Parker felt the metal of the bobby pin between her bare foot and the tile. The contact caused her to taste copper in her mouth, and without really thinking about it, she picked the pin up off the bathroom floor and stuck it between her lips. She sucked on it as she lifted her hair up, holding it high above her head, looking at all of it and how easy it was to control with two hands.
Frozen there in that pose, Parker looked herself in the eyes and thought that they looked sad. She didn’t feel sad, more empty if she was being completely up front about it, but if she looked sad to herself, how might she look to other people. Maybe it was the harshness of the bathroom lights, the way they bounced off the white tiles, the hard white plastic of the shower, the creamier paint on the walls—it actually made the air look like the purple of a bruise, and this stark honesty was not the way normal people would see her.
She let go of her hair and let it fall around her face. In its way, it looked like a time-lapse photography film of a chrysanthemum blooming, an auburn explosion of something that had just seconds ago been closed. What had once been held in check was now wild.
Picking up the brush, Parker began to smooth out her locks, wrangling all the rogue strands back into place. She then brushed the right side back over her ear, and in the seconds she had when it would stay there on its own, quickly maneuvered to remove the bobby pin from between her lips and slid it into place, locking her hair there for good.
Or at least for a couple of hours.
There used to be a time when she kept her hairpins organized. She tried jars and cute ceramic bowls and even once a cup that she also dropped her toothbrush and other things in. That last one was a bad idea because even though she had tried to shake all of the water off the toothbrush, invariably some would remain and pretty soon the bobby pins were sitting in a shallow puddle at the bottom of the cup, and a chalky white film had formed on the inside of it.
Besides, regardless of what she used, it would only be a matter of days before the container was empty. Parker would reach for a pin and they’d all be gone. Three or four always ended up on the floor, and she’d scoop up the ones she needed and finish the job from there. If they were going to end up on the floor anyway, she might as well let that be where they went, and now when she undid her hair at night, Parker let the pins fall where they may. Next time she needed one, she’d only have to look down, and there one would be—practical objects always within reach.
She supposed this system only worked because she lived alone. If that were to change, she wondered if anyone she moved in with would be man enough to deal with it. If not, would that be a deal breaker? This way of doing things was, after all, devised through her own version of common sense and good judgment. To say otherwise…well, that was just wrong.
There was a reason for the puffy cheeks and the baggy eyes. Parker had been out drinking the night before, and sometimes that made her feel—and look—like a sponge that had soaked up its capacity of water and needed to be squeezed out. The night’s events came back to her in a clipped montage, like something out of a French New Wave film.
Parker had gone out with Reggie, one of her best friends since college, and his newest girlfriend. Her name wasn’t something Parker was entirely sure on. Natalie? Beverly? Something –ly? For the sake of making it clear, she’d say Natalie and just hope for the best. If she saw her again, she would dance around ever calling her by name, be vague. Knowing Reggie, though, that might not be something Parker ever had to worry about.
There was pool. And cocktails. Parker’s current drink of choice: whiskey with ginger, on the rocks. She liked when the bartender put too much ginger and it caused a stinging kind of tickle in her nose. There was flirting with the bartender, too. Probably to get more ginger.
She annoyed everyone in the bar by playing the same Garbage song, “You Look So Fine,” over and over on the jukebox. Truth be told, if she could, Parker wouldn’t keep playing the whole song, she’d loop just a piece of it. “You look so fine, I wanna break your heart and give you mine, you’re taking me over….” Shirley Manson understood in ways only redheads could, a flame that burned with carrot roots for girls like her and Parker.
At one point, Natalie and Parker were giggling in a corner booth by themselves, and it was making Reggie mad. “Don’t forget I have secrets about you, too, Parker,” Reggie said.
To which Parker replied, “What makes you think we’re actually talking about you?”
That made Reggie even more mad. His cheeks burned a bright red.
There was some chasing each other through the streets, shouting and shooting invisible guns they made with their fingers.
Parker remembered entering her apartment, but not undressing. Judging by all of the places her clothes ended up around her enlarged studio with bath, it wasn’t a surgically precise process. There was a half-finished bottle of water by the bed, and the aspirin, so she at least was thinking ahead, and it was probably the lack of sleep that was dogging her now more than it was being otherwise hungover.
Maybe she liked Natalie. She’d encourage Reggie to keep her around if she didn’t think it would have the opposite effect.
Before that, though, coffee was a priority concern. Coffee, and then work, and more coffee at work, most likely.
The cappuccino machine hissed and steamed, shuddering as it drove heat into Parker’s milk, causing foam to rise. There was a sweet burning smell in the air. A line of about eight people snaked its way along the counter behind Parker. Every day it was this way. Morning shift at the coffee bar must be one of the toughest jobs on the planet. Some days the girls working the counter must think they’ll never get through everybody in time to get out of there when they are supposed to.
Parker took her latte and went and sat on the bus bench outside the café and took out the book she was reading. She was a mass-transit reader. It was the only time outside of work she could manage to enjoy time with a book. At home, she would fall asleep too fast, even if she wasn’t tired of staring at paper all day. She wasn’t particularly enjoying her current selection, a slim volume by a comic book writer who sometimes dabbled in prose. It was probably a mistake to choose it, a little too much like work as it was.
