Music You Have No Right to Listen To

It has come to my attention that many music listeners do not possess the faculties to know that their newest favorite album is utter shit.  After six decades of massive marketing and thought-control on the part of record companies, I do not blame these victims for having atrophied taste, though.  Fans of pop-country listen to nothing but pop-country for the same reason people in Texas eat nothing but fast food: one adapts to one’s environment.  I am not like the scores of political theorists who distinguish problems without suggesting solutions, however.  I am here to aid thou, o’ suffering multitude, so if you or someone you love listens to musicians of the following ilk, this diagnosis will conduct the patient on the road to a gentle recovery.  And remember!  Silence is often preferable, especially to your innocent neighbor.  Signs of musical transgression may include:

1. Rip-Off Artistry

They stole more than their image.

They stole more than their image.

This is a band called Jet who’s been accused of ripping off everyone from The Beatles to Herman’s Hermits.  The old conversation has two main viewpoints, that either it doesn’t matter where a band’s inspiration comes from because the music always has at least one unique attribute, or that music is homogenous enough without musicians using the same structures and chord progressions.  There are so many examples of this that I hardly need bother, but I do remember when Bad Religion was the only punk band with a three-part harmony and T-Pain was the only rapper to use autotune, for instance.

Did Coldplay rip off Joe Satriani?  Yeah — but he’s not the only one.  Popular artists have a hard time producing unique sounds while retaining their popularity.  George Harrison stole “My Sweet Lord” from The Chiffons almost bar-by-bar and was successfully sued, and everybody knows Elvis raped and pillaged southern black performers like a bulimic vampire bat.  This is not homage; it’s laziness.  If you have two bands in your collection that sound exactly the same, pick the originator and throw the other one out, or one day you’ll end up like one of those poor sons of bitches who have Papa Roach, Limp Bizkit and Slipknot side-by-side in their CD changer and can’t understand why nobody will ride in the car with them.

2. Meticulous Band-Wide Grooming of Image

Books have covers for a reason.

Books have covers for a reason.

One of the easiest ways for record companies to steal from you is to sell a predictable product and pretend it’s brand-new.  McDonald’s makes sure every quarter pounder tastes exactly the same as the last.  If your band looks as if their image is more important to them than the content of their music, then they’re probably selling records based on how much they look like the people who are buying the album, which in this case is you.  Ever notice how country music fans show off their love of Clint Black by wearing cowboy hats, buckles, and boots?  The day I see a modern emo band dressed up to play a rodeo, or a country music star in guyliner, I’ll start thinking of them as artists rather than fashion models.

Do yourself a favor.  Get on the internet and look for the ugliest bastards in music you can find.  I guarantee they have talents outside wardrobe.  Now, is it possible to make your music more interesting by alienating your fan base and taking a remarkably different image?  Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I give you the emo Garth Brooks — in nineteen ninety-nine.  Suck it, Criss Angel.

Now lets see My Chemical Romance dressed like the Oak Ridge Boys.

Now let's see My Chemical Romance dressed like the Oak Ridge Boys.

3. Burnouts

There comes a time, ladies and gentlemen.  Anyone who’s seen Dick Dale play recently can tell you, that elderly fellow will be playing his old Fender Strat long after they put him in the ground, so we can’t say that age is the indicator.  Science has not yet identified what causes a band to churn out a stinking pile of busywork rather than their usual rocking tunes, but the weeping dying whines of a used-up musician is easily marked.

A has-been shouldn’t sound like a wanna-be.  It’s pathetic.

When a captain’s unfit for command, he’s relieved of duty; why do record companies let these undignified wretches continue to undermine a career of fine music?  Oh.  Right.  Below is the only suitable pic for this section.

Metallica, the fourth Indiana Jones movie of metal bands.

Metallica, the fourth Indiana Jones movie of metal bands.

4. Gimmick Bands

Hey, can we make a million dollars without writing any significant music?  Of course we can!  Let’s write reggae versions of classical music and play it live on kazoos while dressed as dinosaurs.  It’ll be awesome!

Remember when the White Stripes came out and everyone was talking about them?  Remember what everyone was parroting?  That’s right, they only had drums and a guitar.  Two people!  Isn’t that neat-o?  How about a band who wears a bunch of horror masks taken from Clive Barker comic books?  Or — I know — let’s dress up like clowns!  Wait, wait, I’ve got it.  How about a band that does lounge covers of punk songs, or punk versions of sitcom themes, or disco versions of John Williams’ orchestra compositions?

Just hold the fuck on.  I have an idea.  How about you knock off the concept art and try playing music for a change?  It was cute for a song or two, but it’s not fucking funny anymore.

The funny thing is, they aren't supposed to be funny.

5. Bands With No Taste At all

I have a theory that in matters of literature, style is the most important quality to achieve a desired effect.  Likewise, in matters of music I believe that taste is the chief concern.  Figuring out exactly what good taste consists of is just as impossible as explaining why one should rather prefer a backyard BBQ burger to a Big Mac.  You can’t just say the ingredients are of a higher quality.  That means nothing.  Bands like the Velvet Underground proved that your music doesn’t need to be complex, and bands like the Sex Pistols proved you don’t even have to know how to play your instruments.  But you do have to have taste.

Meaningful lyrics, spot-on instrumentation and fantastic engineering won’t make a bird’s piss of a difference if your music isn’t written and performed by people with good god-damned taste.  Look at all the fucked-up covers of Beatles songs people have done if you need a reference.  Or, alternately, just feast your eyes on the poster children of bad taste below.  They didn’t even have the sense to name their band something unrelated to their jobs at Starbucks.  Wouldn’t it suck to have to admit you played in this band when people asked you?  Fuh-huck.

Thanks for choosing Starbucks; heres your nickle back.

"Thanks for choosing Starbucks; here's your nickle back."

6. Pointless, Shallow Lyrics

OK, I’ll admit that music’s first priority is not to communicate something meaningful, but that doesn’t excuse lines like, “bleed it out, dig it deeper just to throw it away,” (Linkin Park) which literally mean nothing because that ambiguous pronoun it is never actually discussed.  What is it?  Why bleed it out?  And how many things can you dig deeper as well as bleed out or throw away?  This shit isn’t even grammatically correct enough to translate into the language it’s sung in.

Or how about this beauty from Apocalyptica: “I try to make it through my life, in my way, there’s you / I try to make it through these lies, and that’s all I do.”  At least these guys are from Finland so their English is their second language, but I’ll bet you anything that they’re actually more proficient at poetry than Linkin Park is and that their chorus, “This I swear / I don’t care, I don’t care,” is just laziness on their part.  You notice how much shitty music seems to result from simple laziness?  Why the hell are band members so lazy?  Must be the drugs.

Dig it deeper, bro. Or on second thought, just throw it away.

7. Single Masquerading as an Album

This is sheer folly.  Everybody has that one friend who runs out to get the new CD by that Johnny-come-lately artist because he or she just loves the new single on the top 40 chart.  Everyone has a song they like by a band they are not a fan of, but it takes a particular kind of music listener to listen to an entire album simply because it has one or two songs on it that strikes one’s fancy.  These people invariably mention at some point that, “This whole album’s pretty good, actually,” which it never is, or “I like this group; I bet they’ve got lots of other good stuff,” which they almost certainly don’t unless the listener is newly acquainted to an older band.

The term one-hit wonder is in this category, of course, but there’s nothing wrong with one-hit wonders if the song is good.  There are plenty of awesome singles by OHWs.  It is not OK, however, to force other people to listen to Kelly Clarkson’s entire album because “Since You’ve Been Gone” is pretty awesome.  Or Shaggy’s album.  Or Snow’s album.  What?  You don’t remember Snow’s “Informer?”  It’s in the same decaying stack of CDs as your Shaggy album.

Lookie Boom-Boom Down.

Lookie Boom-Boom Down.

And those are the main reasons, though more could certainly be extrapolated upon when one considers the vast ocean of shit that one must slog through to find even a tea-kettle of quality.  I’m sure musicians are hard at work finding new and innovative ways to suck at music all over the world right now in fact, but most of the horror is contained within these seven categories so I’m not going to waste our time going over the details.  Details require magnification, and if there’s anything I’d rather not magnify, it’s a band in the company of these talentless pretenders.

So please, take time to research a little listening fodder.  It goes in your ear and lodges in your brain, after all.  Would it kill you to Google something like, “most underrated bands of the 70s,” “short history of [your favorite genre] music,” or “talented and influential music artists” before you click and buy from iTunes?  I mean, it’s way easier to find the best music from the past than it is to find it from the present — nobody remembers worthless rock.  Stop making me listen to your lemmingcore at six billion decibels as you drive around in your car with all the windows open.  Who knows?  Maybe even your love life will improve.

With Great Incense,

-BothEyesShut

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Actors Must Be Schizophrenic

It is generally unlikely that a fella understands his position at any given time.  When you think about it, the person who studies your actions the least is you.  The people around you don’t need to carry a mirror to check you out; they just casually watch and develop opinions.  So the interesting question becomes: do you know yourself better than other people do?  Well, it’s interesting to me, anyhow.  I like to think about stuff that probably won’t make the papers anytime soon.  I’m no balloon boy, after all.  If you wanna know who you are, I suggest you ask somebody.

Kurt Vonnegut said, “Be careful what you pretend to be, because you are what you pretend to be.”  I first heard it years ago.  It’s a quote that passed over the green digital display of the register at the 7-11 while I was waiting in line to buy smokes.  It startled me.  The immediate consequence of what it meant occurred to me like this: if I pretend to be what I want to be, then I will be what I want to be.  That sounds like total crap to pretty much everybody I’ve ever told, and I’m not sure I could defend it in philosophical court, but I know I’ve never tried.  I haven’t bothered.  I haven’t bothered and I haven’t cared to work it out because the logical underpinnings of the idea don’t affect the way the idea works in the physical world, and the way it works is. . .  Well, let me give you one possible example.

