MARILYN MONROE. FAT GIRLS. DEATH. FREEDOM.
By Michael Mohr
It was the summer of 2009. I’d been hitchhiking for about three months. I’d met Matt in New York City, at the cheap hostel on West 125th Street, Spanish Harlem. He’d come from Austria, had traveled around Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and then flown to San Francisco, first time in the USA, bought an old used motorcycle, buzzed it across the country to New York. I’d dropped out of college again—San Francisco State—and had driven with a friend across the nation to her father’s farm in Rhode Island. After a week I’d thumbed out to Boston and then finally to New York. Matt and I met that first night, when he’d walked out to the porch of the hostel and, with his nasally Austrian accent, arms wide in a V-shape, announced, “I’m going drinking: Who’s coming with me?”
A month later, here we were, in a little river rafting town in northern Maine called The Forks. We were only about two hours south of the Canadian border, Quebec to be precise. Actually, if you want the whole truth—and I know you do, you greedy Reader—we’d already tried to walk across the border and go into Quebec. The original plan—mine for months before meeting Matt—had been to walk across the line and then thumb west along the southern border of Canada all the way back to B.C. and then head south once more into the United States, through the Pacific Northwest, through Washington and Oregon and into my sacred and lovely California. My home. Where I was born and raised. My lover, my best friend, my worst enemy.
But, alas, that plan fell through. They didn’t like the look of me: Haggard, tattooed, scraggly beard, unwashed, pack on my back, walking across the border, of all things. Not driving but walking. Clearly, I was up to no good, they decided. But the worst offense, in their Canadian eyes, was my DUI from seven years ago. Back then, when I’d been 19, I’d passed out at the wheel and had plowed into a tree. I walked away unhurt, but I landed in Ventura County Jail outside of LA and got my first (and only) DUI. They said I had to wait a decade after getting a DUI to enter Canada. That would put me at 29. I was 26. Tough luck. They liked Matt and allowed him in—after all, he was European—but he said No, he’d stay with me. Good guy Matt was. Precious new friend.
So anyway, all of this is to explain why we’d turned around at the border and had thumbed along the same old twisty highway and had ended up going in reverse direction and had finally landed in The Forks.
The Forks was right along the Kennebec River, which wound through half of Maine. The old highway—U.S. 201—ran along the western edge of the town. The town sat right where the two rivers—Dead River and Kennebec—forked, combined, morphing from the two branches of a slingshot into one river: Kennebec. There was mostly green, stinky forest everywhere and you could hear the lazy push of the river and you could smell the wet earth, the minnow stink, and you could hear and feel the rumble of the plowing eighteen-wheelers bashing back and forth on the highway.
There was a local company—big cabin structure—which offered a massive green lawn for campers. We walked in, signed up and set out our tents. Immediately we met some river guides, young men and a few women in their early twenties, slightly younger than us, who were from all over the country—Iowa and Tennessee and Arkansas—who started talking to us, asking us questions: Who were we?; what were we doing here?; did we want to come drink with them later tonight?
We answered their questions and said that, yes, we would like to come and drink with them. One of them, Jed, a young man with broad shoulders and a drum-tight stomach who wore green flip-flops and a red T-shirt that said, “RIVER GUIDE 4 LIFE” told us to come to his cabin up the hill at 7 PM, and to bring beer. He said there was a liquor store, Andy’s Liquor, down the road a ways. We nodded, smiled, shook a few of their hands, and said thanks.
Matt and I sat around on the green sloping hill, watching the lazy river pulling brown veiny leaves and sticks down with the current, and we closed our eyes against the sun and we sighed and smiled and didn’t say a word. It was one of those moments. We were young, travelling around on our own, thumbing rides, free. We didn’t have jobs or girlfriends or responsibilities. We had nothing holding us down. We could do whatever we wanted. Matt had left a fiance and a good engineering job back in Austria. He’d taken all his savings out and decided to travel the world. He’d suddenly realized, according to him, that getting married and being stuck with a serious, well-paid job at 26 was not his ideal. He still had life to live.
Me, too. I’d left the Bay Area, San Francisco. Sure, I had a girl. She was trouble. A girl I’d met at a bar. And then of course there was Rachel, the one I’d travelled Europe with, fallen madly, deeply in love with, moved to San Francisco from San Diego with, had my heart broken by. But she’s another story for another time. Right now I was on my own, alone and powerfully free. That word—freedom—floated around my lips like honey.
