ZORA AND HER WILD WEST
Zora wore black. She liked the mystery of the dark. She liked the mystery of anything, the black hole that keeps one guessing, the man behind the mask of her namesake. She liked Anthony because he kept her guessing.
Zora’s father was obsessed with the “Zorro” films. He watched them over and over again. He owned old movie theaters and refurbished them. Every Sunday evening he showed re-runs of the “Zorro” legacy. Zora had seen them all. Too many times.
Zora’s step-mother was Geanie, but she was the closest thing to a mother Zora had. Geanie taught Astronomy at the university in town. As much as she believed in science, she also believed in the mystery of the universe. That’s what brought her father and Geanie together. The mystery of it all. They met under dark skies and fell in love and Geanie said the “stars aligned.” Geanie believed everyone has a star inside them and she taught Zora about black holes and the deepest parts of the sea and Capricorn and how dreams can mean everything.
Geanie died in a car wreck, turning right on red. Geanie would’ve called it fate, a destiny that symbolized a chaotic reaction. A big bang. Zora’s father called it bad driving.
Zora had dreams she was in the wild west, not cold Chicago. It was hot and humid and wild. She was dangerously sexy, like Kissin’ Kate Barlow from “Holes,” with sweeping hair and perfect curls that masked her face when it blew in the wind, covering the freckles on her pale skin. Nothing like the matted dirty blonde mess on top of her head that she normally saw in the mirror. In dreams she was a woman of poise. She was boarding a train. Her father owned a the largest rail line east of the Mississippi, Capitol Railroads, but she was running away. She didn’t know why. And she didn’t know how she knew all this background, but sometimes in dreams you just know. In dreams she blurred past withered fields, boom towns and covered wagons.
“GRAND” a loud, bland voice blared through an intercom system. She jumped and awoke on the subway. Shit. The theater was two stops back.
“Woahhh, hold on there cowgirl. Where you been?” Anthony asked as Zora ran in tying her apron around her waist.
“Missed my stop,” she said.
“You been day dreamin’ again, ain’tcha?” He asked in that sweet southern drawl.
“Ha, maybe,” she said, stumbling over the sticky floor and spilling the popcorn.
Anthony bent down to help her, scooping up kernels with his hands. Beneath the corner of his sleeve, Zora saw a fresh tattoo of a serpent wrapped around his forearm. Her father had one just like it.
“That’s new,” she said, nodding at his arm.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” he said, quickly pulling his sleeve down. “Have you heard anything back from that film school in Cali?” he asked, throwing the rest of the kernels into the bag and looking up at her with dark eyes behind a black curl that had fallen over his forehead. He whisked it back.
“I don’t know,” Zora said. “I can’t tell if my father needs me here or not. He said Chicago has plenty of good film schools. But I can’t stay here. I just… everything here looks like her.”
Anthony frowned and nodded, placing a hand on Zora’s shoulder before walking to the ticket booth. “Well, if you ever wanna run away to Cali just let me know,” he said.
Zora could hear the antiquated trumpeting theme to the 1940 “The Mark of Zorro” as she walked through the hallway to her apartment door. Her father’s bags blocked the door. She kicked them aside. It looked like he had just gotten back from St.Louis–at least half a bottle of whiskey ago. He paced back and forth in front of the stove in the kitchen, barefoot, pushing back the streaks of grey hair and talking in hushed tones on the phone. Something about not getting the money to someone by Monday. He leaned his forearm against the doorway, his shirt dangling over a large belly, untucked and wrinkled.
Since her step-mother died, there was half the income. It was hard to make ends meet. Zora had to pick up more shifts at the theater and her father said he had taken out a few more loans. But Geanie was never good at paying bills on time, so Zora didn’t know how the bank would have let them get loans, but her father said they’d be fine. They’d make it. A historic 1890 theater in downtown St. Louis was closing and he was desperately trying to get a hold of it. But it was hard enough to just keep The Capitol, their current movie theater built in 1910, running as is. No one really cared for “The Lone Ranger” or “Zorro” re-runs and it cost a lot of money to get new releases. Plus, there was only one silver screen.
She sat down in front of the TV, in time for Antonio Banderas to rescue his maiden from a burning building. Zora picked up a bag of old movie popcorn and started munching. She could hear her father arguing in the kitchen. She changed the channel.
“I was watching that!” he shouted.
“No you weren’t.”
“Don’t sass me young lady.”
“Get off the phone!”
He followed the cord back into the kitchen, mumbling “talk to you later” into the receiver and slamming the phone into the jack on the wall.
“You were late today.”
“How would you know? You weren’t even there.”
“I was busy.”
“Doing what?! You’re never here.” Zora walked back into the kitchen and opened the fridge. Empty except for a case of beer. “See?! You come home for 24 hours and eat everything. You owe me money for groceries.”
“That’s how you greet your father? I owe you nothing.”
He dropped onto the couch. She grabbed a beer and flipped through the mail.
“Did anything else come?”
“Nothin’ of importance.”
She threw the bottle cap into the trash can. It landed on an opened letter. She picked it up.
