by Gemma Simmons
Rosamund Griffiths was too caught up in her solitary sick ritual even to think about turning back. With a loaded grocery basket weighing down her arm, she stopped in the freezer aisle and pulled open the glass door and, zombie-like, was about to reach into the frosty tomb for a frozen four-cheese pizza with mushrooms and black olives when a big dark hand with scarred knuckles shot past her nose and banged the door shut. The glass spat back Rosamund's reflection— her khaki zookeeper uniform in a tight-ish size 4, her hair a hip-length mass of biscuit-blond waves, her rusty-green eyes set too close— her features transparent, superimposed over stacks of frozen pizzas. She lurched away from the image and bumped into a leather-jacketed wall of chest whose owner peered down at her with the active calm of an electric fence. It was that guy, the one she'd seen lurking around the aisles last week. As usual, he carried no basket."Wot are you doing here?" he demanded in a glottal East-Indian cockney, the slight arch of his nose dipping on wot. Startled, Rosamund blinked up at him. He might be her age, mid-thirties, or maybe younger, and he had the complexion of a half-cooked pancake: toasty-dark skin paired with dense fair hair the color of raw batter marbled with cinnamon. "You're supposed to be on your way to Chez Eugénie International Cabaret," he said, "with three lizards, one snake, and a frog."
Rosamund balked. "Excuse me?"
"I hired you," he said. "I'm the bouncer, Angie Rai."
Rosamund clapped a hand over her name patch.
Angie smirked. "Too late, Rosalind."
"That's Rosa-mund," she said—pure reflex—and turned to flee.
Angie caught her arm with a grip that said bruise. "Your boss warned me you were skittish," he said, "and sure enough here you are, on the one night you shouldn't be."
Rosamund opened her mouth to argue; but the hell of it was, this Angie was right. Before last night, it had been three days since her last binge (during which, for the first time in her life, she'd gone dizzy and coughed up a spatter of blood). Days one and two had been brutal—the hours yawning endless, her mood a pent-up firestorm churning with flames and cinders and rock chips—but she'd made a pact with herself to white-knuckle the urges and stay on track. (Or else where would it end? What became of people like her? Did they ever get over it, or did they just keep doing it and doing it until their knotty arthritic fingers no longer fit down their rotting throats, until they choked on their dentures and died?) And then day three had found her thrumming, charged with vitality; yesterday morning, in her basement studio on 43rd Avenue at Cabrillo on the ocean side of San Francisco, she'd stepped out of the shower feeling sure she had the problem licked. As she waltzed into the kitchenette for a non-fat yogurt, even the sunstruck cobwebs on the window panes seemed to glisten with promise, spidery strands marking sections of glass to be stained with jewel tones, a crystalline canvas inviting color.
And then she'd glimpsed her answering machine flashing a red numeral one. One new message. One too many. One. Tasting a coppery dread, Rosamund pressed PLAY.
The machine whirred. "Hey, Rosie! You there? I know you're there. Pick up."
Rosamund dug a mental moat around herself. The caller was her older sister, Gwynn.
"Hello-hello?" came Gwynn's chirpy voice. "Maybe you're in the shower. Don't tell me you're already out trick-or-treating. All that candy, tsk-tsk. Just what you need."
Rosamund poured alligators into the moat.
"Okay, sourpuss. I'm just calling to invite you to Halloween dinner tomorrow night. Dale and I haven't seen you in ages, and the kids keep asking after their auntie."
A likely story.
"Oh, and Dale's hot to talk to you about posing for his new photo series, something about 'Botticelli with a twist,' that Venus-on-the-half-shell painting—"
Dale was the brother-in-law who delighted in referring to Rosamund—to her face, in front of the kids—as the Barfologist, the Vomitational Engineer, while Gwynn stood by staunchly aloof in the style of their mother, decades ago, giving the sisters no aid, no quarter from their father's moods and tantrums and sniggering whims.
"—and I want to make sure you eat and keep down at least one decent meal this year," Gwynn rattled on, "so you better show up. And how is the food fetish these days?"
None of her goddamned business.
"Uh-huh, well, next time you screw up your electrolytes and have a heart attack, don't come running to me."
