|DEATH BEGINS IN THE COLON|
STORY by Willard Manus
When he finally spotted his daughter, standing on the corner of Hollywood and Hudson, something caught so tightly in Norman Weissman's chest that he had to stop and fight for breath.
She was clad in red satin hot pants over black tights, red high heels that hiked her butt up, and a tank top that bared most of her shoulders, arms and breasts. As he stood watching her, his chest heaving, he recalled another more innocent time when she had dressed up in similar theatrical fashion, back when she was small and had been cast in a school play.
"It's 'MacBeth'," she explained, preening before a mirror in the long gown Lorraine had sewn for her. "I play Mrs MacBeth."
As Norman started to cross the boulevard he noticed a white BMW pull alongside and the driver leaning over to speak with her. Panicking, afraid she was about to get in the car and be taken off, he began to run toward her, calling out her name.
Suddenly the car pulled away, leaving her looking up, right at him. He slowed down, trying to compose himself, keep from being too emotional and confrontational with her, the way he had been counselled.
Elizabeth stared at him through heavily shadowed eyes, mouth a thick crimson smear.
All he was aware of was the garish way she looked, such a burlesque of a streetwalker. It would have been comical had it not been for the look in her eyes: surprise and shame showing, pain too, all intensified by a drug-induced glitter. Her pupils had shrunk down to tiny black dots.
"What do you want?"
"Just to talk."
"I see that. But can't you stop for a coffee, a sandwich?"
Her gaze flicked involuntarily to where sat a parked car, just around the corner. It was a big, black, shiny El Dorado with a license plate reading: "DADDY."
Elizabeth began chewing on her lower lip, a familiar sign of distress.
"I don't think so," she said finally.
"Hey, come on," he replied. "You can give me five lousy minutes, can't you?"
"Is Mom with you?"
"She's at a motel."
"I don't want to see her. I won't talk to her," Elizabeth said, her voice rising.
"I'll be alone. I promise."
She mulled it over, studying him through her black-lined, shrunken little eyes. Finally she said, "All right, I'll meet you at Yoshinoya's, at Vine and Santa Monica at two."
With that, she turned away and walked off, crossing to the other side of Hudson.
He went in the other direction, down Hollywood, looking for a phone booth. He found one a block away but its handpiece had been ripped out and its walls were scrawled with Spanish graffiti. He went further east in search of another payphone, feeling a sense of elation, even triumph. He had found her, against all the odds, and she hadn't rejected or insulted him, as she had the last time they had talked, in New York, when he had suggested that they all go into family therapy together.
"You've got the problems, not me," she had snapped. "You and Mom are the fucked up ones."
"Could be. But at least we're not strung out on heroin."
"I can kick any time I want. Anyway, look who's talking. You've done grass and coke all your life."
That much was true. Norman had been a steady user of drugs going back to the early 50's, when he hung out in jazz clubs and considered himself a hipster, a rebel whose badge of honor was marijuana. The coke had come much later, when he could afford the stuff, but he used it only casually, just on special occasions. He had always smoked openly at home, though, thinking that if Elizabeth grew up seeing it was no big deal she'd act that way toward it herself when she grew older.
The coke was another story. He had tried to hide his habit from her but she was a lot more observant than he realized and knew exactly when he'd been snorting. She even knew where he hid his gold dust and began to dip into it herself, until she was caught at it by her mother, who freaked out and attacked her physically. She had never forgiven Lorraine for that.
Not long after that Elizabeth ran away, with her highschool boyfriend, a would-be rock musician. After the police found her and brought her back, she ran away again, with a girl she'd met at a drug-dealer's pad. The police couldn't help this time. Norman and Lorraine hired private detectives, joined a support group, took to the road themselves, turning up a clue here, a lead there. The search trail had zigzagged across the country over a two-year period, finishing up deep in the heart of Hollywood.
As he crossed Hollywood and Vine, Norman spotted a phone on the wall of a tiny fast-food joint called "Dos Burritos." He went inside the shack, which was dingy and had hand-written specials tacked to the walls, but behind the three-stool counter was an old-fashioned coffee urn giving off a heady, fresh-brewed aroma.
Ordering a cup of black and a couple of sugar-dusted donuts, Norman called his wife. When she answered she sounded fuzzy and strange.
"Did I wake you?"
"I guess so," she said. There was a pause. "Shit, I must've fallen asleep with a cigarette in my fingers. There's a burn mark on the sheets."
