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Winter 1996, Volume 13.1

Fiction

 

François Camoin

Looking for Strange


François Camoin is Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Utah. His latest book,
Like Love but Not Exactly, was published by the University of Missouri Press (1992).

 

Everything out there looks perfectly ordinary today. White stucco walls. Your normal blue sky. Palm trees. The lawn sprinklers. It's a David Hockney painting of the good life. The light from above hints at doom, but that's in the future, nothing definite. I'm standing by the sliding glass door, watching Ed and Rita play gin rummy on a little round metal table by the pool. Ed's a retired aeronautical engineer; he and Rita manage the complex. There's not a whole lot for them to do—the owner has a pool man, a gardener, clean-up crews to paint the apartments when somebody moves out. Ed and Rita collect the rents; they talk to the tenants; Ed fixes things.

Marge and Shelley are churning up the blue water, swimming laps. They are both dark-haired, athletic, confident. I watch them do a racing turn together and come back the other way. They share the apartment below mine. At night they play their music on the stereo: Rolling Stones, Blood Sweat and Tears, Jefferson Airplane. They play it loud; I could call Ed and have him talk to them, but actually I like the music. The shorter one is Marge; the other is Shelley.

The phone rings; I reach out to pick it up without taking my eyes off the swimmers.

"Yeah?"

"Are you depressed or something?" my sister says. "What kind of a way to answer the phone is that?"

"Hi Peggy," I say.

I'm not depressed, exactly. It's more that the inside of my head feels like a desert. Little animals running around looking for shade. Broken bottles going violet in the sun. Plants that look like minerals. A place where you might not want to live.

"Your voice is funny," she says.

"Everything's all right, I swear."

"It's not," she says. "I know you, Jack." I can feel her pulling herself together for my sake on the other end of the phone. "Take a deep breath," she says. "Count to ten, then we'll talk."

"I'm perfectly calm," I say.

"Are you in love again?" she says.

"I don't think so."

"Every time you fall in love you get a little weird," my sister says. "You do things you wouldn't do otherwise."

The women have finished their laps and are helping each other dry off with big fluffy yellow towels. Marge waves at me and I slide open the door to hear what she's saying.

"You going to come out and swim later?"

"Maybe," I say.

"Who were you talking to?" Peggy says.

"One of the girls by the pool wanted me to come out and swim."

"Which one?"

"Marge."

"I think they're gay," my sister says.

"They just want me to swim, that's all," I say.

I watch Marge and Shelley rubbing suntan oil on each other. They're nice girls. If they're gay it's not their fault.

"I'm getting married next month," Peggy says.

"You and Bob?"

"Rob," she says. "Rob. His name is Rob. You never get it right. It's because you don't like him."

"He reminds me of a kid I knew in grade school who used to do perverse things in class."

"What kind of things?" Peggy's always on the lookout for strange. It's like a hobby. She calls me on the phone at work sometimes, and reads me articles from the National Enquirer.

"Under his desk," I say. "You want details?"

"I think we'll go to Tahiti for the honeymoon," she says. She likes detail, but not if it has to do with sex. Whenever she hears something sexual coming up in conversation, she veers away.

"Romantic," I say. I try to imagine my sister and Rob in Tahiti. I can't visualize him in Bermuda shorts and a sun hat among the bare-breasted native girls. I can't imagine Peggy married to such a man.

"Are you sure about this?" I say.

"I know you think he's peculiar but I love him," she says. "Besides, what else am I going to do? You think my life's a joke? Ha, ha, ha, I'm dying here."

 

In the Ralph's Supermarket on Topanga Canyon Boulevard I look for a big fluffy yellow towel like the ones Marge and Shelley were using.

"Sort of a chrome-yellow," I say to the clerk. I can tell she's not very interested.

"You don't see it, we don't have it," she says. "How about this?" She holds up an orange beach towel, much too small.

"Has to be yellow," I say.

"It's not the color that gets you dry," she says.

"You sound sort of cranky today," I say. "Is something the matter?"

"Don't be personal," she says. "I don't allow customers to get personal with me."

I apologize and offer to buy her a cup of coffee. She says yes after thinking about it for a minute. We go and sit down in the little cafeteria at the back of the store.

