by Brian Kerstetter
A STORY ABOUT PLANETS & ASSES
On the Vacation Request Form at work, in the box marked Purpose of Trip, I was obliged to write what I had no desire to put into writing. That is, the truth. Glue Planets on Girl in L.A. I left out the nudity, the Gorilla Gluesticks, and the horse named Rusty. Still, when the form reached my boss’s desk, I was summoned to her office.
“What’s this?” she said, dangling the form away from her, like a used Kleenex.
“What’s what?” I said.
She put on her bifocals and read, “Glue Planets on Girl in L.A.,” then removed her glasses and squinted at me, to make certain the request was genuine.
I nodded respectfully.
“What does this mean?” she asked, gesturing down at the form.
“Just helping a friend.”
In the past, I would have gone to pieces at this point and begun a campaign of generic disinformation. This time, wishing to set off with a clear conscience, I persisted in the light of the naked truth.
“Holding the horse,” I said, not making eye contact.
Her facial features scrunched up and formed a point in the middle of her face, like she was suppressing a sneeze.
“I’m holding the horse,” I said. “For the photo.”
“The girl with the planets glued to her, she’s sitting on a horse, for the photo.”
In the setting of my boss’s office, surrounded by bookshelves proudly displaying Emmy Awards and photographs taken with Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen, the word “horse” echoed with all the charm of an accidental fart. Envisioning the scene – girls, planets, horses – she made the split-second decision to cut bait, scribbling on the form, and waving it urgently in the air for me to remove from her vicinity.
“Bring you a souvenir,” I said and closed the door behind me.
O. and I sputtered out of the Los Angeles Airport in what felt like a North Korean rental car, an hour later lurching into the parking lot of the Malibu Dude Ranch in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains. There, yawning against a rusty Dodge pickup, wearing cowboy boots, cut-offs and a tank top, over which her blonde extensions tumbled, was our model, Cindy, as she called herself. She was accompanied by her skinny teenage son, Manny, who eyed us like two guys that had turned up his mother on the Internet and taken a cross-country flight specifically to prop her on a horse and glue paper planets to her rear. After shaking hands with Manny, who turned out to be Cindy’s thirty-two year old boyfriend, our fingers smelled like aftershave and bacon.
The moment the owner of the ranch got wind of O.’s intention for the horse, he winked and said, “Rusty…Rusty’s your horse.” The wink made me feel sordid, like we were production assistants renting a horse for Larry Flynt’s latest video. I envisioned the owner giving the same wink to Rusty and saying, “Show’em how we treat perverts in these parts.” I came away from the transaction wondering who the joke was on, us or Rusty.
Rusty steered us along a footpath behind the ranch for much of an hour until, without warning, he came to a standstill and wouldn’t budge. O. extracted a medley of lunch items from his backpack, in the hopes of getting Rusty to push on. A bag of Tangy Ranch-flavored Doritos only made him sneeze. O.’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich struck him as so unappetizing that he turned away, preferring to snap at a passing fly instead. O. dangled a sweaty, half-eaten Snickers bar a few paces in front of him, while making clicking sounds with his tongue, which produced no effect on Rusty but induced Manny to lick his lips and step forward.
O. suggested I take a leveraged position behind Rusty and try knocking him forward with my shoulder, the way cops break down doors in the movies. I dug in with both feet just behind Rusty’s tail, lowered my left shoulder, and heaved my weight against the beast’s hind quarters. For a full minute Rusty and I didn’t budge from that position. We appeared to be posing for a portrait, such was our motionless stalemate, until I began to seethe and gurgle and redden under the exertion. Rusty just stood there, occasionally peering behind him with disinterest. Sensing that a full head of steam would dislodge the obstinate creature, I retreated ten paces and torpedoed myself against Rusty’s muscled posterior, bouncing backwards and collapsing into a heap beneath Rusty’s tail. The maneuver must have irritated Rusty – he jerked his tail upwards and, with a whooshing sound, swatted me squarely across the face. Like a parent watching his below average child shove marbles up his nose, O. shook his head and said, “Neanderthal, I was joking.”
We had no option but to shoot the photo right there, on the trail, so I used Rusty’s hind quarters to swivel him to face the sun. Before O. could lodge a professional request to do so, Cindy hopped out of her clothes and bounced up on Rusty’s back. O. withdrew a Ziploc bag of pre-cut planets, comets, and moons he’d snipped from a National Geographic map of the solar system and, wielding a couple of Gorilla Gluesticks, we set about reconstituting the solar system across Cindy’s curvaceous milky way.
“Saturn,” Cindy said, lazing forward, as I glued an orange planet to her skin.
“Venus,” she said, watching O. affix a yellow disk with purple rings.