"Jesus, be careful, huh? What's the idea of going back to smoking anyway?"
"Can't help it," she admitted. "I've gone through half a pack since you went out. The room smells like a chimney."
"This'll cheer you up," he said. "This'll ease your mind a bit."
Lorraine cried out when he told her the news but was upset to hear he had let Elizabeth get away.
"What else could I do, grab her and wrestle her to the ground?"
"Yes, yes, anything to get her off the streets."
"Come on, Lo, you know coercion won't work; it would only make her turn against us even more. Anyway, her goddamn pimp was sitting nearby watching us. You think he'd give her up without a fight?"
"You could've called the cops."
"Don't talk like a fool. I played it the right way. She agreed to meet later. That's all that counts."
"Suppose she doesn't show?"
"She'll show, I'm sure of it."
Lorraine still thought they shouldn't leave anything to chance, that they should call a friend, ask him to come to the rendezvous with a van, help grab her and take her prisoner if necessary.
"You're not being realistic. You know how rebellious she is. If she does come home with us, it'll be because she wants to, not because she's been forced to."
Lorraine gave a painfilled sigh and said, "I suppose we should be thankful that she's still alive--that some creep or rapist hasn't slit her throat, or that she hasn't o.d'd on drugs."
She began instructing him on how to handle things when they met. "Be firm but warm," she emphasized. "Let her know we still love her, no matter what. Don't jump on her or lay any kind of guilt trip on her. Just let her know we want her back with no strings attached."
"Yeah, yeah," Norman said impatiently. They'd had this conversation a hundred, a thousand, times before; he could recite it by rote.
"Oh, God," Lorraine suddenly cried. "You'll bring her back, won't you, Norman? You'll bring my little girl back?"
When he hung the phone up, Norman felt a powerful wave of fatigue sweep over him. He looked at his watch: 12.30 a.m. here, 3.30 a.m. New York time. And an hour and a half to go.
He had another cup of coffee for the caffeine and tried to kill some time by chatting with the Latino counterman, but the man's English was so limited that communication proved treacherous. Norman picked up a nearby discarded newspaper instead; it was a giveaway that called itself "L.A.'s alternate weekly." He tried to read some of the pieces on local politics and personalities, but found it too hard to concentrate on anything but the ads, one of which caught his eye because of its heading: "Death Begins In the Colon."
He read on: "A group of physicians in England have reported that 'Death Begins in the Colon.' Probably more diseases and problems commence in this vital region than in any other area of the body."
The right side of the half-page ad showed three photos with captions. "Compare the NORMAL colon below with those on the right," said the text.
Trouble was, the photograph of the so-called normal colon looked, in blurred black and white, more like the torso of a headless woman in an hourglass corset than it did the X-ray of a healthy intestine. And the other two, smaller photos, presumably meant to show the swollen, diseased insides of "a 24-year old woman" and a "30-year old man," were even more laughable, resembling upside-down babies in a bottle.
Norman read on nonetheless, learning that colon disfunction could cause irregularity, constipation and diarrhea, not to speak of feelings of hunger, lack of strength, loss of energy and listless sex drive, among other things.
When he finished he hit the streets again. Norman was a walker by nature; in New York he spent most mornings, before driving out to residential Queens and Brooklyn to sell aluminum siding with his sidekick Maury Spector, strolling around the city, investigating places few people knew: the new Battery Park section with its mixture of condos, marinas and high-rise office towers; East Broadway, no longer a Jewish but an Asian enclave, like a miniature Hong Kong. Norman walked five, ten miles a day, poking into offbeat shops along the way, sampling the street food as well, the gyros and shishkebobs and chicharrones that had replaced the hot franks and pastrami sandwiches of his youth.
There were no vendors on Hollywood Boulevard at this hour, though the sidewalks were full of pedestrians. In all, Hollywood Boulevard resembled a gigantic movie set with its shops lit by revolving spotlights and technicolor neon and pumping out non-stop rock music to attract customers. The windows of these shops were heaped with showbiz paraphernalia: pink baby-doll negligees, lacy panties and garterbelts, movie stills, maps of the stars, and the likenesses of America's holy trinity, James Dean, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, imprinted on posters, T-shirts, plates, scarves, spoons and pocket knives.
