James Twiggs

Two chapters from a novel in progress  

The main characters are Tom Watts, a 55-year-old photographer, and Kelly Ford, an 18-year-old prostitute. They meet and become friends on a psychiatric ward in Syracuse, New York. In these chapters, narrated by Kelly, they have left the ward and are on their way to Watts’s home state of Arkansas.

Chapter 20

The next time I woke, Watts wasn’t in the car. It was still dark; the dashboard clock said two-ten. We were parked in what appeared to be a flat field about the size of the universe. Then I looked in the other direction and saw Watts, twenty feet away, coming out of the middle door of a long single-story brick building. In front of the building was a row of pick-up trucks and compact cars. There was a pop machine beside the door. On top of the building was a red neon sign that said ACNE MOTEL. I rolled my window down and asked Watts what was going on. 

“I’ve got us a room,” he said.

A middle-aged guy in a terry bathrobe came to the door with a folded-up army cot. The robe was open; under it he wore a pair of tiger-skin briefs with his balls hanging out of one side. He was going to carry the cot to the car, but Watts moved in and said “Here, let me get that.” I knew what he was doing. He was protecting me—me!—from the sight of balls. He threw the cot in the back seat and got in and drove us to the end of the building.

“Why’s it called the Acne Motel?” I asked. “Or is that something I’ll find out in the morning? I guess I’m lucky they were full up at the Gonorrhea.”

“Hush,” Watts said. “It’s Acme. The m is half burned out. We’re in Acme, Illinois. I had hoped to make Missouri, but I couldn’t do it. I was nodding off.”

I’ve been in worse rooms—once when I was working the streets in Buffalo and before that in Syracuse when I was turning tricks on the second floor of Sly Biggs’ Upstate Palace—but this one was pretty bad. We had your basic shit-colored furniture, of the design known as chipped and busted. The chest and the headboard were decorated with chewing gum, food stains, and carvings of initials, phone numbers, and messages like “Wendy Archer gives super head.” We also had a cracked mirror, a buzzing lamp, filthy ragged curtains, a few ants, and a lot of roaches. On top of all that the bed sagged, the sheets were stained and torn, the radiator leaked, the toilet ran. Et cetera ad impetigo, you get the picture. I wondered why we were here, but I didn’t ask. I thought maybe it was because Watts had blown his wad at the Sales & Discount Center.

All the time he was setting up the cot, he kept apologizing, not for the condition of the room but because we didn’t have two rooms instead of one, or at least two beds. This was the only vacancy, he said, and he had to take it. He was too tired to keep driving. Hearing him go on like that, I was not only confused as hell, I was starting to get mad. When I first saw the cot I assumed Watts had signed me in as his daughter or niece, which would have made some sense. I had barely turned eighteen and could still pass for jailbait. I thought that in asking for a cot he was only trying to cover his ass. But I figured that once we got in the room, he would forget the cot and take me to bed and let me pay him, in the best way I knew, for all those clothes he’d bought me. But no—not Watts.

He handed me a sheet and pointed to the cot. “It’s too small for me,” he said. “You’ll have to use it.” He tossed me a pillow from off the bed. “We’ll get up as soon as it’s light and start driving again. I’m not even going to get undressed. If I were you I wouldn’t either.”

“Now look here, Watts,” I said. “I’m not really going to sleep on this cot, am I?”

“Yep,” he said, “you sure are.”

He lay down on the bed and switched off the lamp. I stretched out on the cot. After a few seconds I tried another approach.

“Is it because I’m a whore that you won’t sleep with me?” 

“You’re not a whore. That stuff’s behind you. You’ve got a new start.”

I wanted to scream at him that it was never behind you, a thing like that, but I didn’t. How dumb can a man be? I wondered, but I didn’t say that either. What I did say was, “My pussy’s shaved. When I’m naked, I look ten years old.” This was something I hadn’t told either in group therapy or to Watts in private. I blurted it out in total desperation, thinking it might turn him on the way it did most old guys.

“Go to sleep,” he said.

“How can I sleep? I’ve never been in a motel for the purpose of sleeping in my entire life.”

“Don’t talk that way,” he said.

And then, in the blink of an eye, he fell asleep. I could tell by the way his breathing changed. I had never felt so completely alone. What had seemed like respectful behavior in the hospital now seemed like a severe case of rejection. I lay there in my new jumper feeling worthless and ashamed and wide awake.

