Fiction

Hag

An expanded version of Ali Riley’s award-winning story, excerpted in the May 2008 issue

Purple City

My first wedding was on the grade five playground. Lance was being dragged toward me. I knew we’d be friends. He had on an orange shirt, a purple tie, and Beatle boots. A Fuddle Duddle sticker on his lunchbox. They wanted to “marry” us. I was drinking a warm can of Sun-Rype apple-lime that cut my lip when they pushed our faces together and chanted, “I now pronounce you man and wife.” When the time came, Lance ran toward me wearing a Kleenex veil and holding a fistful of stinkweed.

That was the year all the oil companies were moving to Calgary. The Texans were angry; Edmonton was too cold for them. They snapped under the brittle reality of forty below every day for forty days. If you lived through it you could send away for a cartoon certificate from the Edmonton Journal. It had your name printed on it and a shivering guy with “I survived” written underneath him, a thermometer sticking out of his mouth, icicles hanging from his ski jump nose. Exxon was the first to escape. They transferred everyone south to Calgary and soon the other companies followed suit.

The dads got temporary bachelor apartments near Caesar’s, Shell, or the Petroleum Club. The families came down later—after the school year, or after summer vacation. They moved to new subdivisions formed around man-made lakes, the houses springing up overnight, half-built skeletons of two by fours and drywall.

It took a while to sink in that Dad wasn’t coming up from Calgary on weekends anymore. One night Mom called us into the master bedroom. “Your Dad got transferred,” she said, pulling off her white work shoes. “He decided he didn’t want to take us. Prop your pillows up here and we’ll watch the rest of Carol Burnett.”

Products I’d never seen suddenly figured in our cupboards. Hamburger Helper, powdered milk and Manwich. Every Saturday night, there was a man checking his watch in the good chair.

Lance’s situation turned out to be kind of the same. When his Dad moved to Calgary he got himself a new wife, a DeLorean, and a gold Cadillac with suicide doors. In grade nine I heard Lance was living with them in a big house on Lake Bonaventure. Never mind his own room, he practically had his own wing. And a baby sister.

Edmonton is Petrograd, town of Peters, blue-eyed sheiks. Lougheed and Pocklington. The mass exodus was a suffering blow. Further north ran the meridians where the highways turned to dirt and our fathers had lined up blasting caps, in their early careers, sending depth charges into the earth. Black and white photos of smiling men and trucks in the mud. Heavy equipment. Schlumberger, Haliburton. The endless rig pig search for Mesozoic residue.

Our fathers: fossils.

I was in the library, skipping math, reading Fear of Flying. I’d got to the part where Isadora is traveling across Europe with her lover, Adrian Goodlove. Isadora was blowing him. You’d think that Isadora would have given some actual tips, but she made it sound horrific. She talked about his “curled pink penis that tasted faintly of urine and refused to stand up in my mouth.” Isadora White Wing —such a great name. You have to rename yourself, if you want to be legendary like Cherry Vanilla or Sable Starr. I decided I’d only answer to Crow Child.

Some skids at the next table were talking about Purple City. A girl in a felt-penned jean jacket was saying “Ooh, Purple City, its sooo trippyyyy….” Yeah. Trippy, man. If you smother your face in the orange rectangular floodlights illuminating the Legislature, then look away, the whole world turns violet—the grass, the moon, the lights from the apartment buildings. They all love the after-image that hits your retina like the burn of an A-bomb. They speak of how that burn will stay with you and live on. It’s a hypnogogic mind fuck among the underachievers.

I heard a noise behind me and felt someone touch the back of my head. I whipped around and Lance was standing there. “I’m back in Edmonton. Hellooo Chucksville,” he said. He had a haircut like Diamond Dogs. He fluffed my hair up into a French twist and said “I see you as sort of… Italian princess.” It was an old joke of ours. We smoked a joint and went over to his mom’s house and he made me a fluffernutter sandwich.

