Final Landing, by Amy LaBonte
The shaded path reminded Ziza of the purple skirt with its crisscross tracks, creased, ironed puffs.
They’d wrestled Ziza’s mother to the ground. One bony shoulder jutted out from her mother’s broken board back.
Ziza pressed the gold buzzer with Boris’s name next to it.
“Come.” Boris’s intercom voice drowned in trees waving. The door clicked and Ziza stuck in her foot, listened to the trees, to the marigold rustle. The sky spread out in purple rows of clouds.
Boris never made things easy. He wasn’t that kind of brother. And why? Ziza once told him he had survivor’s guilt.
But he just laughed. “Still reading that psycho crap? Look where it got you.”
Fists and blows, unkind words will twist people around like a stripe.
She pushed open the door to the luxury building. A wall of windows overlooked the pool courtyard.
Gold elevators distorted her reflection into a backwards listing. One of the elevators waited, open.
She pressed the number nine. As the elevator dinged upwards she counted the nines in her life: the ninth of November when they picked Mother from the floor and carried her out, legs flopping behind her, head hanging; nine in the morning, the exact moment Boris left with Granpa; dressed to the nines, Ziza, who seduced her boss and landed here because of it.
She pulled her suitcase down a carpeted hall past nebulae art and flat plates.
Spooky light bounced off the long walls of silence, constricting, narrow.
Boris poked his head out from a distant door. Ziza waved. His head disappeared. When she pulled up he seemed shorter, stocky. His hair had thinned and the leftovers shone in miniature spikes.
They hugged but just their necks touched.
His wife, Ushi, kissed Ziza’s cheeks. Ushi’s breath stank, of must, old things rotting.
Boris showed off the guest room. Closed plantation shutters obscured a high bed. “Your own bathroom through there. Just don’t get too comfortable.”
Ziza rolled her eyes at Ushi. The gesture was not reciprocated.
“Just kidding.” Boris looked Ziza up and down. “You’re emaciated. Let’s go for lunch. Ushi and I are starving.”
Ziza saw that Ushi wore a tight tank top and cutoff jeans, flip flops on manicured feet. Ushi’s ironed hair swept off to one side in a satin sheen of silver blond.
“Should I change?”
“Ziza, you’re fine.” Boris jingled his keys. “Fine, just fine.” He smirked, impatient as ever. “Let’s go.”
Ziza wondered why the always-dapper Boris allowed his wife out in public in stringy shorts. Her perfectly made-up face must have overshadowed the shabbiness.
They walked to Hollywood Boulevard. On the corner a pizzeria’s awning sprayed cooling mist from its cockled valance.
They sat on the patio.
Ushi sighed and fidgeted with her hair. “This vapor is ruining my bangs.” She pronounced it wapor.
Ziza pointed to some birds landing nearby. “The avian crowd gurgling for a meal. They’re blackbirds, right? Crying without tears.”
“No, they’re brown birds.” Boris’s hands were tan, like his forearms. Golf, probably. “Don’t start with the birds, or stray cats, or any kind of activism.”
The agile waiter brought out a huge pizza, flat and doused in sauce. Boris dislodged a steaming slice and sucked it in.
Ziza nibbled on some crust. The mist blew. The birds jumped.
Boris cleaned his teeth with a gold toothpick.
The waiter cleared the table. “Dessert?”
Boris ordered. “Espressos all around.”
Ziza didn’t drink caffeine. It made her lightheaded, dizzy, sick.
A beggar with a cardboard placard around his neck sprinkled trash food at the birds.
“So. You got fired.” Boris flared his stout nostrils.
The waiter brought out three small cups. Ziza swallowed her agoraphobia medicine along with the foamed coffee. Nobody noticed.
“Tell.” Boris stirred his black brew with a baby spoon.
“You already know. Misunderstandings.”
“A big misunderstanding. Must be.”
“Why do you speak like Granpa? You went to good schools –”
“Why do you mess up your life?”
Ziza looked at Boris the untouchable, prince of the family, overseen and protected by Granpa, nourished, swaddled, financed, educated, bred. Like a prize race horse he won the honors, clients and prestige.
“You didn’t witness the stabbing.”
“The stabbing. Again with that?” Boris leaned back. “On that note, Vera and Father are coming for a visit.”
Ziza looked at the nearby bleached palm tree. It breathed, gave succor to the birds, raised its arms and took on the pain of the world. Crucified by man.
Boris said, “I don’t think you heard me. Their plane lands next week.”
“But Vera tried to put me away.”
Boris picked at his teeth again. “Eh. She’s harmless — for the most part.”
