Black Dandy proudly presents a new group of international authors who invite us to join them on their unusual journeys.
We’ve assembled writers who dwell in the sublime space between magic realism, surrealism, and the otherwise strange.
Read one of this issue’s fine stories below.
by Mark Jacobs
“You were surprised. A masquerade! And at Cinquefoil, no less. First thing you ask yourself is, why me? How come I got invited?”
“I guess.” Uncomfortable in the presence of power, Pitufo nodded. “Yeah, that’s the way it was.”
Already he was mesmerized, he could not escape the woman’s field of fantastic force. He was being nailed to a cross of his own devising and cursed the moment—he remembered it perfectly; it hit him as he opened the door of the tavern on Fern Avenue in Troy and smelled what turned out to be dead spaghetti—when the fire of curiosity burned through his caution and he decided he would turn up at the party at the Sorley mansion on Bootlegger Hill.
Having found a point of entry—anybody could do that; there were hundreds of ways and holes to get at him; he was the sum of his weaknesses—the woman kept drilling.
“You were flattered. You know who you are, you’re the bottom rung on the ladder. What people wipe their shoes on before they start climbing. So you walk in downstairs thinking holy shit, if I ripped off their masks I’d see the faces of players. Big folks, the ones who keep product moving. From the jungle to the nose, so to speak. Am I right?”
Small at the best of times, Pitufo was shrinking into insignificance. He fought the urge to call her ma’am. He said nothing.
“Yet here you stand, tiny potatoes, rubbing elbows with individuals of that caliber. Be honest, you’re thrilled.”
Pitufo shrugged and looked away. At the fire in the fireplace, which made an evil crackle. The woman was a disturbing presence, reclining on her purple plush chaise before a screen on which Japanese monks sat on Japanese mountains under scant lines suggesting Japanese clouds. Even in the enormous room, which must have been the master bedroom back when Kieran Sorley built Cinquefoil, she was overpowering. She went two fifty, easy, and that tent of a sorceress dress made her look even bigger. Silver stars and ivory moons covered acres of shimmering black fabric. It troubled him to see the relentless ambition with which her massive drooping breasts pushed out twin stars on the bosom of her costume. Was that on purpose? A black sequined mask with arching cat’s eyes hid her face. A silver comb held her dark hair in a bun.
Never mind how she looked, it was the voice that did Pitufo in. The mystery of the mask increased the voice’s power, no doubt of that, but it was a sound that would command him under any circumstances. There were stones in it, big ones the size of a house. And deep water, the memory of poisonous snakes, fateful decisions made as a clock with an invisible face struck twelve.
“A while back,” he told her, “I started thinking of myself as Pitufo. It’s like I forgot my real name.”
What made him say that? He hadn’t even known he was thinking it, yet out tumbled an offering to the queen of the black castle. He was born to disrespect himself.
Coming to the party was a mistake. He knew it twenty minutes after he arrived when a small woman in a fox costume threw her arms around his neck. He loved the feel of her foxy hard tits against his chest, the tickle of her whisper in his ear communicating the summons. Go right on up, Pitufo. There’s somebody important wants to talk to you. Turn left at the head of the stairs, into the south wing. Take the hallway all the way down to the room at the end. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll knock. It was the kind of situation you could turn into an adventure, score a drink at the tavern. If you got out of it.
“Pitufo is your nickname,” said the woman, shifting her bulk on the chaise lounge, settling in to torture him.
“In Spanish it means Smurf.”
She leaned toward him giving off a scent of beadies. Cloves and cinnamon powdered the dry air. He had blown a serious number in the car, driving out. Weed always made him susceptible, sometimes in a good way, and now he fully expected peacocks with golden eyes to emerge from her head, singing oblivion like a hundred sitars. Didn’t happen. She took his hand and pulled him down into a chair next to her. He sensed her great strength submerging him in a sludge of paranoia, the waste product of a lifetime of screwing up.
“I know what your name means,” she said, lowering her voice. “Smurfs are the ones who get caught smuggling loads. If they know what’s good for them they keep their mouths shut. They do their time like good little boys and live to work again.”
Something stubborn in Pitufo would not allow him to let his idea go.
“I want to get back to a place where I use my real name whenever I think about myself. Anyway I never said shit to nobody about anything.”
He was racking his brain, trying to figure out what he might have told Bigfoot that could be coming back on him now.
The woman nodded. She picked up her glass. It was tiny in her big hand. She knocked back her magic potion, then dabbed her lips with a Kleenex through the hole in the mask.
