Anna hadn’t even wanted to go to the car show. She told herself that when Ruby called she would bow out, make some excuse. But when the phone shattered the hot stillness of her un-air-conditioned studio, pulling her up from thin, twisted sleep, she knew before she laid a hand on the receiver that she would give in, just like she always did.
“Morning, sleepy,” Ruby’s voice, movie star husky and inescapable in the vulnerable curves of Anna’s ear. “You ready yet?”
“Ruby, I . . .”
“I’ll be there in fifteen.”
She arrived in ten, barely giving Anna time to mix instant coffee with hot water from the tap and rinse the night’s suffocating sweat from her skin.
“It’s a fucking oven in here!” Ruby announced, flinging her plastic purse on Anna’s rumpled fold-out bed and immediately ripping down the blanket that had been hung over the single window to block out the smog-magnified L.A. sun. Like the sun, Ruby was an unstoppable force, goddess-like in her retrotrash finery and stiletto heels, and Anna knew better than to get in her way. She was Anna’s only friend.
“This apartment sucks,” she said, dabbing sweat from her perfectly painted face with a lace hankie baring someone else’s initials. “It’s like a bad hotel room.”
She was right, of course, but Anna didn’t care. No matter where she lived, her surroundings had always been spartan, incidental. A way station without identity. The Salvation Army furniture was here when she came and would stay when she left. The fold-out bed, the tacky coffee table, the yellowed lamps. Nothing matched and yet everything had the same sad flavor, like a cluster of drunks in a shitty hotel bar. The carpet was thick and awful, the color of a spoiled orange.
Against this tawdry backdrop, Anna stood naked except for a thin, flowered towel bought in a pack of three at Pic’n Save, feeling Ruby’s thickly lined eyes sizing her up as they always did and feeling inadequate as she always did.
“Let me do your makeup, honey.” This in a softer voice, conciliatory.
Anna nodded, content as always to allow Ruby’s ritual revision. Ruby regularly cut and colored her hair as well, but no matter how new and fabulous she was when the magic of irons and blow-dryers was complete, a week later, Anna always looked like her plain old self again.
Digging through her purse, Ruby extracted the ritual tools, mascara wand and eyebrow pencil and slut-red lipstick. Holding Anna’s face between thumb and fore finger, she went to work reshaping her thin lips into a sexy pout, darkening her ashy pale lashes and redefining her gray eyes with some mysterious black liquid that gave them a feline, bad-girl shape. Not satisfied with the stringy tumble of Anna’s recently bleached hair, she herded it up into an impromptu semi-beehive secured with pins and lacquer and the force of Ruby’s will. When she was done, Anna felt new. Sexy even. She didn’t object to the suggestion that she wear that silly leopard-print dress Ruby had bought for her during one of many manic thrift store binges. Stockings and boots and the transformation was complete. Studying her reflection, studying who she had become, she smiled a little. The girl in the mirror would have fun at a car show.
“C’mon, already,” Ruby said, impatient nails digging into Anna’s bare upper arm. “You look fine. I wouldn’t let you look bad.”
• • • •
So here she was, sweat trickling down the channel of her spine on this poison-hot September afternoon that smelled of exhaust and carne asada and cheap cologne. They were somewhere like Pomona or El Monte, So-Cal anyburb. Surrounded by uninspired fast food sprawl and dying palm trees, the show was like a bubble of otherworldly fantasy, defiant in the midst of grinding mundanity.
The cars lined up like playmates, hoods up, doors open, pornographically spread above strategic mirrors that revealed every proud modification, every hidden mechanism. Gaudy, fantastical, and vaguely menacing, they didn’t even seem to come from the same planet as the humble hatchbacks that clogged the rush-hour freeways. Their immaculate chromed engines flashed seductively. Deep-glossed paint jobs in unearthly colors like Microflake Tangerine or Black Plum Pearl, glistening like half-sucked candy in the vicious sun. Complex hydraulics tilted their rococo chassis in a bizarre, mechanical come-on. Hoods were painted with Aztec gods and girls in bikinis, demons and eagles and tumbling dice. Many were surrounded by trophies and arching golden letters that read things like BOMB SQUAD and LOW ’N’ SLOW. And the men who made them what they were stood close, pride filling their chests as they made small, tender adjustments, wiping away the evidence of their touch with soft cloth. The analogy of a lover’s touch came to Anna’s mind and was immediately discarded. The relationship between machine and maker was a thousand times more profound. Anna wondered what it would be like to be touched like that.
