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My Face is on Fire: A Novella (Part Two)
Torch Head never observed a timetable in his work. He kept things as loose and free and open for himself as possible. But don't tell that to his partner, Pete Bollinger --- who clung to the illusion of coordination and control of "my field operative's activities."
The field operative contentedly acquiesced, making sport of the coordinator and controller's constant demands to "keep me informed," with "regular updates," and "progress reports." The updates and progress reports were fabricated, naturally. At least highly exaggerated.
"I'm like Van Buren on Law and Order," Bollinger would tell clients. In the show Van Buren is a lieutenant of the Homicide section of the police. She has an office and supervises all the other detectives. They keep her apprised of the progress of their investigations. She listens, asks questions, subtly steers them --- a push here, a nudge there; and of course, tells them what to do, as their "coordinator and controller."
So, in the time honored tradition of employees lying to their bosses, Torch Head padded his stats. He made easy jobs seem moderately difficult; moderately difficult ones seem difficult; and difficult jobs seem as though only divine intervention could sort it out, but that somehow --- Oh lord, somehow! --- the Torch Head would find a way to pull it off.
He told of putting people "under surveillance." He told of following people, on foot and by car. He told of stakeouts, of sitting in cars for hours on end, not even leaving his perch to go to the bathroom; of taking pictures of the front entrances of buildings with his camera with the zoom lens.
He told of talking to people. Mostly shadowy characters, whom he found it necessary to cajole, intimidate, coerce, extort, or bribe --- or some combination of all five --- in order to get them to come across with a piece of valuable information. Which led to the next piece of valuable information. And the next. And then the next. Until the jigsaw puzzle was completely assembled.
Torch Head wanted to include car chases in his narratives. But that would have been overdoing it. In addition to making Bollinger feel like he was a part of a real Sam Spade type operation --- and fulfilling those vicarious needs --- Torch Head's fictional accounts were good fodder for the clients. To whom Bollinger duly passed along the fairy tales.
This was only prudent. Sometimes clients could get funny about paying in full, the agreed upon price for services rendered, even if you got the very results you had been contracted to get --- if they think that you had too easy a time in getting them.
How a man like Bollinger and Torch Head ever hooked up and became business partners, if not friends, is another story best left for another time.
Since his quarry was right where he could lay his hands on, any time he wanted, Torch Head could take some time for himself. He noticed the color from his tattoos was fading a bit; he could use a touch up.
Having picked up a tip on a good place to have that done, Torch Head went back to the Art Project neighborhood. That's how Torch Head thought of the town anyway, whatever its name was. On a side street, off the main avenue of the business district, between a video store and the smallest public lending library he had ever seen, stood an establishment called Boss Plane Tattoos.
A picture of a commercial passenger airplane was stenciled beneath the name. A bell clanked as he walked in the door. The place was empty except for woman seated behind the counter, reading a magazine.
She stood as he drew near. "Hello and welcome to Boss Plane Tattoos."
"Hi," he said. "This your place or do you just work here?"
She smiled. "All mine. I'm the proprietor."
He pointed at the window. "Unusual name for the place."
"Is it?" she said.
He shrugged. "Isn't it?"
"Anyway," she said, "its from Fantasy Island."
Blank-faced he said, "Fantasy Island?"
"The television show, on ABC, I think it was, in the late 1970s and early 1980s."
"Okay, the show about the island where people could actually live out their fantasy dreams?"
"And what was the name of the guy that ran it?"
"Mr. Rourke," she said, "played by Ricardo Montalban."
"Ricardo Montalban. He was the same guy that was in Star Trek: Wrath of Khan, right?"
"Right. And the little guy, you may remember, was Mr. Rourke's assistant. His name on the show was 'Tattoo.'"
She gave him a sidelong glance. "Let me show you something." She led him a back wall full of pictures of different people. "Look there." She was thumbing a picture of herself, many years ago, posing with an extremely short man, squatting down, almost having to sit on her butt to be even with him.
The man in the picture was brown-skinned with shiny, dark black hair. He looked Peruvian or Mexican.
"How old were you then?"
"Sixteen," she said. "I was a groupie. I wanted so badly to sleep with him, but he wouldn't let me. I was under age, as I say, and he was a perfect gentleman."
"And married?" Torch Head said.
"Well, I don't think so," she said. "He didn't mention it. He wasn't wearing a wedding ring."
"Yeah but you know how it is with those Hollywood studs. Its part of their carefully managed public image to imply that they're single, even when they're not. They want their female fans to fantasize."
"Yeah, I guess so. Its possible," she said.
"What was his real name?" Torch Head said.
"Herve Villechaize. During the opening credits he would say: 'Boss, the plane. The plane.'" She tried to imitate his accented, high-pitched voice, which she clearly---even these many years later---thought was adorable. "Anyway, I always remembered that, and when I opened my shop, on a whim I named the place Boss Plane Tattoos."