“Not to me she isn’t. God! She stabbed Father.”
Boris burped. “Ach, the ‘incident.’ Let it drop.” He drummed his fingers on the table.
“You weren’t there – you have no idea who she really is.” The sun’s powder blue rays shot from behind a cloud’s curly uneven edges. The huge cloud, dark in the middle, grew whiter as the light pierced its belly. “I haven’t seen either of them in years. For a reason.”
Boris leaned forward and enunciated. “But they’re coming.”
“I heard.” Ziza hoped the medication would take hold, wear down the edge of anxiety spreading like that cloud growing massive, gobbling up all the rays of hope, incarcerating the world: no escape — her own body closing in on itself. She tried to control her breathing — one two —
Boris patted his wife’s hand. “Ushi found them a nice hotel on the water. Isn’t that right, lovey?”
The demure wife fluffed her metal lemon hair, dropped her glittery eyelids. Boris flared his nostrils. He was so proud of his finicky wife.
They headed up the Boulevard. Ziza touched every hot parking meter head and warded off oblivion, the color red.
A storefront displayed lopsided mannequins in provocative clothing. Cars rolled ever so slowly down the two-lane road. A high-chested girl gyrated outside the chained door of a darkened club.
Ushi’s face was shining through her make-up. “This heat. Ouf!”
“Let’s go back,” Boris said.
They skirted the Spanish restaurant with the bull logo, they skirted a fake Western bar with its loud country music and patrons already rowdy in the afternoon stench of cooled old beer and ammonia soapsuds.
As soon as they stepped inside the complex, Ziza saw the pool again, the lounge chairs. The enclosed area made her feel safe.
Yes, it felt safe, like a good womb. “I’m going swimming.”
Boris glanced out. “Oh, no. That creep. Chester. Beware of him. But you know that already.”
Ziza saw big Chester leafing through a magazine. “He’s not so bad.”
“He’s a sick man. I won’t let Ushi near him.”
Ushi blushed. “Well, not alone anyway. He’s perverted. Always making crude comments.”
Ziza had already met Chester at a mixer in the lounge. He was unusual. Not boring.
She didn’t have to hide her symptoms from him. He knew about her mother.
“Honey! It’s wonderful to see you again!” Chester’s voice carried across the sapphire chlorine. His pale eyes were all shot and liquidy, his mouth carnal. A pile of greasy anti-establishment books, journals and papers littered his personal space.
Ziza put her towel down on the chair beside him.
Chester checked his balls and scrotum. “Ziza. Such a sexy name. Could never forget a classy dame like you.” Fleshy things peeked from Chester’s dirty shorts.
“What brings you here, to the armpit of the world?” He adjusted his pelvic package with his right hand and reached for a beer, then a hot dog, with his left.
She looked around. Residents were adopting the yogic corpse pose in response to Chester’s big loud mess.
The windows on the buildings protecting them from the world shimmered black, streaked blue.
“I’ve moved here for good.”
Chester bounced on the lounge chair and gave himself a cursory diddle. “Such exciting news! What are your plans? Work, play, men? Take it easy for a while? Go to the beach, meet a rich guy?”
Chester took his adjusting hand and rubbed the back of Ziza’s neck – hard. It might have felt good in some parallel universe but she detected a groin odor.
She moved her chair out of his reach. She couldn’t believe that his touch didn’t totally repulse her. It almost felt good. “I don’t know yet. Just got here.”
Chester lit a cigarette, inhaled long and hard, slouched, then got animated. “We should really talk about the Trinity.” He flicked specks of food from his chin. “Remember? The book I’m writing? About our morbidly repressed society? That’s what monogamy is all about. Prison. Who stays with one person, for a lifetime, even for a night? We, as a species, need to embrace the Trinity, that holy threesome…”
He took a swig of beer.
“…the way it should be, the way it used to be, when women weren’t good girls, when they truly embodied the pleasure principle, the Goddess, just all glorious screwing!”
“You keep talking about that book but you never produce a copy.” Always the same story with that book.
“Don’t you worry. It’s all in my computer.”
Ziza closed her eyes. She wanted the sun to zap the fog from her brain. She thought about Father, about what Vera might be plotting. Boris must have told them everything. And she’d begged him to keep quiet. Maybe Ushi? Wanting her out of the way?
Chester interrupted her calculations. “Well, beyond that — and my book — times are tough. Look at me: sixty years old and still living with my mother in a two-bedroom apartment. Wish that battle ax would kick the bucket already.”
Ziza opened her eyes.
“So, you really mean it? You’re here for good? What happened to your life up north?”
“Got kicked out of the job.”
