The Royal Family

The Royal Family

5.0 2
by William T. Vollmann
     
 

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Since the publication of his first book in 1987, William T. Vollmann has established himself as one of the most fascinating and unconventional literary figures on the scene today. Named one of the twenty best writers under forty by the New Yorker in 1999, Vollmann received the best reviews of his career for The Royal Family, a searing fictional trip

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Overview

Since the publication of his first book in 1987, William T. Vollmann has established himself as one of the most fascinating and unconventional literary figures on the scene today. Named one of the twenty best writers under forty by the New Yorker in 1999, Vollmann received the best reviews of his career for The Royal Family, a searing fictional trip through a San Francisco underworld populated by prostitutes, drug addicts, and urban spiritual seekers. Part biblical allegory and part skewed postmodern crime novel, The Royal Family is a vivid and unforgettable work of fiction by one of today's most daring writers.

Editorial Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle
The Royal Family offers all of the maddening genius his readers have come to expect from the lunatic Vollmann.
Boston Globe
In Royal Family, Vollmann revisits the San Francisco streets and delivers his most harrowing and fully developed work of fiction yet.
Los Angeles Times
William T. Vollmann is a monster, a monster of talent, ambition and accomplishment. With The Royal Family, he has certainly arrived.
San Diego Union Tribune
Vollmann has created a haunting, disturbing and magnificent novel.
New York Newsday
The book is long, harrowing and demanding, but it's worth the effort.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Ambitious in style, in range, and in sheer volume, Vollmann's massive new novel continues the controversial projects of Whores for Gloria and Butterfly Stories, in which the prolific author aims to create a detailed fictional map of a modern-day red-light district and of the people who try to live there. John Tyler is a successful San Francisco lawyer; his brother, Henry, is a dodgy private eye in love with John's Korean wife, Irene. When Irene commits suicide, the siblings' bitterness becomes apparent. A grieving Henry frequents the prostitutes of SF's notorious Tenderloin district; John edges towards marrying his mistress, Celia. A brutal businessman named Brady has hired Henry to track down the "Queen of Whores." Pedophile and police informant Dan Smooth finally leads Henry to the Queen, an African-American woman of indeterminate age and immense psychological insight. Rather than turn her over to Brady, Henry warns her about him. Gradually the Queen helps Henry shed his grief for Irene by leading him down the dark, dank staircase of sexual and social degradation. He learns about masochism, golden showers and other unusual practices--and about love. But the Queen's command of her realm is imperiled: Brady wants to import her Tenderloin prostitutes for his Las Vegas sex emporium. Vollmann is after large-scale social chronicle; he includes characters from nearly every walk of life, and trains his attentions on processes not often seen by the faint of heart: cash flow, blood flow, phone sex, Biblical apocrypha (the Book of Nirgal) and the body odor of crackheads. But this hypperrealistic novelist also aims to present a metaphysics: the two brothers stand for two kinds of human being, the chosen and the outcast. As in all Vollmann's novels, the author's encylopedic ambition sometimes overwhelms the human scale; some supporting characters, though, do stay vivid. Vollmann avoids simply glamorizing the outcasts but remains, deep down, a Blakean romantic: prostitution is for him not only the universal indictment of the human race but also, paradoxically, the only paradise we can actually visit. 5-city author tour. (Aug.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
John Tyler is a successful San Francisco attorney with a yuppie lifestyle whose brother Henry is a scruffy private investigator. John is married to a Korean woman named Irene; Henry is in love with his brother s wife. When Irene commits suicide, Henry embarks on a mission to track down the Queen of the Prostitutes, the legendary protector of the city s streetwalkers, while John buries himself in legal work for a glitzy Las Vegas nightclub. Very much like Vollmann s earlier collection The Rainbow Stories (LJ 6/15/89), The Royal Family offers an obsessively detailed tour of the sex trade in San Francisco, yet the new book attempts to link the individual vignettes with a fratricidal Cain-and-Abel frame story. Like most of the author s work, this behemoth is a genre-defying mix of neo-noir, K-Mart realism, New Age claptrap, and unabashed editorializing. The New Yorker recently named Vollmann one of the best American writers under 40. But unlike his contemporaries, Vollmann shuns postmodern irony and is really much closer in spirit to the great 19th-century muckrakers. Many readers will find this gritty book highly offensive; others will be won over by the author s passion. Recommended for larger fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/15/00.] Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law Sch. Lib., Los Angeles Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Ambitious in style, in range, and in sheer volume, Vollmann's massive new novel continues the controversial projects of Whores for Gloria and Butterfly Stories, in which the prolific author aims to create a detailed fictional map of a modern-day red-light district and of the people who try to live there. John Tyler is a successful San Francisco lawyer; his brother, Henry, is a dodgy private eye in love with John's Korean wife, Irene. When Irene commits suicide, the siblings' bitterness becomes apparent. A grieving Henry frequents the prostitutes of SF's notorious Tenderloin district; John edges towards marrying his mistress, Celia. A brutal businessman named Brady has hired Henry to track down the "Queen of Whores." Pedophile and police informant Dan Smooth finally leads Henry to the Queen, an African-American woman of indeterminate age and immense psychological insight. Rather than turn her over to Brady, Henry warns her about him. Gradually the Queen helps Henry shed his grief for Irene by leading him down the dark, dank staircase of sexual and social degradation. He learns about masochism, golden showers and other unusual practices--and about love. But the Queen's command of her realm is imperiled: Brady wants to import her Tenderloin prostitutes for his Las Vegas sex emporium. Vollmann is after large-scale social chronicle; he includes characters from nearly every walk of life, and trains his attentions on processes not often seen by the faint of heart: cash flow, blood flow, phone sex, Biblical apocrypha (the Book of Nirgal) and the body odor of crackheads. But this hypperrealistic novelist also aims to present a metaphysics: the two brothers stand for two kinds of human being, the chosen and the outcast. As in all Vollmann's novels, the author's encylopedic ambition sometimes overwhelms the human scale; some supporting characters, though, do stay vivid. Vollmann avoids simply glamorizing the outcasts but remains, deep down, a Blakean romantic: prostitution is for him not only the universal indictment of the human race but also, paradoxically, the only paradise we can actually visit. 5-city author tour. (Aug.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Talk Magazine
...the next American fiction writer to win the Nobel Prize is a kind of detective story set in San Francisco. More than ever Vollmann's real territory is less the street life of his urban carnies than the interior life of our culture.
The New Yorker
[A] singualr literary effort...The Royal Family, with its unforgettable characters is Vollman's most accomplashed work to date.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780141002002
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
08/28/2001
Edition description:
Reissue
Pages:
800
Sales rank:
675,723
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.70(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


