The Ghoul and The Gunslinger
It was 1978. Rachel showed up at the Tudor-style house in Palo Alto for the party. A ghoul opened the front door. He leaned casually against the door jamb and, crossing one ankle, said, “Why, hello, Your Grace.”
“That’s Duchess to you,” she said, without missing a beat. “You’re thinking about something and that makes you forget to talk. I can’t tell you just now what the moral of that is, but I shall remember it in a bit.”
The Ghoul, replied, just as easily, “And the moral of that is — Oh, ’tis love,’ tis love, that makes the world go round!”
Rachel was enchanted. She and Ghoul were quoting lines from her role as The Duchess in the multi-media production of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass put on by her slightly misfit company of players, The Antediluvian Repertory Company.
It was Halloween. Rachel was twenty-six and she was all done up like a forties vamp in worn velvet. Her frizzy, long brown hair was piled high on her head and fastened with a rhinestone clasp. She felt vampish, which meant she had improvised.
Rachel was dating the white-faced ghoul’s roommate, seriously dating, though the roommate, Dead Gunslinger, was equivocal about a long-term committed relationship. Sometimes it would be a week between dates or phone calls and then she’d fret and worry and think that she was no good or at least not good enough. Rachel hated the fact that an insecure, awkward, round-shouldered teen was still trudging around inside her, nagging at her in a whiny voice, “Well, you have a lot of chutzpah, parading around like you are somebody.”
Rachel accepted a glass of bubbling acid-green punch from Henry Kissinger and a boiled-down kiss from her Dead Gunslinger, whose chiseled dimpled chin was hanging below his Lone Ranger-style mask. He lifted the mask and grinned at her. He smelled like Old Spice. He smelled like marriage and babies and a house in the ‘burbs. Dead Gunslinger said in his languid Texas voice, “Rachel, darlin’, I’m so glad you’re here.” Then, averting his eyes ever so slightly, he drawled, “Oh, look, I better go say hi to the Empire State Building. He’s in my psych residency. Be right back.”
Rachel saw that she was not nearly as creatively dressed as most of the guests at the party — in fact, she felt downright underdressed in the gray velvet that she’d bought at the Marché aux Puces in Paris, which is French for Flea Market. She’d thought that the dress nipping at her heels was a cool costume, but now it just seemed like something to trip over.
She slinked —slunk? — in what she hoped was a vampish manner, into the corner, where she lit the cigarette in her silver holder, hoping that she looked like Audrey Hepburn. For the record, Rachel looks nothing like Audrey Hepburn. Sometimes she amuses me with the things she comes up with.
Juggling the cigarette, she held the drink clumsily and a little green fluid spilled on the rug. Shit. Rachel watched a woman dressed as the sky, gyrate slowly to Light My Fire. The Sky had large cotton clouds attached to her body and an airplane was dive-bombing into her left boob. The clouds wafted. The airplane wafted. Rachel’s eyeballs wafted. Or so she said.
A Kirby vacuum cleaner sidled up beside her, or actually, he waddled up beside her. He could only take baby steps because he was an upright vacuum cleaner. His path was illuminated by the little light on the foot — or head — of the vacuum and he was holding the plug in one hand and a bilious green drink in the other.
“Great party, huh?”
Rachel was suddenly that unbearably shy teenager who could hardly get a word out and then, she was suddenly that unbearably shy teenager who could not stop talking. She could hear the vacuum cleaner thinking, this really sucks. Kirby’s eyes glazed over and he shambled off to cluck with a person-sized hen, a pullet with large tail feathers poking out from under her net petticoat.
Rachel smoked another cigarette. She swigged some more of the unknown green fluid.
She felt even more out of place and miserable when she saw Dead Gunslinger, her date, her so-called boyfriend, her wannabe fiancé, with his palms flat against a wall and, pinned between them, her back against that wall, was Raggedy Ann. Her cute button eyes were turned up in a smile. Rachel emptied her glass and let the plastic cup fall on the white shag carpet. It left a small green stain. Good.
Okay, I’m outta here. She was almost out the door when a white body-snatcher hand crept over her shoulder. The touch was surprisingly warm.
“Duchess,” said Ghoul, “may I have the next dance?”
