Bodies and Soulsby John Rechy
“Rechy is very good at evoking the seamier side of the streets, and he is masterful in funny, graphic sex scenes.” —Publishers Weekly
“Rechy is very good at evoking the seamier side of the streets, and he is masterful in funny, graphic sex scenes.” —Publishers Weekly
An exceptional novel from the best-selling author of the modern classic City of Night, Bodies and Souls is a portrait of modern Los Angeles on an epic scale, “the most spiritual and physical of cities.” Gorgeous, seedy, and striving, the Los Angeles of Rechy’s imagination is a magnetic city that draws to it the nation’s brightest and darkest energies—characters that include a female porn superstar; a young Chicano punk-rock fan; a Bel Air matron and her tyrannical husband, a Supreme Court judge; an aging male stripper; a black maid with apocalyptic visions; and a cynical TV anchorwoman. Through this rich tapestry of human struggle, Rechy paints a lush portrait of a paradise lost but also a heroic odyssey in search of redemption.
“A memorable feast . . . powerful, chilling, moving . . . extraordinary.” —Los Angeles Times
“Masterful . . . one of the most important novels of the year.” —Dallas Times Herald
“There’s so much energy, ambition, and humor in Bodies and Souls that the phrase ‘scarred beauty’ might well describe the novel.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Brilliant portraits of modern lives . . . superb.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Rechy is very good at evoking the seamier side of the streets, and he is masterful in funny, graphic sex scenes.” —Publishers Weekly
Lost Angels: 1
Ten days before the slaughter on the freeways, and on an afternoon in late spring, early summer, Orin, Lisa, and Jesse James stood before the gates of an abandoned mansion on Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Many tourists milled about the notorious house. From behind the elaborate gates, burly guards stared at the gathered spectators.
Although unpredictable, June is often murky, even cool; but a Southern California day can go through a mild version of the four seasons—the blue coolness of morning moving to sweaty warmth. Today in that seasonless month, a breeze containing a hint of heat kept the smog against the watery horizon of an azure sky.
“It reminds me of Tara in Gone with the Wind,” Lisa said. She had just turned eighteen. She had a prettiness saved from cuteness and nudged toward beauty by a full, sensual mouth. She had cultivated a crooked half-smile like Lauren Bacall’s in To Have and Have Not.
“You’re crazy,” Jesse James laughed. The jagged angles of his twenty-one-year-old face gave him a composite handsomeness his individual features did not possess.
Under his cowboy hat, darkish hair licked his forehead. He opened another button of his shirt, exposing his chest to more sun. “Gone with the Wind had tall columns, and it sure didn’t have those statues.”
Beyond the iron-grill fencing of intricate fleurs-de-lis looping over stone-embossed walls, the mansion is painted green, smeared now by buried smoke. A large tree, killed by fire, lies over a long veranda. Statues of naked bodies line the cracked balustrade, muscular figures of men, curved bodies of women, almost life-size, once painted in flesh tones, with rosy lips and cheeks and eyelashed tinted eyes, and pubic hair, drawn black and realistic. Now the colored bodies are faded; only the painted hair over exposed genitals remains bold and dark. Defiantly the mansion faces the strip of coiffed grass that divides the wide boulevard as it curves and swerves along miles of green, flowered wealth and stops far away in Malibu at the frothing edge of the Pacific Ocean.
Jesse James grasped the iron bars of the main gate, as if looking into an opulent prison, A guard approached, and he let go. In substitute defiance, he pushed his cowboy hat forward, squinting up. His brown eyes fixed on the crotch of one of the female statues; he felt a stirring between his long, lean legs.
“I didn’t say it looks like the house in Gone with the Wind, I said it reminds me,” Lisa upheld. She took another delicious lick, close to the last, of a Baskin-Robbins ice-cream cone, flavor of the week, vanilla-pistachio. Some of it dripped onto her chest; she captured the melting sweetness with a finger and poked it into her mouth. Her breasts were becoming roundly full; because she was slender, and shorter than the five-foot-six she claimed, they appeared lush. She was blessed with truly violet eyes—and thick dark eyelashes, although her hair, worn loose and to her shoulders, was brown, auburn in spring, streaked blond by summer. In Mundelein, Illinois, she had wanted to be a movie star; she no longer cared about that, or about anything else. “Doesn’t it remind you of Gone with the Wind?” she asked Orin.
