The Camel Man
by D. Foy
He’d heard about chaparral and seen it from a distance, but never walked through it till now. Coyote bush, sage, monkey flower, oak, he had read on the placard. Ceanothus, manzanita, chamise. Of course he’d read poison oak on the placard, too. Of course, too, his father with his sweating can of beer had singled out the shrub and warned him from it. But he had ignored his father’s warning or more likely just forgot it.
One moment found him after lizards, the next a walking-stick bug or snake. Another he scanned the ground for spiders, or looked to the sky in search of hawks, or chased a covey of quail. He slid down a canyon, the stream at its bottom full of minnows and gnats, and found a bed of salamanders, their bellies in the current orange as rust. He scrambled up through the roots and stones, as dry by the time he reached the top as he’d been wet at the bottom, covered with dirt like soot.
In the morning his teacher told him not to scratch at the rashes across his body and face, but the burning had kept him from anything else. By lunchtime, the pain more than he could stand, the nurse sent him home. Now, alone on the street, he felt like a spirit trudging through fire, blind but for snatches of this and that—a plastic flamingo on a yellow lawn—a sparrow in a hedge—a geezer on a porch—a boat in an oily drive. A fever had descended on him, nausea gripped him, he was boiling, itching, burning, and in his head throbbed a storm of wasps. He kicked his lunchbox into a flowerbed and threw himself down to claw his neck. Home could’ve been the dandelion a foot from his face or the streak of cirrus miles above. Then a clearing appeared before him, and he went on.
He knew straightaway his house had changed. Until four-thirty or five, when most of the neighbors returned, the street stayed pretty much empty. But today someone had parked their car right in front of the house. Whoever it was had even made sure the door lined up with the path through the grass between the walk and street. He looked over his shoulder, then whirled, expecting as he spun to see a man or shadow rush toward him, but by the time he’d stopped no man or shadow or even a dog had appeared. All that moved were his eyes, traveling through stillness. The palm tree in the yard. The paper in the drive. The bed of rocks laid down after two old men had ripped away the lawn. The barbeque by the cart by the gate to the house of the widow next door, who smelled of mothballs and puke. The car before the house he lived in. The car before the house, metallic green, with its necklace of macramé and beads dangling from the mirror. The green metallic car which wasn’t any old car, because his father had told him just what kind, every time his father had seen such a car, in fact, his father had said its name, with details about its make and year: Corvette. The car before the house was a green Corvette, metallic, with big mag wheels and a macramé necklace on the rearview mirror, a necklace, he knew with sudden assurance, exactly like the necklaces his mother had been making since Christmas.
A voice said to move, and without any effort his body began to drift. Less than an inch above the ground, it seemed, he glided toward the green Corvette. And then he was peering through the Corvette’s window at the macramé necklace of beads and hemp, each bead the size of a large pea, but not green like peas but cobalt blue with a circle of white outlined in red and a tiny dot of gold, the same as the hemp and beads which at this very instant lay in a box in his mother’s room. He looked away from the necklace, down into the console, knowing what he’d see there, afraid as he looked of what he knew he’d see.
And sure enough, he saw it: a portrait of his mother in black and white.
He thought it was his mother, it was his mother, and yet it wasn’t any mother he’d ever known. The woman who looked like his mother, the woman who looked like a shade of his mother, gazed from the picture straight into his eyes, like some dark siren working to steal his mind. But the woman was not trying to steal his mind. The woman was trying to steal the mind of whoever had taken the picture, of the man who’d taken the picture, since after all, only a man could’ve taken the picture, which he knew as surely as he’d known he would see the picture the man had taken of the woman who looked like a shade of his mother when he looked away from the necklace he knew his mother had made.
He looked into the woman’s eyes as dark as the entrance to a cave, struggling to perceive the meaning there, struggling to escape that meaning, to escape its awful pull, but couldn’t. At any moment a great black hole might open beneath his feet, and he’d be helpless but to plunge into it. Then he understood that the woman wasn’t trying to steal his mind or the mind of the man who’d photographed her, but that she herself had had her mind stolen, if only for a moment, that she herself was lost, though willingly so, that she had given herself to the man whose eyes she gazed into, that the eyes into which she gazed hadn’t merely stolen her mind but mastered her, that she was in fact ecstatically enslaved.
