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Today's Story by Stuart Hopen

She lights up a cigarette. "That's more intimate than sex."

Serialization Sunday – The Flick: Chapter 35 (Final chapter)

Every Sunday, Fiction365 presents a new chapter in a previously unpublished novel.  Our first novel, the taut thriller City of Human Remainscan be found in full here

Our second novel, Hoodoo, tells a story of visionaries, heretics and lunatics in Utah, centered on a 12-year-old girl who believes that God wants her to have an affair with her guidance counselor, can be found in full here.

Our final novel, The Flick, is the correspondence between a legendary porn star of the 90′s and the girl who got away – and kept going.  Read previous chapters here.

April 1, 1991

I had planned to take the car into town to pick up some groceries from the convenience store.  But someone had slashed the tires.  I ran around the perimeters, looking for a clue.  No one in sight.

Out in the dirt, not far from the main highway, I found fresh tire tracks.  Big fat tires that brought to mind the converted Winabago that takes Fossil Bone studio on the road.  For a minute I felt relieved.  Thinking about the old gang, showing up to surprise us.  Maybe sneaking some shots of hot footage.  But then I remembered my slashed tires.

Maybe it wasn’t the whole gang.  Maybe just one member.  Coming out here all by himself.  Or following Phoenix.

At least Iream was still alive.

To keep Swan from freaking out, I told her we had run out of gas.  She lost her temper, and launched into a great long breathless harangue about my carelessness.  The tongue lashing brought to mind my last days of being in Grace.  Then she really chewed me out.  I took it like a man.

We opened another bottle of Dulcet Lyre.  Swan started drinking.  We walked back to the main road to hitch a ride.  We spent the morning watching the grass get dewy.

Wandering around, looking for a shady covered place to make love, we came on the Firebird.  It was covered by the overhanging branches of a dead eucalyptus.  The windshield had been shattered.  One headlight gone.  Rust spread like a rash over its exposed flanks.  The bullet hole still crowned the hood.  It looked like it could have been crashed and rusting out here since the night Jay ran off and we went looking for him.

Phoenix, I wondered why you had neglected the car so badly.  And I wondered where you were.

When Swan and I came back to the house, we found it humid, musky inside.  The whole place had been softened by long exposure to wetness.

I entered.

Moving through pink corridors.  The passage seemed to widen on contact.

The pink walls quaked.

Swan stopped me suddenly, saying, “Is it just me, or does it feel like someone’s watching?”

“Yeah, that’s what it feels like.  Someone watching, and not just you.”

And that’s what it felt like, Phoenix.

It felt like being watched.

Like me and Swan were being taken into someone’s thoughts.  A consciousness that hung in the air.  Curious.  Something you could almost touch.

“Do you mind being watched?” I asked.

“I guess you are used to it.”


Ghostly flashes of red reflected in Swan’s eyes.

Something red flew past the warped windows.  Like hair blown around.  Or blood seeping into water.

Cobwebs stirred by breath from nowhere.  Like ghost lips blowing ghost kisses.

“If we’re going to be watched, let’s put on a show,” said Swan.

We put on a hell of a show for whoever might be watching.  To shake the shadows.  To make whoever it was come out.

By the time me and Swan trudged back to the dead eucalyptus, we were hazy from drink and afterglow.

Someone had moved the Firebird.

“She was here.  Is she gone?”  Swan, looking at the empty shadows.  “No.  She’s not gone.  Past, present, future.  It is all a fraud.  Everything is eternal.”

“Sounds very Zen to me.”  Zen being a personal code for Bullshit.

“I don’t want to leave.”

“Aren’t you hungry?  I mean, for something that isn’t salami?”

“What did you and Phoenix do for food?”

“There used to be a garden and a fishing pole and tackle and bait.”

“We will find the pole if we look hard.  It still exists, the same as she still exists.”

“You are on quite the Zen jag.”


Who knows when, 1991


We lost track of days.  Stretching out the salami.  Trying to make it sustain us.  Killing time the way you and I used to kill time when we had the place to ourselves.

I never got over the feeling of being watched.  Someone, or something, seemed to be following us.  Everywhere we went.  Everything we did.  Like a prolonged truck shot.

Mostly, it felt like I was being watched by you, Phoenix.  Maybe because I still couldn’t get you out of my mind.  And maybe that’s why I felt like I was inside your mind as well.  It was like Swan and I had fallen into someone else’s consciousness. That consciousness kept opening.  Like the petals of a lotus.  To pull us in deeper.

At first I took some weird comfort in the thought of you watching me.  At least it meant that you were alive.  Somewhere outside my grasp.

Some nights a one eyed car would circle the house.  Sometimes rooms in Lovehollow would fill with brilliant light.  Light from nowhere.

But as the days dragged on, and my head got into stranger modes, I started thinking of ways you might be dead, but still watching anyway.  Gone, but still there.

