An Insomniac’s Lamb
TUMBLEWEED * DESERT SAGE * SCORCHED WIND
(this fable intersects with TABLOID)
…The Salton Sea Prophet
A man stands on Bombay Beach, in the ever-increasing heat of the California sun. Hands held high in the mime of salvation, he talks to Jesus…or to anyone who will listen.
Hank, dressed in an olive suit that clings to his joints, and a bowtie with a probable goal of asphyxiation, saves lives for a living. He shouts, cajoles, smiles and shudders at the sporadic passer by.
The desert sky takes up much of the horizon. You can hear the pale, buoyant clouds bump against one another like latex balloons.
Standing at the edge of the sea, Hank is surrounded by chromed motorboats and striped tourists. This prophet is indeed far from the Sea of Galilee.
With black hair and a broad face, Hank’s light eyes grab strangers like a hook. “REPENT!” reads the pamphlet he holds in his outstretched hand as if dolling out confections to small children. Folks kindly oblige, accepting the pamphlets, only to discard them (minutes later) on the desert floor. The unwanted pamphlets dance in the wind, blowing past Hank’s stark silhouette.
On the other side of the lakebed, a vagabond watches, swaying and wobbling in the winds of cheap gin.
The vagabond with white beard and hair takes to the sea before him, arms outstretched in balance. Twenty feet in, the water does not rise above him, but remains at his shoes, dry but for the sea pooling round his holy, downtrodden, soles. The vagabond aims his milky eyes in the direction of Hank, defiant.
Hank takes this in for a moment, and shouts, “Like Jesus at the Sea of Galilee: miracles abound!”— “BEHOLD!” pointing in the direction of the vagabond.
A few heads turn as the vagabond succumbs to the enduring weight of god’s gravity and civilization’s gin. His body collapses and he splashes, helpless, into the sea. Brightly attired vacationers rush to his aid.
Hank stares across the water, unmoving, his thick, dark brows, furrowed. He throws the remainder of his pamphlets into the west facing wind, creating a whirlpool of headlines swirling around him:
“ A MIRACLE IN THE DESERT!”
“HOLLYWOOD – LAND OF THE JEZEBELS!”
and walks down the road towards his car.
Jesus liked the desert too. Or maybe he didn’t?
Hank drives two miles down the main drag and makes a left turn on a dirt road. Three concrete bungalows line the left side of the street, the right side of which is relegated to mounds of dune grass. He pulls into the last driveway and enters a one-room bungalow. The screen door slaps his ass as he enters and the breeze of his entry causes the Christmas tinsel on his parched plants to animate in the hot July wind. A rangy sprig of mistletoe hangs over the top of the doorframe, unused.
Hank downs a glass of water from the sink, wipes his dusty brow with a kitchen towel, and retires to the one and only chair that occupies the bungalow. Stuffed and calloused, the chair is surrounded by mounds of newspapers and magazines. Hank kicks off his shoes and immerses himself in his reading.
He sorts through the papers, looking for something in particular. He throws a number of magazines in a fan, revealing an arc of rancorous headlines on the carpet before him:
“FROM SCREEN GEM TO VIXEN”
“CAUGHT IN CUPID’S CROSSHAIRS”
“OF VICE AND MEN!”
Landing on his target, Hank grabs the newspaper, flipping through page after page, returning to the first page and then back again. The cover features a raven-haired beauty, her painted lips and eyes conveying the kind of intrigue that sinks mythic ships. She is naked, but for a transparent sheath. Her skin, a stunning attribute, appears as if sculpted from compressed translucent white powder. In her arms, a golden bow is stretched, an arrow aimed at the reader. The bold headline below – screams: “CUPID: ARMED AND DANGEROUS!“
His anger rising, Hank rolls up the paper and tosses it at the window, knocking a dead plant over in its trajectory. A Christmas ornament portraying the Virgin Mary lays shattered in half on the floor.
Hank reads through a marathon of magazines and pulp tabloids, well past the sun’s setting into the distant mountains. Outside, ghosts caught up in the winds of the desert, pound incessantly on the windows of his bungalow; slamming his screen door into its frame.
An army of tumbleweeds marches past the bungalow in the moonlight: their life force, the wind, their direction, unknown. As if syncopated dancers, they roll over cars, and spin across roofs, their rolling revolutions hypnotizing Hank. Counting them is almost an effort in futility, but Hank counts them none-the-less: lulling him into a stupor.