If a guy doesn’t really cheat on his wife but only pretends to, then what is he really doing?  I mean, we’re going to have to ferret out the individual actions, aren’t we, so let’s say he has approached a woman and engaged her in conversation.  The nature of this conversation is that he wants to pretend to have an affair with her without actually having an affair with her, something this woman conveniently also would like to do.  They begin to see one another, sneaking around, starting secret email accounts with complicated passwords on their computers at work, and generally being real shady and scandalous.  They’ll have to spend the night out at some point to really hammer the illusion home — though retiring to separate hotel rooms, unbeknownst to anyone who may be watching their movements (they’re just pretending, after all) — and if they can pull it off, spend as many nights out as they can without raising too much suspicion.

Right, then.  Obviously, nobody will ever wonder whether they are only pretending to have an affair; that’s just silly, so all their friends and acquaintances will start talking.  Spouses would be easily convinced, marriages ruined, homes wrecked, and all this in the very real world, not some fantasy I-was-just-pretending world.  You may say, “Oh, sure, BothEyes, but that doesn’t mean they were really having an affair,” and you’d be right from a certain point of view, but look at the votes: every person in contact with them, including people they don’t even know who sit near them at restaurants and in bars and such perhaps, will say that they are having an affair.  The number of people who will say that they were only pretending?  Exactly two, and they won’t argue, either.  Why?  Precisely because they’re pretending to have an affair, that’s why.

Now, if I am the only person in my world who knows that I am Abraham Lincoln, I will be committed to an asylum in short order, and I will deserve it.  If I say I am only pretending to cheat on my wife, then it will not matter whether it is the truth or not as far as the world is concerned.  Right?  But morally it makes all kinds of difference, you may say, to which I reply, what real difference does it make when your marriage is in shambles?  It would have done greater good to have actually cheated — at least then there would be some new love and romance to make up for that which was destroyed.

The point is, what you pretend to be will be what the rest of us believe about you.   Whether you decide that your tiny piece of reality is true and we’re all deluded or not, it will have no bearing on everything that follows.  Remember, Chris Columbus was not the first European to sail to the New World, was five hundred years too late for that and it’s real old news, but elementary schools still put his picture up to celebrate his national holiday, don’t they.  Yeah, they do.  Me?  I’m pretending I’m a writer.  In a few years when I’m older and more weathered, I guess I’ll have to come and ask you guys who the hell I am.  That’ll be a tough dram to drink, but hey — I wouldn’t want to die having never met myself.

So the next time you pretend you’re a real tough guy strutting downtown in a flat-bill ball cap cocked sideways and a Tap Out tee-shirt, remember what ol’ Vonnie has to teach us all as we wait in line at the 7-11 for smokes: if you act like a douchebag, you truly are a douchebag.

How You Idiots Sound

Okay.  Most of you have read my collezione of corporate jargon, and from what I’ve heard over the last few months we see eye to eye on that.  However, recently I’ve felt a new calling.  “Share the pain!” it says.

Share the pain indeed.

So here you are, motherfuckers.  This is how you sound to me.

Eckspecially; (especially): it’s like there’s a tripwire in the back of your throat your voice lunges over.  I know fourth-year English majors who can’t stop talking like a four-year-old.  Do you know how frustrating it is to hear a sentence like, “The Romantic period was affected more by the authors, eckspecially people like Byron or Shelley?”  Makes me want to get up and say, “Wanna some sketty and me-balls to go with that, sweetums?”  Ugh!  Bastards.

Nucular; (nuclear): we all have family that will never get this one right.  It’s practically an American tradition by now.  Half of the people that read this are discovering for the first time that nuke-you-lar is not a word.  Fine, friends, fine — just know that when it spills off your black tongue I’m nodding and smiling because I want to kick you in the teeth.

Pregnat; (pregnant): I can never tell if people who say this are simply too lazy to pronounce that tricky ‘n’ just at the end, or if they’re mentally retarded.  I think I’m just gonna start truncating my words, too.  You know, to fit in.  I bet we could all talk faster.  “My favert book is Hare Pot, but I like Da Vee Code, too.  Oh em gee, are you pregnat?”  You are?  What a shame.

Imparticular; (in particular): it takes real idiot skills to amalgamate two separate words and shit out a contraction that doesn’t exist.  I wonder if these walking vegetables ever get confused when they read the word “impart” and think the “icular” is wandering around looking for its head.  Words like imparticular have an added bonus — girls that say this (I never hear guys say it, don’t know why) think they’re being real intellectual saying it.  I think it’s cause there’s five syllables in there.  Go get ’em, tiger.

Tinks; (thanks): this one’s gender-specific to the girls, also.  Ladies, the best thing about “Tinks!” is that it’s usually a precursor to you walking away. Meanwhile we lock up in idiot-shivers behind you, a spasm of the muscles in the upper body that morons like you will never need to worry about.  Tinks!

Impor-int; (important): did you guys know I’m more than half deaf?  When I hear impor-int, I have to wonder if I don’t hear that letter very well, or if California breeds carrots shaped like humans.  Either way, I want you dead.  It’s impor-int to me.

Supposably; (supposedly): if you haven’t heard this in the last 24 hrs, you haven’t left the house.  Aliens conquered Earth in the Reagan era, and left behind an army of dopplegangers to rise up and eat our people while the E.T.s nest in the ocean and build their new star cruiser to attack the worm-people of Alpha Centauri.  The only way to know these interlopers is by their inability to pronounce the word “supposedly.”  True story!  Shoot on sight.

Exackly; (exactly): much like “eckspecially,” this crowd-pleaser doesn’t draw much attention.  It almost sounds okay, like you’re not sure if you heard the T or not, just like “impor-int” but far more surreptitious.  The annoying factor about “exackly” is that people who say it say it a LOT, and this one’s unisexual, so it can feasibly come from several directions at once.  It’s an idiot orgy.

Seen; (Sean): look, phonics professor — my name is fucking SEAN, okay?  Jesus fuck!

Ecksetra; (et cetera): my brother reminded me of this horror.  The sadistic quality of ecksetra is that it always comes in threes, like hammer blows to the head and neck.  “Ecksetra, ecksetra, eck-” SLAM!  Fucker.

Decroded; (?): you guys are so cute; you made up a little word!  I hate to break it to you, but it doesn’t actually exist.  “Decomposed” and “corroded” most certainly will name their firstborn “decroded” (obviously) but until the wedding, you fuckheads are just gonna haveta pick one.  Sweet?  Swell.

Dranken; (drunk; drank): you twats know very fucking well that this is not a word.  So knock it the fuck off, will you?  It’s not fucking funny anymore.

Liberry; (library): eat you of the magic bush in the center of my garden, and truth you’ll not speak for ever and anon.  That’s why it’s called the lie berry bush!  Isn’t that awesome? Come on, you’ve never seen the inside of a liberry.  Seriously.

Fustrated; (frustrated):  fustrated sounds like something your proctologist has medicine for.  Augh, don’t look at it or you’ll hear it in your brain.  It’s a maddening cycle.  The more I read it printed there in front of the semicolon, the more fustrated it makes me.  Augh!  Fustrated?  Augh!  No, stop!  “Whassamatter, man?  You look a little fustrated.”  AGH!  GAH!

Framilure; (familiar): I personally expect the spelling to change in the Oxford English Dictionary any goddamn day.  More people mispronounce this word than say it right-a-ways.  I’ve started carrying a 9mm, though.

Oh God, I have to stop. I’m making myself queazy. I hope this has been a fine waltz through the offal of American English for you, and if ever we meet on the street, remember, I’m tense.  It takes all my gusto to keep from saying these things to the people around us.  Love you all!  Thank you, g’night!

Tinks!

-S

Corporate Jargon I Hate


Have you ever heard some jackass say, “sure, Bob, and I’ll run-it-on-by your office Monday,” and felt nauseated?  If you have, then you’re on my fuckin’ team.  Where do they come from, these witty quips flown from corporate-fuck lips?  Inquiring minds want to blow.  Riddle me this.  Below are some of my most hated corporate quotables.  Feel free to suggest additions.

Were smiling because were not actually at work right now.

We're smiling because we have prescription psycho-meds.

Where shall we start?  Ah, yes–

“Touch base”: quite possibly the most widespread cancer of corporate verbage in the world, some asshole touched base with some other cocknose back in ’85, and sent a ripple effect through the twitching sphincter of North America still felt throughout most of the western hemisphere.  God damn that person to hell.  The next person wants to touch base with you, you haul right off and tell them your base is called “Alpha Supreme”, and you’re downloading the coordinates way up their GPS presently.

“Consolidate”: a close second to touch base.  Once upon a time, people used to clean things up, arrange, re-arrange, organize, or even categorize.  Now from the depths of Y2K’s rotten spunk comes the request from every telemarketing soccer mom, “Hi, Jenny; would you mind consolidating these pens into this drawer?  Oh, and could you please help Ron with the claims?  We’re trying to consolidate his department for Tuesday’s big day.  Will you be there Tuesday?  We were gonna do it over a couple of days, but we thought, oh, why not just consolidate it into one big consolidated day so we can all consolidate together in one big, sweaty, hairy consolidation clusterfuck.”  Why, yes!  I love consolidating!  Fuck you, says Jenny.  Fuck all of you.

See that?  That's your life flashing before your eyes.

See that? That's your life flashing before your eyes.

“Run it up the flagpole”: usage, “I don’t know which logo will look more spiffy on our polo shirts.  Run these up the flagpole and see which grabs more attention, Johnson.”  Know what’ll grab some attention up that pole, boss?  Your scrotum.  Flying high, free, and proud.  This piece of corporate beauty has somewhat come out of circulation, probably due to the unseemly pole image.

“Throw ____ against the wall and see what sticks”: holy mother of god.  Do people actually do this somewhere?  In Saigon, are patriarchs throwing young girls against walls to ferret out a bride for their strapping sons?  Is it a common method of sex-toy evaluation?  What the fuck have you thrown against the wall recently, and why did you throw it there?  Walls can’t catch.  They suck at it.  As a matter of fact, that’s pretty much why people throw things at walls to begin with — to fuck stuff up.

“On the same page”: this is a crock of shit, obviously, as nobody in America actually reads, and especially around other people who are reading.  That, would be insane!  You feeling me here?  Are we on the same page?