“My dad’s house is so huge,” Lance said between bites. He was feeding bits of crust to his dog, Lady. There were canvasses leaning up against the wall and pottery on every level surface. “She’s been taking a class,” he said. “Anyway, there’s an intercom system and an indoor pool. They have a built-in sound system in the conversation pit. Did you know he bought Yukon Jack?”
“Who’s Yukon Jack?”
“This gross booze.”

It got around school that Lance and I were going out, and I guess we were, but we never really did anything. He kissed me once on the school bus, but other than that we just hung out at his mom’s. We called her “Mrs. Mira”. She owned an art gallery near their house, mostly a framing place but there were a few of her paintings, kind of vulvular cow skull stuff, and rocks with mushrooms painted on them that her hippie boyfriend made. I liked her. She wore purple Muu-muus and called me Sweetie.

We were lying on Lance’s bed, freaking out to “Moonage Daydream” on his stereo. Lance said, “There’s this place I go to sometimes. It’s downtown. You should come with me, it’s really fun… it’s kind of like, you know, um, sort of avant garde.”

When Lance took me to Flashbacks I thought it would be like Rodney’s English Disco on the Sunset Strip. Glitter rock, kind of Max’s Kansas City. A place that Iggy Pop would stumble into ‘luded, in fabulous disarray. The Mylar outline of Marilyn on the wall was promising, but most of the guys had moustaches and plaid shirts. They looked like Mr. Downes, our math teacher. It wasn’t what I expected at all.

Locker Room and Talent Cobras

When the phone rang in the middle of the night it was Lance calling from Hawaii. “Oh my god I’m freaking out I’m in this huge house on the beach and I’m totally on acid and guess what else!”

Turns out he was getting laid by Gomer Pyle.

The Gomer Pyle?” my mother slurred. She was on the extension.

I went back to my book. Isadora White Wing was still looking for the Zipless Fuck. Too bad she wasn’t a blonde surfer boy in Lahaina or the gay discos of Edmonton.

When Lance got back from Hawaii we had had a fight about Our Bodies, Ourselves. I was reading it and mentioned something about clit and he said. “Ew!! Oh my God! You mean that lump thing? You’re always reading these disgusting girl books. Like, The Sea Witch, The White Wing. And that Patti Smith? She’s a hag.” I didn’t speak to him for a week.

Lance started being a freak collector. “You have to meet my friend Earthpig,” he said. “He’s a carnie.”

At Earthpig’s party there was a bunch of kids in the kitchen I vaguely recognized from school. They were crammed onto a picnic table. A girl was sitting in her jeans with her feet up on the counter. A guy sitting beside her said “Close your legs, you’re attracting flies” and that started a fight that pushed everything over and Lance and I were swept into the hallway.

In the living room there were two old people just sitting there. The lady had long grey hair and was wearing a black cape. The guy had a trench coat thrown over his shoulders and a goatee. He sidled over to Lance and before I could eavesdrop on what he was saying there was another guy at my elbow. He said someone told him my boyfriend and I were looking for hundred lots. I went up to Lance. “This is Garnet and Anika!!” he said. “Anika’s a witch and Garnet’s an architect!” I pried Lance away from them. “Doesn’t he seem very Continental?” Lance said. We decided I would go with the guy to get more blotter and meet Lance back at the party. “Garnet wants to have us over for mousse.” I went outside and got into the guy’s brown Pinto.

Pinto guy was pretty antsy on the way. He kept saying he just had to make a couple of stops first. I’d already dropped so I was seeing tracers on the way down into the ravine, and wasn’t paying attention to what he was saying. He stopped the car in the parking lot of the three giant glass pyramids, the ones that are the different climates—jungle, desert and something else. I wished they were open and I could go into the desert one. It would have been so nice to just sit by a cactus.

