Excerpt from The Savage Girl
The savage girl kneels on the paving stones of Banister Park, stitching together strips of brown and gray pelt with elliptical motions of her bare arm.
The sleeves and sides of her olive drab T-shirt are cut out, exposing her flanks and opposed semicircles of sunburned back, like the cauterized stumps of wings. A true redskin, more so than any Indian ever was, her skin more red than brown. It must have been pale once. And her Mohican is whitish blond, her eyes blue or possibly green.
Her pants are from some defunct East European army, laden with pockets, cut off at the knees. Her shins are wrapped in bands of pelt, a short brown fur. Her feet are shod in moccasins.
There is a metal barb about the size of a crochet needle stuck through her earlobe, and a length of slender chain drapes from her scalp, affixed in four places to isolated lockets of hair.
Each time the girl bends forward to make a stitch her tattered shirt drapes and reveals her breasts, full and pendulous, whereas the rest of her is lean and unyielding. Down the bench, the man with the greased hair and mustache and forty-ounce beer, and his friend, the man with the afro and mustache and forty-ounce beer, watch the ebb and flow of her flesh with sleepy smiles, lulled by the savage girl’s mysterious, eye-of-the-hurricane calm, while around her the rest of the park gyres and caterwauls with trick bikers, hat dancers, oil can drummers, chinchillas, rats, drunks, kendo fighters, shadow boxers, soccer players, a couple of card sharpers, and of course one trendspotter, Ursula Van Urden, who has been circling the savage girl all morning, moving from bench to bench to get a better view, trying to work up the nerve to speak to her but unable to rid herself of the ridiculous idea that the girl simply wouldn’t understand, that she communicates only by means of whistles, clicks of the tongue, tattoos stamped out on the cobblestones, and that even this rudimentary language she reserves solely to commune with the spirits that toss in the rising steam of hot dog and pretzel carts.
The kiddie playground of P.S. 179. Children toss and tumble, a maddened sea of screams and limbs, in the middle of which, high and dry, sits Ursula’s boss, Chas Lacouture. Atop the back of a cement dolphin. A good choice, the dolphin, she thinks. Better than the lion, the turtle, the orangutan. It goes with his sharkskin suit, pressed to a cold perfection beneath his trenchcoat. He looks more natural here than in his natural habitat, the rarefied crags of Upslope office buildings, the blue-lit hallways and slate-gray conference rooms of the Black Tower. There he’s too perfect, a weathered masterpiece of brilliantined gray hair, pulsing jawline and leathery skin. He doesn’t look like other men, he looks like their impossible expectations of themselves. But here he’s just another fantastic fixture. You’d almost expect the children to hurl rubber balls off him, the pigeons to settle on his massive shoulders.
As Ursula approaches, her fellow agent Javier Delreal sails down the main schoolyard ramp on rollerblades, waving to her as he circles through the kiddie playground entrance. He is just a little too tall and too thin for verisimilitude. He cuts ahead of her and slaloms around the playing children, his trenchcoat flapping behind him. Then he pirouettes neatly and hops up to a seated position on the dolphin’s back next to Chas, who, without looking at him, begins to speak.
“I saw a guy with a neck beard masturbating in a cybercafe,” he says curtly.
Ursula pulls herself aboard on Chas’s free side, the curvature of the dolphin’s back sliding her closer than she wants. Her fingers find the smooth spout hole between her legs. Its position strikes her as lewd, and a little neurotically she covers it up with her palm.
“I saw a sorority girl reading a book called ‘Subcultures,’” Javier responds. Even his head is tall and thin, bracketed by a high, bony forehead and a long, tapering jaw, as though his face were a rack designed to torture his elongated and slightly broken-looking nose. His skin is olive-colored, his hair dark and frizzy, his eyes hazel. She can’t begin to guess his ethnicity.
“I saw two fat men in black suits get into a pink Cadillac,” Chas says.
Javier flips through the pages of a notebook.
“In the last seven days I’ve seen twenty-nine people wearing shirts with images of anthropomorphic suns and only two with anthropomorphic moons.”
“Astrological iconography…” Chas mutters, shaking his massive square head, “…the simpletons….”
He falls silent, retreating into the runes and cursives of his squint and furrowed brow. Meanwhile Javier watches the children raptly, a hieroglyph of big nose and big unblinking eye. Ursula feels that if she is ever able to decipher the minds of either of these men she just might begin to understand all the other things that currently baffle her: what her schizophrenic sister means when she says that fashions are messages from the future; why a pretty teenage girl lives in the park and wears primitive clothing and never speaks to anyone; how to dress for success; how to win friends and influence people; how to bring the system to its knees….