"It's a just this dumb job," she says. "I hate, you know, helping people." She puts a cigarette in her mouth and leans forward for me to light it. She takes a couple of deep drags, then turns the cigarette around and inspects the end to make sure it's burning evenly.

"Men always do that," she says.

"Do what?"

"Pull the match away too quick. They never want to wait that extra second. It's not as if you had anything you'd rather do," she says.

Her name tag says Bobby-Jo. She reminds me of the figure-skaters I've been watching on television. Very attractive, lots of essential vitality, but a little bit detached, impersonal, as if this was a performance. As if she wasn't there, exactly.

"I don't really do this," she says, waving her cigarette at the supermarket behind us. "I'm a writer. I'm already very good. Tony Bill's reading one of my screenplays right now. Maybe he'll buy it. It's a sort of Stirling Silliphant thing—comedy, but with a lot of tenderness."

 

I meet Peggy at the Yellowfingers restaurant on Ventura Boulevard. I'm supposed to be at work, but she said on the phone it was an emergency. I told Detweiler I needed some personal time. "You're not irreplaceable," he said. "Go ahead. You going to be back this afternoon?"

"Maybe," I said.

"Maybe I won't fire you," he said.

Detweiler's not a bad person; he just likes to make his needs known. He's about five feet tall and I think he had a bad childhood. I'm explaining all this to Peggy in the restaurant because I'm not ready to talk about her problem yet. She's drinking some kind of pink fizzy thing through a straw and waiting for me to get done.

"Detweiler's gay," I tell her.

"Probably not," my sister says. "You have no instinct for these things at all. I could tell about Marge and Shelley the first time I saw them."

She sucks up more of her pink drink through the straw and makes a face. She's been crying. The make-up covers it up pretty well, but her eyes are red.

"So what's the problem?"

"Rob called me up last night and pretended he was somebody else. He said he'd seen me at work and would I go out with him. He put on this English accent and made his voice sound real deep, but I knew."

The waiter is a young kid with bleached hair. He starts to recite the specials for the day but Peggy cuts him off. "Snails," she says. "I'm in the mood for snails."

"Why would Rob do a thing like that?" I ask her after the kid leaves.

"Anyhow that's not the worst part," Peggy says.

"Take a deep breath," I tell her. "Count to ten. It'll be all right."

"No it won't," she says.

I turn my head to look at the simple sequence of traffic going by on Ventura Boulevard. One car then the next. Different colors. Animal shapes. Nothing to worry about.

"I thought I'd teach him a lesson and I said yes, I'd go to dinner."

"And?"

"Rob came over to my apartment and started yelling at me," Peggy says. She stabs a snail and yanks it out of the shell with the little fork. She holds it up to the light to look at it. "Ugly little thing," she says. "But they taste so good." She pops it in her mouth.

"He was like a crazy person," she says. "He wouldn't admit it was really him on the phone."

"So how did he explain that he knew about your date?"

"He broke my coffee table and some dishes," Peggy says, not answering my question. "He called me terrible names."

 

I wake up in bed in Bobby-Jo's apartment. She's sleeping on her stomach, her face buried in the pillow, one arm draped across me. On the floor beside the bed is her screenplay which I was reading last night. It's not bad—comedy, a little tenderness. The people in the story seem to like each other. They lead interesting lives.

She lifts her head, opens one eye. Without make-up she looks fragile, younger than she did in the store, more like a real person.

"I despise casual sex," she says.

I wait for her to say something else. To tell me if she thinks what we did is casual sex. If she's mad at me. If she's happy we slept together. She jumps out of bed and walks off.

"Coffee in five minutes," she says over her shoulder. "Meet me in the kitchen."

I wait for the bathroom, brush my teeth with some of Bobby-Jo's toothpaste and the tip of my finger, look in the mirror. It's me, all right, a little older than I remembered, but not looking too bad.

In the kitchen we sit across the table from each other. My coffee-mug has a big red heart on it. Hers has cartoon elephants making elephant love.

"You like pop-tarts?" she says. "I've got strawberry or apple. Or I've got some English muffins. I don't have any eggs."

"Just coffee's fine."