Swan woke up one morning to find her hair had turned red.  At first she laughed about it.  Then she cried.  What the hell was going on?

“The aftershock of bad nutrition,” I suggested.  “Or being out in the sun.  Years of chemical changes.  Or some other kind of change.”

Somehow, she had made good on her claim.  Somehow, she was turning into you.  It was like someone had been coaching her.  She played you to the hilt.

What Swan had said about the past started to make sense to me.  Maybe it was all the Dulcet Lyre I had been drinking.  Or the way all my blood supply was being continually rerouted away from my brain.

I understood her.  A new Phoenix.  Reborn.  I put on the greatest performance of my career.  It felt like we were creating something between us.  Something … I don’t know… eternal.

As the intensity increased between me and Swan, so did the feeling of being watched.  Maybe it was the way Swan always seemed to play to unseen cameras.  We didn’t mind.  Swan acquired a kind of radiance that went beyond beauty.  Like she was leaving an imprint on nature with sheer perfection.  Like a masterpiece painting that can survive without its canvas.

Someone else had entered the house.  I was certain.  Maybe more than one person.  Watching.  I could feel it.  And more than just watching.  It felt like Swan and me were being watched and changing whoever was watching us.  We were being watched and being remembered.  Really remembered.  Locked in memory.

Like being filmed.

Yeah, it felt like we were being filmed.  Like there was a crew hidden somewhere.  The masters of camouflage.  Infused into the walls.  In the air.  Recording not just our words.  Our acts.  Also our thoughts.  A phantom movie.  One that shows everything.  Nothing hidden.  Like the flick they hit you with when your life is over.

I kept scoping out the shadows.  Looking for the Cyclops.


I woke up in the middle of the night, dazed.  Alone.  Drunk, weak and delirious from hunger and sperm depletion.

I called out for Swan.  I don’t know where she went.

I walked around in the darkness for awhile.  Looking for her.  Something about the house had changed.  Strange shapes appeared in the whorls of wood grain.  Skulls.  Tombstones.  My frame of mind.  Looking at the world the way a zombie sees it.  I wondered if I was sleep walking.

In the living room, someone had started a fire.  Floor boards had been pulled up.  They’d been thrown into the flames.  Someone feeding the house into its own gullet.

Then I saw a form slumped over in the chair, facing away from me.  Slumped in an odd, off kilter way.  Sweaty red hair flowed down the like dried blood from a head wound.


Your voice answered me, Phoenix.


But the word didn’t come from the person on the chair.  I couldn’t place the direction the sound came from.  Maybe my own head.


“Die.”  This time it sounded like a man’s voice.

The figure in the chair turned to face me.  Head craning around, without rising from the chair.  As the head swiveled around, the red hair crept up the chair’s back.


Red hair fell over the face.

For a second, I thought I had found Swan.

Then a man’s face peered at me through the curtain of the red wig.  Someone wearing a mask, one of those porno masks.

An Iream Insider mask.

“Do you know the number of the Phoenix?”

What was he trying to do?  The question seemed meaningless.  But it bothered me because it was so carefully crafted.  Designed to make me freak.  So I did the opposite.  I calculated my answer.  “People usually pick 3 when given a choice.  3 would fit.  Phoenix and the two men she is usually playing with at any given time to keep her options open.  But her number could be 2.  The Phoenix who was dead and the one reborn?  Or are you after her phone number?”

“4.  The 4 stages of alchemical transformation.  Also the 4 of us.”

“I’m not good at math.  I always thought numbers were so named because they make people numb.”

“The number is 4.  It was supposed to have been a swap.  Didn’t you come out here to complete our swap?”


He asked, “What do the Swan and the Phoenix have in common?”

At least it wasn’t another math question.  I answered with a gesture that seemed to offend him.

And he said, like he was correcting my answer, “The Swan, with its death song of awesome beauty, is the same as desire which brings about its own end.”

Something about the way he used words.  His style.  A kind of signature.  At that moment, I felt like I had stepped into one of your lies, Phoenix.  That you had enlisted some guy to play a part.

I put on a tough guy posture.   A kind of threat in my voice.  “So where are they?  Where are Phoenix and Swan?

“Do you believe in magic?”


“You should.  We are going to use magic to correct a mistake.  It was supposed to have been a swap.  But you took Phoenix.  And you took Swan.  And you took Faith, too.”

“Faith?  Who is Faith?  I’ve never had a Faith in my life.”

“Things are not what they seem.”

“They never are.”

In a perfect imitation of Jay’s voice he said, “All these years we were friends, and you don’t know me.”

He took off his mask.

I studied the face.  Contours changing in the dim flickering.  Who was he?  Then something that sort of looked like Jay’s face kept flashing through the spastic shadows.  But Jay’s face, kind of fuzzy, out of focus.  Something weird had altered the features.  Like wires under the skin.  Or field surgery.

