Two men. Orson Welles and Marlon Brando. They veered off road somewhere in the Sonoran desert. South of the border. They crashed into a saguaro cactus. Over twenty feet high. The top swayed and dropped like an alien green chandelier. The rooftop buckled. The windshield cracked. Steam hissed from under the engine hood. Orson’s silver hair was askew as he stumbled out of the baby blue Coupe DeVille. A trickle of blood trailed from his eyebrow. He shouted out into the desert plain.
His toy poodle, black as the night. She was somewhere out there. She had bounded fast as a jackrabbit out the backseat window soon as they had crashed into the saguaro. Again he shouted her name, his voice booming out among the cacti and desert scrub.
Brando was outside the Coupe DeVille sizing up the damage. The saguaro, pronged with a hefty multitude of spiny arms, would take at least five men with push brooms to prod off the car. Then Brando gawked up at the starry night sky as if the galactic sprawl was from where the saguaro had crash landed. He swept both of his hands over his thick white hair as he continued to gaze up into the cosmos, the Milky Way a phantasmagoric spunk on all of outer space. He remained in awe.
Welles’ shouts were waning. Still he was hoping to see the phosphorous orbs of her eyes, somewhere out there blinking back at him, but all he could see was what surrounded him, more scrub weed, ocotillo, and those imposingly tall cacti. Some thirty, forty feet high. Were they crowding in on him? That was the feeling prickling under his skin like a thousand millipedes. The desert seemed to be breathing, the cacti stepping closer then shuddering away. Was he losing his mind? He’d felt funny even before the accident, feeling the skin wanting to melt from his face. But he was still there, corpulent and stentorian, in his beige trench coat, trousers, and waxed shoes. He shouted again.
The wind whistled across the desert plain. He didn’t want her out there, not with the creatures of the night, patient predators, cold-blooded, hot-blooded, serpent’s tongue, incisors, fangs, tusks. Again he shouted her name. To nothing but the wind and the darkness beyond.
This nightmare collision with the gargantuan cactus had been Brando’s fault. Brando. That cream-faced loon. What was he doing? Orson turned to see. The pompous ape. He was standing there with cock in hand urinating on the Coupe DeVille.
“Some run in, hey?” Brando was smirking as he guided the arc line of his piss across the rear fender. A golden splatter.
That was it.
Welles charged into him. The two men scuffled, blubbery as sumo wrestlers. Brando in Mexican sandals was struggling to keep a foothold. Welles with two pudgy fistfuls had him by the Acapulco shirt. Piss freckled across the thighs of Welles’ trousers. Then with a subtle leap the two men swerved off balance. The ground coughed from the combined weight of their fall.
Orson floundered for top position, smearing Brando’s fat face half flat with the heel of his hand. Brando’s mouth appearing clownish, a seething streamline of spittle bubbling down his chin. A deviled gleam hatched in Welles’ eyes. Noxious green. Was this what he had wanted all along? To bash in Brando’s head. There was a desert rock, jagged enough, large enough, to do the job.
Brando saw it too. Welles scrambled to pick it up. Brando’s eyes gleaming up at him.
“Do it, brother. Do it.”
It was only hours ago when the violence between them was nothing more than the dulled sounds of their steak knives struggling to cut through tough meat. This was at a flat roof-roof shack miles from La Zorra, Gotas de Oro. Brando’s pick. He had pointed at it from the Coupe DeVille.
“We eat there.”
Welles cringed when they pulled up to the place, fearing entry alone would blow out his bowels. But he was following Brando’s lead, soon wanting Brando to follow his. For it was Welles who had driven from Hollywood Hills to La Zorra to pitch Brando on a bit-part in his film adaptation of Merchant of Venice.
The cook with corn-nut teeth and cow’s blood spattered on his chef’s coat was also their waiter. They were the only ones there, except for Kiki on Welles’ lap, the globular wets of her eyes blinking, patiently waiting for their food to arrive.
Brando smacked his neck, looking to his hand and then the stagnant air throughout the ramshackle restaurant for the mosquito. Decorative fly strips hung over every table, each strip tacked with red-and-pink rose petals, an inventive flourish Welles had privately noted to himself, quaint as rosebuds on a steaming heap of garbage.
At Brando’s insistence, their order was the same. Dinner was served on clay plates. Hangar steak with chunky cactus sauce, fried plantains, and port wine. Orson bared his teeth as he strained to swallow another gulp. It was time to lure Brando into the role. He placed the tin cup on to the table.
“You’ll play Old Gobbo. The blind father of Lancelot. Don’t worry.” Welles tamped his hand next to Brando’s plate. “I’ll feed you your lines.”
Brando was chewing with his mouth open. “How you like the steak?”
“This?” Welles looked at the grub on his clay plate. “I’d say is only the finest in queasy cuisine. In fact, I’m surprised it didn’t come served on a hubcap.” Then he leaned forward, lowered his voice. “You think the chef’s actually an auto mechanic in disguise?”