Finally, when it started getting light outside, I got up and pulled the covers off Watts. He had removed his shoes but was still wearing his T-shirt and khaki pants and socks from the night before. With his head thrown back, his neck exposed, his eyes shut, his hair tousled, his beard coming out gray all over his face, he looked more vulnerable than I had ever seen him. He showed no signs of waking. My first idea was to open his fly and suck his cock till he got hard and couldn’t resist fucking me. But I was afraid he wouldn’t get hard. It had occurred to me more than once, even before Chuck called him a faggot, that Watts was maybe either impotent or gay. How else could a man spend so much time with a hot little number like me and not try to get in her pants? I knew he had been married and had a daughter, but I figured that could all have happened before his thing went soft on him. Or, if he was gay, maybe the wife and kid were part of a front he put on for the sake of appearances.   

I have to add that I was afraid of something even worse than impotence or being queer. He had told me once that literary people interpreted Hazel Motes’s and Oedipus’s blinding themselves as symbolic castrations. Because I considered Watts a freak for not wanting to screw me, I had developed the idea that he had cut his cock off as punishment for some crime I couldn’t even imagine. It seemed logical to me—him being a photographer and needing his eyes for his work—that if he did such an act, he would bypass the symbolism and go straight to the thing itself. This, of course, would explain his lack of interest in sex. Maybe you can see how, with thoughts like that running around in my head, I would hesitate about unzipping him.

That might all sound pretty dumb, but it was Watts who had filled my brain with such notions in the first place, by making me read literature and look at pictures by Meatyard and Joel-Peter Witkin and the painter I called Anonymous What’s-His-Face. I called him that to irritate Watts; I knew the name as well as I know my own. Anyway, the longer I stood there gazing down at Watts that morning, the more my feelings turned from loneliness and confusion to plain old rage. Instead of getting in bed with him, I grabbed his wallet and keys off the dresser. On the way to the door, I picked up the backpack with the cameras in it.

Chapter 21

If a list was made of my criminal behavior, you’d see a couple of thousand acts of prostitution, numerous acts of illegal drug use, maybe a hundred acts of petty theft of food and clothing, about twenty acts of rolling drunks, four acts of whatever you call it when you knock somebody over the head with a lead pipe in order to steal his money, one act of armed robbery, one prior act of Grand Theft Auto, and now this—one act of ripping off the best friend I ever had. I wasn’t proud of myself, but I did it. I grabbed Watts’s billfold and cameras and headed east in his Honda wagon. I drove forty miles before I came to my senses. Where did I think I was going—back to Mom? back to Chuck and Uncle Haygood? I took an Effingham exit and parked the car and sat there collecting my thoughts.

I had swiped the cameras with the idea that I could pawn them. But when I looked in Watts’s wallet, I saw that money wasn’t going to be a problem. There were twenty-seven hundred-dollar bills in the wallet, two hundred and forty-two dollars in smaller bills, and a bunch of credit cards. I didn’t have to go to New York or back to Acne. I could drive to an airport and be in Seattle before dark. I could go to L.A. I could go to Canada. I could take the cameras with me and sell them through an ad in the paper.

Still thinking about what to do, I drove to a MacDonald’s and bought two Egg McMuffins and a Diet Coke with a five-dollar bill from the wallet. I sat in the car and ate. By the time I finished, I realized I’d been kidding myself with thoughts of drastic action and faraway places. I was going back to the Acne Motel, and that was that. Despite my history of crime and rotten behavior, I couldn’t disappear on Watts and take everything he had in the process. I could have done it to my mom maybe, and I guess to Chuck—but I couldn’t do it to Watts. If that made me a wimp, so be it. I started the car. I was almost out of the parking lot when I stopped again. A wimp was one thing, a fool was another. I opened the wallet and took out two twenties and a ten and put them in my purse. I thought a minute and then took two hundred-dollar bills and a Gold Card. I pulled off my boots and slipped one of the bills into my right sock and the Gold Card in my left. I hid the other bill in my brassiere. I put my boots on and started driving again.

When I reached the motel, Watts was sitting on the side of the bed with his head in his hands. I marched in and tossed his wallet and keys onto the bed.

“I stole five dollars,” I told him.

“That’s fine,” he said.

“All right,” I said, “it was fifty-five.”

“Take all you want,” he said, handing the wallet back to me.

His whole manner made me want to throw up. I had never met such a chump in my entire life.

“You weren’t even going to call the police, were you?” I said.

“I knew you’d be back,” he said.

“You did not!” I yelled, and I kicked him as hard as I could on the side of his leg. The folks at Doc Martens make a good heavy boot, so it had to hurt. It had to hurt like hell, but Watts acted like he didn’t even feel it, which only made me madder. “Shit!” I said, and threw the wallet at him. It whizzed by his ear and bounced off the wall and onto the bed.

I opened the backpack and took out the Leica and shoved it in his hands.

“All right, you son of a bitch,” I said, “if you won’t screw me, at least let me be your model.”

“I don’t take pictures anymore,” he said.    

“Maybe you would if I was a monkey wrench,” I said, “or a mindless old hag who could pay you thousands of dollars.”

