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Pure Slaughter Value (Robert Bingham)


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  For The Maggot

Then came the problem of the summer and the sense that we were about to become party to something disgusting. Roger and I were lounging by the pool looking like a couple of Hollywood schmucks with our fancy hangovers. She walked right through our garden and stood before us. It hurt. Her beauty had an air of corruption that screamed of youth and careless sex. She made our girlfriends look like saggy control addicts. She had these legs. Oh fuck, let's cancel the legs for right now, but there was another plus inside a T-shirt. Then there was the simple black skirt and her expensive-looking shades. I could see the bald head of Mr. Clean peering over the rim of her baby blue bucket. In her other hand she held a mop. Her T-shirt was a faded one and in black letters it read The Replacements, and below that was the word "Stink." I hadn't really listened to the Replacements since college. They had been a fine band, noted for their high level of intoxication, but recently I'd been worried about the legacy of alcohol abuse they'd inspired in friends of mine who still drank too much.

"You a fan?" asked Roger, pointing to her shirt. "I mean I'm surprised someone your age knows anything about the Replacements. Aren't the Stinson brothers old enough to be your father?"

"Why don't you talk about your father with someone else," she said. "Is this the house?"

"This is the house," I said. "Interview over. You got the job."

"Thanks," she said. "But I have to see the place first."

With my tan and comfy executive poolside lounge chair setup, she made me feel old and compromised. For you see, I am of the age that is composed of lazy summer weekends, of creeping out of my Sabbath bed after having mildly assuaged my hangover by slaughtering my girlfriend in bed. I do a few laps in the pool and for a Sunday communion wafer I take ten milligrams of Valium. Then I towel off and take up my position on the lawn where I'm ashamed to say I readBarron's with my Sunday Times. Sickening, and in a bathrobe too. Anyway, Roger and I were sitting silently in our chairs absorbing the fact that the maid had a sexiness that our girlfriends might have had five years ago if they had each been different women than they are now. It was a depressing fact at which to arrive. Now I'm not saying Roger and I thought the maid a better person or would even stack up as a superior long-term lover to the women with whom we were currently attached. She was simply hotter and sluttier, short term. She had a tummy that slightly canted her T-shirt out in our reclining direction. Around that smooth ankle was a copper bracelet of the high-end Brazilian tourist trinket variety, probably picked up while tripping on vine juice with Indians. Then there was a chunky silver ring on one of her thumbs. I've never really understood rings on inappropriate fingers. They've always slightly upset me, but this thumb ring bore with it such a great distance from the positioning of a wedding band that I couldn't help but feel intrigued.

But of course we had time against us. Our girlfriends were probably gossiping about who out of the house share was really invited to next weekend's barbecue at another house guarded by hedges and the handicapped. Recently they'd been sniffing around one another, the girls, trying to decide if theirs was going to be a relationship that might have a life outside the orbit of their boyfriends.

But the maid, oh the maid, it was like Roger and I couldn't even talk about it. Her white skin held no time for the beach. She walked plainly, slowly, with a perfect lack of any ass-shaking self-conscious style into our rented house. Roger and I were both recovering from the third of five weddings we were expected to attend that summer. Two more to go. The maid, in hindsight, had been sorely missed beneath those tents. She looked to be an attendee of a small, extremely expensive liberal arts college that breed the kind of women I used to enjoy conversing with about music and art before they took me home.

Roger and I looked at one another in stunned silence. Simultaneously we reached for the pack of Camels sitting between us.

"Look, I think I need this cigarette more than you do," whispered Roger.

"Really; why is that?"

"Because I like her more than you do, but you'll probably fuck her first."

"Give me a fag, Roger, and stop being such a romantic."

"She probably thinks we're off-duty narcs," said Roger.

"Speak for yourself."

Roger and I watched our girlfriends' mouths move as they interviewed the maid.

"Aren't you supposed to want to fuck the maid when you're forty?" I asked.

"Not when she's twenty-one."

"I bet she's more like twenty-three," I said.

"What the fuck would you know. Maybe she's nineteen?"

"Nineteen-year-olds are still baby-sitters, Roger. Aren't they? This girl buys booze...legally."

We both pretended to return to our respective sections of the paper, violently shaking our stories to the jump page in disgust. Then Carla, Roger's girlfriend, came outside with the dog.

