Those of you who are under 18 and/or cant be exposed to homosexuality for whatever reason (dainty flowers that you are) - surf elsewhere. There be sapphics in this here prose.
I entered this story in the Pulp Fiction Bard's Challenge (click here) with the challenge title Faster Pussycat Kill, Kill, Kill (Sex and violence had become her world). It won the challenge - so thanks to any of y'all who voted for it!
Thanks to the mighty beta-meister Ume for her beta skills. And to Xenalicious as well, my pulp muse - for letting me know about the challenge in the first place.
by Crème Brûlée
He never suspected she was capable of it. The expression frozen on his face said as much. He reached out for her as he fell, but was dead before he hit the ground.
Like so many others, hed underestimated her. Never stood a chance.
No one crossed Paulette Langstrom and lived, not for long.
That was one way it could happen. There were a dozen more scenarios crowding into her mind. She could envision her brother Erwins untimely and grizzly demise in many ways and had for about the last half-hour. It helped pass the time.
Paulette stopped, balanced on one foot, slipped a pump from her other aching foot and shook a small stone from the shoe. Her first mistake had been to rely on Erwin. No, her first mistake was to have agreed to go to the Cherry Blossom Dance with Dean Cummings that night. That, decidedly, was her first mistake. Going to town and expecting her brother to remember to pick her up when he said he was going to that was yet another in a long list of poor choices shed made lately.
She rolled her eyes, replacing the shoe while barely maintaining her balance. And continued walking down the deserted road - quietly cursing her feckless brother.
If shed known that she was going to have to walk five miles today, she wouldnt have left the house in pumps. She wouldnt have left the house in pumps at all, but her mother had insisted on it. "No daughter of mine goes to town to have her hair done wearing loafers!"
Paulettes spirited reply had been, "Yes, Momma."
Dean Cummings, what had she been thinking? It wasnt that Dean was so bad, he was a perfectly nice guy - even successful by her towns standards (he owned his own truck and was doing a brusque business as a refrigerator repairman). It was just that, well, she knew she didnt want out of it what he did and that wasnt exactly fair, not exactly
it was exactly dishonest, but she didnt want to dwell on that too long because shed already dwelled on it enough to turn her brain into the malfunctioning mass of gray matter that had been getting her into all manner of awkward situations lately. She had the sneaking suspicion that something was coming unglued. Something crucial. Some important piece that was most likely responsible for holding a whole lot of lesser, yet significant, pieces together. Shed had that feeling ever since shed given in.
She knew why shed agreed, why shed finally acquiesced after a year of Deans gentle but persistent pursuit. Her mother. Her father. Her grandmother, Jemma. And the final coup de grâce Erwin, her younger brother.
Hearing her brother at dinner the week before ask why it was that his sister, who seemed pretty normal on the surface and was most likely normal other places (except, as they all knew, in her head), was dryin up and becoming an old maid before his very eyes at the ripe old age of 23? Why was that, he wanted to know. He wanted to know it after the meatloaf that shed helped her mother cook and serve and was in the process of helping her clear from the table. She stood next to her seated younger brother, holding his plate inches above the table, trying very hard not to tip the remaining scraps into his lap. She watched, feeling curiously detached, as her hand shook under the effort. She wasnt entirely invested in the outcome of the struggle. She wondered what part of her still was.
"Erwin Langstrom!" Her grandmother had barked. She almost always did bark, regardless of what she was saying, because she was nearly deaf. "You apologize to your sister this minute! No gentleman would say such a thing. Why, its not Paulettes fault if shes a bit
awkward. You should be more sensitive."
"Now Mother," Paulettes father had chimed in. "Erwin was just expressing his brotherly concern. Wheres that ice cream Baby Doll? Run along to the kitchen and help your mother."
"Yes, Papa." Knowing that if she stood there one moment longer her brother would be wearing his leftovers on the shirt she had helped her mother launder and iron the day before, she walked into the kitchen. Thats when she decided that she had to get out of that house once and for all. And in her desperation Dean Cummings seemed to be the only way.
Paulette had decided to accept Deans next proposal, she was sure it would be at the dance. It was a local custom for couples to propose or announce engagements during the evening. A few days before, Dean had said to Paulette, "I'm thinking that the 1959 Cherry Blossom Dance will be kinda memorable." And he'd given her that crooked smile and combed his hand through his hair the way he did when he thought he was being sly.
As the big day approached, her confidence faltered. Dean was a decent guy sure he smelled of freon most of the time, but he deserved someone whod love him for who he was, not someone who didnt know what she wanted and considered him a convenient option. Didnt he?
With the pressure and confusion mounting, shed been taking more than a little comfort and refuge in her favorite escape her extensive collection of paperback fiction. Or, as her mother called them, "lewd trash from the devils library" which was why Paulettes collection was kept mainly out of sight. She bought them at the pharmacy where she worked. They seemed to be helping her stay glued together. Shed read many and could recall them all. Maybe she identified with their depraved sensibilities - as lurid as her own life was becoming.
Take Dean, for example. She was preying on his affections like she was The Black Widow from She Kills to Live. Only, she didnt have plans to murder Dean for insurance money, and leave town with the unsavory salesman whod helped her plan the nefarious deed. Besides, she couldnt abide the smell of brill cream and the author had used it in his description of the salesman often, especially when describing the unbidden passions and lusts he called forth in The Black Widow. Paulette didnt understand how something that smelled so much like shoe polish could have that effect on a woman. But then, she didnt consider herself a judge of passions, not having had much experience with them herself. Aside from her novels, her desperate yearning for freedom and her recently developed passion for envisioning Erwins untimely demise
Walking along the highway, Paulette had been through three or four morbid scenarios, highly detailed, in which her brother had met with a suitable fate. So far her favorite, portrayed him as a small time criminal down on his luck in the big city who crossed the wrong guy in the numbers racket and ended up doing an impromptu fashion show for a school of fish at the bottom of Lake Erie. It was the least he deserved for stranding her in town on a Saturday morning.
Thats how shed ended up walking the desolate stretch of highway between Hide Possum Corner and Vacant Junction where only god knew what kind of person could drive by at any minute. She couldn't count the number of times her mother had warned her not to walk this stretch of road alone, but it was the only way she could get home in time to get everything ready for the dance that night. Besides, her friends walked along Rt. 40 all the time and nothing ever seemed to happen to them. Of course, her mother had also told her a hundred times or more that Satan doesn't bother with the fallen, he's only interested in what he hasn't already got a hold on. Mrs. Langstrom didnt think highly of Paulettes friends.