“Not even then,” Watts said. He put the camera on the floor.

I was so desperate I reached in my purse and took out some Polaroid pictures of myself I’d kept from the old days. They were hardcore stuff, taken on the set of the movie I was in when I was fifteen. I’d carried them around in case one of my johns wanted some extra stimulation. There were other photos in the purse as well, some I knew for sure that Watts wouldn’t want to see, so I was careful about the ones I took out.     

“I don’t need you to take my picture,” I said. “Somebody’s already done it.”

I handed the photos to Watts and went in the bathroom and fooled with my hair. When I came back he was standing at the window looking out across that vast midwestern plain. He’d torn the pictures into little pieces and scattered them like confetti. I remembered what he’d done to Jeffrey Montgomery Walters’ photo at Hot Willie’s. I should have known better than to trust him with these others. He was a nut when it came to pictures.

“You bastard,” I said. “You had no right—”

He spun around and grabbed my shoulders and shook me till my teeth rattled. Then he threw me on the bed and jerked my dress up around my neck and ripped my pants off and opened his fly and forced himself in me. It was like the rape game Chuck and I played, and at first I acted my part. I kicked and scratched and hit and begged Watts to stop, but all by way of pretense. Then I realized that this was no game, and I quit acting and just lay there and let him have at me. I could see that he was truly mad and truly miserable, both at the same time. He was crying big hot tears—they fell like rain onto my face—but he was also very hard and very rough. Once I thought he was going to spit on me. Another time he pulled his hand back and I thought he was going to hit me. I didn’t care if he did, I was determined not to flinch. I wanted to say something mean like, “See, you’re no different from all the others,” but I was too scared. Then he shuddered and cried out and rolled off me and lay on his back, staring at the ceiling.

I was no longer scared. I lay beside him with a smirk on my face. I’d made him lose control, which was what I’d been wanting for months, wasn’t it? I reached over and put my hand on his sticky, half-hard cock, and gave it a little squeeze. It was a casual gesture, arrogant maybe, intended to show Watts that things had changed between us, once and for all, and that yours truly was now in charge—or if not quite in charge, at least an equal.  After a while, still looking at the ceiling, he said he was sorry he’d been so rough. He hadn’t been with a woman, he said, since his wife died seven months ago. It was maybe the first thing of a personal nature he had ever told me.

“Mr. Faithful, huh?” I said. There was some attitude in my voice, but he didn’t seem to notice.

“Not exactly,” he said. “That’s why she killed herself. One of the reasons.”

So then I felt like shit. I knew his wife was dead but I didn’t know it was suicide. I hated him for being so tight-lipped, but mainly I hated me. I thought again of the bad things I’d done in my life—the hundreds of men I’d sucked and fucked, the crimes I’d committed, the misery I’d caused my mom. It all flashed before me. I couldn’t stand it. I jumped up and straightened my dress and stomped around like a maniac. I was no good to anybody, I said, and never had been. And then I announced I was getting the hell out of there. While I was raving, Watts went in the bathroom and peed and brushed his teeth.

When he came out, he removed his T-shirt and pants and got back in bed. I thought he was going to curl up and ignore me and let me walk away. Instead he lifted the sheet and motioned for me to join him. I got in beside him and he put his arms around me and we lay very still for I don’t know how long. Then he scooted down a little bit and untied my boots and loosened them and gently pulled them off. When he removed my socks, the hundred-dollar bill fell out of one and the credit card out of the other. I’d forgotten about them being there.

“It was insurance,” I said, “in case you didn’t want me anymore. I’m an awful person,” I said.

“Hush,” Watts said.

He put the bill and the card on the dresser. Then he rubbed my feet and brought them to his mouth and kissed them. He did it because he liked me and not because toe-sucking was all the rage. I could tell the difference. Next he unbuttoned my jumper and took it off me with what could pass in this world for infinite care and tenderness. I had heard that expression somewhere, and now I knew what it meant. When he removed my bra, the other hundred-dollar bill was plastered to my left tit. Watts put it on the table with the rest of the recovered property. Then he kissed and touched me all over, front and back, with that same care and tenderness. After a while, he started talking about the beauty of my body and the goodness of my soul and what an honor it was to know me. It was one long steady stream of sweet talk. I hadn’t heard anything like it since my days with Ralph. When we finally made love I was completely at ease. No attitude this time, and no fear or regrets.

We did it lying on our sides, facing each other. When it was over, we still lay there caressing each other’s face and grinning idiotically. I hadn’t exactly come, but it didn’t exactly matter. I was satisfied in the way you can be sometimes without getting your rocks off. 

“Well,” I said. “Well, I never . . . Oh Watts.” I put my head against his chest and cried. He was so God damned sweet I couldn’t hardly stand it.

