After Joan left, I really started noticing the starlets. I’d remarked on them before, particularly the ones who are always standing at the bus stop near the farmers market on Fairfax, but after she left I saw them everywhere. At first glance, they just came across as crazy old ladies — they wore false eyelashes and turquoise eye shadow and crocheted caps or turbans — but if you looked closer, you could see they were actually very well put together. Their pants and tops matched perfectly; they always wore sunglasses and sometimes carried parasols. They were, in a word, glamorous. I mean, they were crazy, too, but in the same way that everyone else in this town is crazy.
I’d always had a certain respect for those ladies, and, I thought, a sense of the pathos of their existence, but now they bothered me. You could see it from your car, the far-off look in their eyes, focused not on another place nor even on another time, but on another them. It wasn’t that they were ghosts of their former selves— because their former selves had been phantasmagoric, too—they were more like projectors. Stranded by the studio publicity machines when their contracts expired—in the fifties, let’s say, if not before — they’d assumed for themselves the impossible task of beaming their images out into the world. Once you became aware of their existence, you felt them everywhere.
Or at least I did, but perhaps I’m more susceptible to that kind of thing than most. All I know is, the day I stopped researching my dissertation and sat down to write it, the world clutched at me with its long yellow nails and refused to let go. That is to say, I lost all ability to concentrate.
It had begun to pull at me before Joan left —before I’d ever met Joan, in fact —but once she was gone it wouldn’t leave me alone, tapping at my windows during the night, rapping at the door in the early morning, swiping my note cards off the table at midday and depositing them suggestively next to the trash can.
I was living in Silverlake, in an apartment I’d found on short notice after Joan left and I could no longer pay the rent on our old place. I’d taken over the lease from a guy I knew named Virgil, an antique dealer, which in L.A. means someone who sells furniture manufactured in the fifties and sixties (nineteen fifties and sixties). At one time he’d been an English graduate student like me, but he’d decided early on that he preferred handling fetishes to writing about them.
Virgil had a certain Buddy Holly quality to him, a cool squareness I’d always found appealing, and now that he was leaving L.A. for Houston, I was sorry we hadn’t been better friends. I used to stop into his store over on La Brea every once in a while, although I only ever bought one thing from him—a kitchen set Joan made me get because, as she pointed out quite correctly, if she ever left me I’d have nothing.
The two of us would hang around chatting about movies and furniture until some art director would show up and Virgil had to go make a $10,000 sale. Movie people would pay any price for any item, as long as it had the right look. He hated to sell to them, though, because none of them showed any reverence for the objects themselves. They reserved it all for Virgil, the man you could always go to in a pinch.
His own apartment was sleekly outfitted with Eames chairs and kidney tables, low-backed sofas and fans. Fans were his true passion.
“A couple weeks ago I picked up a whole bunch at the Rose Bowl flea market,” he told me gleefully, the night I came to check out the apartment. “And Houston’s where it’s at for fans.”
“Because Houston’s hot and muggy,” I pointed out. “I’ll bet hell’s where it’s at for fans, too.”
Virgil smiled ruefully and I felt ashamed of myself. At least he was following his desire.
In the silence that followed I shivered in the breeze from Virgil’s fans — the 14 of them that were plugged in and operating. When I first arrived, it had been more of a gale, and I’d had trouble getting through the front door. Virgil ran around switching all the fans to LO, until it was safe for me to enter. Now they whirled calmly, purposefully, blowing him inexorably east. I found myself wishing I had a passion that blew me somewhere, in one direction or another.
“What’s the big deal about fans, anyway?” I ventured to ask, now that he was leaving.
He looked around the room.
“Fans are good company,” he said, pointing to a dull green metal one. “Look at that face.”
I nodded in a show of understanding, but it just looked like a fan to me.
After Virgil left town with his furniture and his fans, the apartment turned out to be nothing special — two square rooms, one bigger, one smaller, a kitchenette and a bathroomette. And it continued to be nothing special, because it was only meant to be temporary, until Joan came back or I finished my dissertation, whichever came first.
Every morning I busied myself shuffling note cards—spreading them out in various configurations, then smushing them back together—just as I’d been doing for the past five months. A cup of Ramen noodles for lunch, and then back to shuffling.
In the late afternoon I usually took a walk around the neighborhood to clear my head—not writing makes me jumpy and febrile, as does writing. In the sepia-toned light, I’d make my way into the Silverlake hills, up Micheltorena all the way to the top, where there was a panoramic view of the taquerias and pupuserias and auto body shops lining Sunset Boulevard. From that far away, you didn’t see any people, only signs and cars and the frozen surf of barbed wire cresting the chain-link fences.