* * *
Rachel and Dead Gunslinger were in Ann’s coffee shop seated in an orange and yellow booth. It was lunchtime, and Ann’s was filled with ladies in cashmere cardigans and Majorca pearls and men in polyester jogging suits and baseball caps. The aging waitresses, in uniforms straight out of the fifties, wandered up and down the long counters offering refills on stale coffee, in cups, not mugs. The waitresses’ voices were all chalky and the gravel art paintings on the walls were of brown cats, brown owls, brown butterflies and orange lions.
Rachel was not eating the cherry pie on her plate. Her mouth tasted like sour grapes.
Dead Gunslinger waved his sandwich in the air and said in his Texas twang, “I like you, I really do, I like you just fine. But I’m a doctor and, well, frankly you’re an actress.“
Dead Gunslinger said actress as though he had a mouthful of Listerine he needed to spit out. “I can’t see myself marryin’ anyone other than another professional.” And by professional, he meant his friend from Bennington, Raggedy Ann.
“Raggedy Ann and I are going to Big Sur together for the weekend,” Dead Gunslinger drawled. He took a big bite of barbecued beef sandwich and sauce dribbled down his oversized chin.
“Sure,“ Rachel said, “no problem, you and Raggedy go right ahead.” She stared at the brown sauce on his large dimpled chin. She stared at her cherry pie. Ann’s smelled like burnt coffee and un-washed senior citizens, alta cockers, as her mother would say.
Why are we here?
* * *
It was Saturday morning and Rachel phoned Ghoul. Trying to sound casual, she said, “Your roommate told me he was going off to Big Sur with that woman, Raggedy Ann, and I thought you might be lonely. My brother Adam is coming for a weekend visit. Do you want to come hang out with us?”
“Sure. Why not?”
The afternoon sun was pressing her hot palms against their cheeks and foreheads, checking for fever. They were clammy with sweat and libido in the stagnant air.
So, they did what any three self-described hippies, misfits and rebels would do. They went skinny-dipping. They sneaked into a dairy farm in the nearby ashen foothills, where there was a small, slimy lake. The sign read NO Trespassing.
NO problem, dude, just gonna take a dip in the lake.
They screamed in delight at the cold.
Rachel, Adam and Ghoul shed all of their clothes and, whooping, jumped into the cool, brown water. They screamed in delight at the cold. Ghoul’s circumcised penis was trying to burrow back into his body for warmth and all the fur on his hairy belly was awake. Rachel’s nipples were standing at attention. She didn’t look at her brother’s privates; she was not that perverse.
Diving under the water, she swam further into the lake, to escape the gunk in the shallows and also to show off her good swimming form. Rachel’s baseline insecurity sometimes manifests itself in her exhibitionism. She needed Ghoul to admire her skill and expertise, even for something so inconsequential. Adam and Ghoul, both long and lanky, both pock-marked with acne scars, both with excessive body hair, were standing in the shallows, splashing and wrestling the way that boys do, even supposedly grown-up boys, when Rachel spied a figure off in the distance, a silhouette on horseback on the hillside.
She said, ”Oh, no.”
They all stopped and stared. You could almost hear the ominous, dissonant music playing on the soundtracks in their minds. DUH-duh. DUH-duh. DUH-duh. It was not Dead Gunslinger. It was a dairy rancher.
They knew they were in trouble.
“Aw, shit.” Slipping and sliding on the mud bank, her brother and Ghoul waded out of the lake. The brown mud was sticking to their hirsute bodies. Rachel’s heart started to gallop with anxiety. She could feel the metallic taste of adrenaline pouring into her system.
That is another character trait about Rachel. She absolutely hates to do anything wrong. She’d never marched in anti-war protests during the Vietnam era or gotten arrested like so many of her hippie friends or ever defied anyone, except her mother. She swam towards the shore. Her arms felt like lead.
When Rachel reached the lakeside, she took two careful steps and then slipped face first in the muck, SLAM, and there she was, on her hands and knees and covered in slime.
She laughed. Rachel crawled through the mud on all fours and laughed, and she could not stop laughing. They could hear the clip, clop, clip clop of horse hooves getting louder and louder. She laughed. When distressed, Rachel almost always laughs, laughs hysterically. We psychiatrists refer to this as an incongruous emotional reaction. It occurs when the subject is emotionally overwhelmed and the laughter serves the purpose of restoring emotional balance.
