Marcus stood on the shore and
weighed the stone in his hand. It felt right; neither too heavy nor too
light, perfectly balanced from end to end. He rubbed his thumb over the
smooth, flat surface and nestled the edge against his curved
forefinger. Satisfied with his grip, he studied the stone's grey veins
crawling through glossy black, and imagined his life in those lines.
All things in the universe were of a single substance, connected by
their very existence in an inextricable and ever-changing web. He was
as much mineral as man. With the swift slide of his arm and the snap of
his wrist, Marcus sent the stone skipping over the restless sea.
The rising sun cast patterns of
light and shadow on the water, making it hard to see, but he followed
the stone until it sank before reaching for the next. This one was a
little larger. It would be for lust, Faustina's power of arousal and
pleasure. She was beautiful, lively, and intelligent, his wife. Only
she could excite passion in his well-trained Stoic's heart. Wisdom was
his defense against such failings, and the foundation of his faith.
Through it, he maintained virtue by letting go of vice. With the
stone's release from his fingers, Marcus felt the equilibrium shift.
The next five stones were small,
well-suited to the grief of children lost in infancy. They skidded fast
and far in brief flights of glory, the weight of remembrance lessening
with each. Then a green one caught his eye, the only one of its kind in
the pile of grey and black beside him. Lifting it, he found it was
awkward; long and rectangular, thickened at one end. It would be hard
to skip. This was Commodus, his heir and successor. Marcus didn't
understand his son, but he loved him. Bitterness was knowing that
Commodus cared for neither love nor knowledge. Marcus cast the feeling
aside clumsily, the green stone skipping only twice before plopping
beneath the waves.
He plucked another, this time for
fear — of armies massing on northern borders, and imminent war
and sent it singing out of sight. More followed. One for pride, two for
wealth and prestige, and a heavy round stone as large as his palm for
self-conceit. With each toss, the universe shifted, moving closer to
the proper alignment, bringing Marcus back into balance with nature.
Behind him, at the edge of the beach, slaves waited with missives from
the provinces, stacks of petitions, and a line of senators vying for
his attention. They would continue to wait. The Emperor had 287 more
stones to throw.
They showed her into the
room where he died. Dios mio, can you believe that? It's a small
clinic, yes, but to put my daughter in the same room, to have her lay
on the very table and spread her legs wide right where her Julio died?
His blood covered that table. My friend Dolores, her daughter Trina
works at that clinic, cleaning up the filth and the waste, erasing the
stains of life and death. She said that room was slick with Julio's
blood, that it seeped into the flooring, penetrated the cracks in the
It's there now, a crust of Julio's blood under the floor in the room
where they put my daughter, Soledad. They wouldn't let me go in with
her. "It's all right, Mama," she said. "It'll be over soon." When she
squeezed my hand, hers was dry and firm. She said it was more important
I watch the babies, anyway, and then she walked away into that room,
her shoes squeaking over the rust-colored linoleum.
Such good children. Ernesto and Julia played together, and Carolina,
bless her heart, sat in a chair the whole time, looking at the pictures
in her child's Bible. She likes the one where Jesus is raising Lazarus
from the dead. Her mother says it's because the Cristo looks like
Julio, but I've heard Carolina's prayers in the night when Soledad is
out, and I know why she likes that picture. She is alone too much, that
I held the baby the whole time, and he never cried, not once. Such an
angel. Who would not want another? God knows, it wasn't my choice to go
to the clinic. It wasn't my decision to put her in that room and let it
splash over that table, let it drip out onto that floor and mingle with
the dried up sangre of my daughter’s husband.
It didn't take as long as I expected. Soledad was pale, but she was
steady when she came out, and I saw past her, through the open door.
Trina was in there, slipping on blood and fluid, erasing with her mop
the things we will never forget. Surely she won't get it all. There are
too many cracks in that floor.
Backstage at the Crown and
Sceptre Club was crystal chaos. In every direction Lou looked, divas
were primping. The razzmatazz flash of costume jewelry and greasepaint
was blinding. Flocks of wannabes in their best wigs and frocks paraded
behind the curtain, awaiting their turn in the spotlight. Louella
Langtree had been to the annual open audition at the Four Queens Hotel
and Casino before, but this time, the third time, was going to be
different. It had to be.