It was only up there, really, that I felt the urge to write, and, of course, up there I didn’t have my computer with me. I’d try to sustain the feeling all the way down the hill, but inevitably it vanished the moment I sat down at the keyboard. I’d sit there far into the night, typing in the occasional word just to break up the silence and then erasing it, but the feeling wouldn’t reappear.
One afternoon I was at the high end of Micheltorena, attempting to summon my powers of concentration back from wherever they’d gone, when I spotted something squatting on the sidewalk a block or so downhill from me. From far away, it looked like a little plaster gargoyle, the ones people put all around their homes and gardens nowadays, without ever really looking at them, I think, because if they did they would see they are truly disturbing. Gargoyles were an early security system, designed to scare demons away from medieval cathedrals. They were never intended to round out a frog pond.
There was a lot of variety in the original gargoyles, but the new ones seem to be made from only three molds: malevolently grinning, writhing in agony, or terribly sad. This one was terribly sad.
I felt an immediate identification.
I started to walk toward it, and as I got closer, it got up and started walking toward me. A moment of panic, and then I realized it wasn’t a gargoyle, but a little dog so grizzled with age it looked as if it were made of stone. On closer inspection it turned out to be a pug, one of those miniature Chinese dogs with the smashed-in faces, the kind the emperors kept. And it had come to me, across continents and dynasties, to be rescued.
I bent down and held out my hand with the fingers curled in against the palm. The dog lapped at it feebly with her wide pink tongue. I looked down the hill to see if there was anyone huffing and puffing along after her—it was a pretty steep incline—but there was no one. Nor was there any answer when I called out, “Anyone lose a pug?” My voice ricocheted foolishly off the concrete walls of the surrounding apartment buildings.
I was contemplating leaving her there —I had to get back to work, after all—when I remembered a telephone pole at the bottom of the hill with all kinds of lost-dog-and-cat signs stapled to it. She seemed perfectly happy to follow me there. Hers was half-hidden under a big glossy flyer with fancy computer graphics offering a $300 reward for Brownie the chocolate Lab: a water-stained index card that looked like it had been out there forever; in spidery handwriting, it read, LOST PUG. Josephine. Under that were directions to her house, which was five blocks away.
I looked down and murmured, “Josephine?”
Josephine looked up at me and her bulging eyes filled with tears.
“It’s O.K., Josephine,” I said, squatting down to give her a nervous pat on her Softball of a skull. “You’re home now.”
Josephine heaved a great sigh and lay down on the sidewalk, fat little legs sticking straight out in front of her.
“Not yet,” I shrieked. “Just a little further.”
She lifted her head off the pavement and gave me another liquid glance. Obviously, she had traveled a great distance and was too weak to drag herself the last five blocks home.
So I picked her up and, cradling her compact but not exactly featherweight body in my arms, made my way to her house. After two blocks she started wheezing, and I ran the rest of the way. By the time we got there, we were both wheezing, and I stopped to catch my breath.
Josephine’s house was one of those Tudor affairs, white stucco with black wood trim, two turrets on either side of the heavy wooden front door and a swirly shingled roof—like a little fairy castle. It hadn’t been looked after for some time, though; the paint was peeling off the window frames and the lawn was full of foxtails. I stepped onto the porch and rang the bell.
I’d rung several times when somebody finally opened the door a few inches and peered out. I shaded my eyes with one hand and peered in.
“Uhmm, I think I’ve got your dog here,” I stammered. I still couldn’t see who it was.
“That’s right, Josephine.”
The door opened all the way to reveal a handsome old man in a powder-blue three-piece suit.
He stepped out onto the porch.
“Ah, Josephine!” the old man said softly.
I tried to put Josephine down, but she declined to dismount.
The old man’s powder-blue eyes were bright with tears.
“Thank you, Miss. Thank you so much. I’m sorry for your trouble.”
I started to choke up. It had been a long time since anyone had appreciated me like that.
I cast about for something to say.
“Has she been gone long?”
The old man nodded mournfully.
“Since eight o’clock this morning. She probably went over to my ex-wife’s around the corner. She puts out chicken livers for her.”
He leaned in close to Josephine, and she licked at the spider veins in his nose. I smelled alcohol.
“Oh! How silly of me! I —I thought…” I stammered.
The old man held up his hand.
“Every time she goes,” he gestured helplessly out into the world, “I’m not sure she’s coming back.”