I woke up. I’d fallen asleep in the hot bright sun. I saw that Matt was still asleep, lightly snoring. The sun was low and sharp, arrowing shafts peeping through the willow tree leaves along the river. The sound of the river reminded me of a thousand backpacking trips I’d taken, starting with the first one ever, with my father, when I was eight or nine years old, in the back country where I grew up outside of LA. This feeling blew some sad lonely grumbling into my heart and I almost felt the desire to cry. No. Correction. I did feel the urge to weep. Why did this happen? It came sometimes at the most random and chaotic and unhelpful of times.
Less than an hour later we arrived at the cabin with a 12-pack of PBR cans. There were several people lazily sitting on the porch, one on a swing, drinking brew, mostly also PBR, which they’d picked up from the same place. There surely was only that one spot in town to buy beer.
As we rose up the creaking wooden steps to the porch, nodding to people, Jed walked through the open door.
“Hey guys,” he said jovially. “Ah. You brought beer.”
We walked inside and he directed us to the kitchen. People were everywhere, sipping from red plastic cups and from cans of beer, yammering, yelling, laughing. It all sounded like garbled language. You couldn’t really tell what anyone actually said. It just sounded like “blah blah blah.”
We set the beers in the fridge. There was a lot of beer already in there. I snagged two of them before closing the white fridge door, that thrumming sound, and then the suction pulled the door closed. I handed Matt one and popped mine open. We grinned at each other like thieves, which we were, of a sort, and then we glugged. First beers of the night.
“Well gentlemen,” Jed said beside us. “Have fun. Enjoy.” He walked off. We laughed, me and Matt, at the fact that Jed hadn’t engaged us in conversation, how he’d simply directed us to the fridge and then left.
The rest of the evening isn’t much to talk about. It was boring. The usual: Meeting random people; the occasional cute flirty girl; drinking many brews; the night growing later. The cabin was small and claustrophobic. People stepped out to the porch where you could hear the cars swishing back and forth on Highway 201. There was a silver guard railing along the road; I watched it once in a car’s yellow projecting headlight beam.
Things got interesting around 2 AM. Two things happened. The first was the fat woman with the Marilyn Monroe tattoo. The second was the LSD.
She was short and dark-haired (she had lovely, long, curly dark hair, down past her shoulders) and had these short pudgy legs and thick monster thighs and this fat torso with a wiggly pouch of a belly and a wide, wobbly chest. Her black T-shirt of thin cotton stretched like a vast desert across her body, trying to contain it.
There were half a dozen men surrounding her, in the corner of the living room, near a burgundy leather couch, which piqued my curiosity. What was it about this woman that had intrigued them? Why weren’t these skinny, tall, good-looking men ignoring her, the fat, unattractive elephant? But then, as I stepped closer, I realized the problem. She wasn’t bad looking. In the face I mean. Her face possessed the plain beauty of a former movie star, a sexy young starlet. But it was round and too big, oversized, due to her weight. Were these men sucking down alcohol as rapidly as they could, hoping to then convince themselves, in a drunken stupor, that it was alright to give the elephant a go?
I stood next to the half circle of men, elbowing my way in. Two men on either side took sips of PBR and stepped aside for me to enter. Some circus show this was. I took a hefty chug of my beer and realized it was nearly finished. I was good and buzzed by this point. Close to drunk. Very close.
The woman was tugging her thin black T-shirt up. Why I didn’t know. She pulled it up about a quarter of the way and I glanced up at the mens’ eyes and saw a mix of pure disgust and total glee. A thunderous crack of shame rushed through me. Here we were, quietly mocking this poor girl. And why? Because she was overweight, not the picture our debilitating, conventional society paints for our women to be? Wasn’t that wrong? Hell, I knew what it felt like to be mocked, to be made fun of, to be taunted. To be loathed, to be hated, to be scorned. All my life practically.
