The Southern California Motorist

In a more lighthearted vein, I’ve been considering the driving habits of Southern Californians lately.  I’m not going to lie; I’ve been wanting to write on this topic for some time, now, and it appears that the moment is come.  Upon reflection, several possible approaches appeared: I could rant about things that piss me off during my commute; I could teach a sarcastic driving course; I could make fun of the habits of drivers from various different areas; or I could make fun of drivers by stereotyping their choice of automobiles.  The choice has been a difficult one though, so I’m just going to do all four.  OK?

So let’s go!  Walk around your vehicle and perform your five-point safety inspection, being sure to check tires for proper inflation, lights for functionality, and the ground for any suspicious puddles of leaked fluid.  Adjust your mirrors, seat, head restraint and steering wheel angle (if applicable), buckle and adjust your seat belt, engage the clutch and brake, and finally, turn your ignition key to start the motor.  E-brake off!  First gear!  Lightly off the clutch and hard on the accelerator, and don’t forget to make that left turn in Albuquerque.

The Average Jane or Joe

The Average Janes and Joes of Southern California drive to familiar places daily and know their roadways.  As a rule, they break posted speed limits by approximately 10 MPH and eye out-of-state plates with contempt.  They usually carry no more than two passengers at a given time (often children) and limit their choice of bumper adornments to one icon or sticker, much like local police cruisers, except that adornments on civilian autos are typically religious or political in nature.

On that score, So-Cal. Average Janes and Joes drive rather like So-Cal. cops drive, since cops give tickets here for failing to drive like a patrolling cop.  In short, the Average Jane or Joe in Southern California is a happy conformist, using signals before lane changes and turns, casually commenting on the mistakes of others, and trying not to text too much during long commutes.  Nothing spectacular.  They may be recognized by their unremarkable vehicle, which generally looks like a nice, shiny used car even when it’s bought brand-new, and which they sell 40,000 miles later with no discernible aesthetic differences.

Personally speaking: I have no beef with the Average Jane or Joe — that is, unless I’ve recently had a run-in with one of the inconsiderate bastards described below.  Almost everyone is an Average Jane or Joe sometimes.  It can depend on the car we’re driving, current stress levels, how many antidepressants we’re on, or even something dumb like what song is on the radio.  So, yeah.  As long as you aren’t doing some intensely ignorant shit, I want you to know that I understand.  We’re all on the same team.  I’ll even let you merge.

The Soccer Mom

The Southern California mode of soccer mom can be seen pacing down the freeway at a static velocity without regard to the surrounding flow of traffic.  She often seems to speak animatedly to no one, though this is really a conversation via Blue Tooth or with children hidden behind tinted windows.  Of course, it also may purport the onset of schizophrenia.  She has a selection of both political and religious bumper stickers on her rear window, and she thinks they look classier there than on the actual bumper.

The So. Cal. soccer mom has also the dubious distinction of pre-menopause, a self-administered sexual repression during what is generally considered to be the peak of female sexuality.  Soccer Mom Pre-menopause, or SMP (a reversal of PMS like menopause itself), causes a particular social apathy which is believed to produce her disregard for the surrounding flow of traffic.  The cause of this phenomenon is unknown, but researchers widely recognize a probable connection to both Oprah Winfrey and the Lifetime network.

Notable hazards include (but are not limited to): ignorance of nearby vehicles, failure to check blind spots before lane changes, and habitual stopping twenty feet before crosswalks at traffic signals.  The latter is particularly dangerous in inner cities, when Soccer Mom’s buffer of twenty feet leaves drivers several cars behind sitting in an intersection when the light changes.

Soccer moms may be recognized by their sensible choice of automobile, typically a minivan or station wagon, though overprotective and so-called “helicopter” parents prefer SUVs and 80s-era trucks such as the Ford Bronco, as these behemoths politely crush anything that otherwise might test the safety specifications of a conventional car or pickup.