I nodded dumbly and set Josephine down on the porch, where she sat gazing myopically at the old man’s knees. He pulled out a neatly-pressed handkerchief and wiped his eyes. He looked down at Josephine and they filled again.
Then, suddenly, he staggered back.
“The light!” he cried out sharply.
He shielded his eyes dramatically with one arm, as if I were standing on his porch in a full coat of shining armor. I looked down and saw my watch was reflecting the last rays of the dying sun directly into his eyes. It was truly a beautiful moment.
For the first time in months, I walked home feeling proud of myself.
When I met Joan, I’d already been not writing for a couple of months, so none of it was her fault. We met in a laundromat after I’d been bullied out of my apartment for the evening by my then-roommate, Ramona, a musicology grad student who was writing her dissertation on Madonna’s appropriations of the operatic form.
After dinner Ramona had let slip that she was hosting a Madonna videothon for her fellow musicologists in ten minutes and she hoped I didn’t mind. Of course, she knew very well I hated her fellow musicologists. They all wore cat’s-eye glasses and had melodic laughs and left red-lipstick smudges on our wine glasses that didn’t come off for weeks.
I scooped up my laundry and headed for the door.
“Wait!” Ramona appeared in the hallway, holding a bag of her own laundry.
“Could you do these, too?” she asked, cocking her head to one side kittenishly. A sturdy girl—more of a fisher-cat than a kitten, really — Ramona is nonetheless a great believer in the power of feminine wiles. While I usually hesitated to feed into that particular power trip of hers, that night I grabbed the bag eagerly.
Flushed with victory, she retired to her room to don a black-and-gold bustier.
In the end it was lucky for me I had brought her laundry along, because I just happened to be putting a loud handful of Victoria’s Secret thongs into the washing machine, when Joan suddenly materialized at the machine next to me and I felt compelled to say something.
“These aren’t mine,” I said.
Joan looked up in surprise.
“O.K.,” she said.
As I’d suspected from her profile, she was very pretty, if somewhat over-refined, with large, fluttering dark eyes, a thin nose with flared nostrils, and a long, taut neck.
“They’re my roommate’s,” I blundered on, fully aware of how crazy I must sound. “I could never wear these things.”
“I see,” Joan said, but she didn’t move away. Instead, she turned around, leaned back against her washing machine and lit a cigarette.
Joan has an uncanny ability for making people talk. It isn’t that she’s especially nurturing, although she’s always willing to listen. No, it’s something about the cadences of her own speech; she’s comfortable with long pauses other people usually feel the need to fill. With Joan, I talked and talked and talked, if only to obliterate all the stupid things I’d already said.
“She’s into Madonna,” I said.
“Still?” she asked.
“It’s kind of sad—Madonna was all the rage when she started writing her dissertation,” I explained. “And you know how long these things take. But she’s doing her best to initiate a Madonna revival, in musicology at any rate. In fact, she’s holding a Madonna videothon in my apartment right now.”
Joan shook her head sympathetically.
“I’m a grad student, too,” I confessed, after a moment.
“And what do you work on?” she asked.
“Joan of Arc,” I said. “Which makes it a little tense around the apartment. Ramona — that’s my roommate —hates Joan of Arc, because she was this big virgin. She’s always screaming, Fiona, the Joan of Arc myth is oppressive to women, Fiona, don’t give in to the madonna/whore complex, Fiona, what do you have against thongs?”
“What do you do?” I asked.
“I’m a student, too,” she said. “Sort of. I’m training to be a psychoanalyst.”
“Do you keep a dream journal?” I asked. “I had a friend who did that.”
“It’s really a bust, though,” she sighed. “My dreams are so obvious. Textbook. It feels like I’m cheating.”
“Mine are obvious, too,” I said. “They’re all about Joan of Arc.”
Joan looked at my mouth.
“I’d like to analyze you,” she said softly, and I felt my stomach turn over.
“I mean, I can’t,” she said, turning away. “But I’d like to.”
“What’s your name?” I asked, touching her arm shyly.
“You’ll never believe it,” she said, turning back.
I was very happy with Joan. For one thing, she allowed me to write in peace. She never turned on me —unlike Ramona, who moved out when she was in the final stage of her dissertation because she’d started having nightmares where I stole it and filed it myself.
No, the thing that got to Joan was when I stopped dreaming. After Ramona moved out and she moved in, we used to begin every day by discussing our dreams. Joan would never tell me what they meant; she said what’s important about dreams is not what they “mean,” but what they tell us about our desires. But even so, I knew when I’d had a good one, because she’d grab the tips of my fingers and squeeze them ever so slightly, and the corners of her mouth would twitch unprofessionally, as if she were holding back a laugh.
