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Thwack!

Raymond van der Holt pondered the catalog. Would a seven-candle chandelier look good in the front room? The Restoration Hardware sale seemed too good to pass up. Then again, if he could just wait it out, there was the discount weekend in November or December...

This was how Raymond had been spending the better part of the past decade. Pondering catalogs, being selective about what he wanted, and being even more selective about what he actually bought. He knew he couldn’t spend as giddily as he used to — the royalties and movie options would eventually dry up, and he’d be left with nothing but his 1924 Craftsman house and the beautiful, meaningless objects within it.

At 55, he kept himself smooth skinned with a slew of nice-smelling ointments. He retained a full head of hair, which was a source of pride because his father had gone bald at 39, and he combed this silver nest before answering the door, no matter who rang, mailman or Jehovah’s Witness. He was not vain, per se; he just had an old-fashioned sense of decorum. During times of distress, he perked himself up by channeling Cary Grant gliding down the stairs with a highball. There was an original Batchelder-tile fireplace in his living room, muted and mellow with rabbits and pinecones. Gazing at it also calmed him, but Cary Grant had more zing.

Many years ago, as a Midwestern man of 27, he’d churned out a grisly trio of novels, the Deathwatch cycle. Within two years, all three had become international best-sellers. By the time he was 30, he’d been anointed a savant on both sides of the Atlantic, not to mention Japan, where his most ardent (and terrifying) fans lived.

His subjects were grave robbers, necromancers, zombies and — his favorite — vampires. Part of his success lay in his resistance to the term “horror” and his refusal to play the part of the schlockmeister; he preferred that reviewers and fans alike refer to his works as “blood epics.” He found it gratifying, for example, when The New York Times described his books as “chilling chronicles of necromania,” tying him more to Lovecraft and Poe than to Stephen King. Although his characters were fantastical, he steeped his tales in truthful emotions — real wants and real fears, the other components of his winning formula. His zombie stories were allegories of xenophobia and race hate, and his vampire saga contained his own anxieties about aging. He never had mummies leaping out of the closet just to say “Boo!”

After a successful run of 10 books, he decided he had nothing more to say. It became tiresome to keep up with changing expectations. Worse, he found himself too frequently invited to soirees with other practitioners of the genre. It wasn’t the competition he feared but the homework. He dreaded having to thumb through novels beforehand so there’d be something to discuss — writers of this type were notoriously solipsistic and couldn’t handle conversation outside of their books. Anyway, their stories were never as vigorous and heartfelt as his, and there were few things more unbearable than an insincere werewolf epic.

Then, there were the fans. The disturbing ones, who sent him dead animals and decomposed organs, lived in Japan, and he found them easy enough to ignore. But his target audience, the people for whom he started writing his books in the first place, were nowhere to be found.

In his naiveté, he’d hoped that his writing would draw in legions of tousle-haired, doe-eyed teenagers he could lure into his bed, ruby-lipped androgynes who wore Mom’s pantyhose late at night while listening to jazz. Boys with faces like angels, and minds like devils. But instead, Raymond found — to his genuine horror — that the great majority of his readers were suburban housewives. These denim-wrapped females formed book clubs and organized role-playing afternoons around his books; they invited him to inaugurate picnics and autograph raffle tickets. They squealed freely at his book signings, and sometimes, the chubby ones came dressed as sirens from his zombie cycle. He shuddered thinking about the way they ran around, laughing, exchanging e-mail addresses and Wiccan greetings. Whenever he read at a Barnes & Noble in the suburbs, he smelled the strip mall tacos on their breath.

These days, Raymond couldn’t re-enter the marketplace if he wanted to. Bookstores crippled him. A few years ago they were bad enough, filled with tomes by authors who took macho pride in the plainness of their prose, writing about coffee shops and trailer parks and the tattoos on their pale asses. But now, now was worse. Historical thrillers set in olde Europe, doleful as doorstops and stuffed to the gills with encyclopedia vomit; slim compendia by “modern humorists” who chronicled painfully ordinary situations and parlayed their modest gifts into radio programs, TV appearances and campus tours; and the absolute pits — catty romans à clef about life in New York’s upper crust written by venal young things in stiletto heels.