She named each planet, one by one, as though she were an Honor Student taking an oral exam in Science class.
“Pluto,” she said affectionately. “Pluto’s my favorite. But it’s not a planet. Ya know that, right?”
Turns out, Cindy had been an Applied Science major at UC-Santa Barbara, with a minor in Astronomy. She’d written a paper contesting the International Astronomical Union’s decision to reclassify Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet. Of all the stars we tacked to Cindy’s ass, she furnished the correct name and spectral class for twenty-five of them, only wavering on the asteroids from the lesser known Kuiper Belt.
“Not bad,” O. said, awestruck that someone could name planets other than the Earth, the Moon and the Sun.
“MY VERY EDUCATED MOTHER JUST SERVED US NACHOS,” Cindy said.
Eager to reciprocate his knowledge of nursery rhymes, O. said, “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the King's…”
“No, no,” Cindy corrected. “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos … Mercury, Venus, Earth,Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune!” Cindy exclaimed, her voice building to a crescendo. “It’s a memory trick from school, get it?”
Without missing a beat, O. said, “No Idiot Needs…um…Egghead Or Froglegs Or …or…Underwear Ravioli!”
Cindy mouthed the words, struggling to piece together exactly what O. wanted to remember by this phrase.
“N-I-N-E something?” she said, suspecting it would be another science trick from school.
“Oh, sometimes I can’t remember what wine to order on Fridays.”
“…and Froglegs and Ravioi Underwear… that helps you remember?”
“Not really,” O. said, pressing a cut-out of the Moon against Cindy’s butt.
With a miniature constellation shimmering on Cindy’s rear, O. mounted his Hasselblad and measured the light. As he was about to release the shutter, a gust of wind uprooted the cut-outs of Saturn and Neptune from Cindy’s rear and sent them hurtling into a nearby eucalyptus bush. Without a backup stash of planets, O. chucked himself to the dirt and began crabbing around the perimeter of the eucalyptus on all fours, like a wrestler. As more planets detached and spiralled skyward, Cindy called out their names, one by one, like a kid calling out state license plates during a cross-country car ride.
“There goes Saturn!”
“The Sun, oh!”
“Not Pluto!” Cindy cried, snatching at what looked like a Daisy petal twinkling in the breeze. “Get Pluto!”
“Goddamn it, Cindy! I see it! I see it!” O. hollered, and lunged headlong into a Desert Milkweed in pursuit of Neptune.
When the wind subsided, only four paper disks teetered from Cindy’s haunch. O. and I had managed to track down most of the breakaway planets and we set about reattaching them when, out of the blue, Rusty erupted onto his hind legs, as though a hornet had flown up his ass, and charged back toward the ranch with Cindy bucking up and down like a stripper at a rodeo. The last thing I glimpsed, as they rounded the bend and headed for home, were two pairs of flopping butt cheeks, Rusty’s and Cindy’s, retreating into a flurry of dust, as Cindy wailed, “Russssss- teeeeeee!”
We caught up with them in the parking lot, Rusty’s head lowered, slurping from a mud puddle beside a Chrysler minivan. Convinced Rusty was about to make another break for it, Cindy remained velcroed to his back. Manny required ten minutes to finally coax Cindy off the horse, while O. needed twice that, and a healthy stream of twenty dollar bills, to get her to re-perch her buttocks on his back to finally shoot the photo.
In the parking lot, beside a yellow school bus, I hastily laminated Cindy’s ass with a fine layer of Gorilla Glue and slapped a handful of planets into formation. O. wasted no time firing off five large format plate photographs, during which I overheard Cindy warn Manny, “You hold this fucking donkey, ya hear?” With the final click of the camera, Cindy dropped to the ground, threw on her clothes and hightailed it to her pickup, barely leaving Manny the time to dive into the passenger seat as she sped off.
O. stood watching the dust cloud behind Cindy’s truck as it filtered up the gravel road and disappeared over a ridge. Then, hands in his pockets, he strolled over to Rusty.
“So, this is what you do?” O. said, withdrawing an apple from his pocket and buffing it on his T-shirt, right in front of Rusty. “A naked girl hops on your back … and this is what you do.”
“He’s just a horse,” I said.
“And I’m just a human,” O. said tartly, annoyed that I would take Rusty’s side.
Seeing O. preoccupied in conversation, Rusty snapped at the apple.
“Think I was born yesterday, Horse?” O. said.
The moment Rusty heard himself addressed as Horse, he lunged forward, this time taking the loudest bite of apple I’ve ever heard, while depositing a shiny coat of saliva over the back of O.’s hand. Then Rusty cast his eyes up at us, with a look that said, “Think I was born yesterday, assholes?”