People used to ask me what sort of job I could get with a Ph.D. on Thomas Pynchon. The answer, it turns out, is chauffeuring eroticist, anarchist artists across America.
"Anything to say to the folks back home?" I demanded, swinging the camera around, inches from her face.
"Um, hi," she managed, just holding to an edge of equanimity, just keeping the terror tremor from announcing itself in her voice.
"I’m a shy pornstar," she explained -- to those half imagined, judgemental faces of a world away. But she was recovering now her slightly abstracted air, cooing into the lens that was obtrusively turned on her within the oppressive, overheated confines of a white Dodge blasting along a Texas highway.
Boxed in she was, literally. This could have been a porn flick now, the kind of capture fantasy that seems a favoured plot line of current forensic cop shows. With her knees around her ears and about as much space to move as, say, a dead dog in a suitcase, she shifted herself slightly for comfort and pressed against a gnawing corner of cardboard that she was slowly, over the course of this coast-to-coast marathon, moulding to her body-shape. A poor Canadian orphan, filled with stories of childhood abuse at the hands of vehemently righteous religious fanatics, here she was on the open road, caged on all sides by stacks of another's boxed belongings -- obsessively collected over a life-time, documented, labelled and databased by a mind more active than sound, a mind that chose this moment, as arbitrarily as it might choose a tune to hum, to speak.
Peremptory, with a nasal-New-Yorkish twang: "Mandy, hand me a Doctor."
This set off my own internal refrain. Mandy, unhand me. Mandy, unman me. Doctor me Mandy. Hand me, Doc Mandy. Hand jobs for Mandy. Handy, that Mandy.
"So explain to me this," feeling something like that sour bummer Emile we all know: "How do you qualify for the title 'pornstar'? Can anyone be one? Do you have to have a fan base or something? Win awards? What is it? Anyone who makes a bit of porn can be a 'pornstar'?"
"Yeah, I think so, I don't think you have to have like lots of fans or anything. I mean, I do have fans, you know, but not like, I mean some girls are really hot at the moment, say, and they get lots of fans and they're in demand and stuff, but we're all pornstars."
Between chugs on his Doctor: "I think the cut-off point is you've got to have made a feature film. Like, if you've only done internet stuff you're not a pornstar. But if you've made a feature film you're a pornstar, no question."
"But that's just the girls, right? I mean, are you guys pornstars?"
"No, not really, I don't think so. Nobody gives a shit about the guys. I mean, the guys are just like me, you know, we're just these dumb assholes who just have to show up. The guys I know who do porn, they're just like, I don't know, some truck driver who got lucky, some gas station guy who got lucky..."
Outside, the night continued to flash by, unconcerned by our discourse, untouched by our own intimate connection to time.
One diner we stopped at, in Knoxville, Tennessee, the waitress, dead on her feet, with a lined and wretched face that bespoke more years at the frontline of suffering and deprivation than you'd expect to find in a Serbian geriatric ward, automatically nonetheless addressed me as both "Honey" and "Sweetie" during the course of my ordering and would have loved, I am sure, to bring me pie with a smile.
Only I ordered no pie.
While Mandy, captive child of circumstance and accident, sipped disconsolately at her soup, Zak Sabbath chewed furiously at a spit-roasted side of pig and, raising himself half an inch from his plate while liquefied grease traversed his unshaven chin, cocked his eye expectantly at the shambling figure, half rancher, half runaway cretin, homing into view.
With agnosticism calling out boldly from the tattooed question marks on his forearms, and the skull on his neck that leers obscenely when he flexes his head, not to mention assorted dragons and other decidedly unholy creatures, our lay preacher knew exactly what to expect from this Sabbath character and drew himself up to his full stature, exposing an extensive belly and a half-done fly.
"I only wanna take a minute of you good folks's time," he drawled, "to ask you if you go with Jesus in your heart."
Mandy contemplated the hot-pink dreadlocks that hung from the unshaven region of her skull. Like a sulky child, now, she was yanking these at weird angles, the strain of her efforts showing in her delicate, pale hands, all the while letting her spoon balance in her mouth and dance about gently, tinkling against her numerous oral piercings as she exhibited a pout that that gentleman of God will be remembering at this moment, as I type, while he's peering squarely, perhaps for the first time, into the blackest hole of his unspoken desires.
Eternally embarrassed -- by myself, by others, by the absurdity we're all called upon to share in -- I made myself busy with my stewed apples, coleslaw and beets, relishing food that for once didn't quite slide down like lard, and feigned deafness or, more likely, called on that capacity for unbelievable rudeness that the New Zealand male thinks he can forever pass off as simple reticence.
Loaded up on Doctor, Zak filled the chasm of silence just before it imploded in the intensity of its moral disquiet. "Don't worry," he assured the concerned citizen. "We've been with Jesus ever since we crossed the state line."
The coffee was reliably bad, and outside it was hot. Really hot. And on the baking tarmac of this nowhere strip mall, pulling on a cigarette that made my head pound while my shirt stuck to me in days-old sweat and a man and his son drove by in a pick-up, I asked myself this: "What the hell am I doing in this southern shit-hole, with a couple of punks, in a nation of eminently polite crazies?"