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first stanza: boney
"I called my cat Boney
'Til she said it wouldn't do.
I said 'why?' She said, 'Sister,
'That's what I've been calling you.'"
--Olivia Ofrenda, "Boney"
I slithered my way back into the black turtleneck, brushing off the dust specks it had picked up during the brief period when it was on the floor; Nick wasn't a big one for taking things slowly. I glanced back briefly over my wire-rimmed shades at the man who served as my boyfriend's legal counsel--and a few other things for me. He was idly smoking a cigarette with my holder and watching me, having made no move to leave the bed. I walked over to retrieve my trench from the headboard and held out my hand for the holder, rubbing a bony finger against a fleshless thumb until he handed it to me. I shrugged on the coat, removing a tube of lipstick from the left pocket while smoking the cancer stick held in my right and running over my mental checklist of things to knock out of the way throughout the rest of the night. I'd have to go out and shmooze with the customers, maybe get the poetry readings started. It had been almost midnight when I'd ducked into the back room, and the stage was still empty. So much for open mic night--I'd have to fix that.
Oh, yes, and sometime this evening I'd have to pay a visit to Max.
"What's the point of the cigarette holder anyway, darling?" Nick asked, throwing off the black satin sheets and striding over. I hooked one bare skeletal toe into his discarded pants and kicked them back to him. He caught them deftly and started to put them on. "For that matter, what's the point of the cigarette? We don't have lungs anymore."
"Why so existential all of a sudden?" I asked, taking a long drag of the smoke and pouting freshly-crimson lips to blow it back at him. Asking why or how we could still smoke opened up a new dimension of uncertainty that I didn't want to have to deal with--questions like why I still bothered with lipstick or sex or drinking or any of the other worldly pleasures I'd indulged in there in the Underworld. Those questions brought me dangerously close to the question of why I still bothered existing at all. And the truth was that for once, I, the illustrious Olivia Ofrenda, had no unearthly idea.
Well, maybe I had just a few.
What I was doing, at the time, was running a nightclub in Rubacava. Next to El Marrow, it was the largest city in the Eighth Underworld, and if El Marrow was our answer to la Nueva York, Rubacava was the Las Vegas of the damned. The Blue Casket, however, catered to a very select clientele: those poetic seekers of beauty and truth who had been collared with the term "beatniks" by the success of Kerouac and company in the 1950s.
These days, it was home primarily to Ginsberg clones and disgruntled working-class supporters of the Communist Party who advocated revolution for everything from labor unrest to humidity, but at least it was a regular crowd. They, like everyone else in Rubacava, had long since given up on moving on to the final destination of eternal rest.
Which brings me to my major point of unhealthy stress that night: they, I, and everyone else in Rubacava were all dead.
Life had never really surprised me. I'd hated those prim-skirted, kerchiefed Girl Scouts with a passion, but I'd understood their creed: be prepared. As a result, I'd always had a cool head and an uncanny ability to handle myself in any situation. But I have to admit, even I was thrown just a little off when I opened my eyes to find that I didn't have any. I was a fleshless, faceless collection of pearl-white bones suspended by some invisible thread.
By that particular night, of course, I'd gotten used to it. Time is evanescent in the Eighth Underworld. This is especially true in Rubacava, a town where life is lived from dusk to dawn, although by this time I'd been there for years. I was a step ahead of my patrons, though. Unlike them, I had a game plan--and the skills and equipment to play that game.
Nick Virago, who was merely a pawn in that game--albeit a conveniently-placed one--slid the last button of his claret-colored shirt through its hole and reached for his tie. "Just wondering, darling. It's the Day of the Dead, if you'll recall."
"You don't have a sentimental bone in your body, Nick; where's this coming from?" I scoffed, picking up the beret and adjusting it at a slight angle on my skull.
"I really should keep this to myself, but a recent business proposal has me thinking." He had his jacket on by this time. "Suffice it to say that moving onto my eternal reward might be a little easier than I'd been led to believe."
