by Kent McKamy

There was a take-her-down haughtiness about the pretty girl in the black bathing suit sitting still as marble, reading, when Buck commandeered the chaise facing into the sun next to her. She was the obvious choice at poolside today.

Buck carefully placed his Marlboro Lights, Bic lighter, book, Hawaiian DeepTan #4, towel, plastic room card and sunglasses case on the molded white table between them. Glancing at her, he sucked in his stomach as he stripped his yolk-yellow “Just-Do-It” T-shirt over his head. He straddled the padded chaise, edged it to a 45-degree angle to hers and eased his muscled body down, letting his flip-flops drop off the ends of his toes. He opened his paperback of Death in Venice, found his place, and proceeded to gaze at the girl over the top of his book.

She was reading a magazine, but Buck couldn’t see which one it was. She had cigarettes and matches on her table, Buck had noticed, so right away he knew they would be smoke allies. A conversation opener, definitely. How shiny her black hair was in the bright sun. No telling what color her eyes were behind those wraparound sunglasses, but he imagined they were large and dark brown. The kind he liked.

Nice legs, Buck thought, following her slender ankles and calves up to her smooth thighs, a little heavy, rounding into hips completely bare and visible in the high-thigh cut of her bathing suit. One piece. Not too obvious. Very sexy. Buck was conscious that he was staring. He shook his head slightly, inclined his eyes toward his book.

Buck would never describe himself as a reader. He was a kayaker, a skier, a racquetball player, a happy hour regular, a fun guy, a party guy. When he read, he read spy books or science-fiction, fantasy books. He had picked up Death in Venice at the Tucson airport bookstore, because it sounded like Funeral in Berlin, a spy novel he had enjoyed in four sales trips between San Diego and Seattle. Somewhat disappointed to find it a book of short stories rather than a novel, and a translation at that, Buck had started the title story the night before in his room, where he had gone after dinner, seeing that there were only couples in the bar, and nothing else doing. There was something in the clunky, kind of textbooky writing of Thomas Mann that kept Buck reading. This kind of dry stuff was a tip-off that the action would start anytime. Some trigger event would shake dry old von Aschenbach loose. But Buck had fallen asleep before he found it. Cracking open the book now in the hot sun, the first sentence he came to was, “In his fourth week of his stay at the Lido, Gustave von Aschenbach made certain singular observations touching the world about him.”

Yes, Buck thought, looking up: How true. You need time away, a different place, to see things differently. Buck was strongly conscious that in the past three days, things that had been important to him just last Friday were less important, more remote. He was aware of what seemed to be a wider world. His sense of understanding and tolerance seemed to expand and at the same time, sharpen. He felt more sensitive, more giving, more forgiving. He was a man with feelings, no question. Feeling magnanimous, Buck let his thoughts trickle on. How satisfying to be here, nothing to do, nothing to worry about, feeling the mid-morning Arizona sun sizzling his skin with a sheen of searing heat. How satisfying to be keen enough to make certain singular observations touching the world about him.

Buck’s eyes moved up to the roofline of the hotel, a remote and unreal thrust of red tile against the thick blue sky. His gaze descended slowly down the side of the hotel, casually coming to rest again on the girl opposite him. She had not looked up. She did not seem to have moved. Had she turned a page? There was something about her. Stretching and tensing his strong legs, Buck decided it was time for a little more movement. As he squeezed some of the creamy suntan lotion into his left hand, there was a flatulent sound from the bottle, and he looked up swiftly to see if the girl heard it, and would know it wasn’t him. She hadn’t stirred. Making a great show of spreading the lotion over his taut legs, he eased his feet into his flip-flops and stood up to run the lotion over his bulging arms and chest. He rubbed slowly, keeping the girl in lateral view as he turned to smooth what lotion he could over his shoulder blades. Turning toward her again, he dabbed small amounts onto his face, and massaged it in vigorously. He sat down again with an audible exhale, and languidly returned to his book.