Pinto guy asked for a blowjob and I started laughing. I was screaming, really. He got pissed and just started jerking off. There was no hundred lot of acid, I guess. I was getting hypnotized by the steam on the glass of the jungle pyramid, or maybe I was hallucinating. I kept doing the side-eye to see if he was finished, and finally he took out some Kleenex and drove me back to the party.

Lance was still in the living room with the Witch and the Warlock. There were so many people it was hard to move, and the Warlock kept saying, “Isn’t that right bebbe?” to everybody. The Witch cornered me and started talking about owls just as the Pyramid Pinto jerk off guy came up to us. “Well, I’m going now,” he said. “Bye.” “You have an important connection to this boy,” the Witch said as he squeezed his way out the door, “I can sense it.”

When all the cherry cars and the paddy wagon arrived we walked three doors down to Garnet’s house. It was a Brian Jones kind of place. Persian carpets, paintings. He took Lance into the other room to show him the art, and Anika arranged herself beside me on the couch. She craned around and stared right into my eyes. “There’s something I would like to ask you,” she said. “Is there a character in Alice in Wonderland you particularly connect with?”

“Yeah…. Alice.” I said. She was still staring. I could hear Lance laughing in the kitchen, a piercing heeeee hawwww guffaw that reminded me of a donkey crying.

“I think that is possibly the most conventional answer I have ever received to that question” she said. The laughter in the kitchen suddenly became high-pitched squeals. Lance came rushing into the living room, with Garnet behind him. He was carrying a platter of meat. “Ewww! I saw the veins!” Lance screamed. It was moose, not mousse. “We have to get out of here! Let’s go to the club.”

The first person we saw when we got there was Farrah. Empress Farrah, the boy most wanted. He rules the club. A mind tuned to the intricacies of command. He has blonde lioness hair in the manner of a Charlie’s Angel, thus his name. He approached our table with his sister Ping Pong, sending the chicken hawks fluttering. Lance began babbling about moose and paddy wagons. “And this is your sister?” Farrah said, turning his high beams on me. “You must come from a gorgeous family.” He tossed his hair and looked at Lance. ” She’s Dorian Gray.”

“We’ve singled you out for the court,” Farrah said. “Won’t you come over?” The silent presence of Ping Pong was bugging me. She was beyond cryptic, smiling serenely at each one of Farrah’s pronouncements.

“We have been divine,” Farrah said as he served Lance and me mint tea. We were sitting on the floor in his living room. “But somehow along the way we forgot this and act as though we are limited by matter.” He leaned back on his pile of pillows and smiled. He’d insisted we put on embroidered Moroccan caftans. I was trying to arrange myself within the red and gold satin and pull the side slits together around my upper thighs. I thought he looked just like Brian Jones.

Lance hadn’t stopped nattering since we arrived. He knelt in front of Farrah, balanced on the tips of his fingers, talking about the new Billy Joel song that he liked.

“It’s like my theme song. I don’t care what you say anymore this is my life! Doo doo doo doo doo…’cause you know, it is, right?” Farrah got up only using one leg and said, “I have some very wonderful Lebanese hashish. We can use the hookah. ” When he was gone I punched Lance in the arm “What the hell is wrong with you? You’re acting like a real douchebag.”

Lance whispered, “Maybe, but he’s the best one at the club and you’ve got him.” I doubted it. Yes, he invited us over and at the club he was certainly fawning over me.
I wasn’t used to being on the sparkly receiving end of things.

I went with Farrah to his room to watch Mary Hartman Mary Hartman. We sat on the edge of the bed and held hands. Ping Pong came in at one point and sat leaning against the headboard. We watched most of the episode and then Lance came in the room. His opened his mouth and it just hung like that. “Ahhhhhhh!” he said. I looked behind me and Ping Pong was completely nude, Farrah’s other hand buried in her.

I think it’s great to be Alice. She gets to meet everyone in the story.

I was leaning over the counter at work, reading the new Creem magazine. Ilya the manager was hovering, pressing his corduroy crotch into the small of my back. “The Runaways, yes?” he said, reaching over me to pour some Canadian Club into my coke. He was eating a kielbasa in a paper napkin. Little Ukraine was the saddest kiosk of all time. Our only customers were teenagers wishing to score MDA.