Now, don’t study the above photo too long or it’ll get you.  “Come into our house,” they beckon.  But don’t give in, Ulysses!  ‘Tis the song of the Sirens.  It goes, “We’re all in it for mon-ey, even though it ain’t that gre-at.  We’re all in it for mon-ey, hap-py and calm and sed-ate.”  These are not your friends, friend.  Cleave to your dignity.  Poverty never takes that away from you.  Unless, of course, you bought a beige house in a gated corporate-fuck community.

“Bang it out”: as in, I’ll take this portfolio over to my desk, bang it out, and have it for you by three.  Look, there are very few things you can bang.  A dent can be banged out.  An outward-facing gong can be banged out.  Most women in the eighties were “banged out” at their hairdressers in order to get banged out by their leather-wearing boyfriends.  Bang just doesn’t work as a verb unless you’re really banging.  And you can’t bang out.  It’s against the rules.  So, Mrs. Porkingstein, if you’re going to bang it out and have it for me by three, take a fucking shower before I get it, okay?

“Have my people call your people”: yes, this classic fermented into a cliche long before it went out of corporate-fuck style.  I’m not convinced cubicle creatures even know when they’re saying it, anymore.  HMPCYP ejects from the same crotch that “we’ll do lunch” does, often in conjunction.  Luckily for corporate-fucks, both of their peoples are readily identifiable by the pleats in their khakis, so neither group runs the hazard of calling, say, Cholo Loco’s people, and awarding themselves the ass-beating they truly need.

“I’ll get right on that”: . . .you do that, me bucko.  Are you on it?  Are you right on top of it?  Are you all over it?  Word.  Sit on it awhile.

“Micromanagement”: euphemism for – your job just became a nightmare, your name just became 655321, your position just became ‘doggystyle’, and your best bet is to quit rather than learn to like it; because if there’s any word on this blog corporate-fucks just love, it’s micromanagement.  Some linguistic genius was paid in gold bullion to coin the term micromanagement so western moguls wouldn’t have to use the old name, fascism, but most cubicle creatures continue to call it “get the fuck off my ass before I staple your eyelids to your chin!  Pretty hard to micromanage with your eyelids stapled to your chin!  Eh?”

“Meeting”: I know what you’re thinking.  Meeting is a perfectly acceptable word to describe an arranged business discussion, right?  Wrong.  A meeting is when Jack runs into Jill.  A meeting is two trains.  A “meeting”, in the corporate-fuck sense, is what your boss calls when what he wants to say isn’t important enough to simply discuss, and needs an authoritative boost to get everyone as interested in it as he is.  “What?  Candy said ‘whatever’ to the Ladies’ Room Tampon proposition?  I’ll call a meeting.”  What about when corporate-fucks actually talk business, and deliberate like intelligensia?  Well, that’s a conference.  Ooooh.

“Expedite”: a recent addition to the burgeoning lexicon of corporate bullshit.  Expedite means hurry up.  Just like prevaricate means lie.  And lugubrious means sad.  And loquacious means you talk too-fucking-much, you pretentious prick who heard that word in the office somewhere and thinks it should be the verb in any sentence containing directives for your slaves – I mean, thralls – I mean, employees.  Nobody who says “expedite” has any business using it.  It’s faster and more efficient to say “hurry.”  So knock that shit off!  Expediently!

That’s enough for now, but you bet your ass there are more.  And more, and more.  Such is the blinding summer sun of my discontent.

Sincerely,

BothEyesShut

Swizzle Stick

Swizzle Stick

Nick did not believe in beautiful, brilliant women.  He dated beautiful women, and he dated brilliant women, but never in his life had he dated a beautiful, brilliant woman.  He grouped them with mermaids, fairies, and angels – except, he allowed for the possibility of angels, since so many other people seemed to believe in them.  Nick kept his eyes open, though.  He loved women.

People called him Swizzle Stick Nick, because he held one between his lips to see how long he could go without chewing on it.  His record was three hours, but they only lasted one on the average.  Swizzle sticks cost less than cigarettes, and they lasted longer.  He never went anywhere without a fistful of them.

“Hey, Swistic!”

Nick looked up from wiping the bar.

“I’m Nick,” he said.

“Sure, I know who you are, Swistic.  Say, could I get a beer?”

He turned to the taps with a sigh.

“Thanks, Swiz.”

The incessant nickname caused him much irritation.  He couldn’t keep his dates from hearing it, and they couldn’t keep from saying it.  More and more he bit his swizzle sticks, and the more sticks he went through, the more appropriate the name seemed.  Nick felt sure he’d never be Nick again.

Then, one day, an acquaintance introduced him to three attractive women: a pretty blonde, a beautiful brunette, and an exquisite redhead.  Three times his acquaintance introduced him by name, as though the second two hadn’t heard.  His grimace bent more crooked with each reiteration.  At the third mention of “Swizzle Stick Nick,” Nick stared into the deep green eyes of the redhead, drew the stick from his lips, and said:

“I’m just Nick.”  Then he snapped the plastic stick in his hand, and smiled at them.

“Well, what do you know?” said the acquaintance.

“No more of those, I guess,” said the blonde.

“Hum — dramatic,” said the brunette.

“Your hand is bleeding,” said the redhead.

A stream of blood tickled the underside of his palm and dropped off his wrist.  He smiled, excused himself, and got a bandage for his finger.

For weeks the bandage served to remind people he would not let anyone call him Swizzle Stick, anymore, though he went on keeping them between his teeth.  The bandage also served to keep his finger together, because for two weeks the wound kept open.  It stung him when he handled lemon slices, and ebbed sometimes when he curled his finger too far.  After a month he saw a doctor.  The doctor proclaimed him healthy, though, and he had to go around with a bandaged finger until it closed.

The cut stayed open.  It bled a little when he became agitated, and he would have to change the bandage.  He noticed a pale band around his finger where the bandage kept the sun off.  The pale band recorded how long he had not healed.  It irritated him.  Then he met a woman named Paula, and she had an affect on his blood pressure.  That bothered him, too.

The night he first saw her, he felt sure the ceiling fans had stopped turning.

“Bar’s closed,” he said, watching her stand from her seat across the room.

Paula glided across the floor with legs like scissors in blue jeans, and Nick forgot to look busy as he watched her.  Her swishing ponytail hypnotized him as she passed.  He bit hard on the swizzle stick in his mouth, threw it aside, and took up another without taking his eyes away.  He felt heat coming off her from over the bar, saw an aura, a shimmer around her like the mirage that coats a summer highway.  He followed her to the glass door to lock it, watched her step down the stairs.

A woman that beautiful had to have a mind like a concrete tennis ball – everything he knew about girls depended on it – but he clenched his fists and prayed for a sign, anyway, any small signal to show someone brilliant and creative lived inside that gorgeous person.  Nick laughed at himself as she made slow progress down the steps to the landing.  She’d had a lot to drink.  Then she reached the landing, and something magical happened.

Paula slipped off one shoe, then the other.  Her pointed feet looked tender on the concrete.  She tossed her walnut hair free from its ribbon, draping the blue stripe over the banister.  Nick saw the veil of her tresses shining a deep rust color in the fluorescent light and inhaled.  She grasped her shirt at the bottom and pulled it over her head, dropping it to the landing.   Then, she unclasped her belt and stepped out of those wonderful jeans, proceeding down the stairs in nothing but lace, lipstick, and a bit of eye shadow.

Nick staggered.  Her single action insulted every American convention governing a woman’s behavior.  Sure, she was drunk.  But she had managed to do the most interesting thing he’d ever seen a woman do.  He pawed the glass like he could beckon her back that way.  He opened the door and stepped through it, halted, stepped back inside, keeping his eyes nailed to the pile of clothes and the dangling ribbon.  Starved of hope for so long, Nick decided to fall in love.

He found her clothing still there after closing up the bar.  He hoped she’d come back for it, and, two days later, she did.

Nick and Paula dated often.  When he saw her, the cut throbbed under its bandage.  He hated the feeling.  His heart would hasten when he held her hand, and the blood in his veins backed up against the bandage like a clogged waterway.  The pressure made his finger pulse and beat, which caused him to feel the thumping tension up the inside of his arm and into his chest.  Then Nick would look down and see a brown splotch deepening on the bandage and giggle, shrug, and shake it off.  She would smile at him and touch his arm, and start the whole mess over again.

One day, Paula stayed at the bar while Nick closed up.  When he had almost done, she crawled over the bar and pinned him to the liquor shelves with her boot on his chest, which she rocked back and forth like a lumberjack freeing a hatchet.  She unbuttoned her shirt.  Nick reached up and felt her ankle.  His eyes locked onto hers and tried to take in all he saw.  He made a conscious effort to remember the night forever.  Then he saw his bandage glistening red, felt the pounding in his finger, up his arm, and into his chest.  He saw a wet, ruby smudge on her skin, glanced at the ceiling, and passed out.

Nick dreamed.  He walked through tall grass in warm sun and looked for someone.  He had an appointment.  The sensation of checking a watch ticked in him.  He appeared at a pond with pussy willows on its banks and lily pads floating on its mirror surface.  A waterfall poured into the pond, and a woman bathed in it.  White robes clung to her skin, and fair hair traced her neck, shoulders, and decollate.  She saw Nick and smiled.

She didn’t mind he’d come late.

He walked into the pond and thought it warm.  He found the pond shallow and waded to her, his fingers trailing wakes in the water.  The waterfall plunged and rolled in amber strings and streams of shining gold.  Nick tasted it and laughed.  It was honey.  The woman embraced him, and he kissed her, bringing her to the mossy, slippery ground beneath the falls.  The honey rose as they made love, and it covered them both before Nick woke up.

Paula thought Nick’s blackout cute.  She trilled and chuckled when she told the story to her friends, told how she pegged her lover to the bottles of whiskey and vodka and gin, took off her shirt and caused him to swoon, caused him such anxiety, in fact, that Swizzle Stick blacked right out.  He casually failed to mention how uncomfortable the sight of blood and the sensation of it pulsing in his finger made him.

