by Ben Rosenthal
They picked up Wild Gorse at McCarren International and there he was, dragging a reptile skin embossed travel case. He wore a mackerel-colored seersucker meant to offset this spanking orange tan (he was less tanned than he was sulphured, really). There was something undeniably porcine about his face, his mandible unnaturally taut where it veered in; from the back, a bulldog’s jetpack of loose flesh lunged from a space between his shoulders.
“Goddamn, there she is,” said Hotchkiss, who was driving.
The younger one, in a red-striped motorcycle helmet, said, “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe he’s here.”
Gorse slid into the backseat. These were the men, his “escorts” to a valedictory on Paradise Road. He was there to receive a lifetime achievement award, universal plaudits for his artistry from a weed-smoking panel at Adult Video News. There would be a lighted proscenium stage and vamping barely-legals there to ride him to the rostrum like Valkyries when the MC called his name.
For years, they’d assumed he was a funny topic. He was a lauche German auteur of the hardest, most generous pornography from back in the heyday of the 1970s, a once-budding star of some gravely ambitious smut flicks that were bankrolled with his family’s iron deutschmarks (they believed he was investing in a rabbit sanctuary near Encinitas). The films were omni-sexual spectaculars, nearly always pastorally set (a sylvan lake farm where nightingales chirped and fluted madrigals precipitated hedgerow buggery, a summertime idyll in Bled where the slinky commissars of Tito might be watching!). They were chiefly eponymous labors (“Wild Gorse is Wild Gorse in Wild Gorse 6”), premiering with neon marquees aggressively de rigeur for that glamour age. Gorse even purchased ad blitzes in the city press. At the height of his carnal fandom he’d been stricken with a pigment disease – Vitiligo – which stripped his skin of all color, and by the time “Wild Gorse 6” hit the Tenderloin its eponymous stud was whiter than an albino Iditarod. It drove him straight into recherché depression; it made his flamboyant pretensions sad. It somehow accentuated his German accent. It made him write letters in which he adopted the style of George Sand.
It was funny.
AIDS was not, but he was circling the punchline like a peregrine hoping against hope that a laugh would rear its head. The protease was making tracks with flanking maneuvers towards his inner Berlin. The Prezista and the Sustiva tanked. He was becoming a collage of mouth sores, manifold indignities of the immuno-suppressed. A bad bout of oral hairy lucaplakia was chased out with radio ions and a shit ton of multidirectional bowel spills. He attempted other cocktails. He fetched up with quacks, denialists. He avoided cat litter and the niacin hazards of birdcages. The hits kept coming. Enteritis. Thrush. Cryptosporidium: Amazonian bung-insects as shocked to be thriving in the northern latitudes as Wild Gorse was to be hosting them. Strasser, his ID man at the Olgahospital, said “You’ve met your resistance, friend. Thirty eight T-helpers. Better get the manor shipshape.”
He was not ready for his close up, Mister DeMille. (Or did this mean he was?)
“We thought you were on a cocktail,” said Junior Boyce, who belonged to the helmet, looking at the foundering German.
“They hit walls,” said Gorse. “And then you switch to another and that one runs out and soon there is just this flea circus. Happier topics, please.”
The limo was no automotive centipede tricked out for the rap stars whose music went right by him, but it wasn’t any K-car either. It was ’01 Eldorado stretch, the upholstery a bit stained. They approached the airport exit. They would have two and a half hours to pretty up in the hotel room and then get themselves down to the Hard Rock where a mic’d host would await the clack-clack of his merry Vera Wangs on the runner. He would submit to a red carpet “interview”.
What a run of months he’d been having. He’d been living with his mother in Stuttgart, devouring his family assets on a skein of Ankaran kept men, sinewy, hair-trigger catamites who’d had their fill of his dogged kindnesses, his maudlin mothering, and eventually cased his digs. Ran off with his mantle clock; a great piece some Schwartzwalder filigreed with little birds, terns on some gunwale in Danzig. He’d prized his attic trunkful of Reichs field articles (SS trumpet banners, flieger-uhrs, an Armanen rune belt buckle perfect for S&M displays, a nice Kreuz cutlass): goners. Those Ottoman hyenas cleaned him out, pointed his own jugend at his chest; the gadgets hauled straight to the Latvian marketplace. He would never see such aestheticizing of the End Days again. Because what could be expected of a terminal case? He despised Nazism but admired the trench-tooth malodor of the Fuhrer’s pageantry. If only they hadn’t localized things, if they had just killed everybody, gassed all creeds, all man; raised holy hell and spared no one with the Walpurgis lightshow …
But dear those Turks. Some elected to beat him when he didn’t ask for it. He was a hit on two continents. He’d pined for the Valley, leading with his chin against the boot heel of the dreaming west, the ghosts of fatal Grand Dames who ran scribes out of Art Deco dream palaces. “You can never write a script for me; you will never know love, young man! True love. My love!” Would that he could be one of these. And now, finally, he was back. He would be wearing kimonos on a roof deck and using the high summer smog for a kind of dissolution-convalescence, a la Kenneth Tynan in the 1970s.