This takes a little explanation. Souls die and are whisked away to the Department of Death, where the good ones are given opportunities to buy their way out of the customary four- year journey to the Ninth Underworld. Which, for anyone naive enough to believe it, is the Land of Eternal Rest. The better--although I must say those fools at the DOD have some fairly convoluted ways of judging such an abstract idea--a soul was, the easier and shorter his trip. For the rest of us...
"Come on, Nick. Don't tell me you still believe those fairy tales."
"An associate of Maximino's almost has me convinced. Ever heard the name 'Hector Lemans'?"
"Does he write poetry?" I asked sarcastically.
The lawyer laughed. "No, but his wallet might be thick enough to make up for it in your mind."
I laughed and pushed the door open with one gloved hand. Instantly the sound of saxes and the keyboard hit my earholes. I leaned into the doorway, listening for the bongos of a poetry reading. Either there wasn't one going on or whatever was happening was lousy--Jak, the bongoist, only played when he was really digging something.
Nick came up behind me and leaned in, resting one arm of his elegantly-tailored suit in the doorjam above my head. My mandible and maxilla parted in what would have been a coy smile if I'd had lips and I arched my body closer to the frame of the metal door, taking another drag of the cigarette. "Come on, sugar," he pleaded. "How about a kiss for the road?"
I pushed my fingers lightly against his chest and then turned them over, as if to examine the nails. "Oh, ick. Don't let me down, Nick," I smirked. "You're a lawyer. You're not supposed to have feelings." We both knew the game. Maybe I'd kiss him, maybe I wouldn't. Either way, he'd walk away wanting more. That was the fun of it.
He dropped the arm to my waist, pulling me in to him. "I don't, but I know a good tort when I see one." I exhaled a long, smooth plume of smoke as he slid the other arm around me. The sound of bongos floated onto the balcony and I turned my face toward it briefly before deciding to let Nick win, just this once. Even without lips, his open mouth on mine was hungry when I turned back.
We both whirled at the same instant to see two of my least favorite people: Manny Calavera and Rubacava's most ridiculous pet of the bourgeoisie, that idiotic souvenier picture girl. Clad in fishnets, a truly inane mod-style minidress, and a two-foot-tall foam skyscraper hat, she was capable of garnering far more attention than almost anything in the Blue Casket except my poetry readings. Hence the reason I usually preferred that she stay on Calavera's end of town--even Max's clientele was a little too highbrow for her. I was about to open my mouth again to tell her to remove her hideous wardrobe--with her in it--from the premesis when I noticed the camera leveled in her hands. Her subject was clear: she'd just taken a picture of me in a slightly compromising position with my boyfriend's lawyer.
At the corner of my field of vision, I saw Nick's eye sockets widen, then narrow as the tramp sprinted toward the door of the club. "Hey!" he yelled, starting after her, but she was far too quick for him. Rage and fear suffused his skull as he turned back to face me. "If Maximino sees that, we're going to end up in matching terra-cotta pots!"
I shot him a silky smile and waved my cigarette holder in a gesture of dismissal. "Don't be silly," I breathed. "Max wouldn't hurt me. He loves me."
A low growl rose from his throat as he started for the door, fists clenched. I had to laugh again; it'd be interesting to see how he'd manage to scrape himself out of this one. Either way, he was in far hotter water than I--Max had always been a dear about ignoring my little indiscretions, and so I wasn't particularly worried about the latest.
I waited until Nick had slammed my extra-thick industrial steel doors behind him before turning to Calavera. "Manny!" I cried breathily. "At last, we're alone. Tell me, how are the bourgeoisie?"
Manuel Calavera was the owner of a rival club across town for the upscale set--unimaginatively named "the Calavera Cafe" and sporting as its distinctive feature a massive neon cactus. The place had originally been an automat before Calavera had showed up and started working first shift as a mop boy. Within months the owner had been sprouted and the former flunkie was directing the placement of roulette tables. Obviously, no one could ever prove Calavera had anything to do with it, and he probably didn't: he and Max had gotten pretty cozy pretty quickly.
