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On the same page of the city paper one day:

A confessed murderer awaiting trial for the torture and murder of a woman and her young daughter is a guest on a talk show via satellite. His appearance is facilitated by the mother’s parents who, wanted him to tell them exactly what the murder of their daughter and grandchild was like. “It was horrible to talk to him,” said the talk show hostess. “He will go down in history as the lowest of the low.” There was a photograph of the killer, smiling as if he’d won a prize.

A woman in San Francisco announced her intention to have intercourse with 1,000 men in a row, breaking the record of a woman in New Mexico who had performed the same feat with a mere 750. “I want to show what women can do,” she said. “I am not doing this as a feminist, but as a human being.”

Two giant turtles belonging to an endangered species were stolen from the Bronx Zoo. “This may’ve been an inside job,” said the zoo president. “This person knew what he was doing, and he was very smart. We just hope he keeps them together — they’re very attached.” The turtles are valued at $300.00 each.

It was in the middle of the paper, a page that you were meant to scan before turning, loading your brain with subliminal messages as you did. How loathsome to turn a sadistic murder into entertainment — and yet how hard not to read about it. What dark comedy to realize that you are scanning for descriptions of torture even as you disapprove. Which, of course, only makes it more entertaining. “But naturally I was hoping they’d report something grisly,” you say to your friends, who chuckle at your acknowledgment of hypocrisy.

And they did report something grisly: that the grandparents of the murdered girl wanted to know what only the murderer could tell them. You picture the grandmother’s gentle wrinkled chest, a thick strip of flesh pulled away to reveal an unexpected passage to hell in her heart.

Then you have the marathon woman right underneath, smiling like an evangelist, her organs open for a thousand. An especially grotty sort of pie-eating contest, placed right beneath the killer, an open body juxtaposed against the pure force of destruction. Why would a woman do that? What do her inane words really mean? Will she select the thousand, is there at least a screening process? Or is it just anyone who shows up? If he had not been arrested, could the killer himself have mounted her along with everybody else? If she had discovered who he was, would that have been okay with her? Would she have just swallowed him without a burp?

You picture her at the start of her ordeal, parting a curtain to appear before the crowd, muscular, oiled, coifed, dressed in a lamé bathing suit with holes cut in the titties and crotch. She would turn and bend to show the suit had been cut there too. She would “ring-walk” before the bed, not like a stripper, more like a pro wrestler, striking stylized sex poses, flexing the muscles of her belly and thighs, gesticulating with mock anger, making terrible penis-busting faces.

Might the killer joy this spectacle if he could watch it on TV? He may be a destroyer of women, but his victims were regular, human-style women: a concerned mother trying to connect with her daughter on a road trip in nature — the trip that delivered them into the hands of the killer. You picture her readingen Reviving Ophelia the night before they left, frowning slightly as she thinks of the teenage boy years ago who fucked her bottom and then took her to dinner at Pizza Hut, thinks also of her daughter’s coed sleepover last week. Getting out of bed to use the bathroom with only the hall light on, peeing in gentle darkness, remembering: grown-up pee used to smell so bad to her, and now the smell is just another welcome personal issue of her hardworking body, tough and fleshy in middle-age, safe under her old flowered gown. The daughter is awake too, and reading Wuthering Heights. She is thirteen, and she is irritated that the author has such sympathy for Heathcliff, who abuses his wife and child. What does it mean that he is capable of such passionate love? Is this realistic, or were people just dumber and more romantic back then? She doesn’t think that the mean people she knows are the most passionate; they just want to laugh at everything. But then she remembers that she laughed when a boy in class played a joke on an ugly girl and made her cry.

Sighing, she puts the book down and lies on her back, her arm thrown luxuriantly over her head. On the ceiling, there are the beautiful shadows of slim branches and leaves. She does not really want to take this trip with her mother. Her mother tries so hard to help her and to protect her, and she finds this embarrassing. It makes her want to protect her mother, and that feeling is uncomfortable too. She rolls on her side and picks up the book again.

Thought and feeling, flesh and electricity, ordinary yet complex personalities, the like of which the killer had found impossible to maintain inside himself from the moment of his birth — and yet which he could erase with the strange, compulsive pleasure of an autistic child banging his head on the wall. You picture him as a little boy alone in an empty room, head subtly inclined as if he is listening intently for a special sound. In the top drawer of his dresser, there are rows of embalmed mice stacked neatly atop one another. At age twelve, he has killed many animals besides mice, but he only embalms the mice because uniformity satisfies him. He likes embalming because it is clean, methodical and permanent. He likes his mind to be uniform and inflexible as a grid. Below the grid is like the life of animals: sensate and unbearably deep.