“You’re good,” Brando said, forking up another bite, talking mid-chew. “I don’t like suck ups. I thought you might be the biggest suck up of all. But your tongue says lousy. You say lousy. That’s good.”
“Wine’s palatable.” Welles took another painful sip. “But only enough for washing this boiled grub down.”
Then Brando’s face dropped. There was a lost look in his eyes as if wherever he looked nothing was there. No Orson. No Kiki. No Gotas de Oro.
“Like this?” he said. “You want me to play Old Gobbo like this?”
He had placed his silverware atop the table to blindly touch at his food. Welles winced at the act, though seeing potential in it, was mildly amused. Then Brando reclaimed his vision, licking the palms of his hands and fingertips clean, with a zesty relish flaring across his eyes.
Kiki yipped for a bite of her food, which Welles produced from a side dish. Her food was the same as theirs, but to his surprise she didn’t want it. Gritting her teeth, she turned her head as he offered her a forkful of steak with cactus sauce. It was rare for Kiki to recoil from eating meat just as it was for Welles. But this hangar steak was lousy enough to kill a man. Especially that cactus sauce.
“So I’ll consider the part.” Brando signaled with his chin. “But you better be a good muchacho. Eat all that up. And I mean all of it. See, much as I like the fact you’re not a suck up with your opinion. You’re going to suck all that up, because that’s my jefe in there, and he don’t like to see food come back into the kitchen.”
Welles studied his plate.
“So I eat this, you play Old Gobbo? We haven’t even discussed fees.”
“That’s my fee.” Brando angled the tines of his fork at Welles’ plate. Then the food before Orson suddenly seemed delectable. Except for the cactus sauce, which he scraped to the side.
“No, you eat it all!”
Brando thwacked his fork. The rim of Welles’ plate cracked. Kiki growled.
“That means the cactus sauce too.” Brando grinned.
“What is it?”
Welles’ lips shriveled at thought of eating the chunky aloe sauce.
“A gateway to the stars.” Brando smiled triumphant.
Welles jerked back in his seat.
“What, are you trying to poison me?”
Then Brando clawed up a slimy bite of Welles’ cactus sauce, slurped it up with a pleased grin.
“Now eat up and to the stars we’ll go with me as Old Gobbo.”
“The stars,” Welles said with a cocked eyebrow. “You say that like a slick-haired loaf in a lawn chair eager to sell Hollywood maps … to the stars.”
“And you say that.” Brando fattened his cheeks chubby with cactus sauce, “like one of those stars that’s no longer on the map.”
“Oh, but a dagger to the liver you plant,” Welles said. “Well put, but last I checked I’m still on the map.”
“Look, you want this?” Brando struck himself blind again. “Then go on. Take a bite. Tell Old Gobbo what to say?”
The first Welles swallowed was a dab of air. Kiki was whimpering on his lap. Fork, knife, he cut into the rank meat, swabbing a bite into the cactus sauce.
“By God sonties, ’twill be a hard way to hit.” Welles opened his mouth.
Brando repeated the line, then said, “What’s son-ties?” Welles started cutting into another bite.
“An exclamation of surprise.”
“Well, then, get ready,” Brando said. “Because soon as you finish that up ‘By God sonties’ is where we’re headed next.”
After dinner, they drove out into the desert. Route 2, miles of open road, it seemed they could drive for hours and still be headed nowhere. That’s when Welles started to feel the millipedes crawling under the skin of his arms and neck, and the phrase “By God sonties” jumped out of his skull. The air between him and the windshield and everything outside was suddenly alive, hypnotic as the cellular activity you’d see under a microscope, only with an ectoplasmic sheen, a shimmering incandescence, swimming all around him. His grip floated up and off the steering wheel like a couple of meaty hand balloons. And all of this in a single breath. Then there was Brando’s foot jammed atop his foot atop the gas.
They veered off road.
A chuff of desert dust cleared from the windshield. They were rumbling out onto the desert plain. Kiki was floating mid-air as she bounced about the backseat bench. The head beams jittering out into the night. The red needle on the speedometer continuing to climb, 50, 60, 70.
Brando kept Welles’ foot and the gas mashed under his, and Welles was thrashing at Brando who now had one hand gripped on the steering wheel. Brando, maniacal with glee, was grinning back at Welles until SLAM!
The saguaro cactus, a cold shadow in the night, pronged with a half dozen arms, snapped mid-waist. Over a thousand pounds. The rooftop crunched under the weight of its fall and Kiki bolted from the Coupe DeVille. A spit of sand there then gone where she had vanished into the night. Welles stumbled groggy from the car, the engine hissing out from under the buckled hood. A wisp of steam stirred across his face as he shouted out into the desert plain.