"This is sort of embarrassing," she says. "This morning-after stuff. If you'd like to leave you don't have to be polite."

I walk around the table and kiss her. We go back to the bedroom. She doesn't make a big production out of it, but it's fun.

Peggy calls while I'm watching LA Law on the television. "Girl Gives Birth to Bigfoot's Baby," she says.

Downstairs the girls are playing the Doors. Riders of the Storm. Every once in a while, when Jim Morrison stops singing, I think I can hear a little whimper, a moan. I'd like to think they're making love on the living room floor down there while they listen to the music. Does that make me a bad person?

"Rob's coming over to dinner tomorrow night," she says. "I want you to come too."

"I don't think so."

"No," she says. "I mean if he's really crazy I shouldn't be marrying him, right? I need an outside opinion."

"Can I bring somebody?"

"I knew it," she says. "You are in love. I could tell when we talked on the phone the other day."

"I hadn't even met her yet."

"You were going to," she says.

After she hangs up I try to read for a while, but I can't concentrate, so I go down to the pool. Marge and Shelley are just coming out of their place. Rita and Ed are playing cards.

"Haven't seen you down here in a long time, Jack," Marge says.

"We missed you," Shelley says. She gives me a hug. She's a big girl and we almost stumble into the water.

"Whoops!" she says.

"I thought he was better balanced than that," Marge says.

They spread a big green beach towel open on the cement; I lie down between them. I'm wearing my gray suit; they've got on string bikinis. I stare up past the apartment roofs at the ordinary blue sky and the tops of the palm trees. I'm glad I live here.

"I should go get my camera," Rita says.

"You look so hot," Shelley says. "Why don't you go up and put on your bathing suit."

"We could have a swim together," Marge says.

"He might drown," Shelley says. "He's not too coordinated."

"We'll save him," Marge says. "Give him a little CPR if he looks like he needs it."

 

Peggy answers the phone. Rob was supposed to be here half an hour ago; we've been making conversation and eating Gouda cheese and little Danish crackers, drinking white wine. Being polite with each other. When we first got here Peggy and Bobby-Jo went into the kitchen and stayed there for about ten minutes; I could hear them whispering. Every once in a while one of them would pop her head around the door and give me a raised eyebrow.

"Who's this?" Peggy says into the phone.

"Is that right?" she says. She makes frantic waving motions which mean I should go into the bedroom and pick up the extension.

A man's voice says "You have a face like a fourteenth-century painting."

The voice is artificially resonant, like somebody speaking through a cardboard tube. It has a stagey English accent.

"Do you believe in love at first sight?" the voice says.

"You're a sick person," Peggy says.

"I beg your pardon?" the voice says.

I sit there for a minute on the edge of her bed after she slams the phone down. Her room has pink curtains, the bedspread is full of little flowers, the wallpaper is an endless repetition of koala bears. I think about doom. The sadness of everyday life.

When I go back to the living room the two women are sitting on the couch. Bobby-Jo's got her arms around Peggy.

"Go on home," Bobby-Jo says to me. "I'll take care of things."

 

There's a golf tournament on the TV, but I'm not really paying attention. Marge and Shelley are taking turns making fancy dives off the board. They've traded in their string bikinis for black Speedo suits and they look serious, muscular. Shelley does a running forward flip, misses her timing and hits the water on her back. I wait for a second; I'm afraid she's hurt herself, but she comes up laughing. On the TV somebody who looks vaguely like Arnold Palmer lines up a long putt. The ball dipsy-doodles its way down the green, runs around the lip, slides about six feet past the cup. There's a long disappointed "Oooh!" from the crowd.

Later I wander outside to the pool. The girls have gone inside, but Ed and Rita are still out there playing gin rummy. A little wind has come up and Ed's using a can of RC Cola to hold down the cards. In the pool I try lying on my back, but my feet sink and pretty soon I'm floating vertically with only my eyes above the water, like a hundred and sixty pound frog. It feels pleasant and I stay there, holding my breath as long as I can, watching Ed and Rita turn the cards. They've been married a long time but I can see they still like each other. The weird light says doom but it's been singing the same easy tune for years and nothing's happened. It's probably going to be OK for a while yet.  

 

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