Joan spent her nights piloting an airplane without knowing how to, stitching up a wound with yarn instead of thread — the standard anxiety dreams of the burgeoning professional. I spent mine berating a tiny Joan of Arc, no bigger than my finger, for having strangled Ramona’s cat with a Wonderbra, or climbing up the armor-plated leg of a leviathan La Pucelle, trying to reach her ear to tell her the English were on the move, but always sliding off just as I reached her massive, rounded knee.
Then, without any warning, I stopped dreaming, and everything fell apart. At first, I tried making dreams up, just to keep the ritual going, but Joan caught on right away and glumly told me not to bother. She started urging me to go to sleep earlier, get up later—she even offered to move out again, but I told her I couldn’t sleep, let alone dream, without her, and she relented.
A couple weeks or so after I stopped dreaming, I awoke in the middle of the night to find Joan scribbling furiously in her journal. I gazed fondly at her neurotic profile. Not a single image lingered in my own head.
She stopped writing and turned around.
“What was yours?” she asked breathlessly, pencil poised.
“No dreams,” I said cheerfully, holding my hand out to her.
Joan was horrified.
“You didn’t dream again?” she howled.
“But I’m perfectly happy,” I protested. “You’ve fulfilled my every desire.”
“That’s not how it works,” she said. “You’re turning into a vegetable.”
She started pacing around the room in her skimpy little Anna Freud T-shirt, shaking her head and mumbling to herself.
“Come back to bed, you’re shivering,” I said, grabbing her hand.
“Why do I need to dream?” I murmured, once I’d gotten her to lie down again. “I’ve got the real Joan right here.”
She hugged me fiercely then, and kissed me under the chin, but in the morning when I woke up she was packing her things.
“I’m sorry,” she said solemnly, when I asked her what she was doing, “but I just can’t be a party to this.”
Like her namesake, Joan is a woman of great principle. Of course, I can’t say I agree with all of the sacrifices she’s made.
Two days after rescuing Josephine, I looked out the window and spotted a duck sitting in the middle of the intersection in front of my apartment building, honking at an orange cat with no tail. It was early on a Sunday morning, and, as at every other time of day in L.A., there wasn’t a soul around.
With a sense of mission that was new to me, I rushed downstairs and lunged at the cat to scare it away and then lunged at the duck to get it out of the intersection. The cat slipped away, but the duck stayed put, honking at me now.
“Is that your duck?” a voice called from up above.
I looked up and spotted a pair of naked pectorals in the window.
“No,” I called back. “What do you think I should do?”
“I’ll call Animal Regulation,” the pectorals offered. I was pretty sure they belonged to Frank, the guy who lived across the hall from me.
The duck had stopped honking by then and had folded its wings back under itself. Sitting perfectly still like that, it looked like a decoy.
Frank joined me a few minutes later, fully dressed — as fully dressed as Frank ever gets. He’s one of those gay men who perfected his look in the late seventies—the mustache and the white jeans and the muscle T’s —and has made little or no alteration to it since. By his own admission he was quite the disco devotee back then, but now he’s a member of the voluntary simplicity movement. I’m not sure what that means for Frank, though, since he still drives a white Cadillac limo that takes up two and a half parking spaces.
“I called,” he said. “But I think they’re going to be a while. Maybe we could scare it out of the road at least.”
“Maybe the two of us could,” I said doubtfully. “It wasn’t scared of me.”
“Did you try this?” Frank asked, bending over slightly and flapping his arms. The duck stepped sideways and then settled back down.
Frank and I moved in on it, flapping our arms. It moved another step sideways, then two more, and then finally flapped its wings and landed on the sidewalk.
“I’m impressed,” I said to Frank. “How’d you know to do that?”
“Did you see the movie about the geese that imprinted onto that little girl?” he said.
I shook my head.
“You should rent it,” he said. “I think it would really speak to you.”
“I think it’s probably O.K. here,” I said, pointing to the duck. “Want some coffee? We can keep an eye on it from the window.”
Frank graciously acceded to a cup of sludgy coffee in my apartment. I caught him looking around disapprovingly at the foam-rubber sofa I’d dragged in off the street, the futon on the floor, the bare walls. The only nice thing in the whole apartment was the kitchen set I’d bought from Virgil, which was in the living room because it didn’t fit in the kitchen: a flecked-red Formica table and four chrome chairs with licorice-red seats.