Hank shakes his shoulders and grabs another magazine from the floor. The same woman is featured on the front page (her only competition: President Truman in a tiny blurb at the bottom). Fully covered from head to toe, she is wearing a trench coat, scarf, and dark glasses. Her hands are held in front of her face, protecting her from the magnesium flash of the tabloid photographer’s camera. Her clothes and sunglasses are her only armor against the scourge.
It is late and Hank paces the interior of his cottage, his conscious mind unable to relent to its unconscious.
Insomnia, that’s the name for it.
Dawn cracks open the desert sky, like an egg over a frying pan.
Desdemona flexes her forearm, raises the golden bow, and releases an arrow into the heavens. She turns slowly towards the purrrrr of the camera – dressed in nothing more than a crimson smirk…
The director, yells “Cut!”— breaking the spell.
Shivering, Desdemona calls to her assistant, Edna, for a bathrobe. Edna, hair jellied up into a sugary, tawny, bouffant, comes running to her side, a plush bathrobe in the offing.
Rubbing her shoulders, Desdemona begs, “Edna, doll, can you rustle me up a cup of coffee?” Edna pads to the percolator like a golden retriever thrown a ball, returning to her master with a steaming cup of coffee and an armful of newspapers. Desdemona sips her coffee and opens up a newspaper. Her face stares back at her from the cover, while her eyes project a simultaneous look of horror and glee.
Having played the bad girl, the evil debutante, and the mobster’s moll at RKO, Desdemona had become a minor star in that bright constellation that is Hollywood…but had little staying power… and an even smaller paycheck. Popularity and fame seemed to arrive for the golden girl, the goody two shoes: the girl who got the man. Desdemona was left stranded on a dead-end road, her moral compass spinning like a magnet over the Bermuda Triangle.
It was at this juncture, that Desdemona chose the dark alley of adult entertainment: nudies and racy films that is, propelling her onto the headlines of every Tabloid and Pulp magazine in Hollywood.
Hank, wearing boxers and a pair of dark red socks, paces the gloomy room; the heavy drapes shielding his bloodshot eyes from the morning sun. Hank decides to forgo the saving of souls today and begins to pack his suitcase instead.
A nomad by training, Hank knows how to pack. As a child, he zigzagged across the country with his mother and twin sister, moving from town to town, city to city, on the run from a husband and father, who legend had it, was a violent drunk. Two husbands later, mother and rogue twins had landed in the Arizona desert. The third marriage was the charm, a wicked charm that cast the twins out into the world, vulnerable and exposed.
Ramona and Hank were bound by blood and a birthday. Each carried the black Irish gene: a pale complexion, radiant green eyes, and a mop of hair that was as dark as oil (just like their father). The two fought often; yet always shepherded one another back into the fold, like two lone wolves seeking a den.
One summer, Ramona wandered off. For months, Hank searched for her everywhere: visiting bars, parks, and even calling the morgue. A week before Christmas, he found Ramona, strung out on dope, in a motel parking lot. He took on the job of resurrecting her: cleaning her up, feeding her, keeping the evil lurkers at bay, and soothing her body, tortured by the dope that was slowly receding from her veins.
After the resurrection, on an impulse fueled by anger, Hank brought Ramona to a tattoo parlor and had them engraved with an identical tattoo. Their right wrists, now, each disclosed a stunning green, vigilant, eye: their twin eyes watching over one another, for forever.
If you put both tattooed wrists together, the two eyes become one face.
Shortly after acquiring her third eye, while hitchhiking on a desert highway, Ramona climbed into a dark blue Cadillac Roadster, lured in via Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” blasting on the radio. The music and the vision of Ramona faded, as the roadster crested the horizon, headed for California. Hank had once again lost his twin.
Hank packed his only suit, 3 pairs of underwear, 2 undershirts, 2 shirts, 3 pairs of socks and a straight edge razor. He climbed into his beloved Buick and gunned the gas, sending plumes of dust out onto the road behind him.
Hank’s destination: the City of Angels. He has one angel in particular he’s dying to see.
…Patience is No Virtue
Hank, dressed in a suit, stands in front of a non-descript building just north of Hollywood. He carries none of his usual holy-roller props: no pamphlets, no signs, just an army of cigarettes to keep him company. Three hours go by and no sign of Desdemona.
There are photographers “hiding out” in the bushes and Hank notices two cars parked across the street: inside each car are men with dark sunglasses and binoculars. Hank does a double take, as he sees a photographer burrowing into the bushes, wearing full safari regalia (including a khaki helmet), trying to remain stealth.