Beyond an open area set up with hash-marked poles designed to measure the height that each vehicle’s front end could be lifted off the ground, there stood a second double row of bizarre creations that seemed even farther removed from the constraints of function. And at the end of the long row was a machine that drew Anna to it, seducing her with its outrageous impracticality, its extreme, kaleidoscopic beauty. The proudly displayed interior was a plush riot of purple and green velvet, complete with TV, VCR, stereo, and full bar. Like a porno-movie set, yet somehow pristine, as if the vulgarity of human flesh had never touched it. The engine was a work of art, every humble component replaced by glittering gold and virgin chrome. Surrounded by a forest of trophies, this machine was queen of the show and seemed to know it.
Taking a step closer, Anna felt her breath catch in her belly. She no longer felt the heat, the blistering sun. She lost herself in the gorgeous convolutions of mechanical poetry, in the ghostly patterns that skimmed the glossy surfaces of a cool, beetle-green paint job that looked deep enough to drown in. A low, bassline pulse began to beat inexplicably between her legs.
Then Ruby, shattering the moment with her bright, intrusive personality.
“Time to hustle, honey.” Arm snaking around Anna’s waist to pull her reluctantly away. She had no idea how long she had been standing there.
On the way to her car, Ruby decided to brave the row of stinking porta-potties, leaving Anna standing alone and vaguely horny beside a 1959 Impala whose candy-apple skin made her want to taste it. She felt weirdly unfocused, spacey, and filled to overflowing with curious inorganic desire. Waiting dumbly, she became aware of someone standing close to her. A sawed-off Latina, slightly shorter than Anna, compact and muscular with dark skin and blue-black hair cut butch-short in a slick, old-fashioned style. She wore high waisted pants held up by suspenders and a man’s undershirt, big espresso nipples clearly visible through the thin white fabric. There were delicate lacy designs like silver tattoos winding around her sleek forearms, almost as if some kind of metal wire had been embedded in the skin. Black wraparound sunglasses hid her eyes. Her dress shoes were perfect, seeming to intimidate the dust with their pristine gloss.
“I saw you looking at the cars,” she said. Her sugar-syrup voice held only a teasing trace of Mexican accent.
“They’re all so beautiful,” Anna said, just to say something. She was sweating, dizzy from the sun and from the wicked darts of light thrown off the coils of exposed engines. She was suddenly sure that this woman could tell how turned on she was, that she could smell it somehow.
“You could be too,” the woman said.
For a second Anna thought she had misheard. Her heart skidded, but she forced herself to remain passive under this sudden scrutiny. The woman reached out and took Anna’s hand, but instead of bringing it to her lips as it seemed for a moment that she might, she turned it palm up and began systematically working the joints in Anna’s fingers as if testing their limits. Though she couldn’t see her eyes, Anna could feel the woman sizing her up, taking in every part of her with the detached speculation of a careful consumer. She found that she wanted anything this woman wanted to do to her.
The woman pressed a business card into Anna’s hand. Flustered, Anna licked her lips and clenched her fist around the little rectangle of cheap paper. She was suddenly afraid that Ruby would see it and try to take it away.
“Are you a mechanic?” she asked, realizing that she did not want the woman to go away, that she didn’t want Ruby to come back.
The woman flexed the corner of her mouth as if privately amused.
“Yeah,” she said. “You could say that.”
Then, as if Anna’s guilt had evoked her like a vengeful genie, Ruby appeared, freshly lipsticked and frowning.
“Excuse me,” she interjected, eyes reduced to jealous slits. “We’re leaving.” Heavy emphasis on “we.”
The mechanic gave Anna a last hard stare and then shrugged and walked away.
“What was that about?” Ruby asked, possessive now. “Nothing,” Anna lied. “She was just trying to sell me something.”
It was the first time she had ever lied to Ruby.
It wasn’t until the mechanic was long gone and Ruby was distracted with car keys that Anna was able to focus her eyes enough to read. The crumpled card had only one word printed in simple capital letters above the smaller phone number.
It said: BODYWORK.
With a not-unpleasant shiver, Anna slipped it into her wallet.