“Who needs earthly possessions, huh?” I said, thinking to score some points.
Frank shook his head and wandered over to the window.
“Hey, the duck’s gone,” he said mildly.
“It is?” I gasped.
I ran downstairs. The duck was gone. If not for an iridescent green feather floating around in the intersection, it might never have been there at all.
Frank came down and joined the search, peering behind trashcans and searching the St. Augustine grass by the side of the road. No duck.
“I guess I better go call Animal Regulation and tell them not to come,” I said, crestfallen.
“Don’t bother,” Frank waved his hand. “They never show up anyway.”
“Don’t you care what happens to that duck?” I asked him.
“Maybe it flew away,” he said, looking up at the sky.
I looked over at him in annoyance. Sometimes Frank was a little too voluntarily simple.
“But if it could fly away, why didn’t it fly away before?” I asked.
“So maybe somebody kidnapped it,” he shrugged, turning to go back upstairs. “But it’s definitely out of here. Me, too — I’ve got to get to the gym before I lose my motivation.”
I sat down on the curb, feeling very alone. What kind of world is it when a duck gets kidnapped in broad daylight and nobody gives a damn?
“Hey,” Frank tapped me on the shoulder after a moment. “Maybe you should try Little Darlins.”
“What’s that?” I said, a little hostilely. I thought he’d already gone back inside.
“It’s a private rescue operation,” he said. “They go out into the Los Angeles National Forest and rescue dogs that people have abandoned there. A friend of mine used to do it. He really got into it.”
“Would they come out and look for the duck?” I asked, confused.
“No, no,” Frank said, laughing. “Do it for you.”
The next morning I drove over to campus to meet with Professor Spires. My plan was to go in and confess all.
“Not a word?” she asked, wonderingly. “You haven’t written a word?”
I shook my head, feeling the immense calm of absolute disaster. I always felt calm in Professor Spires’s office, which she’d painted the brilliant greens and blues of a medieval manuscript, but that day I was almost eerily composed.
“It’s been six months, Fiona,” she reminded me. “And your fellowship runs out at the end of this year.”
Her mousy little face, under its froth of frizzy orange hair, was pinched and worried. Professor Spires was only an assistant professor, and rumor had it she wasn’t going to get tenure: she devoted too much time to her students and too little time to her own scholarship. I loved Professor Spires and felt guilty for contributing to her certain demise. Because she was only an assistant professor, I hadn’t been able to get her as my dissertation chair – he was a gruff, gray-bearded full professor who wrote on Mark Twain—but it made no difference to me. I never went to see him. I always came to see her.
What I really wanted to tell Professor Spires about was the animals I’d been rescuing and almost rescuing, but then I remembered our last meeting, largely taken up by a description of a starlet I’d encountered on the way to campus. What I’d really wanted to tell Professor Spires at that meeting was that Joan had left me the day before, but since I’d never told her that Joan had moved in with me or that I’d ever met Joan to begin with, it would have been painfully anticlimactic. So instead I went on and on about the starlet, who’d given me the finger when I turned into the crosswalk as she was wafting across Fairfax Avenue.
Professor Spires had smiled indulgently throughout the entire story, waiting for me to relate it to my dissertation somehow. But, when I inevitably proved unable to do so, the smile abruptly disappeared.
I shuddered at the memory. I couldn’t risk that again.
“Well,” she sighed. “Let’s see: You’re working on images of Joan of Arc in Anglo-American literature, right?”
“And have you completed your research?” she said. “Have you got all your sources lined up?”
I nodded. I did have all my sources lined up. There was Shakespeare’s Joan, the “wicked and vile strumpet” of Henry VI, Part One, mirror opposite of Twain’s Joan, “a vision of young bloom and beauty and grace, and such an incarnation of pluck and life and go!” Then there was G. B. Shaw’s Joan, the “genius,” a “pure upstart,” who refused to accept “the specific woman’s lot,” and Vita Sackville-West’s “tough and sturdy Joan,” who through sheer force of personality managed “to inspire disheartened men and to bend reluctant princes to her will.” I knew all their Joans inside and out; I knew how they contradicted one another, where they agreed —I knew all that and still I could not begin.
“So what do you think the problem is?” Professor Spires asked.
I stared into my lap for a long moment.
“I can’t seem to get to the real Joan,” I whispered finally.
Professor Spires didn’t appear to have heard me. I looked up and caught her peeking at her watch, a cheap little drugstore bracelet-watch that looked adorable on her pale, freckled wrist. The gold had rubbed off in places on the wristband, exposing steel.