Orin stood very straight glaring at the gutted mansion—as close as he could come to it from the sidewalk. There were times when he looked like a grown Huckleberry Finn—reddish blond hair, mischievous blue eyes, lanky angular body neither short nor tall, just slightly too thin, a fair, almost translucent complexion unmarred by freckles. Then unexpectedly a somber look might push away the boyish smile, extend the tilt of his eyes–suddenly haunted eyes—and dark semicircles would deepen under them; a moody beauty would emerge, along with the impression of darkness—despite the glowing hair, the clear eyes so moistly blue at times they seemed to weep without tears. Approaching twenty-five, he aged or grew younger in alternating moods. Now he stared intensely at the naked statues on the aging lawn. His fair eyebrows knotted. In answer to Lisa’s question, he shrugged and shook his head.
“My God, you didn’t see it?” Lisa said. “I thought everybody had.” She took the last bite of her cone, not swallowing it, letting the cream thaw slowly in her mouth, preserving the wonderful flavor. What it was gone, she said, “I’d like to go through all thirty-one Baskin-Robbins flavors.” She tasted her lips for any lingering sweetness. “Wouldn’t it be something to change names, like the ice-cream flavor of the week? Could I change my name each day, Orin?” she asked.
“Sure,” Orin said. His eyes were just slightly too large for his lean face, but the square jaw compensated for that disparity. Often when he smiled, his whole face was radiant with life. Other times only his lips smiled. He smiled fully now.
“Thank you,” Lisa said. She lowered the white-embroidered blouse at the shoulders. Her young breasts vied favorably with those of the sculpted women on the lawn of the rich mansion.
Jesse felt a smarting resentment. They had been together two days and one night since Orin had stopped the old, beautiful Cadillac—one of the first of the finned models—to pick him up in the Texas-New Mexico desert. He’d jumped in next to Lisa, delighted by her prettiness. Jesse learned Orin had stopped for Lisa—her brand-new suitcase beside her—just outside Chicago only a few days before that. In their time together, Lisa had never asked Jesse for an opinion. But she asked Orin for permission sometimes. What would Cagney—Cody, Cody Jarrett—what would he do in such a situation? Jesse had discovered Cagney, Cody, and White Heat on television; he saw the movie once again, in a theater, and would have gone back again and again but it played only that day, once.
A nervous breeze was becoming warmer. Jesse felt moisture grow under his arms. He opened another button. He wasn’t sure what Orin’s reaction would be if he took off his shirt.
There was not a trace of perspiration on Orin, although he wore a light, gray jacket over his white shirt—one button open. His eyes seemed to bore into the mansion, as if to perceive its essence within the scorched gaudy grandeur, the meaning in its disorder.
The original house was white. Then a few years ago an Arabian sheik bought it for his pretty teenage bride. He paid two and a half million dollars for it and spent several million more to convert it into the assaulting palace. It was painted the color of ripe limes. The nude-colored statues were mounted on the sweeping balustrade. Intrusive trees were cleared so that the house was brazenly open in a section of Los Angeles where other luxurious mansions hide behind walls of dark tall trees. The sheik’s name was engraved on ebony slabs under round mirrors like clashing shields at the gates. Intricate paths and the outlining walls were embedded with brown, amber, ecru stones, smooth and swarthy as the sheik’s skin; iron gray stones, the sheen of burnished silver; and green and purple tiles, dazzling as a peacock’s tail. Under a gleaming copper dome which blazed at sunset, the thirty-eight rooms of the mansion curved in two wings facing iron posts holding lanterns which glowed like haloes of green fire at night. Concrete urns topped the many ledges.