For ten minutes, Buck read slowly. Then another passage snuck up on him: “We may be heroic after our fashion, disciplined warriors of our craft, yet we are all like women, for we exult in passion, and love is still our desire — our craving and our shame.” Laying the book on his chest and tipping his sunglasses atop his blondish thinning hair, Buck thought, ‘Craving.’ You got that right. Hard to believe it was like that back in, what, the 19th century? Is it a conquest or horniness or what? You see a girl. You make a move. You get the girl. He turned his eyes to the sky. I wonder how my chin looks to her, he thought. I have a good chin.

He was aware, through half-closed eyes as he lay back, that the girl was moving, shifting her position. He glanced toward her. She was flexing her legs, turning and stretching, the soles of her feet pushing toward him. Without knowing what it was, he sensed again that something was different about her, in the way you could see a man 100 yards away walking toward you, and know that he had had a stroke. Nothing obvious, but something off. Looking at the bottoms of her feet, the delicacy of her plump little toes, he was touched by this intimate undersurface of her. Except she has. . . wait a minute . . . nine toes. One toe’s missing, between the big toe and middle toe of her right foot. You had to look closely to see it.

Now that’s certainly odd, Buck thought, I wonder how she lost it? Maybe she was born like that, damn near perfect except for being a toe short, the way some cats have six toes on each paw instead of five. Does she walk different? Like to be a fly on the wall the next time she goes to buy shoes. Funny, though, how it makes her more intriguing.

Still, she is a wounded bird, handicapped. Buck felt an approach would be easier now, more readily accepted.

Placing both feet flat on the grill-hot tiles, he rose to his feet in a single motion, leapt into a little “Oh! Ah!” dance in the air, and quickly jammed his feet in his flip-flops. Snatching his cigarettes and lighter, he stepped across the distance between them.

“Good morning,” Buck said heartily. “Care for a smoke?”

“Got my own,” she said, gesturing with a carefully manicured hand toward the table beside her, not looking up.

“What a day, huh?” Buck looked skywards, turning in profile as he lit his cigarette. “What’re you reading?” he asked, cigarette between his lips, lifting his sunglasses to his forehead. He had often been complimented on his see-through aqua-blue eyes.

“Just an article.” The girl held the cover of the magazine toward Buck. Marie-Claire, whatever that was. She wasn’t wearing a ring. She kept her shades on, though. Nice teeth, dimples when she smiled. Buck loved her liquid-red lipstick.

“Any good?” Probably some fashion magazine, he thought. About all women read these days, outside of gossip rags.

“This article is,” she said.

“What’s it about? Mind if I sit down?” Buck asked. He tugged the long legs of his brightly flowered bathing suit, pulling it a little lower on his hips. Still no more than a hint of love handles.

“Take a look.” She folded the page back, held out the magazine. He looked. It was in a foreign language. French, maybe.

“You can read that?”

“Just the odd word here and there. What about you? What are you into?”

“It’s a spy thing by Theodore Mann. Death in Venice. Ever hear of it?” Buck looked at the cover. “Thomas Mann, I mean.”

“Yes, I think I read it a long time ago, in school maybe. It’s about some old gay guy, right?” She kept her sunglasses on, but Buck could tell she was looking directly at him.

“Gay? I don’t know if he’s gay. Really. I’m not through it yet,” Buck said. It was a strange thing for her to pick up on.

“Whatever. I don’t think I liked it very much,” she said. She stretched, and Buck could see that she had shaved very carefully under her arms. There was no stubble at all, just a faint shadow where her dark hair had grown.

Buck looked around, then got up again to give her a better view of his body as he shifted to sit on the other side of her chaise. That way, he didn’t have to keep turning his head to talk to her. He patted the slight rope of flesh easing over the top of his trunks, and flexed his chest with its cushion of light curly hair.

“So, how’s the water?” Buck asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. I hardly ever go in the water. Ruins my hair,” the girl said, running her fingers up to fluff the back of her hair. “Besides, I saw when you got up. I’d scorch the skin right off my feet if I stood up right now, anyway.”

“Yeah, probably right,” Buck said, and turned to look out at the pool, away from her. “It is definitely tippy-toe hot.”