Paulettes heart skipped a beat as an old pickup rattled its way passed her on the highway, it's engine straining and loose bits of metal clattering in the breeze. Images flashed through her mind, and she felt the cold prickle of fear crawl up her spine. She was going to end up like Sylvia in Bullets and Blondes, she just knew it. Okay, she wasn't exactly blonde, her hair was light, but it had a coppery hue to it. She wasnt small and slight like Sylvia either, she was on the taller side and built with a sturdy frame and she wasn't being chased by unknown men, but she was sure that something bad was going to happen to her on that stretch of road anyway. The ancient truck didnt slow, it didnt stop - it rattled off into the distance. Harmless.
Paulette shook her head and smiled. Shed spooked herself good by getting caught up in morbid scenarios and ominous warnings from her mother. Shed be just fine. After all, there wasnt much of a likelihood that shed end up like June Robinson in Riding Rough: An Innocent Girls Descent Into The Shadows of Desire. June was a young girl who was abducted by a motorcycle gang and exposed to all manner of lurid experiences. The gang even made her throw away her school cardigan and wear a leather skirt and a poorly fitted top. Paulette had never seen a motorcycle except the one Jerry Twofeather rode for the police department. Everyone knew he road it because he liked to, not because it was in any way critical to upholding the law in Redemption. Besides, the police cycle didnt look anything like the one on the cover of her novel and Jerry wouldnt have made a very good gang member (being as small and skinny as he was and prone to vote Republican).
Once again Paulettes heart skipped, then bounced in her chest as a streak of red flew by her on the highway. It was accompanied by a deep hum and created a gust of wind that mussed Paulette's recently coifed hair. Dust swirled around her. She'd barely gotten over the shock when she heard a loud screeching noise and saw a car spin to a stop across the highway about fifty yards away. Her blood began to pound in her ears as she realized that she was probably about to be kidnapped and sold into white slavery like Missy Dewgood in Willing Captive. Or at the very least, she might end up like her neighbor Margie Evanston who was recruited to work in the secretarial pool of a large corporation without benefits in Cincinnati.
There was another screeching of tires as the car readjusted on the road and sped up in reverse, heading right for Paulette!
Paulette's body went rigid. She thought it odd that she couldn't feel her feet anymore. How convenient. She wished it hadn't taken sure death to give her such a respite. She shut her eyes, opting to forego the final visuals. She was sure her fate was met.
Again, there was a loud screeching of tires. Paulette stoically awaited the impact, but it didn't come. She squinted an eye open and was nearly blinded. The glare bouncing off of the glossy red convertible that sat purring next to her was painful.
Sitting behind the wheel of the car was nothing Paulette had ever seen before. A fashionable woman, a few years older than herself maybe, hair in a neat chignon, chiseled features - exuding something Paulette had heard about but not experienced in person: presence. She was a brunette wearing large cat style sunglasses and a sleek black outfit. There was a black scarf tied jauntily about her neck. In the hand holding the steering wheel she had a lit cigarette, in the other a martini glass.
The woman nudged her sunglasses down her nose a bit. She considered Paulette across the space of the passenger seat for a moment before saying, "Darling, you must be joking. That skirt with those shoes? Hazardous. You better get in here before you cause an accident." The voice was husky and the accent hard-edged.
The woman smiled and waited, the car's engine filling the lull with a pleasant hum. "No, really, get in. I need someone to hold the shaker, I keep pouring this stuff all over the upholstery."
And so she must have, because Paulette could smell a faint aroma of gin coming from the car. She heard her mother's voice, crisp and clear, repeating in her mind, "Never take rides from strangers." They didn't get much stranger than this. Paulette considered that her mother had also told her that girls who got their periods irregularly were sure to end up nymphomaniacs. And so Paulette had had to mark off her period on the kitchen calendar each month since menarche in code. Just so her mother could be sure that she hadn't become a voracious floozy.
"Better yet, get in," the woman said, "I think you may have sunstroke. You okay? How long have you been wandering around in... ah..." the woman gestured vaguely at the endless fields stretched out on either side of them, "...this?"
"Just since Hide Possum Corner." Paulette was finally able to speak, having relocated the part of her brain responsible for that function.
"If that's supposed to hold a deep and abiding significance for me, it doesn't. I did pass something that broke the monotony a couple of minutes ago, but it was kind of a blur, ya know? Didn't look like much."
Paulette heard her mother's ominous warning again. She shook her head to dislodge it, opened the car door, and got in.
"Well then," the woman placed the cigarette in her mouth and switched the martini glass to her left hand. She held out her right to Paulette, "Astrid Bing. Intrepid traveler, woman about town... though I'm not sure this counts as town, so... woman about... unidentified vegetation and all purpose giver of rides to damsels in need of a haul. What's your destination? Cornfield down the way? Wheatfield nearby?"
Paulette shook Astrid's hand and was surprised at such a hearty grasp from such an elegant looking woman. Astrid released her and with the martini glass still in the hand on the wheel and the cigarette sticking out of the left side of her mouth said, "Hold onto your pants kid, this is usually the messy part."
As she put the car in gear, Astrid pumped her eyebrows and smiled in a way that reminded Paulette of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Mostly because of the photos of him smiling so zestfully out of one side of his mouth while holding a cigar in the other side. Paulette had always been fond of FDR. And Mrs. Roosevelt was such an impressive woman.
Paulette found their departure more terrifying than messy. After all, it was Astrid who got most of the contents of her glass spilled on her slacks. They jolted back onto the road, tires squealing and debris shooting out in their wake. Paulette felt the rear end of the car fishtail before straightening as they bolted down the highway.
The white knuckled grip Paulette had on the dash and the hand rest of the door illustrated her unease. She wasn't keen on fast driving. She wasn't keen on driving at all. She wasn't sure she hadn't been better off walking in her pumps.
"Oh damn!" Astrid cursed. "Not again. I think I'm bathing in it more than drinking it at this point. Would you be a pal and nab me a hankie out of the glove box. It's just under your hand there."