There are people who believe that serial killers are a “fundamental force of nature,” a belief that would be very appealing to the killer. Yes, he would say to himself, that is me. I am fundamental!

But the marathon woman on TV would be fundamental too. She would not show her personality, and even if she did, nobody would see it; they would be too distracted by the thought of a mechanical cunt, endlessly absorbing discharge. However, with her lamé bathing suit and her campy ring-walk, appealing to everyone’s sense of fun, she would be the fundamental female as comedy: the killer could sit comfortably in the audience and laugh, enjoying this appearance of his feminine colleague. Maybe he would feel such comfort that he would stand and come forward, unbuckling his pants with the flushed air of a modest person finally coming up to give testimony. Safe in her sweating, loose and very wet embrace, surrounded by the dense energy of many men, his penis could tell her the secret story of murder right in front of everyone. Her worn vagina would hold the killer like it had held the husband and the lover and the sharpie and the father and the nitwit and every other man, his terrible story a tiny, burning star in the rightful firmament of her female vastness.
Hell, yes, she would “show what women can do!”

In the context of this terrible humanity you think: the poor turtles! They do not deserve to be on the same page with these people! You think of them making their stoic way across a pebbled beach, their craning necks wrinkled and diligent, their bodies a secret even they cannot lick or scratch. The murdered woman, in moments of great tenderness for her husband, would put her hands on his thighs and kiss him on his balls and say to him “secret Paul.” She didn’t mean that his balls were a secret. She meant that she was kissing the part of him that no one knew except her, and that the vulnerability of his balls made her feel this part acutely. That is the kind of secret the turtles are, even to themselves.

But now all natural secrets have been exposed, and it is likely the turtles have been sold to laboratory scientists who want to remove their shells so that they can wire electrodes to the turtles’ skin in order to monitor their increasing terror at the loss of their shells. But scientists do these experiments because they want to help. They want to alleviate physical suffering; they want to eradicate depression. To achieve their goal, they will take everything apart and put it back together a different way. They want Heaven and they will go to Hell to get there.

But still, there is grace. Before the mother met the murderer, her vagina had been gently parted and kissed many times. Her daughter had exposed her own vagina before her flowered cardboard mirror (bought at Target and push-pinned to the wall), regarding her organs with pleased wonder, thinking, “This is what I have.”

And maybe the turtles were not kidnapped but rescued: there are actually preserves for turtles, special parks where people can take turtles they have found or grown tired of, or rescued from the polluted, fetid, fish tanks of uncaring neighbors. Or maybe they were simply set free near the water, wading forward together as the zoo spokesman had hoped, eyes bright in scaly heads, each with the unerring sense of the other’s heartbeat, a signal they never knew to question.

And maybe she didn’t start the marathon in a gold lamé suit. Maybe she appeared in a simple white gown with a slip and a bra and stockings and beautiful panties that the first man (hand-selected for his sensitivity) had to help her take off to the sound of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Maybe they even took time to make out, acknowledging romantic love and the ancient truth of marriage. It would be the stiff and brassy acknowledgment of show biz, but deep in the brass case would be a sad and tender feeling — sad because they could only stay a moment in this adolescent sweetness, they could not develop it into the full flower of adult intimacy and parenthood. But this flower comes in the form of a human; it must soon succumb to disease, atrophy, ruined skin, broken teeth, the unbearable frailty of mortality.

The marathon woman is not interested in mortality or human love. Right now, the marathon woman has infinity on her mind. Roberta Flack’s crooning fades. The first man mournfully withdraws. Then: the majestic pounding of kettle drums and brisk, surging brass! It’s the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey! The lights go up! The silhouettes of naked men are revealed on the screen behind her bed above which spins a giant mirror ball! Men step from behind the screen and array themselves about the bed, splendid in their nakedness, even the ugly ones, like gladiators poised to plunge in! This one now, number two, is very short and muscular, covered with hair. His face is handsome, his body exudes physical swagger shadowed by physical grief.

The woman cannot know that, at eighteen, he was a gunnery mate on a PT boat in Vietnam, or that Time once ran a photograph of him posed with his machine gun, the brim of his helmet low across his eyes, a cigarette sticking up at a jaunty angle from between his clenched, smiling lips. She can’t know it but she can feel it: the stunned cockiness of an ignorant boy cradling Death in one arm, cockiness now held fast in the deep heart of a middle-aged man. Just before he enters her, she pictures his heart bristling with tough little hairs. Then she feels his dick and forgets his heart.

