Chorie: A Tragedy
J. T. Townley
I see her again on Pacific Avenue in the golden summer sunlight. It is the third time this week. First, by the seaside, then wandering near the tent camp. Now here, jostled by travelers, street-corner philosophers, and shopkeepers, a basket of market goods in her hands, sunlight glittering through her golden hair. Can it be an accident? It cannot.
I must consult the Oracle.
Along the footpaths, vagabonds and derelicts mumble and gawk. The seaside teems with glistening bodies lounging devoutly in the sand. The pier groans as the surf crashes against the pylons. I search down below, in the smoky shadows where I first encountered the Oracle. The air hangs thick with rotting seaweed.
“No can do,” a badly scarred intercessor explains, stepping into the light. “The Oracle don’t work like that.”
“We come in peace,” I say. “We seek the gods’ wisdom.”
He laughs, and his golden teeth glint in the sunlight streaming between the slats. “Don’t matter, chica.”
“But it must.”
He flashes a dagger. “Tranquila, homegirl.”
I stumble back two steps, mouth agape.
“Fuck you need anyway?”
“Then you, too, are a soothsayer?”
“A seer of the future.”
“You crazy or some shit?”
Gulls screech and swoop over the cerulean water. The stench of rot makes me gag.
“Claro,” he says. “Call me the Prophet.” His scars writhe like sea snakes when he chuckles. “Now what you want to know?”
I would prefer to speak directly to the Oracle, but I need immediate assistance. I inhale deeply despite the stench, then lay my soul bare:
“We seek our heroine.”
He clutches my shoulders and lays his blade across my throat. “Who put you up to this, pendeja?”
“We fail to grasp your meaning. It is some holy truth you cloak in mystery?”
“Why you came here?”
“We seek our heroine,” I repeat. “Thrice she has appeared to us. The gods will it be so.”
The soothsayer releases me and falls into the sand, racked by fits of laughter.
Chariots roar along Beach Street. Overhead, fishermen gabble and hack.
“What say you?” I ask. “What holds the future?”
“Dime, homegirl. What’s this chick look like?”
I explain: golden hair and golden body, riding waves of gold.
The Prophet sheaths his dagger, rifling in a haversack buried in the sand. “Big beach party Saturday night, chica.” He passes me a fragrant bundle. “There’s the chronic. Hide that shit under your stinky-ass robes.” I must appear mystified, because he says: “Pass it around, mana. Be generous. You’ll get all the surfer chicks you want.”
“But how will we locate the celebrations?”
“Just look for the bonfire,” he says. “And homegirl? The Oracle don’t give credit or take no I.O.U.’s. Cash only, got it?”
It is an eternity until Saturday night. I pass the hours chewing feta and grapes, dousing them with tasteless wine. When the day arrives, my saturnine mood turns gleeful. Today, I shall join the celebrations. I shall distribute the fragrant herbs as the Oracle commanded. I shall at last meet my heroine.
For without her, what am I?
The scarred seer’s vision was apt. Once darkness settles, the bonfire is impossible to miss, its blue flames licking at the night. I linger on the periphery, blanketed in shadows. I wait and watch, watch and wait. Unseen creatures shriek across the black water. My mouth tastes of stale wine and soot. The night grows cold.
Millennia pass. I dare not enter the circle.
I resolve to abandon the quest, burn the Oracle’s herbs, and hurl myself from the highest cliff into the sea. But then a woman stumbles toward me through the sand. She struggles with a pocket flame, turning her back to the crashing surf, covering herself with a hood. I glimpse her face in the moonlight.
“And a timely entrance, too,” I say.
“Stop—let us make your peace.”
“You sound like you’re in a play. Did you miss your entrance somewhere?”
“All the world is a stage.”
“So I’ve heard.” She sets her intoxicant alight and gazes across the water into the darkness.
I keep silent, struggling in the breeze with my dark, snaking curls.
“I’m Steph,” she says, passing me the smoldering herbs. “Go ahead. You seem tense.”
I puff away, listening to the bonfire pop and hiss.
“Get lost on the way to a toga party?”
“This is a chiton,” I explain, fanning a fold of green cloth. “Similar to a peplos, worn in the same manner, but of larger dimension.”
Steph nods, smoking the last of her herbs.
I withdraw the seer’s fragrant bundle.
“You come prepared, I see. May I?”
I nod my assent. With deft hands, she sprinkles leaves into a paper, then rolls a worship stick and sets it on fire. “Intense,” she says. “Santa Cruz Gold?”