They'd evened out and Paulette felt sufficiently comfortable to remove her hand from the dash. She kept the other firmly gripped on the door though. She clicked open the glove compartment and spotted the neatly stacked handkerchiefs immediately. They were on a stack of papers being weighted down by a pistol.
Paulette snatched her hand back and held it to her chest. She looked at Astrid wide-eyed.
"What?" Astrid wanted to know. "What is it? Is there a snake in there or what?"
Paulette shook her head dumbly and backed away from Astrid. Not that she had far to go but she felt that much more comfortable with the extra inch.
Astrid kept one eye on the road and leaned over to check out the glove compartment with the other. She reached in and took out a hankie, closed it and glanced at Paulette while sitting back up.
She wiped at her pants a bit, then gave up. "Oh hell, I'll just have to change them later. Oh, the gun's not mine it's Winifred's. She feels veritably naked without one in her immediate vicinity. With any luck she's feeling positively exposed at the moment. The bitch. But enough about me. What'd you say your name was?"
Paulette wasn't budging in her seat, but she figured talking might help distract Astrid - in case she had any ideas about using that gun that she claimed wasn't hers. "I didn't. It's Paulette. Paulette Langstrom."
"Langstrom? That's not Irish, I take it?"
"Healthy people, Swedes. Long boats, lots of cold."
"If you say so..." Paulette had heard somewhere that it was a good idea to agree with hysterical and crazed people. She looked at the road racing past and considered jumping from the car, but she became a bit dizzy and reconsidered.
"It's a pleasure to meet you Paulette Langstrom. You live in these parts I gather."
"Yes, not far from here. Just before Vacant Junction you can let me out just ahead."
"Plenty of time for a good chat. Would you like a drink? I'm afraid you'll have to pour it yourself. I've been making a mess of it."
"No, thank you. I'm fine."
"But of course you are! I'm not arguing, mind, just noting that you're looking a mite pale. This stuff may not be good for the digestion, but it does wonders for the circulation. Put the pink right back in your cheeks." Astrid winked at her.
"I'll be alright, really." Paulette heard a genuine tone of concern in Astrid's voice. She was rather cheerful and didn't seem the violent or threatening sort. Maybe the gun did belong to this Winifred person. She didn't sound like a very nice woman, not from what Astrid had intimated. Paulette's curiosity won out over her fears, "Are you from far away?"
"I'm from as far away as you can get and I'm going as far away as I can get from it. At good speed."
Paulette agreed that they were moving at a good clip, but she didn't have a clue what else Astrid was talking about.
"New York." Astrid explained. "Manhattan. The City That Never Sleeps that's where I'm from."
Paulette perked up. "You're from the city?"
"That's what I said. But I'm finished with that life and all that it entailed. I'm not going to take it anymore I'm through. Old Astrid's had it!"
"Are you moving to the country?"
"God no! What would I want to do that for?"
"You said you're leaving the city..."
"New York. I left New York City. Contrary to popular opinion there are other cities. Ones where I don't have to put up with Winifred and Max and that viper pit we called a company. I'm leaving that. What the hell would I do in the country?"
Paulette shrugged. "Lots of things. What's wrong with the country?"
"Besides location? Nothing."
Perhaps Astrid hadn't meant to be insulting, but what hometown pride Paulette had was bruised. Feeling put on the defensive, Paulette couldn't help but raise a point that had been made so clear in all of the novels she'd been reading lately. "I hear there's a lot of crime in the city..."
"I hear there's a lot of insects and poisonous snakes in the country."
"And no restaurants." Astrid shuddered.
"There's Ray's Diner in town. It's pretty good if you don't mind salty food. And in Galviston, that's the next town over, there's Betty's Café. It's better than Ray's but more expensive."
"If this was Dante's Inferno, I'd be in the fifth ring of Hell. Which, come to think of it, is a vast improvement over where I've been recently. The pit. But they won't have me to kick around anymore. Tickle Feather Publishing can take its rotten contract and plunge it, preferably on fire, up their collective... what's the plural for anus? Anii? Anuses? Rectum. Let's settle for rectum, okay? I don't want to have to fish Mr. Roget out of the trunk."
"Out of the trunk!" Paulette, who'd managed to relax an inch during their brief conversation, was once again plastered against the car door staring at Astrid. What had Mr. Roget done that Astrid would have him in the trunk? Was he someone else she'd picked up?
"Yeah, out of the trunk. Where'd you think I'd keep a thesaurus? You're a funny girl, you know that? A writer never goes anywhere without a thesaurus. Well, this one doesn't. Not that it'll do me any good anymore. My talent's washed up. Gone. I killed it. No, I suffocated it, then I killed it."
"But if you suffocate something... you do kill it." Paulette was never one to let an inconsistency get by her. Even when petrified.
"You're not an editor are you?"
The look Astrid was giving her would have made Paulette lie had she had any cause to. The way she was baring her teeth was especially effective. "No... certainly not."
"Good then, we can be friends." Astrid smiled, it transformed her features. You'd never have guessed that such an attractive girl could have looked so menacing. "It was a slow, torturous death. No talent deserves such a fate. If I'd ever had a muse, she'd have left out of disgust."
"You're a writer?"
"Was. I was a writer. I'm officially taking on the past tense. It's the honorable thing to do."
"What did you write?"
"'No one knew the darkness that lurked in Sam Grayson's heart, but Jill Cavanagh was about to find out.' I wrote..."
"Deadly Desires? That was one of Grimshaw's best selling books! But I thought it was written by Kasey Maddox?"
"It was written by a prepubescent slime who goes by the name of Jim Flanders, but that's beside the point - I wrote the teaser. The bit on the cover - the blurb up front. That's what I wrote. That's all I've written for Grimshaw for the past four years. Until they started the Tickle Feather imprint six months ago. I wrote the teasers for those until it finally drove me over the edge."
"Wow! I've read practically all of Grimshaw's books. You write the best teasers. They're never particularly accurate, but they make me want to read the book anyway."