On impulse, Norman went into a shop and picked up one of the knives in question, a hefty switchblade showing Elvis' pompadoured image on one side and the words "Love Me Tender" on the other. When he squeezed the button, five inches of sharp-edged, lethal-looking steel snapped open with a whap.
Elizabeth had loved Elvis when she was a teenybopper; maybe she'd still get a kick out of this thing. He bargained hard with the Iranian salesclerk, knocking him down from twenty-five to twelve bucks for it.
Back out into the slightly chilly, smoggy night he went, going east on Hollywood Boulevard this time, away from the glitz and schlock, putting the Pantages Theatre and the Walk of Fame gold stars behind him. A mile away there were few shops open and even fewer pedestrians. Norman went south, looking for a bar, a club, any place where he could find a drink. Two blocks away he came across a brightly lit doorway from which pulsed loud rock music. No name over the entrance, but a crowd of kids were hanging around it anyway, hoping to be let inside by the doorman, a bruising black guy on the scale of a pro football player.
Norman quickly sussed out what it took to be admitted: you had to be in costume, either punk or period, like those two "Gone With the Wind" kids dressed up as Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler who were being waved in. Clad in jeans and a sweatshirt, with his balding head and squinty face, Norman looked about as square and middleaged as a man could, but he was still determined to cross the line.
"Can I help you?"
Norman brought out the fake press card he had bought from some cockamamie mail-order house five years ago. He had used it only once before, to get into the Matisse exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
The doorman looked it over, eyes going from the card to Norman and back.
"What's it about?" he asked.
"Hey, man, didn't they tell you? I'm here doing a story for Rolling Stone on the club."
A pause, then the bouncer shrugged his shoulders, as if to say who gives a fuck.
"All right, mister. But you'll still have to buy a ticket. We don't give no freebies away nohow."
Norman handed over a ten, got nothing back but a stub, and went inside. To his surprise he found the club to be just a barnlike room: no decorations, very few chairs and tables, with a bandstand and four guys with long, teased hair of many colors--red, green, yellow, and white--pounding out amplified, earsplitting music. Their makeup and costumes were equally bizarre--lipstick, rouge, silky blouses, nose-rings-- but they played with energy and fire, making the walls shake and the girls squeal with adoration.
The patrons provided more color and pageantry. Each one of them was dressed as if for a costume party or masked ball. Some had spiky, twisted purple hair and orange mouths, others wore frock coats and crinoline skirts. Nearly all were on the dance floor, flailing around like puppets. In the air was the raw and acrid smell of marijuana.
Norman crossed to the bar, waited while a couple dressed as Batman and Batwoman bought Budweiser Lites, then ordered a double Stolnie on the rocks.
The bartender, also black and big, looked familiar. Norman remembered.
"A.T.," he said. "How you doin', man?"
A.T. looked back, staring disbelievingly.
"New York. Stuyvesant Town. Paddle ball."
Recognition spread across A.T.'s round, moustachioed face.. "Oh yeah, yeah. I remember you now. You were some tiger on the court. What'cha doin' out here?"
"Exactly my question to you."
A.T. used to work in the Lexington Avenue post office, Norman recalled. He was also a smalltime dealer in coke.
"Came out to the coast three years ago to make it as an actor," came the explanation.
"I didn't know you were an actor."
"Neither does anybody else, I'm afraid."
"You'll make it, just hang in," Norman said, adding: "Can you get me high?"
"Hmmm," A.T. said, eying Norman differently now. Finally: "You talkin' a toot or something more serious?"
"A little dab'll do me."
"Cost you a B.F., daddy."
Norman slid a hundred-dollar bill across the bar. A.T. put it on the cash register, rang up No Sale, dropped the bill in the drawer and slipped Norman a twist of paper.
Norman went off to the men's room. It was empty, so he tapped out a line on a paper towel and started doing it, only to hear a woman's voice, "Can you spare a little of that?"
"Either I'm in the wrong place or you are."
"The little girl's is jammed and I just couldn't hold it in any longer."
He turned and gave a start. She looked so much like Elizabeth--small, dark-haired, pretty. She was about the same age too, was even tarted-up in a mini-skirt, tight blouse, black fishnet stockings. She looked at him, flirtatiously.
"So what about it, can you spare a little?"
"Here," he said, sliding the towel along the counter, "be my guest."
"Thanks," she said, bending over to snort. "I was afraid you were going to ask me to give you a blowjob for it."
"Would you have given it to me?"