He rose up from the chair.  Slowly.  Weakly.  He pulled off the red wig.

“I am Jay.”

It was such a convincing imitation, that for a moment, I accepted it.  Jay.  Possessing someone.  Who?

But then my head defaulted back to a rational explanation.  “Iream.  You’re Iream, using disguises to fuck with my head.”

“No, really.  I am Jay.”

He made a very convincing Jay.

No wonder you got so freaked out, Phoenix.

He said, “It was easy to move in on John Holmes.  He was an empty house.  A non-person.  Changing identities all the time.  Like a Lovehollow.  Empty.  Waiting for someone to take possession.  Phoenix helped things along with her story.  She gave him the role.  You pushed it even more when you took his woman.  Suddenly, we had a lot in common. I am Jay.  Let me prove it to you by telling you something only Jay would know.”

“Like what?

“You believed that story Phoenix told you?  You believed she slashed her wrists because I screwed her and told her about my disease.  You believe the experience changed her forever, gave her religion, and she had been waiting for you take her back, and to forgive her.  After all these years.”

“Did Phoenix put you up to this?”

“I’m not the monster Phoenix tried to make me out to be.  I never raped Phoenix.  That night, she lied about being raped, and you, you dumb ass, threw me into a patch of needles that caused my death.  Take that day I showed up in Hightstown.  Okay, I tried to seduce her, like she said.  I tried tears and hysterics, I tried threats and guilt.  Shit, I even offered her money.  We cried together.  She told you that part right.  We reminisced about the old days.  But she wouldn’t give in to me.  No matter what I did.  She said she was afraid, for my sake.  She told me everything about her affair with you, Die.  Everything, including lots and lots of things she hid from you, Die.  The truth comes out.  She had been cheating on you.  Lots and lots of times in Hightstown.  Many other lovers.  Just as you always suspected.

“She was convinced that she had contracted AIDS.   Not from me, mind you.  I tried to calm her down, but she wouldn’t listen.  She thought she had AIDS because she was fucking around on you every chance she got.  It was a delusion, on account of guilt.  That’s why she tried to kill herself.  That’s who you’ve been eating your heart out over.  Liar, whore.  I once said she was a goddess, but she’s a demon.  All these years, that’s who you’ve been in love with.  A demon whore.  That’s who you sold out our friendship for.”

It seemed true. And I thought maybe it is something he knows because he really is Jay.  And maybe it is something Phoenix confessed to him.  But it felt like the truth.  The long standing and hidden truth.

I said, “It doesn’t matter.  If you’re telling the truth, if Phoenix really fucked around on me and lied, I forgive her.  And if you’re lying, making this up, then fuck you.  If you’re trying to break my heart before you do whatever it is you’re planning, then fuck you again.  It didn’t work.  Once I made a promise to Phoenix that I would always forgive her.  No matter what happens.  I broke that promise to her in the past, but I’ll never break it again.  I’ll give her what I promised, what I have been stuck with all these years, though she didn’t know it.  Pure blinding love.  Absolute love, in the deepest meaning of the word.   That’s what I feel for Phoenix.  No matter how many lies it takes, no matter how many games we have to play.”

Now it was his turn to look confused.  Disoriented.  Like an actor when a role was finished, trying to figure out where he misplaced his identity.  He said, “Didn’t you come out here to complete our swap?  I’m sorry that I seem to shy of one woman, at the moment, but she took off.  Maybe she will come back.”

He hit me with my own lines.  A kind of intimacy I didn’t want with this stranger who probably was John Holmes, Iream Insider, and Mr. XXX.  All of them together.  And Jay Fortunata.  Whoever he was, he knew me.  He knew me inside and out.  This was a show of how deep he had gotten into my head.

And I had this awful sense that I was dealing with a vastly superior mind.  In a game with rules I couldn’t understand.  I said, “God, I’m sorry.  I really am.  Okay, I’ll go along with your game.  You’re Jay, right?”

The best way to deal with Jay’s games, or Iream’s games, is to play along.  The games usually don’t stop until he thinks he’s won.  Until he’s nabbed his goal.  The whole thing had gotten too unreal for me.  A trial by bullshit.  Disorienting.  A lucid dream.  But the whole thing seemed to have been carefully constructed.  Manipulated by an outside source.  Like a well done scam.

I tried to figure out how to play his game.  Read the clues.  Find Phoenix.  And Swan.  Save us all.

I thought I saw something in this stranger that could be Iream Insider, and beneath I saw delinquent remnants of Jay Fortunata.  But beneath all the masks, I saw someone older there.  Insidious.  Someone ancient, a victim.

“Where is Phoenix?”