"Not accurate? Not accurate!? If they were accurate, do you think thousands of people would buy that waste of pulp? If people didn't think those books were full of sex and violence of the worst, most depraved sort, do you think anyone would bother? No! And that's where I come in. I'm a pimp for the most mundane, banal spew in print. Of course, I didn't know how lucky I was before Winifred started up Tickle Feather. What I was writing for Grimshaw was haiku compared to what I wrote for Tickle Feather. You see, Winifred owns Grimshaw, no, she and her husband Max own Grimshaw..." Astrid sneered. Paulette knew a sneer when she saw one Erwin was always trying to come up with a convincing sneer. His wasn't nearly as expressive as Astrid's. Astrid flicked the butt of her cigarette out of the car and slid another from the pack. She handed it to Paulette along with a lighter. "Light that for me will ya? And help yourself if you want one."
Paulette held up a hand, not taking either. "I don't smoke."
"Oh, good thing too, bad habit. Here, hold this." Astrid took Paulette's wrist and guided it until Paulette was holding the steering wheel.
"I can't drive!" Paulette yelped, but latched onto the wheel as Astrid let it go.
"You're not driving. Just make sure we stay on the road. That's it! Just like that." Astrid lit her cigarette and reached behind the seat for the martini shaker. "This can't be any good any more..." Still, she shook what remained in the canister and poured it into her glass. She took the wheel again, helping Paulette to pry her fingers loose from where they'd become glued. "You use a good moisturizer Paulette. You've got wonderfully soft skin. You shouldn't scrunch up your face quite so much though, even soft skin gets wrinkles! That's what my mother used to say. But we oughtn't get into that. Where was I?... Oh, the hydra had started her porn imprint, Tickle Feather, right!"
Paulette's head was beginning to spin. A sensation that she'd felt often enough on the playground as a child when she'd twist up the chains on the swing and spin until they straightened out. She couldn't recall a person ever causing that same feeling before. And then there was the other problem. While Paulette had been steering the car, she'd noted, but not had the wherewithal to mention, that they'd passed her turn off! "Wait!" she said. "We've passed my turn off!"
"Oh? Where? That road back there? We haven't gone too far. It'll be there when you get back."
"Get back? From where? I can't go anywhere; I have to get home. I have to get ready for..."
"Busy, busy, busy! You should relax; you're too young to be rushing all over the place doing this, doing that. Look at you, you've got to be one of the most stressed out girls I've met in ages! Ride with me for a bit. I like your company, Paulette. I'll drop you off at the next town and you can take a bus back. No problem. I'll pay. Let's see, where was I?..."
Paulette opened her mouth to protest - the next town was Galviston, nearly forty miles away. She'd never make it back in time to meet Dean and go to the dance... She shut her mouth with a snap. Besides, she did want to know what happened at Grimshaw Publishing she couldn't believe that she was riding with a real writer! Not just that, but one she'd read! Sort of. And everyone knew that writers were different, that was probbly why Astrid was so odd.
"You wouldn't believe how she roped me into it. A woman will do just about anything for love. I'm proof of that. I've been played for a fool, an idiot, a rube and made into a jackass on top of it. 'Just a few more, soon we'll have enough for you to take that vacation and write your novel.' She was good. Very good. Which was why I fell for it for as long as I did. That woman could sweet talk a dead horse into another race. Not to mention the other kinds of talking she did, none of which was verbal but all of which was expressive.
Last year she tells me that we're in trouble. That to keep the company solvent, she has to marry Max to convince the creditors that she's not just a woman alone, a vulnerable target. Max isn't much of a man, but he passes the anatomy test, so I guessed he'd do. She said they'd back off if they were dealing with him. What did I know? I didn't like the idea. Married women arent my gig, ya know? But she said it was just a sham; to keep the company afloat. I didn't understand how it could be having problems, we were selling books like mad. But she kept on about overhead and salaries. I'm a writer, what the hell do I know about money, right? So I go along. With the work, with the sham marriage, all of it." Astrid took a long drink, emptying her glass and tossed it into the back seat.
"Then six months ago she says that she and Max have had a brilliant idea for saving the company. They're going to start a subdivision of Grimshaw, an imprint for specialized material. They handed me a few books to write the teasers for. It was smut. I'm not talking racy pulp. I'm talking bare bones, raw as meat with the juices running red, porn.
I told them that they must be joking. They said they weren't. I said, no way. And Winifred pulled out a contract that I'd signed that more or less said 'Yes way.' So I did. Wrote teasers for some of the most god awful, poorly written nasty stuff you've ever laid eyes on. After a week of it I wasn't remotely phased by a girl getting her jollies out of three gents at a time in every position. These frisky girls were, without exception, French. You'd be surprised what the modern American male expects of a French girl. Or maybe you wouldn't be I was; the first week. Forty teasers later I was more surprised when a girl was interested in three gents and not some farm animals. And they say people aren't using their imaginations anymore.
I felt what was left of my talent desiccating on the vine. What I had thought was a beautiful love wasn't doing much better. I began to feel like a prisoner in a cell of my own making. The final straw was the book that came across my desk at work one day called, Faster Pussy Cat Kill, Kill, Kill!: Sex and Violence Became Her World! Hadn't it though? I thought. My daily diet was sex and violence. The woman I'd loved had encouraged me to spend my creative capital for what? A pipedream, or so it turned out. I broke down at my desk and told the whole story to Timothy, the guy who did the accounting. What are you talking about? he asked me. Grimshaw is one of the most successful, lucrative companies in the business. he said. And Tickle Feather has sold more books in its first six months than Grimshaw did all last year. Thanks to you.
I left the office, went home, grabbed a bag, stuffed some clothes in it, took Winifred's keys. And here I am!" Astrid beamed a radiant smile.
"Paulette? Are you breathing? Blink or something would ya? I hope you don't need CPR or anything because I don't know how to do that. I suppose you're shocked. I don't blame you. Who wouldn't be? I mean, Winifred and I were soulmates! How was I to know she was using me to finance her lifestyle and support her worthless boyfriend. I should have had a clue when she insisted that Max had to live in the house with us and sleep in her bedroom. 'For appearances pet. Only for appearances.' she'd say. Only, she wouldn't just say it, shed kind of purr it and do that icy-hot thing that she knew I could no more resist than I could get a Pulitzer Prize for writing teasers for Tickle Feather. But hey - don't worry - I'll be okay. Old Astrid is on the go! I'm headed to LA. I figure that puts an entire continent between me and them. It's not enough, but its a start."
Paulette had been shocked all right, but Astrid was off the mark in her assumptions as to why. It was an inconsistency that finally jogged her discombobulated mind into action. "LA?"