• • • •
Slumped in the passenger seat of Ruby’s big black Riviera, Anna pretended to listen to her friend’s gossipy monologue. Ruby was in “The Industry,” a makeup artist who made a living covering up celebrity imperfections. Anna, on the other hand, was no one. So she nodded gravely at the appropriate places in the litany of sacred names, this latest tapestry of scars from breast implants or needles or suicide attempts. Bruises inflicted by thug boyfriends or the ravages of starvation in a land of plenty. Ruby was speeding, as she always did, cranking the massive steel boat up to ninety-five as they blew past rabbity commuters and execs with cell phones and housewives trying to convince themselves that they were bold adventurers cruising the Serengeti in their Suburban Utility Vehicles rather than baby slaves on the way home from day-care in glorified station wagons. Normally, Anna would be terrified, heart between her teeth while Ruby drove with one hand, casually cutting people off and flipping them the bird. Ruby had obviously already forgotten the mechanic, but Anna hadn’t. She couldn’t. She was barely aware of anything outside of the faint residual tingle in her fingers, the slow burn of that simple business card hidden inside her wallet.
Getting back to her building had become a major pain in the ass ever since the cops had blocked off her street at each intersection with steel poles driven into the asphalt, chopping it into inaccessible segments. This was supposed to prevent cruising and drug trafficking, but for Anna, it only prevented Ruby from dropping her off in front of her place. Ruby said she had to rush off to some kind of shoot, so Anna walked that extra half a block alone, very aware of her leopard dress and fishnet stockings and slightly disappointed that Ruby had not wanted to come up. She never seemed to want to come up anymore.
Surprisingly, no one hassled Anna as she walked, and she found herself impulsively continuing past the sad aqua lunch box of her building and following Yucca down toward Vine. A tight cluster of grim and unshaven men in front of the Pla-Boy liquor store swiveled dead eyes to follow her, offering up a few half-assed whistles, but she barely heard them, wrapped up as she was in the workings of her muscles and bones, the mechanisms of her body. Visions of hot chrome and the mechanic’s touch and she kept putting one foot in front of the other, instinctively avoiding the dying fever of the Boulevard and looping around on Fountain. The idea of being cooped up in that tiny room seemed unendurable, and it was still far too early to sleep, with the sun only just committing its bloody suicide dive into the Pacific Ocean. So she kept on moving, kept on walking.
To be a pedestrian in Los Angeles is to be subhuman, beneath notice. Something to be glanced briefly through tinted windows and then forgotten. Only homeless people walked, pushing shopping carts filled with tin cans and old Christmas decorations and Academy Awards. Homeless and the invisible alien workforce that kept the city’s gardens lush and the toilets clean and the children diapered, greasing the wheels of luxury with their exotic blood. Homeless, aliens, and Anna.
Her funky hairdo was melting in the heat, coming undone now that she was out of range of Ruby’s touchups, so she surrendered to entropy, pulling the pins out and tossing them into the street unmindful of the sticky snarls they left behind. Her red lipstick was mostly faded and she wiped the rest away on the back of her hand. She felt as if as she was becoming less defined, more ephemeral with every step, as if Ruby’s modifications were all that had held her anchored in the real world. She felt like a ghost amid the mingled fragrances of sickly night-blooming flowers cultivated in fenced-off yards and split-open trash bags fought over by stray dogs. Of spicy cooking and the hopeless, rusty metal smell of bad neighborhoods in the summer.
Without thinking, she hooked up Las Palmas and found herself drawn in to the pale glow that surrounded the narrow newsstand. Just above the fleshy jumble of porn publications was a modest selection of Hot Rod and Lowrider magazines. She could not resist picking one up and thumbing through its bright pages. Captivated by the lush colors and flagrant frivolity displayed within, Anna again lost track of time until the surly cashier informed her of the five-minute browsing limit. She was just about to set the magazine back in its place when her eye snagged on a page of what appeared to be personal messages. There among declarations of love, pleas for second chances, or requests for prison pen pals was that word again, in quiet letters that hit Anna like a stealthy rabbit punch.
And beneath that:
“The next step.”
Then the number.
With shaking hands, Anna bought the magazine with the last of that month’s spare change. She felt furtive and nervous, as if she were buying Shaved Nymphos or Barely Legal. She had to breathe deep, force herself to walk slowly away.
As she made her way back home, clutching her purchase to her chest, her heart began to slow and her mind drifted. She was content to let it go, to kill time with fantasies of engines and of being loved.
• • • •
The next day Anna had to work. She worked in a copy shop, making endless Xeroxes of desperate spec scripts to be thrust into the faces of annoyed Hollywood royalty in the men’s rooms of trendy restaurants. These writers usually had three names and were always painfully optimistic, like beaten dogs that keep slinking back for more abuse. Sometimes they would practice their “pitches” on Anna while the machines obediently spat out three-holed pages. She would put on her retail robot face and nod politely and try to say something like, “I’m sure Mr. Schwarzenegger will love it.”