| 1 |


The blonde on the bed said: I charge the same for spectators as for participants, 'cause that's all it takes for them to get off.

    I can get a hint, said Brady.

    Oh, it's not a hint, the blonde said. I don't give a fuck if you stay. You just have to pay me, is all.

    That's exactly why he's not going to stay, Tyler explained.

    I'll be at the bar across the street, said Brady. Try to not take as long as you did last night. This is getting really old.

    My heart bleeds, laughed Tyler. Of course, it always bleeds around now. It's that time of the month.

    Are you a misogynist? said the blonde.

    What do you mean?

    Do you have it in for women just because they menstruate and you don't?

    I'm going now, said Brady.

    I said, do you hate women? the blonde went on.

    Have a beer, sweetheart, said Tyler in disgust. The things I put up with.

    The door closed behind Brady. Tyler continued to sit on the edge of the bed for a moment, listening to his footsteps fade down the hall. He heard a door open and a woman begin yelling in Chinese. Then that door closed, too, and he heard Brady's footsteps a little longer. When they had entirely died away, Tyler sighed and put his legs up. He did not bother to remove his shoes.

    I'd prefer a wine cooler instead of a beer, the blonde said. I see you have plenty.

    Helpyourself, doll.

    I'm not a doll. I'm a human being, and my name's Domino.

    Pleased to know you, he said. My name's Henry.

    I used to date a guy named Henry once. He was a real asshole.

    It goes with the name.

    Whatever. Are you going to get undressed or not?

    I am undressed. Do you see me wearing a necktie? My brother wears neckties. He works downtown.

    Look. I've got other dates to take care of, so can't we please move things along? Just tell me what you want me to do and I'll do it.

    Tyler untabbed his beer and burped. The hard grey beetle-shell of his face seemed to express embitterment, but it was only tension. His narrowed eyes guarded his soul by occluding and devaluing it. Tonight he was vulgarizing himself still further to play some conception of an appropriate part, perfectly aware of his inconsequentiality to the blonde but habit-driven to conform and mimic, just as when, spying on some potentially unfaithful banker in the financial district, he'd wear his old London fog and stand with the suspect's photograph hidden inside the latest Wall Street Journal. And tonight he was a nasty old whoredog.—Let's see what you look like naked, he said.

    Then she took her dress off, presenting to his secret-loving eyes belly-wrinkles like sandbars, and she took her bra off to let him see her round breasts bulging with silicone, and for him she took off her panties to give to his view her crusty blackish-reddish crotch. Lying on the bed long-legged with her red shoes on, she let him finger-trace the highway of a motorcycle wound, the white island of a bullet wound pigmented with granules or black hairs. Then the pipe's orange reflection glowed on her cheek as she squatted, inhaled, took the pipe out, kissed him, exhaled her smoke into his mouth: taste of bubblegum breath, her tongue in his mouth, then the numbness and heartracing happiness.

    Thank you, he said. That was good of you. (When he said it he meant it. But after all, he thought a moment later, it isn't as though doing that cost her anything. Everybody has to breathe out.)

    You want some gum? she said.

    No, thanks.

    Well, what do you want?

    I was wondering if you knew the Queen of the Whores.

    Hell, no, the blonde said.

    She lit the pipe again and got on all fours to blow her drugbreath into his mouth, looking very pretty with her buttocks high. Probably she meant to outshine his glimmer of unreadiness, since quick beginnings help make quick endings. She had things to do. He put an arm around her, pulling her toward him as he returned her kiss. Without knowing why, he'd begun to like her, drawn perhaps to the quickwitted, sarcastic rudeness and desperation of her. But business barred him from showing it. Brady wouldn't have cared if he laid her, but sexually she did not speak to him because he was in love with another woman whom he was not supposed to think of in that way and therefore perpetually did, now imagining the blonde to be her so that the blonde saw his hard face soften and his eyes dreamily open into nothingness as she pressed her mouth tighter against his, believing then, not unreasonably, herself to be the cause. Domino liked the world to think well of her. Gesturing, her arm incredibly jointed yet smooth like her breast, smooth and multi-lit like a wax pear in rainbow light (he knew perfectly well that it was the crack that so pleasantly exaggerated things), she lay on her side, caressing the mattress while her folded shoulder-shadows flickered.

    Well, said jocular Tyler, if you did know, who would she be?

    She might be me! laughed the whore, throwing herself onto her back with disconcerting suddenness. Then she took his hand and funnelled it down into her crotch.

    That's true, he said, pretending to consider. Why, she might even be me, or Mr. Brady.

    That your friend? He sure looked like a loser.

    He is a loser. But he pays me.

    You gonna pay me?

    Yep.

    You'd better pay me. I don't take to being gaffled.

    Now honestly, said Tyler. Do I look like the gaffling type?