“I know who you are, you’re Leonardo Khadare. Your mother was Mexican. Your father was Albanian. I used to run into Gjergj now and again. He was…unstable. He went around with a knife this big in his belt.”
She held out her hands to show him how big his father’s knife used to be. She was lying, she had to be. Pitufo—Leonardo—had hardly known the man. When he was a kid, his mother almost never said his name. Felisa was bitter, and why shouldn’t she be? Gjergj Khadare had made her pregnant, promised her an American dream, then vanished into thin American air. But Leonardo did not dare call out the woman on the chaise. If she was ninety percent spider, he was one hundred percent fly. She was old, older than his father might be. That didn’t mean she didn’t know him.
Intuition flashed past him on silver wings, and he knew who she was.
The door opened, and the sound of party music rose from downstairs, completing the bass in the soles of his feet. That was how you knew the mansion was enormous. It was like they were in another county, up here in Kieran Sorley’s grandiose bedroom. An eye-patched pirate came in with an armload of firewood. Ahoy, mate, Leonardo wished he could say to him. The thought made him giggle, and the woman glared. She watched the pirate build a triangle of logs on the bed of embers, then sit there squatting on his haunches until the triangle burst into flame. When he left, Leonardo was pretty sure he and the woman exchanged a meaningful glance on the subject of him.
Leonardo knew he was in trouble, knew it with the intimate certainty he knew he would never get a regular job, he would always be a failed outlaw. He wished he hadn’t gotten high, but too late for that. He had to work with the unsteady head currently atop his shoulders. The moment the pirate closed the door he did his best to go on the offensive.
“You’re Mary Margaret Sorley. Your grandfather was the bootlegger that used to live here. He was famous. I heard one time he lit Al Capone’s cigarette for him with a rolled-up hundred-dollar bill.”
“Great-grandfather, if your supposition is correct.”
“Around Troy, people say you got really rich in California, you’re the Wal-Mart of drugs. Low prices and huge selection. You’re living the good life in Los Angeles and never had any reason to come back to Renssaeler County.”
“Kieran Sorley was a mean son of a bitch with a vile tongue. Abusive, they call men like him these days. He used to sit in the back yard shooting sparrows with a twenty two. Bible birds, the ones God kept up in the air just by thinking about them.”
Leonardo told her, “Once in a while on a Sunday my mother used to drive me out here to look at the mansion. She was from Guadalajara. She thought this was how the United States of America was supposed to look.”
Great-granddaughter Sorley nodded her ponderous head. Her jowls quivered.
“A party of this magnitude, a guest list of this nature, any cop with half a brain must be drooling on his nightstick. How many undercover officers you figure are out there on the dance floor, I mean if you had to put a number on it?”
Leonardo had a pretty good idea, now, of what went wrong. He’d been talking with a Troy city cop, the one everybody called Bigfoot. Over near the tavern. He was in a decent mood, on his way to apply for a regular job and thinking he might actually get it, so he gave Bigfoot a present, a piece of information he had picked up the day before. Gave it away for nothing, like a rich man. It had to do with a shipment. One way or another, the shipment must go back to Mary Margaret Sorley, although how she figured out who it was did the talking was beyond him. Bigfoot had no reason to sell him out and wouldn’t if he did.
Another possibility occurred to him. She might be testing him, poking around to see if he would incriminate himself. The thought made him breathe a little easier. Really, it made sense. If he didn’t say anything stupid, he might get out of Cinquefoil in one piece.
“It’s impossible,” he said.
“You can’t tell which ones are the narcs at a costume party.”
“We’re done,” she said. “Go enjoy yourself. You won’t get another invitation.”
What did that mean?
“You want me to bring you up something to eat?”
He could have kicked himself. Only an idiot went out of his way to offer food to a fat woman. Closing the door, he was troubled again by the sight of those pendulous breasts pushing against her sorceress stars.
The smart thing to do was get out. If he left by a side door when nobody was looking, he could make his way off the property and nobody the wiser. But his life was not characterized by intelligent decisions. The pull of the party was strong. If there was a story to be had out of the experience, he wanted it. He longed to be the person on a stool at the Fern Avenue tavern recounting what happened to him on Bootlegger Hill the night everybody was wearing a mask and you couldn’t tell the narcs from the traffickers. A masked waiter went by attached to a silver platter with champagne in flutes. Leonardo snagged two of them. Glasses in both fists, he wandered to the great room, where most of the dancing was going on.