Suddenly, the air shifts and Desdemona breezes out of the front door of the building and runs to a waiting car. As she slams the car door, she quickly rolls up the window. Hank, chucking his cigarette, attempts to run after her, shouting, “Stop, stop, Desdemona, it’s me, Hank!” The car speeds off, leaving Hank standing in the street, incredulous. Desdemona looks out through the rear window, pulls off her sunglasses, and stares at Hank, as her car charges into the distance.
Hank shakes his head, and decides to retreat to his rented room, where he’ll come up with a better plan.
On day two, Hank is standing in the parking lot to the left of the same building he waited in front of the day before, besieged by a mass of whirring, cooing, crapping, birds. One could mistake him for a statue, but for the smoke rings pulsing out of his mouth: cigarettes and loneliness making great companions. From this vantage point, he can keep an eye on the front of the building and differentiate himself from the tabloid photographers and other odd loiterers lying in wait.
Almost two hours pass, when suddenly Desdemona charges out of the front door: sunglasses and trench coat, now her standard uniform. Hank jumps over the bushes lining the lot, and runs in her direction. In a rushed blur, a sea of photographers, attempts to surround her with their cameras and shout, “Desdemona! Look here! Look here!” “Desdemona, give us a taste of that smile!” She squeezes into the door of a waiting car and speeds away.
Having missed direct contact of any kind, or some element of acknowledgement from Desdemona, Hank lowers his head, pushing back a wave of confused and despondent thoughts.
While cupid may be armed and dangerous, it would seem that she is also a bird in flight…
Hank returns to the parking lot, walking in the direction of his car. As he stamps out his cigarette, the side door of the building opens: a woman, Desdemona, walks out. She is dressed in a black blazer and polka dotted pants. She wears a pale scarf over her dark hair. Hank takes note of her, and when she sees him, she runs towards a car. Again, he screams out loud ”Desdemona!” “It’s me. It’s Hank!” and his voice trails off as she runs away from him and jumps into a two-toned, convertible. Not knowing to what or to whom he is screaming, Hank stands back, and forgoes the chase.
Hank can’t seem to get a grip. What is happening? Are there two women? Are they twins? They can’t be! Hank shared his mother’s womb with only one other person, and that was his twin, Ramona!
The next morning, Hank returns to the riddle that is the side parking lot; now a brewing nest of intrigue, relegating the pigeons to a mere, avian subplot. At 1 PM, a woman walks out the side door of the studio. She wears a dark blue turban, a matching polka dot blouse, and a white pencil skirt. Her sunglasses, darker than a pimp’s eyewear, hide her every expression.
As if trying to coral a skittish poodle, Hank initially ignores Desdemona as she walks past him, avoiding sudden arm movements or loud noises. Instead, he shadows her to her car and gently opens the door. Sensing his calm and protectiveness over her, Desdemona, raises her eyes upward, reaches out a gloved hand, and pulls him into the back seat with her.
Elated, and relieved, Hank states sarcastically, “My god, thank you already” “It’s about time” and then blurts out, “Look, it’s important that we talk”. Desdemona holds back from a reaction and just scans him up and down, calling upon her intuition to scope out his intentions. She places her hand on his knee, and asks, “What’s eating you handsome?” Hank, thinking his sister is playing a game, says irritatingly, “What’s eating me darling is that you have the reputation of harlot, and you’re being chased by tabloid photographers and god knows whom else.” “Why are you doing this to yourself? I’m worried sick.”
Desdemona lets out a hoarse laugh, smirks, and then chides, “How dare you call me a harlot!” and, coming closer in to his face whispers -“More importantly, who are you and why should I care?” Hank stares at her, the child inside of him reanimating, and burdened by mountains of hurt. Before he can respond, she says, “I don’t know who you think I am, but clearly you must be confused.”
She is about to demand that he exit the car, when after a moment, seeing his vulnerability, to her own surprise, she caresses his unshaved jaw. A blinding anger bubbles up inside of Hank, and he grabs Desdemona’s clawing hands off of his face. He grabs her right hand and pushes it away from him. Holding her hands up, as if to disarm her self, two, pale wrists hover in the air. While Desdemona’s wrists may carry red rubies and white diamonds, they show no evidence of a green eye.
Hank is three eyes short of a conclusion to this drama.
Hank looks out the car window and attempts to hide his shock and swelling shame. He is with a complete stranger. “Please forgive me..” he mumbles.