Nothing felt real.  It was a funny kind of shift of consciousness.  Trying to make sense of it all.  I was ready to believe anything.

“She was supposed to go to me, but she only wanted to go to Die.  That’s where she went.  To the end she wanted.  To go to Die.  And my end is nothing.”  He opened his shirt.  Revealing a black circle.  A crust of blood just below the clavicle.  He picked at it tentatively.

“She shot you.  She really did it.”

“I all ready got my revenge.”

I felt my heart stop.  “You killed her.”

He kept picking at the black circle on his chest.  Suddenly the scab tore loose.  Blood pumped from hole.  At first, it shocked the hell out of me.  And I thought, shit, what’s keeping him going.  Insanity?  Dumb luck?  Adrenaline?

Maybe just stage magic.  Maybe he used a trick to fool you into thinking you had shot him, Phoenix.

Then live spiders began to crawl out of the pumping chest wound.  If it was stage magic, it was a hell of an effect.

I sat there wishing for you to be alive.  Wishing.  I even started to pray.  At that point, I felt like someone had unglued the atoms of my brain.  I would have accepted whatever he asked of me, would have believed any lies, no matter how ridiculous.  Anything at all, just so that you would still be alive.

He said to me, “Pay attention.  I said, I already got my revenge.”

“I heard you.”

“You blew your line.  Your line is, I hadn’t noticed.  Say, I hadn’t noticed.”

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“I killed you.”

I laughed.  Long.  Hysterically.  Mad, rushing gasps of laughter.  The moment plunged me into depths of absurdity and terror so profoundly disorienting that I was laughing and trembling at the same time, that I thought I had gone mad.

On cue, I responded, “So I’m dead.  What, like right now?  None of this is real?”

“I’ve hunted you down just to let you know one thing…  I’m not going to hurt you.   You are forgiven.”

Now I was convinced.  “Did Phoenix put you up to this?  Just like old times.  Not only does she lie to me all the time, she gets all my friends to tell her lies to me.  Is this her idea of how to give me a religious experience?  Haunt me with an old horror plot.  Terrify me with a cheap device.  Show me a holy ghost who says I am forgiven.”

“So what does Phoenix mean to you?”

Was he trying to prove that he was really Jay by invoking all these words from my past?  So that I would believe in magic.  But they weren’t Jay’s lines that he was delivering.  It was like a Miranda warning.  Everything I had said was used against me.

“Everything.  Absolutely everything.  The only trouble is, with Phoenix, you don’t know what is real and what isn’t.  She doesn’t even know.  And that’s what’s so terrible about her.  But that’s what’s so entertaining.  I’m almost to the point where I don’t care if it’s true, or real.  I’m hooked on the way she lies.  I don’t want the real world anymore.”

“I’ll bet I could interest you in a swap.”  Spoken as if playing to unseen cameras.  Like he had taken over the part of Director.  It was his show.

“Not for anything.  Not even for my life.”

He smiled.  It was Jay’s old smile, when he’s fucking with your head.  “What if that is the only way you can be with her?”


“Let me take your life.”

“She’s dead?”

“Give me your life, all of it.  I can be you.  You can be me.  Give me your life.  Your name.  Your woman.  Everything.  Hold nothing back.”

I knew just how Jay felt that night in Lovehollow.  “This has been a swapping scheme, all along.  Whether you realize it or not.  It’s Phoenix’s doing.  Something she orchestrated and pulled you into.”

“Let me take your life.”

“If we swap lives and I am dead and you are me, then you’ll be the one who has to keep the promise.  You’ll have to resurrect me.”  I felt a bond to this stranger.  The bond shared by men who love the same woman.  A bond to this stranger.  And Iream.  And Jay.  Like we had all been consumed by you, Phoenix.  All burnt up and remade in the same fire.

“Where will it end?”

I caught myself believing in the unbelievable.  In the utterly ridiculous.  Terrifying and funny at the same time.  I might just as easily have been trapped inside my own skull, hallucinating on the chemical changes brought about by decay.  Confronting myself.

I hesitate to tell you the next part, Phoenix.  You might think that nothing would ever make me give up the life I have.

I said to him, “Go ahead.  Take my life.  It’s yours.”

I hesitate to tell you this because you might wonder if the life he took is the life I want to make with you.  You might even think he wrote this letter.  If I showed up on your doorstep and said I was John Holmes, just an ordinary law student kind of guy and not a famous porn star, would you love me like you love Dieter Smith?

He took my life.

Die Smiling died smiling, but lives on, played by someone who might be anyone at all.  Reunited with the woman he loves, starring in the story of their lives.

I am telling you everything.  So you will know what I have given up for you.

I’m coming for you, Phoenix.  I’m coming.

I finally saw what you wanted me to see, and I finally believe what you want me to believe.  With a cheap horror plot.  You got me to accept a ghost.  You swallowed me in your tale.