Nick could not escape the image of the woman under the honey falls.  It caused him guilt, and he drew his eyebrows together and massaged his temples when he thought of her if Paula was around.  Time passed.

The cut stayed open.  He tried ointments, salves, pastes, oils, and jellies, but nothing kept it shut but the bandage.  He saw another doctor, and this one indulged Nick’s fantasies by listening with the patience of a well-paid man and prescribed a tube of antibacterial gel.  Nick forewent the gel.

Considering herself the cause of Nick’s having passed out, Paula felt very attractive.  She dressed more and more provocatively for him, covering her racy outfits with overcoats while on the street.  In time, the overcoats became stifling and she stopped wearing them.  Nick noticed.  His face reddened when she tickled his forearm with her nails, and he smiled and shuddered when she slid her foot up his leg at restaurants.  It wasn’t long before Nick passed out again, the bandage saturated and scarlet.

He met the blonde woman at the pond beside the pussy willows, and made love to her again under the honey falls.  He reveled in the warm, sticky weight of it coating them like a living quilt, and he noticed the blinding white sun made shining patterns of light on their bodies; they flickered as though they were on fire.

Paula worried at first, but she grew to like it after doctors convinced her of Nick’s health.  She enjoyed taking care of him during his spells, during which she held his head in her lap and marveled at the smile on his lips.  Nick never smiled like that.  He always came around with a sweet sigh and a sparkling look at her that first lifted his eyebrows, then relaxed to show the notch in his front tooth, a detail most people never noticed.  She teased him at first, stroking him in secret at the market or at movies, but stopped her teasing as he passed out more and more often.

The more he passed out, the sexier she felt, and the sexier she felt, the sexier she dressed for him.  Paula began to receive attention from men the way streets receive cars.  It turned Paula on.  When Nick and Paula went home, she would come on to him, and he would pass out.  Paula held Nick’s head in her lap and petted him while he made love to the girl in the honey falls.  Paula’s ego inflated, and she smirked and grinned everywhere she went.  Nick smirked, too, but for different reasons.

Paula teased Nick, Nick passed out, Nick made love to the girl in the honey, over and over like this until Nick thought of her at all moments of every day.  Paula faded from his view.  Her dresses looked uniform to him, and he failed to notice other men staring at her.  Then, one day, her hands came from behind him and stroked his chest, and Nick felt nothing.  His pulse neither quickened nor intensified, and the bandage on his finger stayed dry.  Paula shrank away.  Nick went for a walk.

After two weeks he wanted to see the girl in the honey more than anything, but Paula’s caresses moved nothing inside him.  Paula noticed and tried harder, but the more she attempted to seduce him, the less attractive she became.  Nick broke a sweat worrying about how he could see his lover again.  Unable to excite himself over Paula, the woman who lived in the honey falls receded from him like a star in the dawning sun.

Unsatisfied with his inability to love her, Paula chose one of her throng of admirers and left Nick.  Nick retaliated with apathy.  He ignored the blitzkrieg of messages on his answering service, presuming that at least one would be her.  When depression settled on him like mist, nobody thought Paula the cause of it, though she trailed men like the leader of a marathon.  Nick made a conscious decision to feel nothing.  For the first time in weeks, he wondered if his finger would ever heal.

One rainy night, Nick served a handful of diehard regulars.  One of them asked why he wasn’t married.

“Women have a mind of their own,” Nick said.

“Well, wouldn’t you want a girl to?” said the guy.

“Sure, I would.  It’s just I got no handle on them.  No handle on getting a girl, no handle on keeping her.  Even if I want to break up, they run off before I can throw them over.”

His wound pulsed, but just enough to remind him of the woman in the honey falls.  He sneered, scoffed, and stuck a swizzle stick between his teeth without realizing he had.  The patrons said nothing of it.

For no apparent reason, he began answering to Swizzle Stick as though Nick had never lived.  People who knew him a little loved to introduce him to their friends.  People who knew him well saw his slouched shoulders and drooping mouth and pretended to know why he chewed on those sticks like gum, though he never had before.  He sneered at pretty girls, and sometimes grinned at their boyfriends like he knew something.

The bandage reminded him of the girl in the honey, and he tired of it.  It disappeared from his finger.  Weeks had gone since last he felt faint from it.  The wound still broke his skin, but looked neither red nor inflamed.  In three days a scab formed.  In a week, the cut had gone.

Swizzle Stick Nick cried the night the scab fell off.  He considered slicing himself again, snapped three swizzle sticks in the process of trying, and felt stupid and demoralized in the end.  Sadness wrapped him up.  He called in sick to work, but returned the next day.

Few patrons came, and Nick spent a full hour staring at a velvet painting of Raquel Welch in a leopard-print bikini that hung on the wall.  Raquel had nothing on the girl in the honey falls.  He saw the girl shining and sticky, sitting at the bank of the pond among the pussy willows with sun glinting off her auric hair and smiling.  She stood and went to him.  He remembered the feel of her fingertips across his stomach and down his chin.  She excited him more than any woman he knew, more than any woman he had ever known, Nick decided.

He had an affair with her all afternoon.  By the end of his shift, he started keeping track of how much gnawing he did on his swizzle sticks again.  He went through three that afternoon.

He became known for his cold shoulder toward women as much as for the sticks.  Some called him a misogynist, and others said he’d been hurt by someone long ago.  Legends gestated.  Because of his famous disregard of females, it caused a stir about town and shocked many patrons when a homely-looking woman and her indeterminate date went home separately, broke up right there at the bar on account of Swizzle Stick Nick.

“What would you like, Johnson?” said the woman.  She had a voice like a religious greeting card.

“Oh, I’ll have the special.” said her pedestrian date.

“No special,” said Nick.

“Yes?  Oh, then I’ll have what she’s having.”

Nick looked at her.  Her eyebrows sat on her forehead like caterpillars.

“Johnson’s indecisive,” said the woman.

Nick made a spectacular display of disinterest, and the woman frowned.

“Excuse me,” she said as though affronted.  “I’ll have a diet cola with a splash of rum.”

Nick’s lips parted.  His nostril twitched.

“Rum and diet.  Sure thing.”

“No,” she said.  “A diet cola – with a splash of rum.”

Nick’s teeth crunched on the plastic stick between them.  He kept his eyes on her as he combined the ingredients, setting two rum and diets before her.

“Oh,” said Johnson, “I didn’t want that.”

Nick looked straight ahead.  She looked at him.

Johnson repeated himself, adding a small “huh” at the end as if to say, I won’t drink that for anything in the world.

Nick took the stick from his mouth and held it vertically between his eyes a moment.  Then he flicked his wrist and sent it spinning, end over end into Johnson’s broad forehead where it bounced and rattled insignificantly to the floor.  Johnson blinked twice and stared at the bar.  The woman laughed at him.  Johnson left alone.

Nick poured the two cocktails into a large glass with a slanted frown, and gave it to the hackneyed woman.  He had two shots with her, himself, after which she seemed tolerable.  He spent the afternoon belittling the successful romances of others, and she found him charming.  When his shift ended Nick stayed and drank with her, as people fired worried looks at them in anticipation that Nick would do something awful.  When she brushed her fingers along his leg, a gleam entered his face and lodged behind his eyes, as though the world was contained there and he had the best seat in the house.  They went home together.

Nick and the inelaborate woman had a long and fulfilling romance, and when they bedded, Nick kept the woman from the honey falls in his imagination like a candle in a lamp.  The throbbing feeling came back in his arm, this time without the bleeding, and Nick felt capable of truly loving once more.  His partner knew he loved her, Nick thought, and whenever anyone questioned his intentions, Nick would glimpse the flaxen woman in the honey falls, shining with sunlight on her head and on her breasts, waiting for him to wade through the pussy willows to her and slide with her beneath the surface of the pond.  Then he would throw his swizzle stick away, spit, and take up another one.

Gasoline

Gasoline

Georgio hated blue jeans on everyone but Mary.  On Mary they looked different.  They held her ass like a child’s cupped hands around a peach and made a zip-zip sound when she walked.  Plain Levi’s looked better than skirts, dresses, or evening gowns on her.  On Mary blue jeans obsessed him.

Mary liked Georgio.  His sharp eyes and full lips made it impossible for women to look only once as he walked, and she took pleasure in glaring at them one by one.  He always smelled of cologne and gasoline, and she liked that, too.  Riding behind him on his motorcycle made her shudder in spite of herself, and it took some effort to keep from stammering when he spoke with her at lights.  Mary wanted Georgio with her everywhere she went.

They went downtown, and an awkward girl in a yellow dress stared at Mary from across the street.  Mary saw she never looked at Georgio.  The girl looked like a dandelion in the daylight but became almost toadish as they passed.  It made Mary’s stomach uneasy.

“Fucking dyke,” said Mary.

“She’s not a dyke,” Georgio said.

“Oh, really?  How do you know?”

“Dykes only wear jeans.”

Mary laughed.

“Oh, really?”

Georgio’s hand rested on the small of her back and left faint gray smudges on her shirt.  He could never get all the grease off his fingers after working in the garage.  He guided her into a theatre ahead of him and watched the waistband of her pants sway.  His large splayed hand on her back looked to Georgio like a gear against a clutch plate.  He turned it clockwise in disengaging.

An attendant tore their tickets.  They skipped the snack bar and entered, standing by the door waiting for their eyes to adjust to the darkness.

“Where do you wanna sit?” said Mary.

“I see a couple seats midway down,” said Georgio.  “But let’s sit in front.  That’s way more fun.”

“Really?  In front?” she said, rubbing her neck.

“Hell, yeah.  Follow me.”

Georgio took Mary by the hand and edged by teenagers sitting in the third row until they came to the middle.

“Excuse us,” said Mary.

The film started with an explosion and a car chase.  The heroine looked ethnic, sexy, and vicious.  Flashes and booms filled the theatre.  The noise hurt Mary’s ears until they dulled from it.  She looked at Georgio and saw him staring upward with a careless grin, his eyes big as eggs.

“Is this your favorite kind of movie?” Mary said.

“What?”

“I said, do you always watch movies this way?”

“Yeah,” Georgio said.  “Talky movies I just watch at home while I build trannies on the coffee table, or something.”

