Steel Brandenburg III felt the presence of a large wild animal as he stood on the back patio of the Gould house. He could hear the animal struggling to breathe. He turned to see her there with a disappointed look on her face.
He called himself back to reality. “The guy is a jerk. He’s an a-hole.”
“He’s the pastor of my church, and a guest in my home.” Carrie waved her hand around in the air. “And must you smoke? It’s disgusting.”
Steel turned on her. “Must you eat five-hundred pounds of food every time you sit down at a table!?”
Carrie’s face began to sour, her bottom lip trembled. “Must you always be so cruel to me? Why can’t you just love me?”
Steel laughed. “Love? You’ve lost your marbles.” He pointed with his cigarette hand. “Everyone in there has lost their marbles.”
“Will you please just come back inside? And I want you to apologize for your abhorrent behavior.”
Steel sighed, took one last drag, and tossed the cigarette aside. Part of him wanted to just tell her to ‘fuck off.’ Part of him wanted to just walk away and be done with it all. But then there was a part of him that wanted to see things through for some curiously sick reason he didn’t fully understand. Did he really care about Carrie Gould? How could he? “All right, all right,” he relented. Maybe he just wanted her like an animal. “Just get off my back.”
She half-smiled at him and went to hug him. Her plump body felt good in his arms, Steel thought. She even smelled kind of nice. He moved to kiss her, but she turned away. “Gross. Not until you brush your teeth and use some mouthwash,” she told him.
Once back inside and with apologies made, Steel helped Mother Melba clear the table and clean the dishes. They stood side-by-side at the kitchen sink, quiet at first, with only the clinking of dinnerware and water running forth from the spout to be heard. He stared out the window as he lackadaisically ran a dish towel over a plate. He wanted to run, but at the same time he wanted to stay there forever. She nudged him with her elbow.
“Penny for your thoughts,” she said, and then she chuckled. “I guess these days I better ask for a quarter.”
Steel snarled to himself on the inside. He wanted to punch her in the face or hold her head down in the soapy dishwater. “Do you ever wonder how you get yourself into a particular situation. I mean, even with all the best intentions and planning and trying to do the right thing, you always end up in a bad situation?”
She turned to look at him with a certain degree of concern. “You think you’re in a bad situation?”
“Not this,” he assured her. “But this job I have and this town I find myself living in. How did I end up here if everything I aimed for was the exact opposite of this? How does that happen? How is it I stumble over my own feet so badly?”
“Well, Steel… I believe you were moved by the Holy Spirit, but you’ve been resistant,” Mother Melba said. “I believe the Lord has brought you here for a reason. It was out of your control. You shouldn’t fight it so much. He has plans for you.” She tapped the back of his hand with her wet one. It gave him chills for some reason, and he leaned over and kissed her cheek. She turned her mouth to him and let him kiss her there.
She suddenly pulled away. “Oh, dear,” she said.
“I’m sorry… No, I’m not,” Steel confessed, and he kissed her again.
Mother Melba put her hands on his chest and backed him away. “No, Steel. This isn’t right. You’re Carrie’s fella.”
He pulled her closer to him and put a hand between her legs. “I’m being moved by the Holy Spirit,” he whispered.
Pastor Craig Stikk stood by the large window in the front room of the Gould house. He looked out and sipped at his coffee, his eyes narrow. Carrie was sitting politely in a nearby easy chair. “You know, Carrie. When Jesus was on the cross, you could see his ribs. He was thin.” He turned from the window to look at her. “But it seems to me that you would prefer to eat ribs. I can just imagine the sloppy barbecue sauce all over your face.” He nodded toward her body. “Blubber like that was never part of Christ’s life.”
Carrie gave him a confused look. “Pastor?”
“Look, I saw how you ate at dinner. You probably don’t realize it, but you’re gluttonous… And gluttony is a sin, Carrie.”
She bowed her head in shame. “I know. I’m sorry, pastor. It’s a constant battle for me.”
“And a battle you’re losing… But I could help you with that,” he said with a sly grin and a twinkle in his perverted eyes.
She perked up just as he began to walk over to where she was sitting. He moved around to the back of her chair. He set his coffee cup down on a side table and subtly leaned an arm over her shoulder. His hand lightly landed on one of her large breasts. He kept it there as he continued, rhythmically kneading her like tender bread dough. “I could help you focus on other things. I could help you fight the temptation to stuff yourself… With food, that is.”
Her head whirled around to look up at him. “A Bible diet?”
He laughed. “No. A love diet.”
“A love diet?”
“I could be your sustenance, Carrie. Let me be your everlasting sustenance.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“Then I’ll just come out and say it, Carrie… I’m hungry, too. But I’m hungry for you.” He came around to the front of the chair and knelt before her. He took her hands in his. “He’s not right for you. I’m right for you. We’re right for each other. You deserve to be loved better than how he loves you. I mean, you couldn’t even call it love, what he gives you. Steel’s not dedicated to you, Carrie. I could be dedicated to you.” He suddenly let his head drop down between her legs and he inhaled deeply. “My God, Carrie,” he said in a muffled tone. “I must have you. God has spoken to me, and He has told me that you are my only hope for a proper lust.”
She let her hands go to his head. She played with his hair as she pulled him in closer to her feminine depths. “Yes, pastor,” she mumbled. “Yes, yes, yes.”
It was a greasy Sunday morning and there was a chill in the air for it being May. We pulled into the Walmart parking lot, it being dawn. Some stars remained in the bruise-colored sky. A few cars idled in their spaces. Someone was shouting. There was a warm sick feeling in my guts about how terrible life could be so early in the morning and here we were about to feed the terribleness by stepping out into a world full of people who didn’t feel much for each other, but instead they just liked to feel each other physically like creeps.
