."
He looks at me, wondering what's the put-on.
"She's a photographer. Long copper hair, grey eyes. Weird."
Armand hisses through his teeth and smiles.
"She's not a photographer, man. She's a photographic artist." He laughs out loud, the echoes like pigeons flapping through the garage.
"Yeah, that's her."
Armand doesn't say anything but looks me over.
"How well do you know her?"
I smile. "Intimately."
"Oh-oh." He turns serious. "Be careful, man. She'll eat you alive. She cares for nobody but her muse."
"I can handle her."
"Sure, man." He cocks an eyebrow. "Don't come crying to me when you end up in one of her glass coffins."
"I didn't ask you for advice, Armand. I asked you for some information. Who is she?"
Armand laughs. "You're hooked, man. I'll bring some flowers to your funeral." He pauses and looks me over one more time. "I give you two days. She works fast." He laughs again.
"Come on, Armand. I'm a big boy."
"Okay. What I know is not a hell of a lot. She's secretive. It adds to her mystique." Bitterness curls like smoke through his words. "She's an artist. First and last. Graduated from college three years ago. I don't know where she's from or where she's going. I only know one thing. Everything around her she takes and breaks. To see what's inside. She has no friends and a world full of enemies." He takes a drag. "She's bad news."
"Has she got a name?"
"Frankly, I don't know. It never stays the same. When I knew her, she was Judy. The White Water Gallery says she's Amelia Winters. She hates names. Doesn't want to be pinned down. Forget her." Armand flicks his butt into a rainbow puddle. "She's a mind game."
"Hey, thanks for the good news." I turn to leave. "Be seeing you."
"Hold it." He grabs my arm.
"You got work to do on the home front first."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, tell your old lady to get off my case."
I look at him puzzled.
"I don't care what you do in your personal life, man, just leave it out of mine. She came looking for you at my place early this morning, crying and cursing. It was a trifle awkward, if you know what I mean. I was in the sack with some chick and it scared her half to death. Keep your shit out of my backyard. Okay?"
"Sorry, man. I'll tell her."
"And go easy on her. She's worth a hundred of your winterland bitches. Ciao."
He goes back inside, heading straight for the butterflies. Probably needs some money for a bite.
I'm at work. Mattresses lean like drunken revelers against the walls. Some are sprawled on the floor in heaps. I'm lying on one of the heaps. I want to sleep but strange images keep playing through my mind. Who is this Tink? One moment she's a butterfly and the next she's a bloodsucking moth. Which do I believe?
Does it matter? Bailing out now would be a cop-out. There're no ropes around me. I can jump anytime.
Suddenly, there's a banging, far away, muffled by the mattresses. I'm cautious. It's probably my old lady. My only string and she's followed it to my door.
It's her, standing in the floodlight, looking piggish in her fake fur coat and shortcropped hair. Through the window I watch. Her lips are set in anger. She bangs again. She probably thinks I'm asleep. She waits. Her determination wavers. Shoulders sag. This time her knock is pleading, hands open, slapping against the metal. She stops again, her thoughts on her face like images on a screen. Confusion. Is he inside? Is he asleep? Is he ignoring me? The beams of hope give way, her face collapses. She cries convulsively, groping for a Kleenex in her purse, her back against the door.
She takes a deep breath, poking at her eyes with the Kleenex. She stands and stares at the door. Abruptly she pivots on her heel and walks from the spotlight, swallowed by the night.
I stare at my eyelids again, trying to get some sleep, but the movie carries on, she standing there in the naked light.
Hey, I turn over, growing hurts. Is that my fault? Did I tie her to the tracks? She knew the freight was bound to come. A whistle blows in the distance. The rumble grows louder, deafening, bearing down.
I wake up in a cold sweat and listen. There's banging at the door again. This time it's loud and constant.
It's Tink. She's holding a shoe in each hand and is banging a rhythm against the door.
I open up.
"Hi, big guy. I want to buy a mattress."
"Come on in."
She's come for a purpose and I'm it.
We play musical mattresses.
Even when I'm spent, she presses on.
Finally, she stops for a joint. I lie exhausted beside her.
"Fun job!" She smiles.
"Exhausting," I laugh.
"You're just out of practice." Her free hand brushes my thigh.
I roll onto my stomach. "How did you find me?"
"I've got ways."
"My ways." She looks at me with a smirk.
"What else did you find out?"
"Do you really want to know?" She seems eager.
I nod to humor her.
"Correct me if I get anything wrong."
"Okay. Let's see." She takes the baby finger of her smoking hand with the other and starts to count.