Personally speaking: when one of these bitches cuts me off while reaching to slap the brat in the back seat, I begin to fantasize about all the ways I’d like to remind her that there’s a world outside the faux-safe environment she’s contrived around her kids.  Sometimes we happen to be going to the same place, and I once waited to talk to one as she got her kids out of the car.  I wanted to scare her, to invade her sanitary little incubator of a lifestyle, maybe say something to the effect that people who drive like selfish, clueless twats sometimes find Hustler magazine centerfolds flour-pasted to their precious family wagons in the morning, maybe a broken beer bottle or two on the floorboard — oh, wicked world! — but can you believe it took that bitch over five minutes to armor her little maggots against the harsh Orange County elements?  I had to give up in disgust.  They win again.

Nondescript Van Guy

Nondescript Van Guy comes from a variety of possible lifestyles.  He may be driving an airport shuttle, rideshare, or church bus.  He may be a utility worker, IT professional, or caregiver to the elderly.  He may work as a courier, electrician, cable guy, or repairman.  Several attempts to clarify the taxonomy of homo vana nondescriptus have been made, but these efforts are thwarted by several factors.

Strangely, all vans are white.  They have been painted thus since 1994, the year of the popular Harrison Ford movie, “Clear and Present Danger,” in which a string of white vans is exploded with rocket launchers.  This lack of color would be confusing enough but they also all sport tinted windows, tinted so black as to be opaque.  Many do not have side and rear windows at all, these last belonging to branch Chester molesterus, the purpose of which van is commonly presumed.  In addition, many Nondescript Van Guys do not advertise the name or nature of their business on the outside of their vehicles, forcing interested parties to guess at what regularly – or irregularly – transpires within.

Notable hazards include: use of turn signals after lane change has commenced or completed; poor driver field of vision; forward field of vision obscured for following drivers; possible kidnapping/molestation, esp. in 909 area code (watch for TAP OUT, F-Word Industries, or Metal Mulitia logos on bumpers or windows).

Personally speaking: Nondescript Van Guys don’t piss me off too much, usually.  Most of these guys have to drive these lugging steel Twinkies for their work, and they hate the lack of windows at least as much as I hate their inability to see.  Every now and then one of them gets tired of having to be extra-cautious, though, and casually slides into my lane without so much as a glance at his side mirror.  That’s when I take advantage of his lack of a rear window and start chucking stink bombs at his tail.   You’d be amazed how well those things seep into a cab from behind at sixty miles per hour.  Learned that in high school.

Plodding Doom: old people and three tons of moving steel

Though not especially confined to this locale, the elderly motorist takes great interest in the mild Mediterranean climate of Southern California, and like most red-blooded Americans, she would rather lose a limb than relinquish her cherished automobile.  This trend gives rise to perhaps the most ubiquitous known roadway hazard — the Plodding Doom.

Fortunately, the Doom feels out-of-place in traffic over 25 MPH and shuns freeways and highways in favor of community avenues and boulevards.  This sadistic disposition leads Plodding Doom to refrain from exceeding 25 MPH, however, which requires other motorists to evade, circumvent, or simply endure them, even in 45 or 55 MPH zones.  This critical danger is augmented more than somewhat by the condition of the motorists who must pass the Doom in sudden bursts of speed, many of whom are themselves Soccer Moms, Nondescript Van Guys, Grand Prix Guys, or hitherto-undocumented roadway hazards.

Approach Plodding Doom with extreme caution!  They may be recognized by their slight, non-erratic swerve, intermittent brake lights, driver invisibility, or by their vehicle, which is invariably an early model in far better condition than naturally occurs.

NOTE: the Doom is not a dextrous creature; if you suspect that you are being followed by a member of this genus and species, quickly execute a U-turn; the Doom will not be able to reciprocate, thus facilitating your fortuitous escape.  This maneuver is colloquially known as “flipping a bitch,” as the surviving majority of Plodding Dooms are of the female gender.

Personally speaking: I don’t sweat Plodding Doom.  I just go around.  I mean, shit — these people are rolling toward death as it is, and if they happen to plow into a crowd of people on 4th St. in Santa Monica every now and then, well hey, that’s facilitating evolution, too, isn’t it?  Be ever vigilant, my friends!

Modern Harley Guy

Modern Harley Guy is a disarming specimen.  He observes traffic laws, uses his turn signals, and whenever possible, travels in large packs in order to increase visibility for his own safety and that of others.  He is good-natured, magnanimous in heavy traffic, and exudes an aura of a man on holiday.  One must remind oneself at every sighting that Modern Harley Guy is a killer, and that one ought not engage him on the highway without the proper precautions: water balloons, for example.