There was a man or maybe it was a woman, but it was hard to tell because they were dressed in all black, like in a long gown, and their head was on a fire; it was a head of orange flames and the flames sort of trailed off to one side because of the breeze in the air. This person on fire was pushing a shopping cart and when they turned in a certain way to unload their things into their car, I realized the head on fire was nothing but the sun creeping up on them like a silhouette.
And this is why we were at Walmart so damn early in the morning—because I was having trouble taking breaths and I was seeing things, too, and even sounds were becoming onto me something strange. Momma decided I needed some sort of over-the-counter medicine or maybe just a good walk beneath the bright lights, but I didn’t believe any of that nonsense. I tried to tell her I needed a real doctor because I really thought I was completely losing my marbles… Green, glass marbles, like eyes, falling out of my head and crashing to the ground and shattering and then I’d be blind.
And momma squeezed my hand as she dragged me to the entrance of the store and she looked down on me, spirit wholly crushed as usual, and she said to me, “If all else fails we can be prayer warriors and the man upstairs will hear us and make me all better… But I was so confused because I never saw no man upstairs. No one is truly upstairs except our lodger and his name was Jarrod Peeps and he was a strange bird, but after daddy ran off momma said she needed a lodger for extra money.
I thought Jarrod Peeps was a creepy name and he was creepy and his name did fit him because I often saw him, the door to his room slightly cracked, peeping out into the hallway, especially early in the morning when everyone was running around trying to get ready for going to school and we would be scrambling and fussing—that being me and my younger brother Jamison and my younger sister Revvie and me, that being Sharpe, and I’m a boy in case you were wondering. Maybe you even weren’t wondering. I don’t know.
But like I was saying, this lodger, Jarrod Peeps, which was probably a made-up name because I believe he most likely had a shady past. He was a mostly quiet and nervous man who came and went to his job and whatever else he did out in the world without much turbulence. Momma liked him because he always paid his rent on time, and he could also be around for us kids at night if momma had to run off to do something like go drinking or be with a man. Jarrod always wanted to play that Barrel of Monkeys game with us because he said he liked the feel and smell of the plastic pieces, and that the “mechanics of the game help me with organizational skills.” Yep, he was a strange bird all right. His job was working as a carpenter, and he always smelled of sawdust. He helped build all the new houses going up on the edge of town.
But that is that and this is this… Momma dragging me into Walmart on a greasy Sunday morning in May because I’ve got problems. What the hell did she think was going to make me better? Grape-flavored cough syrup? I don’t know.
Once inside, the store had that collective stench of all that’s wrong with humanity. Personally, I always preferred the smell of Kmart because it had that added tang from the popcorn popping at the snack counter in one of those silver circus machines. But our Kmart shut down and they turned it into a megachurch, and I suppose it doesn’t smell like popcorn in there anymore, but I can’t say for sure because we’ve never been inside. But then again, I can imagine Jesus siting around up there eating some popcorn and listening to all these people talk about his life and how we should all live because of it, and I bet Jesus would just be tossing back that popcorn and shaking his head at all the stupid things we’ve become through the twisting of his intentions.
Momma took me straight to the pharmacy counter and asked the woman there what she would recommend for a crazy child. She just looked at my momma like she was the crazy one. The pharmacist came over and started yelling at my momma for taking space in the line from real customers. My momma fumed and called him a “prick”, but I figure he was just trying to do his job but, in the end, I still felt crazy, and momma felt defeated.
I told my momma that I might feel better if she took me to the toy aisle and let me pick something out. Sometimes getting something from the toy aisle gives me hope and purpose and a reason to live onto the following day. I always loved the toy aisle at Kmart, it gave me a good feeling in my guts sort of like bursting out the door of the house on those few first days of spring and there’s only a few patches of dirty snow left, and all the grass is pushed down from the weight of January’s crush, but you can smell that it’s coming back to life. It always comes back to life. I dread the day the grass doesn’t come back to life. I wonder if anyone else ever feels like that.
I wanted a plastic model car to put together. I wanted it to be one of those cars from back in the day that old men like. I found a ’57 Chevy and I liked how the box felt in my hand. I imagined how all the plastic pieces were in there and how I’d glue them all together and put on the tires and paint it red. It gave me a reason to stick around awhile. I know that it sounds crazy pinning all my hopes for a sustained life on a model car kit, but that’s how I was, maybe still am.
My momma went off to find some shampoo or something and she told me to stay right where I was and so I did stay in that same aisle, and I walked up and down it real slow and I watched other kids looking at all the shiny new toys and some kids were getting what they wanted, and others were being yelled at for wanting things they supposedly didn’t deserve. One lady kept saying to this crying little girl, “Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!” I felt really bad for her because she was nearly choking on her own tears. All she wanted was some stupid doll and her mom refused. Why? What’s the harm? I glanced into the cart they had, and she had all sorts of crap for herself. Nothing for the kid. I imagined popcorn-eating Jesus being real upset about that.
The aisle cleared out again and I was all alone, but then this odd man came down the along and he was looking at puzzles, but he kept glancing over to me and smiling really weird. I didn’t like it. He gave me the creeps, and then he walked near me real slow and reached out his hand and touched me on the rear-end and I jumped away and looked at him. I couldn’t say nothing to him. It just wouldn’t come out. He just stood there and leered at me like I was some sort of little rump roast he wanted for dinner. He was creepier than Jarrod Peeps and he wouldn’t go away so I ran. I ran to find my momma. But I couldn’t find her anywhere. She said she was going to be over by the shampoo, but she wasn’t there. I started to panic. I kept looking over my shoulder and the man who touched my rear end was lurking there in the distance and he was tossing me uneasy glances.
