Franny fought the gridlock on I-Drive for an hour only to arrive at the Palmscape Funerarium too late—seven-thirty, the viewing had ended at seven. Instead of a funeral party she found a man in a reindeer suit. He slumped on the steps of the entrance to the building like some kind of misfit archangel, his fur matted and antlers askew. She put the car in park and closed her eyes. What else was there to do? On the seat beside her lay her duffel bag, the collection of T-shirts and underwear that reminded her of Marv, and her marriage certificate pressed into a dictionary, the only book she owned. She’d kept the certificate safe between definitions for inadequate and incapable for three years, ever since she’d walked out on Marv in the middle of a Jeffersons rerun. She’d planned to dump the whole bag in the coffin. But even with her eyes closed, she could feel the Funerarium looming over her, white and sober and locked-down for the night.
When she opened her eyes, the man in the reindeer suit was prancing toward her, motioning with one paw for her to roll down the window, which she did. “You here for Marv?” he said through one of the eyes.
Franny nodded, and he handed her a flier. “After-life party,” he said. “Two blocks north. Free food, free booze. Free rides in honor of Marv.”
Centered on the flier was a picture of one of those roadside rides that would-be entrepreneurs were forever setting up on I-Drive, siphoning the theme park crowds for a few months of profit before somebody got maimed or a mechanical glitch shut it down. The Avenger! it said at the top.
“What is this?” Franny said.
“It’s The Avenger!” the reindeer suit said.
The suit nodded. “And Zimmy’s.”
Franny didn’t know who Zimmy was. The name sounded like the wrong end of a cheerleader. She stood to leave, figuring she’d know The Avenger! when she saw it. “Hey,” she said, indicating the suit’s costume. “What’s with this?”
He paused to take in her black, funereal jacket, her shiny shoes. “Theme funeral,” he said and walked back up the steps to the Funerarium’s entrance.
International Drive, with its T-shirt shops and family-style restaurants and proximity to at least three different theme parks, was sleazier than it first appeared. It was always crowded, and tonight the sidewalks were jammed from Wet ‘N’ Wild to Ripley’s Believe It or Not, a solid stretch of drunk tourists and sunburnt children and girls in thong bikinis. One parking lot hosted an impromptu wet T-shirt contest, and another offered discount Disney tickets. Flatbed trucks and jeeps loaded with bare-chested boys in Billabong shorts rolled along at five miles an hour, catcalling to girls. Franny, who’d opted to walk from the Funerarium, elbowed her way through the sunscreen-slick mass of them, the air around her loose and full as a cosmic water balloon. She passed a water park all under lights, bodies plunging over the edge of a six-story slide, pitching heads going round and round the drilling of the wave pool. When the waves ceased, the heads continued splashing, dragging each other below the surface.
The Avenger! appeared shortly, nothing but a crane and a couple of bungee cords, the name in poorly affixed neon. A fenced-off area of packed dirt surrounded it, a couple of bouncers—were they bouncers?—at the gate. Franny remembered the kid who’d gotten thrown off The Jackrabbit and landed on the highway, how after he’d died a small group of citizen activists had collected signatures to ban the rides. The law didn’t pass. So here was The Avenger!, strung up and down with Christmas lights, people in costumes milling around the gate. Franny smiled. If she’d thought about it for a minute, she could’ve predicted that Marv would have a theme funeral. It was sweet and stupid, a ceremony for people who believed anything could be solved by a costume change. Typical Marv, to be buried in drag. Typical Floridians, to pretend they were someplace they were not. She saw a stuffed water drop holding a beer, a guy in swim trunks wearing a witch’s hat. Everyone wore plastic leis, some had sombreros, and at least one person was in a headdress. She saw a bandanna or two tied around the neck. A guy in a chef’s hat was handing out corn dogs and Budweiser from the back of his truck. “What’s the theme?” she asked one of the bouncers.
He handed her a purple lei. “You should come in, if you want to. We’re almost full.”
Franny hesitated. She was caught in one of those real life sci-fi moments, like this was a Hotel California of sorts, and if she went inside she’d never be able to get back out. Marv was swimming in the air around her, and who knew what kind of crazy shit ghosts could do, erasing your life and whatnot. She imagined that back at the Funerarium, the reindeer suit was hot-wiring her car and preparing to take over her life. It would motor down to the Egg Platter, a drive-thru breakfast place where she worked as a short order cook, and then come home to her current girlfriend, Denise, who would only balk for a minute over accepting Franny’s replacement. The suit would nudge Franny out of reality just like the call from Marv’s sister—an accident, DOA, viewing Friday 5-7—had sent Franny back into a state of imbalance she’d worked a good six months to get out of.