“Oh.”

“I like to feel this kind of movie.  You know?”

Mary smiled and turned her face up at the screen.  The reflection on her skin swirled like pictures on water.  Georgio smiled, too.

About the time that the plot failed and the explosions slowed, the teenagers started making out with each other.  Georgio slid his hand up her leg and massaged her through the denim.  Mary turned to Georgio and he pretended to be watching the movie.  When he hooked his thumb under the waistband of her jeans and crept inside them, she reclined.  Mary put her head on Georgio’s shoulder and breathed into his ear.  The film quickened, plateaued, finished in a rush, and Mary sat stunned for a moment when the lights came up and Georgio stood looking down at her.

“Ready?” he said.

As they left he placed his hand on her back again but left no smudges, and kissed her hard in the street as they walked to his apartment in the twilight.

They sat next to each other on the small patio in front of his apartment smoking cigarettes and drinking domestic beer from glasses, and having what Mary called “beer talk.”  Sometimes they commented on locals that walked by, on their clothes, hair, mannerisms, things they said in passing, but more often just made lists of favorite things to love and hate.

“Top five slang words,” said Mary.

Georgio: “Fubar, fugly.  Um.  Tweaked, rocking – and, and dilligaf.”

“What’s dilligaf?” said Mary.

“Do I look like I give a fuck,” said Georgio.

She laughed.

“Your turn.”

Mary: “Cheesy, whack, phat – uh.  Bitchin’.  And bomb.”

“Bomb?  Like, ‘dat’s da bomb, yo?”

“Ha!  Yeah, da bomb-ass shiz-nit fo’ shizzle, my nizzle,” said Mary.

Georgio laughed.

“Alright, top five bands.”

Mary: “The Stones, The Verve, The Fugees, Velvet Underground, and – Him.”

“Never heard of Him before,” said Georgio.

“They’re new.  I’m really into them right now.”

“Oh.  Cool.”

“Your turn,” said Mary.

Georgio: “Dead Kennedys, Rocket from the Crypt, The Damned, X, and David fucking Bowie.”

Mary’s eyes widened.

“Wow,” she said, “the only one I’ve even heard of is David Bowie.”

“David fucking Bowie,” said Georgio, gesturing with a cigarette.

“Right.  David fucking Bowie; excuse me.”

They refilled their glasses.

“Okay, I have a fun one.  Top five things you hate on a girl,” Mary said.

“Ha-ha!  Okay.”

Georgio: “Arm fat—”

“Arm fat?”

“Well, yeah!  You know, she goes pointing at something and her arm’s all swinging around?  Gross.”

“Hah,” said Mary.  “Okay.”

“So, arm fat, guy haircuts, cankles—”

“Wait, what’s a cankle?” said Mary.

“It’s when there’s no ankle, and her calf just becomes her foot, and her legs look like tree trunks with shoes on ‘em.”

Mary laughed.

“Okay—”

“So, those three, fake tits, and,” he sighed, “blue jeans.”

“Blue jeans?”

“Yeah, I hate jeans.”

“Fuck you!” said Mary, slapping his arm and making him spill.

“No, I like them on you,” Georgio said.

“Why don’t you like jeans, of all things?”

“Everybody wears jeans.  Everybody!  I just wish people were more creative with their wardrobes.”

Mary frowned.

“I’m way creative!”

“No, I like them on you.  You’re an exception,” Georgio said.

“Gee, thanks.”

“No, really!  On you, they look – mmmmmn.  I would.”

Mary laughed, seeing his expression.  He laughed with her.

“So you seriously don’t own a pair of jeans?”

“No, of course I do, I just don’t wear them all the time.  I usually wear slacks or trousers or something with color.  Wool or polyester, cotton, fucking lots of different kinds of pants.”

“Ah,” said Mary.  “Okay, then.”

“So?  Your turn.”

“Things I hate on a guy?  Well, let me think.”

Mary: “Long hair, basketball shoes, tee-shirts with stupid things written on them, huge, beefy muscles, and – and – uh, I dunno.”

“Oh, come on,” said Georgio, sipping.

“—And gangsta’ rap,” Mary said.

“What?  That doesn’t count,” said Georgio.

“Yes it does.  Trust me, when guys listen to lots of gangsta’ rap, they wear it.”

They clutched each other and chuckled.  Just then a crowd of people walked by on the other side of the street.  Georgio stopped and pointed his finger at them.  They saw.  Georgio did not care.

“See?  Count the jeans.”

Nine out of eleven.

“Those two aren’t in jeans,” said Mary.

“Yeah, but they’re in khakis.  That’s what the boring bastards wear when their jeans run out for the week.”

“You know,” said Mary, “you’re kind of an asshole.”

Georgio was an asshole.  People had started calling Georgio “Asshole Billy” long ago.  Georgio was his last name.  It went back to when he threw some loudmouth through a retail storefront window into some mannequins.  Billy Georgio almost never reacted that way, but he had a threshold he called a personal courtesy line, and once crossed he considered it a social irresponsibility to fail to defend it.  Also, Asshole Billy possessed an uncanny ability to tell his women precisely where they stood in relation to him.  His friends said his outright honesty cut too deep, made unnecessary enemies, and complicated otherwise natural romances.  Bill did not care.

“I’m more honest than any religiofuck I ever knew,” Georgio said of himself.

People agreed, shaking their heads and smiling.

Asshole Billy had categories for the different kinds of people he called, “sheeple.”  There were religiofucks, corporate fucks, fashion fucks, politifucks, and just plain stupid fucks.  Bicyclists were Tour-de-France motherfuckers, inlanders were white-trash motherfuckers, athletes were jock-ass motherfuckers, and charmless college graduates were Phi-Beta-Kappa motherfuckers.

Women had separate categories.  Corporate women were suity bitches.  Women with money were rich bitches.  Women who could not have him were lurks.  Women who could have him were, “I would.”  Women with whom he fell in love were, “hellfire and damnation.”

Hurt, Asshole Billy turned to Mary.

“I’m not really an asshole.”

“I said, kind of.”

“Hum,” said Asshole Billy Georgio.

“Do you know you’re beautiful?” he said.

“No, I’m not,” said Mary.

Georgio rolled his eyes and sighed.

“You’re supposed to say, ‘thank you, Georgio!  Yes, I’m the most gorgeous woman in California.  When I moved in, half the population left in shame and envy.’”

Georgio’s wit came in strong, intermittent gushes.  “Two gems a day,” he would say.

Mary lowered her eyes and made a reluctant grin curve her pink mouth.

“Thank you, Georgio.”

Georgio nodded, lighting another cigarette.

“Of course, my hellfire and damnation.”

That night Georgio turned his hand on her back, imagining with the unattended part of his mind that her whole machine depended upon that one gear.  He pressed her forward, pressed her down, caused her hips to move side-to-side.  Before his eyes the gear slipped and caught her shoulder, and her drive train spasmed as he bit the sweaty nape of her neck through her hair.  Long blonde strands clung to his stubble and fell as he pulled away.  Mary’s compression leaked and spent.  Her cylinder collapsed and she broke down beneath him.  Oil seeped and ran.

Georgio thought, she’s thrown a rod.

He said, instead, “I love you, Mary.”

Mary gave sleeping Asshole Billy Georgio a kiss before leaving him.  In that moment she felt a screaming need to undress again and climb next to Billy, forgetting her intent to flee.  Then her gaze fell on the portrait of Sandra Bernhard.  Lit by gray twilight, Sandra’s shadowed sullen eyes, lidded and black with mascara, showed Mary what it meant to be called beautiful and convinced of one’s own ugliness at once.  Pain and purposeful passion drove them both, she and Sandra.  Mary’s soul swelled and stood her skeleton upright.  She would not be a beautiful thing.  She would be a powerful thing.

Mary sang in her car on the way home.

When the sunshine made Georgio turn and wake, his hand searched for Mary.  It found itself around a bottle, instead.  The bottle did not leave him until he could replace it with another.  Later in his drunkenness he thought of his favorite book, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  His dark portrait of Sandra Bernhard reminded him of the Count’s hawkish nose and aquiline features, pale and shadowy, with incisors that protruded, he imagined, over the red lower lip when she bit off the last note.

He raised the bottle to her.

“You have betrayed me, Renfield,” said Asshole Billy in a thick Slavic accent.”

My Lord! said Sandra as she hung.  I serve you!

Disgusted, Billy walked onto the patio and placed his hands on the rail, watching blue jeans and khakis march by.  He smiled at people who saw him standing there, and ignored hellos.  He smoked three packs of non-filtered Lucky Strikes and drank whiskey until he vomited.  Then he drank until he vomited again.  After an hour of this his stomach tired and he found himself able to continue.  In the morning two days later, he decided his damnation could last no more, but it endured beyond his capacity to restrain it.  When his palm bled long and flowing from a gash made by a screwdriver, Asshole Billy sobered enough to know his love had not only sunk, but had drowned him.

Georgio wrapped his hand in gauze and changed the oil in his bike, tightened the clutch cable, tested the chain, and picked a direction.

His friends knew Asshole Billy had gone when his women began calling them late at night.  His friends called and found he had reached Seattle.  The stories of Bill’s debauchery shocked his closest pals without surprising them.  When they asked about his return, he would change the subject.  When they asked what he was doing there, he would defer.  His friends knew better than to expect anything predictable from him, and so waited without awaiting news of his return.

Asshole Billy did not know he loved Mary.  The novelty of Seattle women infatuated him and wore out, woman after woman after young lady, after girl.

Noting the various qualities Billy’s dates possessed, an acquaintance called him jaded.  How could he get so tired of so many women so fast?

“They ain’t rare,” Bill would say, “so they ain’t precious.”

He found work as a mechanic and spent weekends manufacturing ways to live the fantasies of the typical American male.  He spoke as little of these exploits as a veteran does of war, and with as little interest.  Each Friday night marked the death of another whim and the birth of another triviality.  Georgio’s peers came to regard him as a romantic phantom, another Hollywood enigma walking the earth.  As young men began to idolize him, and young women vied to discover his secrets, he lost interest in society more and more.