“Yes, I bet I could toast my tiny tootsies, all right.” She wiggled her toes at him. “All but one,” she said, tilting her head flirtatiously.

Buck pretended not to have noticed. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, one of my little piggies has gone missing, didn’t you notice?” Swinging her right foot around, she pointed to her toes one by one. “This little piggy went to market, this little piggy ate roast beef, this little piggy had none, and this littlest piggy went wee-wee-wee all the way home. But that darn old second little piggy. I guess he stayed home, all right.”

“I broke my collarbone once,” Buck offered.

“Ah, wounds and infirmities.” she asked, smirking. “I thought you were warming up to tell me how beautiful I was regardless.”

“Oh, sure. You are. You really are. It’s just that I was…sort of…I never saw anybody, never a pretty…a beautiful girl like you, or anybody, without … you know…”

“A toe, huh? Well, don’t forget I have nine others.”

“I know. Sure. I know.” Buck paused, looked at his book, then chanced a look right at her. She was studying him. “I hope you don’t think it’s stupid, but what happened? I mean, if it’s too personal or something, just forget it. It’s probably a dumb question.” Buck dropped his sunglasses back over his eyes.

“Well, of course it’s personal. The toe fairy didn’t come in the middle of the night and take it away. But, no, I don’t mind your asking. A lot of men…people do. You’re a little more straightforward than most,” she said.

Buck felt suddenly exposed, and hot. Years before, he had gone through one of those EST weekends where you practiced saying anything you wanted to anybody in the room. An exercise in straight talk or no-shit honesty or something like that, it was called. He had never felt comfortable with any of it. Good Lord, he wondered, did I offend her?

“As a matter of fact, I was born without that toe. It may be genetic. My father was born with only half of his little finger on his left hand. You can’t imagine how commonplace something like that is.” She shook her lustrous hair, and it swayed thickly from side to side, like in one of those slow motion shampoo commercials. She thumbed down the shoulder straps on her bathing suit, pulled up the cups, and swung her legs up onto the chaise. She sat in a sort of lotus position, her feet hidden, her chin resting in her laced fingers.

“Oh, I see. Gee, that’s too bad. I didn’t mean to, uh, pry. I guess you don’t even notice it.” Buck wanted to talk about anything else.

“I just wanted to see if you believed me,” she said. “No, I wasn’t born without a toe. I’m not a freak. It’s missing for quite another reason.”

“What about your father then? Missing his little finger?”

“I thought we were talking about me, about my toe. Or rather, my non-toe.”

“Oh, yeah,” Buck said. “We were. We are. I just was wondering…” The sense of calm and control he had felt just a few moments ago was ebbing.

“Actually, I lost my toe in a rather bizarre way.” She looked away for effect. “Sometimes, it’s easier just to be a little lighthearted about it.”

Buck was certain he’d done something very offensive, and didn’t know what it was. He looked away from her. He was about to put a cigarette in his mouth, and then thought to offer her one. He held out the pack.

“Oh, I don’t smoke, but thanks.”

“You don’t? I guess I just assumed you smoked when I saw those Marlboros there. I thought, ‘Cool that we smoke the same brand.’ You don’t mind if I have one, do you?”

“Go right ahead. Those are Chico’s cigarettes. I just brought them down for him.”

“Ah, I see.” Chico, Buck thought. Sure, she’s too good looking to be here by herself. Still, she isn’t wearing a ring. “Chico’s your husband?” Might as well get it right out there.

“No, Chico’s my lover. He’s the man who owns my toe.”

“Owns your toe? What do you mean, owns your toe?”

“He keeps it in a little silver tube around his neck. It binds me to him, he thinks.”

Jesus, that’s kind of weird, Buck thought. “You’re going a little fast for me.”

“Chico cut it off and kept it. He thinks that makes it his. And me, his.”

“Cut it off! He cut off your toe? My God! What is he, some kind of a lunatic?”

“No, it wasn’t like that. I did something he didn’t like. It was a love thing.” She paused. “Did you ever do something someone didn’t like?” She smiled at him.