Is it magic?  A way to erase all the mistakes we made with each other.  Start fresh.  Go back to the beginning.

I love you enough to go mad with you.  Play to your hallucinations.  Reshape our world through by pretending.  If that is the only way I can undo all the past mistakes.  I love you enough to tell you any lies you want to hear just so we can be together.  I love you enough to let go of my obsession of always telling the truth.  I don’t know what is real any more, to tell the truth.  So that I have let you do what you wanted.

This is my end.  I let you destroy me.  I have to be with you.  The only way I can live.  I’m coming.  Back to where we started.

At this point, I’m going to lay down my tool, my writing tool.  Lay it down and let it lie.  I’ll walk up the stairs.  I’ll find you there, staring out the window.  I’m going to put my hand on your shoulder, and you’re going to say, “Don’t touch me.”

And I’m going to say, “I wish you and I had started differently.”

And then we do it.  We start all over again.


June 16, 1985

As Phoenix watches the Firebird drive off, her lower lip begins to tremble.  Tears flow, not so much from fear, or sorrow, or shame, but from a deep sense of having gambled boldly, heavily, and with great conviction upon an utter mistake.  Feeling stoned, drunk, stupid and humiliated, she suddenly notices Die’s hand upon her shoulder, placed there for support and comfort.  He presses closer, bringing her skin against the grain of a fifty year old shark skin jacket.

“Don’t touch me,” she hisses.

“I wish you and I had started differently.”

Her fingers tangle and twist her red hair, until her hands snag, caught fast.  She pulls and screams, “Stupid.  Stupid.  Stupid.  Stupid.”

“Are you talking to me?”

She sobers.  “One for you.  Three for myself.”

“What can I do to help?”

“Nothing, unless you have cigarettes.”

Up the stairs she drifts; her ascension passes a gallery of skewed paintings, portraits of generations of slave owners, but only men.  Locked within their frames, dressed in military regalia, these men, watch her accusingly, as if Jay were looking through their dead painted eyes.  She feels Jay’s eyes upon her, watching from a place unknown.

“My entire carton of cigarettes left with the Firebird– along with everything else– my man, my purse, my cash, my credit cards, my clothes, my money, my tampons.  Even my toothbrush.”

“I’m sorry.”

“For the moment, the greatest loss I feel is for the cigarettes.  Will you help me look around?  Even a butt will do.  I want to get out of here before Jay gets back.”

“Jay won’t come back.”

“Yes he will.  And he’ll kill us both.”

“Did he really rape you?”

“You wouldn’t believe me, no matter what I said.”

“I’ll believe you, I promise, no matter what.”

“Even if I lie?”  Look, I’m getting out of here.  Even if I have to hitchhike home.”

“There’s a bus stop in town.  It’s a twenty mile walk. Are you up for it?  I’ll go with you.  If you want.  I’m headed that way.  I guess I should go looking for Jay.  I should find him. I have to talk to him.”

“He’ll try to kill you, too.  He has wanted to kill you for a long time.”

“He’s out there.  Alone.  In the darkness.  Hurt.  Don’t you care?”

“You’ll never find him.  Fuck him.  He’s the one who ran off.”

“I’ll find him.”

“Let him kill you, then.  I’ve had it with both of you.  I just want to go home.”

“Go if you want to.  Fine.  I’m going to hunt for Jay.  I’ll drop you at the bus station.  I’ll even buy the bus ticket for you.”

“I’ll pay you back.  I’ll send the money.”

“I even know where there are some cigarettes.”

She softens.  “Bless you, Dieter Smith.”

He conducts her to a closet full of old clothes from the forties.  Most are still crisp, only worn a few times.  They would be in perfect condition, if not for the errant nibbling of moths and termites, and the hard black droppings of roaches and vermin which fall like wedding rice every time the racks are disturbed.  Die opens a drawer in a Victorian vanity, and extracts a pack of Lucky Strikes.  He tosses it to Phoenix.

She examines the unbroken foil.  “Not usually a brand I care for, but one aptly named for the circumstances.”

“God knows how long it has been there.  Do you need a match?”

“At least Jay didn’t run off with my lighter.”  She kindles the ancient tobacco.  “Stale, but not bad.”  She takes a deep drag. “Stale, but satisfying.  Stale, but most welcome.

Tire tracks lead Phoenix and Die down a back woods road.  As they walk, they find Jay’s ragged trail.  He marked his passage in ripped dirt, until he hit the tarmac of the interstate, where his trail was scorched.  Deep streaks of rubber veer off toward a fork.  Then the track of the Firebird vanishes.

Dust motes stream in the moon light.  Die stares into the black on black of the highway.  When a lone headlight begins to approach from the distance, Die looks relieved, as if it were only logical that Jay would come back this way at this time at the exact moment as he and Phoenix appeared.