It wasn't a heart attack, and Rosamund had not gone running to Gwynn.
"I swear, sis, you could be more sociable. Sometimes? When the baby's asleep and the kids are out and Dale's shut in his photo studio and you won't pick up the damn phone, I pretend you're here at my kitchen table sipping tea with me, and I tell you all about Lyndis's good grades and Llew's soccer victories and Bishop's funny new words. And how ugly and stupid the neighbor kids are and what bitches they have for mothers."
Yeah, Rosamund was really sorry to miss all that.
"Okay, then. Come tomorrow at six. We'll trick-or-treat with the kiddies after dinner. And bring that beau of yours, that Todd you're spending so much time with you can't even see your only family. Why are you keeping him from us? What, sweetie, is he not that cute? We don't care if he's a hideous troll. We just want you to be happy."
There was no Todd.
"Time we all met the special man in your—"
Rosamund jammed her finger down on DELETE. What message? Machine must be acting up. Sorry. But the damage was done, the mere sound of her sister's voice firing up a stewpot of sour flashbacks, real wincers and cringers and flinchers, unsavory leftovers from childhood to be swallowed again and again. With a shudder, Rosamund glanced back over at the window; the cobwebs were cobwebs.
Spirits dampened, she dragged off to work at the Herpetorium ("Research and Rescue, Boarding and Breeding, Lectures, Show-and-Tell, Guided Nature Walks. TOURS BY APPOINTMENT ONLY.") where, mercifully, she was too senior on staff to have to mess with the daily cleaning of tanks and cages, where it was paradise to know just what to do. Collard and mustard greens, grape and mulberry leaves, tomatoes and okra and cantaloupes would need to be chopped for the herbivores; rodents and crickets and worms would need to be gut-loaded before being thrown to the carnivores and insectivores; research projects and nursery duties and infirmary patients filled the balance of the hours. The other herp geeks on staff left her alone, and she could go days at a time with minimal exposure to the land mines, pitfalls, curve balls, and booby traps of human interaction. Yesterday she'd sailed through her chores as usual, and by afternoon—having permitted herself one bite of an opulent muffin erupting with cranberry lava, its oily cakiness crumbling tangy on her tongue with a melt like cotton candy—Rosamund had once again felt useful, competent, and vaguely optimistic about her chances of making it through one more day in a row without cruising the supermarket aisles.
And then, right before closing time, her boss of fifteen years had clobbered her with this show-and-tell gig at some weird club hosting a theme party, "Halloween in Eden," just the sort of thing Rosamund loathed. "Couldn't one of the junior staffers do it?" she'd asked, and the boss had said: "No." Apparently Rosamund had been "requested," and the client was paying handsomely, and the Herpetorium needed a new roof and incubators. The news jolted Rosamund into autopilot. And after work, as instinctively and inexorably as if directed by the cosmos, she'd raided the supermarket; once home with her spoils, at the first blissful bite, she'd been swept up into the cool black starless vault of inner space. Bite of what, it hardly mattered. What she craved was the void, the wild ride out and the tidy reigning-in, freedom and control in one. The purge, about two hours off, seemed light-years away. Tomorrow didn't exist.
But tomorrow did come, and this morning Rosamund had awakened with a start, her ribs sore, her teeth cloaked in mohair, her mouth feeling scummy and blistered as if she'd gargled with bleach, reminders of her broken streak. Maybe this evening she'd get back on track—but what did she ever do on evenings and weekends except binge the hours away? Or go berserk trying not to. "Jeez," Gwynn would say, "just relax and have a beer," the absolute worst advice. No drunk could dry out on three drinks a day; no junkie could go straight on three hits; yet three meals a day was the goal for the likes of Rosamund, sustenance and opiate in one. It could be done, she told herself as she donned her uniform, as she slogged off to work. But this evening she'd crashed the supermarket again, this time in celebration of her last-minute decision to skip tonight's Halloween gig—and Gwynn's dinner—not call and cancel, just blow the whole thing off.