I set my model car down on a shelf where the bathroom towels were, and I ran for the exit. Once I was clear of the Village of Idiots, I searched the parking lot for our car, but I couldn’t find it. I wandered up and down all the aisles. I almost got hit by one crazy driver who apparently couldn’t fathom the fact surrounding the necessity of slowing down in a Walmart parking lot. They blew their horn at me like it was my fault for existing. I often felt like that, though. That for some reason I should feel guilty for existing. How does a 10-year-old kid end up feeling like that? I don’t know.
I decided to go hang out by the front of the store and wait for my momma to come out. It wasn’t long before the man who touched my rear end appeared holding a lone plastic bag. He saw me there and smiled. “Hi there,” he said. I wanted to run but felt frozen to the ground like in a dream.
He reached into the bag and pulled out the model car I had picked out. “I got this for you,” he said, and he moved it in my direction.
“No thank you,” I said.
“Oh, come on. I know you want it. Just take it.”
I reached my hand out toward it but then I thought about how awful I’d probably feel the whole time I was putting it together. I pulled my hand back. “No. I don’t want it now,” I told him.
“Are you sure? I could help you put it together.”
Misery deepened by the minute for me. But then the man violently jerked forward and fell to the ground. In his place was my momma standing there holding a big bottle of shampoo that she had used to club him with. The man groaned down on the pavement. I leaned down and took up the model car. While I was down there, I said to him, “You shouldn’t be touching rear ends in this here ghastly Walmart, mister. And I’ll take this model car after all and never think of you again.”
I got up and looked at my momma. “Let’s go, crazy boy,” she said to me. “Let’s go home and put you in your room and preserve your life for a while longer. That sound okay?”
Magda Balls looked at her two new guests, her back was up against the stove in the kitchen, a cigarette smoke stream trailing from her shapely hand. Rosalina and the Huffing Man were sitting at the table in her lakeside bungalow eating tomato soup and oyster crackers. The man had an iced tea to drink, the girl a milk.
“Did you know MILK in Dutch and Norwegian is MELK,” Magda said, looking at the girl.
Rosalina crinkled her nose. “Huh?”
“MILK is pronounced MELK in both Dutch and Norwegian… I’m studying new languages.”
The Huffing Man wiped his mouth with a paper napkin and looked at her. “I spent some time in Amsterdam, but I never drank any MELK there.” He just as quickly went back to eating his soup and crackers.
“They have naughty peep shows in Amsterdam,” Rosalina said. “And marijuana is legal. Did you get high and look at boobies?”
“No,” the Huffing Man insisted. “I was there on business… Back when my life wasn’t a shattered mess, or was it?” His thoughts trailed off into the air and he watched them bounce away.
Magda laughed at the girl. “How do you know about all that?”
“I know a lot of things. I read, surf the net, watch movies, things like that. I’m very worldly for 10.2 years old.”
“I can tell,” Magda laughed. “If you two don’t mind, I’m going to hit the shower. Make yourselves at home.”
The Huffing Man looked up at Magda and gave her a shy smile. His face, with its sandpaper sheen, was tired and haggard. “Thank you… For the food and for helping me out.”
Magda smiled back. “You’re welcome.”
Rosalina plopped herself down in a comfy couch in the front room and played with a remote control. The Huffing Man joined her. She looked over at him sadly. “Can I ask you something?”
“I suppose you can.”
“Why do you huff gas?”
He sighed. “Well, it’s a long, sad story I’m afraid. I don’t want to trouble a young girl with such adult things.”
“It’s okay. I can handle it. I’m very mature.”
“Well, let’s just say I have a lot of personal problems.”
The Huffing Man laughed at her innocent inquisitiveness, then sighed. “I feel incredibly invisible to a lot of people in my life. I suppose I don’t feel very loved.”
Rosalina looked down. “I know what you mean. I don’t feel very loved either. That’s why I ran away from my foster parents.”
“My Pee and Em were killed in a hot air balloon crash in Arizona.”
“Pee and Em?”
“My dad and mum. I got the words from A Clockwork Orange. It’s my favorite movie. It’s part of this weird language they speak that’s sort of like Russian slang mixed with Old English. I bet we can find it on Netflix or HBO if you want to watch it with me.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“What! Where have you been, living under a rock?”
“Yes, I suppose I have been.”
It’s a brutal and satirical look at the crisis of crime and subsequent punishment in a withering dystopian society… The story revolves around the strange life of a young hoodlum and his gang of droogs. But it goes far beyond that. It’s a mind fuck, really,” Rosalina said. “A total mind fuck.”
“Oh, really? I’m intrigued.”
Rosalina excitedly sat up on the edge of the couch and scanned through channels until she found the movie. “Here it is!”
The Huffing Man gestured with his head toward the sound of the running shower. “Do you think she’ll be okay with it?”
“I don’t think she’ll care. She’s pretty cool.”
“All right then. Fire it up.”
“Doobie doo,” Rosalina said with a giggle.
The chilling close-up image of Alex DeLarge in the Korova Milk Bar suddenly appeared on the screen. The gonging synthesized opening soundtrack filled the room.
There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie and Dim, and we sat in the Korova Milk Bar trying to make up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening. The Korova Milk Bar sold milk-plus, milk plus vellocet, or synthemesc, or drencrom, which is what we were drinking. This would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence…
Rosalina looked over at the Huffing Man and his eyes were wide with wonder. “Freaky, huh?” she whispered.
“I’d say,” he whispered back.
Magda Balls came into the room with wet hair and fresh summer clothes that clung to her tall, svelte body. “What are you two watching?”
“A Clockwork Orange,” Rosalina told her, and then she pressed pause on the remote. “But we can’t have disturbances. We need to fully concentrate on the film in order to absorb all its subtle nuances.”
Magda laughed. “Okay. I’ll just go out onto the deck and read then. That okay?”
“Sure,” Rosalina said with a shrug. “It’s your house.”
“That it is,” Magda said, and she smacked her lips, grabbed a book off the coffee table and slipped outside.
