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Love Me Tender by Thomas S. Roche

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They hurtle south on 15, the desert sands raining upon them like a plague of locusts. They blast the radio through Cedar City and St. George, Fado singing harmony on “Blue Suede Shoes” at the top of his lungs. Outside of Mesquite, they pause for ref reshment, Senor Fado leaning back in the seat and chuckling while Andre does his job, for which he will be paid in artistic and spiritual coin. Afterwards, Fado puts the Caddy in gear and floors it, sending a bewildered Andre sprawling in the seat, cursi ng in three languages as he wipes his chin. Andre calls the Senor a foul name. Senor Fado responds in kind, laughing, and Andre pouts fetchingly. Afterwards they stop for blue-raspberry slushes at Mesquite’s only Meat Market and Convenience Store.

This chariot to hell is a cherry-red ’68 Caddy convertible, sporting a 390 V-8, with New York plates. Fado bought it on a whim two weeks earlier from a used car dealer outside of Buffalo, opting against the ’58 Mercury Medalist, passing on the ’56 Bu ick Roadmaster, sneering at the ’60 Dart Phoenix convertible, finally settling upon the Cadillac because that was the most American car possible. Fado traded in the rusting Austin Healey he had picked up in Provincetown and paid the dealer the remainder of the Caddy’s price in cash, mostly hundreds with a few twenties sprinkled in like hot peppers in a casserole. The two men drove the Cadillac in a serpentine path through twenty-four states on elaborate errands of compulsion and academia, collecting cha chkies at every stop: a Smokey Robinson air freshener in Detroit and an Al Capone night light in Chicago; vials of holy water shaped like the Virgin; ivory-handled straight razors; shrunken heads; ritual daggers; voodoo dolls. The fuzzy dice were perhaps Senor Fado’s greatest exercise in indiscretion.

Under the front seat the Senor keeps a loaded Czech handgun: He has many enemies, and they do not all possess artistic temperament. Fado’s companion is nineteen, a student at the California Institute of Art. His GPA ranges between 1.9 and 2.6, depen ding on which teacher he’s managed to guilt-trip, seduce, or blackmail. His Chicago family is wealthy, but the boy is outcast from his kin and would be destitute if not for the providence of his great-grandfather’s trust fund, which provides money to a n umbered account by direct-deposit every January — money which the boy then squanders each year before May. Against his families wishes, Andre purchased a one-way courier ticket on KLM in June and made a pilgrimage, straight-razor in hand, to Fado’s loft , where he finally met the Master, whom the boy and his compatriots worship like a god. Now it is September and the boy is accompanying his mentor through the blasted wasteland of the Southwestern United States. The boy has a taste for cocaine and has h ad many lovers. How do I know these things, you ask? Is it a child who asks me this, an infant? This question strikes me as naive; perhaps it is being posed by one who does not watch the evening news. I may be enjoying an avocation, but this is not am ateur hour.

With the radio tuned to Nevada’s only “all-Elvis” station, Fado and the boy ride a 325-horse iron dream-chariot to the land of their destruction, burning rubber on the one-way death trip. Driving through the sandstorm Fado puts his shades on; the boy has never removed his own expensive sunglasses, not even during their stop outside of Mesquite. Andre cuddles up against his lover, softly singing “Just Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” along with the radio. Fado lights an unfiltered Black Lung wit h a death’s-head Zippo and chuckles to himself.

The DJ announces “Viva Las Vegas.” Fado laughs out loud and turns up the radio, singing along as he cruises Las Vegas Boulevard at 15 MPH, the Caddy bathed in the radiant blood and molten gold of the neon lights. Blackjack. Poker. Baccarat. Slots . World’s Most Beautiful Ladies. T-Bone Steak $5.99. Fado bellows incomprehensibly through the parts of the song he can’t remember or can’t properly pronounce; English is, after all, his seventh language.

They find a motel, the Valentine Palace, and Fado arranges for the King’s Suite — which is, luckily, still vacant — at a rate of $499.50 plus local hotel tax. “It is for me and my companion,” Fado says, winking at the desk clerk, a bald man of thir ty or so. The desk clerk returns the wink with a conspiratory laugh, saying “The bed is very large, it has our special vibro-fingers massage, that’s a trademark, you see. And you don’t even have to put in a quarter. The sheets are satin, and the bed and bath are shaped — well, as you would expect them to be in the Valentine Palace.”

Fado and the clerk stare at each other for a frozen, aching, pregnant moment, the clerk’s sweaty upper lip quivering, and then Fado explodes in laughter, cackling maniacally, slapping the desk clerk on the arm. The clerk laughs along nervously with S enor Fado.