“I’m sorry, Fiona,” she said, in her wavering New England spinster’s voice. “Next time you should call before you come and I can schedule a nice big block of time for you. But I’ve got a meeting right now.”
She looked nervous, and I felt a terrible pang. It was probably a tenure meeting.
“You’re too good for this place,” I wanted to tell her, but I knew it wasn’t what she wanted to hear.
Little Darlins Animal Rescue Mission was located in an unprepossessing beige bungalow on a flat brown street in Glendale, a depressed and depressing little city on the outskirts of L.A. It appeared to be one of the many institutions and businesses in Southern California that begin in someone’s home and never leave it. I hesitated to just walk inside, but since no one answered my knock, and the door was open and the screen door unlocked, I did.
I entered a large, bare room lined with folding chairs and tables with magazines on them, as at a vet or a mini-mall dentist. There was a bar at one end, with a telephone on it.
Behind the bar, on a high bar stool, sat a tiny old woman, a starlet if ever there was one. She wore violet eye shadow and her hair radiated out from her scalp like spun gold. She was filing her nails.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hello,” she said sweetly. “I’m Mary. Did you lose someone, dear?”
I hesitated, not sure what she meant.
“I — I’m here about volunteering?” I said.
“Oh,” she said, disappointed. “You looked like you’d lost someone.”
“I’ve been doing it on my own,” I said, eagerly approaching the bar. “You know, rescuing animals. But I feel I need to get more organized about it, a little more systematized, because…”
“That’s fine,” she interrupted, pointing to a folding chair at the opposite end of the room. “Have a seat.”
I sat down in the chair she’d pointed out and waited. I assumed I was merely the first volunteer to arrive, and the others would soon follow. But an hour passed, punctuated only by the pop of Mary’s gum and the whisper of her nail file, and nobody else showed up.
Afraid to pick up a magazine for fear of seeming uncommitted, I amused myself by reading the various poems tacked up on the bulletin board opposite me, all penned in the same shaky hand. One in particular caught my eye, the ballad of “Knickers,” whose back legs were paralyzed when he was rescued, but who’d apparently been restored to full mobility with the help of a two-wheeled cart.
I stopped reading and strained my ears to catch the sound of wheels, but the place was eerily quiet.
“Is Knickers around today?” I called out to Mary.
She looked up briefly from filing her nails.
“We don’t have animals here anymore,” she said. “We’re broke. Dark—she’s the one who started this place — gave every last red cent we had to her 22-year-old surfer-boyfriend. She’s my age, mind you.”
“Oh, how terrible!” I cried. “What happened to Knickers?”
“Went to the pound,” she answered shortly. “Got put to sleep.”
“He sounded like such a nice dog,” I murmured.
“Dark wrote all those poems,” Mary said, jabbing her nail file toward the bulletin board. “All she ever did was write poems. Me and Alex did all the work.”
“What a shame,” I commiserated.
Mary narrowed her eyes.
“What do you do?” she said, suspiciously. “You seem kind of young to be retired.”
“I … actually, I’m a student,” I responded.
“Oh yeah?” she asked, without interest. “Having some trouble getting through?”
“A graduate student,” I said. “In English.”
Mary stopped filing her nails and appeared to be ruminating on something.
“You like those poems?” she said after a moment.
“W-e-e-11,” I said, uncertain how to proceed. “They do capture a certain experience. It’s really a genre unto itself, animal-rescue poetry.”
“Dark says she’s going to get them published in a book,” Mary said. “And then we’ll have the money to start taking in strays again.”
“So your operation is still running?” I asked.
“It’s still running,” Mary shrugged. “But all we do now is go feed the dogs in the forest. We used to bring them back and try to find them homes. Now they just have to stay out there.”
Another woman walked through the screen door and dumped an army-issue carryall onto the floor in front of me.
“Well, finally,” Mary called out. She hopped down off her bar stool and came over.
“Alex,” she said, pointing at me, “This is a volunteer. She’s a communications major.”
“Fiona,” I said. “And I’m actually a doctoral candidate in English.”
“A volunteer,” Alex said, smiling. “We haven’t had one of those in a while.”
She appeared to be around Mary’s age, but she was unusually tall for a woman that old. In fact, she was quite statuesque, with an aquiline nose and silver hair that sprang into tight curls at her temples. I noticed with some trepidation that she was wearing combat boots and cargo pants and a Desert Storm flak jacket.
Now that I saw her up close, Mary appeared to be wearing the “fashion” version of the same outfit; that is to say, she had on a camouflage jacket and lace-up boots, too, but her jacket was silk and her boots were patent leather.