“Nice! You were you doing the boss, right? Tell the truth.”
“The pay was lousy, I hated Boston, I had an affair with somebody whose wife found out and tried to kill me. The guy bought my silence.”
Chester reached over and patted her knee. “That’s my girl.” Then he stuck out his lower lip, puffed up his cheeks. “They almost killed me too, once. Yup. Mexico – a long time ago. Drugs. My partner wasn’t as lucky. We had bodyguards, guns. Didn’t matter.”
Ziza clarified. “I meant killed more as a euphemism. It wasn’t anything tragic or even newsworthy. The woman pulled a letter opener on me. No biggie, not like a real stabbing.”
Five times her stepmother Vera plunged the screwdriver into Father’s stomach. Ziza was twelve years old and hiding behind the curtains. The neighbors poured into the street when they heard the screams. That wasn’t newsworthy back then either. Hushed up, like so much else. Like where her real mother was.
Ziza burned incense by her open bedroom window. She prayed and chanted the way her mother used to pray and chant, sounds that Ziza only barely remembered.
“What is that foul aroma?” Vera puffed on a cigarette in a yellow holder. “Just like your mother, summoning spirits? Your eyes fish for tricks. Who will you ever be?”
Vera, the tall Slav ex-model with perfect nose and ripe pout, bit down on her plastic amber mouthpiece and slapped her step-daughter’s face. “You curse me with your mother’s eyes. The mental hospital’s got a room for you, too.”
The next day Ziza buried the incense under a thin layer of tar at the back of the schoolyard.
Her schoolmates nicknamed her Pizza because her clothes reeked of garlic and old tomato sauce. They taunted, “Pizza girl! Do you deliver?”
Vera loved the tomatoes and the Italian grocery down the street.
After school Ziza took her short cut through the alley where the back door of the grocery stood ajar. Usually she looked straight ahead, like a Marine, but sounds: pitter of pans, stifled clothes, rings hitting metal, made her turn her head. In the glare of sickly lights she saw Vera’s naked bottom on a steel counter, the owner’s pants gathered at his ankles.
Vera nipped Vinnie’s neck with her front teeth. Vinnie winced and smacked her head.
“More, more Vinnie.”
He pounded. Vera’s feet bobbed, her thighs trembled. And then the ungodly climaxed: a soloist’s howl.
Vinnie put his hand over Vera’s mouth, still fucking, looking back, making sure others weren’t bursting through the door.
Ziza stared at Vera’s baying mouth, comatose eyes.
Vera opened those glassy eyes. She must have been dialing down. She pushed Vinnie away with an almighty force, jumped from the counter and pulled up her panties.
She saw Ziza. “You little bitch!”
Ziza ran, heavy backpack chafing her shoulders.
She heard Vera’s shoes slapping the pavement. Then a thud.
Ziza looked back. Vinnie was picking Vera up. He carried her into the kitchen.
Vera tiptoed into Ziza’s bedroom.
“You want your throat slit, Pizza?” Vera’s face bobbed in the moonlight. “Shut that trap of yours, or else. The Russian mob – oh yeah, they like young throats like yours. And your golden brother will go to jail, no doubt about it.” She pinched Ziza’s arm hard, into a bruise patch.
“Siberia, Siberia,” Vera would sometimes sing. “Your mother’s in Siberi-a-a-a-a!”
Chester glanced around. “You see any cute babes? So far everyone’s coupled up. Useless, aren’t they?”
“Chess, they can hear you.”
“Oh, honey. Pregnant, old or one-armed, any and all women have a special place in my universe. I love them all.” He lit up another cigarette.
Suddenly he shouted. “Hey I’ve got it!” He jiggled his shoulders, all proud. “How about dancing? Move those hips, get those men all nice and horny?”
Chester’s belly hung mottled and pale over his stained shorts. His sloppy Birkenstocks showcased ragged toenails. And yet he worked at an upscale gallery where professionals browsed and purchased, probably because they liked the art, but also because Chester came out with the darndest things, not salacious diatribes but off-the cuff improvisations that got people socializing and spending money. He told Ziza that he’d conned the gallery owner, a single lady, business savvy, reticent in her starched clothes. He’d conned her with a fake resume, badgered her until she laughed at his dodgy jokes.
“I don’t dance. I teach music. Help people through music.”
“But you belly danced last time you were here.”
Ziza remembered how he leered and threw money at her. “It wasn’t belly dancing. Just some stupid stuff I picked up at home. Part of my heritage.”
“I always said you were the exotic kind. Your brother, not so much. His wife — well, she’d do in a pinch.” He opened another beer. “You sure you don’t want to come over here and give me a smooch?”