Do I know what she means? I do not.
We smoke and listen to the dark waves break on the beach. The world whirls around us. Then Steph says:
“So I get it. You’re here on business.”
“No matter could be more important.”
“And,” she says, “you want me to vouch for you?”
I know not of what she speaks. “Would that it were so,” I say.
“Cut me in—say, five percent?—and I’ll even broker the deals for you.”
“Self-control is always to be admired. The fruit it bears for mortals is a good name.”
“Should I take that for a yes?”
“Now you must return to the firelight,” I say.
“Probably should. Told them I was going for driftwood. They’ll think I drowned.”
“To celebrate is right.”
“You could join us?” Steph suggests. “There’s probably some beer left.”
I hold my tongue.
“Or not. That’s okay, too. No big deal.”
Sea snakes slither in the blackness.
“What’s your name?” she says. “How should I get in touch?”
“We are called Chorie.” Despite the cold night, I feel radiant. “That we will meet again is certain.”
Then I gather my robes and step away into the darkness.
Rosy-fingered dawn begins to glow before Steph wanders home. I follow, keeping my distance. I discover where she resides, though I do not make my presence known. I do not wish to frighten her. Moon’s day follows sun’s day, and still I wait. I crouch among the cypress, gnawing on a block of feta, watching, from dawn to dusk. I come to recognize friendly citizens. I identify her means of employment to be teaching the delicate art of wave riding. I learn her patterns and rituals of piety: burning intoxicants to honor twilight, bowing on a mat in praise of dawn. She worships the sun with great devotion.
Despite her focus, she somehow espies me. “Hey!” she yells. “Toga lady! I’ve got your cash!” I duck, then scamper away. Another time, she says, “I can see you, okay? Come out into the open so we can talk.” I refuse; she traces a path to my observation post. From the highest branches I can reach, I watch her puzzle over my disappearance.
Yet Steph soon catches me unawares.
“Hey,” she says, nudging me with a sandaled foot.
I blink against the bright sun.
“Are you some kind of creeper?”
My mouth feels pasty. I wipe my lips and squint.
“Come up and I’ll give you your money, okay?”
I stumble after her. Her abode is welcoming, especially compared to the tent camp.
Steph passes me a wad of green paper. “That was some good ganja. Can you get more?”
“What shall be, shall be.”
“You’re an enigma,” she says, smiling. Her liquid blue eyes shimmer in the sunlight. She is more beautiful than I realized.
“They who await no gifts from chance have conquered fate,” I say.
That night, I find the soothsayer lurking beneath the pier.
“Took you so long, chica? Thought you’d split with the cash. The Oracle’s ready to put a hit out on your ass.”
I pass him the currency.
He counts it, squinting, then tongues a golden tooth and grins.
“Find what you was looking for?”
“Alas! New disasters mingle with old.”
“Sure, whatever.” He rifles in his haversack and passes me another fragrant bundle. “Scatter more of this around town, right? The Oracle says you keep ten percent. Make it five and no hit. That’s fair, no?”
In the spongy darkness, sea creatures yawp and bellow.
From my outpost among the cypress, I follow my heroine’s daily movements. Until, one day, she is gone. I inquire with her employer, Santa Cruz Surf.
“Expedition to Biarritz,” says a man with knotted ropes for hair and a golden ring through his nose. “Back in a couple weeks.”
Do I grasp his meaning? I do not. Still, I understand that her domicile is vacant.
He devours me with his gaze, then blinks only with his left eye. “Name’s Leaf. I’m Steph’s partner. You need a surf lesson, babe, I can help.”
“Please accept our thanks and praises.”
As expected, my heroine’s abode is unoccupied. I rap gently on the door, so as not to attract attention from inquisitive citizens, who might then summon the Council. “Steph,” I announce. “We, your Chorus, have arrived.” I anticipate no response, as she is thousands of miles away, on a beach in the Acquitaine—closer to my place of origin than her own. I try the knob, but the door is locked tight. I peer through the window: all is quiet, everything still. Yet the curtains to the glass door dance and billow in the sea breeze. I slip down the stairs and around the building. I shimmy up a palm tree, then clamber onto the balcony.
Inside, Steph’s abode is peaceful. On a shelf, a timepiece ticks. The wooden floorboards creak and moan. A thick, syrupy aroma makes my head swim, so I throw open the doors and windows, filling the domicile with salt air. In the near distance, golden waves pound the golden beach.