Here in the freezer aisle, this Angie Rai clearly had other ideas. He pulled Rosamund closer, shocking her pulse off rhythm. "You're part of tonight's program," he said. "Right after the Maculelê dancers but before the Krav Maga demo, you'll warm up the crowd with wotever lizards and frogs."
Rosamund strained away. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"Later, after the Kathak troupe, you'll come out with the snake. A big one."
"Not if I don't go." Rosamund wrenched free and dashed down the freezer aisle, skidded past the dairy wall, and raced toward the checkout lanes, praying that Hilda would be on Lane 2. But Hilda's lane was manned by that creep Jerrold, always with the comments: "Think you've got enough chocolate? Leave some cookies for the rest of us." Monelle captained Lane 3, a hair net molding her grizzled frizz into a beret; Monelle processed maybe two customers per hour. Desperate, heart pounding under the fluorescent hum, Rosamund queued up sixth in line at Lane 5 for Tiffany-Dawn, a surly pregnant girl who was on to her. Rosamund waited—fifth in line, fourth—tormented by fantasies of setting down her basket and darting back to the freezer aisle to scoop up that four-cheese pizza with mushrooms and black olives. She could always order a pizza, but that would entail phones and delivery boys.
Overhead, the storewide intercom crackled. "Attention shopper Rosalind. Shopper Rosalind," boomed a deep voice with an unmistakable chips-'n'-curry accent. "Please come to the courtesy lane. The courtesy lane, please. Thank you." Click.
Rosamund shriveled. Tiffany-Dawn frowned over at Jerrold who shrugged and looked at Monelle who shook her head. The intercom clicked on and off, on and off again. Rosamund broke out of line and speedwalked to the courtesy lane where she found Hilda at the register and Angie towering over her by the intercom phone. Shopper and checker exchanged wary nods. They had a tacit agreement: Hilda never "noticed" Rosamund's purchases, and Rosamund never "noticed" the habitual black eye or split lip or swollen jaw under Hilda's makeup. Ignoring Angie's deadpan gloat, Rosamund began unloading her basket onto the conveyor belt.
Angie sauntered around to her side of the counter. "Your favorite checker was on break," he said. "I made it worth her while to cut it short."
Cheeks burning, Rosamund kept unloading: the marshmallows (big ones), the ramen (six packets), the gummi bears (eight bags), and the ice cream (Neapolitan, one economy brick)—all facilitators, high in vomitability—and, on top of that, the potato chips, jelly beans, frosted fruit pies, coconut haystacks, cheap chocolates, and seasonal mellowcreme pumpkins she couldn't resist (but never any shortbread or peanut-butter products that might clot like cement in the stomach, and never any caramels or mint patties that might cling to the teeth on the way back up, and never any meat), the load enough for two-maybe-three sessions tonight. Shoppers fell into line behind her, watching her—Rosamund was sure of it—judging her choices. But Hilda was quick and had the decency to bag the stuff as she checked it instead of letting it pile up in an incriminating heap at the end of the counter the way some checkers did.
Angie leaned closer. "I've been tailing you."
Rosamund shot him a look. "Tailing me?"
Angie gazed down at her with his blond-lashed gray eyes flecked blue and green. "I spotted you here last week," he said, ladling that accent over her. "You're hard to miss, with all that hair."
Gazing back at him, Rosamund felt a sludgy sweetness envelope her as if to drown her like a bug drinking its death on the nectared leaf of a Venus flytrap. She snapped out of it. She would not be heartthrobbed. "You were spying on me?"
"That patch on your sleeve." Angie pointed at her arm, at the gaudy trademark: the chameleon crouching over the word HERPETORIUM, the lizard's zygodactyl feet clamped on the letters, its prehensile tail looped through the O. "It gave me an idea for the party, and I presented my idea to Eugénie. When I negotiated with your boss, I requested you. 'That blond girl or no one,' I said."
Rosamund packed challenge into her tone. "Why?"
"Because you're perfect for the part."
Angie gave her a crooked smile, the tilt of it matching the half-zip of his leather jacket. Rosamund pried her gaze off this walking binge of a man—out of her league even if she'd wanted him (or anyone)—and nested her empty basket in the stack.