As cars passed, Parker would look up from her reading to make sure it wasn’t her bus. She had been known to get caught up in a good story to the point of not realizing her ride had arrived, and even once missed it completely. Why the bus driver hadn’t honked at her or even shouted for her attention, she would never know.
Watching on this particular morning, she was amazed by how many people never really stopped at the stop sign. It was almost like a challenge to see how slow of a roll they could achieve without ever really putting the brakes on fully, taking off again as soon as they saw the way was clear. It seemed rather dangerous to her, particularly with traffic coming from all four sides. Everyone was in such a hurry. Parker could see it in their faces. The pinched expressions, narrowed eyes staring over strained knuckles that clutched the wheel like a nervous soldier holding the handle on a pinless grenade. So unhappy, so rushed to be getting somewhere they didn’t want to be. How must they look coming home? Shoulders slumped instead of humped, carefully idling at the signals, no real desire to get back, no real desire to be anywhere.
Not that Parker spent many nights of her own in her apartment. Her outing last night was far from abnormal. Sometimes she’d grab a drink after work with some of her office mates, sometimes she’d meet Reggie or any of her other friends at a bar, sometimes she’d just go and see who was there and take her chances. It wasn’t a compulsion to get drunk or anything like that, though alcohol usually flowed freely. It was more of a compulsion to be somewhere. Even if she went home to change to get ready to go to a club or a show, at least she was just stopping in and then pinging back out. What would she do if she stayed in that night? Watch TV and eat too many snacks? Probably.
That was how she’d spend the evening once every few days, when the constant going out, the dragging her ass out of bed with the alarm clock, the shots of espresso added to her latte to simulate pep, when all of these charades grew too difficult and she needed a break. Much like those sluggish drivers, she was being forced to take time at home. If pressed, she’d admit she enjoyed it when she did, but she was still young and not yet ready to give in and make that the norm.
Push to shove, Parker would prefer to make tonight one of those nights off, rent a movie and maybe even go to bed early. She knew the stars weren’t aligning for her, though. It wasn’t going to happen.
Parker’s employer was on the fifteenth floor of an office building just on the outer edge of downtown San Diego. She had never intended to work in comic book publishing, her aspirations had always leaned more toward literary fiction, but some college hiccups had lead her to a less prestigious school than she would have liked, and that devalued her resume considerably. She would have liked to have attended school back East, to be closer to New York and the big publishing houses, but her father injured himself and went on workman’s comp and it severely changed the family’s financial situation. So, she chose a commuter school in order to live at home while she got her Bachelor’s. The Creative Writing/English track she had followed at that school turned out to be less than helpful when it came to practical publishing knowledge, and so when she sought out her summer internship in anticipation of her final academic year, she was going to take what she could get.
Bubblegum Crayon Press, or BCP, answered her query, and though the guy who interviewed her blinked twice at her lack of interest in comic books, the woman who took her on didn’t even blink once. BCP was at the time a boutique publisher whose sales figures were comparatively small in relation to the more traditional capes-and-tights outfits that injected the nation’s comic shops with Technicolor crack, but they had an art-house prestige that ultimately worked in their favor. Known primarily as publishers of black-and-white projects done by singular, often dysfunctional cartoonists, BCP’s books were read by cool kids and hoity-toity types who still dreamed of swinging on a web through Gotham City or wherever, but whom were afraid to admit it out loud. Reading the latest autobiographical collection from Neurotic Artist #35, however, was something they could claim with a sort of snooty, trailblazing pride.
BCP also had an in-house manga department that had been importing Japanese comics since the early ‘90s as a cheap way to supplement the modest sales of the company’s original works. This meant when the manga boom of the late ‘90s took more traditional comics publishers unaware, BCP looked like the smartest guys in the room. When the manga boom was suddenly followed by a mainstream fascination with literary graphic novels that caused the prose publishers to start scrambling to get their own comics lines started, Bubblegum Crayon became a hot commodity. When Parker’s internship was ending in the summer of 2004, the deal was being made for Bartleby & Sons to absorb BCP and turn it into a B&S imprint. Parker’s boss suggested that she stay on part-time through the next two semesters and then transition into being her full-time assistant once she had graduated.
It was in this way that comic books became the ironic route that positioned Parker that much closer to her original goal. How hard could it be to make a lateral move from BCP over to B&S? Two years on, she was relatively on her way, already being promoted from editorial assistant to assistant editor in twelve months, and then twelve after that performing the duties of an associate editor in all but name.
Plus, she had the added bonus of actually starting to like her work. Comics may not have been the ideal form for the Great American Novel, but Parker found the medium allowed for works of deeper expression than she had at first realized. Comics had the fluidity and economy of good cinema, but was capable of deeper layers like prose fiction.
It didn’t hurt that her mentor was one of the top editors in the business, a pioneer for women in the field, and thus able to cherry pick her projects. Janet Stanwyck had been in the industry for nearly thirty years, having started at one of the original independents in the 1980s, then moving to a DC Comics fantasy imprint, and then back to the independents as the first superstar hire at Bubblegum Crayon. She was known for her high-fashion image, coming to work in cocktail dresses and pearls more than she ever wore pantsuits or, God forbid, jeans and a T-shirt. With naturally dark hair cut in a severe bob and a voice with just a hint of smoke in it, Janet struck an imposing presence. Most everyone at BCP feared her, and with good reason. She was a demanding workaholic who had no fear telling the people under her what they had done wrong.