She pulled the shirt up even higher and I saw the beginnings of an ink-colored tattoo on her left side. It was on her torso, sort of midway between her back and flabby, hanging stomach, which hung like a failure, like some dark talisman. And yet. And yet, I felt slightly turned on, slightly horny. Back then I slept with all kinds of women. Skinny blondes I’d met at bars. Cocaine-drenched beach bunnies. Whacked-out drunk chicks. And yes, fat girls, sometimes, when I was loaded enough. Right now I wasn’t loaded enough. But I was getting there. But would one of these men get their first?
She lifted the shirt entirely. It was a tattoo of Marilyn Monroe, that famous photograph of her on the streets of New York, her dress blowing up around her from the grate below. Marilyn blushed, her palm at her mouth, her sexy pose, big-breasted, blond, sharp-featured, everything opposite of this woman here, in real life. The bearer of the tattoo. You could see the wide, scar-like stretch marks along her torso, even along the tattoo itself, the skin having stretched and stretched to accommodate the expansion, like the Bering Strait from Russia to Alaska, which the Asians had once taken, slowly, to get to North America by. The Great Diaspora.
Right as I was working up the courage to speak to her, Jed called from out of nowhere, saying, “Hey Frankie,” and one of the men turned his head, slugged his brew, and trudged off. His buddy followed him and soon a new song started on the stereo—Break on Through by The Doors—and the other men turned and walked off, too. It was like magic. Suddenly it was just me and her, as if God had planned it that way. I couldn’t believe it. My luck. I blushed. Coughed. Cleared my throat. Considered walking away I was so embarrassed now. But no! I couldn’t walk away. Not now. Not with this turn of events.
“I’m James,” I said.
She smiled at me, sticking a yellow straw from a cocktail glass I hadn’t known she’d had into the corner of her mouth and sucking. “Julianne.”
“I like your tattoo,” I said.
She sucked on the yellow straw again, even though there was clearly nothing left in the drink, only wet ice cubes, half dissolved. Her eyes narrowed flirtily. “I see you have several of your own.”
I looked down at my arms, as if noticing the faded ink for the first time. I smiled. Nodded. Blushed once more. I said nothing.
She shook her head to the right, quickly, snapping some dark hair out of her eyes with a palm. “Listen. Come over tomorrow night. Cabin #4, by the restaurant. Yellow door. Late. Around midnight.”
She wrote something down on a piece of paper—I have no idea where the paper or pencil came from—and handed it to me. It said, “Julianne” and had her phone number. I folded it and stuffed it into my back pocket.
“Don’t forget, lover-boy,” she said, and then walked right past me.
Had that really just happened? Like that? Like a scene from some movie? It had seemed real and yet surreal, like a dream. How odd. How bizarre. But I felt good. All the men had walked away and she’d chosen me. Maybe it had been fate. Maybe the men had been ashamed, embarrassed. Maybe they’d left it to me, the foreigner from out of state who had no qualms about embarrassing himself. In theory, at least.
I realized then that I was drunk and had no idea where Matt was. I decided to go looking for him and for another beer.
It was about two hours later, roughly 4 AM, that the second thing I told you about happened. The LSD. Almost everyone had gone home. I was still at the cabin with about three or four other guys, Jed among them. Matt had left earlier, back to the camp site at the sloping green lawn. I’d found him talking to some river guide about what it was like to live in The Forks and to take people down the river.
Jed and I and two other guys walked down a furry-rugged carpeted hallway. We walked into a room. I was definitely drunk now. I could walk fine, but I knew I was slightly slurring my words—we all were—and I knew I’d have a hard time trudging back to the camp site.
Jed reached under the bed in the room and pulled a shoe box out. Inside of the shoe box was a baggie. It was filled with little multicolored tabs. He pulled a few of them out.
“What’s that?” I asked.
He grinned. “Acid.”
I held my hand out and he placed some in it. I lifted the tab and put it in my mouth. It started to dissolve. The others did the same.
About 45 minutes or an hour later the stuff hit. It was powerful. I realized soon that it was much more powerful than I’d originally understood. It must have been close to six in the morning when the three of us finally walked outside and stood by a big oak tree facing the highway. It was a warm late August morning. No cars passed on the road. Too early. You could hear the rushing river. You could smell the smoke from nearby chimneys. You could feel, sense the thick foliage and nature round you. Mentally I felt like my life was zooming ahead, that I was driving some spaceship that only I could fit into, only I could see. I felt happy and alive and thrilled to be a human being and to be here! On Earth!