Ghoul and her brother trudged up the bank and grabbed their clothes. Ghoul’s feet and toes made a sucking sound as he went. They ran across the grass and tried to hide behind an oak tree.
Rachel slithered up the bank, picked up her clothes, and ran, naked and muddy across the long, dry grass to the oak tree. Oh, shit. The trunk of the oak was too small. They were not hidden at all. They were three dirty former hippies hugging a skinny oak tree. The cowboy on his horse sauntered up. He was humming Get Along Little Doggies.
“I can see you,” the cowboy drawled.
Ghoul peeked out, nose first. “Well, then, if this was Vietnam, I guess we’d all be dead.”
It was the perfect thing to say. Rachel loved his weird, offbeat, deadpan sense of humor. Jewish humor. She loved that he didn’t get upset or escalate things right away. She loved his eyes that reflected the sky and she loved his dappled smile.
The cowboy seemed sufficiently impressed with Ghoul’s response, too, because he just laughed and told them to beat it as he and his horse moseyed on.
* * *
It was Monday morning.
“Rachel can we talk? Meet for lunch?” said Frank, aka Dead Gunslinger, on her answering machine.
She met Frank at Ann’s Coffee Shop, their place. She saw that the nametag pinned to their waitress’ bosom read Doris. She looked like a Doris.
Once they were settled into the food, Frank bit into the subject at hand.
“Rachel, I decided when I was in Big Sur with Erin, you know, Raggedy Ann, that I was really in love with you.” Rachel didn’t notice his sensitive brown eyes and his too-large ears, but she was held spellbound by his oversized chin and his mouth talking at her. All his features were too large. Why had she never noticed that before?
“You can’t do that.”
“What? Why not?”
“You can decide when you’re in Big Sur with Raggedy Ann — I mean Erin — that maybe Erin wasn’t all you had built her up to be in your mind. You can decide that you aren’t all that interested in her after all.”
“But you cannot decide when you are with another woman that perhaps – just maybe — you’re in love with me after all.”
Frank took her hand, and his sleeve got caught in her lentil soup. “But I am in love with you after all.”
“Well, I‘m really sorry, but I’ve decided that Ralph . . .”
Ralph, of course, is Ghoul. Ralph Resnick. Our Ralph.
“ . . . that Ralph is a really nice, sweet, funny guy and I would like to get to know him better.”
* * *
Rachel went to Frank and Ralph’s house. Ralph was hiding out from Frank in his bedroom in the fading light of the day. Ralph’s attic bedroom was like a red-velvet Victorian bordello filled with oak antiques and Humpty Dumpty prints and Tiffany lamps and a collection of wax fake food.
“Ralph, I’d really like to spend more time with you. Get to know you better,” Rachel told him. They were seated on his bed, Ralph leaning back on velvet pillows with tasseled trim. Covering the entire ceiling were at least a hundred moths from an infestation in the oak tree outside his window and their wings made a small, fluttery sound. Ralph’s downy chest was visible through the opening of his maroon brocade dressing-robe.
“Rachel, I think you’re really terrific. You’re amazing. In fact, you’re one of the most interesting women I have ever met.” He folded his hands over his belly. ”But the thing is, I just came off a six-year relationship with a crazy woman, a Borderline. I don’t know if I’m ready to be in a relationship just yet.”
She laughed. She hoped she sounded casual, because she didn’t feel casual. She felt like they were on the cusp of something big. “Ralph, I just think we should explore what we have and see where it goes.”
He said, almost to himself, “I don’t think I have commitment issues.”
She kept her voice calm. “I’m not asking for a commitment. I just want to see if we can be really good friends.”
“I just finished my psychiatric residency. I’m about to start a new job working for the county. Everyone there is bat-shit crazy!’
“I’m not sure how much time I’ll have for friends right now. Or a relationship.”
She ooched herself closer to him. “I understand that this is a transitional time for you and that things between us are moving fast. I get it. I really do, but I think it’s important that we explore these feelings that we have for each other.” Her voice rose ever so slightly. She brushed a dead moth off the bedspread. “I gave up Frank for you.”
He then did something completely unexpected. He stood on his bed, pulled down his pants and wiggle-wagged his round, hairy butt in her face. Rachel laughed away all the seriousness and the anxiety and the worry.
He sat down again, wrapped his arms around his knees and pulled the dark green jacquard comforter over both of them. “I think I’ll have to go to my friend’s organic pot farm in Northern California for a few days and think about it.”