“Yeah, sure, I guess so. I mean, hasn’t everybody? Just now, I thought I’d really put my foot in it with you. Jesus. I hope you know I didn’t mean anything…”

“So you’re…what? A professional golfer,” she said. “What with that tan and everything.”

“Ah, no. I sell Hobe Cats. Sailboats. Outdoors a lot.” Buck blurted, “But I can’t believe this guy just cut off your toe like that.”

“Well, he was sort of within his rights. He thought, anyway. Mexicans…I mean, Latinos…I think that’s correct these days…are funny about things. And they are very jealous. Chico is especially very jealous.”

“And…?”

“And he thought I was flirting around with another guy, and we had an argument and he knocked me down and tied my feet to a chair. Then he got a little drunk and hit me a couple of more times and then he said he was going to cut me to teach me a lesson, and I said he wouldn’t dare, and he cut off this second toe here.”

Buck stared at her, and then suddenly jerked his head around to look behind him. A couple of chairs away, there was a guy lying there, sort of looking their way, but he didn’t look Hispanic. Who the hell was this girl? How could she be so cool about it?

“Just like that. Just like that he cut off your toe?”

“No, not just like that. He made a little cut first, and I swore at him and tried to hit him, but I fell over in the chair. Then he just grabbed my toe and sliced it off.”

“You make it sound like you just sat there and approved while this maniac deliberately mutilated you.”

“Well, I have to tell you, there wasn’t any pain right away. I was surprised, but I didn’t feel anything. I couldn’t believe it at first. Then I saw all the blood coming up, and I felt a little sick. And somewhere, I know I had a sense of…curiosity…that it didn’t really hurt. Chico got a towel right away to stop the bleeding, he really did, and then he got some ice from down the hall and he tied one of his ties around my ankle for a tourniquet. He said to keep my foot up high, on the back of the chair, and after a while the bleeding stopped. In the morning, we got some Bacitracin and some bandages and it just healed over in a couple of months. All you can see now is some scar tissue where the skin closed up. Chico kept my toe in a bottle of Tequila he carried around with him for a while and when he figured it was cured, he took it out and it dried up and he bought this little silver capsule in an Indian trading post, and now he wears it around his neck with a silver chain. He takes it out every once in a while. I couldn’t bear to look at it at first, but now it doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t even seem like part of me anymore.”

“So you just travel around to places and he comes around every once in a while to keep an eye on you?” Buck probing.

“Something like that. He may show up sometime today, but I don’t know when. He’s sort of unpredictable.”

There was a man’s voice behind Buck, and he knew someone was standing very close. He whipped around, and saw a short, stocky, dark haired figure leaning toward him. He couldn’t see the man’s face because he was looking right into the sun over the man’s shoulder.

“What?” Buck almost shouted.

“I wanted to know, do you care for anything from the bar?” the busboy asked.

“Uh, no…wait a minute. Do you…I’m afraid I don’t know your name…do you want anything to drink?”

“Call me Hazel,” the girl said. “As in Witch Hazel. Yes, I think I would like something…maybe a lemon-lime…or a cherry Coke. Something mixed up.” She took off her sunglasses for a moment, and Buck saw eyes even more intriguing than he had imagined.

“A lemon-lime…and I’ll have a gin and tonic.” Buck didn’t usually drink alcohol in the sun, but today felt different. “Put ‘em both on my room.” He fumbled in the pocket of his trunks for the plastic key, took it out. “Damn, the room number isn’t on it.”

“That’s all right, sir. If you’re a registered guest, just sign your name, and I can add the room number inside.” He handed Buck the drink check.

“Thanks,” Buck said, signing ‘Buck Towland.’ “I appreciate it.”

“I should tell you,” the girl said, ” Hazel is my synonym for today, or whatever you call it. I can’t tell you my real name.” Buck smiled, uncertain of what she was talking about.

“I’m surprised you can drink in this heat,” the girl said. “I try to never drink alcohol in weather like this. It makes me all disoriented.”

“Oh,” Buck said, “it doesn’t affect me.”