But that day, her mind was elsewhere. The latest three-named writer had given up trying to talk to her and was instead chatting up one of the Barbies who had come in to pick up zed cards. Anna could barely force herself to complete the brainless tasks her meager job demanded. All she could think of was the joints in her fingers and the magazine and the terrible emotion that curled around her heart, fluctuating between desire and panic. Ruby called and tried to get her to come out after work, but Anna said she was tired. She was amazed at her sudden resistant strength and even more amazed when Ruby let it go. She had to hold on tightly to the edge of the counter, unsteady and afraid the world had been secretly rearranged.
Zeke, her cartoon-exuberant co-worker, had been teasing her mercilessly all day as she screwed up one order after another.
“So what’s his name?” Zeke would ask repeatedly, clacking his tongue-piercing against his teeth in a way that he knew annoyed her.
When she refused to answer, he would sulk, hiding behind an Urban Primitives magazine whenever there was a rush of customers and leaving her to fend for herself up front. When he could no longer avoid helping people, he would leave the magazine open to some close-up photo of spiky genitalia.
In the lull just after lunch, she was counting out change for a woman who came in every day with photos of famous actors that she would photocopy, gluing her own cut-out head onto the bodies of the actors’ girlfriends. When she laid the last coin in the woman’s sweaty, glitter-nailed hand, Anna noticed Zeke’s magazine had tumbled off the counter. Squatting to pick it up and maybe even toss it in the trash, she saw that word again, unmistakable. BODYWORK. Same phrase, same number, but this time lurking amidst advertisements for needles and niobium. Anna dropped the magazine as if it were on fire.
It took her almost a week to break down and call.
• • • •
“Yeah,” a voice said on the other end, picking up after a single ring. She had no idea if it was the same person. Her heart was beating far too fast. Zeke was staring at her with his tongue out and so she turned away and pulled the phone cord out as long as it could stretch. She felt vaguely faint and had to force herself to speak.
“My name is Anna,” she said, appalled at the tentative squeak that had replaced her voice. “We met last week at the car show . . .”
She trailed off, hanging terrified over the abyss of silence between them. She thought she could hear the sound of hydraulics in the background and the cicada whir of electric lug wrenches. Just when she was sure she could not stand another second, the voice spoke and she couldn’t believe she didn’t recognize her the first time.
“Give me your address.”
In a teenage-girl gush, she told the mechanic to pick her up here at the shop when she got off her shift. When she finished reciting the address, the mechanic hung up without saying goodbye.
She set the phone back in its cradle and took a deep breath. A customer was saying something to her, but she couldn’t hear him. She left him standing stupid at the counter with a handful of grubby singles and ran to the toilet.
Squatting with her back against the door and her pants around her knees, she masturbated viciously, the cheap weave of her Kwik Kopy T-shirt clenched between her teeth. She found a curious fantasy flooding into her consciousness, a dream of silver skin and well-oiled joints, of a perfect, impossible body. In her mind, the beauty of the car show became her own, the organic curves surrendering to the superior strength of chrome and fiberglass. She came suddenly, banging her head against the door hard enough to send a shower of sparks across her vision like the starry splash created when a welder’s torch meets metal.
• • • •
The mechanic was exactly on time, pulling into the lot in a revamped midnight-blue Studebaker that turned heads for blocks. She got out and came around to open the passenger-side door for Anna. Her sharply cut pachuco drape was smooth, supernaturally unrumpled in spite of the oppressive heat. Anna felt wretched and unlovely in her work clothes with her hair pulled back in a sloppy knot. Unable to speak, she bowed her head and slipped into the car. The cavernous interior smelled of pomade and leather and hot steel. The sound of the heavy door slamming was as final as a guillotine blade.
Studying the mechanic surreptitiously as she drove, Anna thought that she was in love with her, that she must be. That this desire, this panicked hunger that seemed to own every part of her, must be what people meant when they talked about “crimes of passion.”
She wanted to press kisses to the flawless gloss of the mechanic’s two-toned shoes as they spoke to the Studebaker’s pedals, coaxing obedience from the beautiful, high-strung machine. The mechanic never said a word, seeming to be an extension of the car, a modern-day centaur. Anna found that she felt an equal desire to touch both the car, the curved faces of the gauges, the cool texture of the tiny chain-link steering wheel, and the mechanic, the strong angle of her jaw and her thick, callused fingers. She still wore the impenetrable black shades, cutting Anna off completely from any sense of human intimacy. She didn’t miss it at all. Humans lie. Machines do not.