 

There was no way he belonged with these people. He longed for the days of clichés he only partly despised — women’s stories where empty tumblers of Dubonnet and old 78’s, played over and over, stood in for romantic agony, or war stories where likable heroes got wounded and actually died. He’d rather starve than compete with the kids of today, thank you very much.

And so he channeled his energies into his house. Moving west from New York in the mid-’90s, Raymond had marveled that he could finally possess his own castle and a yard with actual green, leafy things. But with new Hollywood money eating up most of old Los Angeles housing, he never managed to find a home that was comfortable enough, stylish enough, remote enough — yet affordable enough. Finally, his realtor sold him on the Craftsman aesthetic so prevalent in Alta Vista, an area as yet undiscovered by the media throng. Raymond loved the homes’ shaded porches, shingled roofs and auras of good, old-fashioned handiwork. He bought one on Santa Claus Lane.

His was a beautiful Craftsman, rustic yet regal, hanging back from the street like a diffident suitor. He hoped against hope that a slight boy with bee-stung lips and emerald eyes, drawn to the amber glow of his mica-shade lamps, would some day stumble up his porch, asking to borrow a cup of sugar.

That was the kind of visitor he waited for, not the bedraggled Korean pastor’s widow from next door who was currently waddling toward his door, Lord knows why.

He watched her from his picture window, hoping that she’d change her mind and turn back. She looked teary-eyed as she clutched a bundle of letterhead paper. Probably some kind of a petition. Please, no crying on my property, he thought. Over here, it’s No Smoking, No Dogs and No Tears. Shoo!

When she stepped up onto his porch, he clucked his tongue. He got up reluctantly, and combed his hair in the mirror.

“Hello, dear,” he said, as he opened the door. “And what can I do for you?”

She refused to meet him in the eye, possibly still raw from their encounter two years prior when he refused to retrieve the shuttlecock on his roof.

“Hello,” said the Korean woman. “My husband, he say you writer. Yes?”

“Yes,” said Raymond. He counted seven plastic barrettes in her hair. Strange bird.

“You write book. Yes?”

“Yes. I wrote a few books.”

“Can you help me? Please?”

“What, dear, would you like me to do?”

She paused and organized her thoughts. Then, casting aside fears about her lack of grammar or diction, she shoved the dead pastor’s papers into his hands.

“Please, you read. This my husband book. He write this. Please read. Finish read, please, you tell me if good or bad... Okay?”

Raymond glanced at the papers, smiling wryly at the letterhead: All-Friends Worship. The word “Viagra” on one of the pages leapt out at him. Oh, Mr. Park, you rascal.

“When do you need these back, dear?”

She flinched, stunned that he’d taken so little convincing. A smile of relief burst across her lips: “When you finish.”

She nodded her thanks, and backed off his porch, bowing painfully low. She’d make a terrible geisha, he thought.

* * *Mrs. Park pulled out bunches of chives and green onions she’d been saving all week. She dropped them into batter and fried savory Korean pancakes, their delicious aroma filling the entire house. The girls circled her in the kitchen, making silent gestures to each other, trying to decipher what their mother had in mind. She hadn’t spoken a word to them all evening, not since her return from the neighbor’s house. Eventually, she had 30 pancakes, stacked high on a platter. Glaring at the girls, she turned off the stove and plucked off her apron.

“No touch!” she cautioned. “Pancake no for you!”

She ran into her bedroom and carefully put on a white cotton dress and white pumps. Then in the bathroom, she combed her hair, played with a tortoiseshell barrette and applied red lipstick.

Mira stopped her in the hallway. “Ma, what’s going on? You’re not getting married, are you?”

Mrs. Park said nothing. She brushed past her and dipped into the kitchen to collect the pancakes, then headed to the front door.

