Jan Richman

I examine my hand while it reaches to flip up the mirror light on the sun visor. The narrow beam pours over my skin like a spilled glass of milk and I forget what I’m supposed to be doing; my hand looks like a hand from one of those Dutch paintings, a white lily poised on the wrist of an expressionless lady. I hold it up, cupped and swiveling. I read somewhere that Tourette’s is hereditary; seventy percent of adults with a Tourettic parent exhibit some neurological symptoms of the disease. I look more closely at my hand, at my gnawed cuticles and at the constellation above my wrist, three mauve scars from where I poked at my skin with a freshly sharpened pencil while doing the New York Times crossword puzzle (Wednesday) until pellicles of graphite merged with purple eruptions of blood to create three tiny Etnas on my right forearm. It is ugly the way only something self-inflicted can be ugly, like a bulimic’s red-veined eyeballs, or anyone in spandex.

It is almost purple dark when we park in the roomy driveway behind the turquoise carport. Jackson, Betty’s slightly younger brother, though not so much younger that it isn’t a tremendous stretch of the imagination to conceive of why he would still be living at home with his mother, is splayed on the front lawn wearing grey sweatpants, cut off at mid-calf, and a “Conjunction Junction” T-shirt. He is a tall, wiry young man with the thatched-roof eyebrows and curlicue grin of the Grinch.

“Jesus, Jackson, give it a rest,” is Betty’s muttered salutation. Whenever Betty has mentioned Jackson to me, she’s employed a satirical tone that defies analysis. “He’s the babyest of baby brothers,” she’ll quip. But looking at him now, romantically illumined by a lemony bug light, Jackson looks neither infantile nor particularly dumb. His arms are ropy and tanned, and his eyes are open. He discreetly darts a glance at Betty while she stomps up the short row of stairs to the front door, but his gaze springs back to me without missing a beat, and he tosses his dirty blonde hair back from his face with a defiant lurch. Either I am coming on the haliperidol, or every other toe on Jackson’s bare feet is painted with glow-in-the-dark glitter polish.

The lawn is plush and cushy and cool on my bare feet, and it takes me a moment to realize that is not made of grass but of some sort of tiny, clover-like ground cover. My foot leaves an ephemeral print, a ghostly green star that fades back into smooth perfection after a few seconds. I sit down and try different body parts, delighting in the cool spongy texture of the carpet under my limbs, a moist bed that seems to be miraculously supplying all the nutrients and oxygen I need to go on living. “Look! It’s the Virgin Mary!” I say to Jackson, as I lift my face from the fertilizer-smelling depths. But Jackson, like the silhouette of the mother of God, has already vanished.

We tried to get to the Valley before we started feeling the dolls. Sherman Oaks is where Betty spent her formative years, carpooling from mall to mall in hundred-and-ten degree heat, stashing shoplifted pairs of jeans throughout the ranch-style house, the large mortgage of which her mom still pays with a combination of alimony checks and wages from her part-time gig as a Beverly Hills beautician. She works at one of those fancy spas that looks like somebody’s private Mediterranean Revival-style home, with valet parking and someone in a nurse costume greeting you at the heavily arched carved-wood front door. Betty says there are always exotic, state-of-the-art beauty products lying around her mom’s house, expensive prescription-strength vitamin C serums and goopy Brazilian depilatory concoctions, eyelid massage instructional videos and magic sand granules that promise to slough off everything from unsightly moles to mustache hairs to years of deploying phony facial expressions. We figure we can get high and tighten our pores, wax our bikini lines, and sit in the hot tub wearing masks made of frog placentas or something.

I am secretly hoping that the haloperidol (that Betty stole from my dad’s medicine cabinet) will allow me to feel as free as Betty seems to, moving through the world as a lobster skitters on the ocean floor. Though she is my best friend, I am never free of the suspicion that Betty is unfamiliar with my most basic mindset. I don’t think she’s ever been really depressed or picked at a mosquito bite until it bled or called somebody in the middle of the night and cried inconsolably when they answered. She rarely questions the wisdom or consequences of her impulsiveness, tongue-kissing strangers and spearheading midnight road trips, creating an ongoing mosaic of haphazard worldly heat that never needs revising or regretting.

I tiptoe into the empty living room—a large, color-coordinated expanse whose central ideology is a large Navajo rug spread out in front of a pink brick fireplace. A few fashion magazines are fanned out on the coffee table.

A crash from somewhere in the back of the house startles me, and then I hear the long shush of water running through pipes. I head down a marigold hallway covered with tasteful arrays of framed family photographs—it seems like all the ones of Jackson are blurred and indistinct, his lithe body heading somewhere out of the frame, his hair wrestling an invisible wind.