Desdemona looks out the other window and speaks without looking at him, “Every vulture in Hollywood has been circling me for weeks.” “Let me guess, you’re just another vulture.” “Is that what you are Hank, another vulture?” “What paper are you from and what in god’s name do you want from me?”
Hank decides to come clean with Desdemona and turns towards her. “I’m sorry!” “There seems to be a mistake. I thought you were someone else.” Wagging his head, he laments, “I don’t know how I could have made such a terrible mistake.” Desdemona remains quiet for a moment, takes a drag from her cigarette and exhales a pale blue cloud of smoke. “Don’t worry darling, I wasn’t going to hold it against you.” His insomnia having robbed him of his mental strength, Hank drops his head down onto her knees, breathes in her narcotic scent and releases a long, anguished, sob.
With his head on her lap, and Desdemona stroking his thick, black, hair, Hank clutches her knee while weeping, his tears soaking deep into her now wet lap. Desdemona continues stroking his hair and then begins stroking his face. Hank opens his eyes, looks up, and sees Desdemona lowering her eyelids, as she leans in to him with pursed lips.
When it comes to Desdemona, our prophet is barking up the wrong tree, or perhaps the wrong limb is more like it.
Hank takes in her lips and loses himself in the moment: their kiss covered in salty wetness, their lips like taffy pulling at one another with great tension, their hands strangely curious. Hank suddenly, bolts upright, trying to shake a sick feeling overcoming him. He can’t get over the feeling that he is crossing into a dark territory. He can’t come to terms with how much Desdemona looks like Ramona.
The chauffeur drives for a while, eventually pulling into a diner in a vacant, industrial part of town (where Desdemona can remain unnoticed). She orders a tuna fish sandwich, and he, liver and onions. They continue to talk. Desdemona chuckles, “You’ve got me all wrong Hank.” “Those cheap, dime store photographers are not worth the papers they put their names on.” Brimming with satisfaction, she adds, “When I hired my decoy, I told her it was the Tabloids that had me in a tizzy. But that’s not entirely true. What’s really eating me, Hank, is that the mob wants in on my films and I have no intention of sharing.” She looks at Hank, in hopes of intriguing him with her story.
Hank remains quiet.
On their drive back, Desdemona is chatty and oblivious to Hank’s silence. “Lets just say that I might have said a few things they didn’t like, so I’m waiting for them to cool off, “ she says as she presses the chrome button on the glove compartment, popping open the door to reveal a shiny silver gun. Hank, cracks a kindly smile, yet feels his face going numb. He manages an, “I see. I’m sorry to hear that”.
Desdemona’s driver drops Hank off in the parking lot while Desdemona sets a date to see him the following weekend. Hank’s green eyes and strange magnetic qualities have Desdemona swooning, begging for a kiss as she drops him off. All Hank can think of, as he kisses Desdemona goodbye, is that he needs to find Ramona, and quick!
Ramona is breathing heavily. She is running down the block. Hank is about 20 yards behind her. He is gaining in on her, when her heel gets caught in the sidewalk, and she flies, arms outstretched, through the air and lands on a small patch of grass. Hank catches up to her, drops to his knees, and panicked, makes sure she is ok, brushing the grass off from her skirt and hands. “Why, are you running away from me?” he yells at the top of lungs. Ramona sobs, “Hank, I know it’s you – but you, you, gotta stay away from me.” “Trust me on this” Hank helps Ramona up and she immediately looks around and then pulls him into an alleyway and whispers, “You need to get as far away from here as possible and pretend you don’t know me” You hear?” – “No Ramona, you listen to ME!” said Hank. “You’re being set up, the mob is on Desdemona’s tail. Your life is in danger!” Ramona looks at him, wide eyed and then lets out a laugh. “Silly boy, I know that. You think I don’t know what’s going on?” “My dear Hank, you under estimate me.”
“Now you need to go.” “I’ll find you later…I promise,” urged Ramona. With that, she ran down the street, becoming a mere speck in Hank’s vision. Gone again..
From a distance, one could see that this was a house of cards about to fall, not by the weight of gravity, but by the ill wind that is about to blow.
As Hank walks away, he notices a pack of matches that have fallen to the sidewalk, right about where his sister fell. He reaches down, grabs the matches and reads the name on the cover: The Ward Motel. He places the pack of matches in his pocket.