Now, Los Angeles is a city of scarred beauty. But for miles and miles throughout its stretching horizon, its flowered, verdant beauty, as grand as that of any other city in the world, is unmarred. In this city of grass and trees perennially green, layered in shades of amber green, rusted green, silver green; of flowers that flash out of shrubs in crimson and gold flames; a city overlooked by palm trees that transform long streets into corridors to distant hills; a city where blood-red bougainvillea pours over walls, balconies, sidewalks, streets, even the edges of the freeways; a city in which giant hibiscuses open into sparklers, scarlet orangy leaves form proud paradisiacal birds, and Joshua trees clutch torches of white blossoms; a city of roses pale as the sky or garish as an open wound; of jacaranda trees veiling the ground in lilac filigree; of enormous blossoms with color-saturated hearts draining, through pastel veins, to white at their curled edges; of rampant flowers deep pink just before they turn red, azure this side of indigo, lavender that is almost violent; a city of flowers whose clashing colors and shapes assume a paradoxical harmony in recurrent discordance–in such a city, the young sheik filled his concrete urns with plastic yellow and white flowers and waxy artificial leaves.
Hundreds of people came to stare in awe, disbelief, derision, admiration, envy, resentment at the ostentatious palace that dared to flaunt ancient foreign wealth in an area of somewhat less strident, newer–and concealed–excess.
Scandal and outrage—bruisings of bigamy and assault—soon swirled about the house. The young sheik and his wife moved out, and the mansion was left in vague judgment. Then fire burst from the heart of the house, its arced windows and doors exploding in pieces of colored glass and mosaic. During the night of probable arson, a tarnished glow captured the mansion.
After the fire—quickly extinguished—burlier guards inherited the vacated palace. Unnoticed at first because they sputtered with small yellow buds, weeds made incursions into the lawns, then exposed leprous patches of dirt. Tourists ripped pieces off the black-stoned walls and left white, gashed scars.
Grime has settled on the plastic flowers. Windows and doors are barricaded. A blackened pine tree accepts rot from its roots. The pale statues linger amid the ruins of the mansion like desultory traumatized inmates of a decaying asylum accessible only to the very beautiful, the very rich.
“I could be Scarlett O’Hara for a day,” Lisa pondered, her voice tinged with an unsure accent. From behind the iron fence a guard stared at her. She flipped her hair saucily at his bold gaze and looked away from the house. They had been on their way to the beach when they saw the mansion and the people lingering; Orin parked immediately on a side street. “Remember when Scarlett swore she’d never be hungry again? That’s my favorite scene, everything ruined and burned behind her—everyone so mean to her–and her, so brave, swearing she’d never be hungry again even if she had to lie, cheat, steal, or kill.”
“Or fuck!” Jesse added. Some tourists glared at him. He tipped his hat sheepishly. His semihard-on was growing pleasurably. To enhance it, he put his long bony fingers on Lisa’s shoulder, just above her pert breasts.
“Oh, you!” Lisa tried not to flirt. ‘she didn’t swear that!” She shrugged just slightly so that the hand would touch the part that tingled.
Orin turned his back on the gouged house. His eyes deepened on Jesse and Lisa. Jesse removed his hand–but he opened the last button of his shirt. Lisa averted Orin’s unnerving stare. When it occurred, it might remain for a long time.
Himself avoiding facing Orin and a possible forbidding reaction, Jesse removed his moist shirt. He’d lost weight since he’d left Kentucky (and Indiana nearby), but he liked the carved leanness of his torso. He had to be careful to remember he had told Orin and Lisa he was from Texas. Kentucky. People always said, Oh, yes, the Blue Mountains—sometimes they said green, even black. He was from Morganfield, Kentucky, mostly reddish dust in summer, gray dust in winter, stretches of flat land. Evansville—in Indiana—was a city of white houses. That’s where he’d begun hitching from, tote bag over his shoulder. Five or more dull, tiring rides—and then he’d met Orin and Lisa in a steaming limbo of desert. He would never forget the finned beauty of a car pulling up to the side of the road! And then there was the instant pleasure of Lisa’s pretty, crooked-smiling face—which tempered Orin’s studying gaze.
“Would you three like me to take your picture—you’re such a good-looking threesome!” an older white-haired man said. His thin wife smiled reedy encouragement at them. “Grandchildren,” the man indicated a boy and a girl trying to climb the barred wall, backing off each time a guard approached. Another child, the youngest, a dark, slender boy, stood sullenly apart.