The sun was just beginning to stalk above the craggy mountain peaks far, far in the distance. A light morning fog danced just above the ribbon road. I spotted that silver guard railing and someone, I think it was Jed, had the idea of getting his BB gun and shooting cans from the railing. We all agreed, non-verbally, and someone, I don’t recall who, snagged a few PBR cans and placed them neatly, side by side, on the rail. We hadn’t seen a car. Hadn’t even heard one. We each shot at the cans. No one hit any of them. Finally one of us did, and his dinked the guard rail and ricocheted.
Then Jed decided to go get his .22 rifle. I’d never used one before. The idea excited me. I grinned, deep, like some sorrowful gorilla.
He walked out carrying the thing. The PBR cans sat there on the railing, daring us. Some sunlight shown on the rail, just a few sudden glints, and the light bounced off the aluminum cans, half blinding you.
The .22 made a loud cracking sound, much louder and more serious than the BB gun. This was an actual, real gun. A weapon that could do damage. At last it made its way to me. I held it, cradled it like a baby. It was hard and heavy in my awkward arms. Somebody said, “Shoot it, man.”
So I got my hands around it properly and held the thing and I lifted it to eye level and aimed it at the cans. Steady. I squinted and had the rear of the gun, the butt, against my right shoulder. I had my index finger on the trigger. The safety was off. I stared hard at those cans. I wanted a direct hit. It was silent all around me. Nothing moved, nothing stirred. I felt my heart beating in my chest, so loud I thought maybe everyone else could hear it, too.
On the count of three, I told myself. Three. Ok? I didn’t answer myself. One. I waited, paused a beat. Two.
I heard the distant rumble of a truck, surely one of those eighteen-wheelers. Screw it. Just shoot. I jammed the butt of the gun back securely into my shoulder, squinted, aimed as tight as I could, said THREE, and fired.
Right before a big-rig truck—SAFEWAY scrawled in red capital letters across its white side—passed by, the bullet dinked hard against the railing, knocking one of the cans over by sheer force, not because it’d hit the can directly but because it had shaken the rail just beneath it.
Then I felt some warm wind and heard a loud crack. The bullet had ricocheted and slammed into the tree behind me.
When I turned and looked I saw the bullet lodged about an inch to the left of where my head had been two seconds before. I flipped around and stared at Jed. His mouth began forming into a smile and mine did too and so did the other two and soon we were laughing, hands-on-knees howling with laughter. It was hilarious. The gun. The railing. The fallen can. The truck. The ricochet. The bullet in the tree. My head, almost blown clean off. Ha-ha-ha. Ha ha.
But then, slowly, as the sun began to rise more, and as more cars began to swish back and forth on the road, I started to understand how dangerous it had been, how I’d almost gotten a bullet in the head, how I could have died, too high on LSD to even care. I stopped laughing, licking my dry, chapped lips, and they stopped laughing, too. We all stood around in a semi circle, mouths drawn tight, serious, not a drop of humor among us.
At last Jed said, “We better put the gun away.”
And just like that we all dispersed.
So you want to know what happened with Julianne, huh, the fat girl with the tattoo? Ok, I’ll tell you. After the acid we all split up and I drunkenly, highly walked down the road, found my tent and passed out. I woke up later that day at around 3 PM, exhausted and hung-over, wrecked emotionally. I recalled the gun incident and cringed. Jesus. I was so stupid, so irresponsible, so pathetic. Shame rolled through me like beer. Like heroin in my veins. I felt filled by it. And lonely. Then I remembered about Julianne. She’d said to come over “tomorrow at midnight.” Which meant tonight. My little secret. Julianne and Marilyn.
Later that night I walked down to the one restaurant in The Forks. I was feeling sad because Matt and I had agreed our time had come to an end. His US visa was set to expire in a few days so he had to get out of the country. We’d planned on Canada so we hadn’t thought we’d bump into this issue. But alas, we’d been rejected from Canada. Well, I had. That day he’d flipped a coin. Heads, he’d go to South America. Tails, he’d fly home, finally, to Austria, face “real life.” The plan was in the morning we’d get up and thumb south to a fork in the road. East would take him to the airport. West would take me the 3,000 miles across America to my destination: California. We only had tonight left. So I looked for Julianne.