The day had evolved, it must’ve been two, the heat was at its peak. Up and down the street nothing had moved, nothing had changed, nor was anything moving. Nor could he hear the hum of traffic, or even a chirping finch. He turned to look at the house, expecting perhaps to find his mother at the door, a wooden spoon in hand, but the house was quiet and still.
A shaft of light had pierced the Corvette’s window and revealed the woman’s every mark. Framed by a curtain of raven hair, her face was that of someone transfixed—the chin dropped, the lips parted, the black eyes ringed with white.
If the man who’d struck her to this degree wasn’t a warlock, he was a doctor with a needle of dope, the sort of doctor he’d seen in old-time movies, who snatched bodies from graves and kept eyeballs and brains in jars full of chalky juice. He thought what this man might look like, whether his hair had turned silver or stayed always black, kept long as the alchemist whose picture he’d seen in an ancient book, beneath a skullcap stitched with spells and chants, or cropped at the neckline and parted with smelly grease. He wondered if the man wore robes, also stitched with spells and chants, or maybe just an old white smock and putrid suit, reeking of sweat, tobacco, and blood. He wondered about the man’s face, too, whether it had a mustache, patchy and thin or heavy as fur, tainted with bits from yesterday’s stew, or perhaps instead a pointy beard trembling under brows so thickly long they looked like antennae from some race of sinister beings. But also he wondered if none of these were true. The man might not have anything like silver hair or the mustache of a walrus rank with crumbs or a bloody smock or the eyebrows of some fiend. The man might not be a doctor, even, or even, for that matter, a man.
A wagon left a drive and set his way. The girl had pale freckled skin and tawny hair swept half up with pins and the balance on her neck. She had an abundant mouth and wide green eyes and rings on every finger of the hand on the wheel. The guy beside her wore sunglasses with gold wire frames and lenses of green. His hair glowed, too, and so did his skin. When the wagon passed, the guy donned a cap and spit out a wad of gum that bounced off the grass and stuck to the walk. A cloud of exhaust trailed the wagon, chemically bitter, what he’d always thought the smell of burning hair.
A cat screamed, then another in reply. He smelled cooking food, he couldn’t say what, lamb chops maybe, and maybe boiled spuds, somewhere some mom was making up a batch of spuds. A few houses down, Pedro Jones’ mother, whose pubic hair he’d watched her son pluck as she lay naked on the couch in a stupor, stepped out for the paper—he could see her as though just feet away. An enormous breast drooped from her robe when she bent down, crazy with freckles round a nipple the size of a plate. A dove lit on the wire before her house, then flapped into a tree as she rose. And then the screen slammed shut, and the porch was bare.
A snake of flames had encased his throat. Ants were chomping his skin. He had to get inside but was afraid. The gate stood across an ocean of lawn. Waves of heat drifted from its surface, and golden skippers flitted and bounced. He looked back into the green Corvette, at the picture of the woman who looked like a shade of his mother, he looked again at the gate. Hours passed, then hours more.
By the time he’d made it to the gate, he had just the strength to spring its latch. His dog was at the door to the kitchen, like always, wriggling with her sad dog’s eyes and cut-off tail. Typically this would’ve thrilled him, his little dog had never not thrilled him, she would thrill him again, he knew, he’d roll on the floor with his trusty old dog while she licked his face in bottomless glee, yet the fire inside was howling, he was swimming through a lake of fire. The dog cried at his neglect, really she’d scarcely whimpered, but he hadn’t heard her for the horror running through him, that he would be discovered. Why he should fear being found he couldn’t explain, but there it was, a void in his belly, as if someone had scooped out a pound of guts.
His whole being strained against the urge, yet limb-by-limb he crawled to the door opposite the room, craning his head for the slightest creak or groan. The house’s silence was greater than the silence of the street. It was as if just beneath its surface roared a punishing howl. He knew what would happen, or thought he knew what would happen, or rather he knew what would happen was the last thing in the world he could ever want to happen, but he kept on just the same.