    As soon as he'd breathed down the clean and bitter smoke well moistened by her lungs, his heart had begun to beat even faster, so that he felt as alertly alive as if he had been terribly afraid instead of being perfumed with delight.

    Anyway, what do you want to find the Queen for? I couldn't care less about that bitch. I don't work for anyone but me.

    I guess you and I are through then, he replied.

    But we didn't do anything! You still going to pay me?

    Yeah, I'll pay. And maybe sometime we'll even do it. (Tyler said this to all the whores. He was very polite that way.)

    You'd better pay me or I'll get tough, said the blonde, not entirely able to eyelid her pleasure at winning something for not engaging in an act she usually hated (and Tyler, perceiving all this through his now renarrowed eyes, felt illogically, ridiculously hurt).

    How can I get in touch with you? he said.

    That's easy, honey. I'm at the El Dorado on Sutter between Taylor and Jones. Sometimes I change my room, but wherever I am, I always face the street, get it? Just stand under the windows and whistle four times. Or if you're in a car, honk four times. Do you have a car?

    The loser does.

    He does? What kind?

    Here's fifty bucks, Domino. I guess I'll be seeing you.

    Lying naked on that bed, playing boredly with the gold chain that lay across her breasts, she waggled her ass, hoping to interest him so that maybe she could charge him more. But he'd gotten up and was looking out the window. She sighed and got dressed.

    Don't forget me, she said in a way that showed she'd already forgotten him.

    He didn't think he would. He thought he could remember the long white track, the eye-shaped bullet scar.


| 2 |


The hotel had improved since the Indians took over. It didn't stink as much, and there was no litter on the floor. Behind the white curtains stained with round brown spots like old blood, the window (which he'd opened to let the staleness out) faced a gulley walled by bricks, kindred windows, and fire escapes. From down below shouts floated up like seagulls. The windowsill smelled like urine. Tyler leaned out and saw a black man who stood smoking a cigarette, the man's hair very black and shiny against the dun evil of the alley.—This has gotta be my low point, he muttered. What a stupid job.—He waited until Domino emerged from the hotel. When she didn't look up, he felt oddly disappointed. She'd barely sipped her wine cooler, so when she'd gone and the black man had sauntered away, he threw the bottle out the window and listened to it smash ...


| 3 |


Any luck? said Brady, whose tone implied that Tyler would never own any of that commodity.

    Of course she said she didn't know anything.

    Did she say that she knows the Queen?

    No, she didn't say exactly that.

    Had a Pinkerton team work for me once, chuckled Brady, opening a bottle of pills. They told me they have a rule that you're not supposed to get emotionally or sexually compromised. But I don't give a shit.

    Tyler was silent.

    I said, I don't give a shit what you do.

    Let's keep this professional, boss.

    Did you ever get the impression that she was lying to you?

    Why should she lie to me?

    You care to answer my question?

    She said that she doesn't give a damn about the Queen. Usually when somebody goes to the trouble to say that, that means that she does give a damn. But if that's a lie, it's not a very important lie.

    It's not my policy to tell you what I do or do not consider important, said Brady.

    Yeah, boss, I know it isn't.

    Brady took a dictaphone from his shirt pocket, pushed the button, and intoned into it: There were days and days of such false starts, but since this is one of those rare occasions when discretion actually serves the turn of narrative interest, I shall refrain from dragging those people and episodes into this.

    That's beautiful, boss. Are you what they call extemporaneous?

    Nope. And a year from now my common stock is going to split two for one. You tag her?

    Locator fluid under my thumbnail. She let me touch a scar on her leg. I worked it in good.

    How good we'll know in a minute. Anything else?

    Said you were a loser.

    I must be, to hire you. Well, show me.

    It's all wired up, said Tyler. Pinkerton guys were the only other private eyes you did anything with? Somehow I figured you worked in the security field. Guess I was wrong. Turn the TV to channel seven and then click the remote three times, like this. Uh huh. Now wait a minute. Okay. See that blue dot? That's Blondie, and she's staying on the grid. Going down Leavenworth—now see; she's turning at Turk. Stopping for a minute, probably having a little chat with her dealer, but we'll mark it ... okay, now she's coming up Jones; she's just done three sides of a square; she's back on her beat. And I'd guess she's scratching her scar; that's why the blue dot flickered there for a minute. I'd say she's not going to lead us to any Queen. You never know, though. That's the beauty of this job, Mr. Brady. This place she keeps going to is probably just a bar, but we'll mark it, too. Computer says it's a parking garage. Maybe she takes guys there to give head. Anyhow, it's in the system. See her walking up and down the block? A slow night. But at least she got picked up by us losers.


| 4 |


Dark tracks of ecstasy down which slid blinking lights and fluffy lights, rays of warmness on cold tracks; these carried Tyler and Brady past brick hofbraus and pavement-holes. Ahead, a police car turned the corner. Pizza lights marked the edge. Then all the brightnesses started getting skinnier. White-lit arches launched them down long white slides tulipped with lamps, and they passed the Peacock Club, outside of which the first whore of the evening stood fussing with her science-fiction garter belt. Whores white and black swayed in the light. Their legs shook automatically. Tyler looked steadily out the passenger window, photographing that huddle of girls with his brother's old Minox. Expense account stuff, so gaffle me, sister. He'd thought the camera was practically invisible, but clippety-clop: three whores were running away.—Such sweet scared little fishies! cried Brady.—Tyler cleared his throat, wondering whether he might be catching a cold. His brain ached. They oozed down Hyde Street, waiting to breast the current of lights whose source-spring was a single rectangle of yellow high up above the corner; then there were yellow market-lights, gold lights, apartment-lights and lady-lights issuing from a hotel awning and its grating, and sex-light coming from the girl against the wall. Lonely sparks and tangents strung on hills tried to siren them away from the square rectitudes of ordinary stores. Brady would not be distracted. He stopped at an arched brick building whose scaffolding mutated against its glass. There a fat lady hiked up her skirt and pretended to masturbate, staring straight into his eyes. Through the open window Tyler said: Can you take a message to the Queen? It involves money. —Don't start shittin' me, said the fat lady. I'm not datin', so you can't haul me in for datin.'—We're not cops, said Brady brightly, but the fat lady only said: Uh huh, and you really love me and you won't come in my mouth and the check is in the mail.—Winging chevrons of gratings vanished her between vertical stripes of garage-light. Dauntless Brady swung the car back into the groove of traffic, undazzled by blinking lights on metal, dazed only by the other cuntsharks. Tyler smiled gently at the square buttocks of a van just ahead. For a moment he thought of Domino. Then the nauseating glitter on fences and gratings caught him. Breaking through a yellow lurch of hotel-lights, he saw a man checking his watch on the corner. Tyler knew that the man resembled him. The man was up to something. He winked at the man, who flinched, and then they were past. Above an awning like the roof of a mouth, a whore was smiling and bending from an orange-lit window. Tyler exposed two rapid frames (no flash, 6400 ASA) and noted the location.

