Blonde VENUS — Daphne Bellflower

Blonde VENUS — Daphne Bellflower

Although he believed a real man should protect a woman’s feelings no matter
what, Jackson couldn’t help wanting to tell her about the masters, and what
they were planning. And how he was helping them.

Jackson had been in this small, dusty town for the past week, picking
almonds from daybreak to sunset. The San Joaquin valley was full of people
– men, women, and children – who appeared to be just like Jackson; broke,
hungry and far from home. But they weren’t like him. Nobody was like
Jackson. He asked permission to come to California because of the movies;
he thought he wouldn’t be homesick because everything would look so
familiar.

None of the small towns he drifted through were glamorous, and the people
he met looked nothing like Jean Harlow and Clark Gable. Even so, Jackson
thought California was beautiful. It was always sunny and warm, and the air
smelled faintly of eucalyptus. Though it was hot during the day, the valley
cooled down at night when the breeze blew in from the Sacramento delta. In
the morning, when Jackson and the others started work, the sun quickly
warmed the vast green fields and rolling yellow hills. There was a steady
flow of work here, and Jackson managed to make enough money picking crops
to survive while he waited.

Jackson had earned exactly 98 cents that day picking cantaloupes.  He was
too tired to set up camp and cook over an open fire. As he walked through
the small town, he saw the sign for Ernie’s Diner. He decided to spend his
day’s wages on a big supper. Jackson couldn’t remember much from his past
life, but he had adapted quickly to the pleasures of this one. He
especially loved the food here. He tried to remember what he ate up there,
but knew he loved this food more. Hamburgers with red ketchup and sour
pickles, french fries that were crunchy and greasy and salty. He especially
loved the all different kinds of pie; pecan, apple, and chess pie with a
scoop of vanilla ice cream.

She glanced up at Jackson as he walked in the diner and sat down at the
counter. “Coffee?” she asked. She was tall and skinny; her faded uniform
was tight on her slim frame. Her long legs, stiff blond hair, and round
blue eyes reminded of Jackson of Ginger Rogers in all those Gold Digger
movies, before she became a star. The name tag pinned to her shabby uniform
said “Annie.”

“No, no coffee. I don’t like it. I want the brown stuff that fizzles. in
the green bottle. The fizzy stuff.” Jackson glanced up at her big blue
eyes. “I think the bottle has curly writing on it.”

Annie stared at him quizzically. “You want a a Coke? Coke’s brown. Is that
what you mean? I never saw anyone that didn’t know what Coke was.” She
grinned at him. “Where you from mister that you don’t know what a Coke is.
Do you want ice in your glass, or don’t you know what ice is?”  The cook,
smoking a cigarette in front of the blackened grill, turned and laughed.

Jackson was alarmed. He always tried to blend in, to act like the other
men. He didn’t care to model himself after his fellow field workers;
Jackson learned how to act like a real man from the movies. He studied them
carefully, and appropriated the traits that he thought were the best, like
Wiliam Powell’s manners and wit, James Cagney’s toughness, and Gary
Cooper’s manly stoicism. Jackson especially liked Clark Gable; his smirk
and his way with the ladies. He quit wearing tee shirts after he saw “It
Happened What Night.” If Gable didn’t wear a tee shirt, either did Jackson.

Annie shuffled back with Jackson’s Coke and a glass of ice. “What do you
want to eat?” She looked at Jackson expectantly, waiting for him to order.

“Do you have hamburgers and fries? That’s what I want. And pecan pie and
ice cream after I eat my first food, if you have it.”

She fixed her round blue gaze on him and asked flatly, “Can you pay mister?
No offense. The boss is sick of people eating food they can’t pay for. I
know it’s bad out there, but we aren’t running a charity.” She looked at
Jackson’s ragged clothes and grease-stained hat, and thought it was lucky
that he was tall and square-jawed, with thick dark brown hair. His looks
could distract a girl from thinking too hard about his worn clothes and
unshaven face.

“I can pay” Jackson said.  “I get paid every day after work. I spend my
money as soon as I can, because of what’s going to happen.”