On a normal morning, all of the assistants in the office would usually arrive half-an-hour earlier than their bosses. This allowed them to do any leftover clean-up from the day before and organize things for the day to come. Parker and a few others would roll in even earlier, at 8:00 A.M., an hour ahead of their supervising editor, to give themselves a little downtime. They could enjoy some coffee, chat, and vent about whatever stupid thing they thought the company was doing now. Plus, Janet was less predictable as far as the hours she kept. She might come and go anywhere in the range of 8:30 A.M. to 8:30 P.M. There would be hell to pay if Janet showed up at her office and Parker was still at home.
Besides Janet, Parker was the only female employee in her department, and so these mornings were usually spent with a couple of junior editors who had grown up reading comics and weren’t sure they were that happy having girls in the clubhouse. Parker had seen some women who actually liked comic books pass through, and though she knew the boys had always had fantasies about ladies that spoke their language, they were oddly suspicious of the real thing. A fangirl couldn’t be real, there had to be something wrong with her.
Of course, there were two things wrong with Parker: she didn’t speak their language and she was after their jobs. More or less. Not that it would surprise anyone to know that Parker was actually relieved not to be an object of desire in her workplace.
Marc and Ellery were already there when Parker arrived. They were standing near Marc’s station, which was more out in the open than the other cubicles, because Marc was the lowest on the totem pole and his space was the hub where packages came and went and anyone in editorial could dump anything on him. He wasn’t there to impress any one person, more like trying to impress everybody. He was far too hungry, to the point where he barely went home and would sleep under his desk if he could. There was a good chance he’d flame out before ever moving up the chain. Or he’d become one of the stalwarts who landed an office with a door and then never left, stuck in comics forever because it was all he wanted and there was nowhere else for him to go.
Ellery worked under a couple of editors, mainly the group that was in charge of commercial tie-ins and licensed products. At the top of that chain was Simon Foster, a temperamental personality whose demanding managerial ethic was the only one to rival Janet’s. Ellery was there early for the same reason Parker was: there could never be a time when either of their bosses was in the office alone.
“Hey, Parker,” Ellery said. “Did you hear that I was here until past 7:00 last night reorganizing the ‘Hey, Barista!’ one-pagers for the new Battery-Powered Sailboat collection?”
Parker walked past the boys, heading toward the break room. “How would I have heard that, Ellery? I just got in.”
Ellery and Marc followed behind her. Ellery seemed particularly eager to give her the lowdown on this story.
“Whatever, do you have to be so literal? I’m just saying, it’s been barely twelve hours since I left here.”
The coffee was already percolating in the break room, and Parker grabbed her mug out of the staff cupboard. Her latte was long gone, she needed another jolt. The ceramic had a wraparound image of Valerie Flames in her modified 4FU Corsair, and she was flying around the cup dropping cocoa beans out of the back. Parker liked the mug, but the choice was also a little strategic. It never hurt to be seen sipping your java from the company’s main property.
“Wait, didn’t you already lay out those strips? I saw you and Marc working through them last week.”
“Yeah, we did,” Marc said. “Twice.”
“And then once more with Simon after Geoff Klein rejected those layouts.”
“Why doesn’t Geoff just pick them himself?” Parker asked. “He drew them.”
“Because he’s a perfectionist who doesn’t know how to communicate,” Ellery said. “I think he thinks it’s funny to watch us jump through hoops.
“Seventy-five single-page comic strips, and we have to pick them out of a pile of two hundred.” Marc shook his head like he couldn’t believe that such numbers were possible.
Parker laughed. “Yeah, and aren’t they all essentially the same? Guy goes into a coffee shop, says something to the barista, the barista comes back with a non-sequitur. There’s like three jokes in the whole thing, just seventy versions of them.”
Marc’s face fell. He looked more shocked than Parker felt he had a right to be. “Are you kidding me?” he asked. “The ‘Hey, Barista!’ strips are a work of absurdist genius. Geoff Klein is, like, a pioneer of alternative comics.”
“Yeah, but it’s so 1990s. I mean, pioneers get old, right? We don’t dress in prairie clothes and ride in covered wagons anymore.”
Marc started to jump up and down and wave his hands around. He looked a little like his pants had caught on fire and he had burned his hands trying to put them out. “You have to be shitting me? And they let you work here? Next you’re going to tell me that you don’t like Eightball or Acme Novelty Library.”
“Well, now that you mention it, those comics always feel a little too constipated to me.”
Parker had been here before, and she knew she had practically just incited World War III. She raised a mock toast to the boys with her hot mug of coffee and left the break room. They both followed.
“Now you’re just being contrary for the sake of being contrary,” Ellery said. “You just want a reaction, like if you told music fans you hated the Beatles or something.”
“I love the Beatles,” Parker said. She was dropping her bags in her cubicle, and once she was done, she kept walking back toward Marc’s desk area. “But they at least have some variety to their work. Those comics are just so, I don’t know…I just read them and think, ‘Oh, boys, get over it.’”
Marc cried out, “Ah-ha!” and pointed at Parker. “It’s because you’re a girl! Why do girls always hate the best comics?”
Ellery shook his head. “It’s not because she’s a girl, Marc. She’s just being smug because she works on the big title and can look down her nose at everybody else.”