Rosalina resumed the film and the Huffing Man relaxed into the couch. He watched the movie as its bizarreness unfolded and even though the pictures on the screen were mesmerizing, he couldn’t help that his mind drifted away to his own inner turmoil. He tried to turn his head and look at the girl beside him, but his neck seemed inoperable, he seemed frozen, felt dead almost. He wondered if he had finally done enough damage with all that gas huffing.
The film was long and when it was over, the Huffing Man got up off the couch and stretched. He glanced out through the glass of the veranda door and saw that Magda had migrated to a short dune on the beach. He looked at Rosalina. “I think I’m going to go take a walk… In the other direction.”
“Okay,” she said, as she skimmed through channels in search of something new to watch.
“Would you like to join me? I mean, you can’t just watch the television all day. Maybe we can find something to eat.”
Rosalina pressed the power button on the remote and looked up at him. “You’re right. And I should come with you… To keep you on the straight and narrow. Because, I hope you weren’t planning on running off to huff some gas.”
“No. But it doesn’t feel good not to huff.”
“I’m sure it sucks, but you’ll feel better,” the girl said. “I’ll help you ride the rough waves out.”
“That’s awful kind of you,” he said with a genuine smile. “Shall we?” He reached out to grasp her hand at the door and she took it.
I went to the Centrifugal Theatre downtown because I wanted to watch a movie that made me spin. Halfway through the picture, an old black and white, the usher came up to me in his red uniform and monkey hat. He pointed his flashlight right in my face and inquired if I was a doctor.
“What kind of doctor are you looking for?” I asked.
“A doctor that can deliver a box of popcorn to that young lady right over there.” He nodded with his head and smiled. “Isn’t she just dreamy?”
“Why do you need a doctor for…”
And then I realized I was mixing reality with what was happening up on the movie screen. The usher was really telling me to get my feet off the seat in front of me. The movie scene had a guy buying popcorn for his date. It was a centrifugal mixing of the thoughts in and out of my head. Then I looked around the theatre and I was the only one there. Then the projector started acting up and the film became all tangled and warbled. I got up and walked out. It had been a decent piece of cinny up to that point though.
The next thing I did was walk out into the night air of Fortune Street and that made me think of fortune cookies and then I became incredibly hungry for some good Chinese food. So, I walked and walked and walked along the dirty sidewalk of the big, big city until I came upon a place called the Alabaster Wok. I went inside and the host, a small man in a red uniform, seated me at a round table covered in a red tablecloth. Everything seemed to be red and golden. There was a Buddha shaped candle jar in the center of the table. The flame inside flicked like a fiery tongue being unfurled from the mouth of the Egyptian sun god Ra. It was mesmerizing to someone like me.
A waiter brought me a menu the size of a small book and I flipped through the sticky, plastic pages. There must have been a thousand items to choose from. I noticed a lot of misspelled words. I suddenly had to go to the bathroom and got up and went to find the restroom.
The entire restaurant was bathed in a dim, yellow light, and the same went for the bathroom. I stepped up to the urinal and started to make pee when suddenly, a man came bursting out of one of the stalls and he made a wicked Kung Fu stance and then started wildly chopping and kicking at the air. He did spins and jumps and flips while he jabbed at the space around him, and the whole time he was shrieking at the top of his lungs: “Hiiiiiiiii Yahhhh!” repeatedly.
I jumped back out of his way, and I was pressed up against a cold tiled wall when one of his feet came bolting toward me in a high kick and smashed into the area right next to my ear. “Don’t fuck with me, bro!” he hollered. Debris crumbled down to the floor. “My name is Hai Chin and I’m a badass Kung Fu master.”
I was shaking at this point, and my heart was pounding so hard I half expected it to burst right out of my chest cavity. “Jesus, man,” I said. “You scared the shit out of me!”
He took great pride in that and grinned wide. He slapped me on the shoulder. “Sorry about that. I was just practicing for an upcoming territorial gang rumble… But hey, I’ve got to get back to work. I’m the dishwasher.”
With that, he slammed his way out of the restroom chanting some crazy battle tune.
I braced myself at the sink and tried to regain my composure. After a few calming breaths, the door to the restroom burst open and Hai Chin was now soaring through the air, and he planted both feet into my back. The blow was intense and caused me to violently jerk forward and my face smashed right into the mirror and broke the glass. I fell to the floor with a thud and my hands went immediately to my face to assess the situation. When I pulled them away to look at them, there was blood.
Hai Chin was standing above me, hands on his hips and he had the biggest smile on his face. “Gotcha mo’ beans!” he said, and he laughed out loud.
I yelled at him. “Dude! What is your fucking problem? I’m really hurt here. Give me something to press against my face.”
“Huh? Like what?”
“Like a warm, wet towel!”
“Okay… Be right back!” And with that, he ran out of the restroom again, but quickly popped his head back in just to say, “Don’t forget to jiggle the handle!”
I got up and steadied myself against the sink. I looked into the busted mirror and the jagged reflection made me look like a cut up monster. It wasn’t long before Hai Chin returned with the warm wet towel. He handed it to me, and I put it to my face. “Thanks,” I said.
“You are welcome, sir. Welcome to the Alabaster Wok. Can I get you something to drink and perhaps an appetizer?”
I turned my aching face toward him. “We’re in the bathroom. Can I at least get back to my table before you take my order… And I thought you said you were the dishwasher.”
“I am the dishwasher… But on slow nights like this, waiter go home, and I take over for him. I’m what you say—multi-tasking. And the boss man cheap.”
“Right. I’m going to go sit down at my table now. I haven’t even had a chance to look at the whole menu yet.”
“It’s big, like my woman whopper… Ha ha!”
I just shook my head and brushed by him. I was hurting and very hungry and in no mood for his bullshit outlandish behavior.