To Ms. Zora Andrews
From University of Southern California
3551 Trousdale Pkwy
Los Angeles, CA 90089
“What is this?!” she shouted, picking it up from the trash. She stormed into the living room and stood in front of the TV.
“Why didn’t you tell me this was here?!” She waved the letter in front of his face.
“Because you’re staying here,” he said, without looking away from the TV.
“I’m leaving, Father. Get over it. Geanie wanted me to and I’m going. I don’t care what you say. I’m not staying here. And you’re not even here! You’re caught up in your stupid movies and you can’t see what’s happening! The Capitol is failing. You don’t need me. Find something new for God’s sake. You just want to keep me here. I can’t stay here! I can’t stay!” Zora threw the letter down.
He rose to his full height. A macho man with a heavy mustache. An angry bull. He grabbed her arm.
“Leave Geanie out of this she’s gone. You’re staying. Don’t you dare bring this up again. Chicago is our home. You are not leaving! I won’t have it!”
His face was now close to hers and she could feel his stale breath. His grip was tight. She pushed him back and he pushed too. Zora fell to the floor and hit her lip on the coffee table.
The train came to a screeching halt. Zora felt a sharp pain in her lip. There were drops of blood on the back of bench in front of her.
“Hands up and get down! We ain’t afraid to shoot.” A group of three men walked briskly down the aisle. The man who was shouting was dressed all in black leather, with spurs clinking as he stepped.
“Getcher valu’bles, ya pretty things, put ‘em in here folks,” the man said. He stopped at Zora. “Well, lookey here,” he smiled from behind a black bandana, dark eyes peering behind a black curl dangling from his forehead. Zora held still, sitting straight up, maintaining dignity like a lady.
“I don’t have any valuables,” she said defiantly.
“Well, where’d ya get that pretty little dress from?” he asked, stroking her arm with his finger.
Zora didn’t move. “My father.”
“Well your father’s got an eye for pretty threads then ain’t he?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, I’m sure’s he will,” the man said, winking.
“I’ll take that one boys.”
“What do you—“ But before Zora knew it, the third man put a cloth sack on her head, picked her up and threw her over his shoulder.
Zora felt the hard desert ground as the man threw her down. Someone pulled the sack off her head and the sun blinded her. She had no idea where she was, except that she was surrounded by a group of five towering bandits. All filthy and scowling, squinting down at her. She swore she wouldn’t tell them anything. If they found out who her father was, then her father would find her. And that was the last thing she wanted.
Zora kept waiting for Anthony to come in through the tacky gold-painted doors. He was unusually late today. She was filling the soda fountain when he walked in, head down.
“Where you been cowboy?” she teased. He looked up. He was beaten all over, with a black eye, cuts on his cheeks and bruised knuckles.
Zora’s eyes widened, she gasped.
“It’s nothing,” he said.
She wet a cloth and he walked toward her and leaned against the counter.
“Ah!” Anthony flinched.
“Sorry,” she said, dabbing his eye. “What happened?”
“It’s nothing,” he said.
“This isn’t nothing! What have you been doing?”
Anthony looked down. He was gripping his left forearm, the serpent’s scales were bleeding.
“Does this have something to do with it?!” Zora turned over his forearm.
“God, it’s nothing,” Anthony said, pulling back from Zora. “It was just a bad business deal, okay? I was helping a friend and it was nothing illegal. At least he said it wasn’t. He owed him money, but these guys… they… just don’t ask me about it again okay?” He touched her cheek with his right hand.
Zora felt a quick pat on her cheek, almost like a slap.
“Wake up pretty lady,” the bandits leader said. She was in the desert again. “Listen here, now you look like a pretty piece of ransom. We figur’ daddy’s got a handsome pocket and we’d like to share the load a little. So why don’tcha tell us who ya come from?”
The man sat right in front of her, legs crossed, his eyes piercing straight into hers, eerily familiar. His arms propped up on his knees, revealing the tail of a serpent tattoo on his forearm.
“My father is dead,” Zora lied.
“Well, that’s too bad. My daddy died too,” he said. “But you’ve gotta momma then too right?”
“She died too.”
“Well damn, we picked a dud.” He shrugged and slapped his leg. “Then what you runnin’ from child?”
“Life I guess.” Zora didn’t want to give him any information. Even if he was playing nice. Nothing about the bad deals, her mother’s mysterious disappearance, or her father’s sudden outbursts.
“Sounds a bit like us,” the bandit said, moving beside her.
They moved on through the desert. Zora stayed with them. The man’s name was Vega. He just called Zora “Lady.” Never asked her name. He said he’d been a ranch hand, working cattle when he got into some bad trouble. He was dropping off a herd at the stockyard in St. Louis with his business partner Hurnes. Hurnes was scheduled to meet a man at the train station about a money deal. But the deal went sour and the man shot Hurnes point-blank. Vega ran toward his friend, but Hurnes had died instantly. Vega saw the murderer hop onto a train passing by. He was smiling beneath a handlebar mustache. Vega swore if he ever saw that man again he’d kill him then and there. So he holds up trains and searches them for the man, in search of his revenge.
