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The Women: New Fiction by T.C. Boyle 

Miriam Agonistes, an excerpt

Wednesday, Jan 28 2009

None of the doctors could help her in Los Angeles or the provincial outpost of San Diego either, little people all of them, sniveling types, handwringers, an army of effete bald-headed men in spectacles who were mortified of the law — as if this law had any more right to exist than Prohibition, because who was the federal government to dictate what people could and couldn’t do with their own bodies, their own minds, their personal needs and wants and compulsions? Were they going to regulate needs, then? Dole them out? Tax them? Miriam was so furious, so burned up and blistered with the outrage of it that she must have been overly severe with the cabman — the driver with his hat cocked back on his head and his trace of a Valentino mustache — because when they got to the border at Tijuana, he stopped the car, turned round in the seat and demanded payment in full. Insolently. Out of insolent little pig’s eyes. “This is as far as I go,” he said, and she couldn’t place his accent.

She was immovable. She felt her face concretize, the pores sealing up, the muscles round her mouth and eyes going to stone. “Nonsense,” she spat. “Drive on.”

There was a customs man standing off to the left of the car, a slouching congenital idiot with a lazy eye and bad teeth, and he’d already showed them his smile and waved them on — no searches here, no passports required — and he was giving her a curious look now. As if he’d seen everything in his day, every sort of indecision and cataclysm, women four and five months gone heading down to la clínica for the procedure that would make them right again, rumrunners with their empty trucks, day-trippers and ethnologists and rock collectors, but this, this was a new wrinkle altogether.

click to enlarge KYLE T. WEBSTER
  • Kyle T. Webster

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“No,” he said, “no more,” and he shoved his way out of the car and tried to pull open the back door, but she held fast to the handle. “Get out,” he insisted and it gave her a small pulse of pleasure to hear the tremor in his voice. The war was already won.

“I won’t,” she said just to savor the words on her lips. “Now, I’ve paid you to take me to Tijuana, and I won’t budge until you fulfill your end of the bargain.” She looked round her in growing outrage: the customs man, a river of Mexicans in pajamas and serapes, mules, dogs, Indian eyes, Indian hair, dust, muck, filth, the street vendors and beggars in their cutaway rags — and hanging over it all the heat, the impossible punishing heat that stewed the odor of decay till she could barely breathe. “Move on,” she demanded.

He saw the look in her eyes, saw the way her face had set, and he didn’t even try to Jew her out of an extra two bits, as any of the rest of them would — he just shrugged, climbed back into the cab and put the car in gear. A moment later they were lurching down the rutted streets, the human circus of Mexican poverty unfolding outside the window like a mural in a moving picture. She was uncomfortable, feeling the heat, dizzy from the stench — she’d sweated through her undergarments and the seat of her dress, and her hair was gummy beneath her parrot-green silk caftan, which she’d chosen expressly to bring out the color of her eyes. But there was no one here to care about the color of her eyes. Just peasants — campesinos, isn’t that what they called them? And what was pharmacy? A cognate: farmacia, wasn’t it? She consulted the Spanish/English phrasebook in her purse and found the term under the heading “Useful Phrases”: ¿Donde está la farmacia?

There was a dog dead beside the road, the carcass swollen beneath a second skin of insects, people strolling by as if it were some sort of monument, as if it had been molded of brass and put there by the town council to honor canine achievement. The cab lurched again, in and out of a rut, and the dog was gone. “The farmacia,” she said, the cords tightening in her throat. “Take me to the farmacia, the first one you see. Quickly, quickly.”

He didn’t seem to have heard her, so she repeated herself. A scorched minute blistered by. There were birds now, some sort of Mexican birds, exploding up from the road — pigeons, Mexican pigeons. “The farmacia,” she said, and she was beginning to feel desperate, all her outrage evaporated in the face of the hopelessness of this place, these peasants, this driver — and he was American, of some sort, a legitimate cabbie from San Diego who’d agreed on a legitimate price here and back, half paid in advance, half when she was restored to her hotel on Coronado Island where the sea breezes stirred themselves each afternoon to neutralize the heat. Peasants she knew. Peasants she’d dealt with in Paris, where they were alternately surly and unctuous, and Tokyo, where they bowed to the floor and laughed behind your back, but these people frightened her. It was dangerous here. She could sense it. See it, see it with her own eyes. Prostitutes. Drunks. That man there — staggering as if he were riding an invisible donkey, his eyes red as some demon’s, staring belligerently through the window at her. And there — another unconscious in the dirt and no more a concern than the dog in his jacket of flies. She was about to open her mouth again, about to say she’d had enough, forget it, he could take her back and away from all this, this chaos and filth and the ungodly stink, when the car abruptly came to a halt. “What?” she said. “What is it?”

  • Miriam Agonistes, an excerpt

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