Hilda fit everything into one double plastic bag. "Here's your total," she said, and pointed to the register display instead of barking out the damages as some checkers did.
From inside his jacket, Angie extracted a shiny red apple and placed it on the conveyor belt. "Ring this up in the same total," he said, and got out his wallet. "I'll pay."
Rosamund tensed. "What?"
Hilda beeped the apple through and tucked it into the bag. "Here's the new total, sir."
Rosamund blocked the transfer of cash. "No you don't."
Angie got around her. "Part of your expenses. For the party."
"I am not going to any party." Rosamund reached into her back pocket for her own wallet, but the pocket was flat. Her stomach ignited like a blowtorch. "My wallet!"
Hilda gave Angie his change and leaned toward Rosamund. "Go to the party with him, hon," she said, eyes haggard. "Life's too short for that other bullshit."
Angie gathered up the bulging grocery bag and gave Rosamund a nudge. "Let's go."
Rankling at Hilda's treachery, Rosamund dug in her heels. "Wait! My wallet."
"Outside." Angie steered her toward the exit, his fingers pinching her elbow, and marched her out into the balmy autumn twilight of the parking lot. When they reached a sporty green Jaguar parked by a Jeep under a flickering security lamp, Angie let go of her arm. Rosamund considered snatching the bag and making a run for it—her apartment was just two blocks away—but Angie reached inside his jacket and produced a square of fake cowhide: Rosamund's wallet, a joke gift from Gwynn.
Rosamund grabbed it; the wallet was warm. "You pickpocketed me?"
Angie checked his watch. "If you get to the club in thirty minutes, you'll be fine."
Was he nuts? "I can't get four reptiles and a frog together in thirty minutes."
"Bring one, then. One reptile. No frog. All we really need is a snake."
Who needed a snake? "But you paid for five," she said. Was she nuts?
"Not yet paid. Payment at time of fulfillment." Angie raised an eyebrow. "And Eugénie will pay full price and tip you well, I'm sure, even for just one snake. A big one, though. She wants it to make a splash."
Rosamund narrowed her eyes. "What kind of splash?"
"Your boss must have mentioned our theme."
That Eden nonsense? Forget it. Rosamund repocketed her wallet and stepped back, her elbow bumping the Jeep. "Well, sorry," she said (she could have been at home in her sweats by now, bingeing in grateful oblivion), "but the Herpetorium van is on the fritz." Or anyway, it usually was.
"I'll drive you," said Angie. "I've got Eugénie's wheels." He thumbed over his shoulder at the Jaguar, a gharial of a car, its small flat cranium and high-set obsidian eyes gliding behind a long cruel snout. "But we've got to hurry. This Herpetorium place is across Golden Gate Park on Judah, right?"
"Yes, but. . ."
Rosamund hesitated. Could she do this gig? One snake was nothing much. She gazed at Angie backlit by the sinking sun, the last of the day's clouds glowing neon-coral as if feeding off his kinetic brawn and preposterously good looks. Rosamund ignored her own ghostly reflection in the tinted rear window of the Jeep. She liked her looks best in those bathroom-mirror glimpses she caught of herself mid-purge: eyes glassy, cheeks dewy-pink, lips rubbed ripe, a fullness around the jaw where her salivary glands were pumping like mad and, crowning all that, a shimmer of grace and purpose. She looked alive when she was throwing up. Could she live through this Eden gig? Could it be the genesis of a brand-new sober streak? Angie was still waiting for an answer, the grocery bag dangling from his fist. Beyond him, beyond the parking lot, the night echoed with cries of "Trick or treat!" Parents armed with flashlights had taken over, boldly jaywalking their pint-sized angels and ghouls and superheroes. (Rosamund, at their tender age, was already smuggling goodies into her parents' tinderbox household—wolfing the contraband in her room and disposing of the wrappers at school—already growing her hair out long and thick to cover her blubber.) Out, too, were the teenagers stretching it one more year: the well-wrapped mummy hopping to keep up with the dominatrix holding his treat bag, the fly bumbling along with those compound eyes that must have sounded like a good idea at the time. (Rosamund, at their age, was already a hermit hooked on that secret awful brilliant trick she'd discovered one night after too many cheese enchiladas—the magic of ingesting without digesting—already slimming down but still hiding in her hair.) All around the parking lot, shoppers came and went, clerks corralling the wheeled carts. People with real lives, real goals, real things to do.