* * *Raymond van der Holt was enjoying the view of the mountains through his picture window when the Korean hausfrau invaded the frame, again. She was dressed entirely in white this time, like some crazy Asian wraith. What now? He got up, combed his hair and answered the door.

 

“Oh, Mrs. Park, I haven’t started on the stories yet. I know, I know. Bad boy.” He slapped his own wrist.

“Is okay,” she smiled. She pushed a platter of soggy grey discs with green stripes into his hands. “I make the pancake for you. You doing work, you get hungry. Must eat something, okay?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She stood there for a moment, as if she wanted to be invited in. But there was no way that was going to happen.

“Pancake is no MSG. All veggie-table. I not know if you eat the meat.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Park, in fact I do eat the meat.” He took a step back into his house. Hint-hint for bye-bye. “It’s very kind of you.”

“Oh!” she suddenly exclaimed. “I forget soy sauce! I come back.”

“No, no! Please don’t! I have soy sauce sitting around in my kitchen. I’m sure it’ll suffice.” He looked at the poor, hopeless woman. “Good night now, Mrs. Park.”

“Gooda night.”* * *Holding the stories from Mrs. Park, he walked out to his backyard the following morning. He’d reheated the chive pancakes in his oven and the first of them now crunched warmly in his mouth. Not bad, not bad at all.

He pulled over a wrought-iron chair from the patio and put it under his oak tree. Facing him, across his privet hedge, was the Parks’ yard. Through a bare patch in the hedge, he glimpsed his bête noire, their abandoned blue sofa. It looked like it’d been to hell and back, that old thing, and probably even predated the family. None of the Parks ever sat in it, as far as he could tell. It had a thousand slashes on its cushions, inflicted by some insomniac cat, and moldy foam rubber was pushing out of its wounds. An eyesore matched in noxiousness only by the mysterious evening blasts of rock music.

Raymond turned his chair so he wouldn’t have to look at the couch. He reminded himself to talk Mrs. Park into getting rid of the thing in exchange for reading the stories.

The stories. He sighed. Oh, the stories. He started with the one that was at the top of the pile. “The Dancing Banana Woman.” The title made him chuckle out loud. The naïve, unschooled prose made him chuckle even harder. The knee-jerk misogyny, the oblivious racism. The odd turns of phrases and lines lifted wholesale from some shabby paperback or other (he could tell because he’d done the same kind of thing long ago). Charmed by the clumsiness of the storytelling, he found himself slapping his thighs at several points, laughing himself silly until he realized he’d read all the stories, eaten all the pancakes and was now desperately in need of a scotch.

* * *That evening, Mrs. Park returned. Raymond had washed and dried her pink melamine platter, and it sat on the demilune console by his door waiting for her.

“Thank you for the pancakes. They were quite scrumptious.”

“You remember soy sauce?”

“Didn’t need them. They were perfect au naturel.”

He handed her the set of stories, which he seemed to have ironed flat for her. He’d also secured them with a black binder clip.

“And thank you for sharing your husband’s stories.”

“Oh! You finish!” She hugged the sheets. “Maybe you can help make for sell?”

Raymond chuckled, then caught himself. The woman was dead serious. He sighed.

“Would you like to step inside? I only have mint tea to offer you, but maybe we could have a quick little chat.”* * *Mrs. Park sat lightly on the red leather Chesterfield. The dents her heels made in Raymond’s thick, plush rug made her feel like a barbarian. His house was at least twice as large as hers. She sipped at the mint tea, wiping away traces of her lipstick on the china with a piece of tissue. She noticed how he held his teacup with his pinky standing and she tried to do the same.

“What type books you write?” she asked.

“Oh, I don’t know... One could say they’re all love stories, essentially.”

“Oh! Romance!”

“Well...”

“What is your name?”

“Raymond van der Holt. There — you can see my name emblazoned on all the books in this room. Awfully narcissistic, I suppose you’re thinking, but I spare myself the shame by not having people over.” He glanced at her. She registered no irony.

“Your son?” She pointed at the framed picture of a young man on his grand piano.