Die tries to wave down the approaching car, but it whips past.

Speaking to himself, Die mutters, “Where do I go from here?  What the hell am I supposed to do about Jay?”

She replies, “Let Jay do whatever the hell he wants to do.  He’ll do it anyway.  If he’s dead, let him be dead.”

She wears a dead woman’s tennis outfit, taken from the closet, fringed in the distinctive lace of grazing moths.  She looks like old photographs of her mother.  Also dressed for tennis of a by-gone age, Die nearly transcends his trailer park and roust-about heritage.

“I wish I could change the way things worked out,” he says.

“Jay and I were headed for a break up, one way or another.  I used you in an unfair fashion, pulled you into a conflict in which really had nothing to do with you.  I hid behind you, to commit the unpleasant deed.  This love affair, which endured little more than a year, has been dying of slow degrees; like a beast being pummeled to death– at first it clings to life, maybe it even tries to fight back, but then it begins to enjoy the conflict, even the pain.  It thrashes about for the longest time, its organs so charged with agony it doesn’t know it is dead.  Next time I fall in love, I swear, I will go for the jugular at the first sign of failure.”

“No.  You have to work at love.”

“How would you know?”

“Did Jay tell you I’ve never been in love?”

“He did.  And I have insight.”

“Well, I’m in love with you.”

Phoenix rolls her eyes and reaches for another cigarette.

“How could we ever be together?  I can’t live in your reality.  You can’t live in mine.”

“We will make up our own.”

They walk on the highway, following the broken trail of dashes on the center lane.  Bits of animals, bits of cars lie in the gutter.

Die finally says, “A few hours ago, when you proposed… you know what… my mouth just went dry.  My heart was beating so fast, I thought I was going to pass out.  That’s why I just stood there and let you and Jay fight it out.  I should have kept right on joking and broken the tension, and let the three of us laugh it off, but I froze.  I guess I was hoping Jay would say yes– even though I knew there was no way in hell.”

“If Jay had said yes, I would have made the joke and called the whole thing off.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“I’m not that easy.  You think you can just wag your big cock at me, and cast ‘come hither’ looks in my direction?  You think I’m going to fuck you for bus fare and a pack of cigarettes, and a half assed protestation of love?”

“How about if I buy you breakfast?”

They stroll into a two block area that passes for a town: a convenience store, a post office, a bus station, a Laundromat, a restaurant and a hardware store.  By this time, it is about four a.m.  Light from the buzzing neon of a truck stop sign fills the streets with a glow that seems to be the distillation of uncountable churchless Sundays; it makes the town seem empty, morose, and haunted.

A pink neon sign flashes nervously, loud mouthed and self conscious, over the restaurant.  It bears the strange name, “The Famous House of Shells.  Never Closed.”  But part of the lights had burned out, so that it said, “Eamous House of Hell.  ever lose.”  Another part of the sign said “Lobster Pound.”

“So what is a lobster pound?” asks Die, “A home for lost lobsters?”

He holds open for Phoenix a swinging screened door.

Die asks, “Has a dark haired guy about my age come through here?  His name is Jay Fortunata.”

“The only Jay in here is a lobster.”

Phoenix glanced continually at the door, afraid of who might enter.  She gave a start every time the restaurant windows streaked with passing headlights; she shuddered at the rumble of each passing car.

“The bus station doesn’t open for another hour.”

“I’m hungry,” said Phoenix.  “I want the lobster named Jay.”

Die and Phoenix examine the lobsters crawling lazily in a tank framed by cataract yellow glass.  An army surplus pump, caked with decades of rust, emits a steady stream of bubbles.  The lobsters dance provocatively with sea weed rhythms, unwittingly provoking appetite.

The bald, aproned man behind the counter, the owner or manager or attendant, extracts a lobster from the tank.  The lobster named Jay.  There is a fish hook embedded in its shell, like the letter J with a point.

“These are African lobsters,” said the man.  “I charge seven dollars a pound for African Lobsters to go, and an extra three dollars each if y’all want to eat them here.”      Holding the lobster by its active claws, the man uses it as a living diagram.  “These two grabber things on top are full of tender meat.  Very tasty,” he says, “So is the tail.  Then you suck out the meat inside the legs, and if you reach in the middle here, you can eat the insides.  You wouldn’t think the insides can be eaten cause of the way it looks.  But the insides are very tender.”  He runs his finger along the lobster’s belly, which must tickle because the tail curls upward. The lobster’s eyes bitterly regard the spectators.  Jay Fortunata seemed to watching from everywhere, from the void in which he had vanished.  Jay seemed to be watching through the stalked eyes of his lobster namesake.

Die looks back at the tank.  The curious lobsters paddle over to examine their examiner.

The next time we see the lobsters, they are red and boiled.