When I returned to the table, there was a bag of frozen stir fry vegetables there with a note attached: Sorry for the brutal attack. You can use this to relieve any swelling. No charge. Hai Chin.
I looked up and saw him peeking at me from behind a red curtain on the other side of the restaurant. But I was hungry and so I gently pressed the bag of frozen vegetables against my now swelling face and looked over the menu once more. What was I thinking? I had made my mind up long ago, before I even got here. Orange chicken with a side of fried rice. Why don’t I ever just trust my own gut? Why do I always second guess myself? Sometimes I could just throw myself out of a window, or in front of a speeding train, or into a flock of doves.
And that’s when Hai Chin suddenly appeared behind me like a flash of lightning. He just seemingly popped up from some portal beneath the floor. “It’s because you lack confidence in yourself,” he told me. “You need to explore your spirit. You need training.”
My head whipped around. “How did you…”
“It no matter,” Hai Chin said, and he raised his little notepad and pencil. “Are you ready to order?”
“I’ll have the orange chicken with fried rice… And throw in a side of the crab Rangoon with some sweet and sour sauce.”
“Something to drink?”
“How about an oolong tea.”
“Yes, sir. Anything else for you?”
“No. That should do it.”
He bowed and scampered away. A moment later I heard him shouting my order to someone in the invisible back.
The food arrived quickly. The chicken was steaming, the rice was steaming, the tea was steaming. I moved the plastic broccoli aside for it was an unnecessary addition to the plate. The crab Rangoon called to me, and I took one of the starfish shaped treats and dipped it in the sweet and sour sauce. I took a bite. It was glorious Heaven upon glorious Heaven, oh my friends. It too, was hot. But sometimes a craving overtakes a burn.
I ate as much of my dinner as I could. There was still a mountain of food left. Hai Chin came to the table and bowed. “Everything fine then?”
“It was delicious. May I get a to-go box?”
Hai Chin went away and quickly returned with the box, check, and a fortune cookie. “You pay up front,” he said. “Thank you for dining at the Alabaster Wok… And I hope your face is better. You can keep the vegetables.” He bowed again and walked off.
I was too full to even eat the fortune cookie, so I put it in my pocket for later. I went to pay and was soon out on the gory gloryhole of neon Fortune Street again. The lights sparkled, the air was cool, a breeze cautiously touched the city. Other people moved by me like in a dream. I heard their voices, their laughter—as if it were coming from another realm. I felt like Ichiban Kasuga in Tokyo on New Year’s Eve. (Even though he was Japanese, not Chinese Yes, Karen. There is a difference). My stomach was stretched, my face still hurt. I walked toward home.
I decided to cut through the park and sat down on a bench to rest. I placed my bag with the leftovers beside me. The stars above managed to squeak a bit of their ancient light in through the treetops. The moon breathed through the veil of backlit moving clouds. I reached into my pocket and retrieved the fortune cookie. I unwrapped it and pulled out the small slip of paper inside. It read: You’ve got a big surprise coming to you, Wendy. A very big surprise.
“Who the hell is Wendy?” I thought aloud to myself.
And that’s when Hai Chin, the dishwasher and fill-in waiter from the Alabaster Wok, came dropping down from out of the trees above me like a runaway elevator heading toward the ground floor. He was suddenly right in front of me on the walkway, and he was furiously whipping around a set of nunchakus, and he cried out “Hiiiiiiiii Yahhhh!” The end of one of the sticks grazed the tip of my nose.
I leapt up and backpedaled away from him. “What the hell are you doing!?” I screamed. “Are you trying to kill me? I sort of thought we were friends.”
He suddenly stopped whipping the nunchakus about and tucked them neatly under his arm in one svelte move. “Friends?” he said.
“I mean, yeah you kicked my butt, but you were still kind enough to give me that sack of frozen stir fry vegetables.”
He bowed to me. “It was the honorable thing to do.”
There was moment of uncomfortable silence before I said, “That thing you were saying about my spirit and training… I think I need that. I need to get out of this damn city and away from all these idiotic fools and clear my head and cleanse my soul. Where shall I go?”
Hai Chin put a finger to his own chin and thought about it. “You will come with me to the great mystical mountain in the clouds and there I will teach you the ways of Kung Fu.”
“For real. You’re not fooling with me, are you?”
Hai Chin became dejected and sat down on the nearby bench. His usual Wisconsin bubbler-like personality drooped. “I only wish I could. But the truth is, I really am just a damn dishwasher. I’ve never been able to fulfill my dreams of being a Kung Fu master. I’m a fraud.”
I sat down beside him. “I know what you mean. I wanted to be a million other things than what I turned out to be. It sucks, but society presses it into us. Society strips of us our dreams in exchange for meaningless work. We’re all just loaded into the boxcar and shipped off to Doldrums City, merely pieces of a machine.”
He nodded his head in agreement. Then his face suddenly brightened. “What if we just say, ‘fuck it,’ and do it anyway. Let’s not let society tell us what to be and how to act. Let’s go be Kung Fu masters. Let’s go to—Bhutan, Nepal, or Tibet. Let’s find a new way to live. Let’s find our true selves… I’m sorry, what’s your name?”
“David. David Pearce Goliath.”
“Let’s just do it, David Pearce Goliath.”
We both paused and thought about it, and then I asked the ever deciding question, “Do you have money?”
“Money,” he repeated bitterly. “No.”
I shook my head. “Neither do I. You got to rob a bank to have a dream come true in this fucking world.” I looked up to the sky and some green comet or spaceship arched over us and across the banner of night. “Can you imagine what the world would be like if we could all just be what we really wanted to be?”
“But instead, we putter away at mostly pointless things. It will never change,” Hai Chin said. He started to get up. “I must get back to the restaurant. Boss man want me to clean kitchen.”
I looked up at him. “Why don’t you just say, ‘fuck it’ and come over to my apartment and we’ll have a few beers, maybe watch a documentary about monks.”