"You found him adorable."
"Good enough to eat," Torch Head said, probing.
She closed her eyes and shivered a little. "Oh, yes!"
"It wasn't just a passing fancy," Torch Head said.
"You wanted him."
"You hungered for him."
"God, yes. Yes!"
"You dreamed about him."
She was breathing heavy now. All she could do was nod.
"Every time you thought about his little hands running up and down your legs..."
"Every time you thought about cleaving the smallness of his body to your bosom..."
"Every time his little hands found your secret places..."
"Every time you kissed him and caressed his head too big for his little body..."
"Every time he put his lips to you..."
"Every time he put his lips to your forehead..."
"Every time he put his lips to your eyes..."
"Every time he put his lips to the bridge of your nose..."
"Yes! Please... Don't... stop."
"Every time he put his lips to your mouth and chin..."
"Every time he kissed your neck..."
"And he brought his lips lower..."
"Did you try to breast feed him... what's your name?"
"Did you try to breast feed him, Liz?"
"What? That's disgusting!"
"Its depraved but you did it anyway, didn't you, Liz?"
"I.. I..I..." Then her resolve broke. "Yes!"
"Every time he put his lips to your stomach..."
"And lower..." Torch Head said.
"And lower!" Liz said.
"Every time he went down on you, Liz."
"He went down on you, didn't he?"
"Did he go down on you good, Liz?"
"He went down on you good."
Torch Head scrutinized Liz. Then, with a look of apparent disgust he said, "You wanted to give birth to him, didn't you?"
"That's awful," Liz said.
"That's disgusting," Torch Head said, "but we've already established that there isn't any limit to your depravity. Is there, Liz?"
"Yes... I mean no... I mean... why are you doing this..."
"Liz, admit it. You wanted to give birth to him."
She had her arms folded beneath her breasts and she was sinking to the floor. Torch Head was not dissuaded.
"Was he wearing a diaper, Liz?"
"What are you talking about?" she said with a shudder. She tried to pretend it was a shudder of revulsion, but the Torch Head knew better.
Torch Head was like a relentless prosecutor. "He was wearing a diaper, Liz. Admit it! Confess! He was wearing a diaper in your dreams and you wanted to give birth to him."
For the first time Liz looked as though she felt just a little dirty. "Okay."
"What?" Torch Head shouted.
"Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! He was wearing a diaper. I wanted to give birth to him; and I tried to breast feed him. Are you happy now?"
"Are you?" Torch Head shouted again. "Are you?"
"Leave me alone."
"Confession's good for the soul, Liz. Ain't you ever heard that?"
She said nothing.
"Look here, Liz, was he sleeping in a baby crib?"
She nodded. All resistance was finally broken.
"He was wearing nothing but a diaper and he was sleeping in a baby crib. Is that right?"
"Yes," she said, but not as emphatic as before. She was winding down.
But the Torch Head was building up to the big finish. "You were sleeping in his baby crib with him, weren't you Liz?"
"You were his mother, weren't you Liz?"
"His dirty, dirty mother!"
"His dirty, filthy mother."
"You freak!" Torch Head shouted. "Freak! Freak!"
"I am. Father forgive me."
"Freak!" Torch Head shouted one more time.
Liz had been touching herself for a while now. With a last, volcanic, convulsive shudder she came to the peak of her satisfaction.
And so had the Torch Head.
They were both sitting on the floor, trying to catch their breath.
When they had recovered themselves, Torch Head said, "Are those the only kind of guys you're into, Liz?"
"Midgets?" Liz said.
"Actually I think the proper term, these days, is 'little people.'"
"Okay, little people. Are those the only kind of guys you're into---little people guys?"
"By no means," Liz said.
"That's good," Torch Head said, "cause I think you're a knockout, kid." He pushed a lock of her hair out of her eyes.
She caught his hand and held it against her cheek for a moment. "Hold that thought. I'll be right back."
She went to the front of the shop and turned the sign around, facing the street, to the "Sorry, we're closed," side, locked the door, and pulled down the shades.
"Closing up so soon?" Torch Head said, consulting his wristwatch.
"All business is done by appointment," she said, making her way back to him.
"Should I make an appointment?"
"Never mind, you're here now," she said. "By the way, what can I do for you?"
It was a fair question since the Torch Head had already "done" for her. "I need to get my tattoo coloring touched up. Its fading a bit."
"Okay," she said, looking him up and down. "where are your tattoos?"
Looking fully human at this moment, the Torch Head appeared not to have a mark on him. "All over, baby." He removed his human mask and human hand coverings. He took off his jacket and shirt, stripping down bare to his waist. "All over."