    Might as well roll down your window at every black girl you see, said Brady abruptly.

    My window's always down, boss. I don't care how chilly it is. What makes you think she's black?

    Just a feeling. That's how I imagine her. Tell me how you imagine her, and don't you dare lie to me.

    Oh, I guess I could see her as one of those solarized naked blondes in an old Man Ray print. You know, with those haunting eyes. Are you into photography?

    Well, I hired a guy to wire up a women's locker room once.

    I collect books on photography, admitted Tyler with a certain shyness. Brady, who prided himself on knowing people, could tell right away that here lay his hireling's monomania, on which, given any encouragement, he'd discourse with arid learnedness, like other people on hockey, stamp collecting, their pets or children.—I collect photographs, too, Tyler was saying. It sort of goes with my profession. On Sundays I sometimes like to play around, you know, do nudes, double triple quadruple exposures ... There's one. You want to pull in toward the curb, boss?

    A black whore was rubbing legs at the light, crunching potato chips. She wore a silver paper skirt. Tyler mouthed the word "Queen" at her and she shrugged and waved. Brady shook his head.

    Pasty-faced white girls at the corner of an alley grinned as if at a party. Tyler jumped out and asked them if they'd seen the Queen.

    She never comes before ten o'clock, a girl said. Why, you got something for her? You can give it to me. Honey, you can give it to me.

    Lights hurt the mirror of a parked truck.

    Between two dead grey towers, a girl in a sweater swung her tits like a waitress in a truck stop slamming down a plate of fried eggs. She whipped her hands at them, glaring fiercely.

    That's quite a luxuriant nigger girl, his boss said.

    You from the South, Mr. Brady?

    Why, do I have an accent?

    No, I just wondered.

    Well, stop wondering and ask her the question. That's what I'm paying you for.'

    Tyler crooked his finger, but the girl only spat loudly on the sidewalk.

    The Queen wouldn't like that sort of behavior, you know, he said to her.

    What the fuck do you know about what the Queen likes? the whore shouted. You think you're good enough to jump the Queen?

    Why? said Tyler. Are you trying to tell me you're a big enough bitch to eat the Queen's pussy? Does she let you do it on alternate Tuesdays?

    I oughta cut you, the whore said. She wore silver stockings that came all the way up to her buttocks. Peering sulkily, she bent and picked something up from the sidewalk.

    Find out what she grabbed, whispered Brady.

    What did your friend say? cried the whore suspiciously. She came over to the car. Seeing Brady's dark suit and necktie, she smiled, softly offering her goosepimpled thighs.—You datin'? she said. I'd much rather go wiv you than him.

    Yeah, he's dating, said Tyler. He wants to do you and the Queen at the same time.

    What do you keep talkin' 'bout the the Queen for? It's bad to talk about the Queen.

    Another girl walked past, her garters glittering like frosting and mica against the scaly diamonds of gratings. Shivering, she shot a bitter look at Tyler and shouted: Am I your only secret slave? Am I the only one you're getting paid to practice slavery on?

    Get lost, said Brady.

    Look, said Tyler to the suspicious whore. A hundred bucks if you take me to the Queen.

    The whore whirled and clip-clopped away in the direction that the other girl had come.

    You scared her, said Brady reproachfully.

    Let's follow along, boss. We might learn something.

    That's a spurious and specious linkage, said Brady.

    What?

    Your assumption that because I say the word nigger I must be from the South. You're trying to stereotype me.

    We'd better follow the girl, boss.

    You tag her?

    Yeah, with that dime store earring she grabbed. Soaked in locator fluid. I dropped it out the window when she was yelling at me.

    I don't trust that locator fluid. If it's so good how come the FBI doesn't use it?

    I don't know, boss. I never worked for them.

    Because you're a loser?

    Uh huh.

    Are you evading me?

    What would I want to evade you for, boss?

    Because you're spending my money and wasting my time.

    I could try and pull some old court records, Tyler muttered, ducking his head.

    Well, maintain visual. An earring, huh? That was a good one.—Brady smiled, recollecting multitudes of other girls seduced by tented alleyways sheltering cases of earrings; they slowly bent their heads in submission to that glitter. He was rich.—Come on, come on, come on.

    Sure, said Tyler. We'll just keep rolling and rolling along.

    They tracked the suspicious whore through a dozen neon spiderwebs to some kind of overcast garageworks behind a grating, red car-skulls watching from beyond. Tyler sat listening to the heavy clop of that glossy-shoed girl so sour-sweet with the sweat-drops glistening from her meaty shoulders as she ran through the cold night. She'd gotten inside the grating somehow (a fat van had blocked the view), and now she vanished among the red cars.