He nodded his head in excited agreement. “Right, right mo’ beans! Let’s do it. Let’s get what we can get while we can get it.”
I grabbed my sack of leftovers and stood up. We started walking to the other side of the park and across the wide avenue and to where my apartment was in a low-key high-rise called Vandenburg Arms. What arms are those? The arms that squeeze us tight and hold us against our will. The arms that keep us cold and make us tired and ready for another day as small brass gadgets in a big and ferocious world of dreaming saints and sinners.
Allison Grundy stood in her front yard behind the safety of a white-picket fence and a grouchy demeanor. She had binoculars set against her sour face and she was watching the chorus of children playing out in the street and the neighboring yards. The song of stimulating play played up and down the roadway. “Damn, rotten kids,” she grumbled to herself. “So many damn kids. Who the hell is doing all this humping to make so many damn kids!?”
There was a man behind her, and he was busy fixing the broken window on the front of the house from when someone threw a rock through it. “What’s that, Ms. Grundy?”
“I wasn’t talking to you, Pascal,” she grunted without turning to look at him. She was too deeply focused in on the kids in the street.
“Oh, sorry. How’d this happen anyway?”
Ms. Grundy lowered the binoculars and turned around. “How’d it happen? See those damn kids clogging up the street?”
Pascal turned and craned his neck to look. “Yeah… It was them kids that did it?”
“That’s right,” she croaked. “One of them damn kids threw a rock and busted out that very window you’re fixing there. I could have been killed! Of course, none of the little shits came over to admit it or apologize or even offer to pay to fix it. They victimized me and now look at them… Playing around like little fantastical faeries.”
Pascal sighed. “Little bastards. You know what the problem with kids these days is, Ms. Grundy?”
“Oh, my. Please, Pascal, enlighten me with your what will surely be invaluable insight.”
“Hey… If you don’t want to talk, just say so.”
“No, no, no. I’m listening.”
Pascal scrunched his face. He removed his company ball cap and wiped the sweat from his head with his sleeve. “Geez. It sure is warm today. What do you say when I’m done here, we go inside. I could sure use a cold drink… And we can talk some more. I can lay out my philosophy. I’m not just some window man, you know. I’ve got a lot of good ideas.”
Ms. Grundy scowled. “That’s awful pushy of you, Pascal.”
“I have confidence in myself. Is that a problem for you?”
“No. Is my abrasiveness a problem for you?”
“Hell no. I deal with assholes all day. Not to say you’re an asshole, Ms. Grundy.”
“I appreciate that… All right, go on with your work and I’ll fix us a pitcher of my delicious lemonade.” She cackled to herself all the way into the house.
Pascal Bravo the window man noted to himself that the house smelled of bitter oldness. He waited politely in a small parlor room with antique furniture, pleasant bookshelves, and a large window that looked out onto the world of rambunctious youngsters playing in the neighborhood.
Ms. Grundy walked into the room carrying a trembling tray with a buxom pitcher of swirling lemonade with ice cubes and two inverted glasses. She set the tray onto a table and sat in the chair opposite him. She leaned forward, plucked up one of the glasses and poured. “I’ll let you do your own, Pascal. I’ll never be slave to a man.”
Pascal smiled, leaned forward, and poured his own glass. “Thanks very much. I really like this room. You must enjoy reading.”
“I do. When I have the peace and quiet. But again. Those damn kids. I was considering moving to a place of isolation on the outskirts of town… But I fear I’m beyond the ability to do so now. Too old. Too much work. I must come up with a better way to deal with all this commotion in the neighborhood… And violence! Like I told you, the rock.”
“Well,” Pascal began, beaming with self-importance. “Like I was saying in the yard. The whole problem with kids these days is they have no discipline. And without discipline there’s no respect for others and what belongs to others.”
“You speak the truth, Pascal. It’s the parents I blame, and the parents’ parents. They are far too busy with their own damn lives to care about what the children are up to. They just let them run wild like Indians.”
Pascal cleared his throat. “I believe the correct term is Native Americans.”
“Whooey!” snapped Ms. Grundy. “This is my house and I’ll use whatever god damn words I want to.”
Pascal took a big gulp of the lemonade. “Ahh, that is tart, Ms. Grundy. But cold and refreshing just the same… But like I was saying. Kids these days get to do whatever they want. They have little to no guidance. No rules. No consequences for their actions.”
“Right. No consequences,” Allison Grundy agreed. “And wouldn’t it be fun to give them some consequences? Hmmm, Pascal.”
“What? Me? You want me to do something to those kids? Because that’s sort of the vibe you’re putting off. I’m not dumb. I have a very keen intuition.”
“I’ll make it worth your while if you help me.”
“What do you mean? Just what is it you plan to do to these kids?”
“Your spine seems to be shrinking, Pascal. Tisk, tisk, tisk.” She wagged a finger at him while she took a gulp of the lemonade for herself.
“I won’t kill anybody,” Pascal stressed. “Not for all the money in the world.”
“I’m not talking about money or killing.”
“Then what are you talking about, Ms. Grundy?”
“Are you a married man, Pascal?”
“No, but I’ve dodged the bullet a couple of times. I’ve given up on that scenario. Now I just do my work and go home to be alone. And you know what? I prefer it that way.”
“You and I are very much alike then, Pascal. Very much alike… May I ask you something else?”
“When is the last time you’ve had any sexual relations?”
Pascal nearly emptied his mouth of the lemonade he had in it at that very moment. “What!?”
“The last time you’ve done the ol’ in-out, in-out.”
“Ms. Grundy… I think that’s a bit personal.”
“Spill the beans, Pascal. When was it?”
Pascal sighed. “If you must know. It’s been six years.”
Ms. Grundy laughed out loud. “Six years!?”
“Surely it must be something like 60 years for you!”