In the master bedroom, a Confederate General’s uniform hangs next to the bed suspended from a display hook on the wall. It’s cobalt blue and nosebleed red and prison grey, like a giant parrot dangling there next to her mother’s tackle-box full of Retinol creams. Betty’s mom’s new husband is one of those Civil War reenactment guys. It seems to me that if you’re going to spend a lot of money and time attending to the perfectly authentic look and feel of a historical event, you could flag a more interesting page in the tome of history. Party with King Herod, or burn a few witches at the stake. Enjoy a 12-course meal with the Romanovs, and then flee to Siberia. Give out tabs of acid with the vodka and caviar.

Betty sits naked on the floor of the master bathroom. She is surrounded by thousands of tiny multicolored iridescent beads. They cover the whole surface of the tiled floor, and between her crossed legs there is a hill the size of a New Year’s party hat, leaving a lunar lavender stain on the insides of her thighs. She looks up at me and sighs.

“What are these things?” I ask, leaning down and rolling one of the pellets between my fingers. It looks like a radioactive tapioca pearl. It feels like a stone but when I pierce it with my fingernail it bursts into chalky powder.

“I’m not sure,” Betty says. She looks a little disoriented and pale, her head wobbling slightly. Her shoulders are bony and tanned, and there is a ring of tangerine-colored freckles that I don’t remember seeing before circling her right aureole. “I tried eating one but it tasted like dirt.” She gazes up at me seriously.

“Okay, let’s just review our options,” I say, and squat down beside her. “It’s not food, and it’s probably not art.” I sniff my fingers. “It smells like talcum powder,” I muse. I look around for a whisk broom or a Dustbuster.

Betty lets her head go completely now, and stretches out on the bathroom floor, resting her feet on the porcelain surface of the tub. The luminous pile that was tucked in her crotch gradually topples as she moves. She rolls back and forth on the bed of pellets, and giggles. When she swivels, I see that her asscheeks are covered with a beautiful stippled pattern, like a Seurat painting. The beads are bursting on her skin and leaving distinct pastel spirals. She rolls around, crushing the talc beads and grinding them into the white bathroom tiles; pink and purple polyps are stuck in the grout like berry-heavy hedges.

“What are you doing with your clothes still on?” Betty asks, tugging at the hem of my shorts. She nudges me off balance as she hangs on to my knee while she leans way down to press her underarm into the space between the tub and the toilet where a few stray beads have rolled. I am not usually one to strip off my clothes at the merest suggestion, especially in the presence of a cellulite-free sylph who is known to be a troublemaker, but Betty is making this look too fun. I wriggle out of my backpack and quickly strip, then do a slow push-up into the pile of mystery balls, letting the hard pellets burst against my skin and roll down my neck onto my chest, where they tattoo me with faint butterfly-wing opalescence. A glittery cloud of fairy dust rises from the floor around me. I am a giant sugar cookie being decorated with colored candy sprinkles. I close my eyes and roll around the textured surface of the floor, bumping into Betty and various cool porcelain fixtures, ricocheting off of them in slow motion.

At some point, our ballet slows, and we side-stroke through the atmosphere in drowsy unison, our bodies barely touching as we paint the floor again and again, until we lie side by side on our backs, perfectly still. The silence comes back into the house then, and I can hear the air dissolve into each big room. Betty’s breathing sounds like a waterfall in the distance. After a minute, I turn my head to look at her, her body stretched out shimmering in the glow of the day/office/evening make-up mirror. She feels my gaze, and turns her head to look back at me. We smile, our teeth as white and diamond-tough as the porcelain bathtub. We are and I are both covered from head to toe with strange encrypted messages, orange swirls and muddy pictographs, dotted codes and feathery sky-blue maps. Betty’s pubic hair looks like a sugary Mexican pastry. Mine looks like an exotic sea anemone. Through the frenzy of scribbles, I again notice the hoop of wobbly freckles on Betty’s right breast.

“Did you get a tattoo around your nipple?” I ask.

“Yeah,” she says, lowering her chin to her chest, trying to see it. “I did mushrooms with Kincaid, the drummer from Monopause? He said he would only get a tattoo if I got one too, and so I just got what he got. He’s a radical fairy, and I guess it has some pagan significance, the circle of life or something. I think it looks cool.” She blows down onto her chest, which releases a gust of powder and hardens her right nipple at the same time. The halo of pagan dots tightens concentrically, rallying around her little flesh erection, bolstering it.

“The hot tub!” she cries, jumping up and running down the hall, leaving a trail of pearlized quasi-footprints on the eggshell carpeting. I follow her, grabbing my underwear and tank top from where they landed by the bed.

There are no downy-soft beds of clover in the backyard, just sharp bits of lava raked in odd spirals and a path of glossy black stepping stones leading to the pool. I keep missing the stones and hitting the lava, yelping as I trot. Betty’s already deep in the hot tub with her head slung back over the side, looking at the stars. I sit on the edge and lean back, marveling at the clear dark night, the spew of astral glitter over the San Fernando Valley. The neighbors, I can tell by the identical gurgling hum one yard over, are enjoying the evening from a similar hot-tub perspective. I smell red wine and chlorine and honeysuckle.

