map Posers

by Nick Burton

Published in Issue No. 7 ~ April, 1997

We were all glitter and flash, still trying to squeeze some cultural juice out of what we thought was a legacy that had been handed to us from that decade just a few years before, not quite heavy metal kids, but more like California mods, upper middle class kids living as much as we could like adults, in full denial of adolescence. The look may have been a pose; Ron wore snakeskin platform shoes, Danny wore glitter in his hair. Nancy made me a green satin jacket, which I once wore with a woman’s floral scarf that went down past my waist.

Christ, if it was a pose, it seemed uncalculated, almost as if we were going out of our way to be misfits and oddities, searching for the other abstractions of society like it was a carny side show. We were hopelessly Anglophilic, convinced that America had become a creative tundra, and maybe we were the privileged ones who might have a hand in changing all that.

The only sin in Nancy’s eyes was sloth. It was a sign of resignation in life, something that forfeited your sexuality and your youth, an unpardonable wrong. She wanted nothing to do with anyone that wasn’t perpetually involved in some kind of creative endeavor. She would sit at a drafting table in her upstairs loft turning out work that fell somewhere between Howard Pyle and Maxfield Parrish, pictures that carried a kind of baroque sadness, a nostalgia for the middle echelons of royalty. Nancy’s seemed to be the hub of our wheel, our meeting place, even if she wasn’t there. If there was nothing happening, I’d park in front of Nancy’s and in no time, someone would drive by to see what was going on. I often met Peter there, and we would stay up till dawn at PJ’s donuts, smoking Marlboros and drinking coffee with off-duty security guards who boasted about wife-swapping, and were convinced we were all homosexual drug dealers. Danny would meet us there dressed like a Zeidler & Zeidler peacock.

We felt like kings and queens, superior because we were rockers who went to Henry Moore exhibitions, kids with Les Pauls who watched Fellini films. But we were asexual, scared from the waist down. At the time, sex was not important in our imagined aristocracy. It was a subject that lay just under the surface of everything we did, the subtext of our actions, but the act itself was infrequent. If you’re reading Kafka and Huysmans at nineteen, asexuality is a hip pose, a validation of phony intellectual consistency.

It was then that I met Terry, the candy girl at the Malden theatre, an art house on a residential street that had once been home to an indoor swimming pool. Terry was blonde, plain, alarmingly pale and thin to the point of looking unhealthy, wore dirty t- shirts, army pants and high top sneakers. I ignored her at first, chatting with her occasionally after a movie to be friendly, or if I was with Nancy, I simply wouldn’t acknowledge her at all. But one night after a poorly attended screening of El Topo, I saw Terry sitting on the curb outside the Malden. It was past midnight, and she was drinking Vodka from paper wrapped bottle. She needed a ride home, she said. Even though she only lived a mile or so from the theatre, she was too tired, too drunk. Had I been with Nancy or any of my friends – Danny, I thought at the time, would have ridiculed me for the rest of my life for stooping to help someone who seemed as completely unexceptional as Terry – I wouldn’t have done it but it was late, and we were actually having an intelligent conversation about the film despite her condition.

Terry lived in tiny two bedroom house set in amongst a small yard hidden from the street by a cluster of jacarandas. She asked me in for a cup of coffee, and before I could analyze why I shouldn’t or what would happen if anyone found out I was hanging out with a boozed out girl who lived in what we would have considered a slum, I just went in with her. The inside of her house was alarmingly decorated with photos of nuclear explosions. On the refrigerator, in small frames above a tiny fireplace, in even smaller frames around tables, pictures of the Bikini test, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, the Nevada proving grounds. She had an ancient Magnavox record player in the corner of the almost bare living room, set up with an old 45 changer. She clicked it on, and as we talked, a steady stream of old Phil Spector records played softly in the background: The Crystals, The Ronettes, Darlene Love singing Today I Met The Boy I’m Gonna Marry. She told me about how she lived all over the world in army bases with her father. Before she was born her parents had lived near a test site in Yucca Flats, Nevada, and was convinced that as a result, her father contracted lung cancer. He was still in the hospital, just barely able to speak. She said she never knew her mother.

Terry was more frightened of nuclear war than anyone I had ever spoken with. It was almost a religion for her. She showed me a drawer full of old brochures on fallout shelters, civil defense pamphlets on the effects of radiation and so on. She was fascinating and eloquent on the subject, but as the conversation tailed off into short pauses filled by the record player, the inevitability of sex became apparent.

But whereas sex with Nancy had been spiritless and instructional, with Terry, it was fucking. Sweaty, primal, athletic fucking. We laughed and moaned and screamed like banshees in that little house, acting like it was ground zero and we only had a few hours left. At dawn we went to Tiny Naylor’s for breakfast and talked about B-movies like Carnival Of Souls and Black Sunday. It was an insane, surreal, perfect 24 hours.

I was seeing Terry every night now, ignoring Nancy and my friends and all the hip arrogance that had bound us to each other. I never mentioned Terry to anyone, but confidence loves company just as much as misery, so my confessor turned out to be Danny, the most lordly of us all, a neon mod who wore stacked heels and died his hair stripped until it was white, who I felt was the least likely of my friends to involve himself in any affairs beside his own. It wasn’t long after that Danny got curious, and came with me to see Terry at her house.