Past the door ran the hall to the room he slept in and the rooms of his brothers and mother and father. Across the hall an arch gave onto the living room, as empty and still as the rest. If he could’ve explained it, he’d have said the whole house had been lifted right out of entropy. Ten thousand years ago this house had sounded and smelled and felt like this. It would sound and smell and feel like this in ten thousand years again. Nothing moved, nothing changed, silence and stillness were all.
His dog appeared beside him, the smell of her filled his head, the wonderful smell only she possessed, of the faith and earth that was dog. For an instant he felt that old sense of safety run through him, that curled up beside his dog he’d never come to harm, that care bound the world and guided its sway, that he was safe in the heart of a lullaby.
Then a door opened, at the end of the hall, he was sure he heard the squeak of the door at the end of the hall, he knew the sound of the door to the room of his mother and father. And then he heard a voice, manly and strange, speaking to his dog. “Come on, girl,” said the man, and his dog stepped forward with tilted head. “Hurry up, now,” said the man, “come on.” His dog disappeared round the corner, the door closed. “Up!” his mother said. “Up!” “Not while I’m here,” said the man. And then with the same authority his father used when speaking to the dog, “Just because we let you in doesn’t mean you’re getting on the bed, too. Lie down.”
Ancestral portraits lined the hall, most of whose figures he hadn’t met and many of which, because they were dead, he never would. Some were prints of daguerreotypes. Certainly the people in them were dead. Gilded in silver, embalmed with years, they were specters now, with cheerless faces and clothes from dramas of yore. They could’ve been a thousand years old for all he cared. They were dead.
The man in the room with his mother moaned. His mother moaned with him, and then again. Then the man gave out a vicious grunt, and then a series of grunts syncopate with his mother’s shrieks and moans and the sound of a rapping stick.
The dead on the wall stared out with their dead eyes. Most of the living stared out with dead eyes, too.
He sat there, still on his hands and knees, trapped in the hall of the dead while some strange man did some strange thing with a woman he thought was his mother in the room that didn’t belong to the man, in a house that wasn’t the man’s but his mother and father’s. It was the man whose green Corvette was parked before the house he lived in, the Corvette with his mother’s necklace and the picture of a woman who looked like a shade of his mother.
The man was nearly hollering, now, his mother was shrieking, it sounded worse than slaughter. He wondered if the man might actually be killing his mother or maybe just maiming her for good. A part of him feared the idea. Any time, now, the man would rush from the room, bloody and wild, and drive away in his sporty car, leaving him to find his mother killed on the floor beside her bed, her throat slashed or belly full of holes, or perhaps she’d only be beaten and throttled. He would find her, he’d try to wake her, and when she failed to respond he’d dial 911. But another part of him felt that all of that would be fine. His mother would be gone. They would take her away, she’d be gone forever, and he’d be fine, he’d be more than fine, he’d be fine with everything.
But right now nothing was fine. At any moment the strange evil doctor man would step from the room of his mother and father and find him there on his hands and knees. The man would gag and tie and stuff him in a bag, then throw him in the trunk of the green Corvette and drive to a castle on the mountain to cut him to pieces for his jars of chalky juice.
The man and his mother had gone silent.
The house lay still again, the world itself was stillness.
The best he could think to do was return to the past, before the man had opened the door of his mother and father’s room and beckoned to his dog, or before that even, before he’d walked into the house. If only he could go back, the man would never have been there, and what he knew would happen could never happen. But he couldn’t go back. He could only edge along a limb at a time until he’d reached the island between the kitchen and den and lean against the island to wait.
He’d been clawing at himself in a fever, his anguish as pure as grief or bliss. Then a voice pierced the silence, like someone calling from the bottom of a sea, and then the door opened, and his little dog’s nails clicked across the floor. Footsteps followed, his mother’s barefoot shuffle and the man’s shod tread, coming his way. Then, as if the moment had been planned, his mother appeared, the man’s big hands on the back of her hips. Then the man’s foot appeared, and the man’s knee and thigh, and then the whole of the man, the unbuttoned shirt, the thick dark hair, cropped at the brow, the bluish jaw and mustache black as boots. The man was strong and tall and roughly handsome, like a hero, in fact, perfect, more or less, in stature and form. Or, still better, the man looked like another man, whom he’d seen in ads in magazines, smoking Camel cigarettes, the Camel Man.