Annie turned around and yelled his order to the cook, who put out his
cigarette and indifferently tossed a burger on the grill.

Annie fixed her attention on Jackson. There was something off about him. He
was somehow different from the other men in the valley. Maybe it was his
soft southern drawl, or maybe it was his big brown eyes. Annie couldn’t put
a finger on it. She leaned on the counter and crossed her arms. “What do
you mean? What’s going to happen?”

Jackson wished he hadn’t said anything to her. He was tired from working in
the hot sun all day, and it was stupid to talk much about it. He had made
this mistake many times before, with other girls, in places he passed
through working and waiting. But tonight he was lonely and wanted to talk
to somebody. Some days he wished the masters had sent him to this planet
with a companion. But it hadn’t worked out like that.

He was forgetful and often made mistakes. Some days he would wake up and
wonder where he was and why he was here. Some days he’d have to ask a
fellow picker what town he was in. On other days he woke up scared; time
didn’t behave like it was supposed to. He might be talking to someone and
it would be Wednesday and the next time he talked to someone it was somehow
Sunday and most people were in church. The days that scared Jackson the
most were the days he woke up with blood on his clothes, in his hair, and
under his fingernails. The masters hadn’t warned him about those days.

“Annie. Can I call you Annie?” She nodded.

Jackson dropped his voice so the cook couldn’t hear and asked, “Do you
watch Buck Rogers? You know, at the movies?”

“Sure,” she said, “I have to if I want to see the movie. I have to watch
the cartoon too. I like Westerns and cowboys better than Buck Rogers and
outer space.”

Jackson thought about this for a minute. “Do you think people really live
in outer space? That there are places on other planets where people live
and work and eat?” He closed his eyes. “I do. I believe it.” Annie looked
at his face for a long minute. He must be putting her on. Some guys thought
it was funny to kid her, but she didn’t much like it.

The headache was starting, the one that always started right behind
Jackson’s left eye. It would start slowly, teasing him with rainbow
shimmers just outside his peripheral vision. The pounding would start slow
and steady, like Gene Krupa drumming a slow number, then increase in
intensity. Jackson had to lay down and close his eyes until the pain
stopped.  He hoped this one would go away. Sometimes it just stopped. He
thought it might after his supper; it was at least a day since he’d eaten
something.

He sipped his Coke and studied her skinny chest. “Do you ever worry that
people from outer space are coming here? To earth?.”  Jackson leaned
towards her. She smelled like peaches and grease. “I need to tell you a
secret. You’re pretty. I want to tell you a secret.”

She looked at him, her arms still crossed. “A lot of guys want to tell me
secrets. I know enough secrets already. Save it for another girl. Your
food’s ready.” She placed his burger and fries in front of him and started
clearing tables. He was weird and Annie wasn’t in the mood for a creepy
stranger, even a young handsome one.

Jackson smiled. Just looking at this food made him happy. He picked up his
hamburger and started taking huge bites out of it. Eating was one thing the
movies failed to help him with; he figured a guy like Cary Grant could eat
slowly and chew with his mouth closed because he ate three meals a day.
Jackson wolfed his food down and hoped she wouldn’t notice.

Annie took Jackson’s empty plate. “You want your pie now, space man?” She
glanced quickly at him, and thought it a shame that those good looks were
wasted on such a strange guy. He had no future, of that she was sure, but
he probably didn’t have a kid at home like she did. Secrets. That was a
good one. She lived at home now with her young son; her mom and dad would
kill her if some guy told her another secret.

The pounding in Jackson’s head got worse, even after he finished his pie
and ice cream. The headaches were more frequent lately. He thought it was a
sign that the masters were coming closer to earth, whizzing down though
space. Annie, the field workers, even the smoking cook would be prisoners,
slaves to the strange tall men from the place he was born. They had sent
Jackson here on a fact-finding mission for their first settlement. That was
easy; Jackson had watched enough movies to determine that California was
the promised land for his people. He hoped the masters woulld reward his
dedication to the cause, and allow him to personally enslave Marlene
Dietrich, the Blonde Venus.