After a while of stumbling around, and getting a little lost, I found the small cabin and the yellow door and #4. The door was mustard yellow and very faded. I stepped up to the door, heard my heart pattering, gulped back the terror, double-checked with myself to make sure this was the right thing to do, and then knocked.
She opened the door wide and smiled. A single lamp by the bed was shining down, a sickly yellow hue. She gripped my collar and pulled me in, locking the door behind us. I immediately felt scared and ashamed and used. But part of me liked it.
She started getting undressed. “Take your clothes off, sailor,” she said.
I didn’t speak. I got undressed. We sat on her bed. She whipped a blue Trojan condom out and told me to put it on. I was amazed to discover that my dick was hard as rock. I slid it on and then scooted over to her. We kissed and soon our tongues were fiercely massaging one another and then my hands were rubbing her big, fat, flabby tits and then she flipped the light switch off and it was totally dark and I was on top of her and I put it inside and she was very tight.
As I rocked like an animal up and down, and she moaned delightfully, I glanced up and saw a skylight. The sky was a dark blue, not quite black, and there was a smattering of stars out. The Milky Way. It was spectacular.
I came inside the condom and laid all my weight, half of hers, on top of her massive body. We breathed deeply together. I was still inside of her. Slowly, it fell out, weighted down by the cum.
“Ok,” she said. “Get off. You have to leave. You have to leave.”
I lifted my head from her giant, soft breast, some flesh pillow. “Really? Are you serious?”
A silence. Then: “Yes. I can’t have you in here. My husband will kill me.”
I lifted my chest off her body. “Husband?”
“I’m sorry,” she said into the dark.
I got up off of her, cleaned, washed my hands in the tiny bathroom, got dressed and left. Not a word. Not a kiss. Not a “thanks,” nothing.
In the morning we got up early, ate breakfast in town, nodded in the direction of the river guides, of Jed, and then started walking together south, in the direction of that fork in the road, the fork neither of us wanted to fully acknowledge, because it meant the end of our time together, the end of our travelling as buddies. Sal and Dean. Kerouac and Neal. Something like that. We hucked our packs onto our backs and felt the strong breeze and the lovely sunshine of late August. We smiled against the wind and walked along the road. Matt stuck a thumb out and I did too and before long we got a ride.
We landed at the fork sooner than we’d thought we would. Not minutes later—I swear to God—a truck pulled up for me, an old green Ford from the 80s. I nodded to the driver, hucked my pack into the open bed with a thump and then walked over to Matt. We hugged hard, deep, our arms thwapping each other’s backs.
When we detached I said, “Thanks, man. Take care. Keep in touch. Nice to know ya.”
“You, too, buddy. Be safe. Don’t get into too much trouble,” he said in his Austrian accent.
I hadn’t told him about Julianne. Some things don’t need to be said out loud.
I got into the passenger seat of the Ford. An old man with a fedora was driving. He nodded to me and I strapped my seatbelt in and he punched the gas and we lurched forward, west, toward my beloved California, like some long-lost lover, some distant desert oasis.
When I looked back, incredibly, I saw Matt hucking his pack into a gray Buick, going his way, and then he swung open the door and started to get in. But right before he did he glanced back and we caught eyes. I smiled. He smiled back. We were young. Alive. Free.
We moved along the road, each going our own way. One going east. One going west.
I thought of Julianne in the darkness, her voice as if from the bottom of a well. I longed so incredibly for that kind of love from a woman. Maybe that bullet should have hit me, killed me dead. Maybe I should turn around, go back, find Julianne, be with her, really be with her.
I thought about these things as we plowed west, the driver not saying a word, the seats bouncing when we hit bumps, the smell of diesel exhaust, and the knowledge within me present that things would never be the same again.
About the Author:
Michael Mohr is a Bay Area writer, former literary agent’s assistant and freelance book editor. His fiction has been published in the following: Freedom Fiction Journal; Full of Crow; Fiction Magazines; Tincture; Flash: The International Short Short Story Magazine; Aaduna; MacGuffin; Gothic City Press; Alfie Dog Press; Milvia Street; and more. His blog pieces have been included in Writers’ Digest, The Kimberley Cameron & Associates [literary agency] blog; the San Francisco Writers Conference Newsletter and MASH. His writing/editing website and weekly blog is www.michaelmohrwriter.com.