…The Mirror Has Two Faces
The word “decoy” can mean many things. When used as a noun: “a bird or mammal, or an imitation of one, used by hunters to attract other birds or mammals.” When used as a verb: “to lure or entice (a person or animal) away from an intended course, typically into a trap.”
In this story, both definitions of decoy apply.
That very same night, Hank does some sleuthing at the Ward Hotel and discovers that Ramona is in room 121.
Hank decides to knock on Ramona’s door with the hope that, behind four walls, she’ll be more open to talking. He knocks and waits the allotted time of about 45 seconds. He knocks a second time, leaning in closer to the door this time, and hears muffled arguing inside. Finally, the door opens, just a smidgen, revealing a woman’s face. She initially says nothing and just stares at Hank. Hank asks, “Who are you? Where is Ramona?” Through the crack, she nervously mentions that her name is Edna and asks, “What do you want? “There is no one here by that name.”
“I’m looking for my sister, I know she’s in there.” Hank yells. Just as Edna tries to close the door on him, Hank pushes the door open, knocking Edna to the floor and runs into the room.
Inside, like bookends on both sides of the bed, are two identical women: each one wears a black dress, black high heels, and a mane of black hair, cascading down onto their shoulders. They are reflections of one another, with one exception: only one has a gun in her hand. Hank volleys his eyes to the left and right, quickly trying to discern which one is his sister. “Stop! Don’t shoot!” he shouts!
The woman to the left, who is at a serious disadvantage, a gun being pointed in the direction of her head, implores, “Hank, it’s me Ramona, don’t let her shoot!” The woman to the right, who immediately interjects (the gun in her hand), says calmly, “Don’t believe her Hank, She’s lying. I’m Ramona and you know it.” Hank at a complete loss, doesn’t know what to do. He holds his arms up in the air, to show that he is unarmed and tries to move towards the bed. The woman to his right, warns him not to get closer.
Shots ring out and Hank can see that they are not from in front of him, rather, from behind him.
Hank drops to the floor and makes a momentous decision. He decides that the woman to the right is Ramona, and inches his way towards her, in an attempt to protect her. A series of shots ring out again, and the woman to the right falls, like a bird shot out of a tree, splayed, face down, onto the ground; her arms outstretched, her gun, still clenched in her hand.
Hank turns around and sees: two men with guns running out of the motel room accompanied by Edna and the other Ramona. Hank, terrified, shimmies towards his sister, who is clearly mortally wounded. He stands for a moment, to take in his bearings, and as he reaches his sister, drops to his knees, sobbing. He tries to lift her into his arms and as her lifeless arms drop to the floor, he sees that there is no tattoo of a green eye on her wrist.
Hank drops Desdemona’s body onto the floor with a thud, looks around the room and then walks out the door.
With the grace of a winter snowbird, Hank’s aqua blue Buick flies due east; the lights of Gomorrah, twinkling like gems in his rearview mirror. Hank does not look back.
He continues on, passing through the ungrateful winds of the California desert, heading towards the Imperial Valley. The heat of the asphalt conjures up mirages on the road as he heads towards his destination: the Salton Sea. He pulls onto a remote dirt road, the wind forcing tumbleweeds across the road before him. A “Y” in the road forces Hank to make a sharp turn to the right as crosses over a set of railroad tracks.
The moon is on fire, clinging to the bottom of the sky.
Hank continues on, the road now sand, with deep rivets challenging his Buick. His headlights randomly catch the glassy eyes of coyotes on and off the road, quietly peering back at him.
He crosses another railroad track and in the distance sees a large bonfire. Hank drives towards the fire and parks. As he approaches, Hank sees three vagabonds, sitting on a mound of truck tires, feeding a metal drum full of scrub brush, desert sage and tumbleweeds. Sparks flare upward, flying into the eastward winds.
Hank takes a seat on a tire and acknowledges a white haired vagabond, the same vagabond who had walked on water just a few weeks back. The man looks at Hank intently and nods.
Hank leans back, exhales, and takes in the nighttime sky; dark, but for the constellations above, communicating to the world, their mythic history. Hank spies the belt of Orion. Orion was killed by Artemis’ arrow. Artemis, a goddess, was known for her skill with a bow and arrow. Artemis was also known for something else: helping to deliver her male twin, Apollo, into the world.
Hank faces the white haired vagabond and says, “Heh Dad, I found Ramona”.
If you want to read more about Hank, Desdemona and Ramona:
Copyright 2015 Meike Kopp and Manifest Destiny