Madam Chanterelle Lebeaux was in charge of the herd. Part ringleader,
part fashion consultant, and part den mother, she managed them all –
rookies and veterans alike – with a wave of her manicured hand and the
soft authority of her singsong voice. She was the standard, against
which most would fall short.
Louella took comfort in Madam Chanterelle’s ample presence. Ducking
beneath headdresses that dripped feathers and gems, the neophyte dodged
a forest of glittering gowns to reach Madam’s side. Other hopefuls
lined up there as well. An opportunity to practice under the eye of the
great Chanterelle couldn’t be missed. Belting it to the rafters, Lou
strutted for the grand dame of the Crown and Sceptre.
The moves were more suited to cheerleader tryouts than a class
establishment such as this. Prancing, flouncing, exaggerated shimmies –
the motions were cliché and awkward. Madam Chanterelle winced
and tried to be patient, but she whispered to herself that Louella
Langtree’s sugar needed a whole lot more sweetening than could be
accomplished in the next ten minutes.
Lou raised arms to the heavens, striving for the high note, then ended
with a slap on the butt and a wicked wiggle. Chanterelle Lebeaux wasn’t
the only one in the room who wanted to grab those sweet, firm cheeks;
it was a mighty fine ass. Her tongue darted in and out as she waved a
hand laden with rings, gesturing Lou to her side.
A pair of pros, in costumes worthy of Bob Mackie and sporting enough
makeup to cover an entire Central American country, passed in a breeze
of cloying perfume. Sucking on a lower lip that savored of Racy Red
Raspberry lip gloss, Lou wondered how they could afford boas made of
real ostrich feathers. And those Swarovski-studded spike heels were to
“Lou, baby, you need to take it easy.” Madam Chanterelle pulled the
rhinestone-covered cowboy hat from Louella’s hand. “Darlin’ you are
trying just a little too hard.”
“Madam, do you think I have what it takes?” Lou’s big browns were
puppy-dog wells of sadness reflecting the belief that an entire life
hinged on this audition. A slow, deliberate spin revealed a lithe body
in a Daisy Duke outfit of sequined halter and tight jean shorts. The
look was one-third country girl, two-thirds streetwalker.
Eager-to-please sincerity spilled like tears from the eyes searching
Madam Chanterelle’s face for a sign.
Before she could answer, the call came from the auditorium. Jo-Jo, the
director, was ready: Louella Langtree was up next.
Lou was quiet on the drive home from the airport. The excitement was
gone, dribbled away in peanuts and pocket-size vodka like a slow leak
from a silicon breast. The sameness of the midwestern landscape was a
blight of dullness after three days in Vegas.
“Lou, you okay?” Pam’s concern was revealed in the uneven squeak of her
voice. Met by silence, she didn’t pry any further.
The only response was a tiny shake of the head as Lou stared out the
window. Tears were unacceptable. Pam hadn’t realized this trip was
supposed to mark a turning point in their lives. It would’ve been a
point of no return for Lou, anyway, and Pam, well, she could’ve come
along for the ride, if she’d wanted. But that didn’t matter now. They’d
be stuck in this low-rent life forever, living the so-called American
They passed the same old endless rows of run-down apartments and shabby
strip malls. Nothing would ever change. Lou sank lower in the seat and
picked at the peeling faux wood trim. There was the Cash-in-a-Flash,
where hopeless hopefuls traded the future for the moment, and then past
the Taquería Dos Pescadores, where the Johannson family sold
fish tacos a thousand miles from the sea. They were almost home.
On the corner by the liquor store, where the biker bar used to be, a
new club called The Peacock was opening. The exterior had been painted
purple. A large mirrored ball beckoned, twinkling, through the open
pink door. A glimpse of graceful movement – the shimmer of showtime –
caught Lou’s attention. The sign in the window read ‘entertainers
needed - female impersonators only’. Lou sat up.
“Louis, don’t you want to talk about it?” Pam gave her husband a gentle
squeeze on the shoulder. “Obviously the meetings didn’t go well...I
guess there was no promotion again this year...”
“No, not this year,” Lou said. Watching the Peacock Club shrink to a
perfect purple cube in the mirror, his voice brimmed with hope. “I have
a good feeling about next year, though. I think it’s going to happen.”
He leaned back, closed his eyes, and tapped out a disco beat.