“You wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for Battery-Powered Sailboat. That comic built this company.”
“And it would have sunk this company, too, if books like Valerie Flames hadn’t bailed it out.”
All three of them—Parker, Marc, and Ellery—froze. They recognized the new voice that had made that last statement, and if Marc had thought Parker was organizing some evil conspiracy, it was too bad for him, because they were all implicated in it now.
Parker greeted her boss. “Good morning, Janet.”
Janet Stanwyck grabbed the correspondence that was in her slot in the editorial mailboxes near Marc’s desk, stepping between Marc and Ellery to get to it. They didn’t just step out of the way, but took a couple of more paces for good measure.
“Don’t ever forget where your bread is buttered, boys. I like Geoff Klein as much as anyone, but his comics are long past their prime and have been for a while. He sells a tenth of what Amanda Fowler sells, and if he wasn’t best pals with the publisher, he’d have been dropped a long time ago.”
Neither of them had an answer for Janet, and she didn’t wait for one.
“Parker, stay close to your desk. Amanda’s assistant is bringing by new pages, and I want them right away.”
“And if you boys need something to do, I am sure I can find something,” Janet added. “There’s a slush pile waiting. Maybe you guys can dive in and find the company’s next hot property.”
“No, I think we’re covered,” Ellery ruefully responded.
“Good, then. That means you won’t be standing in those same spots if I happen to come back out here—which I very well might.”
The guys looked sheepishly after Janet as she exited down the hall, disappearing into her office and shutting the door. They gave Parker the stink eye but they dared not say anything. She knew they wanted to, but after they had been shut down like that, any attempts to recover would be pathetically transparent. Plus, Janet had invoked the name of their #1 author, and even if they would slink off and say her books weren’t as good as everyone made them out to be, the guys had to give respect where it was due.
Of the many perks of working for Janet, one of them was being part of the team behind the Amanda Fowler series of Valerie Flames graphic novels. When the manga thing happened, it was discovered that girls wanted to read comics just as much as boys did, a heretofore rock steady myth shattered (much to the chagrin of Marc and Ellery). Bubblegum Crayon had been publishing Amanda Fowler’s books for many years, and they had gained a strong cult following as the series progressed. Once comics hit bookstores, however, the series really took off and the numbers only increased when Bartlebys got behind the books and gave them a push.
A large part of why Parker thought it would be worthwhile to hang on to the comic book gig was that it might allow her to eventually take over Amanda’s books from Janet. While it wouldn’t exactly be the same as starting a literary legacy on her own, she could see the franchise into its maturity. Was it better to edit the first three books in the Harry Potter series or the last four? James Ellroy started out writing dime novels, and while his first editor had bragging rights for discovery, it’s the guy who saw the genius of the author’s Los Angeles books who will really have something to tell his grandkids and grad students about. And if Dave Sim had consistently used editors for the three hundred issues of his Cerebus comic book series, she could have been the gal who was there in the first couple of years when the book was terrible, or she could’ve been the one who was shepherding the genius of the middle years. Of course, then one would also risk the residual stink of guano in the final period when the book got bat-shit crazy.
Parker stayed out front near the main door that connected the editorial offices to reception. From there, she could hear the receptionist buzz her at her cubicle, and then just open the door. This way she could shuttle Mario, Amanda’s assistant, from there to Janet’s office without leaving him hanging. You’d think he was the leader of a country or something, the way they fussed over him, afraid to let the hoi polloi touch him with their greasy fingers. Other members of the staff passed by, but no one asked Parker what she was doing. They’d long since realized that if she was waiting out front, it meant it was an Amanda Fowler day.
Mario Franchini arrived promptly at 9:00. Amanda never came herself. It was always Mario. Parker heard her phone buzz and jumped to the door, sliding it open and holding it for Mario to walk through. He gave a wave to the receptionist as he passed, waggling the three center fingers on his right hand. An art portfolio was jammed under his left arm.
As Mario squeezed between the door jamb and Parker, he instinctively hugged the portfolio to his chest. He also turned to Parker and smiled at her, his gleaming but slightly crooked teeth emerging from generous lips. “Hiiiiii, Parker,” he said, a lilt in his voice. Though he wore insect sunglasses, she could see his eyes behind the lenses, and they seemed to be smiling, too.
Truth be told, the greeting and all that went with it made her dizzy. That was why she was dating him, his ability to do that to her, to fluster her both mentally and physically.
But the relationship was a secret, which was fine because it wasn’t steady or anything. He lived in Hollywood and they would only meet up when work permitted. Besides, everything around Mario and his boss had some level of secrecy connected to it, that was part of the fun.
“Janet’s waiting for you,” Parker said. “You got her in early today.”
The pair stepped through the door and into the editorial offices. Mario was nearly eight inches taller than Parker, and he took even strides on thin legs. He was dressed in full rockstar mode for the day: skinny pants with vertical stripes, a satin T-shirt, and a bulky coat with a giant fur collar that threatened to swallow his head completely. Had she been wearing it, Parker knew she’d be sweating like crazy, but Mario was so skinny, it probably didn’t affect him. There was nothing there to sweat.
“I knew I’d be up all night working, so I thought it would be better to get this meeting over with first thing. If I’d let myself crash, I’d have been out for the next two days and then Janet would have killed me.”