He then pulled her in to his downy chest, wrapped his arms around her and patted her hair. He whistled, perfectly in key, Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love).
* * *
It was late on a Friday afternoon and Frank showed up at Rachel’s doorstep, looking distraught. He kissed her. She thought Man, Frank sure knows how to kiss, I’ll give him that. She pushed him away.
“Frank,“ she said, “we can’t do this. I’m sort of dating Ralph now.”
He grabbed her bed pillow and began to pound it. “I hate my mother!”
Is this what they learn in psychiatry residency?
“Frank, I’m really sorry that you hate your mother, but you have to leave now because Ralph and I are going on a date.”
Five minutes later, Ralph showed up at her door.
He wasn’t a ghoul anymore. He was another persona altogether: Flash Fillmore, a 1940’s-style private dick who prowled the streets of San Francisco. Flash wore a gray fedora, double-pleated trousers, elastic suspenders, and a wide tie. His eyes were shadowed under the brim of the hat, which put his Jewish nose in high relief. This was right up Rachel’s back alley. He leaned his long fingers against the doorjamb, one ankle crossed, his signature stance. He tipped his hat. He smelled like Old Spice.
Ralph christened her Azalea Boulevard. Azalea wore vintage clothes from the 1940’s, chain-smoked Marlboros, and had a halo of frizzy brown hair. She talked in a husky smoker’s voice because she was a slightly anorexic modern dancer and actress, just like Rachel.
Together, they prowled North Beach. They went to Big Al’s Speakeasy & Strip Joint and pretended to be rube tourists from Iowa. Ralph and Rachel wore felt hats, drank whiskey neat, smoked cigarettes, and crossed their long legs at the knee. Their feet tapped time to the music. They adored the strippers and the strippers adored them. The exotic dancers stopped them on the street after the show and said, “Oh, you guys were great! Such a good audience! Thank you! Where are you from?”
* * *
Azalea loved Flash and Rachel loved Ralph. They both adored their men despite the fact that sometimes the guys could be real assholes. There was the time they were waiting in line for a comedy show at Bimbo’s Club 365 and Ralph was strangely silent, withdrawn, inaccessible.
“Ralph, what’s wrong?”
“Ralph, have I said the wrong thing?”
“Ralph, please talk to me, let me know what I did to make you act this way.”
“Rachel, shut up. Sometimes I can just be a real asshole, okay?”
Rachel opened her mouth to say something, and then she closed it again. She shut up. She realized that she actually could shut up, that perhaps sometimes she needed to shut-up. She remembered his cute, round naked butt waggling in front of her nose. She laughed.
Rachel loved that he made her laugh. She loved Ralph’s style and the fact that he was Jewish enough to speak Yiddish to her mom. She loved his eccentric, educated cowboy parents. She loved that he was a doctor, someone respectable. Someone who thought that she was respectable, too. She thought he was the cure for her neurosis.
So she married him. She married him despite the fact that Frank was a better kisser.
Rachel thought that Ralph was the better man.
About the writer:
Harriet Garfinkle is an artist and writer. Garfinkle’s image “Gong hay Fat choy” won the first O:JA&L Art Prize and will serve as the cover image for the 2018 O:JA&L Pushcart Prize Nominees chapbook.
Image: “Oberon” by Harriet Garfinkle. Layered drawing. Pen & ink, watercolor and pastels. 24 5/8 x 32 1/8 inches. Garfinkle’s image “Gong hay Fat choy” won the first O:JA&L Art Prize and will serve as the cover image for the 2018 O:JA&L Pushcart Prize Nominees chapbook.
In the artist’s own words: I dance. I have danced all my life in one form or another. I dance when I paint or draw or when I write. I have choreographed many dances, sold many paintings, but never been a published author. I feel like I have something to say and am obsessed with saying it. Art alone is not complete enough: I also need the words. I let the page dance with me and I see what emerges. I let my inner voice speak as I quiet my outer voice. I try to enter a dream state and let the thoughts and images come to me. When I make art of any kind, you will find me listening and not talking. My art is therefore a challenge or a response to issues current in my life. My interest is people and the mundane, the pedestrian perspective and what keeps us going in our ordinary lives. How lives can change in an instant or be changing, changing over time without one’s consent: like a piece of beach glass, worn at the edges, but still full of light and color.