Parties. Garden champers with Angelica, Warren and Jack, Rolling Stone fledglings in miniskirts saying don’t mind if I do to some speedball bonbons on a tray. He’d missed out on that, Bay-marooned, perceived amoral and underserving. Now they were old, Warren: hitched, Jack, moribund. Angelica the owner of a gullet. Nothing to blame but Father Time.
The exit signs to Vegas proper stood ahead. They were leaving the airport.
He daubed some blush on from a silver compact monogrammed with the initials W.G., tilting his head toward the rearview mirror. He saw his face: it was like staring down something mythic that stalked sheep in the Outer Hebrides. For assurance, he asked:
“How do I look?”
“You look a million,” Hotchkiss said.
“You are a lazy liar.”
“It is what it is, brother.”
“I think you are a lazy liar.”
Hotchkiss keyed the GPS to find where the Hard Rock was. It was taking too long for a man with a hurryup disease. Gorse sparked up a slender Gauliose and dragged slow like a Stasi interrogator, “Andale to the American picaresque,” he said. “I aim to buy snapshots of Waffle Houses and to have that Peyton Manning in this backseat. I want to saddle burros on a famous western butte and ride the arid pastures like iconic gunslingers in the immortal Wayne ‘flicks’.”
“This guy’s a fucking mouthful,” said Hotchkiss to the man in the passenger seat. “Is this some kind of dementia?”
“John Wayne?” said Junior Boyce, turning to Gorse. “You grew up in Germany.”
“We have screens. Germany has screens.”
“What’s it like,” said Boyce, “over there?”
“I’m not over there; I’m here,” said Gorse. “And I never wanted to be from anywhere.”
“Well,” said Hotchkiss into the windshield. “Nobody gets that wish.”
“Quite,” said Gorse.
“And if I was you, I would douse that cigarette,” the man said. “That packed tar don’t do your breathing any favors.”
The car headed off onto the boulevard.
Before Paradise Road there were many others and they were evidence that Man was here; substantially and irrefutably present, but a few hours earlier Gorse had seen all this as the tiniest white splotch on a miserable and oceanic sand sweep as the jetliner circled the airspace for a landing. He was a splotch and he had splotches.
They passed by a giant Popeye’s chicken bucket atilt over used cars, overpasses, underpasses, hot pink arrows indicating proximity to the Flamingo Hotel. Bronze-painted minarets loomed high over neon wedding chapels. A factory-distressed brauhaus announced with pride it was the House of Veiss. What had Gorse missed of this America? Terrible reports: Things were tacky. Around the set, there were coke rails next to condom wrappers. The gaffers put a foil over the ranch windowpanes and ate leftover Russell Stover chocolates. The male talent got their revs up by doing pull-ups on the uneven bars when the fluff boys were held up in the automotive cluster on the 101. They were entrepreneurs now, “crowdfunding” gangbangs. Words like “heteronormative” emerged.
“I’m going to call you the Fukashima Meltdown,” Gorse said to the man in the helmet.
“That helmet looks like something on a Japanese firefighter.”
“But I’m American,” said Junior Boyce. “It’s a look I’m doing.”
Boyce was a gay porn actor, he told Gorse. He was starring in a movie about a man who takes a 1950s robot for a concubine. The movie was called Pumping Iron and it was due out on a website in February. Hotchkiss was one who had drifted from different pleasures into that of being a “handler” and, at the request of the AVN Hall of Fame committee and with the assistance of the helmeted one (Boyce’s PlayStation handle: FanBoy), was squiring Wild Gorse to the stage where the latter would claim his trophy.
Gorse listened to Boyce telling him of his future and found it was nothing at all like his past. What would he tell any of these people? What of his Von Stroheim fantasies? Striding the Chatsworth backlot with a croc-skin horsewhip stashed in his studded waist holster, firing a buck ringer from the Castro for blowing his glans out before the “take”, quoting the maestro himself when he did it. He had once wanted to open a kennel for canine microbreeds using all the fine clear lines of Walter Gropius in the building plans. He was going to call it Bow House and make it a spectacle, a little meeting space for the pup-enthused on the planks of Sausalito. He was going to hold houseboat salons, end the nights by lighting candles on the casting deck and doing his imagined variations on Marlena’s incomparable Weimar revues. Who in his present company would understand this?