"Only if you used a rubber."
"You a pro?" he asked.
"A pro?" she repeated, blinking back the effect of the coke.
He gestured at her attire.
"Oh, this? Don't take it that serious. I'm a word processor, but for a snootful of good coke I would go down on King Kong."
She went into a toilet stall and closed the door behind her. He went back out into the club, feeling dizzy and flushed, the result of the coke on top of the Stolnie. He hadn't used drugs in a long time, not since the problems with Elizabeth.
He felt someone tap him on the shoulder, the girl again. "Where'd you go?" she asked, shouting over the noise of the band. "Why didn't you wait for me?"
"Come on," he replied. "I'm old enough to be your father."
"I know that," she said, "but who cares? Maybe I like old guys. They know how to take care of a girl. And they always have good drugs around."
A sudden rage gripped him. He wanted to take her and all the other kids in the room, these campy, crazy kids in their weird androgynous costumes, and give them a good shake.
Instead he turned and started out.
"Hey," the girl yelled, grabbing at him. "Where you going? Don't you want to dance? Don't you want me?"
He couldn't get away from her. "Why should I want you?" he asked, knowing he was losing control, "don't you know what's going on in your colon?"
Outside, he walked hard and fast, trying to clear his head, get back in control, because in less than an hour he was going to have to deal with his daughter and her pimp, who'd surely be there; Daddy wasn't about to lose his mealticket without a fight.
Norman kept walking hard, the way he did in Manhattan, where he prided himself on being able to time pedestrian signals and traffic flow so precisely that he never needed to break his rhythm; he had once walked from 125th St. to 14th St. without ever once coming to a halt.
It was a cinch to keep going on the back streets of Hollywood where there were no pedestrians and even fewer cars. He was the only thing moving through this neighborhood of small recording studios and sound stages, shuttered sandwich shops and photography labs. Here and there stood a few old wooden houses, boxes really, and motel-like apartment units built around a patch of turf, the odd, stunted palm tree. Life showed through the barred-in windows of some of these places, the blue light of a tv, a woman standing over an ironing board, but for the most part the area was dim, silent, desolate.
About a mile away Norman's street antennae began to pick up intimations of danger. Clumps of Latino youths stood on the corners here, eying him coldly and suspiciously as he walked by. Further along he passed men, obvious drug pushers, waiting in doorways or alongside parked cars.
"Ti queres?" one of them asked.
"Nada," he replied, walking on, sweat leaking from his armpits, right hand gripping the Elvis Presley switchblade in his pocket.
When he reached the corner of Cahuenga Boulevard, a main thoroughfare bisecting Hollywood in a north-south direction, a car came toward him, downshifting and slowing as it drew close. From the rear window someone chucked a plastic bag filled with liquid at him; it broke at his feet and splattered all over him.
A howl of laughter went up from the car as it gunned its engine and sped away, leaving him shaking his fist and hurling curses after it.
Fortunately, the liquid was only water, but the adrenaline and anger were still pumping away in him as he reached Yoshinoya's. He looked in through the plate-glass window of the fast-food joint; neither Elizabeth nor her pimp was in sight.
Norman went inside and ordered a cup of tea and a toasted English from the tired-looking Oriental girl behind the counter. She took no notice of his wet clothes.
Ten minutes later Elizabeth walked in, face looking tight and drawn under the heavy makeup. She was chewing on her lip again. He wondered how many men she had been with tonight and how much heroin she had taken to get through it all.
"What would you like?"
"Nothing to eat?"
She made a face, the same she used to make when she was a kid being coaxed to eat her vegetables.
When the coffee came she emptied three packs of sugar into it, took a side glance at him and said defiantly, "The answer is no."
"To the question of whether I want to come home."
"We had something else in mind."
He explained what it was: that she go into a drug rehabilitation clinic they had found in Minneapolis. It not only specialized in helping addicted teenagers to get clean but in working with them afterward, giving them the counselling and structured environment they needed to stay off drugs and keep out of trouble.
"How long would I have to stay there?"
"There's no time limit. Lots of kids live there while going to school or doing a job."
"Would you be around?"
"We'd come out from New York to visit, if you wanted. If not, we'd just expect to get a letter or a phone call from you once in a while. The point is, you'd be on your own, no parents hanging over your shoulder, breaking your balls."
She sipped her coffee, mind seeming to wander off. He wondered if she were thinking about the clinic or simply fantasizing about her next fix.