“Unless it’s tequila. I think tequila is meant for hot weather. That’s what Chico says.”

Buck was fascinated with her. What was this thing with Chico? There was something uncertain here, shifty ground. Casually, Buck looked carefully around again.

“Are you alone here?” she asked, and carefully put her sunglasses back on. She pulled up the sides of her bathing suit slightly.

“Sure am. Alone and free as the wind. Which there isn’t any of, worse luck.” He thought suddenly of the lonely old man in Venice, driven by longing, unable to act. “How about you? Except for Chico, I mean?”

“Well, I’m not exactly alone. I’m with a friend. A girl friend, I mean. I’m down from Mendicino, you know where that is?” Buck nodded as he lit another cigarette. “You know, we’ve been talking all this time, and I don’t even know your name.”

Buck hesitated, then said, “Gus… Ash. Ashback,” he said. Two can play that game. Then, turning and seeing her outstretched hand, he reached across and shook it. It was the first time he touched her, and although he was sure he met her eyes behind her dark glasses, he looked away rather too quickly.

“Gus,” she said. “Gus and Hazel. What a couple of old-fashioned names. Gus, you cuss, you and I have more in common than I thought.”

“I’m glad you think so.”

“Actually, I work for America West,” she said. “I’m here for a little R& R. Rock ‘n Roll. Until Chico comes along anyway. Then: ‘all of me’,” she sang, “at least, all ten toes. Maybe you’d like to meet him?”

Buck didn’t know why he was so taken with this girl. Her words made sense, but totaled up, she didn’t. She felt like trouble. But her appeal was unmistakable. That thick, dark, heavy hair. Those cocoa brown eyes pulling up at the corners, her long plumpish legs meeting at the narrow black crotch.

“Look, when Chico comes, I’ll just bug off. Three’s a crowd. You want to jump in and cool off or what?”

“Are you sure you’re not expecting someone? I saw you glance around,” she said.

“Well, tell you the truth, I’m a little nervous about your friend. Who knows what he’d think? Or worse, what he might do to you if he saw me talking to you.”

“Or what he might do to you? Oh, maybe he’d think how nice it was I met a new friend, so I wouldn’t be lonely, waiting for him. Yes, I’m sure that’s what he would think.”

Buck said, “Yeah, well I’ve seen guys like your Chico and I think he wouldn’t like the idea of your meeting a new friend so much at all.”

She looked at him carefully, appraisingly. “You’re afraid of Chico?”

“Hey, I’m not afraid of him. Well, maybe a little. He just sounds…a little crazy.”

From across the pool deck, Buck saw the waiter approaching with a tray full of drinks. There seemed to be someone walking behind him, but Buck couldn’t tell for sure. The waiter placed the drinks on the table between them, and moved on. There was no one else there. For the moment. The girl was playing with her lipstick, twisting the cap up and down. Buck picked up his gin and tonic, and started to sip. He glanced to his right, and saw she was holding out her glass, waiting to clink his. He touched her glass with his. “Sorry.”

She took a swallow. Looking straight ahead, she said, “What if there is no Chico?”

“I’d say you’ve got a weird sense of humor. But I don’t believe you.”

She laughed. “I got you!” And when he looked more puzzled than angry, she said it again: “Gotcha!” She flicked some of the fluid from her drink at him.

“Got me? ‘Got me’ what?”

“There really is no Chico. Nobody cut my toe off. That’s not how I lost my toe.” She picked up her lipstick again, looking at the tortoise shell case closely.

“Hazel, or whatever your name is, give me a break.”

“I wouldn’t fool you any more. There really is no Chico. I lost my toe, that’s what you really wanted to know, isn’t it…in a hunting accident.”

“Now what? Chico shot it off?”

“C’mon,” she said, laughing. “I told you, there is no Chico. There was no Chico. I was just having fun with you. The way I lost my toe is, I lost it when I was ten years old, out hunting with my Dad. My rifle went off when I was carrying it and I shot off my toe right through the boot. But one thing was true: I didn’t really feel it, then or later.”

“Hazel, I…” Buck began.