The split personality of Modern Harley Guy contributes to his hazardous behavior.  He affords his $25,000 motorbike by working days as a doctor, lawyer, or corporate executive, a lifestyle which affords him much stress, little relaxation, and no time with which to exult in a hobby or family (though many Modern Harley Guys purchase hobbies or families intending to invest time in them at a later date).  After his children grow up and monies sufficient for the sustaining of the — often newly divorced — Modern Harley Guy are garnered, the Modharg retires from his job and accedes to  a life of leisure: a maximum of four days at the office; two days maintaining recently acquired real estate; and one day on which he forces himself to indulge in the hobby he invested in during the failure of his marriage.  Without fail, this new hobby is motorcycling.

The Modharg, having grown up in an era of Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson, still associates the Harley Davidson brand with rebelliousness, vigor, and freedom, a delusion which impels him to bizarre highway behavior, such as taking in the sunset at a cool 40 MPH without watching the road.  He does not possess any latent mechanical skill and so does not understand some or many attributes of his vehicle.  This lack of confidence causes Modern Harley Guy to operate his motorcycle like a Soccer Mom / Nondescript Van Guy hybrid, riding at static speeds, changing lanes without checking his blind spot, and moving down the road with all the apathy and deliberate ignorance of a doctor on his lunch break.  If the Modharg achieves a level of confidence with his Sunday plaything, he may take a second, younger and more blonde mate to entertain him on weekends, and in this stage of development ceases to cause problems on the road, being only dangerous when inebriated in the presence of another Modharg in a prior stage.

He may be easily recognized by the perfect condition of his new leather jacket, which is usually bedecked in scores of leather tassels, or by his Willie Nelson stars n’ stripes bandanna, which he may be wearing on his head, around his ankle, or out of his back pocket.

Personally speaking: now seriously, I want to stress that it’s the weekend warrior bastards who tend to be total wastes of water.  I mean, I ride, and I’ve met everyone from the crusty ol’ Easy Rider rebels from the 60s to the neon-suited street-bike bros, and honestly, they’re all pretty nice guys.  I mean, hell, there’s alot of camaraderie between riders, anyhow.  But Modern Harley Guys can really fucking suck!  Who gets off the bike and starts bragging about his new Ferrari?  Who fucking does that?  And what about the needless and careless fuck-you-I’m-riding-here attitude?  Needless does not mean independent, asshole.  And careless is not the same as carefree.  You’ll notice that Modhargs tend to ride with other Modhargs.  There’s a reason for that.

Grand Prix Guy

Grand Prix Guy is the villain discussed in most driver’s education courses, the type-A personality with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove, a disease stemming from various causes without any significant difference in the symptoms.  These symptoms include neurotic and unpredictable decision-making with a tendency towards active rather than passive, sharp versus gradual, breaking-through instead of blending-in.  Grand Prix Guy finds himself unable to escape the delusion that everyone envies his lightning reflexes and commanding presence on the road, and studies show that the rise in testosterone levels during his commute actually makes him feel sexier to females whom may be sharing the road with him.

Grand Prix Guy may rev his engine at stoplights to entice other drivers to compete against him or as a show of feigned self-confidence.  He may also do this as part of a bizarre mating ritual which has baffled experts, baffled them because the mating call has no record of success outside of classic movies and therefore does not lend itself to the evolution of the species.  Another step in GPG’s mating ritual is to show his poor taste in music by playing it as loud as possible, music typically of the top-40 hip-hop genre; this has changed through the years, having been gangsta rap in the 90s, heavy metal in the 80s, and in the 70s — disco.  He advertises his poor taste in music in order that Grand Prix Girls (also called “Bro Hos”) might associate themselves with him through their own poor taste in music and thereby seek him out if he happens to park nearby.  This scenario is also part of GPG’s delusion.

He may be recognized by his erratic behavior and shocking gambles on the road, but not by his vehicle.  Terrifyingly, Grand Prix Guy has been known to drive every known make and model of automobile, including even the forklift, the golf cart, and the La-Z-Boy.

