In Rita's Lair

by Wanda Coleman

Appears in Other Voices #34

He knew all her death scenes by heart.

The beauteous banshee in gold lamb screamed at him, pulled and tore at herself, ripped away strips of cloth, bared delicately veined alabaster mounds with golden nipples. Her not-so-old face was a bitch-queen’s painted mask of seduction.

“Fuck me, nigger!” She shrieked. “Do as I say. Bring that big black cock here immediately!”

“First things first, Rita!” Jimbo leapt at her, pushed her into the couch and wedged her against the pillows as he wielded the nail clippers. She squirmed and cursed to no avail. “I’ll be damned and go to hell before I let you claw me to pieces!”

Her lips had a natural redness, quick to become a slur, quick to become a heart, quicker a rose.

He found he could quell her by replaying videos of her old movies. Sometimes she watched in silence, seeing them for the first time, completely unaware that she, herself, was the “sassy vixen” cast in the female lead. At other times she mouthed the dialogue in robot-like synchronization. Once she yelled at her former self, scene to scene, spitting at the screen.

“Don’t listen to the sweet-talkin’ bastard! All he wants to do is screw you and brag about it all over bloody creation.

“Hours of ungodly heartbreaking work! Baked under those scrims! They won’t pay you shit, Rita baby! Not a tenth of what that fuckin’ peacock kissin’ yah makes!

“Vamos…vamos. Mi Rita, mi Rita puta loca! Fuck Hollywood, fuck ’em all!”

She screamed for hours afterwards, until hoarse. He held her against the mattress until his nearness stilled her. It was days before her voice returned. But her senses remained wildly skewed.

Legs still to be envied by the lesser-gifted, hair the color of the western sky ablaze.

The times when she was gentle, occasional at first, became steadily rarer. Patient hands that groped to find and stir him became persistently frantic, grasping and impatient, demanding service until exhausted and swimming deliciously in his sweat.

He had nightmares about taking that rickety old gated elevator to the third floor. “The penthouse,” they called it. Her lair, was more like it. Expensive digs to maintain, situated in an old Venice Beach storefront. The second floor was used for storage of the things Rita had accumulated over her stellar career, art objects, furniture, canisters of film projects, letters and memorabilia, gifts from fans and lovers. Every crack and cranny seemed to smell of the fragrances she favored. The first floor housed one of the few art galleries on the boardwalk. The wealthy tenant, part friend and part cover, dealt chiefly in landscapes and pastorals, the gallery opened to the public a few hours on Sundays, its exclusive clientele seen largely by appointment. Her mother’s apartment was in the rear of the gallery. The old woman had entombed herself, seldom went out, quietly received visitors, medical doctors, the agent, and those spiritual guides in whom she sought hope for her daughter.

Jimbo and Rita were introduced. She always seemed capable of control as long as a third party was present. She was cold yet intense. He brought enough of his belongings to make himself comfortable. He had made up his mind to let things move at her pace.

Those first nights passed with an awkward and deceptive sweetness. He would wake to find himself in her caress, long limber arms with only the trace of flabbiness appropriate to her age. He had seen younger women in worse physical shape. At those moments, he had to agree with the agent that “sex was the best sedative.” But unnervingly quick, the peaceful moments passed. He learned as quickly. It was the mornings and afternoons that came with teeth.

It was hard to believe the devil inside of that.

“The woman’s insatiable,” Jimbo complained to his cousin and confidant. “It’s like she’s a vampire, tryin’ to suck me bone dry.”

“Rich and hot! I’ve heard of women like that.” Larry shook his head and laughed. “I’ve been lookin’ everywhere for one. Leave it to you to be the lucky chump.”

“I don’t know about that. Care to stand in for me? I could use a break.”

“We all have our crosses to bear, Jimbo.” Larry sniggered.

“The lady really lets it all hang out.”

“I see she’s about worn you down to a nubbin.”

