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A Touch of Evil


Michelle Bitting

"If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story."
~ Orson Welles


Why pretend its wicked fingertip hadn't already found me that summer I was twelve and friendless between schools, lost in my awkward body and psyche—a war of worlds waged by gland and raging corpuscles running dialogue between my legs and brain's jejune tragedies—and why not join the community theater, young talent aspiring to be seen, me and a handful of wannabes signed on as juvenile background noise for the ersatz SanJuan Hill street scenes of West Side Story even though, like the famous opening tracking shot in Orson Welles' late noir gem that goes on and on without pause or edit, from the close up of a ticking bomb tucked into the trunk of a '56 Chrysler convertible to the moment three-plus minutes later when the newlyweds kiss and the car goes up in flames just beyond a border checkpoint, even though that was filmed in Venice, California next to the beach and not in a Mexican town called Los Robles out of which Chuck Heston emerges with faux black mustache, metal badge, bad accent, and last name Vargas—it's all a matter of illusion and suppression of people dying to be in America, and I, too, am an imposter from the west side of Los Angeles and while I may be green I know what it is to both bully and be bullied—the spite and inner derangement that comes from that, so I figure I'll spend the summer where no one knows me and try to find a self while ogling grown up actors who keep falling in and out of love, and in and out of bed with each other from what I can gather at my invisible edge of the commissary cart and over-heated wings of Barnum Hall in Santa Monica where the hopeful stars gather to swoon, weep, and hiss at each other like bust open fire hydrants in a mid-city heat wave, that is, when they're not called to kick a leg up or empty their lungs of song on cue under the hot stage lights as the sun gets longer in summer’s tooth only to get yanked at the end of doggie August which is the nature of love I am gathering while doing my best not to fall off a labyrinth of catwalks and rails I've been assigned to clamber and scale like a gangly little bug alongside the union grips and gaffers as I am but a casting dot in the play's human scenery and so not called much to rehearse, but Michael the master fly man who makes the scenery soar and takes his job very seriously while also maybe being a bad boy I'm thinking— I'm not sure but all those guys have tons of tats and pull up to the parking lot mornings a little worse for wear—red eyes, leather jackets and Harleys and no one will dispute the theater is a dangerous place with its web of intricate beams in the wizard dome overhead but out of sight where the magic strings get pulled, where suddenly the backdrop of a high school dance becomes a dress shop interior or vertiginous maze of windows, brick walls and fire escapes thanks to the perfectly counter-balanced system of ropes, C-clamps and pygmy weights, the dangling lanterns that weigh fifty pounds or more and will take your head off if they fall on you, but Mike whose eyes match the butterfly blue of the So Cal sea on a Venice postcard, ocean I grew up in and also there!s his somewhat wicked grin and thick brown locks billowing from his crown and face including a mustache that's a bit like Chuck Heston's in the flick I mentioned about murder and mayhem which is how my insides feel most of the time and maybe Mike senses this and knows what I need is some controlled burn, so to speak, a taste of managed danger so I can better relate to the ticking clock inside so it doesn't detonate all at once or until I say because I'm controlling this shot and I'm the director of me and I can stretch this out and continue to show up everyday in my cheap, ill-fitting bell bottoms and dumb floral tees from J C Penney's, ready to climb higher and higher and one-handed even, yes, I am clutching each rung for dear life under my sweaty pubescent armpits because they've tasked me with ferrying sustenance up to the gaffers in the gallery—caddies of coffee and donuts from Winchell's, all the way up through the ropes and cables, the battens and pipes, the mid-travelers and fire curtain, up, up, through the hellish swelter and motes that makes me sneeze and I have to stop and catch my breath sometimes and not look down or think about the rats in the massive Deco walls so that when I reach the top and give over the doughy and liquid goods, all I can do is roll my shaking fetal self onto the grid deck and fly tower summit, dizzy and more alive than ever like I just grew a few inches or years and Mike has a look of the devil about him, I mean, if my parents could see me now they'd have him arrested for child endangerment I'm pretty sure but I don't care because I've let that girl go—dropped her down to doll, to dust, to ant on the boards a hundred feet below, and I'm gasping a little when I hand Mike his Styrofoam of brew and sticky maple twist, and when he peels the plastic white lid away and peers across the steam, sipping, his blue eyes slice through me and I know I've done something holy—I could be in heaven—and then his head ticks to one side like a timer and his smile clicks into place and the silence around us explodes when he says: You made it, Kid, and look at that—coffee is not just hot, it is on fire.


Michelle Bitting was short-listed for the 2023 CRAFT Character Sketch Challenge, the 2020 Montreal International Poetry Prize, the 2021 Fish Poetry Contest judged by Billy Collins, and a finalist for the 2021 Coniston Prize and 2020 Reed Magazine Edwin Markham Prize. She won Quarter After Eight’s 2018 Robert J. DeMott Short Prose Contest and was a finalist for the 2021 Ruminate Magazine, 2019 Sonora Review and New Millennium Flash Prose contests. She is the author of five poetry collections, Good Friday Kiss, winner of the inaugural De Novo First Book Award; Notes to the Beloved, which won the Sacramento Poetry Center Book Award; The Couple Who Fell to Earth; Broken Kingdom, winner of the 2018 Catamaran Poetry Prize and a recipient of a Starred Kirkus Review; and Nightmares & Miracles (Two Sylvias Press, 2022), winner of the Wilder Prize and recently named one of Kirkus Reviews 2022 Best of Indie. Her chapbook Dummy Ventriloquist is forthcoming in 2024. Bitting is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing and Literature at Loyola Marymount University.

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