Chas tocks his tongue five times, takes a breath.
“Kyle Dice from Nestlé called this morning. He let me have it about the carob-egg breakfast cake.”
Javier looks up, worriedly.
“It’s not selling,” he ventures.
“That was your thing, Javier, cake for breakfast, they followed you on that.”
Javier’s fingers grope around in his unruly hair. “Damn. It’s their own fault. They did it all wrong, Chas. It’s too dark. People want bright foods in the morning. Fruits, juice, eggs, cottage cheese, yogurt.” He pauses, concentrating. His tongue bulges his lower lip from left to right and back. He holds out his hands, palms parallel, and stares into the space between them. “Drab morning foods need brightening,” he formulates.
Chas closes his eyes, presses two fingertips to his forehead. “Cereal gets milk,” he says. “Bagels get cream cheese. Toast gets jam.”
“Donuts get glaze or powder.”
“Did we tell them that? Was it in the report?”
Javier doesn’t answer for a moment. “It seems so self-evident,” he hedges.
Chas shakes his head. “Those people live in a lead-lined box. Their windows are darkened with sheets of Mylar. They breathe recirculated air. They can’t tell a falcon from a flying toaster.”
A tiny incubus wearing a Superman shirt totters up and clings to Chas’s dangling legs, clutching the creases of his slacks with small, grimy fists. Chas narrows his eyes, aims a forefinger-and-thumb pistol between the kid’s eyes.
“Pow,” he says thoughtfully.
The boy narrows his eyes as well, returning the stare defiantly until two little girls in ’N Sync and Ricky Martin shirts catch him and pull him away. He squirms between them as they kiss him all over his flushed, pudgy cheeks.
“Not much of a kid person,” Javier says, “are you Chas?”
Javier whips an aquamarine silk handkerchief out of his trenchcoat and noisily blows his nose, then blinks dizzily from the exertion. “I’m totally a kid person,” he declares.
“The hell you are,” Chas says.
“I am. Kids are great. Kids can do anything.”
“They can tie the skyscrapers into Krazy Straws. They can shake the sea and the sky into Seven-Up.” His long, nervous fingers twist and shake the air in front of Chas. “Kids are about possibilities,” he goes on excitedly. “Limitless possibilities. Know what I’m saying?”
Chas nods. “They’re dumbasses all right.”
A little overwhelmed by their routine, Ursula stares at the swarm of children, unfocusing her eyes. Her brain begins playing tricks on her the way it does when she stares at TV static, resolving the kids’ senseless caroming into neat helixes, rings, figure-eights. The human brain comes hardwired with a mania for order, and Javier and Chas, she’s decided, have cultivated this unthinking compulsion into a weltanschauung, a metaphysics, an endlessly snarled and compendious street index of the human condition. They have theories for everything from children’s games to breakfast foods to the patterns of sneaker soles. She herself has been on the job less than a week, and she has only one theory so far, which is that experimenting one day in their secret lab, Chas replaced his skin with a coat of Fleckstone, and Javier lopped off his arms and legs and attached a dozen industrial strength rubber bands in their place, and ever since they have been only nominally human, Granite Man and his sidekick Rubber Man—superheroes, supervillains, superfreaks; two lurking, smirking, life-sized action figures of themselves.
“Listen,” Chas says, “I want to make it up to Kyle with a good lead on kid food.”
“Kid food,” Javier repeats.
“I’m thinking candy in a gun.” The barest hint of a smile encloses his bloodless lips in parenthetical stretch lines.
“Candy in a gun,” Javier solemnizes.
“They could shoot it into each other’s mouths, that sort of thing. Refills would come in clips.”
He goes on smiling that sub-zero smile of his. Ursula has already acquired a healthy fear of the man. His logic is so efficient it could be something instinctive, reptilian. She resists an urge to jump up and warn the children, to gather them up and hide them away in a wildlife preserve.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Chas says to Javier. “Injuries. Lawsuits. But they’d make the candy really light. Little wafer balls. They could even get some of that cream filling in there, I bet.”
“Keep it light,” Javier nods.
Chas nods. “Like I always say.”
A thunderclap draws their eyes up Middle City’s southern slope to the volcano’s peak, where storm clouds mix with the crater ash above the jagged metal and glass of the marketing offices. The rooftop crenellations of the Black Tower rise the highest, from this angle anyway, grazing the dark bruises of the sky. Chas regards the clouds with satisfaction. Perhaps, she thinks, he has summoned them. He turns up the collar of his trenchcoat, an especially tall collar. No doubt within months half the city will be wearing this collar. It will make the wearers appear to themselves more dramatic, intriguing, for they will have become the kind of people who wear trenchcoats with tall collars. Ursula will not get one herself. But only out of obstinacy. She will want one.