There must be a hundred, a hundred and twenty people at Cinquefoil. The mansion comfortably contained what Leonardo believed were the biggest names in weed, in methamphetamines, in speed and ecstasy and who knew what else in who knew how many states? New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania. Nevada? The vastness of the enterprise, the sheer geographic spread of the business on whose outskirts he was continually hitchhiking, shivered him. How many times in your life were you in on something that exploded your puny idea of how the world worked?
He was humbled and felt lucky. He drank a fluteful of champagne. He drank the second. He scarfed something salty from a tray, something sweet from another. More champagne. Then he was dancing to music he had never heard before. He couldn’t say what kind it was. There was heavy bass in the sound, and words shouted in a strange ungainly language, and piano notes like a row of exclamation points. Guitars wailed and gnashed their electric teeth. The drums came out of Africa and went to the moon. Bootlegger music, that was what it was.
They could not be friends, all these people. Some of them had to be rivals, and their hangers-on. Every so often the players let their guard down. They got together in pretend peace to party. Next week they would have knives at each other’s throats, informants in each other’s organizations, hands in each other’s pockets. Tonight, however, they were dancing to bootlegger music like there was no ugly tomorrow. Heads of organizations, the feet and the heart and liver and every significant body part you could name. And him. He was the only toenail clipping on the premises. What you threw away.
Or else—and this seemed more likely as he thought about it—they all worked for the Sorley woman. The crowd partying at Cinquefoil were her pushers and pullers, her money-washers and gun thugs, her transportation safety experts and bankers and lawyers, her priests if drug kingpins had priests. This was the Sorley company’s annual bash.
The fact was, he had no idea who they were or what was happening. If he let it, his unbounded ignorance would spoil his building buzz, excellent champagne on top of better-than-average weed, augmented by music, chased by fear on ice. He put it out of his mind. The longer he was there, the better he liked the idea of the party. You had to get comfortable, that was all. He danced alongside a sword-swallower with his belly hanging out. The sword-swallower nodded at him and seemed friendly enough. Over the next half hour he came face to face with an androgynous Little Bo Peep with a wicked crook. Some sort of less than incredible Hulk. An Arab in a jeweled turban, two blind mice, three wise guys. Too damn many Batmen, not enough Robins. One extremely fly Green Lantern whose white teeth gave off sparks through his mask when he smiled.
The rule was, your mask had to cover your face. No halfies. Leonardo’s costume was lame. It showed no imagination, and an equal shortage of resources. He was a cowboy in borrowed boots and a leather vest. Who cared? His mask was as black as anybody else’s, and the six-shooter on his hip looked sort of real.
Eventually Fox Woman came looking for him. He could not pretend it was an accident. He had not forgotten her. All the time the bootlegger’s heir was interrogating him, he kept feeling the urgent weight of the younger woman’s breasts against his chest. She had a smell, too, though it was not overpowering like Sorley’s. Fox’s was more like hay, what you smelled if you were lost in the country on a dirt road and came on a field just after the farmer left the cut hay to dry in rows. Anyway, there they stood. She spoke into his ear to make herself heard over the music. The intimacy of the gesture weakened any resistance he might have had.
“Let’s do something,” she said.
The stupid question bugged her. She shook her head in disgust but did her job, leading him by the hand away from the bubble in the huge, high-ceilinged room. Up the broad contemptuous staircase, down the wide hall of the north wing, the opposite end of the house from Mary Margaret Sorley’s hazardous lair. He went like a little lamb.
In any normal house the room into which Fox Woman led him would have been too big, or way too big. At Cinquefoil, it made sense to the eye. The furniture was older than George Washington. It was mahogany, Leonardo thought, heavy as a son of a bitch. There was a fireplace the gilded equal of Kieran Sorley’s but with no fire in it. Paintings of mountains and oceans hung evenly spaced on the blue walls, as though the bootlegger’s designer had run out of energy by the time he tackled this big room no one in the Sorley family ever bothered to claim.
It was a poster bed, all made up, and Fox Woman turned back the covers. They climbed in and lay on their sides facing each other. Leonardo deeply admired the familiar female curve of her hip. It was a shape he remembered from dreams, and from several actual women, although he had been alone for a long time. He put his hand on the beautiful hip. Pulling away she was not rejecting him, just reaching for a hash pipe in the drawer of the bedside table. Matches and a square of hashish in a fold of aluminum foil.
“Take off your mask,” Leonardo said.
“It’s against the rules.”
“What do you care?”
She shrugged. Sitting cross-legged, she focused on loading the pipe. Her thighs were covered with fox-colored material. When he reached over and detached her tail she did not complain.
“What’s your name?” he asked her.