He fell asleep, and then me, but I woke first. I guess maybe an hour had passed, maybe two. For the second time that day, I peeled the covers off Watts and looked him over without him knowing it. But this time he was naked, and I did more than look. I don’t mean I touched him. He had told me himself that if you wanted to see anything, really see it, you had to stare, and that’s what I did. I raised up on my knees and stared at him for a long time. What I saw was a middle-aged man who might once have been a lot more attractive than he was now. He was maybe six feet tall, a hundred eighty or ninety pounds. His hair had been dark but was now mostly gray. His scalp showed through on top. His forehead was long with lots of wrinkles. He had a brown spot on his left temple, thick gray eyebrows, long thick lashes. The eyes were shut, of course, but I knew they were a deep and gorgeous sky-blue in color. There were lines around the eyes, bags underneath. Straight nose with dents at the top from wearing glasses, some broken veins in the soft part. Pale cheeks, gray whiskers, sensitive mouth, neat little chin. Sparse chest hair, mostly gray. Some flab around the belly but good solid legs and arms. Beautiful hands. Freckles on the arms and legs—and yes, if you have to know, a really awful bruise just below the left knee. Kicked by a mule, most likely. It was going to get a lot worse before it finally went away. Calloused feet, ugly toes, nails that needed to be cut. His cock was average size, standard shape. He’d been circumcised. He had nice big balls. His pubic hair was sparse and gray. In age and looks, he could have been one of my johns, but he wasn’t. He was the sweetest lover and the dearest friend I’d ever had. He was very precious.         

Before long, in spite of myself, I was wanting to change some things. I’d keep Watts’s face, I decided, but make it twenty years younger. I’d give him long hair, with a ponytail maybe, and the chest, belly, and hips of a skinny teenage boy. I’d make him less depressed. I’d give him some swagger. I’d keep his beautiful hands, and also his balls, but I’d trade his cock for Chuck’s. Not that his wasn’t okay—but I mean, if you’re creating your dream guy, why settle? Big cocks are fun to play with. Although I would keep Watts’s mind and sensitivity, I hoped they wouldn’t interfere with his getting down and dirty sometimes. Like Chuck, I thought.

I got up and went to the bathroom. When I came back and started looking at Watts again, I couldn’t see him at all. I didn’t see my dream guy either. What I saw was a big slab of gray rotting meat with hair on it. My eyes watered. My nose dripped. I was trembling and itchy. I was jumping out of my skin. I needed some blow. Since I couldn’t have it, I wanted some attention and some warmth. I put my hand on Watt’s balls, squeezed them gently. When I did, a big bug—a cockroach, of course, what else?—shot out from under the balls and straight up my arm and onto my face. I screamed like I was being murdered. Ten minutes later we were on the interstate, driving west like a bat out of hell, with me griping my ass off.

“You’ve got all the money in the world right there in your billfold,” I said. “So what were we doing at a dump like that?”

My voice was shrill and mean. I was bouncing around in my seat, checking my hair and my clothes for cockroaches. I was scratching myself like I had the cooties. Watts was concerned about me, I could tell. He didn’t know my distress had more to do with drugs than with insects.

“We ran away from a mental ward,” Watts said. “I was afraid they’d be looking for us. I thought we’d be safer at the Acme than at one of the chain motels.”

“You shouldn’t have worried,” I said. “Once you’re gone, they lose interest. I’ve run away a hundred times.”

“What about your mother? You told me she tracks you down.”

“She used to. She hasn’t done it for a couple of years. I’m eighteen, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“Phone her the next time we stop,” Watts said. “I don’t want her going to the police. Besides, it’s only right that you call her. Parents worry.”

“La de fuckin’ da,” I said.

And just like that, the bad spell passed. I was suddenly covered in a thin layer of cold smelly sweat, slick as oil, but I was calm inside. I no longer itched and jiggled. Even so, I didn’t want to talk about my mother. Before Watts could say anything else, I flipped on the radio, tuned in some metal, and jacked up the volume. I finished combing my hair and pulled it back and put a rubber band around it. I made noises in time with the music as if I didn’t have a care in the world. But I knew Watts was right. As much as I hate my mom, I don’t really hate her. Even when I was whoring in the condo, I called her once a month. I told her I was in a special program for talented but wayward teens. She believed it because she wanted to. When my pimp got busted and she had to accept what I’d actually been doing, she swooped in and stole the money I’d saved. It was a few thousand dollars. But I kept calling her every month or two. Even when I was a groupie and totally wasted most of the time, I kept in touch. I had been planning to call her ever since we left Syracuse, but I didn’t want Watts telling me I had to do it. Him or anybody else.





Nina Skaggs 2.jpg (99576 bytes)

(photo by Nina Skaggs)