"Honey," she said. "What Jitney do you want to take? I think we should get going soon before the traffic gets too bad."

Roger solemnly folded his paper and placed it on the yard.

"You know, I was thinking, sweetheart," he said. "I mean, fuck the traffic, let's go tomorrow morning, early."

I looked in the house. The maid was standing over the kitchen sink pondering our filthy dishes.

"But the weather's so gross," said Carla.

"I heard it was supposed to clear up," replied Roger.

"Where'd you hear that?" I asked.

"Umm...the radio," said Roger. "I heard it on the radio. That's right, it was on the radio when I went into town to get coffee."

"What do you think of our new maid?" I asked Carla.

"She seems sort of a nightmare. I mean, talk about attitude, but what are you going to do? I don't have time to interview maids right now. She says she can come late Sunday afternoon to do the dishes and clean, but she has some other job Sunday night, at some bar. So she's going to come back Monday afternoon to do the laundry. Apparently, we're practically neighbors. Eighty bucks a week, though, don't you think that's a little steep?"

"Hey," I said. "You got to pay to play."

"Exactly," said Roger.

It was shameless. Roger and Carla had just bought an apartment together. Then there was the dog. I got up from my lounge chair, walked into the house, and took up a silent position next to our maid. There was a liquor cabinet next to the sink and I fixed myself a drink. I rarely do this kind of thing on Sunday, but I wanted to see her up close and in action. She smelled of nothing. I poured myself a weak gin and tonic and walked over to the stereo to see if there was something I could put on that might impress her. I came up with a record of a band due to play live in New York the following week. The tickets had been sold out forever. The song I chose was a gem. For a moment she paused at the sink, smiled gently to herself, and went back to work. I was at once pleased and angered. I deeply wanted to talk about rock and roll with this young woman, and I wanted her to look up at me. It didn't have to be a big wide-eyed "I can't believe you put on that song" stare or anything, just a glance, an acknowledgment that I wasn't part of her problem; but I guess the force was against me that afternoon, for she did not look up. She stood therewith her yellow rubber gloves sinking in and out of our little hole of weekend shame.

Roger and his girlfriend walked in, and picking up on the song I had chosen, Carla said, "Honey, are you going to get us plus one to the show, because if not, I'm going to go out with Laura Thursday night. In fact, I think I'm going to go out with Laura Thursday night no matter what."

"Good, then I won't have to scalp," I said. "That show sold out in two hours."

"I heard it was more like twenty minutes," chimed in the maid.

"I got it covered," said Roger. "Two phone calls."

The maid erupted into sarcastic laughter, a bad joke of her own creation, then turning to Carla, she said, "Uhh, excuse me, what's your name again?"

"Carla," said Carla.

"Well, Carla, this house is a little short on cleaning supplies. What do you want me to do?"

"Save your receipts," said Carla.

"I don't have the capital right now to create a receipt for your accountant."

"Here's a fifty," said Roger.

My girlfriend came up to me and asked if I wanted to take a bike ride. I said that would be fine. I like to watch my girlfriend on a bicycle. She has no idea what she's doing and she looks wonderful doing it. It was a nice ride and she wore a pretty dress that was perfect for the occasion and didn't get caught in the gears, and when we got to the beach, we went swimming and splashed like the lovers we are in the waves and biked home and made love again, and went back down to the lawn to read our novels. Now it's not like this house is glass, but there are a lot of windows and through one of them we could hear Roger and Carla fighting again, but it was not only their fight that was making it difficult for me to read (I'd heard the narrative before), it was the idea of the maid circulating in the upper reaches of the house that plunged my interest.

Upstairs, she was vacuuming our room. Perhaps I was being paranoid, but standing there in the doorway, I thought I sensed a touch of overzealous resentment in her vacuuming strokes. She had a Walkman on and I imagined she was playing some punkish number that was made to inspire hatred in the listener's boss. She'd seen our stuff, sniffed out our scene: a bunch of young adults who thought they were making it but not the way she was going to make it. We spilled a lot of sand. We left booze around. There was expensive luggage, and airplane tickets on counters. Looking at the maid work the wood floor of my rented bedroom, I realized she'd have no compunctions about stealing. But the weird thing was I didn't have a problem with it. My girlfriend was using the bathroom so I just stood in the doorway and watched the maid work, hoping I'd catch her stealing something so we'd have a secret to share. But of course she'd seen me in her periphery, and suddenly she came up to me with the vacuum on, her Walkman headset dangling from her neck.