"You're thirty-two years old. Birthday, three weeks ago." She moves to the next finger. "In your radical days, you were booted out of school for being the ring leader of a mob that camped in the dean's office for three days." Next finger. "You can't keep a steady job. This is your longest. Eight months." All the time she watches me for a reaction. "And currently you are in the process of giving your old lady a very rough time."
"Anything else?" I say evenly.
"Sure." She takes her time dragging on the cigarette.
"Your parents live in Nova Scotia somewhere on the Eastern Shore and you have a sister who lives in the suburbs of this city. There's no contact between you." She eyes me. "How did I do?"
She seems disappointed.
"Then how's this?" she leans forward, a Cheshire smile on her lips, "you like to bitch about people who do nothing all their lives then pretend that you're not one of them." She flicks the butt across the room. "Impressed?" She leans back against the wall in triumph.
I say nothing.
"Ahhh," she rolls over to me and runs her hand across my chest. "Did I hurt your feelings?"
I push her hand away and jump to my feet.
"Listen Judy or Amelia or whatever your name is, you can't fool me." I shove my leg into my pants.
"No?" she cocks her head in amusement.
"No." I pull on my shirt.
Then there's silence, an awful silence.
We stare at each other.
"You didn't come here to skewer me."
"Really?" she smirks.
"Really." I stare an even bead.
"Then tell me, oh Wise One, why did I come?"
She's uncertain of herself now, like a cornered animal.
"Because you had nowhere else to go and you couldn't stand another night of being cold and alone."
She tries to stare me down then turns away, but not before I catch a flash of feeling in her eyes.
I take her in my arms and, for the first time, we make love, while somewhere in the night a train's lone whistle howls.
She leaves before dawn, suddenly, soberly.
At the door she says, "Actually, I came here to say good-bye." She smiles awkwardly. "It has been wonderful." Not really meaning it. "Will you do me a favor?"
"Sit in that chair for a sec so I can take your picture." She smiles. "I want something to remember you by."
I sit, confused, pensive.
"Thanks," she puts her camera back in her purse.
I say nothing.
"Hey," she laughs. "Give me a kiss."
I take her in my arms and we kiss.
She steps back and I keep her hand in mine.
"I don't want to see you again," she says.
She hesitates. "You need too much."
"So you jump."
"Please," she pulls her hand away, "I have to go."
"I'm not stopping you." I open the door. "Just remember, Tink, it's a long way down."
And she's gone.
But the movie plays on, front row seat. All day it plays over and over in my brain.
Moth or butterfly?
I have to do something.
I have to change the film.
So I do.
I go back to the craft fair. It's late in the afternoon. Armand's not there. Neither's the butterfly lady but her cases are there, tended by a bookworm with bottle-bottom glasses. I buy a butterfly from him, a blue one with shining evening wings.
I go to Tink's place.
I want to give her the butterfly.
But her place is in darkness. I can hear music echoing in the stairway. The door isn't locked. Inside, the ceiling creaks. People are dancing above.
Something's different. I turn on the light.
It's the walls. They're crowded with wooden cases, each containing photographs surrounded by objects.
I wander amazed, like I've stumbled into a morgue. Suddenly my eye is caught by a case lying on her work table. It's called, "The Watcher". In the center of it hangs a doll, hopelessly tangled in strings which run from three parachutes tacked to the roof of the box. Then, in one of the bottom corners, I see a cutout photograph of me. I'm sitting on a chair staring unmoved at a huge mushroom cloud.
In the other corner there's a cardboard cave. From it, two plasticene pigs are staring. One of them looks like me.
I touch the box. The paint is still tacky.
The noise above my head grows even louder. The floor groans and squeaks like it's alive. The cardboard missile begins to sway back and forth. I sit on the bed under it, the butterfly still in my hands.
I thought I'd gotten through, chiseled my way to her heart.
I look at the box once more.
The cases rattle violently on the wall now, like an earthquake in a tomb full of skeletons. The dancing hits a frenzied peak and the missile falls from the ceiling, just missing my head.
Then I look at the case in my hand. The glass is shattered.
Very carefully I pick out the jagged shards and sigh with relief to find the butterfly unharmed. That's when I see that the silver pin has fallen out.
I shake the case, but the butterfly lies still.
"Fly!" I laugh.
But I stop with a chill.
Suddenly I know what I have to do.
There's a light on in my apartment. Molly's home, probably crying, waiting for some news of me.
Without a sound I open the door. There are boots on the mat, Armand's, here to comfort her.
But from our bedroom down the hall I hear the sounds of lovemaking, the moans of approaching ecstasy.
For a moment, anger pierces me and I raise the butterfly to smash it on the ground.
But I don't.
Instead, I tiptoe out and close the door behind me.
I sit in the hallway, the case on the floor beside me.
Maybe we can jump together.