One phone call, and Franny was a wife again.
Except she wasn’t.
Less than twenty-four hours ago, she’d been waking up in Denise’s bed, her head in one corner and her feet in another. Denise had returned late, drunk and still pissed that Franny was married? and to a man? and never thought to mention this? She’d locked herself in the bathroom, and a few hours later Franny pried open the door with a screwdriver and found Denise passed out under the toilet, one arm stuck in an overturned trashcan. She didn’t rally even when Franny turned on the faucet in the tub and sank into water that floated with debris from Denise’s last shower. Franny hadn’t washed. She’d listened to Denise breathe. Then she packed the duffel bag, sure that the next time she saw Denise, she’d be a woman without a past. Or, at least, the kind of woman whose past surrendered peacefully to the reality of the present.
But Franny’s past was a breed all its own, a fighting variety, and when the bouncer handed her the lei, it seemed like she could hear Marv’s cackling in the rustle of the plastic.
She gazed up at The Avenger!, saw two girls in grass skirts climb onto the platform, giggling into each other’s hair. They entered a metal cage and sat on a hot, padded seat. An attendant wearing a stuffed shark head secured them inside with a padlock. The cage slingshot into the air on the bungee cords, rotated, and bounced back into position. The girls inside screamed.
He had some kind of business down there, the sister had said. Doesn’t that mean, legally, half’s yours?
And OK, yes, she could make that argument—legally—but Franny hadn’t come out of greed. She hadn’t come out of obligation, either. She was only still married to Marv because the divorce papers came back with signatures like “Miss me yet?” and “Try again.” In fact, since she wasn’t sure anymore why she had come, she thought she should probably just leave.
“You coming in?” the bouncer said.
“I guess,” Franny said.
Beside her, the roar of traffic sounded unmistakably like applause.
Inside, she tried not to stare at the grass skirts swishing around the girls’ thighs as they exited the ride, Marv’s mourners all busty and nailpolished except her. Someone directed her to the Tiki bar, where a bare-chested man poured cocktails into plastic coconuts. She ordered a mai tai and tucked the umbrella behind her ear, then weaved through the crowd, pausing over a table set up to showcase Marv’s life. Pictures, Franny realized with a start, that she’d taken herself. There was Marv at Gatorland just before they’d gotten kicked out; Marv toasting himself on his birthday after the rest of their party had left; Marv as a motorcycle tough, legs astride the bike that would later strand them both at a bar in Bithlo. There were no pictures of Franny, just Marv grinning at her, still somehow putting up his side of the argument. Divorce this, he said. Just try and get rid of me.
She circled the picture table once. Twice. And on her third lap was intercepted by a woman wearing a pair of yellow-lens sunglasses who stepped in front of Franny and said, “Stop.” She was in her early forties, heavy enough that her own grass skirt didn’t fit all the way around her waist, so she’d fixed it to her front with clear packing tape.
“I recognize you from the pictures,” she said. “I cut you out.” Her voice was broken with age and sadness and heavy smoking. She looked like a certain kind of woman Franny was used to seeing in backwoods gay bars—the kind who wanted to throw beer in your face and lick it off.
Ha, Franny thought. Ha ha. All these gorgeous women, and leave it to Marv to make the same mistake twice.
“You’re smaller than I thought,” the woman said. “I didn’t think you’d show.”
“I’m just here to say goodbye,” Franny said loudly. For the record. She didn’t know how many people recognized her. She’d refused to meet Marv’s family even after she married him.
The woman stuck out a hand. “Don’t suppose you know me,” she said. “Name’s Zimmy. It was my car he was driving.” Zimmy held the handshake a beat too long, then dropped it abruptly. “Not a bad way to go, considering. Ball of flame and all that.”
“Sorry about your car,” Franny said.
Zimmy swept a wilted daisy from behind her ear and fingered it, pulling the petals out one by one and dropping them to the floor. “We had a thing,” she said. “We weren’t married—” she glared at Franny—“but it was serious. I mean, you didn’t know him like I did.” She sort of pounded her chest. “We were real, me and him.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Franny said. “He ever hit you?”