“The sex? I can deal with that. But the profanity is hard to take. You should hear her when she gets ahold of her mother. That poor old woman, now there’s a great lady, lookin’ after her daughter like that.” Jimbo shook his head. “It’s a sad situation. I don’t know how much more I can take.”

What was once a spirited beauty has become a hellion.

“She becomes violent beyond belief at the slightest dissatisfaction. One never knows what to expect.”

“A man has to be a physical marvel to take care of her. When the mind goes, God is not always kind. Such behavior by a man would be accepted as the basest part of his nature brought to the fore. But it causes shock and disgust when a woman behaves in such a manner. Believe me when I tell you she was nothing like that, not as a child and certainly not growing up.”

“Our family knows no end of grief. We’ve been blessed in our choice of caretakers, so far. But none of them have been able to stay with her for very long. She burns them out.”

The tall pale-skinned man, breathing heavily with a permanent congestion, discreetly slid the envelope across the counter with puffy glove-white hands.

“You will take care of her, won’t you.”

Marked by her trials, the diminutive old woman watched quietly at the agent’s side, a half-hidden step behind him. Worried occult beads bounced anxiously in their assessment of Jimbo’s dark manly attributes: bullish neck, broad thick-muscled shoulders and arms, cask of a chest, hard stomach, thick waist, heavy hips, legs like redwoods-fine hands, yet strong, with a workman’s splat nails. He wore a belt to protect his back. His head was square, its features handsomely symmetrical, waxed black mustache curled at each end, thick rivulets of hair parted center scalp and combed neatly to each side, features unlike the usual

Bantu-perhaps he was descended from one of the more northerly African tribal lines, or a Caucasian in the plantation woodpile.

“Please,” she begged, “your absolute silence is vital.”

The pale man nodded. “We’ve spent weeks investigating you, as we have all the others. You’re well liked along the beachfront. Everyone swears by you.”

Jimbo nodded, picked up the envelope and riffled the large bills. If he were able to collect enough of those envelopes, he’d have funds to either relocate or underwrite his fight against the racists pressuring the business commission to close his boardwalk cafe. He looked at the pair and grimaced

“I’ll take care of the lady for you.”

She was vanishing before everyone’s eyes, and her own.

He made a breakfast of soft-scrambled eggs, sliced fresh pear, lightly buttered toast, prepared the tray and carried it to her. She lay corpselike, nude under a silk robe, a waning beauty enhanced by the early morning shadows. He hesitated, watched a moment. When she didn’t stir, he stepped into the lounge and set the tray on its stand.

“Rita, time to eat.”

“Good morning, Jimbo. I didn’t sleep very well.”

“Yes. I know.”

“I feel half drunk almost all the time. Was I naughty last night?”

He smiled wanly. “No more than usual.”

“You’re a decent soul, Jimbo. Not like the others. You like me in spite of yourself, don’t you?” She asked it as a matter-of-fact, her hands dropping to the tray, teasing a wedge of toast, a slice of pear. He was caught off guard.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Rita. Call me Rita. That’s not my real name. But I like it. It’s so Hollywood. Don’t you think?”


“Some of the others, the violence, the sex, it excited the bastards. Made them want me more. And want my money more. But I fixed them. I got rid of them. One by one.”


“I like you too, Jimbo. You’re the best yet. Mother has good taste in men. Always has. My father was a fine specimen, tall and straight, with eyes like a bull in heat. She actually used to say that about him. Your big brown eyes are soft, loyal and intelligent. Like a Saint Bernard.”

Something caught in his throat. He turned to leave. His hands trembled and she noticed.

“Breakfast is lovely, Jimbo. See you later.”

“Yes, Rita. Later.”

Our tragedy…our misfortune…our curse….

Simple domestic chores were done during his hours alone, usually when Rita slept or was simply lost somewhere in her head although she stared at a magazine page or the television screen. One could never be certain when she was there.