    Okay, boss. We can't go in there now; it's too obvious. It's the same place that Blondie went to last night. We'll check it out tomorrow.

    Was her name really Blondie?

    She called herself Domino.

    Then call her Domino. Are you a misogynist? sneered his boss with a grunting laugh.

    A tall black girl crossed the street with mincing clicking steps, drinking from something in a paper bag. There were frothy things on her breasts like silver spit. Other women were already smiling over her shoulder.


| 5 |


Lest it be believed that only Tyler indulged in monomania, I may as well mention that Mr. Brady was a devotee of the cottonwood tree.—A cottonwood plank in a horse stable will outlast an oak plank two to one, he said.

    Is that a fact, said Tyler, counting receipts.

    I personally laminated cottonwood four-by-fours to show what they could do for high-grade railroad crossings, said Brady, who reminded him of a camel-necked tan goat without ears he'd once seen, gnawing sadly on the railing of its cage.—I talked to the engineers and they just loved that idea. But I couldn't get anywhere with the purchasing department. Mr. Brady, they said to me, I'm just gonna have to be real blunt with you. Unless you're willing to pay these purchasing agents something under the table, it'll never happen.

    Is that right, said Tyler. There was a whore he knew that he thought he could go halves with. She could spout nonsense about the Queen on Brady's money and give him a kickback. He didn't want this job to end yet. Brady must be rich rich rich. He belonged in the kind of hotel lobbies where patrons whisper instead of shout.

    We ran an experiment where we were grinding those cottonwoods for cowfeed, said Brady, while Tyler was thinking: I really ought to check my answering machine.—How about that, he said.

    And we had to fight every pharmaceutical company in the country. They wanted to pollute our meat with that teramyacin, that auromyacin. Those idiots at the college up there are the equivalent of the prostitute press. They went right along with the pharmaceutical companies. We couldn't get it off the ground because of the money pressure out there.

    Well, I'll be, said Tyler. Are you sure they weren't evading you?—Later he went to look for the whore he could have gone halves with, but she'd been arrested.


| 6 |


Is he your boyfriend or is he your boss? said the crazy whore, her eyes gleaming like the wristwatches of hopeful young lawyers.

    My boss, said Tyler.

    (The room smelled like mold.)

    He reminds me of the guy who got shot 'cause he kept lookin' at the robber's face. I said to him, you just don't know how to get robbed.

    I can take a hint, said Brady, not getting up to go.

    He reminds me of those big she-males in the street, the whore said.

    Better be careful, said Tyler, guiding the conversation into interesting channels. Maybe the Queen's listening.

    I don't care what she hears because very little of what she hears is real.

    I can take a hint, Brady repeated, getting more comfortable. He obviously loved all this. Tyler didn't. He might have, if he'd been working alone. But this was a waste of time.

    I'm just a beginner compared to Sapphire, the woman said. I haven't gone as deep as she did before she was even born.

    Who's Sapphire? said Tyler.

    Don't you even know that? She's the Queen's special darling. She can't talk.

    Well, you can sure talk up a storm, said Brady. Find me an ashtray, would you?

    I don't want you to talk, the whore went on. Maybe that one patheticism, what's it going to accomplish? This place is very high-class, and you know what happened? I told myself, and I told myself, but the mirror fell off and broke. `Cause I paid my rent check. I don't need to pay it till tomorrow. Or is it not your day to be near me? Or am I whispering too much?

    Oh, no, ma'am, not at all, said Brady. He winked at Tyler.—Transient psychotic symptoms. Good money there.

    What the fuck are you talking about, boss? said Tyler.

    The crazy whore frowned at Tyler and pointed at Brady.—His jollies would be bigger if he sat in the closet. Then he couldn't see me but would just feel me being nude. I'm not saying you can't get something out of me.

    Want to try it, boss?

    Sure. Is there a chair in that closet?

    There's a very tiny looking kid living upstairs, the crazy whore said. He's a spy for the Queen. `Cause maybe I'll identify him to the point where I'll be able to cup my buttocks properly. And then I'll just make the bed. So what if he spies. So what if the Big Bitch is listening. You know what I've been waiting for? You know what I want to say to her? I want to tell her, I want you to do it to yourself, Big Bitch. I think that'll just bring back the Golden Age. Byzantine. I remember how to hold off and how to gaffle. See how my fingers are naked? Poor me! Your friend has to understand, you know. The little kid can see right through the ceiling, 'cause he's got good eyes. He doesn't know if you guys are alive or dead, so I said dead.

    Well, thanks, said Tyler agreeably. (Brady was snoring in the closet, with an unlit cigar in his hand.)

    The crazy whore scratched and scratched. Possibly she had scabies.

    So does the Big Bitch have a name?

    A name is just something you use once for your job. Then you throw it in the trash, so vigs and pigs can't get you. See what I mean? My name is just Pussy. But after I'm done, then my name is Tongue.

    What you said just made me sad.

    You see what I'm saying?

    Yeah, I get it. But does she have a name?

    Maj or midge, they're all mosquitoes, just sucking blood and sperm for money. Maj is like majestic but she's not Maj. She's just the Big Bitch. And most of them are young girls. You might be shocked.

    Oh, try me.

    Naked, hard-nippled, with red lines across her belly, the crazy whore glided sleeves and panties across her hair.—My dollars' worth of cunt is fifty dollars, she hissed. And my dollars' worth of crack is fifty dollars. Then I'm too hypersexually active to care. I have the Mark. You don't have the Mark yet, but you will. You know what the Mark is?

    Nope.

    It's in the Enemy's Book. First chapter. That's not too much to read, but you're just a little too much to be humble. Your normal visit's just a normal visit, right?

    That's right, honey. Just a normal visit. Maybe my boss will jerk off in your face or something.