“Sure would!” Jesse looked eagerly at Orin.
Lisa arranged herself prettily for the picture; then she glanced unsurely at Orin. She hoped the children would stay away. She’d learned Orin didn’t like children at all, wouldn’t even sit near them in a restaurant, or even glance at them in the motel.
The energetic, chubby boy asked Jesse James if he was a real cowboy—”with yer hat ’n boots ’n all.”
“Might be a stunt man in the movies,” Jesse said, deliberately vague, thinking that for the first time.
“Whass-at?” said the round-faced girl.
“Well, I’m not going to be a movie star,” Lisa asserted haughtily.
“Why did you come to Los Angeles?” the thin woman asked Orin, who was facing the quiet boy staying away.
“Cause I had to,” Orin said.
“Oh,” the woman said.
Orin talked like that often—you couldn’t always understand him. At first, riding with him before they met Jesse James, Lisa would ask him what he meant, and his answer would be even more unclear. “Depends—” he’d start. At times now, she thought she understood him, sometimes.
“How about it—your picture?” the man reminded.
Secretly—hands behind her—Lisa shooed the bouncing children away because she could see Orin’s annoyance growing toward them and she wanted the picture. “Oh, please, Orin,” she pled.
“Okay, Orin?” Jesse resented asking, but he didn’t want to anger Orin, who could be moody in a moment. Jesse was riding along with them—with Orin—and he didn’t have much money left. Neither did Lisa, he suspected, from the way she had hedged about paying for—her flavor of the week but did anyhow. Orin paid for all the gasoline. Jesse had the impression Orin had more money than they did. They were all sharing so far—not equally, Orin always paying more—for food and the motel, which was very pretty, in Hollywood. It had a pool and looked like a Spanish hacienda. Last night, when they arrived—a whisper of coolness in the misty air—it glowed with mothy blue, green, and red lights hidden among trimmed hedges. The wood-beamed room had a large color television set. Orin had asked the clerk about that immediately, and several times, and about which channels they received and how clearly. He even checked it before they actually registered.
Orin smiled the full-faced smile that made him look like a kid. “Don’t mind a-tall,” he agreed to the photograph.
Jesse draped his shirt discreetly over his shoulder, Lisa did her half-smile, Orin stood straight and formal. The dark child remained apart from the clustered others.
The man clicked the camera. “Part of the fun is watching the picture appear.”
In the developing photograph, their ghostly figures became flesh-colored, undefined tinted shadows, outlines; then a gray-ness coated the paper and evaporated. The photograph appeared sharply. In it, the statues lingered like phantoms behind them.
“Bodies.” Orin turned away from the picture.
That was all he said. Lisa thought he would go on—about how sacred bodies are. That was one of the many subjects he talked to her about, in those days and nights of hills and desert and driving. There would be times of silence, too, and times when he searched the radio from one preacher station to another—all there was along the desolate stretches—especially at night.
Jesse and Lisa admired the photograph. Lisa took it from him. They did make a good threesome—as if they had set out on their trips to Los Angeles together.
“Come see the pichur, you!” the girl called to the reclusive boy. The boy turned his head away.
“You know he won’t,” the other frenetic child imitated an impatient adult—resigned hands crossed on his round chest.
“Just leave him alone to sulk,” the woman said. “Moody the whole trip,” she mused. “Wanted to stay with his mother instead of come with us, and we’re having such a good time!”
“He’ll grow out of it,” the grandfather said automatically, indulgently battling the two loud children.
“Howdee,” Orin called to the somber boy.
Lisa was startled.
“Hi!” “Hi!” The romping children started to rush at Orin. He looked down sternly at them, his hand raised in a thwarting gesture. The children backed away. “Wanna fly?” Orin addressed the quiet boy, who did not respond.
“We’ve all given up on him,” the thin woman warned with exasperated acceptance.
“He’ll grow out of it,” the grandfather said.
Orin spread out his arms like airplane wings. “Wanna fly away?” he asked the boy. The boy looked at him. “Want to?” Orin insisted. The boy nodded. Orin swayed his outstretched arms. The boy rushed to him. With a strength belied by his slender frame, Orin whirled him about, the boy stretched his own arms, flying, and almost laughed.