"Yeah. Big city on the west coast. Ever heard of it? There's a little town called Hollywood there."
"You're driving to LA? Right now? "
"Haven't you been paying attention? You've been kinda quiet over there. Looked kinda stunned, like you had an attack. Are you an epileptic or something? I wouldn't know what to do if you had a seizure or whatever. I've heard that you can swallow your own tongues, is that true?"
"I'm not an epileptic! I only asked if you were driving to LA because, it is, as you mentioned, on the west coast."
"You're driving east."
"I'm not driving east, I'm following the sun! Look, it's right there, and soon I'll be on Venice Beach!"
"It's eleven o'clock."
"You're a bit of a minx aren't you? Over there being so coy. What are you getting at?"
"It hasn't hit midday yet, you're following the sun east. In about an hour you'll have to turn around and then you'll be going west."
Paulette was jolted forward into the dash as Astrid hit the brakes. The wheels screeched on the road and the car spun across the lanes.
"Dammit! " Astrid yelled.
Paulette unfolded herself from her position part way under the dash where she'd been squeezed by the force of the stop. "What? Are you hurt?"
"No. I heard my martini glass break in the back. How big is this state?"
"About 200 miles across from east to west."
"On average, how long should it take to cross it?"
"About 5 hours if you're doing the speed limit."
"My god! No wonder why I thought I've seen this all before! I have. I've been crossing this state for a week!"
"But. . . " It occurred to Paulette that Astrid must have been following the sun each morning and then turning back in the afternoon. "Why haven't you been using a map?"
"I'm driving from one side of the country to the other, how hard can it be?"
"How long have you been driving?"
"How long should it take?"
"Driving during the day, stopping at night, about two weeks."
"I've been at it for a month
" Astrid took a look at the slack jawed expression on her passenger's face. "Give or take. I've been taking my time!" she added, a little defensively.
They drove in awkward silence for a few minutes. During those minutes Paulette began to experience what she knew to be signs of an acute panic attack. She struggled with her fear and hit upon yet another likelihood - why it hadn't occurred to her before with Astrid dressed as she was, she wasn't sure. She'd only seen women wearing all black in one place before. She asked, "Are you a beatnik?"
"Do I smell like a beatnik to you? I have too much fashion sense to be a beatnik, and I know how to wash. You won't find Astrid Bing crawling around the streets of Tangiers with a bunch of horny men. Not, mind you, that I found the horny women of Paris any more bearable. No matter. It's all about Hollywood now."
It was too much, Paulette's mind reeled at the implications of Astrid's many revelations. Here she was driving in a car, a car that Astrid had admitted she'd taken from someone else - with a complete stranger - who was not just a little inebriated - who claimed not to be beatnik but looked more like the ones pictured on the covers of pulp novels than anyone else Paulette had ever seen. She had a gun and was driving to LA which, as anyone who paid even scant attention to the news could tell you was crawling with communists. Why, almost every night you could hear the hearings of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee on the radio and they were always interviewing another writer or director from LA. Paulette's father said that just about everyone in Hollywood was a Jew or a communist and usually both. He said if it wasn't for people like Senator Joe McCarthy, who ran those hearings, we'd all be pinko commie homos. He'd usually apologize to Paulette's mother for getting so worked up and using bad language after he got to that part.
Paulette wasn't sure what to do. And as they zipped past the turn off to her home once again she realized that she was very possibly being abducted by an armed, alcohol crazed, communist beatnik deviant in a stolen car! Her mother had been right all along; reading those novels had led her down the wrong path.
"Hey! You look like you're hyperventilating over there Paulette. I know what to do for that! You put your head between your knees and take deep breaths. Go ahead. It'll do you wonders! I think I spent my first week in the car on the side of the road so I could do that. I'm doing just fine now, so I guess it works. Give it a whirl. Cant hurt you."
Paulette was reluctant to take her eyes off of Astrid or the road for fear one or the other might do her harm. If Astrid hit the brakes while Paulette was hunched over she might end up in the trunk with Mr. Roget. Nevertheless, she was beginning to feel faint, so she did it.
"There now, better?"
Paulette heard Astrid, but could only see her feet on the pedals of the car. She nodded. The breathing did help to calm her some. Astrid patted her back in a friendly manner and said, "It's just life Paulette, don't let it get to ya."
Astrid was an odd girl. Paulette had figured that much out already. And even if she was all those scary things, there was something about her, something warm and caring under all of that... oddness - that Paulette couldn't help but see. And as much as it worried her to admit it, Astrid being so many things Paulette had been taught to fear and even loathe, she felt a kinship with her. For as long as Paulette could remember her friends and her family had considered her to be a bit odd as well. Her grandmother politely referred to her as "awkward" but it meant the same thing. She'd never fit in. Not in school, not at home, not in Redemption.
Here she was, driving along the highway with this strange creature, going lord only really knew where, scared out of her mind - but feeling... in good company. It didn't make any sense.
"I can see that talking about me hasn't had a calming effect on you, Paulette. Let's talk about you. How much time until we get to the next town? I want to be sure you get in all the details."
Paulette sat back up and slumped in her seat. She was done in. She glanced over her shoulder, "Well, we just passed Redemption, so I guess it's about an hour to Dingle."
Astrid looked at her and started laughing. Her whole body shook with the force of her merriment. Paulette kept her eyes on the road and was ready to take the wheel if Astrid let it go. "What? What's so funny?"
"Life I guess. Sometimes things strike me as funny. That didn't sound funny to you? 'Passing Redemption - an hour to Dingle'? Sounds like you had something spicy for breakfast that challenged your innards but you'll be ready to rumba after a brief hiatus."
"Yeah?" She asked, wiping the tears from her face.
"Has anyone ever told you that you're odd?"
"Ah - ah! You're trying to change the subject back to me again. You're a cagey one, you are, Paulette Langstrom. Not this time. This time, I want the details."
Paulette sighed, "There aren't many to tell."
"Sure there are. What's it like growing up in... rural parts? Who are your friends? How do you pass the time?"
"I work at the pharmacy in town and I mostly pass my time reading pulp novels. I read most of our town library by the time I was twenty and the pulp novels aren't just entertaining, they're full of helpful information I'd never come across in town or on the radio."
"Helpful information?" Astrid scoffed. "Like what?"