“Listen. I know this guy, he’s a goddamned lady-killer — he’s so foreign and good-looking. He runs a dance studio.”
“He bought some art from me.”
“He might be looking to train a dance instructor. He’s into new blood. If you come to the gallery tomorrow I’ll have his numero for you. Oh, and bring me some lunch while you’re at it. A nice big fat burger with fries, will you honey, huh, huh? You know you will…”
The following day Ziza drove through dilapidated neighborhoods with their starving patches of grass which gave way to newly built homes sprawled out like barracks. She drove past bus stops baking under the ruthless sun and not a bench in sight. People waited for buses that never came: old people lying in the shade of a coveted tree, groups of laborers crouching on hot curbs.
Chain pharmacies menaced every other corner.
Ziza tried not to look at the bulldozed lots, former sanctuaries of fruit trees and giant yellow flowers, berry patches, rabbits, lizards.
She took the highway and drove north.
Royal Palm Place housed swimsuit and jewelry shops. Chester sat behind the Caribbean Folk Art Gallery counter. His stained black polo shirt slimmed him, barely.
He glanced up. “Honey, come have a look!” He was playing on the computer.
Ziza set his lunch on the counter.
“You’re so beautiful,” he said. “Thanks for the food! How ‘bout a blow job for dessert?”
She rolled her eyes.
“Okay, don’t be getting all conservative on me. Look, this is interesting.”
She went and reluctantly stood behind him, waiting. He scrolled through his favorite online escort service, pointed out the young women he’d like to screw.
She got a whiff of something unpleasant. It wasn’t the food. More like very gamey body odor. An unwashed bottom. His dirty derriere. The odor traveled up through Chester’s clothes and made her choke. She gagged but didn’t comment because that would only make him more proud.
“Is that it? Women who are being exploited?” She moved back to the other side of the divide.
Chester continued to focus on the women as he unpacked his lunch.
“Gosh, this food tastes so yummy. You’re the best.” He spoke with a mouth full of ketchup and meat.
A couple entered the gallery.
Chester boomed out, “Hello, have a look around!” He kept eating.
The customers became interested in a painting of people worked in a green field where animals slept in trees. Chester got up to small talk them.
The customers seemed wary, then comfortable and intrigued. Chester convinced them to step behind the counter to view printed materials on the artist. Ziza carefully watched how the couple reacted to the sensory input and was amazed when neither pulled away in disgust.
“Huh, huah, haa!” Chester bellowed after the couple bought two expensive pieces. “See how I worked those two? I made our time together into an Academy Award winning movie. That’s what life should be like, especially when I’m around.”
Ziza remembered why she was there. “Chester?”
He was writing up the bill of sale. “Speak,” he said, preoccupied.
“I need a hit.”
Chester looked up. “Now you’re talking! My crack pipe is in the back. It’s going to cost you though. A blow job at the least.”
“No, not that kind of hit.”
Chester raised his scraggly eyebrows. “Explain.”
“Kill.” Ziza rubbed her head. “My stepmother.”
Chester startled her when he banged down his pad. “God, you women are demanding! I’m in the middle of making money here. Give me a little eighteen-year any old day. Sweet, pliant…” He took a big breath. “Let me think about it.”
He got up, went into the back room. He lit up a joint.
He walked to and fro, from back room to gallery, toking and coughing. “How? Drowning, car accident, rob and stab?”
Ziza got a sinking feeling. She hadn’t really meant it. She decided to change the subject, ask for the dance teacher’s number.
Chester fiddled in the back room with aluminum and a lighter, a glass tube.
He walked out exhaling his crack hit, coughing, eyes red, face red. “You really want me to kill your stepmother?”
Ziza gathered her belongings. “God, I was only kidding – ”
The glass storefront clattered. A skinny woman with black and white pixie hair, wearing leather pants and a jacket in the ninety degree heat was shading her eyes and rapping against the glass, peering in as though she couldn’t see anything even though it was daytime and the gallery’s lights were all ablaze: high hats, museum lights shining on every piece of art, fancy little spotlights pointing onto obscene statues poised atop white square pillars.
Chester brightened. “Susannah!” His bristle eyebrows raised high, eyes still red but wide and twinkly, feet splayed holding up his girth and the big belly, the crack pipe still in one hand. He said to Ziza, “My dealer. Finally. Been waiting a week.”
Susannah rapped against the glass again, but not with her knuckles. She was banging the glass with her many silver rings. Ziza was afraid the large pane would shatter, that shards would fly into the walls, into her skin, her eyes.