"How long have you two been going out?" she asked.

"What year did you reach puberty?"

"Eighty-seven, Christmas night."

I fled the room.

At the office on Monday my secretary patched a call through from Carla. I'd been doodling on the arithmetic of the maid's age. It was a warped geometric pattern, perhaps a reflection on my indecision as to count back or forward from twelve or thirteen.

"Did you leave money for the gardener?" she asked.

The gardener wasn't exactly a gardener. The gardener was a team of Hispanic lawn-care people who came and mowed the lawn and clipped things. It was an expense I hadn't counted on when I went in on the house share.

"Yes, Carla," I said. "As you pointed out, it was my week for lawn care. I took care of it. Forty dollars, in the bowl."

"Really?"

"Of course. What happened?"

"The guy called me at work. Can you believe that? He said the bowl was empty."

"Didn't Sam say he was going to come out on Monday to write?" I asked.

"I already called him," replied Carla. "He's feigning ignorance, but I bet it was the maid. I don't know. I found her sort of passive-aggressive, didn't you?"

"Oh, Jesus Christ, Carla," I replied.

"I'm worried about my earrings," she said. "I left my favorite earrings on the bedside table. I bet she'll be wearing them in whatever fashion hole she likes to crawl into during the week."

"Carla," I said. "The lawn-care people annoy you at work and now I'm hearing about earrings at work. Why don't we both go back to work?"

"Ohh," said Carla. "Well, I'm sorry to take up your precious time. I just thought you'd like to know you're getting ripped off."

I adore Sam, but he has this nasty habit of getting up to go to the bathroom in the late innings of a restaurant party and never returning to pay for his veal. Sam had opted for half payment on his slice of the share. He rarely came out on weekends. He'd usually go against the traffic on Sunday nights and sleep in the master bedroom all week. Clearly he was fucking the maid. Sam is a writer and you know how those guys are always slinking and sidling over back garden gates with that off-timing charisma. Suddenly I was furious. Sam hated Carla's guts, but probably didn't know that it was my money he and the maid were drinking up. There had been some backstabbing lawn-care financing confusion in this house share, couples scraping for a moral high ground on the subject of the divisor when it came to food and lawn-care expense. Some, like me, had opted for no lawn care at all. But lawn care was not what was bothering me now. It was the image of Sam and the maid splitting the forty dollars I'd left in the bowl and going out for drinks together.

"I don't know what to tell you, Carla," I said. "There's nothing we can do but see if a pattern develops."

"You're sure you put your money in?"

"Positive."

"Well, goddam it!" she said and hung up.

On Thursday night Roger and I arrived to see the sold-out concert in a black company sedan. Getting out of that car, I got to say, I picked up a bit of hostility emanating from the youth loitering outside. It wasn't as if we were two scabs crossing a picket line, it was more like a little splash of urban disdain was spat our way. Roger, God bless him, is the greatest snob of rock snobs and as a rule prefers to go to shows where his weight and influence as a journalist can get him on some list. Sometimes I follow.

"Clueless jam kids," snarled Roger. "Looking for a leader."

There was a small line for the rock elite waiting at a side box-office window. The women were better dressed here. Someone touched me on the shoulder. I turned around. It was the maid.

"Hey," I said.

It was difficult to know what to do. A kiss was certainly not in order but then again neither was a handshake. We stood there on the street not touching. Roger was at the window.

"Wouldn't you know. Of all people, you guys would get in free," she said.

"Whoever said rock was fair," I said.

"Not me."

"From the looks of it, you must be on the list too," I said.

"I deserve to be."

"Is that right."

"Yeah, I'm plus one. I went out with Mark Sandburn for nearly a year."

"Yeah, what happened? He set fire to your cat?"

I stood there in the street stunned. Mark Sandburn was something of a minor hero of mine. She was wearing a silver top that was all about refracting light and foregrounding breasts, and her pants had a wonderful relationship to her hips. Then there were her jewelry and earrings. She was her own fucking light show.

"That idiot Blumstein," said Roger, turning to me. "I told him get me a plus one but...."