“Gloria. You can touch my tits if you want.”
He did, want and touch. They felt better than a condemned man’s last meal ever tasted.
“Tell me what’s going on, Gloria.”
She frowned. She shook her head. She was toking, firing the hash. The inrush of breath with which she absorbed the smoke was a delicate thing, an intimate miracle to behold.
“I can explain everything,” he said. “I mean if there’s something that needs explaining.”
“No you can’t.”
She handed him the pipe, and in the instant rush that was visited on him there was color, and a chorus of sad horns, and a grasping desire he was mature enough to value at its full worth.
“Who are all those people downstairs?”
“Just people Mary Margaret knows. Some of them work for her.”
“What about you, do you work for her?”
The question offended her. “I’m independent. I don’t work for anybody, not even myself.”
“You’re just here.”
“I want another hit.”
He handed back the pipe and was pleased when she took off her mask. She had the face of a delicious fruit, with small features, intelligent blue eyes, perfect popcorn teeth.
“Did they tell you to bring me up here?”
In response, she expertly and efficiently stripped them both. She pushed him onto his back and climbed on, guiding his penis into her with a diplomatic hand. Leonardo was sort of surprised he could be so enthusiastic, sexually speaking, given the dire situation he was in. But then he got it. Sex and death, two animals sniffing each other out. He surrendered to the rocking motion she established.
After a while she guided his hands onto her breasts. They had small, light-brown nipples and were models of efficiency. He could not help comparing them to Mary Margaret’s monstrous knockers.
“I know what turns you on,” he said.
“Having sex with a guy that’s going to die.”
She rolled off him, pulling away to the far edge of the mattress. She covered herself with sheet, blanket, coverlet. Layers of no.
“It’s not that.”
“Then what is it?”
“I can only tell you if you listen.”
She widened her eyes, inspecting his face to see if he was lying. He wasn’t.
“I’m in this motel room in Bakersfield. Last year. Two guys arguing over weight. The one getting shorted pulls a knife and rips the other one. The weird thing is, all of a sudden it’s like I’m not there. I’m floating in the air up above it all, looking down on the room watching this blonde guy in cut-offs and huaraches bleed out on the rug. Meantime the guy who killed him is melting down, he knows he’s fucked. There’s a tattoo on the dying guy’s knuckle. It’s small and kind of blurry. I can’t make out what it’s supposed to be. It makes me cry.”
“Because now he’s going to be dead and nobody will ever wonder any more what the tattoo is supposed to be.”
She nodded solemnly, and Leonardo wished briefly that his erection would go away.
“Things are the way they are,” she told him. “They’re big, way bigger than we are. You can’t change big things. But when they come down on people, you can be kind.”
The story touched Leonardo. He reached for her, unwrapped her foxy body layer by layer, and they made love like regular humans. He was grateful. He had been too alone for too long.
Afterward, feeling snug and almost safe, he reached for his pistol. He pointed it at the door.
“Maybe I can shoot my way out.”
“With a toy gun?”
“There’s somebody out there in the hall, isn’t there?”
“It’s the pirate. He’s the one she told to deal with me. What’s his name?”
“You think this is about something you did. You think it’s because you messed up. It’s not.”
“Then what is it?”
“Complicated. More complicated than you can understand. Certain things happen, there has to be a sacrifice.”
Leonardo saw shaggy Vikings on a dark hill building a bonfire. They were burning a body. He did not deserve or want to be that body. But it occurred to him that Gloria was almost certainly right. Powerful forces, forceful powers, were at work around them. If there was a pattern in events, or a meaning, people like him would never see it. Normally his helplessness would only frustrate him. This time it made him angry, which turned out to be a good thing.
He asked her again, “What’s the name of the pirate in the hall?”
It came out in a whisper. “Rex.”
He nodded. He thought for an instant about tying her up and putting a gag in her mouth. But nothing like that was in him.
“Let’s chill,” she said. “The party will go on all night. Nobody is in any kind of hurry. Everybody is totally mellow. I’m going to wash. Then we’ll do another bowl.”
By her own lights, on her own Bakersfield terms, she was being kind. When she got up and went into the bathroom, he threw on his clothes and was out the window, onto the roof, in a single swift movement that went some of the distance toward making up for his mistakes. Christ it was cold.
The frigid air sobered him. There was a moon, almost full, and with its help he saw with heartbreaking dark clarity the rows of cars parked up and down the long driveway, which ended in a large circle before the pillared mansion’s double doors. There were so many vehicles they spilled out onto the road coming up Bootlegger Hill. Chauffeurs waited in some of them, motor running, dim light glowing as the drivers played with their smart phones. There was half a foot of snow on the ground. It gleamed in the moon making the bare trees in the woods behind the house stand up like worthless sticks.