Mixed in with the sound of the jacuzzi motor and the faint whine from the distant 405, I can hear a sort of animal bleating, an intermittent siren that blends with the general din. After a few minutes, I am disturbed by it—its rich tone of plaintive longing is getting louder and more sorrowful, it seems—and I start looking around the yard for an injured pet.

“What the hell is that?”

Betty rolls her eyes. “Don’t even. It’s just baby brother trying to get our attention.” She nods her chin over toward the cluster of chaise lounges by the carport. I squint at the yellow-stuttered darkness, and finally I make out the form of a body lying flat underneath one of the lounges.

“Is he in pain?” I ask, as Jackson launches into another round of yowling.

She is still looking up at the stars. “He’s fine,” she says after a couple of seconds. But she won’t look over at me, and her damp face, lit by the underwater jacuzzi light, looks like it’s made out of tin.

I decide to walk back across the lava very slowly, as though the stinging spikes and craters on the rocks are simply soft sand and cannot harm me. With each step, I feel the warm pain enter the sole of my foot and waft up through my body, popping out of the top of my head in a cartoonish spout. I wonder if this is how the sadhus do it, the ascetics who walk over hot coals. When I get to the chair where Jackson is lying, I look up and see the pain-puffs hanging there in the sky, strung like Christmas lights, thirteen wisps of fresh white agony rising over the hot-tub dappled backyards. I reach out, but they are already fading into the universe.

I sit down gingerly on the chair above Jackson and lower the seat-back until it is parallel to the ground. I stretch out on my stomach so I am lying directly above him, and peer down through the plastic slats. His face is approximately six inches from mine, but he doesn’t appear to notice me. My weight is causing the seat’s banding to stretch and sag, and I can feel the heat from Jackson’s body spark me in stripes in between where the plastic protects me. His moaning sounds a lot louder from this proximity. I hear splashing from across the yard, and I know Betty is annoyed at me for indulging her brother. But gravity keeps pulling me down into Jackson’s perilous world, where a lamb bleats for its mother, a tire squeaks on its axis, an angry heart beats loud and uncontained on an operating table. His face looks like a choirboy’s—serious and innocent, his mouth perpetually open in a questioning “Oh?” Whatever this is, it isn’t a prank. I may be floating on some surrealist, haloperidol-induced cloud, but Jackson needs help. He is flesh and blood, here right now, not some squiggle in the branches of a family tree. I tease apart the slats under my mouth so I can sing along with Jackson’s mournful song. At first I just hum, listening for the tiny modulations in pitch, the exact rhythm of his starts and stops. But gradually a harmony comes to me, a high, strange accompaniment that isn’t exactly Appalachian or Tuvan, but some combination of the two. I hear my own voice as it plunges down to join Jackson’s, and it isn’t pretty or tuneful or civilized. In between each long syllable is a long rest, a rest filled with the eager sound of motors. I breathe in the distant thrill of speed and ignition and, with Jackson, breathe out a small stream of smooth cry. I wonder what the neighbors think. Do they recognize the sound of a human voice when they hear it? Why is he so sad? What could be so simple and yet so complex, so ancient and yet so imminent, to make a thirty-two year old boy-man lie down under a lawn chair and bray to the stars?

I am considering the question when three things happen simultaneously:

1) Jackson, for the first time since I lay down, looks directly at me through the slats in the chair. It’s not that he turns his head, or swoops his gaze toward me; it’s nothing that dramatic. It is a subtle but fiery refocusing of attention, until I think I hear a distinct click, like a Viewmaster when it shifts to the next image.

2) I notice a fine stripe of iridescent dust glimmering on Jackson’s face. Microscopic specks of my paisley tattoo must have drifted down onto him. Squinting, I can almost see the grains—the same ones that cover his mother’s bathroom floor, that are sprinkled across her laundry room and patio, disturbing the raked lava swirls, that are embedded deep in his sister’s wet hair, floating in churning whorls on the hot tub’s oily surfacequivering and fluttering like restless bacteria, filling the air between us.

3) Betty’s bare feet slap wetly across the black stone path, and then the footsteps change to slower, creaky ones—she must be walking the plank of the diving board—followed by a brief but eerie silence. I know that during this pause her body is in mid-air, poised above the pool like a storm petrel over the open sea.

Jan Richman’s story is an excerpt from her novel Thrill-Bent, a comic adventure novel about Tourette’s syndrome, roller coasters, and sexual temerity. It will be out in Spring 2012 from Tupelo Press. Her collection of poems, Because the Brain Can Be Talked Into Anything, won the Walt Whitman Award and was published by Louisiana State University Press in 1995. Her poetry and fiction have been published in many periodicals, including The Kenyon Review, The Nation, Ploughshares, and ZYZZYVA.