    The crazy whore twisted and leaned against the moldy wall, and her rear stuck out.

    Tyler pulled his best confiding face and whispered: I like it when you talk about the Queen.

    And I like you to say what you said, she replied. 'Cause my pussy's a nervous thing, like some kind of fungicide. And now we have to stick something up my pussy like a baby powder. Your body is prisonering me, Mister, like a car crashing into several people, like six at one time. But the Queen is the goddess of my vision. She's full of compassion and envy. She'll notice when you have something she doesn't remember. `Cause everything comes from her. She won't leave anybody here. Little spy, you around me yet? I'm not concerned with that as much as with agreeing with beautiful colors. Or haven't you noticed? I hate Sapphire. You know why? Her colors are more beautiful than mine. Sapphire's perfect. She's the Queen's little pet. I want to kill Sapphire because I'm jealous, but I won't. I want to kill you and take your money but I'm afraid. Now, all I have to do is kill a bug that's this big. My spiders would incubate areas inside my artificial nerve. They lay their eggs in it, 'cause it's plastic. Plastic is dead to hold my eyes into my head. But the Queen has living rotting eyes. Something about me will not let me see you. But this is going to be real. Really real, she wept, beginning to masturbate.—I've got good luck but you can't come in. `Cause I'm with my ex-husband. I think you can tell from your voice that I want to be with you again.

    She pounced on Tyler and slammed her tongue into his mouth. He sighed and patted her naked ass, massaging in locator fluid with a half-life of three nights. She pulled away almost at once. She was licking her lips in the light of the crack pipe flame as she bounced on the bed, rubbing her clitoris.—Well, that pipe works pretty good, she said.

    Tyler took one hit out of politeness, felt the good feeling, sighed, got up, and knocked on the closet door.—Huh? said Brady, awakening.

    Let's go, boss. I think we're wasting time with this one. I gave her ten dollars.

    The crazy whore wasn't paying attention to them anymore. She was picking little wads of tissue out of her cunt.

    After they left, though, she proceeded to the parking garage at a desperate run.

    When Tyler, tuning in to channel seven, became apprised of this news, he raised his eyebrows and smiled at his boss. He didn't even think any longer about the whore he could have gone halves with. He was getting interested in this project for his own sake. Truth to tell, in his sphere he was hopeful, confident, creative. The fact that Brady might be capable of dealing severely with people who disappointed him might have contributed to the alacrity of a different subaltern, but Tyler, for all his other failings—disorganization, mental inertia, withdrawal, and above all moral uncleanliness—was no coward. Brady therefore scarcely impressed him in a more than diffusive way. And the episode of Domino, who in and of herself exercised upon him retrospective fascination, had begun to raise within him certain almost magical expectations which he'd otherwise abandoned in life (with one incestuous exception which we'll get to later). What if the Tenderloin (for instance) comprised a worthwhile puzzle whose solution might enlighten him? (I'll make a few phone calls on the local level, he murmured to himself.) What if destiny actually had gifts in store for one whose habits had long since confirmed him in giftlessness?

    So you didn't get a name, Brady said.

    She mentioned somebody named Sapphire, but I don't think that's the Queen. And Big Bitch, Maj, all that stuff, I don't really believe ...

    I always thought this Queen was a little like Gotti in New York, Brady laughed. I always thought you really burden yourself once you go out and make a big name for yourself.

    Yeah, maybe that's her thinking, said Tyler, not really listening.

    The crazy whore stayed inside the garage for only about ten minutes, which implied that it might be some kind of message drop. (Brady yawned and did not cover his mouth.) Then her glowing trail unraveled itself almost as quickly as it had formed and snailed, shrinking all the way back to Ellis and Jones, where she stopped for five minutes, probably to make a crack buy, and then back to her hotel room. Tyler smiled again.

    I'm tired, Brady said.

    Tyler left his boss sitting in the car outside, tiptoed up the stairs, and put his ear to the crazy whore's door. He heard her singing in a sad voice:


They called me Flower-of Gold,
and they called me Flower-of-Silk,
but when I became Queen of the Fold
they bathed me never in milk.


| 7 |


His boss had to go to Vegas for business. Tyler drove him to the airport. Then he drove home and took a cab to North Beach on Brady's nickel, just to see what the cab drivers knew. The first driver didn't know anything. Tyler was feeling pretty good. He went out for Italian food, pretending that the woman he wasn't supposed to love was sitting across from him. If he sat at home he'd get depressed. He didn't like to read anymore, and he hated television. Darkroom chemicals were expensive. There wasn't a lot to do.

    The cab driver back to the Sunset was a Russian who was listening to a scratchy cassette of sad Russian songs sung by a woman whose voice was more rich and expressive than the crazy whore's, but her sadness was the same. The driver obviously loved it. Every time the dispatcher tried to call him on the radio, he'd sigh: Idiot.

    Were you a soldier? said Tyler.

    The Russian nodded glumly, whistling.

    Afghanistan?

    Afghanistan.

    What was your job?

    Meteorologist, said the Russsian, and Tyler didn't believe him.

    You must have seen some bad things, Tyler said.

    The Russian nodded.

    I saw two people get killed today, said Tyler, just to see if he was listening.

    Tough, growled the Russian sympathetically, shrugging his pale wide shoulders.

    Do you know the Queen? said Tyler.

    Not in my organization. Another one. Before, was in mine. Now finished.

    Tough, said Tyler, shrugging his shoulders.

    Your country finished, said the Russian. You have a problem, a black problem.


| 8 |


The ruby light winked on his answering machine, like one of Carol Doda's nipples back in the old days on the neon sign for the Condor. Carol Doda had a lingerie shop on Union Street now. Once Tyler had gone inside to pick out something for his sister-in-law Irene, but he hadn't bought anything, and he never knew whether or not the woman at the cash register was Carol Doda. Now he sat sipping at his Black Velvet, halfheartedly checking boxes on his surveillance report for Brady while he gazed across the street at one of those prismatic Victorian windows aflame with something which tigerishly shone beneath curtains. When he finished the whiskey, the answering machine was still blinking.