"But they only comped you," said the maid. "I didn't know this was going to be an industry show."

"You," said Roger. "What are you doing here?"

"She's here to play a golden oldie with Mark Sandburn," I said.

"You know you guys shouldn't be so mean," said the maid. "Mark made sure I'm plus one, but my girlfriend decided to have dinner with some guy who just threw himself into the East River."

Roger and I stood aside as she did her thing at the window.

"Here," she said, presenting me with a ticket. "Chalk it up to a miracle."

We walked into the show together, like a date. Someone with a clipboard and a headset gave us each a fluorescent wrist band and a rectangular patch to place on our person. So there we were, the maid and I standing around with all the little badges of honor that allow one to drink at the bar where others can't drink, and march through those wide-bodied bouncers, those sentinels of the stuffed velvet ropes, so as to reach the little secret places others are blocked from and go backstage and be almost as cool as the cool stars. The fucking hierarchies of rock, it was medieval.

"I won't charge you for the ticket," she said. "But you have to buy me drinks all night because I expect to be treated like a queen when I'm at a show, especially this one. Like you can start by lighting my cigarette. What's your name anyway? Mind if I call you 'Rocko'? This show has been sold out for weeks, so I get to call you Rocko, OK. So, Rocko, why don't you get me a Sea Breeze? Don't fuck it up. You got a house in the fucking Hamptons with chicks who probably leave their IQ in Prada bags by the pool, and if I say I want a drink, I expect you to hop to it. Are you listening?"

I was glad to see the maid transformed, but I did not get her a drink. She already had one. I watched various people, mostly male, engage the maid in conversations that came to me as splintered shards of tonal disdain. This was all going on above one of the opening bands I'd never heard of. Then Roger came up and suggested we light this guy Tim Nye's red hair on fire. I dug out my Zippo.

"Let's scrotch that Alterna-Trump. I mean, fuck, let's hunt him down."

But before I could leave, the maid said, "Rocko, get busy on that Sea Breeze."

I returned with the drinks after being purposely ignored by the VIP bartender because I didn't arrive at his preconceived notion of what was an important rock groupie or critic. There was a change onstage, and then a band I'd heard of vaguely was playing music I couldn't understand. We were on a balcony behind the ropes and the band served as evil cocktail mixer music that shortened people's sentences to insults.

Roger was going on about the finances of a Tim Nye record label deal.

"Yeah, I heard the Maggot securitized the loan with some option on his grandmother's future death. Can you believe that? I was thinking the other day, someone should create a derivative based on the Maggot's...."

"So how long has your girlfriend been on the pill?" the maid cut in.

"I don't know."

"I mean, did she get it going with the pill when you two started fucking?"

"My girlfriend has a history of promiscuity I happen to cherish."

"Really," said the maid, shaking her hair out of a bun.

"Really."

"Who was she fucking before she got around to you?"

The band was launching into something loud, each young man believing his guitar to be the ax of his uncompromising chopping capabilities.

Finally the band the house had come to see, know, and love arrived and the maid and I together went downstairs and rammed ourselves up front, for we both sensed in one another the aficionado, and after that, it doesn't matter anymore. All the structural problems of money, age, and achievement collapsed like pickup pixie sticks spilled onto the floor of childhood and we were cast off spinning, listening to the music we loved betwixt an elliptical rubber band of sexual tension, and the occasional touching of arms. Between sets I got her more drinks. I even fooled her into thinking I wasn't another symbol of the capitalistic patriarchy that I actually am, which was fun. But of course she wouldn't go home with me. Clearly, she said, I was perverted and washed up. She had a boyfriend six years my junior that "gave her what she needed."

But we did play a straight set after the show. She gave me that at least, the maid, a summer walk in the city. And we didn't go to a coffee shop either. We had a drink at a pleasant bar and talked about music, jobs, and literature, and she even asked the cocktail waitress for a pen. I'd convinced her I wasn't part of her problem and for me that was enough. Then we left and walked the right angles of our city, commenting on the weather, until we arrived at a wall. She let herself be turned round so gracefully, expectantly, and up against that wall with the nearly vacant summer city a lonely witness, we parted with bits of blissful lip service.
 
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Excerpted from Pure Slaughter Value by Robert Bingham. Copyright © 1997 by Robert Bingham. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.