I locate blankets and fashion a nest on the floor.
How much better is it than the tent camp?
Words cannot describe.
I explore my heroine’s domicile, first with tentative fingers, but soon with complete abandon. I rifle through her drawers and leaf through her papers. I study the slick picture books filled with wet Olympiads. Her wardrobe overflows with garments and coverings; everything smells of soap and incense and herbs-of-worship. I ferret out my favorites and don them beneath my chiton. They chafe almost immediately, so I tear them from my skin and heap them in a pile on the scuffed floorboards.
One day claws past another.
When the hours grow heavy, I burn herbs from the fragrant bundle, praising the dusk, praising the dawn. I worship at midday, too, in the full golden light of the god’s greatness. I set the nighttime sun ablaze using a tiny lever in the wall, praising and supplicating through the hours of darkness. The room spins. My gut gnaws and gnashes. I devour foods of all sorts, everything tasting of sea salt, until I am sated and pass out.
I waken to Steph, my heroine, standing at the threshold, breathless and gawking.
“Who the fuck let you in?”
“We rejoice in your success.”
She heaves her enormous knapsack to the floor. I follow her gaze, struggling to view the spectacle from her vantage. Cabinets emptied across the floor, the air thick with the herbal smoke of constant devotion. Steph peers into each room, agog. I remain supine, content to be in her presence again at last.
“What have you done to my apartment?”
“The gods’ will has brought us to you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Thus was it fated. We are bound together like sisters.”
“That makes no sense,” Steph says, lugging her knapsack to the bedchamber. “You don’t even know me.”
“You are our heroine.”
“I don’t get it. Junkies usually just smash-and-grab, right?”
Can I glean her intent? I cannot.
She hauls her wave-riding implements to the balcony. When she returns, her expression is stony. “So what is it you want? Did I miscount the cash?”
“Only to be near you,” I say, “to bask in your radiant glow.”
Steph waits for more, but I’ve already given her everything. Her eyes pan across the room, then she says:
“Okay, play time’s over. Get your shit and get out.”
She hoists me from my nest on the floor with unexpected strength, allowing me no time to gather anything, including the fragrant bundle. Admittedly, after days of steady worship, there is not much left. Still, it belongs to me, or the Oracle.
She shoves me toward the door and glares. Then she follows my gaze.
“You want this?” She kneels, lifts it to the light, makes a strange clucking noise. “Been doing some heavy product sampling, looks like. All your profits, up in smoke.”
I stretch out my hand. “May we have what is rightfully ours?”
“Tell you what,” she says. “You’re not from around here, and you seem like a nice person, when you’re not trashing my apartment. So instead of having you thrown in jail for breaking-and-entering, property destruction, possession with intent, how about I just keep what’s left? Santa Cruz Gold, right?”
I know what is expected. I nod.
“Sweet. So we’ll call it even. Deal?”
“The business has already gone too far.”
“Agreed.” Her face lights up with expectation. “And?”
“We think it would be best to leave things be.”
“Good. Now go.”
After so much time has elapsed, the Oracle’s intercessor must wonder what has become of me. I resolve to avoid the tent camp, to keep my distance from the pier. Gutted by failure, I am uncertain why I care about the great physical suffering I will be made to endure. I shelter alone on a remote beach amid unsettling rock formations. The wind whips and whistles through the night, and unseen creatures screech across the black water. Darkness swells inside my empty heart.
Days pass. I scavenge the beach for food; the sea brings me bounty: half-eaten tacos, most of a pizza, an oily albatross blown in from the open Pacific. I build a fire, first from refuse, then from driftwood. The flickering light pushes back the blackness, yet it does little to warm me. I shiver in the dark, with nothing but cold sand for a blanket. The black waves crush the black shore. I wallow in the grease of self-pity, shrieking at the empty night:
“And is no end of this ordeal appointed us?”
Red-eyed canines howl and bay.
One morning I am roused by the crackling sound of distance voices. As if they’re trapped in a cave. I crack my crusty eye slits, pawing at the caked salt and sand. An officer. Sent by the Council, no doubt. At least it is not the Prophet.
“Hey, sorry to wake you,” he says, flashing a golden shield.
More voices from the cave. The officer holds a black box to his face and yammers. He sounds as if he’s chewing grapes.
I dig myself out of the sand and arrange my chiton. My dark curls feel like one enormous tangle. Perhaps I, too, will grow hair ropes.
“No beach camping, okay? Especially here. This is a state park.”