Ahh, Max. Darling Max. Such a pushover. My boyfriend Maximino was the owner of the real hotspot in Rubacava: the Feline Meadows cat track. This endeavor made him the wealthiest, and therefore the most desireable, man in the Eighth Underworld. He had actually funded my own little foray into the night life, paying for the construction and decoration and all the other tedious little details of the Blue Casket not long after I'd first arrived in the city. After that, of course, I'd gotten to know him a little better.
But Max's girth is almost as big as his wallet, and one alliance isn't enough to secure a position of any significant power. My association with Nick could be partially attributed to this, but only partially: the man was shrewd and vicious enough to be a formidable sparring partner, in the bedroom and elsewhere.
He was, of course, no match for me.
I didn't really like Manny Calavera and he knew it, but we generally avoided stepping on each others' toes. I was keenly aware of the fact that if the balance of power in Rubacava shifted from Max to Calavera, my loyalties would have to shift as well. That was the way the game was played in this town.
"Fine," he responded, coming forward from the railing and stopping at my door. He looked uncomfortable. I leaned in against him, exhaling slow streams of smoke. "How's Max?" he asked pointedly.
I snorted. "Oh, Gramps, don't start."
"What are you doing with a snake like Nick?"
I quirked an eyebrow at him. "I'd lay it on ya, Manny, but, ah, I don't think you'd get it."
"Messing around with your boyfriend's lawyer is pretty dangerous," he warned in a tone of voice that sent me waiting with baited breath for him to shake his finger at me as if I were a child instead of a dead poet.
"Oh, maybe I was wrong. You do get it." I gave him my best indulgent smile and started thinking about easing past to work the rest of the club. The hep cats were still waiting for my nightly appearance.
He ignored that one and changed the subject, something that appeared to be a frequent habit of his when dealing with me. "I'm a little worried about Lola..."
It took me a few seconds to place the name Lola. Oh, yes, that picture girl. The one that was in love with Maximino--ahh, blackmail. That would explain why she'd been lurking outside my doorway waiting for me to come out with Nick. What did the silly girl expect to do, go bang on Max's door with pictures in hand and convince him to leave me for her? Somehow I doubted she'd get that far, if Nick Virago was still packing. And Nick Virago was always packing.
Calavera was waiting for an answer, so I gave him one. "That's because she's doomed, Manny. She fell in love with Maximino! That's the one mistake I never made."
"Do you think Nick would hurt her?"
"Only if he finds her, and trust me--he's not good at finding things." I said it with the wink in my voice and had to chuckle to myself when he grimaced even more than a skull usually does and started rummaging around in his jacket pocket. He took his hand out with a pack of cigarettes in it, but he was so offset that he ended up dropping several tiny scrolls of paper.
Normally I wouldn't have bothered to pick them up, but I was curious--perhaps Calavera was an amateur poet--so I bent and plucked them off the ground. They looked like letters, scrawled in a tight, angular hand, and they were signed 'Salvador Limones.'
"What are these? Who is Salvador Limones?" I asked, holding one of them up.
Calavera practically snatched them all back. "Olivia," he chided me in what he apparently thought was a confident-sounding voice, "What kind of revolutionary are you?"
"Who said I was a revolutionary?" I asked. "I'm more interested in Sal Paradise than Sal Limones." A revolutionary? Calavera? I didn't know he had it in him, and that intrigued me. "Still," I amended, "I should study up. It could impress the customers."
"Mmm," he replied noncommittally.
Time to change the subject. "So," I continued smoothly, "tonight makes a year since you first made the scene around here; am I right?" And how many years since I had?
"Yep," he replied. He sounded glum for a moment, then recovered and got a little of the edge back. "Maybe after a year, it's time to expand. You know, I'm thinking of buying this place."