“Zip it, Pascal… The point is, I could do for you, and you could do for me. And when we’re not messing around, we can be messing with those little brats out wandering the neighborhood. We’ll be a team.”
Pascal stood up. “I’m not going to have sex with you. No way, no how.”
Allison Grundy snickered. “I can guarantee in due time you will change your mind.”
“I seriously doubt it.”
“Come over here.”
“Pascal… Breathe. Just go with it.”
Pascal stepped closer to her.
“Drop your pants,” she ordered.
He paused for a moment and then undid his belt buckle and let his Navy blue window man uniform pants fall to the floor. Allison Grundy looked him over and grinned. She poked at him with her finger. “Reminds me of a sea cucumber.” She looked up at him. “Let me see your cucumber.”
Pascal scoffed in frustration, pulled up his pants and turned away from her. “No. This is too gross and weird.”
“It’s okay, Pascal,” she said. “We’ve got plenty of time. But for now… Let’s figure out what we’re going to do about those rotten kids.”
What’s going on in the brainwaves this nochy, eh? The world seems sticky in the stars, the vibrations radiating like stove coils of lava red, back there in a white house in Morlockowoc, Wisconsin. It’s that scary warm place, that buttery icicle place, that turmeric pinecone place way up north there. The place where the creeps howl from the blue depths of the gas clothes dryer, and black witch puppets disappear when thrown up in the sky by cousins named Greg or Sally Sue or Mark the Mallrat…
And the tussled man drives and there is no sound except ambient space music. He dials it up and lets it spin as he motors. The roadway is two lanes, double yellow line down the middle like a golden cock ribbon. Wizard of Oz people peek out from worn apple tree limbs. They throw spiders and hiss. The man is wearing a green sweater, underwear for pants, black socks pulled up to just below his knees, and brown leather sandals that smell like the birth of the Beach Men in Wyoming… Where sand has no meaning. Where rough girls throw orange roses into the fire. Where mountains with snow are lonely in their rocky yet stolid silence.
The man pulls into a scenic overlook lot at the side of the road. It’s a place of sandy, grassy dunes; wind rape; cold water chalice clinks over the grand lake; a sky above full of clouds, like war guts wrapped in gauze. He stares through the windshield for a long while before looking over at the white envelope that sits in the passenger seat. He reaches for it, sniffs it, breaks the seal. He pulls out the note and reads it: I think for Christmas I would like a new office chair. This one is really starting to kill my ass. Love, Fable.
“Fuck you, Fable,” he groans aloud. He’s gasping for a breath. “You’ll get nothing and like it.” He laughs, yawns, and then begins to cry.
Ten minutes later he gets out of the car and snatches a gas can and a yellowed rag from the trunk. He starts walking toward the shore. The wind is cold against his bare legs. He is all alone, there is no one else. Cars rip by on the hidden roadway behind from whence he came.
For some reason he has an erection. He stops and looks down at the little stick straining against his plain old white underwear. “Hello there,” the man says to it in a playful way. “It’s a little late for that now, don’t you think?” His mood quickly changes from lightheartedness to anger. “Where the hell were you when I needed you!? Now fucking Fable is fucking other fucking men!”
He wheezes and coughs. “But don’t you worry,” he says to the little prick. He holds the gas can out and shakes it slightly. “We’re about to take care of you. I’m going to put you to sleep. Forever!”
The man plopped down into a soft sofa of sand. The waves out there before him were at medium. They churned and rolled and fell, the water a dark gray with whipped cream foam on the edges. He uncapped the gas can and tipped some of the flammable liquid into the yellowed rag. He clamped the rag to his mouth and nose and inhaled deeply. This he did a few times until that feeling came on again. That feeling of rock-hard drunkenness on fuel. That heavy, disoriented feeling in his head. His nasal passages and his throat burned. He felt as if he just consumed an oil refinery in nasty ass Texas. He thought about everything and nothing at the same time.
He reclined into the comfort of the sand sofa and looked up at the sky, a slate of blue, chalk clouds in the hands of some god and he was trying to draw hearts, but they all melted and collapsed. The man huffed some more of the gas. He just didn’t care anymore. He was dead end doomed in this life, he concluded.
He was in a deep daze of drudgery when his eyes flickered, and they showed him a vision of a woman the colors of a peacock and a young girl the colors of a raven eating a banana and they were standing above him and looking down.
“Are you okay?” the girl asked. “You look nearly dead.”
The peacock-colored woman who looked like a wild chick cop bent down and touched the man’s shoulder. “Is everything all right. Do you need help?”
He was dosed well and zombified and it was hard for him to speak. He was halfway drooling.
“He’s a mess,” the girl said. She pointed to the gas can and the rag. “He’s been huffing.”
The peacock-colored woman named Magda Balls went erect and looked around. “He sure has,” she said. “We can’t just leave him here. He needs help.”
Magda Balls smiled back. “Not all the time, but this situation calls for it I suppose.”
Rosalina turned her head and whispered up to her, “He’s not wearing any pants.”
“I noticed that… He probably just doesn’t care about anything.” She bent down again and touched him once more. “We should probably get you some help.”
The man turned his head slowly and tried to focus on her. “I don’t need any help,” he slurred. “I just need to be…” And then he noticed the semi-automatic rifle slung about her. “Will you just put me out of my misery?”
Magda Balls rose once more, readied her rifle and aimed it at him.
“No!” Rosalina cried out.
The man held his face up and closed his eyes. “Do it,” he said. “Please do it.”
Magda held the rifle on him for a few moments, and in that time, she fully considered shooting him. It would be straight up cold-blooded murder, but at the same time, if he truly was a completely lost and miserable soul, it would be a kind and merciful act. She listened to her pulse as she waited out her own indecision. She turned to look at the girl and her face was struck with fear and sadness. If anything, Magda thought, she could never do it in front of the child. She lowered the rifle and swung it back into place. “Help me get him up,” she said. “He needs to come with us.”