They arrived somewhere, and Anna realized abruptly that she had no idea where she was. She had told no one where she was going, and although everyone in the mini-mall parking lot in front of the copy shop had stopped to gawk at her ostentatious ride, she doubted anyone would remember the face of the driver. Instead of feeling scared, she felt comforted by this knowledge. As if fate had given her permission to disappear.
Having pulled into the scrap-littered lot of a large and seemingly abandoned garage, the mechanic came around again to open Anna’s door. She felt unsteady and the mechanic seemed to know it instantly, wrapping a firm arm around Anna’s waist to support her as she stood. This simple contact was incendiary. The smell of the mechanic’s skin made Anna’s head swim, musky sweat and burning metal, blood and copper and industrial lubricants. She leaned into her like a tired child, letting the mechanic lead her up to a small door cut high into the larger roll-up.
Inside it was surprisingly cool. The space was huge, cathedral-like. There were cars, some covered with tarps, others exposed and vivisected like some complex experiment. Parts too, arcane and gorgeous, and Anna wanted to touch everything but didn’t. Instead she waited, silent, wondering.
The mechanic removed her glasses in the dimness, revealing lashless eyes like mirrors, the whole of the ball a shiny, reflective surface in which Anna could see tiny replicas of her own plain face. This barely had time to register before the mechanic took her hand again and spoke.
“I’ve been thinking about you,” she said. “Your bones. You are perfect.” She leaned closer, voice dropped low to a near whisper. “Cherry.”
Anna’s heart kicked into high gear, chill sweat sheening her skin.
“I . . .” she stammered. “I want . . .”
“I know,” the mechanic said, scarred fingers brushing her cheekbone. “I know what you want.”
She led Anna down a steep flight of cement steps, into a cramped basement workshop that was one of many, set like honeycomb cells in a vast and busy hive.
“Wait here,” she instructed, leaving Anna alone and without choices.
The circular space was lit like an operating theater. In the center of the room was a strange spidery thing that resembled the love child of a medical examination table and a hydraulic lift. Tools were laid out, easily accessible. Their shapes seemed infinite, ranging from delicate scalpels and hemostats to bulky rivet guns and power drills and things that Anna had never seen. Things that hinted at unthinkable purpose. The floor was tiled, with a large drain in the center.
When the mechanic reappeared, she was dressed in a loose-fitting coverall and a thick rubber apron, her strong hands sheathed in latex.
“Are you ready?” she asked, her voice almost tender.
Anna bit deeply into her lower lip. She was.
The mechanic helped her up into the cradle and webbed her in with heavy-duty cable that divided her body up into a butcher’s chart of work areas. As the mechanic moved to insert a massive rubber bit into her mouth, she flinched, fearful and suddenly unsure.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“It’s to keep you from screaming,” the mechanic told her, soothing her like a vet with a skittish horse.
“But I won’t scream,” she said.
The mechanic blinked her chromed eyes. Her voice was gentle but firm, like a doctor, like a parent correcting a wayward child.
“Of course you will,” she said.
A long tense moment unwound between them. Anna could hear the faraway music of laboring machines, keeping time with her nervous heart. She nodded with her eyes closed and obediently opened her mouth.
• • • •
A warehouse, deep in the forgotten maze of some old, industrial neighborhood. The location was secret, of course, but those who knew found it without hesitation. While the car show had been bright and open and full of sun and children, this event was private, hidden, lit with mercury lights and protected by stone-faced gang members with Chinese AK knockoffs.
Inside were the machines, each more fabulous than the last. But there was one that took the spectators’ breath away with its delicate, clockwork perfection, its inventive audacity. Razor-thin frills like an air conditioner, like a wedding dress. Clear Lucite covered the curved abdomen. Jealous rivals and beaming club members pressed close to view the gold-mesh and colorful rubber organs contained within. The heart-pump was raised up out of the chest cavity and housed in a complex wire cage glittering with LED displays. A transparent speculum had been inserted to give a better view of a filigreed cervix that blossomed outward like a hybrid lily. The cocked-back legs were powerful and insectoid, triple-jointed and reinforced with pistons. The back of the steel skull was porcupine-spiky with glowing fiber optics. Its name — ANATOMICA — was etched into the smoky glass eyeplate, the club name — BODYWORK — beneath in fine gold script. No one was surprised when she took first place.
“Absolutely stunning,” the judge told the mechanic as he handed over an enormous trophy in a storm of camera-flashes. “This is your best and most original work to date.”
The other club members rushed the stage to gleefully embrace her and then stand proud for a group photo with the winning entry.
“We won, baby,” the mechanic whispered, caressing her masterpiece’s sleek new skull, and although Anna could no longer hear, she knew it and was happy.
Spread the word!