Personally speaking: I used to brake-check Grand Prix Guys, until one day this jackass in a fucking Trans-Am (of course) was so close to my bumper that when I hit the brakes he fishtailed behind me and almost lost control, and at the next light he got out to threaten my life.  This motherfucker was so high on amphetamines that he looked like his face was about to tear free from his head and float away, and so pissed that he couldn’t even talk.  When the light turned green I just cruised on ahead and regretted having almost created a terrible accident.  That Trans-Am didn’t hurt anyone.  Why should I take my aggression out on a helpless macho relic from the 80s?  The moral is, when you see Grand Prix Guy and want to flip him off, remember that GPG is very likely PCP — on wheels.

S.U.V. Captains

SUV Captains have been piloting their tuna boats through the narrow straits of our cities and suburbs for a little over a decade, now, and calculating the amount of damage this misgiven trend has caused could crash the most stalwart computer processor.  Without even considering ecological complications, drivers of SUVs are six times more likely to kill other drivers in a collision, and they know this.  The Southern California breed of SUV Captain often does not own a sports-utility vehicle for sports or utility, but rather for the selfish safety of their families at the expense of other people’s safety everywhere they go.  SUVs also afford their owners all the luxury and comfort of an early-model conversion van, with an entertainment center instead of a sink and wooden cabinets.  SUV Captains drive without regard to laws, social conventions, or other drivers, and can be expected to commit any of the atrocities here described when it suits their fancy.

Large trucks present an obstacle to the flow of traffic as well as myriad other hazards, and for this reason the drivers of conventional vehicles distaste having one nearby, a lesson that newly commissioned SUV Captains learn soon after leaving his or her port-of-call.  They resent that no one wants to let them merge and do not understand that they obscure the forward field of vision of everyone following them, so they quickly begin to neglect their turn signals and opt instead for the “Fuck you, I’m coming over” method.  They also do not understand that without being able to see ahead, everyone behind them depends on their SUV’s brake lights to warn them of any approaching danger whatsoever, so they do not keep a large following distance in front of them but instead tailgate others, using their mammoth size to intimidate drivers into making way for them.  It takes no time at all before the SUV Captain sees that he is reviled on the road, and rather than rethinking his rash, self-serving decision to buy a behemoth, he sides with the other SUV Captains and simply decides that all common courtesies and civic codes were intended for common people in common cars.  A small example of this elitist mentality is pictured above.  Note the CA plate.  No surprise there.

Personally speaking: when these fucking Tonka toys first gained popularity, people made lots of dick jokes, the kind we used to tell about the Lamborghini owners and Corvette bastards.  Guy steps out of something flashy like that, you pretty much automatically figure he’s got a little dick, but it’s always seemed extra true about SUV Captains to me, maybe because I’ve never seen a tall guy step out of one.  It’s always some Napoleon motherfucker in a polo shirt, looking around and hiking up his Dockers before strutting into the local Trader Joe’s.  If their demeanor were yoked to their driving habits, I could stand being around these Rear Admirals, but the ones I’ve met have almost uniformly been assholes (and having worked in Orange County as a kid for ten years, I’ve met hundreds).  My hypothesis is that the “fuck-you-I’m-coming-over” attitude leaks into their personality until they drive their lives the way they drive their fucking Tonka toys.  Or, alternately, perhaps they were like that all along, and it took the advent of the S-U-fucking-V for them to feel right at home in their jerkmobiles,  a selfish little castle for selfish little men — oh, and for their Soccer Mom Pre-menopausal wives, lest we forget.

Rolling Status Symbol Guy, Addendum I.

Rolling Status Symbol Guy drives like a cross between a Modharg and a Soccer Mom, except I’ve never been able to figure out exactly what it is that causes their utter apathy.  They aren’t necessarily assholes in person, and they don’t seem particularly unintelligent.  Whatever it is, I know that I should never get behind one, because the nicer the car, the less urgent the business, and I want to get where I’m going preferably before my unborn grandchildren do.  You ever notice how a late model Lotus will never exceed the speed limit by even a little?  And speaking of the Lotus, why are they all neon?  Who wants to spend 60,000 dollars on a lime-green sports car?