Liquid Pablo Pablum stood in the aisle of a warm CVS store in Lucifer, Colorado and stared at a shapely bottle of Scope mouthwash. The liquid was such a mystical green color, a leprechaun on acid green. Liquid Pablo Pablum liked colorful liquids and so took the name he had without any sort of official court decree. He wasn’t one to be ruled by the rules of ordinary men he had never met. He was an independent nation. He was a rebel.
Liquid Pablo Pablum had been standing there mostly motionless, dreams and desires spinning in his head, for nearly 37 minutes when a middle-aged woman with a red vest approached him to see if he was shoplifting or just crazy. “May I help you, sir?” She looked as if life had been brutally tough on her.
Liquid Pablo Pablum turned his head slowly and looked at the human roughage. Her nametag read Rose. She didn’t look like a Rose, he thought. She looked more like a tattered chrysanthemum. “I’m just trying to decide on some mouthwash. What would you recommend?”
Rose scrunched her soft-as-a-Colorado-cloud face. She had mauve goose lips, the top one nearly touching the tip of her nose. Liquid Pablo Pablum wanted to pick her up and throw her into the sky to see if she could fly. Her hair was the color of a lazy orangutan drinking hot cocoa from a Christmas mug, and the hair jingled soundlessly as natural ringlets bounced against the tops of her shoulders.
She fitted reading glasses over her dragon-green eyes and looked over the massive selection of mouthwash that was neatly arranged on the shelves, plastic soldiers of oral sanitizer, cake hole cleaner. “I suppose it depends on your personal needs,” Rose said. “Are you looking for something that simply freshens the breath… Or are you interested in dental hygiene? You know, the never-ending battle against tartar and plaque and gingivitis.”
Liquid Pablo Pablum put his pointer finger to his chin and went “Hmmm… What I really want is something for kissing. I want to cram my tongue into a woman’s mouth without the fear of being gross.”
Rose took a step back, cleared her throat, touched her hair. “Oh,” she stammered. “Then perhaps what you need is Close-Up.” She reached down and grabbed a plastic bottle of liquid lava mouthwash and showed it to him. “Look right there on the label. There’s a picture of a couple about to kiss.”
Liquid Pablo Pablum quickly snatched it out of her hand. He greedily looked it over. “Damn. That looks hot. Perfect to me.” He suddenly tore off the protective plastic around the cap, opened the bottle and took a big swig.
“But, sir,” Rose began. “You can’t do that in the store. You must pay for it first.”
Liquid Pablo Pablum paid her no attention as he swished. He then spit the liquid out onto the floor and leaned into Rose the CVS clerk’s face and kissed her right on the mouth. Once their lips parted, Liquid Pablo Pablum gleamed and said, “Well, what do you think? Does it work as well as they portray it does?”
Rose nearly lost her balance. She had to straighten the glasses on her face. She looked at him intently for a moment, and then she rushed off toward the back of the store. There may have been crying.
Liquid Pablo Pablum sat in his car listening to alternative rock music from the late 90s. It was currently something by the band LIVE. Something about dolphins crying. He watched the doorway of the CVS store for signs of Rose. He had already been there for two hours. “Shit,” he said aloud. “Does this lady ever get a break?”
Then it dawned on him that being an employee, she might park her car at the back of the store and therefore could exit the building from its rear. He started his engine and crawled the car around to the back of the CVS. Lo and behold, there was Rose standing outside near the loading dock smoking a cigarette and slurping on a can of soda pop. Her eyes widened when she saw him. Liquid Pablo Pablum rolled down the driver-side window. “Hey there,” he called out to her. “What time do you get off?”
Rose exhaled. She was afraid to approach the car, but she did it anyway. “Is there something else I can help you with, sir?”
Liquid Pablo Pablum smiled his best smile. “I wanted to know what time you get off work.”
“Why?” She turned her head to the side, exhaled her last puff and tossed the cigarette.
“I thought you might want to do some more kissing. I really enjoyed it. Did you enjoy it?”
“I think maybe you should just go home,” Rose suggested. “I don’t want to have to call the police.”
“Police? Jesus, Rose. I just want to make out with you.”
“I don’t even know you. And what we did inside… That was just wrong. I could get fired.”
Liquid Pablo Pablum reached over into the passenger seat and lifted the bottle of Close-Up mouthwash and showed it to her. “I’ve got plenty. We can share it.”
“Oh please, sir. This is becoming absurd.” Rose started to walk away.
“Wait. Don’t you want to swish some of this delicious cinnamon-flavored mouthwash after your cigarette?”
Rose stopped and turned to look back at him. He wasn’t bad, she thought. He was maybe about 20 years younger, dark hair, a warm Latino sheen, soft eyes the color of newly born mud after a warm rain in the desert. Her heart skipped a beat and her insides felt like golden-yellow butter melted by a microwave. She approached the car and held out her arm. Liquid Pablo Pablum placed the bottle in her hand. She uncapped it, took a shot, and swished furiously. She spit the red liquid onto the ground. She looked at him, waiting for a prompt.
“Come here,” he said softly. She moved closer. He reached out his hand to touch the side of her face. “Give me some sugar,” he said. She pressed her face to his and their lips tangled for several seconds. There was an audible smack when they pulled away from each other.
She smiled. She blushed. She fidgeted. “I should really get back to work,” Rose said.
“Okay,” Liquid Pablo Pablum said. “Do you want to get together later? Maybe share some more mouthwash?”
Rose smiled. She couldn’t help it. “How? Where?”
“I’ll pick you up when you’re done with your shift. We’ll go have some fun.”
“I’m off at 6,” she said.
“I’ll be here at 5:59 then,” Liquid Pablo Pablum said with a charming smile. He backed the car away from her and drove off.