“Not killed. Maimed, maybe. But, yeah….”
As the two of them walked back toward Janet’s office, Parker knew that heads were turning. It was hard not to notice Mario, even on days he was dressing down. His height, his olive skin, the long hands that swung at his sides like they belonged to a puppet and the puppet master had let go of the strings—these were all things that attracted attention. Parker had once even been backstage with him at a concert in Hollywood where everyone was dressed outlandishly, and there too people whispered about Mario. Amongst the famous, he was unknown, but he looked like the one guy everyone should know.
Parker knew that they all had their theories about Mario, that the staff of BCP traded stories about him, the rumors that swirled around this young dandy who was the only pipeline to one of the most famous cartoonists in the world. His boss was the only person who could outdistance Mario in the hidden secrets department. Parker wondered how many of these speculations actually got close to the truth. Had anyone guessed that they were even dating? Was it obvious in the way they walked together? Him with his long, unhurried strides, and her brisk, short steps, trying to keep up. They probably thought she was nervous because of the importance of the client, but she was really nervous worrying over whether or not anyone could see through their façade.
Mario kept his head up, his eyes forward. Every few steps, he’d look down at Parker, give her a smile. She felt like a dog being taken for a walk, her owner checking in occasionally to make sure she was maintaining the pace, not stopping to do her stinky business. As far as she could tell, Mario was completely unaffected.
Janet’s office was like a safe haven. At least some of the veils of secrecy could be dropped.
Once the door was closed, Janet rose from her desk and gave Mario a big hug. He was one of only a few people you would ever see her being so affectionate to, and Mario told Parker that he always found it amusing. “She’s supposed to be so scary, but she’s like a rag doll.”
Parker thought Mario might view it differently if he could see these embraces from the outside. A rag doll implies that the person is loose-limbed and comfortable. While Mario’s size, with the way his arms wrapped all the way around her slender frame and looked like they could make another lap of her if he really wanted them to, might have made her look like a toy, her stiff demeanor was more akin to a plastic figure with very few points of articulation.
“How was your drive?” Janet asked.
“Not bad. I left early enough, I was able to get out before L.A.’s rush hour and get here just after yours.”
Janet playfully tugged at the art portfolio. “Do you have lots to surprise me with today?”
Mario laughed. It seemed to rumble up from his ribcage, deep and friendly. Parker often thought that if he shaved his head, he could play Queequeg in a production of Moby Dick. “You’re the one who set my deadline, Janet, and told me how many pages I had to have done, so I can’t see where you’re going to be surprised.”
The portfolio was laid out on Janet’s desk. The pages covered most of its surface. The Valerie art was drawn double-up, meaning it was twice the size of average comic book art, which usually was drawn on a sheet of Bristol board measuring 11” X 17” with a healthy border between the art and the edges of the page. These pages were closer to two-feet wide and three-feet tall, and there was very little gutter.
Janet was about halfway through the stack when she said, “You’re doing a smashing job, as always, Mario.”
“Thanks. I think people are going to like the changes Valerie is going through, and the time travel stuff is turning out to be a lot of fun to write.”
“You may not be able to surprise me on page count, but seeing what you’re going to come up with is always an adventure. These are lovely. You’ve made my week.”
Had anyone been eavesdropping, the conversation would have likely caused them great puzzlement. Would they think that Mario was taking credit for his boss’ work, or would they actually realize the truth?
The truth was that the biggest secret of all in the clandestine world of Valerie Flames was that there was no Amanda Fowler. Or, more precisely, Mario Franchini was Amanda Fowler.
Valerie Flames originally began as a self-publishing venture just after the turn of the century. Convinced no one would buy the daring and incredible exploits of a little girl if they were written and drawn by a man, Mario invented an alter ego for himself. He created a fictional cartoonist named Amanda Fowler who stayed hidden in her studio, dreaming up fantastic adventures, unwilling to step out into the light and greet her public. She insisted that it would destroy the mystique, that her creation must exist as something in its own right, beyond the perceived manipulation of any human hands.
Of course, now that people had bought into the whole Amanda Fowler construct, Mario’s initial fears would probably come true if the mythology was demolished. To have a skinny twenty-nine year old emerge from behind the book covers would make people feel duped, and so the true identity of the real mastermind of Valerie Flames remained a closely guarded secret. Only a precious few inside Bubblegum Crayon knew the truth, and except for Parker, no one with a position any lower on the roster than Janet’s. Parker wasn’t even sure if anyone at Bartlebys knew.
Mario had been keeping the ruse up for so long, it became old hat to him. Rather than photos, Amanda’s dust jackets featured self-portraits. She wrote little letters in the backs of the books, afterwords addressed to her fans. When the series became an underground sensation, Mario brought himself on as Amanda’s assistant to deal with business. He brokered her deal with BCP as her proxy when he decided to let an actual publishing house with a better distribution and marketing chain unburden him of those tasks.
In a way, the Mario that acted on Amanda’s behalf was also another construct, and Parker often wondered how close even she was getting to the real him. As the only public face for the Valerie Flames franchise, there was naturally interest in who Mario was. He played the humble acolyte in service to the great artist. He said he had always intended to draw comics himself, but he was not very good. He developed a second style that would be this Mario’s style, drawing with his left hand instead of his right. It had a blockier, more primitive look than the lush lines of the Flames book. Really, he was just mimicking Jack Kirby and letting his unpracticed hand remove the skill that his regular drawing hand was capable of. With his right hand, he could draw Ben Grimm with 100% accuracy, down to every last crack in the superhero’s rocky hide; with his left, it was like some DIY punk version of the same, still good but vastly different.