"Really." I laughed and dragged on the cancer stick, flashing him a brilliantly feral smile. "I thought about buying yours for a while. But then I just decided to ask my boyfriend Max to buy it for me."
If he'd had eyes, he would have rolled them. "I'm kidding, Olivia. You can have it. I'm leaving town."
"Manny!" I exclaimed. "You sound so exciting all of a sudden. Why are you leaving town?"
He posed in an apparent attempt to look tough. "Johnny Law, baby. You see, I'm a grifter. I'm bad news."
"Yeah, right. You're running after that ghost chick everyone says you're still so uptight about." I didn't need to ask if I was right; the way he stiffened and furrowed his eye sockets was all the confirmation I needed. "Well, I have a poem I wrote just for you. Pay attention, because it's pretty short. Here it goes: Chu-uh-uh-uhuhuhuuuuumm-P." The "U" sound turned into an orgasmic gasp, the "M" sound a low laugh; I spat the "P" at him through pursed lips, exhaling smoke.
Calavera brightened. "Hey, that reminds me. I wanna read a poem."
He looked like he was trying to toy with me, but this was my turf. I laughed. "Knock yourself out, daddy-o. This place needs a little life."
He strutted over to the stage and gripped the mic in both hands. "I'd like to read a poem," he announced. This was too good to miss; I leaned against the railing of the little balcony and watched as the crowd hissed at the fat cat.
"Wake," he stammered. "Can it be yesterday? Oneness." He was trying to intone the words, but he was nervous and his pitch was actually rising instead of falling. The man was a lost cause. "I am not dead." I groaned. More existentialism. "And tomorrow? ...bones...bones... bones... The end," he announced immediately. My head was almost literally beginning to ache from the sheer pathos of it all. The poem itself might have been passable, but the delivery was ridiculous.
Apparently the beats in the club were of the same opinion as I, because there was a universal hiss and the chastened poet sulked all the way back to my balcony. "Well, I thought it was good," he defended himself before I could get a word in.
"Manny," I laughed throatily, tapping his chest, "let me show you what this crowd is used to." In the next instant, I was swishing my way down the steps and to the stage. Every skull in the club swiveled toward me.
"Good evening, cats and kits," I greeted them all softly. "The poem I'm about to recite is called 'Dying Dawn,' and it's fresh from the oven--it was composed just a few moments ago. I hope you all enjoy it."
I took a long drag on my cigarette and let a slow smile spread across my face, standing silently for a moment as I let the intro sink in. "Wake!" I cried suddenly, and half the club jumped in unison. "Can it be...yesterday? Oneness..." I extended the hand with the cigarette holder and gazed off into the distance--straight at Calavera, whose jaw was dropped impressively far. I let just a hint of breaking creep into my voice as I moaned, "I am not dead. And tomorrow?" Jak's hands landed hard in a roll on the bongos, and I let the sound die away completely before I whispered, "...bones...bones...bones..."
There was another second or two of dead silence before the snaps began. The sound swelled and filled the club in the same way thunderous applause fills an entire theatre. Satisfied, I made my way back to the door to my apartment, where a thunderstruck Calavera was still gaping at me.
"Hey, you stole my poem!" he wailed.
I set one hand on my hip and smiled at him. "Consider it an homage."
His ego fizzled out and died almost visibly, like a balloon when the air is slowly being relased from its latex prison. "Well, catch ya later, hep chick," he eventually tossed over his shoulder as he slunk toward the door. I had a feeling he wouldn't be eager to return any time soon.
"Keep practicing that lingo, Man, you'll get it," I called after him, already glancing at my watch. It was already almost two AM. I didn't have time for these games. The crowd was the same every night; business wouldn't suffer even if open mic night did, but Max's mood might well.
I swished my own way through the club and pushed the door open through the warm night air. It was time to pay a visit to Feline Meadows.
To be continued...
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