With a sense of purpose that was new to him, and pleasing, he crawled on his hands and knees to the edge of the roof where he saw a drainpipe going down. There was almost no chance he could shinny down the thing. Years of abuse had done his body no good. His arms were like rubber bands, and dope always made him clumsy. Gloria must be out of the bathroom by now. If she was as kind as he thought she might be, she’d give him a few minutes to get away before sounding the alarm with Rex the pirate. He took one deep breath, wishing he hadn’t left his coat with a masked pretend butler when he came in. The coat was brand new. Then he went over the edge of the roof.
He clawed hard onto the drainpipe, and his body went down bumping of its own accord. At a certain point, he lost control and fell. Landing hurt like fire, but it could have been worse because the snow cushioned his fall. Standing up, he realized his ankle had twisted in the fall, which made the decision not to go for the car easy. Anyway it was not his car. He had borrowed it from a friend, and leaving it behind was completely uncool, but as soon as Gloria told Rex he was gone there would be ten armed men coming after him. They would know where he parked; these were detail people.
He worried about leaving tracks in the snow, going across the yard and down into the woods, but that could not be helped. It meant he’d have to be seriously gone by dawn. Knowing that gave him a goal. Twenty yards into the woods he heard a commotion and looked back up the hill. From where he stood, he could not see the front door of Cinquefoil, but when a bunch of men went tearing down the drive, car lights went on, people started hollering, and it was obvious that Gloria’s Bakersfield kindness had reached its natural end. He didn’t blame her. She had to stay in that house, she had to survive.
A moment came to him that almost made these bad things worth it. Standing in the stick trees, looking up at the big house on the hill, he felt capable. He was a man who could do a thing that had to be done. And he had thought ahead. If he had gone for the car, they would have him already.
His bad ankle throbbed.
He made his limping way downhill through the woods, grabbing the branches and trunks of trees where the snow slicked his path. Eventually the sounds of Bootlegger Hill evaporated, and the world around him was still as black glass. The moon seemed to be in a hurry to set, although maybe he was only at a bad angle to it, the way he was moving. After a while he heard water running. He came to a creek and followed it downhill. If he stayed with it, sooner or later the water had to come out at a road.
He was tired and stopped for a breather on the lip of the creek. Maybe Gloria was right. Things, and the events of things, were big. There was always wind blowing somewhere creating weather you could not get away from. And people, most people, were small. He flashed through a fantasy, surprisingly rich in detail, about moving to Guadalajara. He would get a job on a coffee plantation. Did they grow coffee in Guadalajara? He would work his way up to foreman and marry a Mexican woman. She would teach him useful things he needed to know, like how to thatch a roof, and how to roast a pig in a hole in the ground. The fantasy ended abruptly when his bad ankle caught in an exposed root and he fell headfirst into the snow.
He turned his head to one side and lay there for a couple of minutes. The snow was so cold it did not feel wet. He was thinking. In a coffee can on a shelf at his apartment in Troy, there was a couple hundred dollars emergency cash, money he had learned the hard way never to touch. His lucky knife was back at the apartment, too, and a picture of his mother and him when he was a kid. In the picture, taken at a county fair he could no longer remember, he held a cone of cotton candy and she held his other hand. Both of them looked happy. He could get by without the money, and the knife was not essential. Living without the picture, though, was going to be hard. And necessary. It was not safe to go back to the apartment. It would not be safe for a long time. He could not show up in Troy again, period. Forget Mexico, Mexico was a joke. All of a sudden he was homeless.
He got to his feet. He had no coat. He had no money, and no sense of direction even if he knew where to go. His ankle hurt. But he had a sense of accomplishment that counted for something. He had moved fast when he had to, and he had thought ahead. He started downhill again and in ten minutes came to a road. It was paved. He took it, not sure where it was headed.
Walking on pavement was a relief, after all that time in the woods on snow. He stayed on the berm, favoring the bad ankle, going downhill by instinct because down meant farther away from Bootlegger Hill. If he heard a car coming, he’d have plenty of time to get off the road into the safety of trees.
It must be later than he’d thought, and now it was early. All too soon there came a faint glow in the east, not light but a dim man’s idea of light. Sooner or later the sun was going to come up. When it did, it would find him—his name was Leonardo Khadare—alive. It would find him with eyes in his head, and a tongue. He would use them both to praise the morning’s broken beauty.