“Will that be for here or to go?” asks the man.

Die turns to Phoenix, “If we spend the extra six dollars to eat here, I won’t have enough for your bus fare.”

“To go,” says Phoenix.

Along the road, she tries to read the signs left by many treads, searching for a trail that has special meaning for her, a set of hieroglyphs that turn and double back.  They wander over to the bus station, where Die buys a ticket to Princeton.  They settle down on a hard, splintering bench to dine upon shell fish and say good-bye.

The ticket-seller begins to shout from behind his cage.  “God damn can’t eat in here.  What do you think this place is?  A restaurant?”

“Give us a break,” says Die.

“You can pay three bucks a piece — the going rate to eat in this town.”

“That’s what the restaurant charges.  You have less ambiance,” says Phoenix.

“This place is a bus station, Ma’am.  Don’t want you eatin’ in here no how.”

He sends them out to their eternal moment, to the Laundromat.  That is where they come.

Seated atop a green enameled washer, Die extracts the two deceased crustaceans from their white bag.  He tests them with his fingertips.

“They’re cold,” he says.

“Let’s heat them up.”  She grabs the lobsters from his hands and throws them into a near-by drier.  “Give me a dime.”

He flips a coin to her.

Shells rattle and crack as the lobsters spin in their hot air vortex.

“The butter is hard.”  He holds up two plastic containers capped with lids.

She grabs the containers from his hands and throws the butter in the drier as well.

Die says, “I’m saying good-bye to someone I don’t know very well, but feel like I’ve known for ages.  I’m not going to say that I love you again.  It sounds too needy.  I’m going to miss you, that’s all. I’m really sorry you’re leaving.”

“I’m not.  I can’t wait to be gone.”

“You know what I wish.  I wish I could write with you.  Maybe we could try to collaborate by mail.”

She lights up a cigarette.  “That’s more intimate than sex.”

“That’s the idea; to break the loneliness.  Aren’t you lonely?”

She takes a hard drag on her cigarette.  “Sometimes.”

“I lost my best friend last night.”

“And you can know no happiness but in the society of one with whom you can forever indulge the melancholy that has taken possession of your soul?”

“I fell in love with you.  I promised Jay I wouldn’t.  I promised…”

“You didn’t do anything wrong.  This is all my fault.  You and Jay will work it out, somehow, when he comes back.”

At the rear of the store, a white form stirred.  The far wall seemed to billow, waves of motion rolling over its surface.  A lace canopy, just like the one in Lovehollow, had been draped over a clothesline.  It hung as if waiting to dry, though it was dry all ready, and covered with dust.  It was as dusty as the canopy in Lovehollow.

“Jay will never forgive me,” says Die.

“Why not?”

“He knows I gave up looking for him when he was in trouble.  He knows I’m going to take the thing he cares about most.  He knows I’m going to betray him.  Completely.  He knows what is going to happen between us just as surely as if he doubled back and followed us the whole way.  Just as if he were here in the shadows, watching.  He knows.”

“The only Jay here is the lobster.”

“Well, let’s put on a show.”

He kisses her.  She doesn’t resist, returning a long, open, romantic kiss.

“I really don’t want to deal with this,” she says when she comes up for air.  “I do not.  I don’t.”

“At some point in our lives, we’re going to have to deal with this thing between us.  I’m not going to forget about you.  I haven’t figured out how I’m going to chase you if you go out the door and get on that bus, but I will think of something.  Why not get it over with?”

“On one condition…”

“I love you, I all ready said it.”

“If things turn out badly, promise you’ll forgive me.  If I lie, if I betray you, with one man or a hundred, promise you’ll forgive me.”

“I promise.”

“Even if I go back to Jay…”


“If I destroy your life, promise…”

“I’ll forgive you.  No matter what happens.  I’ll always forgive you.”

“I’m not going to let you fuck me in exchange for some half hearted promise of a watered down version of love that’s only fifteen proof.  It has to be the real thing, pure, blinding, love.  Absolute love, in the deepest meaning of the word, no matter how many lies it takes, no matter how many games we have to play.  We sacrificed Jay so that we could have this moment.  And if you don’t give me what I demand, I will sacrifice you, and sacrifice myself.  Do you understand me?”

He stares at her, bewildered, frightened, but unable to back away.

“All right,” she says, shrugging.  “Let’s get it out of our systems and proceed with our lives.”  She crushes out her burning Lucky on the green enamel.

Die and Phoenix fall upon an enormous cushion of abandoned laundry; a bed of silk scarves, chiffons, and decorated panties.

Die makes love just like Jay.  He leads Phoenix into an easy, familiar rhythm.  She had rehearsed this first coupling hundreds of times in Jay’s arms.  Perhaps the origin of this similarity between Die and Jay stems from a shared karmic identity, the source of his friendship in the first place.  Perhaps it is because Die and Jay had both been trained by a number of the same women.  The two of them spent most of their time talking about sex and comparing notes, and perhaps it was that.