My innards groan. Much time has passed since I caught and roasted a gull.
His eyes take in the cold charcoal remnants of the fire, the splay of feathers flittering in the sea breeze. He shakes his head, chewing a lip.
“Looks like you could use a shower, some clean clothes. You need a place to stay, there’s a shelter up River Street.”
I struggle to my feet, gut in knots, lightheaded.
“Happy to give you a lift,” says the Council’s officer. “Cruiser’s up in the lot.”
I stare him dead in the eye, then wander off the beach and follow the sea wall back into the polis.
I have been crushed by suffering, so what more is there to tell? I contemplate all manner of self-destruction: opening my veins with a dull seashell, bludgeoning my head with a heavy stone, drowning myself in the angry sea. I even consider offering myself to a sea snake. Then it would all be over, the last act abandoned, the final curtain crashing down.
Instead, I stagger to Steph’s abode.
She is absent.
This time, I wait on the landing.
Hours pass before her return. I lose consciousness.
She nudges me. “What’re you doing here?”
“We request your aid.”
“What happened to you?” she asks, unlocking the door. “You look like hell.”
I say nothing. My eyes plead.
My heroine helps me to my feet and leads me inside. She coughs and says, “Man, could you use a shower. And have you looked in the mirror lately?”
A plate of glass mounted to the wall reflects my image. Wild, knotted tresses. Feathers and detritus stuck to a greasy visage. Sand clinging to skin and cloth.
“See what I mean?”
Steph leads me to the shower chamber, demonstrates how the mechanisms operate.
“Here are fresh towels,” she says. “I’ll get you something to wear.”
Later, warm and dry, dressed in her strange garb, we converse over a repast of falafel, hummus, and pita. I explain about the Oracle’s fragrant bundle. I describe his intercessor’s expectations for green paper. I realize I have brought danger to my heroine’s doorstep.
“We must go.”
“Wait. Why now? Where?”
“They will discover our whereabouts.”
“You can’t go back with nothing, right?” Her concern sounds authentic. “That could get ugly.”
“We care nothing for ourselves.”
“Kind of melodramatic, aren’t you?”
“They will hold you responsible when they track us here. We could not bear to watch you suffer.”
“Just stay,” she says. “We’ll figure something out.”
Steph proves a generous hostess. She offers me shelter, provender, a bed that mystically emerges from the bowels of the divan. In return, I have my companionship to offer. It is an unfair exchange, even I can see the imbalance, yet Steph is not only golden and beautiful, she is also gracious.
Days pass, then weeks.
One gorgeous morning, Steph and I clothe ourselves in skintight rubber suits, and she takes me wave riding. The water is frigid, the waves relentless. I attempt to ignore the shrieking of sea creatures beneath the surface and listen to her instructions. She demonstrates techniques I cannot master. Steph seems lithe and graceful, allowing Poseidon to lift her onto the shore. I prove extremely clumsy, as I am terrified sea snakes will coil themselves around my ankles and drag me into the black depths. I test Steph’s patience. Soon we are both exhausted. She must notice my shivers.
“Water’s pretty cold, right?”
My teeth chatter.
She leads me to an outdoor shower, where we strip off the rubber and rinse away the salt. We both drape ourselves in her denim and flannel. I miss my chiton but say nothing. We heave the wave-riding devices into her chariot. As we glide toward her abode, Steph says, “Maybe you’d have an easier time in warmer waters.”
“We believe this could be so.”
“Listen, I’m leading a group to Costa Rica next month. Want to come? I’ll tell Leaf you’re my assistant or something.”
Do I know what Costa Rica is? I do not.
“We would be greatly honored.”
“Perfect,” she says, teeth glistering blue in the streaming sunlight. “You hungry?”
We stop at a dining establishment and indulge in what Steph calls “veggie burgers.” They are thick and tasteless and not at all to my liking, but she seems to relish their nuances. I enjoy hearing her speak, every word tinged with golden light. Also, I enjoy sweet potato waffle fries with ketchup. I devour them, then thumb the remaining salt and crumbs. Steph offers me hers.
It is a perfect day.
My mood alters significantly upon our arrival at her domicile. I am overwhelmed by a premonition of doom.
“Lament, as well you might,” I say. “You’ve suffered so much—you must cry out then on your misfortune, and cry out again.”
I shake my head. A tear slithers across my cheek.
When we reach the stairs, Steph says:
“Why’s the door open? Didn’t we close it?”
