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Teeth of the Dog (Jill Ciment)


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  Hhe Vatu Chalets were a half dozen plywood cabins scattered along a path through the jungle. As soon as they swung into the parking lot and Helene killed the engine, Finster tried to catch her eye. He thought if he could just get her to look at him, he'd be able to glean whether or not their kiss had the same lingering effect on her as it had on him, but Helene seemed to be looking at everything in the known universe except Finster: the A-frame stilt lobby, the swarms of gnats, the pregnant goat eating a Pringle box out of a garbage can, Thomas's hawklike profile in the last spokes of daylight. It hardly mattered; just being in her presence filled him with a heady surge of hope.
They started up the steep steps to the lobby. Finster noticed that Helene firmly took hold of Thomas's elbow. The gesture was protective, almost nurselike, and he could see it bothered Thomas. He was a step or two below them. From this angle, he could just make out a hint of Helene's upper thighs under the fringe of her cutoffs, and they were perfect. Once again, he couldn't imagine what she was doing with this old man.

When they opened the lobby doors, the teenage concierge was squatting on the floor, preparing a wad of betel. He managed to pop it into his mouth before Finster ordered him to the front desk and began berating him for not renting his friends a chalet. Actually, Finster liked the boy (they'd shared a joint earlier that afternoon), but he wanted to impress Helene with his worldly authority, his American can-do.

After the concierge sullenly shuffled off to find some fresh linen, Finster suggested that Helene and Thomas go to their chalet, relax, and take a shower. He said he'd be back in an hour with a feast for all three of them. They didn't argue. They looked grateful. They were standing under the lobby's listless ceiling fan, and though Finster couldn't quite put his finger on it, there was something sad about them.

Around eight he swung by Helene and Thomas's cabin. They were fully dressed, supine on the bed: Thomas was asleep, Helene was staring at the ceiling, and once again, Finster had the ill-defined sense that something was amiss in their relationship. Though Helene gently stirred Thomas awake, Finster intuited a frayed tension under her seemingly attentive veneer.

He loped beside her all the way to the gazebo.

"Quite a feast," Thomas said, peeling open the screen door.

In the center of the gazebo sat a low round table laden with food: slabs of fried Spam, corn beef hash, a plate of taro mash the consistency of rabbit glue, and a big bowl of Top Ramen noodles.

"I told the woman not to serve Spam," Finster said. "I told her not to serve tinned anything."

"It's fine Finster, really," Thomas said. "It looks delicious." He sat down on a throw of pillows, Helene sat down next to him, and Finster wedged himself in beside her.

"I'd stick with the noodle soup," Finster told Helene. He ladled out a bowl for her, carefully skimming off the amoeba-shaped globules of fat. Then he fixed one for Thomas and himself as well. "So, did you guys come to see the caves or the psychosurgeries?"

"The caves," Helene said.

Finster smiled. "They're awesome. They look like . . ." He could barely remember what they looked like: He hadn't been there in years. "They look like . . . like a movie set, only they're real." He couldn't believe how idiotic he sounded, more like the San Fernando Valley boy he once was than the Gauguin figure he hoped Helene perceived him to be: He knew he should stop smoking so much pot. "I'd love to show them to you," he said. "Unfortunately, I have some business to attend to tomorrow, but I could take you there on Sunday."

"Thanks, Finster but I'm sure we can manage," Thomas said.

"Hey, Tom, trust me, you need a guide. You can't just wander around the caves by yourselves. They're filled with live shells. The caves were an ammo dump during the war. At least once every couple of years some Japanese honeymooners go up in a puff."

"Must put a damper on tourism."

"Actually, it gives the caves a romantic charge."

Thomas put down his soup. He'd barely touched it. "Do they still perform psychosurgeries?"

"To be honest, I've never seen one. But my customers swear by them."

"Customers for what?" Helene asked.

"For this." Finster dug into the pocket of his aloha shirt and pulled out a vial. He set it down gingerly on Helene's plate, as one might serve a dessert truffle. "Smell it."

"Am I going to get high or something?"

"Just smell it."

Helene glanced at Thomas, then uncapped the vial and waved it under her nose. "Oh my God, it's like . . . like essence of Woolworth." She closed her eyes and sniffed again. "I'm having a Proustian experience. I'm back in aisle six, between the Whitman samplers and the hair spray, and my whole childhood is unfolding before me. How did you bottle this? Why did you bottle it?"

"It's perfume," he said defensively. "With pheromones. It's a sexual attractant, like an aphrodisiac. I didn't come up with the scent, I just import the stuff. Among other things," he added.

"It has human pheromones in it?" Thomas asked.

"Actually, they're pig pheromones, but hey, it's a pig culture."

"And the locals believe it works?"

"Big time. And they really like the scent. They think of it as some kind of American love potion," he said, staring at Helene. But she wasn't listening. She seemed to have abruptly lost interest in the whole conversation, and he wondered why.

"How do they even know about it?" Thomas asked.

"I advertise in the local rags, and in Guns and Ammo. Guns and Ammo has a whopping circulation in these islands." He turned to Helene. "You can come with me tomorrow on my delivery rounds if you want. My customers are pretty interesting, and to say the least, it's off the beaten track."

Thomas shook his head and smiled. "So you're an entrepreneurial Malinowski of a sort."

"Malino-who?"

"Bronislaw Malinowski. He was an anthropologist who wrote a book about Melanesia called The Sexual Life of Savages."

"Like the title," Finster said, grinning. He helped himself to one of Thomas's cigarettes, lit it, then tried to catch Helene's eye again, but it was hopeless. "Actually, I see myself more in Conradian terms. A Kurtz without the horror, the horror hypocrisy."



 
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Excerpted from Teeth of the Dog by Jill Ciment. Copyright © 1999 by Jill Ciment. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.