“And the room has a stereo?” Fado then asks. “It is not America without rock and roll. My companion and I, we like to play Elvis while we — do it American style!”

Fado is intentionally playing games, as is his idiom. The clerk starts to laugh again, when Andre appears in the doorway. The clerk, his upper lip sweating more than ever, glances back and forth between Fado and his boy. His bald pate turns bright red in a second. Coldly, he says “You’ll find the bed’s massage controls next to the television set.”

“Thank you, Senor,” says Fado unctuously. The clerk hands Fado the key to room 235 and Fado winks at him one last time before leaving, receiving a cold stare as his answer.

The desk clerk has his own secrets to hide. He made his own pilgrimage recently, to Los Angeles, without his young wife’s knowledge or consent. How can I know these things, you ask? How can I track the movements of the reviled Senor Fado — and so many others — with such unflinching attention to detail?

This question seems the musings of an adolescent who has not yet learned to respect things it does not understand. Or a lamb, wailing incoherently on its way to the slaughterhouse, howling the requiem of the small-brained mammal.

Obtaining this knowledge is a simple matter: as simple as the look which passes between the boy Andre and Mario Fado as they retire to the room with the heart-shaped bed and complimentary vibro-fingers massage to enact their ancient and forbidden ritu al.


I am the dream you pray you never have. I am your worst nightmare. I can haunt you in the midnight and come after you with an upraised scythe like Death on a pale horse of information exchange and untraceable neurotoxins. I can turn your credit rat ing into a noose made of fiber-optic cable, knotted securely around your throat. I can reach out from Krakow or Tokyo or Djakarta or Bogota and ensure that you die tonight of natural causes at the very moment your dreams take you, whether you are sixteen or ninety, whether you are a schoolteacher or a drug dealer or the President of the United States. I can start a war in a third-world country for economic reasons, perhaps no more compelling than to ensure an unbroken flow of refugees, and therefore con tinued drug traffic, through an adjacent country. Without effort, I can find out what books you read, what porn videos you rent, your favorite brand of liquor, the dosing schedule of your Prozac prescription. I can track down your place of birth and era se you, with the effort you might use to destroy a mosquito. I can wipe you from society, vaporise your existence, destroy your progeny. I’m the God you have convinced yourself does not exist. I am your father and mother, your lover and friend, your wi fe and husband, your doctor, your priest, your boss, your landlord, bookie. I am nobody, and your reflection.


Andre undresses without emotion. Senor Fado has sprawled himself on the heart-shaped bed, sipping at the coagulated remains of his blue-raspberry slush, into which he’s mixed expensive Finnish vodka. He watches as Andre removes his clothes. Andre s tands naked, perhaps thinking about immortality. Smiling to himself, Senor Fado gestures toward his suitcase. Obediently, Andre retrieves it.


I’m the devil. I’m God. I’m the guy who signs the hall passes from Purgatory. I have hammered down vodka tonics with Nikita Kruschev and puffed Havanas with Fidel. I’ve done lines with Noriega, slung back Harvey Wallbangers with Nixon, shaken hand s with four Kennedys. I’ve traded dirty jokes with Jimmy Hoffa. I’ve shared tequilla and lime with top officials in the PRI and ridden in tanks crossing the border into Afghanistan. World leaders eagerly join the line to accept my unholy communion — f or none shall come to to power except through me, or through one such as me. I’ve dropped viruses into the Pentagon computer and killed little old ladies with piano wire. I’ve started wars and police actions and riots and sold fissionable material and k ilos of heroin for sums which in other contexts would be considered ludicrous. I’ve signed the lease on concentration camps, thrown the switch on more executions than I care to total up. I smile a dark smile when you nervously tell your children I am a myth. You, my friend, you are the myth, for I am the only reality. I am the nightmare that walks and talks, because there are no countries any more.


My connection to the bastard artist Mario Fado is perhaps a matter of some complexity, for there are many more superficially important issues for one such as me to deal with in this age of information. But it is my pleasure — my hobby, might I say? — to indulge in certain avocations. My interest in painting started in early childhood, but I was later compelled by circumstance to abandon such artistic concerns. Perhaps the art teacher who kindly informed me I possessed no talent had something to d o with this, but be sure that I have dealt with that matter in my own definitive fashion. I spent my early years in what was fashionably referred to as the “underground,” learning the language of those who reject and refute all national affiliations in f avor of matters artistic. Though I do possess something which resembles a national origin, I consider myself a citizen of the world. And while it could be suggested that I maintain a native tongue, I long ago learned the language of the rootless cosmopo litan, and I now speak it eloquently.