I nod, terrified.
“Maybe Leaf needed something?”
We climb to the landing.
“Hello?” Steph says.
We peer through the open door. If it was Leaf, he experienced great difficulty locating whatever he sought. For when we step inside, we discover that all the drawers and cupboards have been divested of their contents. Pillows litter the floor’s wooden planks. Chairs and tables have been upended and broken. Steph wanders from room to room, gaping. She gathers a strange assortment of fallen articles—a broken wave-rider statuette, silky crimson undergarments, a mug decorated with rainbows and Pegasus—and emits a muted shriek each time. She seems stunned. I feel wary. Then she says:
“Outside, what’d you say?”
“We were overcome with foreboding.”
“But how did you know?”
“The gods willed it so,” I say.
Steph’s cerulean eyes bore through me. “You’re not in on this, right?”
“We are not yet certain what has transpired,” I say.
She smiles weakly. “I’m glad.”
We gather the fallen objects. I collect, Steph arranges. Many pieces are broken and must be discarded. Most of the slick images of wave riders have been torn. A sharp weapon, such as a cutlass or dagger, has laid open several, though not all, of the divan cushions, spilling their fibrous entrails onto the floorboards.
Someone pounds on the door.
“Maybe that’s Leaf?” Steph says, swinging it open.
“Don’t tell me you’re still seeing that surfer good-for-nothing.” An aging woman stands at the threshold, gemstones sparkling in her ears, around her neck, on most of her fingers.
“Marilyn? What are you doing here?”
“Aren’t you going to invite me in?”
Steph steps aside, and the woman enters. She stands in the center of the room, gazing upon the devastation.
“Ransacked-by-Vikings. Stunning. I love it.”
“I wasn’t expecting anyone.” Steph’s expression hardens. “You could’ve called.”
The woman toes some cushion stuffing and rights a chair, then puckers at Steph. “Well, I’m here now.” Soon her gaze alights on me. “And who’s this, pray tell?”
“Just a friend. She’s staying with me for a while.”
The woman approaches, studying me like an ancient tablet. “And does your friend have a name?”
Steph and I exchange a glance.
“Chorie,” she says.
Marilyn strokes my hand, ogles my dark curls.
“Aren’t you an Irish beauty.”
“Speak, then, and tell her all,” I say. “It comforts those in pain to know beforehand all the pain they still must bear.”
“What on earth is she saying?”
“She’s a thespian, Marilyn.”
The woman drops my hand. Her skin grows ashen, and she looks as if she may vomit. “Oh, please, Steph. Don’t even joke about it.”
“No, I’m serious. Everyone knows about her.”
The woman drops into a chair, stricken. “Didn’t you ‘experiment’ enough in college? And on my dime. Don’t tell me I’m still paying.”
I glance at Steph, but she ignores me. It would seem she enjoys such histrionics. She steps over, crouches beside the woman, pats her hand. “It could be nature over nurture, Marilyn,” says Steph, and the woman’s gaze looks hopeful. “But I doubt it.”
Do I fathom their meaning? I emphatically do not.
“Have you still more to tell of her distress and pain?” I declaim.
“See what I mean?” says Steph.
“But you’re so beautiful,” the woman says. “I don’t understand.”
Steph appears ebullient, reveling in the melodrama.
I would depart but my sandals are filled with immovable stones. Somewhere across the water, sea snakes snicker.
“Take it easy, Marilyn. She’s an actress.”
The woman sits up. Her face paint has smeared.
“She’s an actress, Marilyn.”
The woman’s face brightens, but it doesn’t last.
“You did that on purpose.”
Steph chuckles. “How could I not? You take everything too seriously.”
“And you’re not serious enough, young lady.”
“I’m twenty-eight, Marilyn. Remember?”
“Which is exactly why you need to be thinking about your future. You can’t do—well, whatever you’re doing—for the rest of your life.”
Steph takes a deep breath. “Is that why you dropped by? To offer career advice?”
I, too, speculate about her purpose here. She creates much animus and ill will.
“Can’t a mother visit her daughter?”
The room fills with murky silence. I cannot plumb its depths. The gods gaze upon our dumbshow with mirth and derision. At last, Steph says:
“Los Gatos isn’t exactly next door, right? And 17’s treacherous. So what brings you over the hill?”
“If you must know, I have news. I hoped we could discuss it civilly, perhaps over a quiet dinner at Gabriella’s. My treat.”
“Sorry,” says Steph, “I have plans tonight.”