    A long, friendly message: Somebody wanted him to spy on her husband to see if he were being unfaithful.

    Tyler called back.—You know, lady, he said, divorce in California is no-fault. You don't have to prove adultery to file.

    Oh, I understand that, the woman said. I just want to know. I really need to know.

    Knowledge is pretty expensive, said Tyler dreamily, checking boxes on his surveillance report. And I'm booked up shadowing royalty right now. Tenderloin royalty.

    How about a hundred dollars? the woman said.

    A hundred wouldn't even prime my pump, said Tyler. If you want to prime my pump you have to give me five. And it could run into thousands. What if he only does her once a month? What if he takes her out of town? If he goes out of town then I've got to go out of town, too, and that's going to cost you.

    You're kind of discouraging, the woman said. Almost insulting, too, I should say.

    I aim to be, said Tyler. I want you to think long and hard before you decide to go through with this. Most people who come to me don't like what I show them.

    Five hundred is an awful lot of money, the woman said. And you're not very nice.

    I agree. So why don't you think about it and go to your teller machine to check your bank balance and look your husband in the eye and decide if you want to hate him even more than it sounds like you already do? You're welcome to hate me instead. That's my advice, and it's free advice.

    Thank you, the woman said palely.

    All right, said Tyler.

    He had another Black Velvet and called his brother's place, but there was no answer. He started to call Brady at the hotel, but thought better of it and hung up.


| 9 |


He tried to locate Sapphire on three databases, but of the sixteen women he found, two supposedly dwelled in Ketchikan, Alaska, and none of the others showed up in California. Maybe the crazy whore was just crazy. More likely, Sapphire was an unregistered nickname.


| 10 |


I seen you! giggled the next girl. She had reddish-pale hair, and the bulb-light exposed her pimpled cheeks.—You was with that blonde Strawberry. No. That's not Strawberry. That's Domino.

    And what's your name? said fresh-from-Vegas Brady, who always wanted to take charge.

    Why? said the smoothwaxed lips. You datin'? You datin'?

    Of course I'm dating, said Brady, oozing what Tyler considered to be unprofessional glee. My name's Mr. Breakfast, and this is my friend Mr. Lunch. He says he's not sexually or emotionally compromised. Do you believe him?

    I never heard names like that before, said the lips. Set just above that pale chin, they almost reached the gigantic sunglasses.

    Well, what's your name then?

    Kitty.

    Kitty as in pussy?

    Hey, Mr. Breakfast, you got me wrong. I'm not a prostitute. I've just fallen on some hard times, that's all.

    How much?

    How much you got to spend?

    Twenty.

    Uh huh. You wanna feed my kitty? And does Mr. Lunch wanna do somethin'? You can come in my mouth or anything you want.

    Speaking of mouths, Tyler broke in, guess what your friend Domino told us.

    Friend? That bitch ain't my friend. Any friend she had she stabbed in the back long ago!

    She told us she was the Queen of the Whores.

    She did? Shit! And you believed her? That bitch must've been strung out. Too much junk!

    She told us all the other girls worked for her, said Tyler, sounding as stupid as he could. She said she's the Queen.

    She's not. There's no such thing.

    But she said—

    I don't care what she said. She's full of shit. She don't have shit. It's a man's world.

    You know, said Brady in wonder, she was really strange. She started getting friendly as soon as we started giving her money. Why do you think that is?

    Oh, shit! laughed Kitty.

    Tyler hung his head.—And Sapphire said ... he whispered.

    What do you mean, Sapphire said? That retarded bitch can't even talk! Only mouth she uses is the one between her legs ...

    But the Queen ...

    How many times I got to tell you there ain't no Queen? If there was a Queen, she'd just be a pimp that's got a pussy. Why should you care? You don't want to hang out with no pimp.

    You think we should see Domino again? said Tyler. Maybe if we gave her more money she could explain things to us.

    Don't have nothing to do with her would be my advice.

    Well, what should we tell her next time we see her?

    Her? Tell her get lost, man. She's a nut! All she's gonna do is get you in trouble. She probably has warrants and shit.

    Tyler nodded solemnly. Well, Kitty, why don't you and Mr. Breakfast go do your business in that parking garage over there? I'll just sit here and jerk off.

    Mr. Breakfast is gonna make you wait on him? cried Kitty in amazement. Tell him he oughta pay you for that.

    I'll tell him.

    You hear that, Mr. Breakfast?

    Yeah, I heard, Kitty. Now let's go to that garage.

    I don't trust that garage. I'll take you to a better place.

    I'll pay ten bucks extra to take me into that garage, said Brady caressingly.

    Kitty scuffed her high heels sadly on the sidewalk.—No, thank you, Mr. Breakfast. I don't never go in there.


| 11 |


The new hotel room smelled bad. Brady, who'd turned the TV on, ignored it, almost slicing the stack of photos with his nose. The bed sagged down toward him, the blue and white bedspread like the bottom of a canted swimming pool. The TV glowed orange and said: ... the significance of this historic achievement. The two men stood discussing money over the round table. Tyler leaned, staring very hard at the stacks of expense money. The eyes in his grey face slowly narrowed as he thought: If only all this money belonged to me, I could run away with Irene. I could take her down a well and we'd stay there making babies and never get out ... —Brady, whose feet hurt, leaned backward on his heels, looking softly down at the money while he was explaining. Although the greenbacks lay between them, it was obvious to whom they belonged: Brady kept pointing to them and sometimes touching them, while Tyler gazed down almost shyly. The window was open, and across the gulf between ratridden buildings another window was open, through which the blonde whore Domino was watching them. Tyler smirked and waved. Brady did not see.