A housekeeper came by twice a week to tend Rita’s wardrobe, change the sheets and the like, brought groceries in on Saturday afternoons, anything he wanted he ordered—his stomach’s desire. He did the heavy stuff; emptied the trash, ran the vacuum cleaner, took care of the plumbing and miscellaneous needs.

He worried about being away from the cafe, about Larry’s ability to keep things going. His hard-earned success had been half business acumen and all charm. People liked feeling valued even when they were worthless. It was his ability to imbue them with value, despite his obvious minority status, that drew a largely White clientele and which made the other merchants on the boardwalk envious.

Jimbo’s Place had been the realization of a longtime dream. He had lucked into the lease through an old tennis partner. But dreaming came at a price. Repeatedly he had painted out the racial slurs scrawled on his restroom walls. Repeatedly, he ignored the vitriol screamed into his ears when he picked up the receiver. The death threats had been the most difficult to ignore. Reporting them to the constabulary proved an embarrassing act of futility. The heavy menace had promised to stuff his balls down his throat and leave his bleeding carcass to the sharks.

“We’d like to see ’em try, Jimbo. You look like the type who can take care of himself. You won’t be needing our help anytime soon.” They held their laughter to his face and released it behind his back.

He missed life beachside: the old Jews taking early morning and late afternoon strolls, extolling life in one old country or another; the muscle men lifting weights before tittering girls and jealous boyfriends; the handball and paddle tennis jocks; the skaters, bikers and skateboard riders; the arts and crafts vendors; the chess players, the drummers, the Hari-Krishnas, the sideshow performers. It was carnival all summer long, and summer, of course, was endless.

Whenever he found himself in the caretaker’s room, he spent those rare moments alone worrying the circumstance. Just how crazy was crazy? Her rational moments were daunting in contrast to the hysterics. The frequent erotic interludes were beyond definition. There were days when they were never out of her bed and in her greed she refused to eat. He didn’t know what to call it, but she had his nose open, as the saying went. While he told himself that he had no aversion to playing the stud whore to save himself from bankruptcy, this was a first. The manner in which it had come about somehow placed it in a special realm. Above all, it was a challenge.

The rest of his time he spent brushing up on his acoustical guitar. One time he looked up and saw Rita watching, amused. She came over and stopped his playing by clutching the neck. He released it. She looked at it, grunted, gave him a few pointers then serenaded him in Portuguese, fado style. He could not understand a word, but the music spoke to his blood. She laid the guitar aside and voiced her command with a toss of that silvering lusty flaming mane. He yielded and performed dutifully.

Once she interrupted him while he mopped the kitchen floor. He was sweaty, bare-chested, and barefooted in an old pair of dungarees. She got down on all fours and snaked toward him through the soapy skim. A water moccasin.

“Take me. Take me, now.” She hissed and slithered along his arms, pulling at his fly. In the heat, he slipped and knocked over the bucket. They twisted together in the filth and foam, locked in namelessness.

His acceptance of her was wrongly interpreted.

“Damn, man. You’re startin’ to look like a haint.”

Jimbo’s eyes burned in his skull. “The receipts are down.”

“I know, Cuz. Sorry about that. I’ve done my best. But you know how it is. I ain’t you. Customers ask for you all the time.”

“Well, tell ’em I’ll be back soon.”

“I keep tellin’ them exactly that.”

“How’s the stock?”

“Holdin’ up. New orders in on time. No complaints there.”

“But there are complaints?”

“Look, Jimbo—I’ll hold out as long as I can, but some of these muthafuckas ’round here are pure-dee crazy. They jes might do somethin’. Yah know? And I was kinda plannin’ on someday collectin’ my social security.”

“I hear you.”

“The sooner you get unbollixed from that Rita chick—”

“I said I hear you!”

Romance was a myth. The void, a void.

There was no prelude to the day that would sour him forever on surprises of any kind.