Zimmy dropped the last petal. “Go back where you came from. Leave us alone.” She walked over to the crane that composed the largest part of The Avenger! and put her hands against it like she was going to push it over. Someone rubbed her back. Franny stared at the final flower petal, which had fluttered underneath the photograph table and was curled up at one end, like a smirk.
He loved me not. Franny had been counting.
She drank her second mai tai at the bar and took her third to a group of mourners nearby: a trio of Mickey ears and two women in cat suits. She sidled up between the women and said, “Hey.”
“Hey,” they said.
“So how did you all know Marv?” Franny asked, clutching her sticky cup.
The three people in Mickey ears dropped their eyes, and one of the cat suits whispered, “They’re from Ohio. They didn’t know this was a funeral.”
Franny grinned. Marv, she thought, would’ve loved that. She remembered what it’d been like to be new here, to be young and tan all the time, Marv standing naked on the hotel bed saying, “Let’s get married” in the same tone as he’d said, the night before, “Let’s get trashed.” Franny had agreed to both, thinking she could do worse. Marv was a stand-up sort of guy, not one you had to worry about getting shot or OD’ing. He sometimes wrote bad checks, sometimes got too frisky at the titty bar, but most of the time he was just a guy, working and chasing tail, decent in every other way. Didn’t have a lot of illegitimate babies, didn’t steal from old folks or deal to kids. Your average fuck-up.
He’d been Franny’s ticket to a world where her currency was no good. Marv didn’t care that she’d grown up in a trailer in a Podunk town outside Jacksonville, and he didn’t even ask about her stepfather, or her experience with child services. These were the too-common details in the lives of Girls Like Her, repeated so often that they either explained too much or ceased to explain anything at all. He assumed certain givens about her life, and Franny was relieved not to have to clarify. “Let’s get married,” he’d said, and Franny had thought, I’ll take it.
After the ceremony, she’d given Marv a blowjob in the back of their rented Mustang, and then they’d ordered celebratory double cheeseburgers at the drive-thru. The blowjob had been lackluster; the hamburger, delicious. They’d been so happy that they decided not to go home. It was as simple as that. Franny got a job at The Egg Platter and Marv at the alpine slide, and they found a cheap apartment furnished with a battered pullout couch, and they made it work. It’d been perfect the first year, Franny’s ideal arrangement, until one night Marv backhanded her in bed, drunk, and then said, “Do that to me now.” And, when she refused, “Not even if I want you to?”
So she’d done it. And enjoyed it.
At first, it was like a crime she was getting away with. A way to exercise some of the rage she found hidden just below the surface. The first night, she’d hit him hard. Thinking she’d shut him up. Angry, and somewhat embarrassed, at what he’d done. She’d been hit before. She’d hit back before. But it’d never been anything near foreplay. She expected to feel guilty afterwards. But she’d found that living in Orlando involved a gradual leeching of the real world, a tacit acceptance of fairy tale. The next day Marv acted like nothing had happened. And Franny found herself not only able, but willing to believe that nothing had. She had not tapped into something dangerous in herself. She was not, at heart, a dangerous person.
If he’d have stopped there, they might’ve stayed together longer. But Marv wanted to see Franny lose control.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said.
“Don’t think about it,” Marv said. He put her hands on his body, and though the touch began gentle, she could feel the desire like a kind of arthritis. Her hands wanted to ball. To squeeze. It was work to keep them open. She’d never felt like this before. She didn’t want to feel it now.
“I’m afraid I’ll kill you,” she whispered. He didn’t think she could. But sometimes when he was sleeping a certain way, or even just tilting his head to the side, she could see a vein fluttering in his neck. She wished she didn’t notice things like that, the places where people were weak. She watched the vein. He didn’t know she did that.
“You won’t,” he said. “I trust you.”
She moved her hands to his neck, touched that spot where the vein sometimes was. She couldn’t see it when he was standing.
“So you’re not going to die,” she said. She circled his neck. “Then what’s the thrill?”
He lifted his chin. Closed his eyes. “Darlin’, I’ve got thrills,” he said.
“I don’t know if I like you like this.” She took her hands away.
He put them back. “I like you like this,” he said.
But he didn’t understand. She didn’t want her love to be tied up in violence. The two couldn’t coexist in her. One tried to take over, and the violence always won. She knew she couldn’t be trusted. She knew she’d take it too far.