"Well, for instance, I was reading a book called The Reefer Fever and I found out that reefer addicts were responsible for the increase in violent crimes in most cities. I havent seen anything about that in the papers."
"In my experience, 'reefer addicts' are less inclined to be violent and more inclined to raid your fridge and forget to clean up after themselves. You don't really believe the stuff in those books, do you?"
"Why shouldn't I? They're often based on true accounts."
"Of desperate English majors who need a buck. The truth tends to suffer under that kind of pressure. Ever notice that?"
"Well, even if they're not all true, they're still good stories. I especially enjoy the mysteries, but I'll read most anything. Whatever Jim Morton, he's my boss, orders at the pharmacy. I read them during my break."
"You've read the a lot of them, eh?"
"Oh sure - most of Dell, all of Grimshaw, lots of Ace and Perma Books. Dell's mysteries are best, but Grimshaw has super authors, Perma Books has a great line of romances and Ace has a nifty true crime series. I especially like that one."
"You're a veritable encyclopedia of pulp, aren't you?"
"As I said, I've read quite a few. I know it isn't the most productive use of a brain, but it's... I don't know, more interesting than staring out the pharmacy window at Main Street."
"I imagine it would be. In your extensive travels as a pulp reader, you must have come across one or two stories of the love that dare not speak its name. Some gals in barracks, or schools or prisons? Getting up to all manner of mischief. A stern librarian here or there? Come across any of those?" Astrid clasped her cigarette between her teeth and smiled broadly. She raised her eyebrows a few times then winked at Paulette.
"I... um... uh..." Paulette shifted in the seat and considered claiming ignorance of the subject. But the truth was, she'd read several. She'd been so shocked when she read about the goings on in the Wichita Correctional Facility for Girls in Jailhouse Brides that she'd read it three times to be sure she understood it correctly. She'd looked for more books by the same author but had no luck. She had, however, found several other books that featured women in similar situations and was equally shocked by each account. Which was why the pages were dog eared by the time she was satisfied that she'd grasped their content thoroughly and was suitably disgusted as any normal person would be by such outrageous goings on. Paulette kept this part of her collection of novels in a cardboard box tucked in the back of her closet. Who knew what her mother would think if she came across such books in her daughter's room? She'd never understand Paulette's clinical interest in them.
The grin on Astrid's face stretched impossibly wider and a blush washed over Paulette's in return.
"Loathsome filth, eh?" Astrid flicked an ash off on to the road. "No shame in curiosity Paulette. Like me, you're probably a student of human nature. You're looking like you might want to do that breathing exercise again. Just duck over and take a few breaths - you'll be fine. And don't worry, I'll keep your secret for you. I may not be good for much, but I can keep a confidence. I could tell you were a curious kind of person right off - but quiet, probably kind of secretive. That's okay by me. All kinds of people in this world. My Uncle Hugh used to say that. I'm gonna miss him. He's the only member of my family that still talks to me, besides my sister. But most of the time I'd rather she didn't. Uncle Hugh owns a little shop downtown, sells typewriters. You know what else he says? He says, Nut cake,' that's what he calls me, Nut Cake, if they locked up all the communists, homosexuals, alcoholics, and other deviants, there'd be nobody left to buy my typewriters. Do we want to be like the Nazis? Maybe I should call him and see if he wants to move his shop to L.A. - plenty of people using typewriters there. He gave me the most exquisite Underwood Noiseless portable to write my novel on. Said having the right tool for the job was important. There's a man who understands craft! And look what I've done to mine! I never once used the Underwood at Grimshaw. Not once. Not even for Winifred. I kept it locked up safe - pure - so it would be ready when I was. I've got it in the trunk, want to see it?"
"Now?!" Paulette squeaked from her bent over position. She quickly braced herself for any driving maneuver Astrid might make.
"No time like the present! You've got to grab life, Paulette!"
The car began to veer off the road as Astrid turned the wheel sharply. "Can't it wait until we get to Dingle?" Paulette held onto her supports as they hit the shoulder of the road and began to swerve.
"Well, if that's how you feel about it." Astrid spun the wheel in the other direction and the car lurched back onto the highway. "But you're missing out. She's all beautiful lines and dangerous curves. Speaking of curves, we were talking about you. Let's get back to that."
The ride to Dingle turned out to be a ride to Furthermoor, because Astrid, after filling the gas tank of the car and picking up a bus schedule, told Paulette that there was no point in catching the bus from Dingle when she'd have to wait two hours and if they drove to Deerborne she'd only have to wait half an hour for the same bus. And as Astrid said this while driving right out of Dingle, Paulette didn't think she had a whole lot of choice. The day went kind of like that - they'd pass a town and either Astrid would be too absorbed in conversation to notice it or she would find a reason that Paulette should wait for the next town and the next bus. "After all," she said "one bus is pretty much like the other."
As night began to fall Astrid's driving, which had been hazardous to begin with, became positively erratic. They passed a small motel and Paulette was nearly thrown from the car as Astrid spun into the lot. They came to a screeching halt right before the motel clerk's office window. The young man, illuminated by their high beams, was sitting at his desk, looking right at them - his mouth hanging open, his eyes wide with terror. Paulette knew just how he felt.
Astrid got out of the car, went in and talked to him. She came back out with some keys, got into the car and drove them around to the other side of the building. Paulette had noticed that the man hadn't moved through the entire exchange, he just stared out the window, his eyes glued to the chrome grille of the car. Astrid explained that she sometimes had that effect on people.
They entered the room, Paulette explaining that there was no way she could stay with Astrid but really not having a clue what else to do. They were in Jackson - a full one hundred and fifty miles from Redemption, and she had one dollar in her pocket.
Astrid told her not to be silly, that it was the least she could do to put Paulette up for the night and she could stop being overly polite about it. Which was how Paulette found herself in a small motel bathroom staring at a swatch of cloth Astrid had handed her and called a "nightie". Paulette thought it looked more like an abbreviated slip. After some consideration she decided that she'd feel more comfortable untucking her shirt and sleeping in that. She thought about who was in the other room and what she knew about her inclinations and decided she'd leave the skirt on as well. Then she thought about it again and had to sit on the closed lid of the toilet and tuck her head between her legs and do the breathing until her panic attack subsided. How had she gotten herself into such a situation? Anything could happen. Paulette had read enough of those books to know about unnatural passions and girls in close quarters. It didn't get much closer than this theyd be sharing the same room! All night!