If my outlook on life had been becoming existential and bleak before I met Terry, Danny’s was pagan. He had read DeSade when he was 18 and decided we live in a Godless mess of a world fit only for annihilation or the total indulgence of excess. And if I had sparked something inside Terry that had temporarily taken her mind off her obsessions, Danny’s almost militant nihilism turned Terry on in a way I never could have, and within a few days the two were inseparable. But I never felt betrayed or lied to; if anything I saw them as a having a kind of passion for life that I never had before, an example that should have pointed me away from the horrible pretensions of maturity that I had been clinging to.

There were nights, particularly with Nancy, who I was spending most of my time with now, where all I could think of was Terry. Her father died not too long after that night, and she quit her job at the Malden to move to Hollywood with Danny. I began my first year of Community College that fall, hung up my guitar for a drafting table, and began studying architecture. It was apparent, however, that since my instructors wanted Frank Lloyd Wright and I wanted to be Antonio Gaudi, I saw my career in this field to a replay of The Fountainhead, so my enthusiasm was short-lived. I tried film making, but the conflicts there were unbearable. We all wanted to make our own Un Chien Andalou but the school wanted instructional how-to films, turning all us would-be Bunuels into brainless corporate shills.

I heard from Danny during the spring. He called and asked if would visit the two of them. I met Danny at a coffee shop on Wilshire boulevard, Terry being conspicuously absent both in the flesh and in Danny’s typically severe and intransigent social discourses. Danny had theories on any number of societal phenomena, and this night he went on about how football has an inherently homosexual activity, since it excludes and does not encourage the participation of women. It was Danny’s theory that football and most other professional sports were a way for American males to live out their same-sex fantasies without fear or social censure from other males. Any activities, Danny said, that precluded a female influence were not worth participating in, and generally lead to destructive, war like behavior. We walked around Wilshire boulevard near Beverly Hills for a while, ending up at a park with an enormous tree at the corner of Beverly Drive and Santa Monica boulevard. It was there that I finally brought up the subject of Terry, which he had been trying all night to avoid in an obvious manner that was slightly embarrassing to both of us.

Terry had been doing well when they first moved in together, and she began to get interested in the occult, Danny said, as a means to connect in some way with her father. She read everything she could dealing with mysticism or black magic, from Aleister Crowley to H.P. Lovecraft, trying to find a way to get to the other side. She died her hair black, and gave up her army pants for black lace thrift shop dresses. After prowling around the grounds of the Hollywood mansion that Harry Houdini lived in late at night, she said the spirit of the magician came to her and told her she had healing powers and a connection to the spirit world. Danny hated anything like that, thought it was all the worst kind of bullshit hucksterism, no different than revival tent faith healing, but Terry was tremendously happy, and Danny let her have her interest without too much complaint.

She was even happier when she got herself a used Ford Galaxy from an ad in the paper, and Danny gave her most of the money to get it. She was driving home from a seance in the Hollywood hills one evening just as it was getting dark, and hit a little boy playing in the street. Terry was hopeful at first, and went to the hospital with the child’s parents, but the boy died. Terry called Danny from the hospital asking him to please meet her there, but by the time he got there, she was gone. The police had determined that the tragic accident was not her fault, and she simply vanished. Danny waited for a couple of days before he filed a missing persons report with the police but he knew nothing would come of it. She never came back for anything in the apartment, and Danny said she never would, but he kept everything of hers there in an uncharacteristic display of wishful thinking.

We sat in silence in that park, knowing that there was nothing more to say about Terry, and about an hour later the hazy morning sun began to rise. Danny asked if he knew anybody who wanted to but Terry’s car. It had been impounded on the night of the accident by the police, but Danny didn’t pick up for two weeks after. As we walked back down to Wilshire not saying a word to each other, I resolved to buy Terry’s car from him, which I did a couple of weeks later. He sold it to me for fifty dollars.

Danny moved to England the next year. He wrote often, generally complaining as much about the British as he did the Americans. He claimed to have been involved in a pub brawl in which he beat up a rugby fan who called him a poof, but I think Danny made that one up.

Nancy moved to New York a got a job as a graphic artist and never wrote. I stayed in school, learning as much as I could about absolutely everything, trying everything that I swore I never would, and started waking up to the fact that the future was shut for people like us. Everything we had learned or experienced was about to become arcane, cabalistic. If we were an aristocracy, our silk standards would soon be rolled up neatly and stored away in wooden chests.

I got a flat tire one night in Terry’s Galaxy. I went to get the jack from the trunk, realizing I had never opened the trunk of this car before. There was a faded brown envelope under the jack. Inside the envelope was a photograph that I had seen before, back at Terry’s atomic apartment. It was a picture of where her father lived near the proving grounds in Nevada. I like to think that she left it there for either me or Danny to find, a kind of clue to where she might be, a thinly veiled X on a treasure map, but I swore I wasn’t going to do anything about it. At least until Danny got back from England.

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Nick Burton lives in Newport Beach, California. His fiction has appeared in many small press and web publications, inlcuding: Chronicles Of Fiction, Pauper, and of course Pif.
  • Bythe Sky

    This is fantastic. A window into the eyes of young adults and the way they thought and acted and why they thought and acted the way they did. Beautifully written as well.