Asshole Billy tried the boundaries of etiquette and propriety.  He began to find gentlemanly conduct unnecessary.  He stopped buying flowers, and stopped buying dinners, and stopped buying drinks.  Women paid his tabs and checks, and he soon gained a rent-free room in a woman’s house, a woman he never dated.

One night he saw a woman that all the other men at the club saw, too.

“I have a bottle of Jack at my place,” he said.  “Let’s go.”

“Oh – okay,” she said.

Georgio said goodnight to his acquaintances and left with her.

On the steps to his house she stared up into his bottomless eyes and felt limp.  He kissed her neck as though looking for something deep inside her there, and pushed open the door.

She could think of no one else when she left the following morning, like scores of women before her.  She passed her day with lunch and television, and visited the same club that night, but Georgio did not arrive.

Georgio showed up at around eleven, only a little after she had gone.  The patrons told jokes and danced, yelled, and toasted each other.  Sounds of glasses and plates resounded over the jukebox.

The children of the night, thought Georgio.  What sweet music they make.

A gravity developed around him, and others drifted unconsciously nearer wherever he stood in the club.  He seemed to suck the light from the air and reflect cold, yet everyone wanted to say some little thing to him, gain a glance, a smile, a look, if only to be recognized as another person sharing his space.  Billy Georgio’s indifference played in every move he made, frank, honest, and inoffensive, and the less he cared the more total strangers liked him.

Billy became very pale in Seattle.  He became whiter than even native city folk, because he only left the garage at night.  He came to think very little about the past or future, and his emotions regarding each daily circumstance left him expressionless.  His face lost the characteristic creases at the corners of his eyes, and the lines above his brows smoothed out.  With his skin tender and new, and his eyes stormless like those in cheap portraits of Jesus Christ, Billy Georgio seemed to grow young.

Bill spoke very little.  He often found girls waiting for him on his stoop when he came home, sometimes in pairs.  Cocktail waitresses put drinks in front of him and occasionally asked to be paid.  Sometimes he knew who bought his drinks.  His boss had broken motorcycles waiting in the garage each morning, and Bill would tighten them up without needing any direction.  His checks waited on the workbench every Friday.  Like this his life revolved around him, and like the hub of a wheel, he appeared motionless, moving through the world without touching the ground, without touching a thing.

Asshole Billy grew older.

Johnson Johnson

Johnson Johnson

It never occurred to Johnson Johnson to hate his name.  It was his grandfather’s name. Having survived a horrible ordeal at sea, his grandfather died of thirst on a river delta with river water running over his boots.  He wouldn’t drink the water because he thought it was bad. Johnson always kept his grandfather close to his heart but felt no pride in his name.  He thought it adequate, and when he heard it, he answered.

“Johnson?”

“Yes?”

“Would you mind filing this month’s batch?  Mark called in sick.”

“Yes.”

Johnson took the stack and began filing the carbon papers into a cabinet by name.  He answered ‘yes’ because it sounded nice at the end of a question.  It took everything he had, to say, “No,” when appropriate, and he didn’t often have that much.

He wore his hair the way carrots wear their stalks.  It simply came out of his head and hung over his eyes and ears, ready to obscure them at any moment.  He had a young face the color of paper, with a nose in the middle like a boat’s rudder.  His ears looked like two halves of a danish stuck to his head, two sinks catching sound from everywhere and stuffing it into his head for thinking out.  When he thought things out, his big moon eyes rolled up to the ceiling and read what he wanted to think in the stucco.  His neck, meanwhile, stretched out to make the reading easier for his eyes and the catching and stuffing easier for his ears.  People often said Johnson looked like someone famous, but no one ever remembered who.  An actor, apparently.

Johnson wiped his forehead.  His hands and arms smelled like carbon paper, a scent he would have scoffed at, once, not believing it to be a real smell at all.  Now, having worked in the office for over six years, he understood that carbon paper had a presence like ambient light, sticking to and ebbing from everything it landed on, and it landed on everything.  Johnson once detected a sheaf of carbon paper in a stack of magazines in a neighbor’s garage.  He smelled carbon on his clothes, and in his car, and, like a blast of heat from an open door, he smelled it at work.

Johnson worked after the office employees went home.  He came each day an hour before they left and filed all the papers they’d generated during business hours, and each would extend well-wishes to Johnson Johnson on their way out.

“Have a nice night, Johnson.”

“Say, don’t work too hard, Johnson.”

“Take it easy, man.”

“G’night, Johnson.”

Johnson would agree with them, one-by-one.

“Yes.  Yes, I won’t.  I will.  You, too.”

They would lock him in and turn on the security system.  Opening any door or window triggered it.  When the workers returned in the morning, they entered a code.  It stopped the alarm from sounding.  Johnson Johnson did not have the code.  He wondered if they would ever give the code to him.  It seemed unlikely, somehow.

He found catalogues on the desks of the female employees to masturbate to.  It gave him added thrill to jerk off in the ladies’ room.

The employees let him out at three, and he went home to eat and sleep.  After sleeping, Johnson showered, ate, and went to work wondering where those hours went.  Eight hours of work, plus eight hours of sleep, and eight hours he somehow spent eating, driving and showering comprised a life for him.  Johnson did not mind.  He did not notice.

Ring!  Alarm clock and shower water, toilet, shower and shampoo, check email, eggs, toast, mostly email, go to work and come home, microwaveable pasta cable television.  The hour before sleep set in was the one he filled with what he really wanted.  Sometimes he ate junk food and played video games, or watched porno and jerked off, or drank soda and read popular books, and sometimes he simply spent that time taking longer to do everything that needed doing; in fact, he did this more often than not, and he spent the rest of his time chastising his self for it.

Johnson had a date with a homely woman on Friday.  When Friday came around, he met her at a coffee shop, where they interrogated each other until enough information changed hands for them to consider themselves friends.

“What’s your favorite album?”

“You mean, ever?”

“Yeah, favorite album ever.”

“I listen to music, sometimes.  What’s yours?”

“Ten, by Pearl Jam.”

“I’ve heard that, I think.”

“Well, what’s yours?”

“That was a good one.”

He felt like they were friends.  They went to dinner, then for drinks, and at one point in the evening, Johnson’s date decided to leave him.  Johnson sat in a chair near the door and watched her flirt with the bartender.  He decided to go home.  He’d had a beer, so he called a cab to take him to his apartment.  He requested a driver who’d driven him several times before and had to wait an hour for him.  He avoided meeting new people if he could help it.  He tipped the driver two dollars.

Johnson used the elevator to reach the second floor.  He swayed at his door, unable to tell if he’d had too much to drink or only felt like it.  He fumbled his keys, and couldn’t get the one he needed into the lock.  He pressed on it and slipped, and his nose slammed into the doorframe.  Blood spattered his face, shirt, and hands.

“Aieee!” said Johnson Johnson.

He shrank to the floor of the apartment building like a sack of returned mail and bled.  He touched his eyelids as though thankful he hadn’t blinded himself.  He wanted to be in bed, to make the day go away, but the thought of trying the key again made his neck and shoulders tighten.  He checked his watch.  In half an hour he would be sober enough to try again.

Johnson woke up to the feeling of hands shaking him.

“Aieee!” said Johnson Johnson.

It was his neighbor, Sandra.  She worked late as a nurse in a home for the severely handicapped.  He’d fallen asleep, and the sight of him crumpled and bloody on the floor had horrified her.  She had to take him in, had to clean him up.

“Yes!  No, thank you – I’ll be fine!” said Johnson.

Sandra plucked him up and thrust him onto her couch.  Johnson kicked himself up, but she pressed him back into the cushions, throwing powder blue sheets and a large quilt over him.  She brought a warm, moist towel and wiped dried blood from his face.

“Aren’t you lucky I found you, instead of Mr. Rule?”

“Yes,” said Johnson from around the towel, which grew cold.

She folded the bedclothes down, unbuttoned his shirt, and jerked it out from under him with the agility of someone much younger.  Before he knew what had happened, Johnson lied there shirtless.  She stepped back, holding his blood-splattered shirt to her bosom as if something had bit her.

“I’d, I’d, I’d really rather –” he said.

“You’ll be staying on the couch, tonight, Mr. Johnson,” said Sandra.

She stood behind him, out of sight, blinking.  Tears sat on the ridge of her lids and sparkled.  Her salt-and-pepper hair shook as a shiver wracked her body.

“On the couch,” she repeated.  She gaped at him.

Johnson’s skin darkened at his neckline, became a light brown as if he often went out in the sun masked.  His chest, like a plateau, flattened and dropped in two slight ridges, presiding over a valley between his ribs where muscles rolled like rows of twin hills.  His physique looked painted on his lean frame, and she noticed the sinews of his arms twining up into angled shoulders, where the muscle crossed in tendons into his neck and became skinny wires, as though someone had traded his head for someone else’s.

Johnson felt her eyes on him and yanked the sheets up under his chin.  Sandra moved into the kitchen before he could see the look on her face.  She poured tea into cups and set them on a tray.  She heard the front door close.

The next afternoon, Johnson put his clothes on and walked out the door.  He met the mailman there.

“Hello, Mr. Johnson,” the mailman said.

Johnson’s face flushed, and he retreated to his apartment without saying a word.  He did not go to work that evening.  He spent the half hour it usually took to drive there peering out of his window at cars driving by, and pedestrians on the sidewalk, and when he saw someone look up at him, he would dart away from the curtains and return when he felt sure the person had passed.  He looked at buildings across the street, and at traffic lights.  He studied the lines dividing the lanes.

He saw more cars turning onto his street than turned off of it.  He counted.  The opposite side of the street lurked in shade and broken streetlamps, while his side remained bright.  He noticed a cluster of potholes in front of his apartment for the first time.  Cars slowed over them like drivers ogling an accident.  They slowed beneath his window, and passengers occasionally saw him.  Johnson looked away.

He got into bed and used his remote to trigger the television, pulling the sheets up to his chin.  He waited for the phone to ring and formulated responses to give his boss.

“Yes, Ma’am.  I’ll be fine to work tomorrow.  Sorry for the inconvenience.”