“Can you believe that?” the woman said.
The boy struggled to be put down. Orin lowered him. The boy retreated to the fence.
“Home of an Ay-rab sheik,” an amplified voice boomed. A tourist bus paused before the mansion. “Fire destroyed parts of—” Behind it, a regular bus stopped to allow the straining heads of tourists to gape at the statues and the awesome house. In the second bus, the outraged face of a black woman looked out—and quickly away in disgust. Orin saw her.
Now from his pants pocket he brought out his round, elaborate watch, gold and shiny. He looked up at the sun, back at the watch. He said to the man and woman, “Thank you for the picture, ma’am, sir.”
“Sir, ma’am, thankya both,” Jesse echoed.
The slender boy inched closer.
In a strong voice Orin said to him, “You learn to fly!—wherever you want!—and then you don’t have to be—anywhere!”
That strange talk. Lisa still marveled at Orin.
He marched away from the house. Jesse and Lisa followed him.
A fat, past-middle-aged woman and her tired husband were walking up to the gates of the mansion. The woman gasped ecstatically, “Well!—that’s what I call a beautiful home!” She waved happily at Orin, Jesse, and Lisa, who glanced back.
Each time Jesse saw Orin’s long Cadillac, he beamed, proud to know he’d be riding in it. A beauty, a real beauty, a 1953 Eldorado convertible, one of the most expensive ever made, a classic now—and it was like new! Orin always raised the top when they parked. In the daylight the car was indigo, at night it was black. On Sunset Strip—as they drove through the neon portion of the boulevard—gaudy elaborate billboards screaming about great rock albums, great movies, great Las Vegas shows—young people called out compliments to the car. That pleased Jesse. Orin just drove on in the car with Massachusetts license plates.
When Orin lowered the roof of the car now, warmer wind flowed in. Lisa stared about her in delight. Along the streets everywhere, delicate blossoms floated like purple mist over jacaranda trees. “The most beautiful trees in the world!” she pronounced—but even those had rivals in this unbelievable city.
“You sure the car’s yours, Orin?” Jesse blurted the question he had asked silently over and over in the last two days.
From the beginning of their coming together, there had been an understanding, tacitly but strongly asserted by Orin, welcomed easily by them, that they would not inquire about each other’s past life. Each had left behind an ending. Now Jesse had violated that rule clumsily. Instantly he felt threatened—and so did Lisa.
Orin said in a voice that gave no hint of his feelings, “Yes, it is mine. Now. Longest it’s ever been driven’s from Salem to here. I got papers for it. You wanna see them, Jesse?”
“Hell, no, Orin,” Jesse withdrew. “Just joking.”
“It was willed to me by an old woman. Died just a short time back,” Orin spoke those words in a voice that still buried—or controlled tightly—any emotion. “Why I’m here, now.” Then he fired at Jesse: “You sure your name is Jesse James?”
It was clear that Orin’s anger was a warning to Jesse—and to Lisa—of what such questioning might provoke, a dredging of their lives. Was she next? No, he was sealing their pasts from inquiry. Lisa was all too willing to discard her past.
Jesse’s face crimsoned. “Yeah,” he said. “Except it’s really James Jesse.” He regretted his probing. No more serious questions!—that was that!—no matter how many he collected in his mind.
Orin laughed. “Just joking, Jesse, just joking!”
About all of it? Which part? It was true that sometimes in a clueless voice, Orin would say something that sounded very serious, and then he’d laugh, for having put something off on them. Lisa preferred to move away quickly from this mined territory: “Tyrone Power played Jesse James in the movies,” she informed Jesse. “Linda Darnell could’ve died when they shot him, she loved him so—and then he was so mean to her in Blood and Sand.”
Jesse said dejectedly: “Cagney should’ve played Jesse James.” He was genuinely saddened that Cagney hadn’t.
Lisa slipped the snapshot into a small wallet she carried. She sat in the middle of the front seat. Her skirt rose slightly. Her thigh connected with Jesse’s. Sometimes—but she cautioned herself increasingly—she still let it touch Orin’s briefly.