“You done?” Annie asked. Jackson raised his pounding head and stared at
her, bolder this time. This headache was the worst one he could remember,
though he could never remember much about what happened during his
headaches.

“Do you want to pay me now? We’re closing. You’re the last one here. He
wants to go home.” She motioned to the cook, who stood with his arms
crossed, a sardonic look on his face a he stared at Jackson.

Jackson looked at his bill. it was 25 cents, which meant Jackson would have
money left over to pick up some supplies tomorrow when the grocer opened.
He thought the remaining money would be enough to convince someone to give
him a lift when the canteloupe harvest was over. He never managed to make
friends with the other guys. They didn’t like him. Jackson figured they
knew he was different. It was the same story with families, and with girls
his age. People from this planet kept as much distance as possible between
themselves and Jackson.

He didn’t have much to say if someone tried to strike up a conversation. If
asked where he came from, Jackson was vague. He didn’t remember exactly. A
girl he met a few weeks ago picking brussel sprouts in Watsonville asked
him if he was from the south because of the way he talked. “The south?”
Jackson asked her. “What is the south?”

He had a headache then too, and he couldn’t make it stop pounding even when
he and the girl sat in the soft dark of the movie theatre. Jackson didn’t
remember how that headache ended; he woke up in a field with the dead girl
next to him, bloody and stripped of her clothes. He didn’t have his
headache anymore. The sun was bright on the girl’s pretty mouth, slack now,
her swollen pink tongue protruding through her cracked lips. Jackson buried
her in the field, as directed by the masters. He was not allowed to get
close to anyone, especially girls. The masters always killed any girl
Jackson talked to. He knew not to break the rules, but sometimes he
couldn’t help it. He was lonely.

Jackson put on his hat, and left the diner. He sat down on the dirty
sidewalk and waited for Annie to leave. He held his pounding head in his
hands. He looked up at the dark houses and wondered what people who didn’t
sleep outside did at night. Listened to the radio, maybe. He heard the
diner door close. He turned around and saw Annie and the cook say good
night.

“What are you doing here? Are you feeling alright?” Annie looked at his
pale face. His eyes were dull. She wondered if he was sick. Everyone was
sick these days, or hungry, or looking for work. “You can’t just stay here
on the sidewalk. The cops will pick you up for vagrancy.”

“Can I talk to you'” Jackson whispered. “I want to tell you something.
They’re coming for you. They’re coming to take over.” He grabbed the skirt
of her uniform with both hands. Annie lunged back away from Jackson’s
reach.  “They might kill you,” he mumbled.

“Get the hell away from me you creep. Who the hell do you think you are
grabbing my skirt like that.” She wheeled around, and saw the cook walking
down the street. “Mike, Mike help me,” she yelled.

The cook appeared next to Annie, his face twisted into a snarl. “This guy
bugging you? I’ll make him stop. Get up.” He kicked Jackson hard in the
back and yanked his arm. “Get up now, jerk.”

Jackson staggered to his feet, his head pounding. The pain was making him
sick to his stomach. He doubled over and threw up.  The cook kicked him
again, hard.

“Get out of here before I call the cops or beat you senseless myself.” He
turned to Annie. “Are you alright? I’ll walk you home.” He turned again to
Jackson. “I don’t want to see you in the diner, on the sidewalk, or in
town. If I see you, I’m going to beat the hell out of you. Got it?” Jackson
nodded. The cook grabbed Annie by the arm and stode off, leaving Jackson
laying on the ground in front of the diner.

Jackson couldn’t see through the pain. Lightning bolts flashed across the
inside of his eyelids. He threw up again, got up, and started staggering
toward the dark side of town. He would use his leftover money to get a ride
to Fresno first thing tomorrow. He heard the tomatoes were ripe there. He
heard there was a decent movie theater. He would pick tomatoes in Fresno
and wait for the masters to come.

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About bbcstudiowrites

This blog is me archiving the BBC Studio Writers Workshop.

Posted on March 6, 2012, in Fiction. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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