She moved to him and laid hands on him, from his head to his waist. At that moment, he was to her, an idol of fire-gold. "Your devotion to the way is unbelievable."
"I am my own creation," he said. "I strive to make myself each day."
Torch Head's partner, Pete Bollinger, may have looked like a lumberjack at six-six, two-ninety-five, but he never did a day's worth of manual work in his life. He came from money. Big money. Very big money.
You remember Bollinger; we mentioned him before---the volatile gentleman with the stomp first, ask questions never policy. He is the one who runs the office; and who, allegedly, coordinates and controls the field operative, the Torch Head.
Bollinger was an Ivy League brat, from an Ivy League neighborhood, born to Ivy League parents, who gave him all the Ivy League advantages in life, including an education in all the right Ivy League institutions from preschool through college.
Bollinger and his Ivy League friends, always dressed in the latest Ivy League fashions, and later, sometime in their late teens, had their parents by them Ivy League cars, which they drove in reckless, Ivy League fashion with their Ivy League sense of entitlement and impunity, which, unfortunately, turned out to be, more than not, perfectly Ivy League justified.
They partied and drank and drove with their youthful Ivy League abandon. Damaging property, sometimes hurting themselves but more often hurting others: passengers or innocent bystanders. Always being bailed out of the consequences by their Ivy League fathers and their Ivy League family attorneys.
You better believe cash was spread around like fertilizer. To a female complainant of sexual harassment, or God forbid something worse. To a police benevolent association there. Or fire department or ambulance service. Or community hospital. To individuals and/or their families there. To judges and their clerks. To district attorneys and their assistants.
Bollinger had been formed in the midst of all this. Had been this kind of Ivy League poster boy. Through it all he had managed exceptional grades in school; and he had been a top athletic performer: football, basketball, and wrestling.
He had been a punishing linebacker all through high school and college and for five years in the NFL. Then quite abruptly, one day, after half a decade of pro ball, Bollinger quit the game. There had been no apparent reason for it. He had not been cut or traded. Injury had not driven him from the League.
He simply moved on to other interests. It was just as well. While his talent had been undeniable, spectacular even, Bollinger had always been a little too even-tempered about wining and losing for his coaches and fellow players.
When Bollinger, the Ivy League boy grew up into Ivy League adulthood, he married an Ivy League young woman, from an Ivy League family with lots of Ivy League money. The Ivy League union produced Ivy League children: an Ivy League boy and an Ivy League girl. Both of who would go on to reproduce the Ivy League cycle once again.
Bollinger had many interests and hobbies. He was a mile wide and an inch deep in this way. After his half decade in the NFL, he became a businessman. Though not the kind who specialized in a particular sector.
He became part of the community of men who operated strings of multiple enterprises; and traded those businesses back and forth, among themselves, like baseball cards. For tax purposes primarily. But also because it was something to do.
But Bollinger took it a step further. He wasn't so much a businessman as a one-man commerce blitzkrieg.
He had his fingers in many pies. More pies than he had fingers, in fact. More pies than he had fingers and toes. More pies than the fingers and toes of himself, his wife and children combined. That's a lot of pies!
"I don't know," Bollinger often said to people, "maybe one day I'll consolidate everything like Charles Bluhdorn." Charles Bluhdorn had been another manic entrepreneur, who had consolidated his assets into the mammoth Gulf & Western corporation. Pete Bollinger certainly knew his American business history.
At any rate, one of the free-floating pies Bollinger concerned himself with was the bounty hunting/private investigating/body guarding/discrete services sector. The slickly embossed business cards gave his full name across the top: Phillip Randolph Bollinger. The address and phone and fax numbers, as well as email address of Bollinger Associates.
The design on the cards was very busy and clunky. There was a picture of a illuminated torch; next to it were the words: We shine light in the darkest corners! Next, beneath it was a pair of lips shown in profile, with a hushing index finger touching them; next to it were the words: Discretion is our watchword! And beneath that was a big football players, in full uniform, tackling another football player; next to it were the words: Protection is job # 1.
You fall in love with someone because of the way she makes you feel about yourself. One feels expanded and enlarged. You can imagine yourself becoming a better man. The longer you're together the longer you strive to become that man. You want to be the kind of man a woman like that deserves.
Making love to Liz was like this...
The Torch Head was five years old again, bouncing on his mother's bed. This time no one is telling to stop that. He is free to bounce at the center of the bed to his heart's content. He is gleefully going "boing" "boing" "boing" "boing"...
That is the sound his bouncing makes. The room is painted a soft, powdery blue with fluffy white clouds. And there are flocks of pretty, pretty birds.
As he goes "boing" "boing" "boing" on the bed, up, up, and up, the scene, sometimes, seems to shift animate. He can smell the rarified air. He can touch the clouds. He can hear the flapping of the wings of the pretty, pretty birds; and wonders where they are flying to. Time to go south for the winter?