Pretty soon, Zora found herself in a mask as well. Just like the movies. She loved the screech of train tracks, the power of a gun in her hand, and sleeping under the light of Capricorn. It was wildly romantic. The pay was good, she got an even split of the money. Zora and Vega fell in love. They were a regular Bonnie and Clyde. They just needed one last loot to get them the money they needed for a new life in California.
They held up a train heading northbound for Chicago from St. Louis, said to be full of fat politicians and business men gambling and drinking. Vega’s men circled the train on horseback as he and Zora boarded, guns loaded. Zora straightened her mask as she walked the length of the train to the dining car and burst open the door revealing a treasure of greedy men.
“Drop all you got!” she yelled. Zora rounded them up at gunpoint in the back of the car.
“This is outrageous!” said a man in the corner with a handlebar mustache. He was red faced and pudgy, hunched over, kicking his feet like a bull. His red face looked familiar to Zora.
Vega walked in the cabin and looked at the group of aristocrats.
“Good job, Lady,” Vega said. Zora lowered her gun. She felt queasy and swayed. She lost her balance and leaned against the side of the car.
“Not so fast!” said the mustached man. In one swift move he grabbed Zora from behind, pulled the gun from her hand and held it at her throat. On his forearm, Zora saw the tail of a snake. Her father! He was her father! He must’ve not recognized her with her mask.
“I’ll shoot just like I killed Hurmes!” he yelled at Vega.
Zora tried to wriggle free. Her father tightened his grip around her chest. She pulled and twisted her upper body, shaking her head and kicking. He tried to hold on, but she continued to fight and turn. Her mask fell and she found herself staring wide-eyed into her father’s eyes.
“Zora?” he said, with a whisper. Her father’s eyes softened, his eye-brows raised. He looked from Zora to Vega, then pointed the gun at Vega. “You took her! I’ll murder you bastard!”
“I love her!” Vega shouted. Zora’s head was spinning. Her father. Her father a murderer! And all that dirty money! And Vega! He loved her. BANG!
“Vega!” Zora shouted and ran to him, but he was too late.
“You killed him!” she yelled.
“Zora,” her father said hurriedly, “Zora, we have to go!” He tried to pick her up. The other men still frightened in the corner. He tried to lift her, but she lying on Vega, crying over his dead body.
“No, no, no,” she cried. She picked up Vega’s gun and pointed it at her father. “I loved him!” Zora yelled.
“Zora, you don’t know what you’re doing!” Her father staggered backward, hands raised.
“I loved him and you took him from me, like you took everything else!”
BANG! Zora saw him fall to the floor. Smoke lingered in the air. Her hands quivered, covered in blood. She screamed.
Zora awoke screaming. A flight attendant rushed to her side.
“Ma’am! Ma’am! Are you okay?!”
“I… I…” Zora tried to calm herself down. She was breathing heavily. “S-Sorry,” Zora said through exasperated breaths.
The flight attendant handed her a glass of water.
“There you are,” she said, stroking Zora’s bushy blonde hair and kneeling beside her in the aisle. “Nightmare?”
“Something like that,” Zora said.
“We’ll be landing in L.A. shortly, miss.”
“Zora and Her Wild West” is a fictional story, mixing the reality and fantasy within the main character, Zora’s, head. The story is influenced by Kelly Link’s “The Faery Handbag.” In its form, my story aims to tell the reader most of the information they need to know, rather than show. But it aims to be complex, in its showing of key themes and elements that transcend Zora’s reality and fantasy: Anthony is obviously Vega, her father is her father, Capitol Railroads the same as her father’s business. The death scenes and Zora’s adventures are similar to an overly done Zorro film, with the constant shooting, the dramatic crying, the sudden bloodline betrayal.
The transitions were essential to navigating the reader through the two worlds: Zora’s bloody lip in the scene with her father transitioned into her blood on the seat in front of her in her dream; Anthony’s hand on Zora’s cheek transitioned to Vega waking her up by patting her cheek.
I structured my language after Link as well, using fragments, quickly telling the background of characters with scenes developed in dialogue. For the final dream scene, there is more exposition than Link’s typical stories. Zora is kept in dream for a while as a plot develops and climaxes. The use of “her father,” rather than Zora’s father’s actual name was strategic. In a way, this story mirrors that of J.M. Barry’s “Peter Pan” – a child is coping with traumatic and life-changing events through dreams. Traditionally, in Peter Pan, Captain Hook is played by the children’s father. In this way, the reader can identify similar characteristics between the father and the villain, thus assuming the child believes the father to be the villain. It also provides a psychic distance between Zora and her father. Although, their shared love for film and Zorro shows the reader evidence of a loving relationship in the past.
Ultimately, the reader finds their self, much like at the end of “The Faery Handbag” or even “Life of Pi,” which story is true. Was is all just a dream, or was the dream the mask for reality. This is hinted when Zora responds to the flight attendant and says her reaction was “something like” a nightmare. When the flight attendant says they will be landing in L.A. soon it shows that Zora did follow through with going to California, the question is whether her dreams were just a dream, or if she’s running away again, but this time in real life.