Orin drove expertly. Several times Jesse prepared to offer to “help” with the driving, then didn’t, reluctant to get a “No” from Orin. The engine purred, as if throughout the many years of its existence the car had lived sheltered.
Orin maneuvered into the still light, early afternoon traffic on Sunset. Heat was throwing away the coolness in the rising breeze. Lisa liked to describe the various flowers she spotted, constantly thrilled by the city’s beauty. “Pink stars with red hearts! Orange orchids!” She was enjoying the growing pressure of Jesse’s thigh against hers.
She didn’t prefer Jesse to Orin, no; she liked both, a lot, equally. Before Jesse joined them—just standing there so tall in the pale desert—she would slide tentatively toward Orin so that their bodies would touch if the car lurched. At times he seemed to welcome the sensual contact; she would feel an answering pressure; and then—and now more often than not—he pulled away from the touch. Sometimes he’d actually wince. The first night they stopped at a motel, Orin got a room for her, a room for him. At first Lisa had felt hurt, rejected; but the old movies she cherished had saved her. From them she borrowed explanations for Orin’s contradictory reactions—he was being faithful to some one; hurt by a powerful love; or “saving” himself for the exact one. Eventually those conjectures satisfied her less: It was the abandoned women of those romantic movies who pined for true love that way. And, too, Orin reacted to a lengthened touch as if it hurt him, really hurt him. Then he’d be quiet, and the murmuring of the Cadillac would be like unformed whispers. When those silent periods had stretched and pulled along the miles to Los Angeles, Lisa told him about the movies she had seen—”only the old great ones,” she emphasized.
She had seen them all in a theater in Chicago that showed only those cherished “all-time favorites,” as its marquee proclaimed. It changed movies three times, sometimes four, each week, double-feature each day. Running away—from Mundelein—about two hours and several worlds’ distance away—to the dark ecstacy of that theater, she would sit through the movies over and over, repeating lines to herself.
And so as she had traveled with Orin through the sun-misted forests and then vaporous deserts—and later with Jesse, who would listen enthralled one moment, then tease her the next while Orin listened, just listened—Lisa told about Pearl Chavez, the half-breed in Duel in the Sun; mounted on her horse, Pearl moved determinedly under a bleeding sky to her inevitable assignation with her lover, Lewt—”so mean to her, so mean.” Lisa would shift easily to tell about Roberto—”Ro-ber-tow,” she emphasized the correct pronunciation—and his betrayal of “beautiful Maria” in For Whom the Bell Tolls—forced by her lover to leave him, wounded, though she longed to die with him. “You told us and told us,” Jesse would disguise his eagerness to hear it all again as she moved on to tell about Scarlett O’Hara. Scarlett!—among the blackened stones of Tara—”swearing to survive no matter what!” That scene didn’t exactly fit with the others, but she loved it. Her voice became strong with Scarlett’s conviction then, but as the Cadillac glided on the heated concrete, the tone of lament for the doomed heroines buried in the darkness of that old theater would resume, and she evoked the ghost of Cathy, cursed by Heathcliff—”so mean”—to wander the desolate moors of Wuthering Heights until he, too—”
“Flaming birds!” she named another flower now, now in this city of blossoms and dead movie stars. Her own words jarred a sad memory—of a bird that had crashed against the windshield of the car before they picked up Jesse. The bird splashed blood and feathers. Orin cried out. He stopped the car. He got out and gathered the crushed bird carefully in his handkerchief. She saw him carry the small bleeding bundle to a side of the bare highway. He searched until he found a bush to bury the bird in soothing shade.
Jesse restrained himself from turning the radio on. Earlier, propped by evoking the image of Cody, he had suggested another station–the news bombarding him; and Orin agreed. Jesse felt good about that. “We going to the beach?” He tried to make it a statement, but it came out a question. That occurred often. “Sure,” Orin said—but Jesse wasn’t sure he’d even heard his words.
They passed a sign that said “Bel Air.” Carefully tended pools of orange, purple, and yellow flowers gather there between white portals. Paved tributaries off Sunset Boulevard dash into the depths of the locked verdure where other mansions flee to haughty seclusion. Dark brown arms crossed impatiently over her white-uniformed bosom, a black woman waited for a tardy employer to pick her up.