“Yes, Ma’am.  I might still be sick, but I won’t know until tomorrow.”

“Yes, Ma’am.  I can’t work tomorrow.”

His boss never called.  No one did.  He turned the television off and slept through his shift.

He felt the morning sun on his cheek and got up, dripping sweat.  Getting out of bed, he saw a silhouette of himself on the mattress.  A misty halo faded around the crown of his head where he had lolled side to side in his sleep.  It made a perfect ring.  He showered, shaved, and fried eggs.  He stood stunned before the stove and stared long at the sunshine that crawled steadily across the bed towards the window.  It warmed and brightened the apartment.  He ate, made his bed for the first time in years, and dressed in trousers and a white v-neck tee.  He’d thought the trousers too small, but, what do you know?  They fit.

Johnson Johnson drove to the library to check out something popular.  He spoke to the librarian.

“Yes, excuse me — can you recommend something popular?”

As it turned out, all the popular books were already out, but Johnson was welcome to put his name on the list.  He decided on something unpopular, instead.  He got 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne.

He drove to the beach, where he thought the atmosphere would be nice, and took his socks and shoes off.  He felt the sand between his toes.  The waves hit his ears with a tide of noise that rose as he walked towards the ocean.  When he reached the edge of the soft sand, he looked at the sparkling sun on the peaks of the ceaseless saltwater and sat down.  He watched the movements of the people in the surf until they repeated themselves, then lay with his head back on the hot sand and began to read, using the book as a shade.

Yes, thought Johnson after a few chapters.  The harpooner was right – there are no such things as monsters.

He read the entire novel, stretched, and went home to shower.

He discovered a thick, impenetrable shell on the back of his skull while shampooing his hair.  He had laid his head into a mass of melted bubble gum.  He dried off and examined himself in the mirror.  The situation looked hopeless.  Johnson Johnson stared at his pupils.  They twitched and dilated.  He watched them as he shaved his head.  Having done, he looked to himself like an urn with the lid on, with ears for handles.  His scalp gleamed all the whiter for the rosy color his face had got despite using Jules Verne as a shield.  Naked and shaven before the foggy mirror, his head shined.

Johnson decided to go out for drinks alone, something he’d heard alcoholics do.  It was a special night to do anything other people do, because he felt like anyone but himself.  He stopped and stared in shock each time he passed his reflection.  Nothing he wore looked the same with his new haircut.  He decided to wear black trousers, a tee shirt, and black shoes.  He knew he would match that way.

He walked to the bar and saw every stool occupied.  He stood, instead.  People watched him.  He noticed.  He folded his hands and set them on the bar.

“Hey, Swizzle Stick!” called a large man at the end, “when you get a second?”

“Yeah, yeah,” said the bartender, chewing one of the plastic drink stirrers.

Johnson’s nostrils flared.  He looked at the bartender.

“What can I get you,” the bartender said.

“Anything,” said Johnson.

The bartender gazed through him.

“Wine?  Beer?  Margarita?”

Johnson said, “Anything.”

“Anything.”

“Yes.”

The bartender poured dark liquor into a shot glass.  Johnson drank it down in three swallows, coughed, and looked at the bartender’s creased face through tears that sat on his eyelids like crows.  The bartender raised his eyebrows.

“Again?”

“Yes,” said Johnson Johnson.

The bartender smiled.

Two hours later, Johnson Johnson realized he’d never been drunk.  His surroundings moved like a shuffled stack of photographs.  He turned his back to the bar, supporting himself on his elbows.  The place had gotten busy, and the only berth in the room was around Johnson.  A man wearing a loose tie bumped into him, and Johnson, heavy with drink, moved like the pyramids.

“Sorry, I’m sorry,” the man said, and left his stool.  The stool sat empty for some time, before a brunette with sleeve tattoos, black pigtails, and bangs sat there, looking at Johnson like he should notice.

“Hi,” she eventually said.

“Yes?” said Johnson, looking straight ahead.

She took his chin and turned his face to her.

“I’m fuckin’ talking to you,” she said.

Johnson’s head wavered in her hand.

“Yes,” he said.

“What’re you doin’?” she said.

Johnson grimaced and pulled his chin away.  He searched for words and found none.

“I’m fuckin’ talking to you,” said Johnson Johnson.

The brunette laughed.

“Not like that, you’re not,” she said, turning him by the waist to face her.

“See?” she said.  She looked at him.  “Do you think I look like Betty Page?  People say I look like Betty Page.”

“Yes,” said Johnson Johnson.

“Well, alright,” said the girl, putting an unpainted hand on his stomach.  Her face softened.

“Hey. . .” she said.

Her hand went up his shirt.  Johnson grabbed the bar behind him and went rigid.  His eyes became hard-boiled eggs and his boat-rudder nose twitched like a palpitating heart.

“You’re holding out on me,” she said.

The sinews in Johnson’s arms pulled and he moved to snatch her hand away, but he almost fell trying to let go of the bar.  She pulled her hand from under his shirt.

“Do you know Sandra?” she said.

“What?” said Johnson Johnson.  “Sandra?”

“Do you know her?”

“Yes.  My neighbor’s name is Sandra.  You know her?”

“I recognize you.  She showed me your picture.”

Johnson dropped his hands.  The ridge of his naked head bobbed as he gulped.

“She showed you a picture?”

Had she taken a picture of him?  He didn’t remember a camera, and he’d certainly never given her one.  Why would she have it?  And if she had taken a photo of him lying on her couch, that was only a day ago.  She was showing people?  People like this?

“I’m Sue,” she said.

“You saw a picture?” said Johnson.

“Forget the picture.  I want shots.  What do you want to drink?”

He looked at a picture of Raquel Welch that hung on the wall.  She seemed to be laughing at him.  At two, the bartender handed him his tab.  Johnson smelled the second copy and winced.

“Carbon paper,” he said.

Sue laughed.

“You’re so weird!” she said.

Johnson went home with her.  Her apartment smelled like potpourri and had empty beer bottles with candles in them everywhere.  An expensive entertainment system sat like an ancient statue in the corner of her living room, framed by black leather couches.  A magazine with Demi Moore on it rested on the coffee table.  Johnson Johnson looked around the apartment like a tourist.

Sue made love to him.  She leaned him against the refrigerator, stood him against the wall, sat him on the couch, laid him on his back.  He felt it happen.  He watched it happen.  His body became his whole world, inhabiting him like a spider’s web inhabits the spider.  He knew things about himself nothing but a night with a woman could ever have taught.  He felt weight leaving his spine.  She rode him, rocking forward and back.  He watched sweat bead between her breasts and roll down her stomach.  Her hair stuck to her cheeks and neck, and swung in time.  His hands, scarred from scores of paper cuts, mesmerized him as they reached up and took her breasts.  He stared at her flesh in his hands, white as cream, and looked past them at her face, which contorted in a confused stir of strain, aggression and joy, her eyebrows arched and her teeth bared, red lipstick smeared in a blur at the side of her mouth.  She placed his hand on her neck and held it there.  He squeezed.  His hand seemed to go all the way around her.  Her pubic hair scraped his pelvis raw.

She struck him.

He squeezed.  Her hair whipped his face.

“Fuck me,” she said.

Johnson lifted her with his hips, felt a sting build from his guts into his dick and clenched his teeth at the thought of ending.

“No,” said Johnson Johnson.

She struck him again, smiling.

“Fuck me,” she said.

“No,” said Johnson.

She seized him by the wrists and bit into his neck, her legs splayed out behind her and convulsing.  He thrust into her and cursed into her ear and poured himself into her, everything into her, into her.  Into her.

Sue’s breathing changed.  Her weight on him, slick and smooth, made his abdomen shudder.  The fragrance from her lipstick mixed with their sex smell like rose petals crushed into a locker room floor.  Her hair was in his mouth.  It tasted salty.  Good.

Johnson woke up inside her.  The morning came and went.

Johnson’s height surprised him when he next saw himself.  He saw a shadow on his head like a beard, a split lip, shadows beneath his eyes.  The neck of his tee-shirt hung stretched and distended.  Sue’s lipstick marked it like bloodstains on a revolutionary flag.

Johnson Johnson acted natural with Sue, and soon his life became a role.  They dated constantly and people said both their names when mentioning either.  Nighttime meant life.  Johnson quit going to work and went out every night.  Sue usually went with him.  Weeks went by.

His boss called to say his work had been shared with the daytime employees, and they had no position for him, anymore.  His absence had not been noted.  He called them up and asked to speak to the woman who hired him.  They’d not spoken since his employment.

“Hello, Mr. Johnson?”

“Fuck you,” he said.

“Excuse me?”

“Yes,” said Johnson Johnson.

The next time he went out with Sue, he managed to spill two drinks and break a glass, but the more drunk he became, the straighter he stood, like a boat’s mast in a storm, so the bar allowed him to destroy himself without so much as a warning.  The night someone else accosted him, he stood straight up.  The short blonde did as Sue had done, running her hand under his shirt, but his arm was around Sue, herself, so he did not clutch the bar as he had before.

“Oh, my,” said the blonde.

“Um, yes,” said Johnson.  “I’m with Sue.”

“No, you’re not,” said Sue, kissing his cheek.  “This is Nicole.”

Nicole looked up at him.

“You’re tense,” she said.

“Yes,” said Johnson.

She took Johnson home.  He spent most of the night on his back.  She blacked his eye and split his lip again.  He left her sleeping in the middle of the night.

Time passed.  Johnson needed to do his laundry.  In his apartment complex’s laundry room, he recognized a middle-aged blonde woman.  She came on to him.

“You’re Sandra’s neighbor, aren’t you?” she said.

“Yes,” said Johnson Johnson.

“Don’t be shy,” she said.  “I won’t hurt you.”

She hurt him.  His face, ridged and mottled with cuts and bruises, some fresh, some almost healed, resembled a boxer’s.  Johnson began to wonder if he should move away.  When a young lady accosted him at the supermarket, he decided to have a talk with Sandra.  Rather than knock on her door, he waited in silence in his living room to hear the door to the foyer open, then he waylaid her at the top of the stairs.

“Have, have, did, you, well-” said Johnson.  “Do you have a picture of me?”