Jimbo had exited the old gated elevator and was digging in his pocket for the keys to the apartment when Rita jumped out at him from the alcove, half naked, swinging a piece of pipe. Shrieking full volume, she launched a series of swings that sent him reeling backwards. He didn’t want to hurt the woman, afraid he might accidently kill her. Then where would he be? On death row. He stumbled for the elevator, whammed on the button, wrestled to pull the gate open with one arm, fended off blows with the other. He jumped. No car. It had gone down to the first floor, leaving the shaft empty. Instant reflex and a weightlifter’s grip came between Jimbo and his maker.

He dangled there, furiously, gripping the ridge with the flats of his fingers, waiting for Rita to slam them with the pipe, anticipating the fall, thoughts angling in a bid to save his life. He was willing to accept a certain amount of injury, but…he could hear her sweeping steps along the entranceway followed by the opening and banging of the door. He was able to summon enough force to pull, then drag himself out of the shaft where he lay staring into visions of dying until they passed and his heartbeat returned to an approximation of normal.

He went in, headed for the bathroom, cleaned and treated his cuts. Then he stumbled around the kitchen and prepared tea and sandwiches. He grabbed a beer for himself.

He found her in the lounge, freshened up and dressed, humming happily over one of those thumbworn movie magazines. He set up the tray, seemingly unnoticed, and looked around for the pipe. She had it hidden.

He took the chair from the writing table and sat it squarely by the tray. He helped himself to the lion’s share of the sandwiches and washed them down with the beer, unable to satisfy the deep and strange hunger that had suddenly beset him. Rita nibbled indifferently on one wedge and savored the tea.

“Why’d you do that, Rita?”

“You know what’s so wonderful about movies, Jimbo?” She had a faint smile and a faraway look.

“Rita, I want to talk about it. Now.”

“Movies capture one at one’s finest. How one works as much as how one looks. There you are, the sweat of your brow captured forever, for all to enjoy and appreciate. Like a poem or a pyramid.”

“You tried to kill me, Rita.”

“I don’t regret having made them, Jimbo. Not a one. Even though I didn’t make the kind of money a star of my caliber deserved. Even if I was a slave to the studio system, I wasn’t the only slave, you know.” She took a napkin, wiped her mouth daintily and returned her attention to the magazine.

She was thrilling in the cold light.

What was she trying to say? If she could say anything meaningful at this juncture. He huffed at her, eyes narrowed, fists clinched. Violence and arousal had become a habit. He shook it off. She had nearly put him in a humbug, whether she knew the ghetto expression or not. It was time for him to take his bow and make his exit.

As he left to pack his things, she called after him in tones that rang like crystal.

“Drama makes it all worthwhile. Do remember that, dildo.”

Broken things wash in on the tide and settle in the sand.

The sounds of early morning were pierced by the dull thumps of a medicine ball pushed against the beachside boardwalk by a tough-muscled septuagenarian in his gray sweatsuit. Two preteens, twin girls, still rubbing the sleep from their green eyes, skipped along in the custodial spume of their swift-walking divorced father. One of the girls stopped before the boarded up cafe and peered through a dirty pane of glass. There was nothing detectable in the dimness but emptied crates on a tiled floor, a couple of empty beer bottles gathering dust on a wide counter with dusty red vinyl stools, an old wall clock, hands frozen at nine-forty-five. There was an announcement posted two panes down, pasted over the remnants of a sign on which ghostly block letters spelling “Jimbo’s” bled through. The girl scanned it, smiled then ran to catch up with her sister.

“So what’s the news,” her likeness smiled.

“A yummy new pizza place!”

Slowly, the community was awakening. Two lovers, university students on vacation, glided their ten-speeds leisurely north along the bike path toward the stretches of Santa Monica, noting the distant thunderhead gathering offshore above Malibu and rolling inland. A black-and-white patrol car was parked helter-skelter where one side street kissed the sand. One officer held two large steaming Styrofoam cups of coffee, while the other frisked a rag-cloaked derelict so filthy the only clue to his race was the texture of his stringy hair. A sailboat skittered the choppy horizon out beyond the pier where the closed amusement park Ferris wheel stood frozen against the overcast sky.