And she did. It just didn’t happen the way she thought. It was how far he let her go that was the problem. After two close calls, she tried to cut Marv off. When he refused, she went looking elsewhere. What she found was women. Safe women, gentle women, women who were so soft it was impossible to want to hurt them. She finally left Marv, but he didn’t so much as flinch.
“You’ll be back,” he said calmly, not lifting his eyes from the TV screen. “I know you ain’t no goddamn dyke.”
It wasn’t until after Franny had downed her fourth mai tai, tapping glasses with the trio from Ohio, that Zimmy announced she was going to ride The Avenger! Franny had watched her saunter around the grounds, punching people in the arm, licking the corner of her mouth when she looked up at The Avenger! All swagger and heft. She looked like she wouldn’t mind losing control; she looked like she’d never had it to begin with. “You all know,” Zimmy said to the crowd, “that Marv and I had just upgraded a new feature to the ride when he died. It’s never been tested. Until now.” She hesitated, and the attendant said, “You sure, Zim?” Franny snickered.
“She’s scared to ride her own ride,” she said to no one. “That’s hilarious.”
“Jesus,” Zimmy said, following the sound to Franny’s face. “You are something else.” She walked toward Franny slowly, everybody watching. The yellow lenses turned her eyes green. Her gaze nearly emitted heat. She looked like she might really hit Franny, but one of the cat suits stepped forward to lead her away. “I told you,” Zimmy said to Franny. “Go home.”
“Hey.” Franny held her fifth mai tai in the air and hugged her duffel bag under her arm. She looked up at Zimmy in a way that tried to be friendly. “Come on, girl. Let’s do this together.”
Zimmy shook her head.
“Ride The Avenger! with me,” Franny said, “and I’ll leave.” She looked at the bouncers, who looked at Zimmy.
The attendant in the shark’s head secured the cage to the launch and opened the door for them, and Zimmy whispered something to him. Franny fell into the cage and fastened a pilled seatbelt across her hips. “You don’t look scared,” Zimmy said, appearing in front of her.
“You don’t look straight,” Franny blurted. She dropped her head.
Zimmy buckled herself in, and they sat in silence for several moments. Franny glanced over to see Zimmy squeeze her eyes shut. “OK, Marv,” she said. “Here we are.”
She actually patted Franny’s leg, as if to comfort her. As if to say, I know you loved him, too. Franny’s stomach burbled. She noticed that the man in the reindeer suit was in the crowd now. She wondered if she could somehow sneak into the Funerarium and slip the duffel bag into Marv’s coffin without anyone noticing. One of the T-shirts in her bag was from the alpine slide, and it said, I Went Alpine Sliding in Florida. There’d been ice skating there, too, on a synthetic rink. Franny smoothed the pant legs of her suit, and Zimmy yelled, “Can we do this?” and the attendant pulled a lever.
One minute Franny was watching the stuffed water drop flick her off, and the next her head was glued to the back of the padded seat. The pressure on her chest was heavy as a body, too heavy to yell the way Zimmy was hollering Marv’s name, the way Franny had yelled it after their first close call. He’d tried to explain it to her afterward, what it felt like, but she’d been too freaked out to hear him. Your face, she kept saying, shaking her head like she could loosen the image. You turned blue.
It took a long time for The Avenger! to reach its apex, and Franny half-expected the bungee cords to snap, the cage to fly faster and faster until it hit something solid. But the cords caught, finally, and the cage held a sickening beat mid-air. The contents of Franny’s stomach flowed into her esophagus, and her head swung forward in reverse whiplash. They were tilted, Franny slightly higher than Zimmy, and below them the city spread out, sparkling in a way that broke Franny’s heart. She closed her eyes for the plummet, but instead there was a whizzing sound, and the bungees snapped taut.
“That’s my boy!” Zimmy shouted, stomping happily on the bottom of the cage. She leaned over and stuck a thumbs up out the gate, and from the crowd rose a smattering of applause. “New feature,” she said to Franny. “Freeze frame.” She looked over. “You OK?”
Franny rubbed her eyes. “How long do we sit here?”
“Don’t know,” Zimmy said. “That’s the beauty of it.”
Franny looked out over the city again. “It all looks so nice from up here,” she said.
Zimmy gazed outward, too. “It’s a nice place.”
“You think so?” Franny said. “Really?”
“I don’t know,” Zimmy said. “Marv loved it.”
“And you loved Marv.”
Zimmy was quiet, and then she spoke. “Tell me why you really came here.”
“Respect?” Franny said. “Closure?”
Zimmy shook her head. “Something else.”
There was so much else Franny wanted that just trying to answer choked her up. Zimmy rolled her eyes. “You’re a piece of work,” she said. She slid an arm around Franny, python-like: one long, tightening muscle. “I know all about you. You really fucked him up, know that?”
She bent at the elbow. A head-lock. “This what you like to do?” she said.
Franny went limp. Oh, Marv, she thought. He was everywhere, in the wet air around her, in the rusty hinges of the metal cage. Sitting like a puppeteer above her, all sorrow and punishment. She could smell his stale scent in Zimmy’s clothes, his Marlboros on her breath. Half of what was his, the sister had said. “Oh, Marv,” she whispered. She unbuckled her seatbelt.
“What the hell,” Zimmy said. “You’re going to kill yourself.” She waved one arm out the window in some kind of signal, released Franny’s neck. Franny stood. Turned so she was facing Zimmy. Zimmy looked into her eyes and said, “Do it.”
“I’m not going to hit you,” Franny said. “I just wondered if you would.” She stopped. “This sounds crazy, but would you,” and she straddled Zimmy and kissed her full on the mouth. She forced her tongue into Zimmy’s mouth. Felt Zimmy’s tongue jerk to attention before Zimmy remembered herself and bit down.
“No,” Zimmy said, sadly but not convincingly.
“This what you like to do?” Franny said. She kissed Zimmy again and waited for the bite. She grabbed handfuls of shirt and skin, thinking, Marv, Marv, what have you done to me? Thinking of the second close-call, her hands around Marv’s neck, when his body had locked into a kind of spasm, and Franny had been fascinated, watching him drain away. The change in him had been immediate. He’d been so vulnerable, so dependent. She’d fallen in love with him for the first time.
Then he’d come back to life.
Zimmy succeeded in freeing one of her hands, stuck it through the grating—“What are you telling them?” Franny said—and then they plunged. Franny clung to Zimmy’s body, but they clonked heads when they hit bottom, and Franny’s nose began to bleed. After the first drop, the cage bounced maniacally, knocking Franny around. Finally it clanked down, and the attendant opened the door.
“You’re insane,” Zimmy said.
“Holy shit,” the attendant said. “What happened?”
Zimmy stumbled onto the platform and kept walking. Franny grabbed her duffel bag and said, “Nothing, I’m fine, it’s OK,” and rushed over to the Porta-Potty, where she thought she might get sick but didn’t, and ended up hovering over the seat trying to piss. She took out the dictionary and shook it over the floor. The marriage certificate fell out, finally, and Franny dangled it over the hole between two fingers. Then she put it back in the book and put the book back in her bag. The certificate was, she thought, the only evidence that she’d ever loved someone. That she’d once been capable of love.
She threw her bloody shirt down the toilet instead and dug through her bag to find a replacement. She found one Marv had bought her as a joke, before the joke became truth. A pink shirt with the word “Dyke” written in sparkly letters. No one else would understand the sick humor of the shirt, how Marv had understood and not understood her. Not even Denise. She put it on. Heard murmuring behind her, the way people talked to their dates in movie theaters. Something fell hard against the Porta-Potty. She zipped up and went around back. The reindeer suit was there with the attendant, the guy in the shark head, standing over a topless girl who smiled at Franny, her eyelids low, leaning against the toilet. She’d either fallen there or been thrown. She couldn’t get Franny into focus, and her head was limp on her neck. She looked vaguely familiar, somebody Franny would’ve known back when she and Marv were together. She raised a shaky hand, pointed at Franny.
“Want to join?” she said and tried to laugh but, failing that, slid further onto the ground.
“Shut the fuck up,” the reindeer suit said. The other guy took off his shark head and threw it on the ground. They both walked off.
“Assholes,” the girl slurred.
Franny nodded. She looked at the shark head, its open mouth biting the ground. She picked it up. Put it on. It smelled like beer and sweat inside, and she had trouble breathing. The girl beside her clapped weakly.
Franny found the eyeholes and in a few minutes, she’d grown accustomed to the tunnel vision and could move easily. The Avenger! shot into the air, catapulting Marv’s survivors into the wet night. Franny heard it, but her eyes were fixed on the girl: her loose boobs, her teeth. “Want to ride with me?” Franny said. She moved closer, her hands finding the way.