Then there was Brando pissing on his car. Welles whomped him onto the ground and soon it was Brando looking up at the rock in Welles’ hand.
Brando said, “Do it, brother. Do it.”
But Welles shuddered, the rock fumbling from his hold. He slumped forward, planting his hands over Brando’s shoulders. It seemed Welles was on the verge of a boisterous laugh, his mouth cranked open, the jawline of his frosty beard about to unhinge.
There was expectancy in Brando’s eyes, his pupils fully dilated, a shivering schism in their depths, accepting of what was to come with a knowing smile.
Welles threw up. Brando shielding himself against the hot splatter flushing out of Welles’ mouth. When Welles was done he flopped onto his backside. But he wasn’t done. He rolled on to his side to retch some more.
“That’s to be expected,” Brando said, sitting upright. He shook the vomit from his hands, wiped the pimpled sludge from his face with the belly of his Acapulco shirt.
Now Welles was flattened on his back with an unplugged look in his eyes. His voice was raspy.
“You did poison me, didn’t you?”
“You mean us,” Brando said. “Poisoned us.”
Then he turned away from Welles to throw up in the sand. But there was no consolation in Brando’s puking. It was more for Welles an echoing of the violence that had spewed from his mouth. A film loop reeling in his mind’s eye. An apple in outer space on a carpet ride of vomit. There was Brando as Adam and Welles as Adam. Two mouths as nebulae competing for the apple. Welles couldn’t make it go away, no matter how hard he shut his eyes, the starlight was still there. Their heads roasted and glazed. Face to face on a silver platter. The apple pulsing arrhythmically between their lips.
“I don’t want to die.” Orson gasped.
“Then don’t.” Brando snuggled up to him like a bedmate and placed his hand atop Welles’ breast.
“Just breathe it in. Relax. Don’t try to fight it. Or it will rear its ugly head.”
“What’s happening to me?”
“Peyote-ote-ote,” Brando said. “This should take us back about twenty thousand years.”
“Peyote?” Welles rolled again to his side and crammed a finger into his mouth to retch up the poison.
“That’ll only heighten the ride,” Brando said. Then Welles flopped onto his backside. “Why did you give me peyote?”
“Us,” Brando said. “Us.”
Peyote. Mushrooms. LSD. Welles had been to parties. Hollywood Hills. France. Italy. He’d seen the eyes of those hallucinating. Movie producers. Actors. Actresses. Oil men. Sheik philosophers. All of them babbling like mystic boobs. Like Brando now with peyote vomit pimpled on his chin. Until now Welles had steered clear. He’d wanted nothing to do with tearing into the fabric of the cosmos. Such a peek-a-boo seemed a gamble with insanity. Brando his case-in-point who was now rambling about hagfish and how they didn’t have eyes.
“But rather light sensing organs.” Brando was on his backside with his hands folded across his chest. “What I’m talking about is the origin of the eye. It started with light sensing organs that looked like worms.” Brando’s hands started to come to life as if in conversation with each other. “See, I think this should be part of Old Gobbo’s part. Now if he can’t see then that’s part of his plight, no? What if he’s working on a braille manifesto about what it means to see. No, no, wait. Wait. What if he’s a craftsman, a maker of glass eyes. Now that! That’s the true Merchant of Venice.”
And Welles decided to let Brando ramble, knowing there’d be no use in explaining to him anything more about Old Gobbo. Maybe this was Welles’ part, the one he’d come to La Zorra to play. He had pulled off road on his way there, to film himself as Shylock from The Merchant of Venice, Welles in his beige trench coat with the dusk of a tangerine sky as his desert backdrop.
Shylock had said, “I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you and so following; but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.”
But Welles had eaten with Brando, had drunk with Brando, and now was in a desperate state having to pray with Brando. Welles was losing touch with why he’d driven to La Zorra. Was it to be somewhere where nobody saw you for your name? There were shadows upon shadows looming there in the desert, Brando seemingly content by their shifty presence.
Then there was Kiki.
Oh, sweet Kiki.
Welles opened his arms. She was charging toward them.
She bounded up onto Welles’ chest only to leap off his shoulder. Both Brando and Welles looked back to where she vanished once again out onto the desert plain. Then they turned to look at what she’d been running from.
What was coming toward them from out of the dark? Was it a herd, or a beast alone? By way of peyote it sounded like the hungering cry of a thousand heads upon four legs, or was it a singular head upon a thousand legs?
Whatever it was, it would soon be upon them. They maintained their position, eyes wide, elbows propped on the sand, as if staring from a beach out to sea. The opacity of Brando appeared more and more to dim, yet he was always there, a cunning smile. Welles didn’t even have to look anymore, staring out onto the desert plain like Old Gobbo. Now he could hear the rumbling of hooves upon the earth as it must have been twenty thousand years ago.
Just breathe it in.
THIS STORY FIRST APPEARED IN The Strange Recital.