“With the dyke?” The woman sneers at me. “Maybe there is something going on between you two.”
“That’s enough, Marilyn.”
“Why is she still here?” The woman withdraws a wad of green paper from her reticule. “Make yourself useful, Chorie,” she says. “Looks like we’ll be dining in.”
I ball the bills in my fist.
“You don’t have to go,” says Steph.
“Life is a theater. We each have lines to say, a part to play.”
“What does that mean?”
“There is no release from destiny, from what must be.”
I wander down the seashore, mind vacant. The woman Marilyn has sapped my will like a leach drains blood. Clouds of black flies drift in the sea breeze, then settle on sun-drenched driftwood, absorbing the day’s dying light. The afternoon feels weary. The beach has emptied of all but the most pious, who drape themselves in thick garments against the cold and prepare to burn herbs in honor of the sun god.
“Are you holding?” they ask. “Are you holding?”
I watch the sun vanish, grimacing against the chill. My mouth feels dry, cottony. I long for a sup of grappa.
Then, looming up out of the night: the pier.
I flee, keeping to the glow of lanterns. I move from one group of citizens to the next, paying little heed to our direction or destination. Although he has not made himself known, I am certain the Prophet follows somewhere in the shadows.
In the market district, I pause to listen to a blind street-poet sing of bygone years. I am transported by the melody, the jangly rhythm of the lyre, the song’s wretched emotion. And then, there he is, one hand on my shoulder, a dagger at my side.
“Say, chica. Been looking for you. We gotta talk.”
He tries to force me into an alley, but I squirm and wriggle, escaping to a sludge house. Roasting beans and burnt hopes foul the air. Citizens sit at tables drinking from enormous mugs, their babble swelling over a machine’s angry whir. I find a seat and watch the door.
The Prophet slinks in, then sits at my table without waiting for an invitation. We listen to an upbeat tune leaking from the ceiling. “You take the chronic and disappear?” he says. “Man, that ain’t right.”
“The destiny of the gods has brought this on you—no deceit of ours.”
“Bullshit.” Beneath the table, he lays his dagger along my thigh. “Now you give me the bag of bud or the cash, or they’re gonna be mopping you up all night.”
I open my fist and drop the woman’s green paper on the table.
“Don’t nickel and dime me, pendeja.” He counts with one hand, an awkward operation. Soon a grin erupts. His golden teeth shimmer in the muted glare. “¡Puta madre! What you got all this jack for, homegirl?”
“Don’t accuse a friend because you have a vague idea she might be guilty.”
“So—what? You was looking for me?”
By now, I know to nod.
“Then why you was running?”
I say nothing.
“Shit,” he says and gazes around the room.
Citizens stare. Perhaps at his scarred physiognomy. The Prophet ducks back into his hood. I feel the cold blade glide across my leg before he hides it in a pouch.
“You’re short, so let’s consider this a down payment. Bring me the rest by the end of tomorrow, or the Oracle ain’t gonna be happy.”
“Five-hundred, mana.” He squints, then mimes slitting his throat with a grimy forefinger. “¿Me entiendes?”
I worry my predicament for a time, then listen to a philosopher rhapsodize. It is not his words I attend to, but his cadence and intonation, his peroration’s rhythmic lilt.
Hours pass. I wander back to Steph’s domicile.
The woman she calls Marilyn has departed. Her mood is somber. When she asks me where I’ve been, I hold my tongue.
“Well, you missed a real meltdown.” Steph laughs, but mirthlessly. “Marilyn hates Leaf, so she’s always trying to set me up with this or that friend’s strapping son. This time she was pushing the twenty-three year-old heir to a Pasadena oil fortune. Can you believe that? Drives a Porsche, has a yacht in Marina del Rey and a house on Catalina. I’m sure he wears tailored suits, probably plays fucking polo.” She grimaces to herself and catches her breath. “That woman knows nothing about me, zero. So what if Leaf and I have problems? Doesn’t everyone? Anyway, it’s none of her goddamn business.”
The air grows oily with spleen.
“So Marilyn’s blood sugar started dropping after a while. Turns her into a goddamn monster. I told her she couldn’t really expect you to bring back tacos, the way she treated you. Then she got nasty, called you all sorts of names.” Steph shakes her head at the memory. “That’s when I threw her out.”
We listen to the waves pummeling the sand. The night thickens. Steph rolls a worship stick, and we devoutly burn it.
“So where’d you go anyway? Do you still have Marilyn’s money? Maybe we could order a pizza?”