    I think the garage is the place, said Brady.

    Well, boss, you might be right.

    You don't think so, do you?

    It's too early to say.


| 12 |


Arentcha cold? the whore said.

    A sunburst of hair, short arms over boobs bigger than the wheels of a Greyhound bus. Her sweater was as nice as light.

    You going to warm me up? said Tyler, as enthusiastically as if he hadn't asked that question a hundred times already.

    The black girl's hair was bright against the dirty white of a massage parlor wall. She leaned to nurse her hair as if' it were some elaborately tender creature.

    Tell you the truth, said Tyler confidentially, I'm looking for the Queen.

    Honey, you done come to the wrong place. This here's a hundred percent girl you're talkin' to! Try the Black Rose.

    You know what I mean. Not that kind of queen, but the one that runs things. The Big Spider. The Empress of Darkness.

    Honey, sure I know what you mean but it gonna cost you big. It gonna cost you.

    How much? he said.

    (Her eyes were the shadows behind fences.)

    Whatcha really wanna do?

    Let's duck into that parking garage and you can give me a blow.

    Sure, honey. But not there. I know a better place.

    What's wrong with that? I see girls go in there all the time.

    It's just not a good place.

    So Tyler went with her to the alley. As soon as he'd paid her, he saw her run into the parking garage.


| 13 |


Did she say she knew the Queen?

    No, but she implied it.

    Did she say she knew the Queen? his boss repeated.

    No.

    Okay. Do you believe she knows the Queen?

    Yes.

    Do you believe she knows that you believe it?

    Yes.

    Can you give me a basis for your belief?.

    When I said that a pretty girl like her probably got a lot of people to tell her things, she was flattered. She relaxed. She opened up, so to speak—

    Are you emotionally compromised?

    Tyler sighed.—Not yet, boss.

    I think I understand. And then?

    She made a reference to the parking garage. She said she never goes there. It's on the tape. You heard it?

    It's not my policy to comment on what I did or did not hear. Not to you. So let's keep rolling.

    Well, then I said I knew what parking garage she was referring to and I winked at her. Then she laughed.

    So it was nonverbal?

    Yes.

    I follow. Do you believe that she believes the parking garage is where the Queen stays?

    Yes.

    And do you also believe that the parking garage is where the Queen stays?

    Yes.

    Okay. So we're ready to meet the Queen.

    Yes.

    Do you believe that we're ready to meet the Queen?

    Yeah, I guess so.

    Are you sure?

    No.

    Why aren't you sure?

    Maybe she's dangerous.

    How might she be dangerous?

    I don't know, boss. But I'll tell you honestly. I didn't believe in this at first, but now it's starting to spook me.

    What can she do to you?

    Probably nothing that I can't do back to her.

    Do you want to go in?

    I'll do it.

    Would you rather have more time?

    Yes.

    Is it because you want more expense money?

    Oh, partly. And partly because I don't know what we'll find.

    Don't worry about money, Henry, said his boss with surprising gentleness. I promise I'll take care of you. Will you go in with me tomorrow?

    Okay.

    Do you want to go in with me or would you rather go in alone? Don't lie to me.

    I'd rather go in alone. I don't know how good your breaking and entering skills are, Mr. Brady. You already told me that private eye stuff isn't your field. And it makes me uneasy when a client wants to help me break the law. But I don't mind if you have a good reason, or if you get off on participating, just like Domino said. In my book, you're emotionally compromised. But if you want to distract the ticket guy that'd be useful.

    I get the hint, said Brady with a grin. It's okay. I trust you.


| 14 |


Past the boarded-up bakery on Larkin Street Tyler wandered the following forenoon, his hand on his wallet as if life were really good, past the school sign and into the dark garage.—It's a perfect place, Brady had said. Nobody's ever here. Nobody but whores. —Tyler walked back to the bakery, got into his car, and drove up the slanting urine-smelling tunnel. On the second floor he backed the vehicle against the wall and sat watching the ramps—the standard orientation of any prudent man getting a blow job. As a matter of fact, Tyler did not like blow jobs. But backing against the wall remained prudent. The cold friend in his armpit did not show. The ramp to the third floor was cut off by a grating which seemed to have been down for a long time. There was light behind it, light sweating and stinking on concrete.

    Nobody around, Brady tying up the attendant with some endless complaint ... Perfect. He stuck a straw into the little spray can of Wallylube and tooted the lock. Then he thrust a half-diamond pick into the keyway and started lifting pins. They all dropped, one by one; the lock was in good working order, as a Queen's lock ought to be, especially on her chastity belt. He listened as they fell: a six-pin lock. Now for the tension wrench and the plug spinner ... Just enough tension, thank you ... He decided against the raking method and went by feel. He was holding the pick in just the same way that Brady held that fat vulgar rollerball pen of his. With the hook pick he raised the driver pins above the shearline, chamber by chamber; the plug rotated three or four degrees, making a shelf on which the top pins must rest so that they couldn't slam back down like a vindictive whore's teeth. (No sidebar, fortunately; this was not a General Motors car lock.) Now the bottom pins could move unobstructedly in their channels of vileness.

    The lock opened on the fifth bounce. He stepped into the greasy light.

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Meet the Author

William T. Vollmann is the author of eight novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and Rising Up and Rising Down, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction. Vollman's writing has been published in The New Yorker, Harper's, The Paris Review, Esquire, Conjunctions, Granta, and many other magazines. He lives in California.

Brief Biography

Hometown:
Sacramento, California
Date of Birth:
July 28, 1959
Place of Birth:
Santa Monica, California
Education:
Attended Deep Springs College and Cornell University

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