“Here comes your girlfriend” Ilya said. I looked up and saw Lance walking towards us with a big orange duffle bag. Lance barely glanced at him and threw the bag down.
“I have to talk to you. We have to get out of here.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know that caretaker lady at the bingo hall? The one that wears the green cardigan all the time?”
“What about her?”
“She caught me with the cash box last night.”
“I told you! God! As if they weren’t ever going to notice.”
Anyway. I’m going to go stay at my Dad’s in Calgary. Actually, I think I should move there. The clubs there are way better…”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because,” he said, staring at the kielbasa slowly rotating on the hot dog caddy, ” I want you to come with me.”

I thought about it. I didn’t think my Mom would even care if I moved to Calgary for a while. She was working graveyards and seeing this idiot intern from the hospital. It would be pretty great to live in a house with a pool.

Excuse me, I love your lashes.

Lance and I went down to the Greyhound to sell the rest of the hundred lot so we could get to Calgary. Lance went into the men’s room and I sat on the bench. I couldn’t bring myself to actually ask anyone if they want to buy some acid, even the batik skirt girl who would probably be a prime candidate. When he came out he says he sold the whole lot, and we can go. I didn’t know so many businessmen liked acid.
We hitched a ride to Calgary with a guy with a pickup truck and pale blue cowboy boots to match his suit. Lance and I cracked up when he got out to fill the tank and we saw that his boots were only painted on the bottom, the part that poked out from under his pants.

We hit a thunderstorm right around Red Deer. I love driving through lightning. It’s the one time you’re in the exact right place to be, the safest spot. The Cowboy guy mentioned the Parkside Continental at one point, so Lance perked up and started being a suck, asking all these polite questions about his job, thinking here’s a way in to the club. I know how his mind works.

The Cowboy guy drives us straight to Lance’s parents. Lance’s dad and step-mom are gone for a month. We lie on the floor in the weight room and drink Yukon Jack. There are cases of it. We mix every powdery Langis packet we can find—Strawberry Daiquiri, Mai Tai—to obscure what Lance calls the “Vom taste”. We go to the Parkside almost every night. We only get in because everyone wants Lance. All the old guys come over to talk, and Lance insists they buy me a drink as well. I’m just there, part of the combination platter—if you want the egg-foo-yong and spareribs you have to take the chop suey along with it. Non-existence is comforting. I have a superhero coating of invisibility. There is no Male Gaze, only a single table of lesbians that occasionally glance my way.

A girl gets up and pirouettes for my benefit. “How do you like my femme look of the night?” she says to her friends, showing off her rainbow jeans and Margaret Houlihan drag.

A guy from her table was cruising Lance, being all charismatic and lecherous. I’m practicing my forty-yard stare into nowhere. She leans over to me and asks if I wanted to do a ‘lude. We have to go back to her place and get them, she says. We walk to a high rise two blocks from the club. Turns out the cruising guy is her brother and they just moved in. I used to wonder at the multitude of gay sibling-duos until Lance started introducing me as his sister, and I realized that it’s usually metaphoric.

In their apartment it’s the same Marilyn poster you see everywhere—black and white, full-length life size, arms volleyballed forward—Love me!—and the same two ailing spider plants. She gets up to go the bathroom and asks me to pick a record. There’s nothing but disco—I can suspend disbelief at the club but I can’t bring myself to actually listen to Donna Summer in an apartment. My only choice: T Rex. Electric Warrior. As she emerges in a kimono and “Bang a Gong, Get it On” blares I wonder if I’ve made a serious error in judgment.