I linger over the fragrant herbs. I hope she will not persist.
“So?” she says.
“We would prefer not to expound.”
Her silence is expectant. Then she says:
“Right, the Mary Jane, huh? Guess you ran into your connect.” Steph finishes the worship stick. “And you gave him Marilyn’s money, right?”
“We were not offered an alternative.”
“Was it enough?”
“We owe the Oracle five-hundred.”
“By tomorrow’s nightfall.”
“Or we shall meet our demise.”
She wraps her arm around my shoulders. “Don’t stress it, Chorie. That’s not gonna happen.”
“We have brought peril and ignominy upon your house,” I say. “We should be banished to the farthest shores.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” She withdraws a black box hidden in among her coverings and holds it to her ear. “I’ve got it covered.”
Before we finish burning another worship stick, the rope-haired man arrives.
“Jezus, babe,” he says. “Where’s the fire?”
Steph leads him into the bedchamber, and I curl up on the divan. An ill wind hammers the windows. Palm fronds sway in silhouette like the tentacles of some odious sea creature.
The man tromps into the dull yellow light, eying me with skepticism. Then he ties back his knotted rope-hair and asks:
“Alright, what’d the fucker say?”
I struggle to remember. My mind is a haze of fragrant herbs. I offer all the details I can dredge up.
When I finish, he chuckles and says, “Well, it’s all Greek to me.”
“Leaf?” says Steph.
“Come on, babe. Lighten up. I’ll see what I can do.”
The rope-haired man presses his own black box to his ear. Steph follows him as he wanders from chamber to chamber, until he chases her away. Then she slips out to the balcony. Through a curtain of blue smoke, I watch as she burns a worship stick.
Soon I lose consciousness. In my dream, I’m strangled by sea snakes.
Then the rope-haired man’s voice: “She obviously doesn’t give a shit, babe. Why should you?”
“People react to stress in different ways, Leaf. Plus, we smoked a lot. Probably just made her drowsy.”
I listen without opening my eyes, until I can no longer bear it.
“What’s with you and this chick?”
“She’s my friend, Leaf.”
“I’m starting to think she might be more than that.”
Steph seems dazed. She pads across the floorboards to the eating chamber and sits at the table. The man trails after her. I have to crane my neck to see them.
“What is it, babe?”
“Nothing.” Steph ties back her hair with a leather thong. “It’s just that, well, I think you may be right.”
“You’re into her? Stinky-cheese goatskins and all?”
“Fuck off, Leaf. She’s like my—what? Like a sister from another mister.”
“Well, in that case,” he says. “Right on, babe. Killer.”
Do I follow? I do not.
Though perhaps I glean the essence.
“So what’d you find out?” she asks. “Can you help her?”
“My friend Tom sometimes hangs with Batcan—”
“Don’t ask. And Batcan’s solid with Julián, who’s the Prophet’s cuz. Fucker’s real name is Pedro, by the way. Not that it matters. Anyway, yeah, it’s doable.”
“So what’s our play?”
“It’s all about cash, babe.”
“Think again. This Pedro dude reps for the Oracle. Dude’s a heavy, calls the whole Monterey Bay his turf, Surf City to Pacific Grove. Expanding into the Valley now, or so I’ve heard.”
“So they’re gonna hold the bitch for ransom, is what.”
“Her name is Chorie.”
“If it’s less than five grand, Chorie’s getting off easy.”
They sit in silence. I hold my breath. Then warbling swells into the void. The rope-haired man presses the black box to his ear, listens, mutters, waits. Steph watches. I watch Steph watching. She espies me, offers a weak smile. I attempt to reciprocate, though my face feels numb. I’m dizzy and overwrought. My skin is clammy. Before I can stop myself, I cry:
“We are worried your friendship may leave us!”
“Fuck is she talking about?”
“Take it easy, Chorie,” says Steph.
I sit up. My head reels. I think I may retch.
“Get up, chick,” says the man. “Time to do business.”
“How much, Leaf? Should I call Marilyn?”
“That’s not what you want. We just got you out of hock, remember?”
The man drags me to the door.
“How much do they want?”
He stops and turns, without loosening his grip. “Fortune’s smiling, babe. Just a grand. We got off easy.”
The man’s two-wheeled chariot screams like a wounded sea creature. I grip his abdomen. His rope-hair whips my face.
I try not to think of Medusa.