He wondered if hanging on wasn’t worse than dying.
Coming from where he did, he knew there was nothing more terrible than winding up on the wrong side of history. His friends from the dream days, the Bay martyrs, knew where they stood. He did not know this land or its ranges.
At the hotel, Gorse napped while Hotchkiss and Meltdown spoke in whispers. The two had set up a gaming system and all around the rug a rising tide of coaxials and toggle panels threatened to submerge the little space. Gorse fled to the high ground.
Waxy-eyed, he now emerged with what appeared to be an ancient stereophonic amplifier in a garrote of shiny black cords, setting it down on a nightstand and jacking it into the wall socket where it immediately began whirring like a Martian spacecraft. With his eyes closed, he pursed his lips, and his mouth seemed to water.
“Wild Gorse?” said the younger one with the meltdown helmet.
“You are wondering what is this thing, what is this contraption,” he said. “It is a PERL-M machine, designed for heal me in lieu of meds.”
“What does it do?”
“The machine uses argon plasma tubes,” said Gorse, woozy from his catnap but still rallying.
“Integrated light, gratis chronometer; a 230 VAC power pack. And this: Remote touchpad I can hand-click to get even more healing frequencies from the transmitter. It snuffs the dirty pathogens using electromagnetic resonances generated from a carrier wave. Imagine you are trapped in a sonic boom; echo power would decelerate your heartbeat and snap your bones. This pearl of a magnetron wreaks similar grief on AIDS cells.”
“Does it work?”
Gorse wrapped a cuff around his wrist.
“Not yet?” Meltdown looked hurt.
Gorse let the cuff build in pressure and raised his arm, holding it out, as though a sailor sighting the mainland through a mist. In the next room, Hotchkiss yelled into the telephone.
“We need nonalc, Jerry, virgin gin. Cranberry and lemon wedge thing. Maybe an Aid Kit and I dunno, an adrenalizer. We got a goddamn cadaver here!”
The PERL-M Resonator blinked off.
They were getting closer to Paradise Road. Gorse noted the toasted almond sun that was different than the chicken-fried sun of hours earlier. There were back in the Caddie, possibly running late.
Hotchkiss slammed the horn; a slow-going pickup from a lumberyard nearly spilled its plywood cords onto their front end when the blitzkrieg of honking stunned the driver. It was a crawl. They were getting near the barrel-vault canopy on Freemont Street, even from blocks away, the colossal megawatt floor lasers set down on their block swivels were silently projecting John Wayne and his Appaloosa against the manmade curve of sky.
“Holy jeepers, it’s the Duke,” said Meltdown Helmet.
Hotchkiss, through a mouthful of Rold Gold minis, said, “It’s his birthday. They do that.”
Since the windows were closed and they hadn’t yet cranked Stagecouch from the loudspeakers, the effect was something like a meteor shower.
Meltdown turned to Gorse. “Did you know that? John Wayne, Gorse!”
Gorse was silent, his eyes closed and he seemed asleep. They passed the cowpoke by in the stretch, the hood nearly whipped by his blinking lasso as they moved ever closer to the Strip.
But he was thinking. He was dreaming. Gorse possessed the Euro-tendency to view death as the final arabesque in the choreography of a maestro powerless to stop the flow of art into anything and everything in existence. He saw no flower as beautiful as his KS spots; convoluted reds and bursting violets like thermonuclear summer skies, the quartz whites of his dried skin rashes after the maculopapules seared his trunk were a miracle of modern pointillism. Immune deficient, he was beautiful as the mod-banged honey traps he saw gallivanting around the raver warehouses. Death (and what it was seemed bigger than one word) would be an outsider art coup de grace. The many dear ones who’d gone before him, those biker morsels at the I-Beam in Haight hiding their cherry sarcomas under chinstrap beards, the Ailey school fan-dancers strutting bare-assed from the scalloping of the taffeta curtains, bony as all get from the pulmonary Antietams they had claimed were merely chest colds, were too young to fathom that. They were too stubborn; wedded too vainly to their coils. The price of having good taste in an ugly world, he thought, was that one appreciated everything too richly; you looked so spanking grand it was unfathomable the road would not rise to meet you. He found this hard to swallow when he thought of the tyrannosaurs that thumped the Mesozoic plains only the wind up fueling rattletraps through unleaded Shell nozzles. Time was invisible but it sure did tick. Young people were only old people who didn’t know it yet.