Do not think that my work in intelligence precluded my having personal concerns. I remained quite interested in the work of various artists affiliated with the countercultural underground. I am not beyond admitting that I was vaguely jealous of them , since my own artistic ambitions had been abandoned. But such emotion has no place in this stage of my life. Mario Fado became, to me, something of an obsession. I was both fascinated and repulsed by his work, and I found him an interesting problem of modern history. For Mario Fado was not the usual sort of artist. Within any given art scene, be it in London or Berlin, Paris or Los Angeles, Hong Kong or Osaka or New York, Mario Fado’s name invariably brought a hush over the conversation, and occasio nally a nervous titter. He was considered the outcast of the art world, though his paintings still drew price tags into the hundreds of thousands from collectors of exotic merchandise all over the world. These collectors invariably purchased Fado’s work through anonymous brokers, since to publicly admit a desire to own Mario Fado’s work would have brought the Senor’s outcast status to the purchaser.

I, however, occupied a different world from other devotees of art — a parallel world, but one illuminated by a darker sun. I did not consider Fado an untouchable — quite the contrary. Through my years of intelligence work, as I learned the languag e of betrayal, I followed Fado’s career in whatever spare time I had. When I left my national agency and went freelance, my powers were vastly increased and my abilities exponentially magnified. This is why I am able to indulge my current obsession. Ma rio Fado is not untouchable. He speaks my language; I speak his. Our hands work identical magics in different realms. Fado and I are the same.

We are brothers.


I get out of the rented black Lincoln, putting my sunglasses on to protect me against the blazing neon of a Las Vegas midnight. I stalk silently down the motel corridor toward Fado’s room. From the pocket of my suit I take a length of piano wire, cu rled luxuriously between two wooden dowels.


I am no longer affiliated with an offical intelligence organization, as you might think. There are methods to get in touch with me, processes by which to seek my services — though I am more selective of my assignments in recent months. But this do es not constitute a bureau or agency as such; more a kaffee klatch. Consider it, then, a federation, an association of friends and acquaintances who share an aesthetic agenda.


Fado’s paintings are like a blight on the art world’s public image. But he has touched the nerve that lies deep inside my soul, and caused my heart to come alive. The fashion in which he creates his nightmare paintings of decay and corruption — it is the same talent with which I paint my works of blood and bone across the canvas of the new world order. But I paint on a bigger canvas than most — bigger, even, than Mario Fado’s. My landscapes are the world you live in.


Fado’s medium, contrary to appearances, is not oil paint, or at least not exclusively. He does not work in acrylic, charcoal, watercolor, pastel. Fado paints in the blood of his victims.

Surely you understand that this is not murder in the traditional sense? For Mario Fado in all cases obtained the explicit consent of his models. And drew their blood with sterile needles and blades, wearing rubber gloves. He took only the blood he needed, mixing it with oil paints, certainly never more than a coffee cup’s worth at a time, usually less. But do you understand what it means to paint with the blood of the living? Fado’s models are invariably young men who worship him — groupies from that same underground of rootless cosmopolitans I used to run with. Is it any surprise, then, that their souls are captured, frozen in the canvas on which Senor Fado paints? And that in that moment when Fado deserts them upon completion of his blood pa inting, their despair is absolute?


Fado has completed twelve in this series, and is at work on the thirteenth — it will be Andre’s portrait. It will be completed in transit, for Fado imagines that such a work will be somehow more aesthetically pleasing — I do not imagine that my ref erence to “rootless cosmopolitans” would elude Senor Fado. There are twelve Fado Blood Paintings, and twelve soulless corpses, each boy a suicide.


Inside the King’s Suite at the Valentine Palace, Fado is hard at work. Andre is sprawled on the heart-shaped bed, his flesh opened and the front of his naked body slick with blood. I pause outside to contemplate the fate of my brother, and to smoke an unfiltered Black Lung.


You can speculate, if you like. I suppose it is quite possible that it is my dalliance with Martin, a twenty-two year old boy who found himself (after his affair with me) one of Fado’s “models,” that drives me to take this action. But it is not cras s revenge that I seek. I am not a jealous lover. Martin’s suicide was a beautiful act in itself, and I can appreciate Fado’s part in it. And likewise, there is a final portrait to be painted, with the blood of a man who has far more talent than I. Do you not understand what it means to paint with the blood of the living?

For one such as Fado, it means the clever theft of the victim’s soul. And for his victims — excuse me, “models” — it means inevitable suicide, for who, even in this age without nations in which I am the only God, can live without a soul?