Chas breaks their reverie with a snap and a tight twirl of his index finger. “Okay Ursula, what do you got?”
She takes her sketchbook out of her bag, then hesitates.
“I’m not sure if these are the kind of things you want.”
He replies with an impatient, outstretched hand. She relinquishes the book, wondering if this, her first week as a trendspotter, will also be her last. It would be a giant disappointment, but not a big surprise. She lied her way into the job, lied like never before, with all the death-defying virtuosity of a bullfighter, inventing all sorts of experience in advertising and market research, peppering her speech with jargon she’d gleaned from a stack of out-of-date library books. For the first few minutes of her pitch, Chas sat watching her with suspicion. Clearly, he hadn’t been prepared to be hit up for a job. He had gone out with her sister Ivy over the months leading up to Ivy’s breakdown, and had probably agreed to this meeting only out of curiosity, not anticipating that it would turn into a request for employment. But she had him cornered and pressed the advantage—she’d stayed up the whole night before preparing this routine and she was determined to see it through to the bitter end. A little cynically, she had assumed from the beginning that any job having to do with marketing would require more than anything else an ability to bullshit without shame or respite, and she was determined to show her stamina in this regard. My market research experience, she said, is fairly extensive, as you’ll see from my résumé, taking into account my job at Tolson, which wasn’t just telemarketing although that was a substantial part of it…. When Chas saw that she wasn’t about to stop any time soon, his expression changed. It was the look a cat might wear upon seeing the mouse it was getting ready to eat suddenly break into a tap dance routine. He leaned back in his chair and didn’t interrupt, silently daring her to keep talking. The more she talked, the more naïve and ridiculous she sounded, but she kept at it, straightfacedly enthusing about fashions she’d never seen in countries she’d never been to, bragging about the keen powers of observation she’d honed in learning how to paint. She talked about what she called her interpersonal skills—if you’ll notice on my résumé my experience at Tolson really was great training in terms of learning the ability to communicate with consumers of diverse ages, educational, racial and financial backgrounds….
To her lasting shame she even declared herself a ‘people person,’ at which point Chas held up his hands, silencing her. A full, nervewracking minute passed, with him just watching her, his eyes narrowed once more, cold, appraising, who knew what he was thinking? Is this the way he treated her sister? No wonder Ivy had gone nuts. He was probably some kind of fascist in bed, the kind who likes to sit in a chair, loosen his tie and bark out orders to a twenty year-old aspiring fashion model—take off your clothes, take off my shoes, and so forth. He certainly hadn’t cared about Ivy enough to visit her in the hospital. Nor did he now bother to make even the slightest gesture of sorrow about her breakdown to Ursula. He just sat there in his big, flare-backed leather chair, studying her as if he were not seated across a desk from her but rather on the other side of a one-way mirror. Finally, she gave up all hope of getting a job and glared back at him angrily.
Then his expression changed again; he acknowledged her with a look of bemusement and a slow nod. He buzzed his secretary. A few minutes later she was filling out a W-4 form and he was giving her the only three instructions she’d gotten so far:
Go out there, he said. Find the future. Bring it back to me.
And now, sitting between her and Javier on the cement dolphin, he goes through her guesses at the future without a shred of interest. He shakes his head, turns the pages roughly, dismissing sketch after sketch of teenagers in baggy pants, clown shoes, floppy hats, rolled pantcuffs. When he comes to the first sketch of the savage girl, he stops. His mouth remains set in a line, but his eyes don’t quite conceal his surprise.
“What’s this?” he grumbles. “Some kind of punk-hippie?”
“An urban savage,” Ursula says.
“I tell her to bring me the future, she brings me a cavewoman,” he mutters. “Take a look, Javier.”
He and Javier pore over the pages, sharing an amusement Ursula decides must be at her expense.
“She really this filthy?” Chas asks.
“She lives in the park.”
“What are those things on her feet? Paper bags?”
“Aha.” Chas shakes his head.
“I’m pretty sure she made them herself,” Ursula offers.
“Sure,” Javier says, still looking over the sketch. “That’s… evident.”
The two men fall silent. She considers trying to lead them back through the other sketches, but that would seem desperate and she doesn’t want to give them the satisfaction of seeing her squirm.
“Well, that settles it,” Javier says, stretching and cracking his overlong fingers, “don’t you think?”
Chas thinks for a moment, and nods.
“What?” Ursula says. “Are you going to fire me? You told me you were going to train me. ‘Find the future.’ You call that job training?”
“No, I don’t,” Chas says. “Training starts tomorrow.”