It would be so easy to not live. But he’d worked so hard at it. He’d had psychotherapy for his life, Adlerian thieves; sumptuous thinkers with fantastic probing minds running transcranial currents across his jellied noodle. R.D Laing, that beastly Lacan. What for? They were contract killers, there to murder instinct with kindness, coddle his best thought before thudding it with a psychotropic cudgel. Death, a nullity, could not talk you into itself, and these witches, dispensaries in herringbone Bill Blass, people who thrived on the occidental promise of improvement, would prolong his gruesome existence out of nothing more than pride.
But was he not complicit? A man on the gibbet, about to sway, ditch the somatic spin cycle, still fires some snake spit when the neck snaps and his underwear reveals slippery, contraindicative substance. It never ends. Because, really, this is how it always begins.
Hotchkiss cranked the parking break. The valet sprung the door.
On the carpet in his seersucker, his bony pontoons troubled by the makeshift runner (neuropathy) he doubled over and phlegmy air from his throat hit the room air and people noticed. A bottle-black, nose-studded “alt chick” moved away with a burning scowl, her meanness was her calling card; she could do this. There were unenviable specimens from adjacent businesses all around, shadowy men; fired film technicians, unsexed fanzine traders –agoraphobes who had nourished malign ideas about the softer gender now in love with all who passed by, men who didn’t chew well.
Gorse was supposed to talk to a loudmouth trans producer who was working the red carpet for this gig. A few gracious nothings, some bon mots flung offhand and in his usual louche smoking manner, and move on, but it wasn’t going that way. Right away the trans man buttonholed him, busting out of his chiffon, but Meltdown and Hotchkiss pushed Gorse on through, backstage to the waiting area.
Gorse wobbled, the blur in his eyes clearing up. The juicy gaggles were there and saw death. The men in tight-ribbed tank tops, the girls-next-door projecting the image of the girls next door, the MMA fighting baldies with proprietary clamps on these girls. Who were they? Whither my loves? My passions. My mantle clock.
The man was the face to the name on the program, the fabulist of rut-spectaculars in loose costume, rank and natty. He leaned against a speaker near the curtain, feeling the blur of the kliegs, the hideous sporidium rising. A girl approached; but for her six-inch scarlet platforms, she might have been the host of a midnight omnibus horror show, circa 67’, the comprehensive scream queen ensemble right down to the ace of spades hair. She had slathered thick mascara into loose, violet ovals around the sweetest and weakest blue eyes Gorse had seen from this distance in a while. She had been daddy’s little muse in Edina once, or an Akron, Ohio telemarketer who saw life speeding by and said “Who, me stand athwart it?” Maybe her hubby, a hydroponic weed dealer, got pinched, and she’d flat-back a little under the Ariflex lens to make his bail. Then it became a life; usurped her. It had usurped everyone. The curtain of Gorse’s mind pulled up and revealed the welling of ambush tears, because the unanimity he was feeling could not be taken away from any of them; he needed them, these new ones, bound to maroon on the sick side of life when the sex stopped. It wasn’t a sudden prudishness that made him fear for them. It was that they had so much ahead. They were too immersed now to know how much their lives would become preventative maintenance; how impulse would fade into second-guessing, second-guessing into no guessing at all, into a calcified screen over your very who-ness; grime of oral thrush over everything you. He had been building to a valedictory of sorts well before Meltdown gathered him from the airport drive and if there was a grace to be found at the rostrum, it would be in the memory rush; a bracing frisson of all the good things lived through that would make the hellish ones worth the ride. It was a life’s suspended notion brought low with the knowledge: Memory is not enough.
And now he backed into a pipe on the wall. It burned him but no one saw it. The burn was real, and corrective. He began sobbing into his hand, because, like the gallows dick spasm, this was not the end; this was only the end of the beginning. This was the night of his charity; the showing of his mercy to them. The sweet muscle oafs, the chiffoned naiveté of these headstrong prima donnas; his very own Charon, young Meltdown. He wanted them saved: Vater Flannagan, he, Patron Saint of Bavarian Crème loads, Bugger Barker of Life’s Big Circus Tent: wrap its sailcloth around these sad souls, hold them, bid them away: tell them to run if they can.
“They’re calling you, Mister Gorse. You’re up next.”
“Congrats to you and we love you,” said the Alt Girl Scream Queen. He knew she didn’t love him at all; but oh dear, how he did love her.
He could feel her hands on his shoulders. She was shaking his very bones. Boyce was giving him the thumbs up. Thirty eight T-cells. The neck snaps. Life clings to your last turtleneck. Don’t be so young as to break down. Summon the reddest of your spots: Look them in the eye with your extinction.
About the Author:
Ben is currently attending Columbia University’s graduate writing program, where he will graduate in February, 2018. He has been a resident at the MacDowell Colony and at U Cross. He lives in New York City.