“Fiona wants to come out to the forest,” Mary said.
“O.K., let’s do it,” Alex said, picking up the carryall again. I made fluttering attempts to help her sling it over her shoulder, which she ignored.
I followed the two of them out to the parking lot, where a purple van adorned with aerosol portraits of nubile young women awaited us.
“My grandson’s,” Alex muttered, and Mary winked.
“We’ll all sit up here,” she said, patting the seat beside her.
There were no seats in the back of the van, so I slid in next to Mary, wondering what I was getting myself into.
“Too bad you’re not a writer,” Mary said to me as we screeched out of the parking lot. Despite her impressive physique, Alex had a senior citizen’s nauseating tendency to drive fast, then slow, then fast, then slow. I started to feel sick. “You could help us put that poetry book together.”
“Actually, I am writing something right now,” I blurted, rolling down the window.
Mary raised her spun-gold eyebrows.
“Yeah?” she said. “What’s it about?”
“Joan of Arc,” I said.
“No joke?” Mary said. “My agent put me up for that role, but they said I was too short.”
“Well, you know,” I said, pleased to show off my knowledge. “In the movies she’s always made out to be tall and blonde and blue-eyed, but the real Joan was actually small and dark.”
“I heard she was kind of plain,” Alex interjected.
“Now, wait a minute,” Mary protested. “I was never plain.”
“Nobody knows exactly what she really looked like, because no paintings were ever commissioned of her while she was alive,” I said. “It’s Vita Sackville-West’s theory that Joan of Arc was plain, but that’s because it was the only explanation she could come up with for why men didn’t want to sleep with her and women adored her.”
“You know, you look a little bit like the gal who did end up playing her,” Mary said. “Not Ingrid Bergman, the other one.”
“Jean Seberg?” I said gratefully.
“Yeah, that’s the one,” Mary said. “The blonde with the short hair. She had fat ankles, you know.”
“Mary,” Alex admonished her, without taking her eyes off the road.
“Alex thinks I’m vicious,” Mary said. “But she was never scratching with the chickens the way I was.”
She turned to me.
“Alexandra Bailey, you ever heard of her?” she asked accusingly.
I shook my head. “But I’m hopeless with movie stars.”
“I wasn’t a big star,” Alex leaned forward to explain. The van swerved into the next lane and back again. “B movies, mostly.”
“Sunrise Over Topeka?” Mary asked. “A Mother’s Love?”
I shook my head again.
“She got all the good roles —that was in the Fifties, when hourglass figures were in,” she said. “Me, I should’ve been born in the Twenties.”
“You were born in the Twenties,” Alex reminded her.
“I mean, I should’ve been in my twenties in the Twenties,” Mary said.
“I would’ve liked to play Joan of Arc,” Alex said. “A woman of action.”
“What a way to go though, huh?” Mary said. “Up in smoke. That part was real, wasn’t it?”
“That part was real,” I assured her.
“Now that’s a tough scene,” Mary said, shaking her head. “Don’t know how I would’ve played it.”
An hour and a half later, we pulled up to the first feeding station, and my two companions switched into what can only be described as commando mode, jumping spryly down out of the van and jogging over to the feeding station, where Alex unzipped the carryall to reveal a hefty supply of dog-food cans. Whipping a can opener out of one of the pockets in her cargo pants, she proceeded to open the cans up and hand them to Mary, who dumped them out onto tarps laid out inside a three-walled Plexiglas structure that looked like a bus shelter.
“Fiona!” Alex called, pointing to the back of the van. “Bring a jug of water over, would you?”
There were several ten-gallon water bottles in the back, and I seized one by the neck, only to discover it was too heavy for me to lift. I stole a look at the old women, but they were chatting with their backs to me. I shoved the jug out of the van with my foot and then got down and dragged it over to the feeding station.
“I think if we all three…” I was starting to say, when Alex picked the jug up, unscrewed the top, and proceeded to empty it into a trough. When she was done, she and Mary motioned for me to follow them back to the van.
We got in and shut the doors. I started to say something about the jug, but they shushed me. The two of them were staring straight ahead, in the direction of the forest. They appeared to be waiting for something.
Almost immediately, the something came, blinking out of the green shadows into the yellow light. Scarcely a minute after we’d shut the van doors, dogs began pouring into the clearing from every direction.
Of course, it wasn’t at all clear to me that they were dogs at first. Some were missing eyes, others paws, others teeth—every last one of them was beggared in some medieval way. Hoary and misshapen, they hobbled and slunk, crab-walked and galloped toward the mounds of food that awaited them.