That’s nothing compared to the Lamborghinis, though.  The way Lamborghini drivers get around is irony beyond compare.  Imagine! $300,000 just to putt around like you were in a Volvo.  What the fuck is the point in that?  If I could afford something exorbitant like that, and if I could justify its expense to myself, I’d be able to justify driving like I was on the autobahn, too, and I’d poo-pooh speeding tickets just as if I were shooing a fly.

Of course, maybe it really is just a status symbol.  Really?  Really?  These fucktards are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars so other people are forced to accept that in some parts of the world, this is considered a standard purchase?  I guess if I were at the top, I’d be lonely, too, and this sort of reaching out for some semblance of respect, some distant glimpse of a smile in my direction might be all I had that kept my uneventful existence from becoming an exciting front page murder/suicide story.

On the other hand and to be fair: maybe they’re just sleepy, boring fuckers with irrational spending habits and a penchant for leather seats?  Couldn’t tell you.  Last time I tried to interview one, I practically jumped out the window myself.  Those poor bastards converse like a real-estate firm’s answering machine.

The Fixer, Addendum II.

OK, OK, I know — the fixed-gear bicycle is not technically a car.  But they’re on my fucking roads, and they’re in my fucking way everywhere I turn here in Long Beach, CA.  These entitled sons of bitches actually seem to think that I have some obligation to them and their $3,000 fashion accessory.  They want to merge into traffic at 30 MPH in the 45 zone.  They want extra room in the slow lane so they can ride in their trendy little cliques, three people abreast, their cute little capri shorts showing off their cute little emo bottoms.  They actually lobbied and won their own stupid lane in the road here where I live! Never mind the heavy traffic — we have goddamn fixers to coddle.

That was to decriminalize behavior like this jackass exhibits here, in the above photo, shown doing a K-rad skid out in the middle of the fucking roadway during heavy traffic.  Awesome!  Good job.  And who would you suppose snapped up this fantastic photo opportunity?  The driver of the car behind, who was completely impressed, I’m sure?  No, it was one of the other fixers in the fashion-fuck echelon of Tour de France assholes behind him, of course.  They probably took turns doing fabulous skid outs for one another to take iPhone pictures of while riding one-handed, downhill, in traffic, so that they’d all have the eye-catching splendor of themselves in fixed-gear fashion on their Facebook pages.

Well, fuck them.  And you know what?  Even if they weren’t riding around like they owned the place, popping up in swarms of self-acceptance like the result of a Lance Armstrong gangbang via members of Paramour and My Chemical Romance, I still wouldn’t be OK with the spandex-free cycling fad, because fixers’d still contend that they’re engaged in this ridiculous trend for reasons other than that it’s fashionable, and I can’t stand a lack of introspection that grievous.

*                *                *

So that’s that.  I’m not going to say any more about any of the other kinds of shitty highway behavior or anyone else’s lack of etiquette.  To be completely honest, it’s frickin’ horrifying to look back on all this and see that this is the amalgam of death that we gamble our lives on here every day.  It’s even more chilling to reflect on ourselves honestly and realize that from time to time, we’ve all been one or two of these assholes.  Some of us are Grand Prix Guy every Friday after work.  Others are Plodding Death every Sunday after church when we’re still feeling “the spirit of the Lord.”  Still others of us much resemble the Rolling Status Symbol Guy, except that instead of Vivaldi’s “Quattro Stagioni” on the stereo, we have Sly and the Family Stone, and instead of a Bentley, we’re bouncing along in a VW bus, and instead of a Cuban cigar, we have a British-Columbian cigarette. . .  You get the picture.

Anyhow, the point is, nobody wakes up in the morning and says, “Today, world, I am going to drive like utter shit all over you, and on top of that, I intend to be a total dick.”  Nobody says that, so keep it in mind when you really loathe that motherfucker in front of you clogging up the fast lane, or start to kind of hate the swerving madman who really may be drunk, or begin to detest whoever parked that goddamn SUV half on the sidewalk in front of your apartment.  If there’s any difference between your Average John or Jane Doe and the other people on this list, it’s that some drivers work together to keep from getting home any later than necessary, and some fuck it up by trying to do it their own way.  I guess that’s all I have to say about that.