“Broken hearts, bleeding,” Lisa named another cluster of flowers—and quickly changed the name: “red valentines!”
They drove past a grotto of green vines surrounding a white statue of Christ, in splendid, festive white robes. Several long blocks farther, they passed another statue of Jesus, on the lawn of a church. That figure was crucified, its bloodied forehead haloed by thick thorns. “I wonder which one he looks like now—real happy, or still real sad,” Orin said.
Both Lisa and Jesse were becoming used to the way Orin seemed to collect his thoughts, then connect them aloud.
“Just depends, I guess,” Orin answered himself.
“On what?” Lisa queried. These were the moments—when his voice was so soft, a sigh—that Lisa longed to touch him, just to touch him.
“On what people do,” Orin said.
Past the exits and entrances of the San Diego Freeway in a rich area called Brentwood, a giant American flag over a slick hotel flapped erratically in the undecided wind.
Lisa moved her leg away from Jesse’s, Orin’s sad sigh lingering.
Last night, the first night the three spent together, Jesse hadn’t known what would happen, whether Lisa and Orin would sleep together. Orin had been flicking television channels off and on; it was late and several stations were off the air. In a short nightgown, Lisa slipped into one bed. Jesse, lanky in his boxer shorts, stood between the two beds. Orin nodded toward the vacant one. Then in his own shorts and t-shirt, he got into the bed with Jesse and lay on his back—all night and hardly moving, as far as Jesse could tell–on the extreme opposite side of the bed. The whole incident had surprised Jesse; he hadn’t been sure whether to be disappointed or encouraged; all depended on whether the situation made Lisa more or less available to him. Orin clarified that soon enough—this very morning when Jesse touched Lisa’s bare shoulder. Chin’s look froze on him. And yet, Jesse noticed, Orin often stared at Lisa himself—maybe wasn’t even aware he was doing it, his blue eyes fixed on her breasts, or on her exposed thighs when she moved into the car. Orin’s stares contained desire, Jesse recognized that. But then his gaze, darkening, would pull away from Lisa’s flesh.
Lisa pointed out the window at saffron-tipped flowers: “Exploding stars—”
Orin braked. Lisa’s head jerked. Jesse’s pulled back, then forward. “What the hell!” Jesse said. The Cadillac almost skidded into a car that had stopped just as abruptly. Ahead of it, another car had, too. There was the gathered scream of brakes. Traffic froze. Nearing sirens shrieked, gasped, shrieked. Approaching red lights swirled just ahead.
Orin guided the finned convertible along the shoulder of the boulevard. On a side road, he parked near a velvet-grassed incline. He jumped out, running up the short mound.
The sirens were throttled into silence. The red lights swirled within a contained radius now.
Jesse followed Orin up the incline.
At first Lisa decided she’d stay in the car. An accident had occurred, that was obvious. She didn’t like the sight of blood, not real blood, anyway—only “romantic blood,” like in the last scene of Duel in the Sun, when Pearl Chavez climbs the desert rocks to die with—” But it was too hot to stay in the unmoving car. She blew into her blouse, cooling her breasts as she walked toward Orin and Jesse. She still didn’t want to look, afraid of what she might see.
Sounds of panic came from nearby, exacerbated voices. Then there were sustained screams. The red eye of police-car lights tainted the area in a bleeding glow. Orin and Jesse were looking down into a schoolyard.
A few terrified men and women—teachers—were herding and rushing more than a dozen children away from a large tree on the grounds. The children balked, looking back. Two or three policemen and some men in white uniforms dashed toward the tree.
Lisa looked away from the schoolyard—she had caught a glimpse of what was there. Turning away, she saw cars backed up on the street. Heads leaned out of open windows to gape. Lisa looked away from that, too. She felt hot, caught in a sudden fierce darkness.
“Jesus Christ!” Jesse James said.
In the schoolyard, the body of a man was hanging from the branch of a jacaranda tree. The strap that held his strangled neck was partially obscured by pretty, dainty lavender flowers. The head, tilted to one side, was covered with a black hood.