Two Terrible Ladies
Published in The Toast
They hadn’t expected sleaze at their romantic getaway, but sleazy it was. The motel’s parking lot was crazed with cracks, and loose tiles flapped from the carport roof. Huddled into the shelter of a payphone, a woman with fried blonde hair was cursing into the receiver and blowing jets of smoke out of her nose. Claudia and Leonie looked at her, and they looked at each other. “Well, this ought to be good,” Leonie said.
The key to their room jammed in the lock at first; then they were greeted by an unpleasant smell wheezing out of a vent in the wall. Because they had been dating for a very short while, this was all tremendously funny. Leonie lay back on the bed, looking very sweet and winsome with her tawny hair fanned around her face, cheeks flushed, her blue eyes set off prettily by her blue dress. Claudia rested her head on Leonie’s stomach and let the little wavelets of happiness come.
Leonie sighed. “I feel absolutely filthy.”
“I don’t mind at all,“ Claudia assured her.
When Leonie smiled, her pupils dilated like a cat’s. While she repaired to the bathroom, Claudia burrowed with langour into the snarl of bedspread. Among the floral mayhem of its pattern, which looked like gigantic cabbage roses hurling themselves against smaller cabbage roses, she discerned a menstrual bloodstain, a labial Rorschach blot. She reflected that the pattern must have been chosen to mask just such stains.
Leonie emerged, mouth foaming with toothpaste. “I’m running us a bath,” she said temptingly.
But the water was cold.
Some hours later they staggered out of a bar and into the thick seaside mist, drunk as lords. They could not really see where they were going and did not especially care, since they were getting excited by pointing out how dangerous a match they likely were for one another. They began a rapid exchange of the many awful things they had done to past lovers.
“Opened mail!” Leonie said.
“Cut up clothes!”
“Slashed tires!” Claudia said. She had been going to say something worse but changed it just in time.
“You realize if we stay together, we’ll both end up in prison!” Leonie said gaily. Which was not quite true; only one of them would. They came upon a pole festooned with streamers of yellow CAUTION tape, and Leonie tied one in a jaunty bow around her neck. Claudia bandaged her wrist with another. Joining hands, they stumbled off the curb.
When they rounded the next corner, their eyes were dazzled by klieg lights. A circus was packing up for the night behind the civic center, filling the loading docks with heaps of reeking sawdust. An ill-tempered-looking woman strode by them, flicking a whip against her boot. She was followed by a black terrier, who leapt expertly into the cab of a horse trailer bearing the legend THE SVITLANDERS. That must be Mrs. Svitlander, horsey people are always ill-tempered, thought Claudia.
The ladies peered into the windows of the Svitlander’s trailer. The horses’ eyes were pale blue, with a gaze that was eerily human. Their white manes crested stiffly over the white arches of their necks. One of them had a tidy little braid in its forelock. Claudia reached through the bars and tugged gently on that braid. The horse stayed still as a statue. The animal’s stillness made Claudia want to weep, though she didn’t know why.
Parked behind the horse trailer was a truck that seemed impossibly long. Claudia paused to press her ear against it and heard mysterious thumps inside. She was not embarrassed when a man in coveralls who was pushing a dolly with nothing on it asked her what she was doing.
“I want to know what’s in there,” she said.
“I got hyenas in the back, ponies in the front, and llamas in the middle,” he said.
She wondered what would happen if the barriers between the different kinds of animals should break. “Where are you taking them?”
In response he unfolded a piece of paper and stood very close so the women could read over his shoulder. The note was a nearly illegible scrawl of highway numbers and ended with the directive, “DON’T STOP UNTIL YOU SEE ‘THE INDIAN.’”
What was ‘the Indian,’ they wanted to know. He pushed his empty dolly away as though he had not heard them.
They roved the unfamiliar streets with no special purpose; at times Claudia pushed Leonie against a wall and kissed her very hard.
“You’re pretty wild,” Leonie panted.
“You drive me crazy.”
“I bear no responsibility whatsoever,” Leonie objected.
It took them a long time to find the restaurant district because the close, zagging streets of the town were disorienting, cloaked in a fog so dense it obscured church steeples and even the cozy glowing windows of apartments. When at last they found a place that was still open for dinner, Leonie discovered her wallet was gone.
“The circus man stole my wallet,” she said, remembering how very close he had stood. She let out a hiss of air between her teeth. “Those motherfuckers should be lined up against a wall and shot between the eyes.”
Claudia put an arm around her. “I’ll take care of everything,” she vowed, unsure of what she was promising.