Perhaps the boy’s ghost does haunt that painting, for it obsesses me, there in the darkness of the hallway, as I contemplate the surgical strike I am about to execute. It is as if the painting is that of a ghost. I can see Martin’s joyless face, wit h the signature across his throat:


It is time for me to sign my name on another, less willing, throat.


I have killed, and I will kill again. But for your sake, much more than for mine, do not consider me a murderer. I am an art critic.


As I approach the door, I hear a scream. It is Fado. There are three shots. The boy’s scream mingles with Fado’s in a macabre sonata. Pulling the handgun from its place at my belt, I blow the lock, kick the door open through the cloud of smoke. I point the gun at Fado. Do fools never differ? Has someone come to claim Fado’s soul before I can?

The boy, Andre, is cowering in the corner, his front covered in blood. Fado’s oil paints have been splattered across the heart-shaped bed. Fado himself is sprawled on the red velvet bedcover, the vibro-fingers massage suddenly activated, his lifeles s body jiggling obscenely. The pistol hangs limp in his fingers.

On his face is a look of indescribable terror — and his body appears dessicated, utterly.

The radio is playing “Love Me Tender.” Above the headboard a black velvetKing weeps a single crystal tear. Andre looks up at me, weeping, choking back his sobs, tears mingling with the blood down his front.

It is as I suspected. Someone has beaten me to the punch, has taken the life of Mario Fado. He or she has exacted a more complete form of art criticism from Fado’s helpless body than even I would have been capable of. The walls of the King’s Suite are covered with angled mirrors, reflecting the carnage into a sanguine and pornographic infinity. I lift my pistol, point it at Andre, for he has seen my face.

“Happy Valentine’s Day,” I say to no one, or to my reflection. “And Viva Las Vegas.”

I pause.

It is doubtless Fado’s taste in men. He always selects the same sort as lovers and models. But it is stunning — the resemblance between my erstwhile lover Martin and this boy Andre. I would almost think. . . . .

But it is the first rule of wetwork that you do not allow a pretty face to give you pause. I thumb off the safety.


Back in the black Lincoln, taking the onramp to 15, I chain smoke and consider the experience. The things that occurred do not seem possible. I will follow my original plan. I will take Interstate 15 to Salt Lake City, abandon the car, purchase a p lane ticket back to Amsterdam. The events at the Valentine Palace do not affect my plans, but they will doubtless haunt my dreams.

I am not normally inclined toward judgments of fact or fantasy, preferring to leave that sort of deliberation to men with advanced degrees and nothing better to do. But my mind keeps returning to the moment when I first saw Fado on the bed, without a single cut in his flesh, and the moment when I regarded the boy I was about to kill. It is not possible that I saw Martin’s face reflected in that of Andre, and yet I did something I would have thought impossible: I let the boy live.

The face I saw in the hotel room was not that of a ghost. But I cannot shake the feeling that Martin was there with his brothers at the Valentine Palace, wreaking their horrible revenge.


How can I know this thing, you ask? You are a dog, a simpleton, a beast. I am well acquainted with the time it takes to draw blood from the human body in any kind of an organized fashion. It could certainly have been Martin’s — excuse me, Andre’s — blood I saw painting the wall above Mario Fado’s lifeless body on the heart-shaped bed. But some artistic instinct tells me it was not. It was Fado’s.

How else would the aesthete’s desire be satisfied? Fado’s lovers were art students, after all, doomed by Fado’s actions never to become mature artists. Is it not possible that the creative need within their souls matured without bodies, wandering th e corridors of the afterlife? The word painted on that wall makes it clear. This was not an act of corporeal revenge, for who among the living would have such a twisted sense of humor? Present company excepted, of course. Graffiti serves as a tool of dissent or protest, when other tools are unavailable. And this graffiti was certainly a compelling protest. I will repeat that word over and over again in my sleepless nights, as I have done for many years. I will see it written in blood until the end o f my days:



Across the heartless desert, Nevada’s only all-Elvis station plays “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” and “Blue Hawaii” and “Mystery Train” and “Burning Love” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight.” I listen to the morning news, waiting for a story on the kill ing. Nothing. Perhaps this country is not ready to hear news of the real world. All the better for me.


My talent as an artist has been questioned before. It is therefore appropriate that this most important work was not executed by my hand. With my tools I have drawn the many faces of death, but the final portrait of Mario Fado was left to those who knew him best. For such a thing — I think you will agree — is a work of the greatest possible intimacy.


The desert sands rain upon my car like a plague of locusts. Dawn weeps blood across the morning sky. The radio plays “Don’t Be Cruel.” I light an unfiltered Black Lung and turn on the windshield wipers.

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Posted by on Thursday, December 15th, 2005. Filed under Fiction. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry