House of Little Deaths

Michael Deagler

You don’t know this story.

Denhelder tells it. Or, he tells a version of it. One where he’s the main character, witty and roguish and triumphant. He isn’t, though. Which isn’t to say that I am either. I’m actually even more peripheral to it than he is (because I cut out early, like I always seem to do). The way I see it, it’s Healy’s story. But he’s gone now, and the pregnant actor too, and nobody knows where they went. They were important to the film, those two (I’ve seen the footage), though I’m not sure if they’ll even be in it now, being gone. She was DiBorghetto’s muse, I think. And the last I talked to DiBorghetto, he was out trying to find a new one.

I’ll tell you. But turn off the light.

There were four of us: Denhelder, Healy, Kinsella, and me, sitting at the Lost Bar in Kensington one night. Drinking, but not heavily, not even me. Listless. Then Denhelder got a call from DiBorghetto, and the house was just over in Port Richmond, and the situation wasn’t fully explained to me (maybe to no one), and so we downed our pounders of Pabst and went. It was a Tuesday.

You never met Healy. Maybe that’s for the best. Healy had one hand, his left hand. He never had the right one since I’d known him, and maybe he never had it all, just a rounded wrist that he covered with a sock. The only time I ever asked him about it, he told me some bullshit about losing it to a bandit king in the Safēd Kōh: “He gave me a choice, Monk, because he was a fair and wise man. He said if I stuck out my left hand for him to sever, then I’d receive wealth and fame beyond all imagination. If I stuck out my right one, though, I’d receive a love of simplicity and a contentedness for all that life would give me.”

“Difficult choice,” I said.

“Easy choice,” Healy said, quiet, smiling. “But I’ve always been shit with my rights and my lefts.”

Healy did a tour, yeah, but he also worked in a warehouse and may have just crushed the hand in a compactor. Regardless, Healy wasn’t a sharer when it came to real things. Not that anyone asked him to be. He projected a rare, impulsive energy, so much so that a stranger would think before asking him for a light, let alone an explanation for his missing hand. Some dogs you just know not to pet.

The house was on a brick-and-vinyl block of Belgrade Street, across from one of those crammed-in cemeteries that haunt Port Richmond. It looked like all the other row houses in that it was completely unremarkable and I can’t picture it now. We knocked, and a girl (or not a girl, but a woman who was recently a girl) opened the door. “You’re friends of Hawk’s?” she asked. She was tallish, dark-haired, slender, wearing a negligee—if that’s the right word—very short and sheer. She stood with one lithe arm buttressing the doorway, the other akimbo at her hip, legs straight and apart, smiling to appear knowing, assuming (correctly) that she was so much more than we expected. We nodded. She let us inside, where there were nine more of her, variations of different heights and hair color in scant outfits of spandex and nylon and satin and lace, seated on the couches or wandering the rooms, talking and tapping at their phones and sipping coffee and coconut water.

DiBorghetto (Hawk, as the woman called him; his mother named him Jeffrey but he took Hawk as his nom de cinéma) appeared now, sauntering down the stairs wearing a thin beard and a hat like a Bolshevik, arms in a wide gesture of welcome and filmic gravitas. He was a year out of art school at the time and had just received a morsel of attention from the local weeklies for a two-hour-plus fully-improvised zombie feature he had directed. I haven’t seen it.

“What is this, Jeff?” asked Denhelder, and DiBorghetto’s smile waned, and he said, “Thank you terribly for coming.” The house was a rental, he explained. The owners used to live there, but now they lived somewhere else and rented it out by the week, fully furnished, with odd anonymous decorations and shelves of old paperbacks and board games and stacks of brochures for the historic sites downtown. “I don’t know what sort of person would normally rent a house in Port Richmond for a week,” said DiBorghetto, “but it costs $800 and we’ve been here since Sunday.”

We went and sat at the dining room table: Denhelder, DiBorghetto, the cinematographer (in an Australian bush hat), the grip (in some sort of bonnet), and me. And the pregnant girl (also a woman, not a girl), though I didn’t realize yet that she was pregnant because she was seated. There was a Shino-glazed bowl of avocados on the table.

DiBorghetto wanted to bring attention to the plight of women in the sex industry. “We’re trying to dissect objectification and humanize these women who are forgotten by society,” he said, his crew nodding silently on either side of him. “No script. Completely improvised. What people don’t realize is that prostitutes are actors. And actors are prostitutes. I mean that without any of the negative connotation that goes along with that word. Either word. It’s all the same thing. Just turn the cameras on, do you see?”

“I see,” said Denhelder, his eyes on the ass of a woman (shorter, dark-haired, curvy, in a black-and-cream-colored corset-looking thing from which she was all but springing forth).

“And you need actors?” I asked.

“I have actors,” said DiBorghetto, making his all-encompassing gesture again. “The very best actors,” he added loudly toward the living room. Then, his voice dropping, “What I need is . . . how to put this? Swinging dicks.” He laughed uncomfortably.

“You want us to pretend to have sex?” I asked.

DiBorghetto paused for a moment and said, “Not pretend, no. There’s no room for simulation in art. Can’t you see how simulation would completely defeat the purpose of what we’re trying to accomplish here?”

“No,” I said, when I realized what he meant. “No, sorry. That’s not me. No.”

“You should stay,” said the pregnant girl from the other end of the table. She had such brilliant eyes. “It’ll be fun. It’ll be real.”

DiBorghetto explained the conceit to me. That was later, when he came around to drop off a cut of the film at Denhelder’s place. It was the late afternoon and Denhelder was still at the warehouse, but I was living on his couch at the time and unemployed, and I opened the door. DiBorghetto and I grew up in adjacent towns in Bucks County. We had both come to Philadelphia after high school to find something grim and impoverished: to stare at it and drink near it and make it into art. By this point, five years in, I had drunk quite a lot and become grim and impoverished myself. (I was, therefore, a partial success.) But because of that shared instinct, DiBorghetto has always spoken to me like a colleague. He said, over Denhelder’s bourbon: “La petite mort, the Renaissance poets called it, the little death. With each sexual act you spill out a portion of your life force. You literally shorten your life one climax at a time. Or so they believed. But you can see why, can’t you, in the instant itself or in the instant after? When you’re ripped back to your real consciousness, from ecstasy back to rationality, and you remember again what you had forgotten for a moment? That you are mortal. That one day you will die. Do you ever think about your own death, Monk?”

I responded with an onanistic gesture.

“Well,” he said, “it works in either case. And for both parties, for the prostitute and the john, because the prostitute is incrementally dying inside with each act. Taking in his death and dying herself. It’s all death. Hence the title.”

The footage was on a zip drive. He left it for Denhelder (I told him I had no interest) and I watched it, of course, the moment he was gone. Just like anyone would have done. It wasn’t the complete film: only their three parts, handheld, naturally lit, cinéma vérité and all that. I kept the volume low.

Each scene begins the same way. There are nine women lined up against the long wall of the living room. They always line up in the same formation, concinnated, like a floral arrangement. There’s a tenth woman, looking more severe in heels and a black leather bodice. She plays the madame. She stands by the door and when the johns ring the bell, she lets them into the house. The first john is Kinsella. The women I can believe as prostitutes, even having met them out of character, but Kinsella is just Kinsella: darting eyes and twitching mouth and arms that can’t hang casually. He scans the menu of women and indicates his choice (though really it is DiBorghetto’s choice; every choice is DiBorghetto’s choice). She is blonde, a little short, petite, almost wispy, wearing a thong and a sheer pink chemise. She takes his hand and leads him up the stairs, the camera following from behind, below, at a sinful angle. The bedroom is anchored with heavy furniture and drapes; there are doilies and throw pillows with braidwork at the corners. The pair stands by the foot of a queen sized-bed. There is no negotiation. Kinsella’s hand goes straight to her left breast, and he moves in to kiss her mouth but she pulls away. She pushes him onto the mattress, confident. Her character is confident. She pulls off his belt. She undoes his fly and draws down his jeans and boxers and (you can see on his face that it is just now becoming real to him) she puts his cock in her mouth. It isn’t pornographic, just frank, like sex you might have stumbled upon in a park or an alleyway. It’s quiet. The boom must be just out of the frame, but the room is silent and almost still. There’s only her head bobbing up down in that motion, so specialized and recognizable, that is only made when someone is doing precisely what she is doing. Her eyes are closed, and I wonder what she’s thinking with a stranger so near to her brain. It doesn’t last long, only about forty seconds until poor Kinsella starts whimpering like a murdered man. (I asked him about it later. He said “whatever,” and claimed DiBorghetto cut the scene to run shorter. He said DiBorghetto didn’t want him in her any other way, “said the scene didn’t crave it.”) Afterward she stands and walks out to the bathroom, trailed by the camera, where she spits Kinsella’s little death into the sink.

“How do you think it’s going?” Denhelder had asked, around then, down on the ground floor. I was still there, just about to leave. We had been listening like deviants, but there was nothing to hear. “I bet he’s nervous. Do you think he’s nervous?”

“I’m leaving,” I said.

“I bet he’s nervous,” said Denhelder.

In the film, Denhelder’s scene is next. He crosses the threshold, tall, broad-shouldered, sheepish, eyes cast down at the floorboards. He’s allowed to pick the curvy corseted girl he was eying earlier. Once they start up to the bedroom, we see that her character is in turmoil. Her smile is strained on the stairs, her eyes dead in the hallway. There’s a shot when she shuts the bedroom door and just stands there for a moment, eyes closed, nostrils fluctuating, psyching herself up. Then she turns and her face is a Greek mask. They get started, entwine, teeter prostrate onto the bed. Denhelder is kissing her neck and fondling her breasts. He does it for too long. She has to force him out of his clothes, hurry the condom onto his cock. She mounts, and there is an awkward half-minute as they work to get him inside of her. Then she rides him, stiffly to communicate her reluctance, cooing and moaning in what might be pleasure or the dull misery of her routine. It’s enough for Denhelder, in any case. After two minutes he flips her onto her back, and, with three rigid thrusts, he’s gotten there. The camera keeps on them as he climbs out of her, unsure where to look or what to do. He throws his knees over the side of the bed. He inhales deeply. She remains supine, rubbing the small of his back gently with her hand. The camera holds for minute, him breathing, her fingers surveying the ridges of his spine. The scene leaves them like that.

Weeks later, at the Lost Bar, Denhelder said, “I can’t tell whether or not she didn’t want to fuck me.” He had told his whole story earlier to a couple of half-interested scenesters we played in pool, highlighting all his quips and exaggerations: “I went through three. Give me a situation like that, a house full of girls, my absolute minimum is three.” He tells the story a lot. He doesn’t know I ever saw the film. This night, though, when he got drunk and maudlin and we were sitting at the bar, he said, “Her character didn’t want to fuck me, I think. I get that. But did she not, also, the real her? What I mean is, how many layers of her didn’t?” He’d been wondering about it. Haunted by it, to the extent that he could be haunted by anything. “I guess it doesn’t matter,” he said.

I was still at the house while Denhelder was playing his part. He was upstairs, and Kinsella was hiding in a bathroom, I think, but I was sitting in the living room with Healy. He had installed himself in a corner armchair almost as soon as we arrived, and sat watching the orbit of bodies by the soft incandescent light of the mock-bordello lamps. The room had emptied. Most of the women not acting had moved into the kitchen or backyard to smoke. Healy remained, calmly content. “I’m going to go,” I told him.

“You said that already,” he pointed out.

She came into the room, then, the pregnant actor. She had introduced herself before (they all had) but I can’t recall her name for anything. She wasn’t incredibly pregnant. Only a few months, maybe, I don’t know. But her belly was exposed. She wore turquoise-colored underwear and a bra and a light, thin vest. She had pale, freckly skin and strawberry blond hair, and she had friendly eyes. I would have picked her, I think, given the choice. Not because she was pregnant. That isn’t part of it, I don’t think. I don’t know what it would mean if it was. I had asked her earlier about the bowl of avocados, and she said one of the other actors had promised to make them all guacamole at some point. “I never realized that avocados are already the consistency of guacamole,” she said. “You peel one open and it’s ready to serve. What’s easier than that?”

“You look interesting,” she said to Healy now, standing by his chair. If she was talking about his hand, it wasn’t where her glance was falling.

He smiled. “I’m not. My friends are all more interesting than me. Did Monk tell you he’s a writer?”

“Really?” She looked at me. “Do you know Hawk never writes anything for his films?”

“That seems to be the way the world’s going,” I said. “People like spontaneity.”

“So you should be an actor,” she said to me, but her attention was back on Healy. I had five thoughts I might have said, but once I formed them into sentences none of them seemed worth vocalizing. I went to the kitchen table to get my jacket, and when I came back to the pair of them she was seated snug on Healy’s armrest. She whispered something into his ear and laughed, her face bright like a nectarine, and he said something back that I couldn’t hear, his hand raised and brushing lightly on her cheek. His thumb drew past her mouth and she snapped at it, bit it a little, playfully.

And then I left. I really left at that point (and later listened on the film for the sound of my door slam, though of course it isn’t there; there’s no record of my presence) and beat the pavement up dim Belgrade Street to a bus station on Aramingo, grumbling, “No, no, no, but it isn’t real.”

Why didn’t I stay? Why couldn’t I? Those other three were game for whatever it was (“It’s not pornography,” I can hear DiBorghetto saying). And I guess I understand what appealed to them about sex with a prostitute who wasn’t really a prostitute but really a pretty young white art student from a suburb who spoke English and wanted to make something true with her body. If you could get over the fact that DiBorghetto and his documentary crew would be hovering at the side of the bed in their ridiculous hats, maybe there was something desirable in that, on a Tuesday night in Port Richmond, somehow.

Everything on the film is predetermined, so why does it feel so magnetic when Healy chooses her just by meeting her eyes? She skips over from the line-up (not quite a skip but there’s a bounce in her step). She takes his arm (that arm) in both of her hands. As they start up the stairs he slaps her on the ass (this was her idea for him to do, I know; her character is playful). It’s on as soon as they enter the room. She has no compunction about kissing his mouth. She does it deeply. They’re out of their clothes like they’re afraid they’ll catch fire: his hand tight on her ass and his lips on her nipples, her hands holding his cock like they’ve just been introduced. She drops down to kiss it but it’s only for a moment because he pulls her back up and throws her down, and they’re rubbing and feeling and knowing one another. She tells him there are condoms on the dresser and he hops up to put one on and she lies there on her back petting herself while she waits for him. He runs back and gets on top and stops for a moment, looking at her belly, and he doesn’t say anything and she doesn’t say anything, and he slides inside and they’re thrusting back and forth, grunting and braying and throwing their arms out to find any surfaces to leverage themselves on and push off. Her chest and throat and face redden and she grins like a girl, like a maniac, and shouts “Fuck me!” and he does, they both do, back and forth and back again. They keep flipping, over and over, each seeking the top, like they want to be king of the mountain. She wins, or at least she’s on top when he comes, and she laughs, and they lie there for a moment, together, breathing, and she’s all blushed and pregnant, a blushed pregnant king.

They’re gone now. And why should that be surprising, really? Why stay another day if you wake up in a place that’s rented and stale when the whole world is ripe and combusting at the edge of the horizon? There are no manacles on these curious hands, these twitching legs, these fitful, playful feet. We’re alive, we’re alive, I could shout at DiBorghetto, but that bastard already knows that, doesn’t he?

Denhelder ends this story on a punchline, but I can’t remember what it is, or where he puts it. It’s a romp the way he tells it, a picaresque night, unexpected, unplanned. I can never tell it that way, even when I mean to. I always picture Healy whispering to that girl, him with his one thumb and her with her nipping smile. What was he saying to her? That’s what I want to know. Everything else is whatever: we all live our lives the way we live them. I never know what to say, after sex or before it. Or anytime, really. To anyone.

Anyway. It’s getting late. That’s as dark as it can be outside, as quiet as the city can make itself.

But you know, sometimes, now, when I drive along Kensington Avenue, under the elevated rail, stopped at the lights, I look out on the corners and see the prostitutes, the real ones, who aren’t wearing lingerie, and who aren’t acting, not really, and I think that maybe we could be in love, you and me. We could be in love together.

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