“That’s my girl,“ Leonie said. She gulped from her flask of gin and then screwed the cap back on before proposing that they return to the motel.
Back in their room, Leonie took another nip of gin and put on a cheap red negligee. She shimmied and pranced. “Do I look like an old-time hootchy-cooch dancer?” she said. “Whoo! Hey, you’re stronger than you look.”
Soon Leonie’s negligee was torn and her moans, Claudia thought, were surely loud enough to disturb the people in the adjoining room. Claudia’s brain felt split in two: it was galloping with desire, and yet was fixed on the image of her fingers tugging on the white horse’s braid. No matter how roughly she handled Leonie’s body, she could not really touch her, any more than she could disturb the circus horse in its spooky calm. The room seemed to tilt and spin on its axis. I am mad with desire, Claudia thought.
In the morning the water was still cold. They packed their bags into the car before visiting the concierge desk, where they huffily demanded of a man with tragic pockmarks that they not be charged for their stay. While he made calculations, they perused the leaflets advertising regional attractions, all of which seemed to feature Santa and his elves.
“We’re here in time for the county fair,” mused Claudia, flapping a leaflet.
Leonie’s eyes glittered. “Do you think those circus crooks will be there?”
The conciegre produced a revised bill, which Leonie triumphantly siezed from his hand; but he had given them a discount of only two dollars and twenty-eight cents. “Excuse me, I need to use the little girl’s room,” she said, and Claudia followed her out the back door. They drove out of the dismal parking lot very fast.
From a pump-before-you-pay gas station they plundered fuel and candy bars, and then drove a long way down a scenic back road, partly to lay low, partly because it gave them a pleasant feeling of being lost.
The sun was sinking when they came upon the county fair, its mechanical spires and spokes rotating against the blue October dusk. There was a Ferris wheel, a smell of burning sugar, shouts and screams.
“How heavenly,” Leonie said.
“Let’s find those horsey people,” said Claudia grimly. “I told you I would get your wallet back.”
“You don’t have to do that for me,” Leonie said. She smoothed down her skirt and wriggled her bare feet back into her shoes. “Really, you don’t have to.”
They roamed around the fairground, snuffing the aroma of carnival food. They found the equestrian show ring by following an irregular trail of clumped and grassy dung; but the Svitlanders’ snow-white horses were nowhere in evidence. Instead they watched Buckaroo Bob’s Wild West Revue, which luckily was just beginning.
Buckaroo Bob was a naturalist first and foremost, he made that very clear. He loved wild animals, and was emphatic that they should never be made into pets. His troupe consisted of his wife and three daughters, one of whom was wearing a great feathered war bonnet that went all the way down her back.
He brought out a bear cub, which looked adorable drinking from a baby bottle. Then he draped a mountain lion across his shoulders, whereupon it bit one of his hands. Although it didn’t draw blood, you could tell that it must have hurt. Claudia and Leonie stifled giggles. He kept up his stream of patter about the importance of wild animals having a natural habitat to roam in while his wife tugged the cat away on its chain.
The finale of the Wild West Revue was the daughters riding ponies around the ring, carrying American flags on long poles while Buckaroo Bob waxed patriotic from horseback off to the side. When the war-bonneted daughter galloped past him, she accidentally clocked her father on the skull with her flagpole, and he sagged forward in his saddle, face-down against his horse’s neck. For some moments he was still, and two roadies rushed to his side.
“Is he dead?” Claudia whispered. But he roused himself and resumed his narration, except that his voice, which had been brisk and twangy, now sounded like a very old recording that was being played underwater. Then Leonie and Claudia had to leave, because they could not contain their laughter. They clutched at each other and wiped tears from their eyes.
Nightfall made the rides glitter irresistably with metallic-flake paint and multicolored lights. Leonie had her eye on a purple aparatus that lifted a little car slowly up and up and then pushed it directly off a sheer drop.
“Not worth the ticket,” said Claudia, who was now the only one of them with cash. “Bang and it’s over.”
Leonie saw through this at once. “It’s the money.”
“No; but you shouldn’t be taken advantage of,” Claudia informed her. “And anyhow, let our pleasures be lasting ones, somebody said.”
Leonie cuffed her, not hard. “Nobody said that,” she said, but followed Claudia to the games of chance. They played the contest where you squirt water into a balloon clown’s open mouth until its head explodes. It was them against three little children, and Leonie won. The carny put the pistols back into their cradles and gave her a small stuffed animal.
“I could murder a hot dog right now,” Leonie said. She bopped Claudia on the shoulder with the stuffed animal. “Are you going to take care of me?”
Claudia drew her close, crooking a finger under the waistband of her skirt. “Don’t I always?”