“Coyotes,” Alex said, when I asked what had happened to them. “Or mountain lions. Scrapes, parasites, hunger, thirst. Life in the wild.”
The ones that struck me most were the silly ones, the poodles and the chows and the Pomeranians, the ones who looked as if they couldn’t have lasted one night on their own, who’d been bred to please an idle preference for soft fur or little faces. I was sure they’d rush to the van when they saw us, sure they would leave food sitting, rather than spend one more night out there away from civilization.
But, I was wrong. They feasted alongside the others, and, when the food was gone, as if signaled from beyond, they slipped into the trees without a backward glance.
There were five feeding stations, and, by the time we were done stocking them all, Mary and Alex were gray with exhaustion. I offered to drive home, and, to my surprise, Alex accepted.
“Will Darla be there when we get back?” I asked, once we were on the freeway.
“Not unless she broke out of Sibyl Brand,” Mary said.
“What’s Sibyl Brand?” I asked.
“Dark’s in the slammer,” Alex said. “Didn’t Mary tell you? She embezzled a whole bunch of money from the organization.”
“Oh, right,” I said. “And they locked her up for that? Isn’t she, you know —elderly?”
“That’s the kicker,” she said. “She’s had so many facelifts the judge didn’t believe her when she said her age. But she’s going to make everything up to us with that book of hers.”
I nodded enthusiastically, saved from further comment, I thought, by our arrival at the shelter.
But Alex stopped me at the door after Mary had gone in.
“Darla’s poems are crap, aren’t they?” she asked matter-of-factly.
“To be honest, there’s not a lot of money in poetry,” I said. “No matter how good it is.”
“They’re crap,” she said, shaking her head. “They don’t get what it’s all about.”
“No,” I agreed. “I don’t think they do.”
“Maybe it’s just as well,” she leaned over and whispered. She had the dead perfect teeth of the elderly. “Because you know what I think? Those dogs out there don’t want to come back.”
Three weeks into volunteering at Little Darlins, I started to write. I called Joan that very night. It was the first time we’d spoken since she left.
“Did I wake you?” I asked. Her voice sounded very far away.
“No,” she said faintly. “I was up.”
“It’s just that I’ve started writing,” I said breathlessly.
“That’s great, honey,” she said. “That’s really wonderful.”
“Do you want to hear about it?” I asked.
There was a pause.
“The thing is,” Joan said, “I don’t think I should be talking to you.”
“What do you mean?” I said. “Are you with somebody else?”
“No, well, sort of,” she said, pausing again.
“I —I wasn’t expecting anything,” I stammered. “I just thought…”
“I’m in analysis,” Joan said.
“Oh,” I said.
“Well, it’s not like it’s terminal, is it?” I asked.
“In a way, it is,” she replied thoughtfully. “Because we’re in the process of deconstructing my whole personality, and, when it’s put back together again, I’m not sure exactly who I’ll be.”
“I see,” I said.
“No, you don’t,” she said. “This isn’t a kiss-off, necessarily.”
“O.K.,” I said doubtfully.
“I miss you, Fiona,” she said, her voice growing stronger. “All the time. It’s just I’m not sure right now who it is that’s missing you. It might not be the real Joan.”
“Does it matter?” I said, my voice dropping to a whisper. “Does it have to be the real Joan?”
“Yes,” she nearly shouted. “You, of all people, should understand that.”
There was a pause. A long pause.
“Well, will you call me?” I asked finally. “I mean, when you’re…”
“I will,” she said, her voice fading as she hung up the receiver. “I promise.”
I’d forgotten to tell her that I’d started dreaming again, too. Well, I’d had a dream—a dream in which Joan of Arc appeared to me in the middle of the Los Angeles National Forest, holding my dissertation. I was annoyed to see she was tall and blonde, just like in the movies, and wearing the standard Hollywood-issue white tunic with the red cross on the front. I’d always prided myself on the historical accuracy of my dream Joans, who were all very sturdy and dark.
I reached for the dissertation, but she held it up out of reach.
“Give it,” I said.
Joan shook her head solemnly, and her cornflower blue eyes filled with tears.
“I release you,” she said, and floated off into the forest, taking my dissertation with her.
“Wait!” I cried out, just before she disappeared into the trees. “What will I write now?”
Joan turned back, and I noticed she was hovering a foot or so above the ground. She kept fading in and out of view, like a hologram.
“I release you,” she mouthed once more.
And I woke up.