By Millard Kaufman
Hardback, 288 pages
List price: $22
I took her to the finest Mexican restaurant in LA, which was a mistake. The food was Anglo-crisp-napkin Hispanic, not chili-scorched oilcloth. She ordered huachinango, took one bite, fluttered her tongue against her palate, and daintily put down her fork. Nothing; her taste buds had been burned out six months after she was weaned. And so we pressed onward to Thirty-One Flavors, where she packed away four vast scoops of green ice cream flecked with marshmallow, veined with taffy. A half hour later, driving down Sunset, she was still sucking contentedly at the caramel glued to her braces.
Where could I take her? Any public place, a bar, a coffee shop, was out. I was enjoined to introduce -- reintroduce, to be precise -- a certain sticky issue; how would she respond? I sidled a glance at her, sitting primly beside me in the compact, that glazed and dreamy look on her face (perhaps it was the four scoops of luscious zesty ambrosia mint honeycomb butter-brickle beatifiers). Nothing excites her, I thought; she carries a low pulse rate. Yet I was fearful of an ugly scene in public. Would the mere whisper of Hunt's name activate screams, sobs, the furious stomping of huaraches, her hot little claws branding scars on my cheek? Who wants to set off firecrackers under a fourteen-year-old sorceress with long nails?
So we drove on, I peering desperately through the neon night for a place to drop anchor.
"So you want to go to UCLA…" I ventured, my voice brimming with avuncular warmth.
"To be a nurse, right?"
"No. I don't know where he got that idea." She slouched in the far corner, quite relaxed, toying with a button on her blouse. Wearing an outfit of her own choosing, not Tod Hunt's, she was a sitting pinball machine. Her blouse of scarlet and cyanine swirls might have been used to clean old paintbrushes. A pair of burnt orange slacks and an intricate tangle of Woolworth jewelry completed the ensemble. It hit you between the eyes; it must have rattled the seismograph at Cal Tech.
"Are you rich?" she asked.
"God, no. What gave you that idea?"
"You do not laugh much. It would not surprise me if you were a real rich man."
I forced a cackle. "What do you want to be?" I asked. "I mean, if not a nurse…?"
"Do you watch the football and the basketball on the television?"
"I want to be a pom-pom girl, one who dances when there is the time-out. I would study to be a dancer on the TV."
"That's a large ambition."
"Yes," she said solemnly. "I am a sprightly dancer, fantastic. I have seen Anglo girls and black girls and Oriental girls do the football dancing, but never a Spanish girl. I would like to be the first of my country to dance with the pom-poms."
I turned north on Highland and cut sharply, for reasons I cannot explain, into the Hollywood High School parking lot. Night classes were in session. The lot was full. I jockeyed the car into an area with a sign on the fence reading AUTHORIZED VEHICLES ONLY. Three reserved spaces were empty, each with its stenciled legend: NURSE, VOCATIONAL GUIDANCE, and GIRLS VICE-PRINCIPAL. All three, I thought, were suitable in my case. I pulled into GIRLS VICE-PRINCIPAL, which felt singularly appropriate.
I twisted the ignition key and the engine gasped into silence. "This is Hollywood High School," I said, "where Lana Turner was discovered."
"Oh?" She said. "What was she doing?" I looked at her quizzically. "Who," she went on, "is Lana Turner?"
"She was a great star of the cinema. The Senor Hunt could arrange for you to attend the school of Lana Turner and then UCLA…"
"Is that why you asked me to dinner? To start that up again?"
"What did you think?"
"I thought you were interested in seeing me. For yourself, and not for your patron."
"I'm too old for you."
"You're too old…?!" Her ebony eyes flashed scornfully.
I had anticipated a certain amount of resistance, of thrust and parry, but certainly not in this vein.
"Would you consider the Senor Hunt's most generous proposal if it included marriage?"
"Most assuredly not!"
"He's a gusano." Her lips curled with loathing. "How do you say that in English?"
"Worm. Why is he a worm?"
"He is depraved. A pervert."
"He wanted me…" She had bent forward in the seat, incurving her spine, dropping her head. I could not hear the mumble of words that followed.
"...To... to p-put his.... miembro in my mouth."
So that was it. There was something brutal and bizarre about Hunt's proposal, something deeply and disturbingly personal. Bainbridge and MacDevit scurried around my skull again. I shook my head violently to make the rats go away. "Suppose," I said, "the Senor Hunt were to give you his solemn word never to try that again? Would you consent to marry him?"
She shrugged. She said, "I do not know." And then, "The contract is for ten years, is it not?"
"In that case," she went on, "I would accept the contract without marriage. I do not wish to be a divorced woman in my twenties."
Carmen was staring at me through half-closed, unfocused eyes. "Although," she mumbled, "maybe… if I became the wedded wife of the Senor Hunt, would I not receive greater respect in his eyes and therefore gain greater control in my relationship with him?" She raised her finger to her mouth, little white teeth gnawing on the nail. "Then there is this to consider," she went on, like a sedulous philosopher dissecting twenty aspects of every premise. "Would not the Senor Hunt's authority be unrestricted if we were wed? I will not be his pawn for ten years."
"May I make a suggestion? As a friend?"
"There is one way," I said, "that you might, as it is said, have your cake and eat it."
"There is no such thing as having your cake and eating it."
"What about a Mexican marriage in Tijuana? A marriage to enhance your security, and yet not a marriage, for it is outside your church."
"But is he not married? I have met his wife."
"He would be willing to get a divorce," I lied. She was silent for a moment.
Then: "It is good of you to think of me," she said. "I like that idea."
"I'm very fond of you," I said.
She took my hand and squeezed it.
"Now that it is settled," she said, "will you take me dancing?"
"I don't dance well."
"Good," she said. "I will teach you."
I turned on the engine. She slid across the seat, nestling against me, her head on my shoulder. "I am a fantastic dancer," she told me again.
Excerpted from Misadventure by Millard Kaufman, copyright 2010. Reprinted with permission of McSweeney's.