The new Valerie Flames adventure would be her 11th. The books came out twice a year, and Valerie the character was aging one year to every two years in real time. Eventually, she would become a full-grown woman, and then the series would likely stop. She was twelve now, in the middle of junior high when she wasn’t off somewhere solving crimes and saving the world.
As soon as Janet was done going over the pages, Parker was sent upstairs to deliver them to the production department. Though there had been no cases of corporate espionage in BCP’s history, Janet still liked to treat every delivery from Mario like it was top secret and there were spies everywhere looking to get their hands on the new pages and throw them on the internet. Only certain eyes got to see the work in progress, every photocopy was accounted for, and Parker was forbidden to tell anyone outside of the select few anything about what was coming. She suspected Janet did all of this to suck up to Mario/Amanda more than for any actual belief that such measures were necessary. These precautions were something they needed to do on movies, but Parker had never heard of them being taken for comic books.
When Parker returned to the fifteenth floor, she did a quick buzz by Janet’s office. Janet was inside at her computer, but Mario was not with her. Rather than ask after him, Parker kept walking. Though Janet usually had Parker escort her guests into the editorial offices, she tended to see them out on her own. Best not to look overly concerned and alert speculation. Mario was probably gone already, though just thinking that caused a hard fist to grow inside Parker’s stomach. Like a hand clasped over an avocado pit.
A circle of the perimeter of the office didn’t turn up anything, he must have left. Would he go back to L.A. without telling her? Normally, he hung around. She remembered their first date, they ended up on top of an old hotel in downtown San Diego that had been boarded up and was going to be renovated and turned into something else. Mario had stayed there when he was a teenager during the couple of summers he had traveled to California from Vermont to attend the big Comic Con yearly event and try to show editors his artwork. “I wanted so bad to draw Daredevil,” he told her as they stared out across the skyline. The sun was setting off in the distance, sinking into the Pacific Ocean. “I was pretty much copying everything from Frank Miller—though, at least I was being kind of original, redrawing his Daredevil pages so that they looked like he had drawn them at the same time he did Dark Knight. You know, that was my combination!” He laughed. “None of the portfolio reviews went well. The editors at the big companies were mean, and that’s why I decided to screw them and do something else and do it on my own. Once I ditched the notion that I’d be working to please them, my style changed, started to reveal itself. That’s when I found Valerie.”
Parker found it endearing the way Mario talked about Valerie Flames as if she were real, like his little sister or something. He always referred to her in that way, like a precious treasure he had uncovered, a chance meeting on the pathway of life. That particular evening, his voice was full of emotion, almost as if his heart had literally risen into his throat. Parker watched him as he spoke, the golden glow of the setting sun reflecting off of his brown eyes.
Mario caught her looking. “What?” he asked.
She smiled. “Nothing.”
And then she kissed him. Their first kiss. She stood on her tiptoes to meet his mouth, and the more he kissed her, the more the electricity traveled to her legs so she could remain poised there, so she would not have to be standing flat again and away from his lips. His breath was sweet, flavored with bananas and just a faint hint of cigarettes. To this day, she could taste it in her memory, and any time she smelled something with a banana scent, she thought of Mario.
It was possible he hadn’t gone all the way home. There was a protocol they followed, to put a buffer between work and play, to keep their secret. Mario would stay up for days before a deadline, skipping sleep in order to catch up on his pages. The whole reason he drove them to the office himself, risking exposing his big secret, was that it bought him more time. Even using an overnight service, that’s precious hours of ink slinging lost. So, immediately after he was done going over things with Janet and Parker, Mario took the spare set of keys Parker had made for him and went over to her apartment. He always had to sleep for a good, solid twelve hours before he could even function enough to talk to his girlfriend, much less do anything else. In all likelihood, he was already there, and her feelings of abandonment were unfounded.
Returning to her office, Parker found a post-it note on her computer screen. It said, “You’re Needed in the Conference Room.” The handwriting was his.
Happy once more, Parker did her best not to skip all the way down the hall to where Mario would be waiting. So many of her coworkers could see her as she passed, and she was not a girl that was known to skip. Even so, she felt like skipping, and there but for the grace of prying eyes….
Only the fist returned to her gut, punching at her from the inside, when Parker entered to the conference room to find no one inside. Oh, no, had she taken too long and he decided not to wait? Was the note a good sign or a bad sign, left because he wasn’t staying in San Diego and needed to say good-bye, or could his early jettisoning be because he was staying and no one need fret?
Then she heard a knocking. It was coming from behind her. She heard it again. The only thing there was a supply closet. It didn’t make any sense. Parker opened the door, and before she knew it, a hand reached out and grabbed her by the arm, yanking her inside. The door shut behind her, it was dark.
The body pressed against her was as familiar to her as the handwriting on the note had been. The curve of his chest, the grip of his arms, they were Mario’s as much as his signature. She could smell his sweat, the spicy natural deodorant he used, the things that made him who he was.
“What are you doing in here?” she asked.
“I was looking for a pencil, and the door closed on me.”