We stop at Santa Cruz Surf, and he bids me wait with the chariot. Constellations wheel above me in the clear blackness. The man returns with a haversack filled with green paper. I straddle the chariot, but he says:
“Uh-uh, leave the bike.” He foists the bag upon me. “That belongs to you now.”
“A gift from the gods.”
He leads me into the darkness.
“We shall make a sacrifice.”
He stops abruptly, spinning to face me. I fear he may strike me.
“What’s with this ‘we’ shit?” he yells. “There’s no ‘we,’ far as I can tell. Just a freeloading bum in way over her head.”
“Wise words indeed. Pay heed to them, or court catastrophe.”
“That doesn’t make any fucking sense,” he says, glaring at me as if I am vermin. “Why’d you have to drag Steph into your mess?”
I say nothing. The rope-haired man turns down the hill. I trudge after him, falling behind.
When we arrive within sight of the pier, he stops again and leans on a wooden bench.
“So here’s the deal.” He forces a grin, monstrous in the flickering lantern light. “I pay your debt, you disappear. For good.”
I try to protest, but I choke on my own silence.
“Nope, no haggling. That’s it, take it or leave it.”
My skin grows molten beneath Steph’s garments. My stomach roils with sea snakes. Boiling tears spill across my face.
“Get this straight, bitch. You pay your dude and vanish. I don’t want to see you. I don’t want to hear rumors about you. I don’t ever want to think about you again. We’ve got a good life, right? And you’re not gonna fuck that up for us.”
“We were taught to hate those who desert their friends. There is no infamy we more despise.”
“So fucking hate us,” he yells. “We’re not your friends anyway.” The rope-haired man studies me for a long moment. “Well, there’s the pier. Your buddy’s probably waiting.”
Then he swaggers off into the night.
I steal into the shadows beneath the pier. I ready myself for the hot steel of the Prophet’s dagger, but he is nowhere to be found. I sit in the sand, deafened by the echoes of the crashing surf. Gulls shriek somewhere in the blackness.
When, at last, the Prophet arrives, he seems in no way perturbed by my presence. He grins, golden teeth glistering.
“Long time, no see, chica.”
I hand him the knapsack of green paper. He unzips the bag, shines a burning torch inside, counts the stacks.
“You lucked out, homegirl,” he says, fingering his scars.
I say nothing, backing away into the night.
I wake up in the sand. The sun is high, pouring through the gaps in the unsettling rock formations. I clutch the neck of an empty grappa bottle. A half-empty bottle of wine lolls at my feet. My mouth feels furry; my body smells sour. Hercules, though unseen, crushes my skull with the force of the ages.
The sand scorches my feet as I wander toward the sea. Were I to stay here, the Council would send an officer for me. I would be mocked and derided, scorned and disparaged. Such treatment I can no longer bear. I drop into the sand, reflecting on the lives of Deianeira, Phaedra, and Antigone, their self-destruction, and I realize my own final exit draws near. Shall I refuse sustenance until my body collapses? Jump in front of a speeding chariot? Douse myself in grappa and light a fire stick in a final, flaming sacrifice to the gods?
Such thoughts, along with the rest of the wine, overwhelm me.
When I come to, half-immersed by the rising tide, the sun has just slipped into the sea. The breeze moans through the rock formations. I slip off Steph’s denim and flannel, rinse my tresses in the frigid water, scrub my skin with handfuls of clean sand. I watch the constellations twinkle and swirl until rosy-fingered dawn arrives.
The sea breeze and morning sun dry my garments. I dress and tame my snaking curls. Then I follow the sea wall back into the polis.
Outside Steph’s abode, I crouch among the cypress. The day is cool and, although the wind cuts through my coverings, I shiver but feel nothing.
Days pass, then weeks.
I keep vigil over Steph. The rope-haired man comes and goes, and he and Steph quarrel. She does not depart on any new expeditions. In truth, she rarely leaves her domicile, spending long stretches alone, empty gaze cast over the empty sea.
Only when my body grows weak do I forage refuse barrels for victuals.
Although I long to make my presence known, I say nothing, speak to no one. I have lost all my lines. Gulls shriek in the empty night; sea snakes scream across the black waters. But I suffer in silence, the pain hot and raw and dagger-sharp.
Such are the demands of this, my final role.
J. T. Townley has been published in Collier’s, Harvard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Istanbul Review, Prairie Schooner, The Threepenny Review, and other places. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University, and he teaches at the University of Virginia. He’s also a Pushcart nominee and a Fulbright Scholar.