His spirits quickened when she turned and mumbled, "How soon could I go there?"
"We could leave tonight," he answered. "Right now," he added.
She looked at him, impressed. He was glad he had prowled the neighborhood and could mention the Greyhound bus terminal he'd discovered a few blocks away.
"There's a bus leaving for the midwest in half an hour," he lied. He had no idea of the schedules, just wanted to get on the first bus out with her, anywhere it went, as long as it was away from here.
"But what about my clothes--and mom?"
"We'll buy clothes as we travel and mom has an air ticket home."
He was scoring points. She had always criticized him for being indecisive, a man who was stuck in his ways, always unwilling to leave New York and his job and paddle ball and Friday nights at Elaine's. Yet here he was, ready to take off at a moment's notice, fly where the winds took them. It made him more man in her eyes.
"Time to get back to work," came a voice from over Norman's shoulder. The expression on Elizabeth's face told him who it was.
Norman was shocked to see how young Daddy was, barely in his twenties. He was small and trim, like a gymnast, nothing like the cliche heavy he had been expecting, some fat sleazeball of an ex-con.
In his soft, dove-grey suede suit and matching hat and shoes, a single gold chain looped around his neck, Daddy looked more like an up-and-coming sports promoter or an MTV announcer than he did a pimp. His skin was dark, not black but deep-brown, the color of an old baseball mitt. His looks were sharp-edged and intelligent, but marred by his mouth, mean and bony as a moray eel's.
"We haven't finished," Norman said.
"Yeah, but she works for me," Daddy pointed out.
"Not any more she doesn't," Norman said, taking his shot.
"Says me, nigger." Norman said it as loudly as he could, letting it hit the black man like a slap in the face.
There was a silence in the restaurant, a temporary cessation of movement.
Daddy stepped toward him, mouth tightening into an angry line, his eyes narrowing down into slits.
"What'd you call me?" he asked ominously, left hand wandering toward his jacket pocket.
"Just what you are, a nigger pimp, with a nigger car at the curb and a white girl tricking for him," Norman went on, trying to stay on the offensive, keep from showing any sign of weakness or fear.
Daddy eyed him, still taking his measure. Then he grinned suddenly--bared his teeth, really.
"You talk shit, but you still pissed yo' pants," he pointed out, with delight.
"That was just practice. Next I'm gonna piss on you."
Daddy scowled and his voice took on menace again. "You got a big mouth, man."
"I didn't come to talk to you. I came to take my daughter away."
"You think I'm gonna give her up just like that?"
"It's not up to you. I'm her father and she's underage. You could go to jail for that."
"She told me she was eighteen. She showed me I.D."
"Don't give me that shit. You knew how old she was."
Daddy studied Norman, intently, silently. Then he looked at Elizabeth for the first time. "After all I done for you, are you really thinkin' of goin' off with him?"
Elizabeth sat staring with hollow eyes at her cup of coffee.
"Well it ain't gonna be that easy," Daddy went on. "I got an investment in you. I set you up, gave you a place to live and all the shit you could put in your arm. You think I'm gonna just let you walk on out the fucking door, bitch?"
"You want money? Is that it?" Norman asked. "I'll give you money, goddamn it."
"Money? Who's talkin' about money?" Daddy said, pushing his face at Norman, so close that he could smell the whiskey on his breath. "This ain't about money, motherfucker, it's about love."
Norman looked at Elizabeth, who was still staring at her coffee.
"Is that true?" he asked her.
Still no answer.
"Do you really love him?" he demanded.
The answer to that was in the way she looked at Daddy and in the way he returned her glance.
Daddy stood up and took Elizabeth's hand. "Come on," he said to her softly, tenderly. "Come on Lizzie, baby, I'm takin' you home, sweets."
She smiled up at him. Norman looked at her, thinking Mrs MacBeth, Mrs MacBeth. Then he pulled out the switchblade and drove it up to the hilt into Daddy's stomach.
The pimp did not cry out, just looked down at the Elvis knife in his gut and at the blood beginning to spurt from the wound.
Elizabeth opened her mouth to scream, but nothing came out. The handful of people looked away and then, unable to resist, focused their eyes on Daddy. There was a silence. Norman saw the man's hands slide down and press against his belly, as if trying to staunch the reddening wound. The newspaper ad that talked about death beginning in the colon edged into Norman's mind.