“And what? You couldn’t find the knob?”
“Something like that.”
“You’re a dork.”
She felt his hands move up her torso, his fingers reaching her neck, caressing her jawbone, settling on her cheeks. His breath grew warmer on her face, and before she knew it his lips were on hers, soft and thick, like a chocolate candy with a milky center. She closed her eyes, and the way she felt, she didn’t want to open them.
“I’m sorry. I just wanted to kiss you once before I went. I didn’t want to wait until tonight.”
Parker laughed. “More like you didn’t want to wait to use that line.”
“What? I just thought of it!”
“Your skepticism isn’t healthy, Parker.”
“Skepticism is always healthy, Mario. Now kiss me again.”
Reggie and Parker met at college. Though their university was largely considered a “commuter school,” Reggie was one of those rare students who lived in the dorms. He actually only went to high school a couple of hours away from their alma mater, having spent his adolescent years in one of the towns struggling to become something in the Mojave Desert, but his desire to get away from there was so strong, he was going to go wherever he could. He blamed his lack of options on lopsided SAT scores. “If you score in, like, the top 10% in English, should it really matter that you’re in the low 50s in math? Can’t they see what’s going on?”
His original goal was to be an English teacher, but by the end of his five years (it took him one extra, but he was a year older than Parker, so they graduated together), he had settled into being a plain old Comparative Literature major and leaving school with no plans for his future. “Typing all of those papers was like my internship in data entry,” he joked. Reggie followed Parker to San Diego because, for him, it was as good a place as any. This was now his pattern. Plus, he’d at least know someone there.
They met in a basic composition course. It was a class for incoming freshmen, and they all were impressed by Reggie’s intricate explanation of the James Joyce short story “Araby.”
“How did you know what that bicycle pump stood for?” Parker asked him.
“I was supposed to take this class a year ago,” Reggie said, “but I put it off. So, I’ve had a year of lit classes. Trust me, just about every professor assigns you ‘Araby’ at some point or another. You’ll see. This is my fourth time!”
Reggie had been right. Parker wagered she had read no single piece of writing as many times as she had read “Araby.” The two became fast friends and had hung out together three times before Parker realized Reggie had intended the outings to be dates—much to her embarrassment and his chagrin.
“I’m sorry,” she told him, “but I just don’t see you that way.”
For better or for worse, despite the honesty of the statement, this one sentence was to set the tenor for their relationship from then forward.
It was pretty normal for the two of them to meet after the working day had ended, to have some dinner and a few drinks at their local pub. Sometimes Reggie played pool, depending on who else was there, and Parker would watch. Nine out of ten times, it was a natural, comfortable arrangement.
Not so much on the nights Mario was in town.
It wasn’t that Mario came along with them, it was that he didn’t come along, and so Parker’s presence was merely a pit stop before heading back to her apartment where he was sleeping. His need for sleep meant she was better off steering clear and giving him peace, and that turned the drinking with Reggie into a waiting game. It was sex Purgatory, and Parker had no choice but to make Reggie the jailer.
He resented it, of course, but what else could she do? Reggie didn’t understand why the assistant was so tired, it wasn’t like he did all the work. Parker really wanted to set him straight but it only takes telling one person and the whole Amanda Fowler empire topples. Besides, it wasn’t like Reggie had any respect for Amanda or Valerie Flames, either.
“I don’t get the appeal of that goddamn book,” he spit, lining up his shot by spying down the length of his cue. There was no one in the bar he wanted to play with that night, so he played solo, a clear indicator that he wanted to let off some steam. “What’s wrong with good, old-fashioned Nancy Drew?”
“Valerie isn’t like Nancy Drew. She’s more like Tintin.”
“Oh, shut up. Like you even know who Tintin is. You act like I’m not the guy who taught you about comic books.”
“Screw you. I know. I bet I’ve read more comics than you now.”
“Besides, given that you are the comic book guy, what’s the big deal with dissing Valerie Flames all the time for having fantasy elements?”
“Because I’m not twelve anymore.”
“And you’ve put away childish things?”
“That’s right. I don’t get all freaked by Edgar Allen Poe, either.”
“Poe? You’re now turning your wrath on Poe?”
Reggie racked up the pool balls, removed the triangle, and stepped back. He stared hard at the formation before hitting the cue and breaking up his own handiwork. “I just don’t see the point anymore. What happened to normal stories about normal people? Like, why does every novel have to be about some Jewish girl who discovers her long-lost father is a Nazi?”
“Or a midget cross-dresser who pays for law school by hooking on the streets.”
“Right. Modern fiction is filled with people who suffer either the most massive, ironic problem ever heard of or are cursed with the most exaggerated, freakish marketing hook the author can contrive.”
“I hear you. You want novels about guys who are plumbers.”
“Why not? There are probably more plumbers out there than there are book editors. Don’t you think they’d rather read about a clogged pipe than some masturbatory novelist with a clogged brain struggling to finish his new book while screwing the landlord’s wife and obsessing over her harelip?”
“Jesus, that’s pleasant.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Sure, but I don’t think you’re right. If you were a plumber, why would you want to read a story about another plumber? You could just look in the mirror.”
“A plumber is just an example. I mean, yeah, there are a lot of plumbers, but do you even know one? When was the last time you shared a beer with a plumber?”