Chester snapped back to reality. He waved the skinny woman in, furiously, with the crack pipe hand. Smoke evaporated into the lights.
“Get in here, you dumb broad!”
The woman stumbled in, chattering. “Why didn’t you let me in when you first saw me, I’ve been pounding away and waiting for you to notice me for hours, that sun is hot. I need to get out of these clothes even though I’m chilled to the bone, must be that new stuff they’re selling… I don’t feel so right at the moment.” She tripped over her motorcycle boots but landed on her hands and knees, on all fours.
“Dumb bitch.” Chester helped her up. “You through with your mental madness?” He looked her over. “Just give me a hug.”
Susannah leapt into Chester’s arms and encircled his waist with her legs. Her feet couldn’t hook onto one another because of the belly. Her legs slid down his body and he gyrated trying to catch her. She allowed it, she laughed. Her cracked lips were bleeding, her jaw moving nonstop. Her fingernails were dirty even under an old French manicure where the whites vanished like a moon going dark.
Chester said to Ziza, “Go lock the door, will ya? Put the sign up. Fifteen minute break. I have some business to attend to.”
Ziza ignored him. She picked up her purse.
Chester and the dealer stepped into the backroom and started humping.
The owner of the gallery, Patricia, Morticia, or whatever her name was, walked in carrying shopping bags.
She gave Ziza a nervous half smile. “Where’s Chester? Out grabbing a coffee?” She settled behind the counter. “I hope.” She thought for a minute. “Do I know you? You seem familiar. Are you a customer?”
“Just a friend —”
The woman caught sight of the back room antics. Her face contorted. “What the hell is going on in here?”
Chester said, “Patricia, you’re right on time. I just sold two expensive paintings. You owe me a commission.”
“Get out!” she screamed.
The pool’s surface flashed. Chester snored on a lounger. The breeze shuffled a towel around his angled shrouded shape.
An old lady trundled towards him. She hobbled, infirm, legs cut off at the knees. She was mumbling, then shouting. The sound echoed off the buildings, pushed doves into frightened flight.
She kept getting closer to Chester. Her voice rose and flew around the pool. Chester stirred. His legs convulsed. Hands balled into fists.
The lady reached Chester’s shadow. She yelled his name.
Chester jumped up. He punched and kicked the air just above the lady’s head. He punched again and knocked the old lady down with an elbow to the throat.
He kept striking. Ziza watched from her brother’s balcony. She remembered that Chester had fought in Vietnam. This was probably his crack flashback.
Pool junkies ran over and tackled him. Suddenly he let out a terrible howl. “Mother!” He struggled. “That’s my mother!”
Ziza knew how he really felt. The keening he emitted was his reverse joy.
The sky churned into a brass engine, a dry dump of exploded clouds.
Boris and Ushi were out. The condo grew dark. Ziza smelled incense. She had her own flashback.
The wind picked up. Some ambulance people laid Chester’s mother onto a stretcher. Three police officers stood over Chester. Ziza could hear him talking, and raising his voice. “I was sleeping. How could I know?”
Ziza felt the condo closing in on her. It turned into her old bedroom where she mourned her mother every night.
She had to get out. She took the mirrored elevator down those nine flights, avoided her reflection in the golds and window panes. She headed to Hollywood Boulevard.
Flames of wind hooked around buildings. Blackbirds hid in trees.
Ziza kept walking. The town fell behind and she kept going, the rain sprinkling at first, cars driving faster, life scurrying off. A mile – then the rain crashed down and night fell. Across the street, a green and red gas station offered its metallic pew.
As Ziza ran towards its convenient store a soft voice called from behind a tangle of young trees.
Ziza stopped. The lady was small and old with sad eyes. Another mendicant.
“Can I help you?”
The lady took some steps from behind the tree stalks. Her hands folded in front of her, hair pulled back, humble, sweet like a long dream. “I have no place to go. I try to stay safe here.”
Ziza opened her purse. How could an old lady live at a gas station? Lightning tapped on the convenience store roof and launched a prizefighter into space. The fighter disappeared, then returned and jabbed Ziza’s feet.
The godsend ripped her and the old lady from their short roots, sprayed them into the station tapestry. The two of them reddened in the flashing neon bulbs, two stripes, one beside the other.
Ziza saw the picket sky squire purple crosses down a never-ending path. The ground squirmed, a snake waking up, bursting from its old skin.
Amy LaBonte is an abstract artist who also writes. She receives story twists from her friends, the dream author-itarians.
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Tags: affairs, Amy LaBonte, death, dysfunctional, family, memories, murder, relationships, secrets