“And there was one other part that is true. My toe was preserved. The doctor who treated me preserved it. ‘Cause we asked him to. I carry it around with me. Want to see it?” She was holding her lipstick case between her thumb and forefinger.

“God, no!” Buck said.

“I keep it to remind myself that I can’t be careless. I can’t fail to be on the lookout. Must be on the qui vive. It’s sort of a good luck charm.”

“Your own toe? That’s sick!”

“That’s right. My very own toe. And I think it’s healthy. I made my own, say…rabbit’s foot.”

“Hazel, listen, I’ll tell you, you’re one hell of a pretty girl. I mean, you really are. But there’s just something about what’s going on…I’m not sure we’re really…you know…on the same wavelength…”

“I knew it. I should never have told you about the toe. I should have said when you asked me, it was just too personal and let it go. I think, well, I feel like we could be friends.”

“I’m sure your friends love your sense of humor and I know you were putting me on, hell, you still may be putting me on, but I just don’t feel very friendly right now.” My new honesty, Buck thought. Well, I’ve blown this one. “Nothing personal. It’s just me.” He rose, and slipped into his thongs.

“You were trying to pick me up, weren’t you?”

“I wouldn’t say ‘pick you up’. Just talk or something, I guess…I thought maybe you and I…”

“Well, Gus, honey, you succeeded. So if you will just sit down, we can have our drinks, and start off again on the right foot.”

He looked down at her sharply. “You know what I mean,” she said. She glanced to one side of him, as if she saw someone approaching. She quickly turned her eyes back up to his, and began to get up. But he had seen her look. “Hazel, I think it’s time to go. Time for me. Time for you. Nice talking with you. You take care of the other nine, hear?” He reached down to shake her hand.

“Keep this to remember me, OK?” She planted the lipstick in his waiting hand.

“Christ! What the hell do you think you’re doing? I don’t want this thing!” he shouted. He threw the lipstick as far as he could. It splashed into the far end of the pool. He stared back at her, grabbing his towel, and wiping his hands furiously. “What the hell are you, some kind of … freak?”

She laughed. “It was just a lipstick.”

“Yeah, lipstick my ass.” Gus felt queasy, and snatched his belongings up quickly. With a sense of relief, and at the same time a sense of having lost, Buck scuffed away as swiftly as he could in the damn flip-flops. He had never done that before, flatly turned down what looked like a sure thing. What the hell? he thought, I’m not going to marry her. I just wanted to screw her. So she’s a nut. There’s others. He reached the glass doors that led into the snack bar, and went inside. His skin goose-bumped with the sudden chill.

He ordered another gin and tonic at the bar, and while he was waiting, he looked back outside to where he and the girl had been sitting. She was no longer there. It was as if she had just dematerialized.

“Here you go, friend,” the bartender said, sliding the icy drink toward him.

“You see that girl I was sitting with out there?”

“Nope, didn’t. I’m pretty busy right here, don’t pay much attention to the pool.”

Buck nodded. He finished the drink in two swallows, ordered another. When it was gone, he signed the chit and went back out to the pool. He walked around to the deep end, searching. He spotted the lipstick resting near the drain. It took him three surface dives, kicking hard, to get all the way to the bottom. On the third try, skimming his hands along the rough cement, he squinted his eyes open and saw the lipstick case just in front of him. He reached for it, almost out of breath. He bumped it with his fingers, and it skittered away. He reached again, almost ready to give up. When he had it tightly in his hand, he doubled his legs under him, and pushed upward as hard as he could. He broke water with a gasp.

He sat on the chaise for most of the afternoon, not really reading, daydreaming more, sweating out two more gin and tonics, then three beers. The girl never reappeared. Once, coming out of a doze, he glimpsed a Mexican-looking guy in tight jeans and a western shirt near the outdoor elevator at the far end of the pool.

The brown and gold lipstick case, upright on the table next to him, cast a longer and longer black shadow across the round top of the table as the late afternoon sun edged into the hills. He glanced at it now and again. By the time he got up to leave, he had not opened it, but he took it with him.