Time falls in and out of joint, an expanse of silken, curvilinear rigidity.  Through extraordinary affinity or instinct, they know how to move to one another, like dancers of honed artistry, balancing improvisation and tradition.  It is as though his touch has revived some primordial and dormant organ of sense… like the ampulla of Lorenzini that alerts the shark to the organic electricity of his sustenance.

His hips rotate in synchronicity with hers, to the rhythm of gaudy swirls of color and pattern, spinning in the dryer windows, in sync with the wet rainbows churning on a hard axis in an open washer.  Sloshing eruptions of sea foam cascade around them.  Their limbs tangle together, bound by scarves and velvets, laces and taffeta garters.

The quirky structure of their odd and wayward union drives away distractions and focuses full attention on the wonderment of what is happening– the augmentation of all that is missing within themselves, the ingredients of a higher potential.

The lobster named Jay spins in a circular journey, trapped in the burning air, forced to watch until a spurt of hot butter smears the drier window.

Two white hands grab the dusty lace canopy hazy sheet draped over the clothesline in the rear of the store.  Suddenly, the canopy seems to fling itself across the room, as if revealing a secret with a conjurer’s gesture.  The sheet billows toward the couple, then lands in a cascade upon them, like a parachute at journey’s end.  It shakes onto them all the dust and poisons that had built up over time.  They vanish within the cloud.

Phoenix screams.  Then her voice drops to a whisper.  “Don’t move.  Don’t.”

As the dust congeals, black flecks appear; splattered across two bodies, as if someone has whipped a fountain pen in their direction.  The lace sheet had yielded a precipitate of dust.  Dust.  And something else that had been up there for a very long time.

At least three of the splatter shapes are caught in Die’s hair.  They struggle there, caught in dark knots, wriggling the crimson hour-glass markings on their bellies.

Die cranes his head around, searching the shadows.  “Jay?  Are you there?  Don’t do this to us… help us…”  But there is no answer.

She is afraid to speak; afraid to move; afraid to even tremble.

Twenty or more black widow spiders scurry like contagion over Die, an animated pox, tracing cursive patterns in the dust.


No answer.

“I won’t let go of her, Jay.  No matter what.  You can’t make me let go.  And if you can see us…”

His eyes glaze with unreadable emotion.

Running footfalls patter through the Laundromat.  Shadows scurry.  Is it someone arriving or departing?  Outside, the ignition of a car turns over with a familiar stammer.  It sounds as if Jay has decided to leave them to their fate, but it feels as if he still lingers.  It feels as if he is staring at them.

Die’s gluteus muscles tense and constrict.  Die and Phoenix look like statues of themselves, dusted, like angels, mating upon a cloud.  Droplets of sweat trace veins of marbling over their skin.

He does it to her again, a glacial push, while the widows explore their new territory, searching for their rent webs.  Nothing will make him let go.  She moans and weeps, and he continues to love her again and again, slowly, patiently, bravely, as venom scampers over them.  An extraction of his entire length is followed by a slow stab down to the hilt– each stroke taking a full minute.  The widows comb through follicle jungles; over cheeks, over breasts, up and down legs, pacing the steady rhythms of their gigantic hosts.  Their touch is as soft as the wind.

She feels little stabs of intoxicating poison.  Giddy, drunk on venom, she begins to lose all sense of identity.  She feels that Jay is near by, still following her, a part of her.  She can almost smell him.  She feels his eyes upon her as she drifts off to a different kind of existence.  He has brought her to this end, and he can watch it if he wants.  She is with exactly who she wants to be with in her ultimate moment.

He says, “Take my life.  Twist it to your own end.”

“No…” she cries.  “No… not yet.”  Light, like a candle invades her, its illumination flooding her interior, a hot point of wetness, and a dribble like molten wax.

“I’m not finished, he whispers.  He holds firm, riding the whirlwind he has sown.  It happens again and again.  They endure, transformed like angels, not they themselves, but the idea of them, naked to the world, their mortal portions eaten away, their moment preserved, their flick.  Their story is an old one, and not unique.  But the story belongs to them, as does the moment, whether they are engaged through their senses, or through memory, or through surrogates.

It will never end between Die and Phoenix, whether they survive or not, even if there is nothing left of them but an obscene film, their outlaw ghosts laid to rest, together.



Stuart Hopen’s writing has been published by various comic book companies, including D.C., Marvel, Eclipse, Amazing, and Fantagraphics. His science fiction novel, “Warp Angel”, originally published by Tor Books, has been reissued by the Misenchanted Press in a newly revised edition, available in trade paperback and ebook format through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.  His critical writing for Rain Taxi Review of Books can be found at:


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