She'd have to be on her guard, that was all. She knew what kinds of things these girls were capable of. Paulette tried very hard not to visualize any of those things as that usually made her a bit agitated and she was plenty agitated as it was. She took a deep breath and prepared herself to fend off a voracious sapphic advance. She opened the door to the room carefully, lest Astrid was lying in wait - ready to pounce on her. She peeked around it tentatively and saw that Astrid wasn't lying in wait at all. She was lying face down on one of the beds, fully dressed.
It didn't take Paulette long to figure out that Astrid wasn't perpetrating a clever lesbian ruse, but that she'd passed out. After preparing for a tremendous and exhausting struggle, Paulette felt kind of let down. She sighed and went about getting Astrid into the bed.
The sun rose over the wheated plains and cornfields of Ohio, it stretched across the rivers and land and bounced off the drawn shades of room 214 of the Shady Hill Motor Lodge. Still, enough snuck in through the cracks to irritate the near comatose, but not quite dead brain that was pounding in Astrid Bing's skull. She moaned.
"Astrid?" Paulette was relieved to finally see signs of life from the strange woman. She'd begun to worry.
"What hit me?"
Paulette barely recognized the hoarse voice that spoke to her. "Judging from the number of empty liquor bottles in the cooler in your car, I'd say about a week's worth of martinis."
"Martinis? I don't drink martinis. And if I did, they wouldn't make my mouth taste like the bottom of an ashtray."
"Well, you didn't brush your teeth before you went to sleep, so I guess the cigarettes left a bad taste in your mouth."
"Cigarettes?" Astrid tried to sit up, but found that it wasn't the best idea.
"You might want to try a sip of water. There's a glass there next to you on the night stand."
"Thanks." Astrid moved cautiously, backing up until she was resting against the headboard and sipping from the glass. "It was the fields that got me." Astrid said by way of explanation. "All of those miles of fields. Almost endless and exactly the same. Not a building, not a fire hydrant, nothing. And then there was the radio; nothing on it but the mind-numbing drone of some guy or other and a guitar. The force of the two together..." Astrid shuddered. "I stopped and got something to drink in a town. I figured, 'Hell, the road's straight, I'll be alright. Just a little entertainment that's all I need.' I don't remember filling a cooler with liquor. I must've been more desparate than I realized. That's me all over, I never do much by halves. Which explains a lot of the fixes I tend to end up in." Astrid sipped the water, peered over the rim of the glass and spied Paulette. She sat perched on the next bed, staring intently at her. "I don't mean to seem rude, but, do I know you?"
"Not really. You picked me up. Kidnapped me, technically speaking, two days ago."
"This just keeps getting better doesn't it? I am now, officially speaking, releasing you from captivity. My mother always said I was dangerous when I was bored. I hope I didn't do anything else too stupid, aside from driving drunk, smoking until my mouth feels like the underside of a filthy carpet and kidnapping a complete stranger?" Astrid rubbed her face, trying to bring a little more awareness to her person. "Why did you stay? Did I threaten you?" Astrid winced, not wanting to know the answer.
"I could have left yesterday, but I wanted to be sure you were okay."
"Some drunken maniac kidnaps and terrorizes you, passes out for two days, and you stick around to make sure they're okay? What kind of nut are you?"
"I didn't say that you terrorized me." Paulette blushed. "You just talked a lot and... drove poorly."
"You're still nuts. A pretty nut, but a nut just the same. Which is fine by me. I thought I'd mention it in case you didn't know. I guess that we should get a move on. How long is it going to take for me to drive you back to where I took you from?"
Paulette fetched them some breakfast while Astrid showered and changed. Astrid packed and they were ready to head out fairly quickly. Paulette, who was sitting on the edge of one of the beds, found that she couldn't get up. Her energy had simply vanished. This wasn't a common occurrence for Paulette who was generally full of pep after breakfast. Even a "continental" one. Instead of feeling energized, she sat motionless on the bed feeling as though she might cry. Something wasn't right.
"Paulette? What's the matter? Aren't you're ready? You've used the bathroom twice. Not that I'm complaining, that's always smart when you're going for a drive, but I thought you'd be rearin' to go. If you're still worried about my driving I can try to tone it down, though even sober I've been told I drive like a bat out of hell in need of glasses. If you're having a feminine issue I can help you out with that. Other issues I'm less dependable on."
'Are you a Communist?"
"You said the other day that you weren't a beatnik, but I've never met anyone who dressed in all black like you do and I thought beatniks dressed like that. Are you a beatnik?"
"No. I'm from New York. Anybody with any sense wears black in New York. Unless you want to be doing laundry every other five minutes. Ever carried laundry up five flights of stairs in the summer heat in a closed in stairwell that smells of linguica? Not for me. It's not a clean city. I wear black."
"Oh." Paulette's shoulders fell bit more. "Are you an alcoholic?"
Astrid gave Paulette a confounded look. "I know our introduction might indicate otherwise, but no, I'm not an alcoholic."
A solitary tear glinted in the sun as it rolled down Paulette's cheek.
"Hey, what's the matter?" Astrid walked over and kneeled before her.
"It's ridiculous, I know, but... The day before yesterday I'd been kidnapped by an alcohol crazed communist lesbian beatnik and today I'm being driven back to Redemption by a friendly girl and it's just... well..."
"Disappointing?" Astrid asked.
"Oh no, I didn't mean it like that... it's just..."
"That's all right. You wouldn't be the first person who thought I was."
"No! Really! You're fine. It's just that as terrible a situation as that may have been to find myself in, it was better than anything I was likely to encounter in Redemption. I'm not making any sense. I'm hopeless!" Paulette wiped roughly at the tears streaming down her face. She was even more upset at herself for breaking down in front of Astrid.
"Hey," Astrid removed a handkerchief from her pocket, halted Paulette's agitated wiping and gently dabbed her cheeks. "Don't cry. Look, if it makes any difference, I'm a member of the Writers' Union. That practically makes me a socialist. And while it would be a stretch to call me a crazed alcoholic, I've been known to drink my fair share of Stoli on occasion... well, once. A friend and I drank almost half a bottle in a weekend while stranded by a storm on Fire Island. But Stoli's Russian - that must count for something."