“No, I’m afraid that’s Marlon Brando.” When she drew a blank, he explained, “In his earlier, funnier days.”

 

“You play piano?”

“Alas, you shame me again, Mrs. Park. I don’t. That’s set decoration. Like the books. And the photo.”

“Is nice piano.”

Raymond cleared his throat. “About your husband’s stories, Mrs. Park...”

She put her teacup down and held herself up.

“They no good, right?” She had an I’m-tough-I-can-take-it look.

“They were very entertaining to read. You should be proud of your husband.”

“But... they no good, right?”

“Well, the book business is very tough, my dear. People toil for years before they produce anything, and believe me, even experienced authors don’t often find people who want to publish their work.”

“You cannot help make for sell?”

“I’m afraid they’re just not polished in the way people want their stories to be polished these days. And as you probably already know, like everything else out there, the publishing world’s run by idiots.”

She nodded and rose to leave. He handed her the melamine platter by the door, and she turned to him for one final question. She was bothered by something one of her daughters had said earlier.

“Maybe my husband stories too dark?”

Now Raymond had to smile: “They’re not dark, dear. They’re just poorly lit.”

She headed to her house without looking back.

“Be brave, Mrs. Park,” he called after her.

Minutes later, he kicked himself for forgetting to ask her about the blue couch.

* * *Late that night, way past his bedtime, Raymond was swirling his third glass of Muscadet and reading Johan Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages while Josephine Baker sang “Blue Skies” on his Victrola. When he lifted his head to yawn, he was startled by the sight of a mop of black hair in the lower edge of his picture window. From its movements, he could tell that it was no long-furred dog but something more intelligent — someone was watching him with eyes hidden behind that curtain of hair. It surveyed the living room, scanning it from one end to the other, like a robot designed for menace.

“What the...” he said aloud. He stood up and waved his arms wildly. I can see ya, ya little cunt.

No reaction.

Then the curtain of hair rose with a sickening grandeur, like a black tulip blossoming. Raymond shuddered. His spy stood lankily in the picture window, framed like one of Goya’s Black Paintings. A portrait of a girl completely in the nude, her skin pale against the dark velvet night. The hair remained covering her face like a lustrous ebony mask. Her pubic area, meanwhile, was exposed — a bristly chimney sweep’s brush.

Was this some kind of sick, homophobic taunt?

“Stop that! Come on, stop that right now!”

Arms akimbo, he gave her his most authoritarian stare. He channeled Charlton Heston, then Peter Lorre.

It made no difference. The girl took several steps back and then, with no regard for her personal safety, slammed her entire body hard against the glass. Thwack!

“Hey! Hey, I mean it!” He stopped himself from stepping outside lest it was a trap set by the unhinged Mrs. Park. He’d hate to be caught berating a naked girl, especially if the cops were already on their way.

Instead, he waved his finger at her from indoors like a chiding schoolmaster.

“Fuck off! Just go away, will you?!”

The girl peeled herself off the window. She took three slow steps back and again threw herself against the glass. Thwack! And yet again, she repeated her motions. Thwack!

Raymond froze in horror. This was antique leaded glass, impossible to replace, and the fiend didn’t seem likely to give up until it broke. Who was this person? What did they want?

At her fourth thwack! Raymond thought he heard a crack either in the glass or in its frame. That was it. A man had the right to protect his property. He gulped down the rest of the Muscadet and stormed to the door.

“You’re asking for it, girlie!”

She must have had quick feet because when he opened the door, there was nobody on the porch. Not a soul. A cold draft rushed past him and into the house. There was nothing out there but the night. The chirping crickets gave nothing away.

He turned to the window and surveyed the damage.

There were two smudges in the center of the pane, shaped exactly like greasy nipples.

Sandi Tan is a writer and filmmaker living in Pasadena. Her short films have shown at the New York Film Festival and the Museum of Modern Art. She’s just completed her first novel, The Girls of Santa Claus Lane. www.sanditan.com.

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