There they stood, not his mother but the woman from the picture in the green Corvette who looked like a shade of his mother, and the Camel Man from ads in the magazines, framed in the door like a living picture, oblivious to him as he sat on the floor gazing up.
When the man spun his mother round and drew her near, she laced her arms about his neck and rose to her toes to kiss him. Never once had his mother and father kissed this way. Never once had he seen anything like it, not on TV or anywhere. As his mother’s face approached the man’s, the man opened his mouth and flopped out his tongue. Then their mouths joined, and their jaws grew violent. A thread of saliva bridged their mouths when at last they drew apart only to break beneath their darting tongues. His mother wore a short silk gown, the man had pulled it up, he could see the flesh of his mother’s buttocks rolling beneath the man’s big hands, the skin there lighter for her bathing suit, a pale olive hue just beneath the surface that seemed to shimmer as it moved. And then their faces parted, and they opened their eyes. His mother’s heels returned to the floor. The man released his mother. Her gown recovered. The man’s hands slid to his mother’s hips.
Neither his mother nor the man had looked his way. It wouldn’t take much, he knew, to draw their gaze, the least little movement or twitch.
“Thanks for having me,” said the man with his deep voice.
His mother’s arms were still around the man. She freed them now and ran the fingers of one hand along the man’s ear while the other rested on his shoulder.
“I missed you,” she said. “I’ll miss you when you leave.”
“Let me know when it’s good to come again,” said the man.
A strand of hair had come to rest between his mother’s lips. The man preened it loose with a finger, then smiled and kissed her nose.
“Tomorrow,” his mother said.
“Your hubby thinks I’m having lunch with Bob Grove.”
His mother pouted. “I know,” she said.
“You are a stone fox,” said the man, and opened the door. “But you know that, too.”
His mother turned to him as the door clunked shut, then froze, struggling to veil her shock. She had neglected to secure her gown and was exposed. He saw her naked daily, every morning she and his father pranced naked about the house, but seeing her now, anxious in her undress, made everything about her new. Her breasts looked different. Her belly looked different. The tuft of hair at her pelvis looked different, too. Everything about her looked entirely other, she was frozen in terrible newness for one second more, the woman beyond his mother.
And then she vanished, the woman who looked like a shade of his mother, and his mother appeared, with the eyes he knew so well, gone from startled transfixion to venomous beads, his mother with the mouth he knew so well, turned from luscious summons to hideous purple knot. Then her body was also gone, taken by her gown with a practiced wave.
“When did you get here?” she said.
His dog had scurried over and pushed her face beneath his arm. “I’m sick,” he said, extending his free hand. “I have poison oak.”
His mother took his hand and yanked. “Get up,” she said. “Right now.”
“I have poison oak.”
He tried to stand, but the floor was somehow wet, and he slipped.
“What did you see? Tell me what you saw, right this instant.”
“The nurse sent me home,” he said, and began to cry. “I swear.”
“If I hear one peep about this to your father, so help me.” His mother nodded to the puddle widening about him. “Look at you. I thought you were a young man, but now I see that isn’t true.”
“Please, mom, I didn’t see anything. I have poison oak.”
“What did your father say to do? Did you put on that lotion he gave you? Why are you here? When did you get here, and what have you been…”
He thought of the snake he caught the day before, a gopher snake three feet long, how as he held the snake behind its head the way his father had taught him the snake had writhed about his arm, squeezing with all its might. Far in the distance, close to where he thought space must begin, a single cloud stretched across the miles. The men of the Apollo had landed on the moon two or three years before. He remembered his father calling him to see the man on TV as he stepped from the rocket in his white suit, impermeable to everything, outer space, gravity, the coldest ice. When the man wore the suit, he could feel no harm. He could soar to the moon, then step from his rocket to wander its plains. To get to the moon, the man and his crew must’ve torn through a cloud like the one above him now. On the other side of that cloud, that’s where Earth ends and space begins. If you looked down from your rocket, you’d see it, the whole Earth, just like on TV. It would look like a marble of blue that looked like a great blue sea you’d never dive into again, not for the rest of your life. But by then it wouldn’t matter. In a day or two, you’d be on the moon.