Sandra laughed and went past him to her door, setting down sacks of groceries.

“Not anymore,” she said, her keys jingling.

“Not anymore?”

“I gave it away,” she laughed.

“You – you took a picture of me?”

She turned and took him by the shoulders.  He shrank.

“Johnson,” she said.  “Yes.”

She laughed again and left him there.  He could hear her laughing in her apartment.

Now what would he do?  The photo could be anywhere, passing from hand to hand, under eye and inspection.  He could never be himself again.  Who had it?  Who could he ask?  Johnson felt a thrill up his back.  Something had changed.

Unless I’m mean to every girl I meet, they’ll never leave me alone.

Sue told him she didn’t like the way he dressed, and bought him jeans and a forty-dollar tee shirt.  He wore them out with her that night, and they had a good time.  The next day, she left him in bed for work.  When he was certain she had gone, he nailed the blue jeans to her front door, and cut the collar and sleeves off the shirt.  He ignored her calls and wondered when he’d see her again.

He saw Nicole at the bar, first.

“Hey, you,” she said, pressing close to him, hand under his shirt.  “Missed you the other morning.”

“Yes.”

“Buy me a drink?” she said.

“Yes,” he said.

When the bartender came around, he ordered a rusty nail.

“Oh,” said Nicole, “you forgot my drink.”

“Yes,” said Johnson Johnson.

He tended to forget her drink all night.

“Why are you being such an asshole?” she said.

“I’m sorry, what?” said Johnson Johnson.  “I couldn’t hear you.”

Nicole was looking at him through slits when Sue showed up.  When she saw Johnson standing with Nicole, she glared at both of them.  Then she smiled, like a loaded gun.  She saw his cut-up tee shirt and took him by the belt.

“I need him for a second,” she said, and pulled him out to the parking lot.

They didn’t talk.

She opened the trunk of her car and withdrew the jeans.  The tops of the nails still showed in the legs where he’d tacked them up.

“Put them on,” she said.

Johnson looked at the nails, then back at her.  She struck him.

“Put them on,” she said.

He took them from her, and stepped toward the public bathroom.  She stuck her leg out and he fell.  She rolled him over and stepped on his stomach.

“Put them on, Johnson.”

“Yes,” he said.

She didn’t let him up.  It was hard to do with her standing on him.  People stared in shock, and some hurried away.  Nails stabbed his legs from ankle to waist when they walked in together.

“Rad fashion statement,” said Nicole as they approached her.

“F-fuck you,” said Johnson.

She rubbed up to him, grinding nails into his thigh.  Then she threw her arms around his neck, kissed him, and kneed him in the groin.

“Hey, Swizz,” said Sue to the bartender, “Could we get three Jack n’ Cokes, please?  On Johnny’s tab.”

Johnson Johnson became Johnny Johnson.  Just like that.

He lost his apartment before he knew what happened, because he hadn’t paid the rent.  It took four months before the landlord noticed.  He slept at Sue’s, and sometimes at Nicole’s.  He ate their food.

One night, as he laid on Nicole’s couch and gazed at the television, he smelled carbon paper.  He followed his nose to her desk drawer and opened it.  It brimmed with manila envelopes stuffed with receipts.  He gagged.

Carbon paper.

Images of his old life surfaced in his mind like the coils of a sea serpent.  He saw cubicle dividers and cheap, hard carpet, coffee in Styrofoam cups, computer screens and fluorescent lighting, and he heard bad office music permeating every inch of every room, every hallway, every elevator.  He saw himself trying to open the door to get some air, finding it locked, trying to guess the code that opened it, night after night.  He smelled carbon paper like an old paperback dipped in rubbing alcohol.

Johnson left and came back.  He had a canister of kerosene.  He poured it into Nicole’s toilet until the clear liquid almost ran over.  He left a trail of receipts to the bathroom where he tossed a ball of them in the toilet with a match and stood back.  The flames leapt.  He turned on the fan.  Smoke puffed up and smoked into the vent like a tornado upside-down.  The ball of carbon paper vanished, fluttering like fiery origami pigeons all around him, and he flushed the toilet.  He watched flames make a single spiral around the bowl and flicker at the mouth of the plumbing.  The porcelain was black with streaked soot.

Nicole found him standing before the toilet with the lights off, fire leaping from the toilet bowl.  An array of twinkling paper cinders hovered by his head, which reflected firelight in the medicine cabinet’s mirror.  If not for the thin smile that split his smudged face and turned up at the corners like an Italian moustache, if not for the whites of his eyes shimmering orange beneath their lids, she would have railed at him.  As it was, Nicole backed away.  She watched Johnny move into the living room and sweep the trail of receipts into his arms and chuck them into the toilet.  She didn’t see him empty the kerosene into it, but she heard the can clatter into the bathtub, saw the light of flame in the mirror, and put her cellphone to her ear.

“Hello, Sue?” she said.  “Your boyfriend’s crazy.”

The dynamic changed between Sue, Nicole, and Johnny Johnson.  When they walked with him, he no longer trailed behind.  They kept at his sides where they could see him.  They lit his cigarettes, rather than let him have a lighter.  They stopped pressing the nails of his blue jeans into his legs, even though he kept wearing them.  After a month, the jeans had bloodstains around the knees and above the pockets.  In bed, they abused him less as he struck back more frequently.  Sue had to wear sunglasses to work one day.  She stopped beating him altogether.  Nicole stopped when she pushed him onto the bed and found him suddenly upright and throwing her to the floor.  Things changed.

Nicole wrote love poems to him.  They were awful, but Johnson Johnson didn’t know.  He memorized them.  He shouted them in the shower like sermons.  He couldn’t sing.

One night, the register tape at the bar spilled over the counter like two tongues, a white paper copy and a yellow carbon copy.  Nicole wrote “I ♥ U” in lipstick on the strip.  Johnny read it and smiled like dominos.  Then, snatching a matchbook from the cocktail station, struck a match and set the strip on fire.  It melted the digital screen on the register before a waitress put a wet rag over it.  The bar filled with acrid smoke and smelled like a plastic factory.

The girls fled with Johnny Johnson before the cops arrived.  Swizz, the bartender, described him as a built skinhead with nails in his clothes, with two girls who had caused trouble at the bar before.  The skinhead had thrown a plastic cup of swizzle sticks at him before leaving.  The cops charged him with arson, and with assault on account of the swizzle sticks.  Johnny Johnson was a wanted man.

They drove to San Francisco.

“We can set him up and ditch him there,” whispered Sue to Nicole.

“We can’t do that to Johnny,” said Nicole.

“What the fuck, why can’t we?  You realize he’s completely insane, right?  Right?”

“Don’t say that.”

Sue looked at her.

“Fuck.  Nicole, you said it first.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did!  On the phone.  You know, when he was setting your house on fire?”

“He didn’t set my house on fire.”

Sue tapped her foot.

“What.  What is it?” said Sue.  “What the fuck is it?”

Nicole was pregnant.

Sue and Nicole arrived at the city with Johnson Johnson and got a room in an awful part of town.  A derelict slept in the concrete hallway, and lights flickered.  Remnants of wallpaper stuck to the walls and curled.  They passed three young men at the foot of the stairwell taking belts from a paper bag.

“Hum.”

“Can smell it.”

“What’s up, what’s up, ladies?”

“Damn.”

“Unh.”

“What’s up, no hello or nothing?”

“Damn.”

“Unh.”

The room’s window was open to the night when they entered.  It had bars across it.  Half the curtains were missing.  An undersized blanket hung half off the bowed and bumped mattress, and a corner of carpet folded back to expose carpet nails and rotted wooden flooring.

Nicole and Sue left to get liquor and ice.  Nicole came back.  Sue did not.  Johnny drank like the sun wouldn’t come up.  Nicole did not.  Johnny woke up after the sun had gone down the next day, disoriented, and without nails in his jeans.

“You need to get a job today,” said Nicole.

“Yes,” said Johnson Johnson.

A church hired him as a night janitor.  He vacuumed and mopped, sponged and swept, and bagged countless garbage cans, big and small.  Johnson Johnson grinned as he cleaned.  The trash never let up, and though people he did not know constantly complained to his superior that he’d missed a spot, that he always missed that spot, his superior seemed jaded to the complaints and relayed them to Johnson like an anchorman in disbelief of the headlines.  Each day he showed up someone remained late to whine and cry and bawl about something he could not fathom, and it was all he could do to say,

“Yes.  Yes.  Yes, it’s okay, please, I’ll make it better.”

He knew they would leave, though.  Afterward he would go about his business like a bicycle chain.  He loved his job.  Day after day, though, the bitching.  His back hurt after the third month, from the added weight of his utility belt, which suspended a hammer, wrench, and spray bottles.  He felt the weight in the early morning hours of his shift and groaned.

Johnson ate nightly from the refrigerator in the church kitchen.  It had leftovers from charity events and weddings and various other functions, and he enjoyed everything from bundt cake to microwaved filet mignon with capers.  One night, the food made him sick.

He sat in the ladies’s room as he had in his days as a filing clerk, trying alternately to start and stop the dilations of his backside.  Dull, internal pain throbbed and tore in his bowels, and he breathed in gasps and rhythms as sweat poured off him in spite of the relentless air conditioning.  When it had finished and the stuff inside him had come out, what he wiped from himself was like mucus.  Then he felt better than he ever remembered feeling in his life.  He decided to leave early, fished out his keys to lock up, and realized he’d been given keys.

When he got home, Nicole had gone out.  A note on the refrigerator in a strange and official hand said she was at a hospital.

Nicole birthed his child.  Johnson married her.  Nobody came to the wedding but their baby, because nobody had been invited.  When they kissed, the minister clapped, and Friday was a fine thing to Johnson Johnson just then.

They watched the tyke crawl, and then stand, wobbly-legged like a fawn, then stumble and walk.  They saw him point and burble and beg and cry.  He acted as precocious as a teenage novelist.  He communicated with his stumpy little hands like sign language, and his father swallowed hard one afternoon, when, after a vigorous walk around the block, the boy spoke:

“Johnny,” said Robert Johnson.

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