“Oh, boy,” said Leonie, disengaging.
“Listen,” said Claudia. Her nostrils flared. “Listen. Nobody has to fend for themselves. Haven’t I been showing you a great time? I’ve got everything under control.”
“That’s a laugh,” Leonie said.
Claudia snatched the stuffed animal out of Leonie’s hand and flung it at her lover. It jabbed Leonie in the eye with its stiff little foreleg before it fell to the ground and was squashed by someone rolling by in a wheelchair. What was left of it was an eviscerated mess of pink fur and styrofoam BB’s.
“Tell you what,” the carny told them. “You can get out of here, or you can get gotten out of here.”
Leonie linked her arm through Claudia’s and led her away. “To hell with everybody,” she said. “Let’s not fight, baby.”
Gently Claudia kissed her on the injured eyelid. “You’re right. As always. How about I take you on the Octopus?”
Swanning arm-in-arm along the Midway, they lifted their spirits by teasing other fairgoers.
“They’re all rigged, kids. You’ll never win, nobody does,” they said to a pair of teenagers at the Ring Toss. The teenagers looked at them with deflated, puzzled expressions. “Tell me,” Claudia sweetly inquired of one man, “Why does your child have such an enormous head?” He hastened away, frowning, the fat-headed child bobbing unhappily atop his shoulders.
There was nobody riding the Octopus, and nobody waiting on line either; and while two men were visible behind the scratched plastic of the ticket-taker’s window, they ducked down out of sight when Leonie rapped on it with her knuckles.
“Do you see that that?” Claudia said in a nervous voice.
“What, what.” Leonie rapped again, a lot harder.
“Over there,” Claudia said. She was squinting at a bouncy castle that was decorated in a spaghetti-Western theme. “Oh my god, it’s ‘the Indian’!”
Leonie rattled the doorknob. “Come on out and let us ride,” she bawled. “We could get you in a lot of trouble.”
The two young men pitched out of the booth as if onto the deck of a storm-tossed ship. “Thanks patience. Had to check some things,” said one. “We’re from Australia,” he added, and disappeared into the Octopus’s tangle of gears and metal tentacles.
“Now we can treat you like queens,” said the other. His eyes were the size of silver dollars. Grandly he ushered them to a car and bade them be seated.
“You don’t look right. I hope you can operate machinery,” Leonie said.
He brought down the safety bar, careful to tuck in the straps of Leonie’s empty purse. “Put you in a pumpkin shell,” he said tenderly, checking the latch, “and there we’ll keep you very well.”
The Octopus lifted them up and down in a wavelike motion as it spun in circles, which was both relaxing and exhilarating. Claudia leaned her head back with rapture. She squeezed Leonie’s hand and got a squeeze in return.
“Do you love me?” Claudia asked, never one to leave well enough alone.
“I’m starting to feel sick,” said Leonie.
Queasiness nothwithstanding, it gave her the taste for a faster ride. The Wipeout, for instance, looked positively luscious, picked out in golden chaser lights against the night sky. They marched purposefully across the fairground, which was becoming seedier as the night wore on, strewn as it was with the accumulated debris of revelry.
The ticket-taker beckoned the ladies to the front of the line with a wink. Neglecting to ask for tickets he let them, only them, inside, and closed the barrier behind them.
The cars of the Wipe-Out were not upholstered in the plush vinyl of the Octopus; the seats were raw red metal and the safety bar was too. With a hydraulic hiss, the car started to spin.
“Oh. Ha. Oh,” laughed Leonie.
“Yow,” laughed Claudia.
For the Wipeout whirled in much faster and harder circles than one would expect. In fact, Claudia felt like she was a test tube in a laboratory centrifuge, and that all the fluid in her brain was being forced against one side of her cranium. The weight of Leonie’s body pressing against her, usually her most coveted sensation, was crushing the air out of her lungs and cracking her ribcage like rotten floorboards.
Their heads bent to one side on their stalks and could not be raised upright. “Ow ow ow!” they yowled. They were not laughing anymore.
The ride went on for twenty minutes, the carny impervious to their pleading screams. When at last the Wipeout came to a standstill, he was long gone.
Claudia fell to the ground and rested her head on a discarded hot dog bun. Leonie vomited abundantly before crawling on her belly to lie beside Claudia.
A long time went by. First the lights of the Ferris Wheel went out, then other lights. A paper napkin blew into Claudia’s hair and lodged there.
“Nothing in the whole world,” said Leonie finally, “could ever feel as awful as that.”
“Nothing,” Claudia said.
But they were wrong.