He knows that he is perfectly safe bouncing on his mother's bed. He knows that even if he fell off---which was highly unlikely---he would not get hurt. Because all things are Downy soft. This room, this chamber was made for him to explore safely.
As he continues to bounce, to go "boing" "boing" "boing," he gains more confidence and starts doing goofy pratfalls. Falling on his butt with his legs outstretched. Falling spread eagle on his stomach. Falling on his back crablike.
He continues to bounce.
He continues to go "boing" "boing" "boing."
Now he is five years older. At ten years of age he is still young enough to think that if he could just bounce high enough, he might, perhaps, get a glimpse of God.
His tumbling becomes more advanced. He "boing-boing-boings" into the air and does forward somersaults on the way down. He mixes in these forward somersaults into the pratfalls he continues to do.
The next time he springs into the air he is fifteen---the age he had started to work out a little. He was proud of his body. Starting to get that V-shape to his back.
He "boing-boing-boings" into the air. Sometimes the nature in the sky animates. He bounces up and flattens his body out parallel, as though he is flying with the birds. But he cannot actually fly. Though he sort of feels like he can.
As he bounces from the bed he continues to do his forward somersaults, take his playful pratfalls. He is also tucking his legs and turning his body head-over-heels sideways, left and right.
Now he is twenty. A magnificent physical specimen: pecs, abs, back. He is lean and muscular. His acrobatics bouncing off the bed are as graceful as his body is sleek. No more pratfalls.
He's doing backflips now. Either tucking his legs or not; merely holding his outstretched body stiff like a pendulum.
Now he is twenty-five...
Now he is thirty...
Now he is his present age.
He prepares to dismount. He bounces high into the air, contorts his body, does something funky, and lands on the floor.
He nailed the landing!
Along the far wall three monkeys are sitting at the judges table. They each hold up the number "10."
After that, dressed in his running suit, he takes his place on the podium to receive his Olympic gold medal for his masterful exhibition of bouncy bed tumbling. The silver medalist is one level below him on the stand and the bronze medalist is one rung below the silver medalist.
In dominating, shattering triumph, the Torch Head is gracious to his inferiors.
A parade is given for him back in his Midwestern hometown. The men cheer for him. The women throw flowers at him. His success reflected well on where he had come from. The town had soared with him in winning the gold medal.
He was a national hero. Endorsements would come his way, as everybody would want to get a piece. His image was destined to appear on the Wheaties cereal box. For it had been forty-six years since an American had last held the gold in bouncy bed tumbling.
Oh God! Nothing can stop us now! Nothing can hold us back!
America rises again! Better than ever!
Today world domination!
Tomorrow supreme galactic over lordship!
The next day total cosmic, universal dominion!
He was Thanos, lord of devastation. Possessor of the Infinity Gauntlet. With all ten gems! Eyes blazing with.. with... with...
It was hard to say. But now he could toss annihilated galaxies, like burnt offering, at the feet of his only love. Mistress Death. She embraces him and tells him, finally, at long last, that he is a worthy suitor to herself.
The two of them had reached maximum satisfaction, pretty much within striking distance of one another, in temporal terms.
Liz, on top, straddling him, having got what she had needed to get, looked down at the Torch Head. "Okay, baby?"
Catching his breath he said, "My face is on fire."
"Me too, baby. I'm burning all up." She bent down and kissed his lips.
They cuddled. He admired her tattoos. As a tattoo artist and the proprietor of a tattoo shop, she did, as expected, have a good many covering her own body.
He asked her about this one and that one. What does this one mean? What was the inspiration for that one? Where did this one come from? What's that one mean? What is this one supposed to symbolize?
Like that. And so on and so forth.
Sometimes the tattoo was something she saw somewhere, and thought pretty.
Sometimes the tattoo was something she saw somewhere, and thought attractively ugly. Or dark. Or haunting. Or ruthless. Or sinister.
Sometimes the tattoo was a creation totally from inside her own head, as far as she knew.
Sometimes it didn't mean nothing. Sometimes it meant something.
Sometimes it was a way of keeping in her heart someone she cared about, in one way or another.
Later, they were eating ice cream and watching television in her living room. She turned to him and said, "What's your name, by the way?"
"People know me, call me 'Torch Head.'"
Appropriate, she thought. She liked it. But that was insufficient under the circumstances. "What's your real name? I can't very well introduce you to my parents as 'Torch Head.'"
He told her his real name. And then "... Liz?"
"When I meet your parents for the first time, should it be with my face off or on?" He was talking about his human face.
"On, I think. My folks are pretty liberal, but sometimes its best to let them ease into things."
End of Part Two.