Paulette sniffed and smiled a little. She nodded, feeling terribly foolish and overly dramatic.
"That's the ticket. Chin up. I'm not completely harmless you know. After all I'm an insatiable invert, a shadow dweller, a sapphic in slacks. Some people find that kind of thing awfully impressive. I could, if you wanted, make an unwanted advance on you. It's not like I haven't considered it - you being the innocent country girl and me the classic urban predator, I can't help it, it's my nature. I'm sure it's not as glamorous as finding yourself at the mercy of an alcohol crazed communist beatnik, but it will be suitably wretched in it's own way, don't you think?"
"Well, of course it would be, but I wouldn't want to trouble you."
"No trouble at all. I mean, if you confine a lesbian in close quarters with such a pretty girl, sooner or later someone's going to get kissed."
"Really?" Paulette asked in a hushed tone. "Is that true?"
"Strictly speaking? No, not really."
"Oh." Paulette's shoulders dropped and the hopeful expression faded from her face.
"The other part about me wanting to kiss you, that was true."
And so she did. Astrid leaned in carefully and placed a feather light kiss on Paulette's lips.
Paulette was amazed. It was nothing like what she'd anticipated. It had been so quick, over so soon. Hardly the kind of kiss you expect from a not quite socialist lesbian who got tipsy on occasion. She wondered if Astrid didn't really want to kiss her and was being a good sport. Paulette was too embarrassed to look at her and find out, so she fiddled with her shirt cuffs and smoothed her skirt instead.
"Didn't you like it?" Astrid asked.
"Well yes, it was horrible..."
"But?" Astrid prompted.
"I thought... well, in the books I've read, they talk a lot about unnatural passions - it has a certain ring to it..."
"Did you expect me to ravage you? It was a first kiss. One, I might add, I wasn't even sure you wanted."
"It was a lovely kiss, terrible in its way. I wasn't expecting it to be so... quite so... in Jailhouse Brides the warden, well she..."
Astrid was getting perturbed. It was one thing to have to write teasers for books that barely kept writers out of the poorhouse and enabled an insatiable public to wallow in the least creative stereotypes imaginable. It was another to hear the stuff quoted back at you by a lovely, but thoroughly confused creature who'd been taken in by the rot entirely. "Look, forget Jailhouse Brides. Do you want me to kiss you again? I'd be happy to oblige. I've suffered through worse, I assure you."
"If it's a burden, I'd rather you didn't." Paulette felt hurt by Astrid's tone.
"I told you I'd be happy to." Astrid rolled her eyes. "And as I'm a weak willed, predatory and domineering female, suffering from perverse impulses, I can hardly contain myself from doing it anyway."
"Now you're making fun of me." Paulette complained.
"You're an exasperating girl, do you want me to kiss you or not? Yes? Or no?"
There was a long pause during which Paulette smoothed her skirt and fidgeted with her shirt cuffs some more. Astrid watched closely for a definitive sign. In truth, she was dying to kiss Paulette again. She had an exquisite awkwardness to her, as well as wonderfully doleful eyes and perfectly delicious small ears. She waited, hopeful. But Paulette sat, her head bent to the side, quiet. Finally, the sign came in the form of a subtle, but certain nod of Paulette's head - and a whispered, "Yes."
Astrid smiled, "Well alright then." And she did. Again. It was gentle, but more firm and lasted longer than the first one. Paulette thought it must have - she'd lost track. Her mind was quickly overwhelmed by the closeness, the softness and then the wave that crashed through her body leaving all manner of tingling and disquiet in its wake - that had kind of distracted her too. She felt that if Astrid stopped kissing her, she might not be able to breathe anymore. Which was probably why Paulette had the ironclad grip she did on Astrid's shirtfront. Not that Astrid was complaining. If Paulette had accidentally ripped it off she'd be doing her a favor. She'd become warm and was feeling overdressed. The kiss turned into several and threatened to turn into more. Astrid leaned back and smiled, but halted Paulette's attempt to continue.
"We have to stop." Astrid said. "If we don't, I really won't be able to contain myself. You'd get a lot more than you bargained for and I'm not sure I'm ready for a fling. Not after what the last one got me into."
"With Winifred you mean?" Paulette asked, still catching her breath.
If Paulette hadn't cared for Winifred before, she found her positively loathsome in that moment. Astrid was a terrific girl and deserved to be treated so much better. Paulette saw the pain in her eyes and wanted to wash it away. But didn't know how. She reached out and caressed Astrid's cheek. "I've gotten more than I bargained for since the minute I got into your car, but somehow it seemed more right than what I've been settling with for years. I think Winifred was extremely foolish and quite frankly, a cad." She stroked the worry lines on Astrid's forehead until Astrid relaxed and then she kissed her. First on the forehead and then each cheek and then on her lips.
"You're very good at this for a girl who's not partaken of unnatural passions before." Astrid remarked. Her common sense was fighting a loosing battle with her physical sense. Especially the one Paulette was arousing by holding onto her and kissing her neck and cheek so shyly. The battle raged, nearing a climax. Astrid gave into temptation and nibbled on Paulette's earlobe, then nuzzled her hair. The battle was lost.
"It's all I thought about yesterday while you were sleeping. After I called my parents and Dean, I sat wondering why it was that I felt like I needed to stay so badly... " Paulette paused to revel in the sensation of Astrid's teeth grazing her earlobe. "Other than to make sure you were okay."
"And?" Astrid inquired as she ducked her head to explore the sweet skin of Paulette's neck.
"I had to know."
"What I would do when you tried to kiss me."
Astrid chuckled and nipped Paulette. "You're awfully sure of yourself."
A tingle and chill raced over Paulette's skin - Astrid's hands were on the move and wreaking havoc with Paulette's ability to coordinate coherent thoughts. "No... I was sure of you... from what I'd read in those books... oh
" Paulette groaned. "Like you said before - it's just a matter of time before someone gets kissed."
"Maybe those books are good for something after all." Astrid conceded. "But they're full of rot otherwise."
Paulette was willing to agree with most anything Astrid said as long as she didn't stop with her gentle, but persistent ministrations. She had a feeling, an inkling really, that by the time they'd been fully acquainted, Astrid would be willing to make one more concession - for the explicit content of those books.
And she was right.