He pulls her on top of him and she feels another man ready to climb up her butt while number four bossily plants himself in her mouth, one hand holding his penis, the other on his fleshy hip. The referee, a balding fellow in a smart striped shirt weaves deftly in and out of the melee, ensuring that real penetration is taking place each time. The music segues into hammering dance music, the kind favored by porn movies, only better. The music is like a mob breaking down a flimsy door and spilling endlessly over the threshold. It celebrates dissolution but is has a rigid form and it hits the same button again and again. It makes you think of Haitian religious dances where the dancers empty their personalities to receive the raw flux of spirit — except this music does not allow for spirit. This is the music of personality and obsession, and it is like a high-speed purgatory where the body is disintegrated and reanimated over and over until the soul is a dislocated blur. It is fun! People dance to music like this every night in great glittering venues all over the world, and now the woman and the men fuck to it. They are really doing it and it is chaos! The referee furrows his brow as he darts about, occasionally giving the “roll-over” signal with his forearms, or a “TKO” hand-sign barring a man who’s trying to sneak in a second time.

And because it is chaos, there are moments when the woman’s mind slips through the bullying order of the music and the assault of the men. There are many trapdoors in personality and obsession, and she blunders down some of them — even though she doesn’t realize that she has done so. Like the killer, she is now only able to occupy her surface because extraordinary physical demands are being made on her surface. By turning herself into a fucking machine, she has created a kind of temporary grid. But underneath, in the place of dream and feeling, she is going places that she, on the surface, would not understand.

What no one would guess about this woman who is having intercourse with a thousand men: She is afraid of men. Her father was an ineffectual man who was enraged by his own weakness, so his daughter grew up surrounded by his silent, humiliated rage. Her mother smothered her own strength in order to make her father look strong; that didn’t work, so the girl grew up with her mother’s rage too. She had no way to put male and female together inside herself without rage. This is the core of her fear. Her fear is so great that she cannot afford to recognize it. It is so great that it has taken on a thrilling sexual charge. Because the woman is courageous by nature, she has always gone directly toward what she most fears. When she began to have sex with boys, it was as if she was picking up a doll marked ‘girl’ and a doll marked ‘boy’ and banging them together, hoping to unite herself. As she grew older, the woman inside her became more insatiable and the man became more angry. He became angry enough to kill.

Because this woman is decent, she will not kill. But in deep sleep, she dreams of terrible men. In the worst of these dreams, a killer with magic power came to her childhood home. He bewitched her mother so that she let him in. He turned her father into a dog chained to a post. He carved his name on the girl’s face. He butchered her mother like a cow.

This dream was so terrible that the girl forgot it before she woke. It is still inside the woman. He is part of her, the male who would kill. The female he wants to kill is part of her too. Deep inside, she is still trying to bring them together. And for one moment, down a special trapdoor, she has found a way. If the murderer who appeared on the talk show had been fucking the marathon woman at this moment, he might’ve had a feeling of subconscious unease — for she has entered the deep place of sex and it is not a place the killer wants to be. This is a place without form or time. There can be no grid here. Even the shape of his heart will no longer hold; it will be forced to open. Sorrow, terror, hate, love, pity, joy: all human feeling will come in and he will be unable to bear it. He will break. His killing nature will be stripped to abstract movement, a bursting surge overtaking the weaker prey, the principle of pouncing and eating. In this place, all pouncing and eating is contained, because this place contains everything. This place is her ovaries and her eggs, bejeweled with moisture, the coarse, tough flowers sprouting in her abdomen, the royal, fleshy padding of her cunt. Some people say that nature is like a machine. But this is not a machine. This is something else.

When male turtles fuck, they thrust deep inside their mates, they stretch out their necks, they throw back their heads and they scream. They don’t have to drop through trap doors or travel down layers. They are already there. Animals want to live because they are supposed to. But they know death better than a human killer. Life and death are in them all the time.

The marathon woman is more than halfway through, and she is tired. You are tired too, just from thinking about it. The theme from Chariots of Fire is on the sound system, but you are hearing a very old song from the Industrial Age called “John Henry.” It is about a steel driver of great strength who outperformed the machine invented to replace him. He won, but in doing so, he died. The song ends “He lay down his hammer and he died.” This song is not about sex or about women. The marathon woman is not going to die, nor is she going to win. She has no hammer to lay down. But she is like John Henry anyway because she is making herself into a machine. But she is not a machine. She is something else.

©2000 Mary Gaitskill and, Inc.