Rosamund crossed her arms and closed her eyes and tried to envision herself at this gig with a snake—oh, maybe not with one of the heftier show-and-tell stars like the Albino Burmese Python at fourteen-plus feet long and one hundred-plus pounds, but maybe with one of the longer Corn Snakes or with Riveter, the big docile Rosy Boa. Sure, she could escort an ophidian to a social event and field questions and maybe permit a touch. The snake was the show, the handler just a heated perch. Years ago, as a junior staffer, Rosamund had handled countless such gigs—gigs involving multiple herps and even a millipede—at libraries and fundraisers and birthday parties and expos and schools. So. She uncrossed her arms and opened her eyes and took a breath and said: "All right."
Angie brightened. "Good," he said, and gave her arm a playful punch. "Let's go get that snake. Can't have a Garden of Eden without a snake."
"True," said Rosamund, trying to be a good sport, to enter into the spirit of the thing.
Angie fished a set of keys out of his jeans pocket. "The club's all done up like a jungle. You'll be our Eve."
Rosamund faltered. "What?"
"You don't have to wear the nude bodysuit," said Angie, unlocking the trunk of the Jaguar. "A couple dabs of spirit gum, and you can wear just the fig leaves—like me. I'm Adam. Or you can wear just the snake. It's decadent San Francisco, right?"
Rosamund almost choked on a sudden wash of brine. "You cleared this with my boss?"
"Hey, I'm joking."
"No you're not."
Angie shrugged. "Extra cash in your pocket, who needs to clear?" He opened the Jaguar's trunk and, to Rosamund's silent horror, slung the grocery bag inside; it landed with a thud, and the apple rolled out. "Eugénie wants us to circulate," Angie went on, his hand resting on the raised lid of the trunk, "you with your snake and apple, me with a tray of appletinis to dole out to the best costumes, and—"
Rosamund dove into the trunk and scooted back out with the bag hugged tight to her chest. Angie slammed the lid and stepped forward, looming over her, his gaze wrapping her round with the sickening squeeze of a blood-pressure cuff or a murderous constrictor.
"Wot the fuck?" he said, and Rosamund deemed it an excellent question, though much too freighted, and she thought of home—a five-minute walk, a three-minute run—but somehow stood fast, rooted to the spot by a new sensation swirling deep inside her, a divine inkling, an uncharted galaxy tilting on its axis, churning starlight into creamiest butter. Was there such thing as an ally?
Her eyes on Angie, she shifted her grip on the bag. "If I show up at this shindig tonight," she said in a level tone, buzzing inside, "will you come to dinner next week at my sister's house and act like you're my boyfriend? Your name has to be Todd."
Angie backed off with a sniff. "Todd?"
"And at this dinner," continued Rosamund, "when my wise-ass brother-in-law starts to bully me and insult me and comport himself like a jerk, will you change his tune with a little swift intimidation, preferably in front of his wife and kids?"
Angie frowned and started to speak, but stopped himself, a gleam of temptation dawning in his eyes, a spark of merry mischief. He broke out a grin. "Love to."
"Okay, then. We're on." Rosamund gestured for him to unlock the car door. "But no nudie stuff, no fig leaves. Drive me to the Herpetorium, and I'll take it from there."
"But didn't you say the van—"
Angie unlocked the passenger-side door, chuckling under his breath, and sidled back out from between the parked cars. "Thanks, Rosalind."
Rosamund brushed stoically past him with her bag and said, "I'm yours with the snake until eight." She'd still have time for one binge tonight, one free-fall into the void; and something delicious to look forward to at Gwynn's house after that. It was a start.
Gemma Simmons, under another name, has had work published in Fence, The Literary Review, Other Voices, Permafrost, Southern Humanities Review, Folio, Writers' Forum, Confrontation, The Portland Review, and Main Street Rag, among other magazines, with a story forthcoming in The Distillery.