“I sometimes wish I was a plumber,” Parker replied.
“Shut up, you do not.”
“I’m not kidding. At least then you know what you’re getting into. Have you ever heard of a guy who set out to be a plumber and failed, having his dreams completely shattered in the process? Everyone who wants to fix pipes for a living can, but not everyone who wants to publish books gets the opportunity. How many people who were in my creative writing classes do you think are actually making money writing? Most of them have probably forgotten that’s what they wanted by now, maybe even settling into something practical like plumbing.”
“Their misery is your fortune. Less competition.”
Parker took the last of her drink in her mouth, held it for a moment, and then swallowed. “Yeah,” she said. “Maybe.”
There was a time when Parker was a child that her family lived just a couple of blocks away from her paternal grandparents. They had a large backyard where her grandmother kept goats, sheep, and chickens, and Parker would spend a lot of afternoons after school over there, helping feed the animals and generally just hanging around. Other days, she’d go to a friend’s house if she could so she could watch cartoons, but if she couldn’t do that, that’s when she’d go visit the animals. No one was allowed to turn the TV on at her house until after dinner, and then to watch the evening news and “Jeopardy.” Parker had to wait until those were over to get a hand in the voting.
If she was able to stay at her grandparents’ long enough, grandfather would come home from work. He worked in flooring, and though he owned the company he ran, he usually put in a good day of actual labor himself whenever he could. Parker knew what days those were, because when he would come over and give her his usual big bear hug, she could smell the chemicals and the cement and whatever he used to attach the tiles to the floor. It was mixed with his perspiration, and there was something about his particular odor that made her feel safe. That was what a man should smell like. Like work.
Parker watched Reggie miss his latest shot. He cursed under his breath. “Where’s the girl from last night?” she asked. “What does she do for a living?”
“Human resources,” he said. “Don’t you remember? I asked her out after she and I had a talk about how my supervisor was complaining I was too flippant.”
“Geez, no, how much did I drink? You’d think I’d remember that. It sounds like a colossally bad idea, Reggie. You are tooflippant.”
Reggie took another shot, and this time the ball sank where it was supposed to. “Yeah, but she finds me funny.”
“What happens when the jokes run out?”
“I don’t know,” Reggie shrugged. “She’s just a girl, and it’s just a job.”
Mario seemed pleased when Parker woke him with several cartons of Indian takeaway. He sat up in her bed, shirtless and groggy, his hair matted down with sweat on one side of his head. In just a few short hours, he had permeated the whole apartment with his scent, that same spicy perfume that Parker had smelled back at the office. When he left, that smell always stuck around for a day or two, and Parker would miss it when it was gone.
Parker’s kitchen table had an extra leaf that she never really needed in her small space, so she kept it in her closet. She pulled it out and lay it across the bed, taking the food containers out of the plastic bags and laying them out on the board. Mario watched her as she did this, she could feel his eyes on her. Taking a glance, she saw he was smiling. There was something about seeing her in this way that pleased him. Perhaps he had an idea to domesticate her that he had not yet shared.
Before Parker could put out any silverware, Mario had opened up the cartons and started taking the food with his hands. He reached his dripping fingers up to his mouth, tilting his head back to drop chunks of lamb onto his tongue. Later, when he would touch her face, she would smell the seasoning from the food on his fingertips. These first nights together after a gap of being apart would usually be a combination of love making and conversation, an evening of roaming hands that connected the two activities and made them one. His long, ink-stained fingers would travel the length of her body, spending a lot of time circling her stomach, going around and around her bellybutton. Their breathing would be in tandem, as if the physical connection was more than just skin on skin. Parker probably liked that more than the sex itself, just being touched, feeling him close. In terms of the whole package, it was the thing she couldn’t get just anywhere.
But first was the food, in its way instinctual, like energy building, charging the batteries before expending them. Mario made no attempts to hide his hunger, the barehanded lamb just the start of the attack charge he lead on the takeout. These daylong hibernations left him ravenous. There wasn’t that much fat on his bones for him to live off of to begin with, there was no way he’d ever survive a full winter wrapped in a bearskin, snoring in a cave. Parker feared she’d have to move fast to get some grub for herself before the artist ate it all.
And yet, when they were done eating, it was Parker who was flat on her back, gorged on the delightful vittles, her head feeling slightly fat from the alcohol she had drank earlier, and it was the lithe gentleman who was clearing the remains from the bed, spiriting the leftovers away and into the kitchen.
When he returned, he leaned over the bed, lowering himself down on top of her, his face over hers, his body bent at the stomach on the bed frame. “You’re not going to sleep, are you?” he asked.
“No. I just feel swollen. Like my whole body is one huge black eye.”
He kissed her then, his tongue soft in her mouth, and he didn’t separate with her as he swiveled, using her as a fulcrum, and brought himself around to be parallel with her on the bed. Almost imperceptibly, his hands were undoing her buttons, and they had moved from dinner to dessert.
Midway through the night, during one of their conversation breaks, Mario pressed his face to her ear and kissed it before whispering, “Do you ever wonder if this is love?”
Parker’s initial response was, “No, because if it was, I don’t think you’d have to wonder.” Luckily, she caught herself before she voiced that opinion, and instead, all she said was, “Yes.”
# # #
(c) 2012 Jamie S. Rich & Joëlle Jones
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