The Coronation Ball is at the Majestic Hotel on Macleod Trail. Lance and I hole up in the seventh floor hospitality suite. Everyone is downstairs in the cabaret. The procession has begun. No matter how fuckable Lance is, there’s no way anyone underage gets into this one. Lance and I drink vodka and Tang and wait for something to happen. If the Coronation Ball is Camp Oligarch, the hospitality suite is a Glamour Gulag. We watch the queens rush in and out. The door bursts open—taffeta on the floor—Mary!!!—WHOOSH—they’re out the door, screaming. I flip through the brochure: the Emperor of Medicine Hat, Grand Vizier of the duchy of Spokane.

Against the far wall a white satin banner proclaims The Imperial Court of the White Rose Welcomes Empress Vern! Personally, I think Vern’s drag is a little Jack Lemmon-y. It’s truck driver drag. He’s a bitch to boot. But it’s thanks to him we can even get in to the Parkside, AKA the Backside, the Dark side, the Club. The arrival at the club goes like this: Lance oozes and side-eyes. We’re ushered from the front (neon sign—gay premises) to the back and admonished to stay there and only dance when the floor is at its peak. I of course don’t count.

Frankie the Trannie has a room down the hall. She is Marilyn, tottering on her red fuck-me pumps. I am agog. She’s showing off presents her trick had given her. “And here’s a bottle of something, isn’t it boss?” She waves it around vaguely. It’s clear liqueur with gold sparkles and a ballerina in a dome in the middle. She slams it on the desk and starts rummaging in a drawer, “Here’s a lipstick; I lost the cap but…” and shoves it sideways without looking at me. Lance is on the bed reading my copy of Fear of Flying. I look at the tube. It’s Lulu by Christian Dior, colour of an artery before the cut, oxblood, bruise purple. The Roman purple was this colour back in the day. Non-royalty could be put to death for wearing it. Cochineal is pigment made from the scales of a South American beetle. On the lips of Clara, Theda, Greta, Marilyn. Hag is crouch position, a martial stance. We are all in drag.

She swings a gold chain with a single diamond. “Darling, the piece de resistance. I hope I never get so broke I have to pawn it.” She has a bottle of oval, peach-colored Valium they only give to cancer patients and the diabolically nervous. The Academy award of downer, and she never shares.

Everyone in this room is somewhere else. I’m at CBGB’s sitting with Patti Smith and Joey Ramone, Frankie is at Studio 54 with Halston and Liza, and Lance is, I don’t know, probably at the Anvil, though he’d never admit it.

Back in the Majestic Hotel hospitality suite the only other soul is a traveling salesman. He speaks of a losing streak, bad business. Flop sweat hangs in the weave of his tweed jacket, never sent to the cleaners. He stares at his scuffed Florsheims, then at Lance. When he swallows I see his orchid drip of envy. How bitter in the back of the throat. He produces some ancient won tons from a paper bag, and pronounces me a “good egg”. Soon I have a monosodium glutamate headache and Lance is getting blown in the bathroom.

Poppers, Crisco and the Anvil

That was the microdot period. Lance had started buying hundred lots and selling them at the bus station, our tolerance was getting ridiculous. Lance was up to five or six hits every time he did it, and I could usually do two or three.

Then, cowboy blotter. That was the worst. Lance met this Vietnam Vet guy. He brought me over to his place and showed me everything. He set up a movie projector in the bedroom and we watched films of a young guy jerking off with Crisco. I thought it was boring. There was a bottle of blueberry Emotion Lotion underneath the bathroom sink that heated up unpleasantly when you blew on it. The only thing that impressed me about the guy’s apartment was the Vidal Sassoon shampoo and his fantastic stereo set-up. He had really good taste in music.

The first thing awful about the cowboy blotter was that it was printed on shirt cardboard instead of paper. It had a goofy, kind of Buckshot-looking cowboy holding a lasso, and the hits were big—at least half an inch by half an inch. We chewed them up in the Vietnam vet’s galley kitchen, chasing the big wads of paper down with some stale old licorice we found in the cupboard. We only had the stove light on and were trying not to make any noise because Michael, the Vietnam vet boyfriend, had to get up to go to work soon. He was a postman.

We couldn’t stop laughing in the kitchen, and muffling it was making my sinuses feel like they would never be the same again. At one point I was sure my nose was broken. We were losing our mind over the fact that the Cowboy guy who drove us to Calgary a month ago was in the living room, swinging in the wicker chair, tripping, thinking God knows what thoughts.

“Michael leaves at four,” Lance managed to choke out between snuffles. His teeth were black with licorice residue. “He has to go to the post office and get his bag of mail.”
This precipitated another torrent of tarry slobber.

I hid in the living room while Michael left and Lance kissed him goodbye. I couldn’t believe Michael had been in the Viet Nam war, he looked so young. Way younger than you’d expect. The Cowboy guy was lying on the daybed.

“C’mere.”

I wasn’t even sure he was talking to me. I went over. I sat on the edge of the bed—I had to tighten my stomach to remain aloft. He got up and put his arms around me. I leaned back. I couldn’t relax, but then something clicked in my spine and it felt OK to just melt. Then Lance came in the room and started laughing again and ruined it.

All the albums were alphabetically arranged, immaculate plastic covers over every LP. Lance was gazing at a Dan Fogleberg record. “I fucking love this guy”, he said. “Look at his hair.”

I wasn’t interested. I was rummaging around, looking for stuff I’d read about in Creem but hadn’t heard yet. I picked out Hejira. Lance was prancing around the living room imitating his mother’s walk. The Cowboy guy moved and piped up “Um, yeah…uh…I guess Easy Rider mag says that on her new album this Joni Mitchell chick just wafts around in her cunty time signatures or whatever…” He fell to the ground and started doing push-ups.

It was way after ten in the morning when we started to come down. The floor was littered with plastic outer sleeves. The Cowboy guy was snoring on the floor in the corner. By this time our conversation had deteriorated to the point of passing a piece of paper back and forth with barely illegible scrawls. Lance pushed it toward me. In large shaky letters it said,

What do we do with…?

He pointed with the pen toward the Cowboy guy, then scribbled again:

Leave him.

The White House was a nightmare. Lance saw the breakfast special sign and insisted we eat there. What a terrible error we made. Every inch of wall space was covered with some kind of rendering of the Kennedy’s. Above the pie cabinet someone had tacked up a blanket with both Robert and John F. We sat at the counter and ordered in whispers. Lance began talking in a rapid staccato about Fatty Arbuckle and Lee Radziwill. “I don’t get the connection,” I said, and slid below the ledge to rest my head on the stool. I couldn’t look at the waitress’s hairline, a Soviet-looking dye-job, anathema to my acid retina. It was the seagull in a cage that propelled me toward the door.

Two-Headed Boy

Lance passed me a note in third period. “Oh, God I’m so depressed. Last night I revealed my sex secret to my whole family. I was so drunk and I just started talking. I think you and me should go to California, I can always hook for our money. (Just what I need, more usage) and then you and me will have money and time to be used how we really want.”

All this was before Lance’s barbell-totin’, Yukon Jack, dirtbag dad threw him in the psych ward. When Lance’s mom was able to intercede and he came home, I bought him the new Fogleberg record and Grease. I played him the Sex Pistols, but he didn’t really like it. We used to listen to the Ramones all the time, but that was more sugar-poppy. He’s still glitter boy at heart. There’s a new place called the Suicide Club that I go to sometimes with this guy I know from school. Last night as we walked home from there we watched the Aurora Borealis turn the sky purple.

Lance made it. If his regained swagger didn’t quite fit, I didn’t care.

I tend to love the traumatized.

* * *

Ali Riley’s “Hag” and Lynn Xu’s “Je vous attends” won the 2007 Summer Literary Seminars fiction and poetry contests, respectively. For a further excerpt of “Hag” and details on how writers can win a trip to Russia or Kenya and be published in The Walrus, visit sumlitsem.org.