Have an Awesome Trip and Happy Motoring,

-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.

Pollywog

Pollywog

Paula could not find a lover because she looked like a toad.  Her thin mouth made an unhappy equator across her moon-shaped face.  Freckles dotted her wide nose and otherwise would have been cute, except they added to her unfortunate frogginess.  She wanted a lover very much.  She enjoyed kissing almost as much as she enjoyed drinking, and though she drank incessantly she had not been kissed in a very long time.  Paula looked like a very sad toad.

Today her lips pulled down in an awful grimace, and she cried pollywog tears onto her new yellow dress.  White lace ruffled at her arms and bosom.  A lavender sash wrapped around her waist in a large bow.  The lady at the garment store had tied it for her.  The garment lady lent her lavender shoes, too, and Paula stood crying on the street corner in them.  She resembled a sunflower wearing a violet, with a toad hiding between the petals.

Cars passed her and drivers stared, which made her weep in sobs and chokes.  She thought of their destinations as happy, everyday places like the market, the post office, or grandmother’s house.  She wanted to be one of them.  She imagined herself in the next empty seat she saw, riding along to anywhere instead of crying pollywog tears in the garment lady’s lavender shoes.

Yesterday and for years before, Paula wore blue jeans.  She didn’t like taking time to match shirts to skirts, choosing shoes and socks, only to do it all over again tomorrow.  She felt comfortable in jeans and sneakers, and any old shirt.  Blue jeans looked better as they got older, she thought.  They hung well on her hips.  Paula loved jeans.

Georgio did not.

Georgio worked in a record store for the discount.  He wore his hair long and smelled like cologne and gasoline.  He rode a nondescript motorcycle with only one seat.  He had a few tattoos and drank almost as much as Paula, and never, ever, wore blue jeans.

A counter stood between them at the bar where they met.  He complimented her hair, her freckles.  That she resembled a toad did not seem to occur to him.  She liked his cologne and told him so.  She liked the way he smelled of gasoline, too, but did not tell him.

They drank scotch together.  They drank dry scotch, complex scotch, smooth scotch, scotch neat, scotch on-the-rocks, with 7-Up and in rusty nails.  They sipped it, shot it, ordered it, watched it poured, and drank it.  They drank and drank, and many people began to worry about them until they saw that Paula and Georgio were inexhaustible, and decided to worry about themselves as the night dwindled, instead.

The scotch reddened their faces and their hands touched.  They held hands.  Paula was especially fond of holding hands.  She especially liked holding Georgio’s hands, because Georgio had very large hands that looked like lily pads beneath her own.  She laughed at Georgio’s jokes because he was funny, and looked into his eyes because they were pretty.  Paula liked Georgio.

She said she liked blues records, and Georgio said anyone who knows anything likes blues records.  Georgio said he liked ponytails with ribbons in them.  Paula thought it very convenient because she had a ribbon around her ponytail, and told him so.  Paula said she never went to church.  Georgio said that was fine; once, he burned one down.  Georgio said he loved green eyes.  Paula had green eyes.  She raised an eyebrow at him and smiled.

Georgio said pink was in fashion.  Paula said it was too much.  Georgio said he thought so, too.  Paula said luxury cars were excessive.  Georgio didn’t like them, either.  Georgio scoffed at politics.  Paula sniffed.  Paula told Georgio about the corrosive properties of cola, and he stopped drinking it.  Georgio said cell phones disgusted him.  Paula, too.  Paula had one anyway.  Georgio, too.  They called each other and talked on their phones, laughed, spilled their scotch.  They smiled and looked at each other.  They were the happiest couple in the bar.  Paula croaked a delicate hiccup, and Georgio’s eyes flashed adoring blue.  Then Georgio said:

“I hate girls who wear blue jeans all the time.”

Paula’s chest closed up and she sobered in a dizzying rush of confusion that left her disoriented.  He had said he hated her.  Her body stung with regret and self-revulsion.  Georgio didn’t hate her!  The denim burned against her legs, and her eyes welled.

“Me, too,” said Paula.  “I hate blue jeans.”

Georgio’s hand softly caressed her chin.  It seemed weighted to her chest.  She pulled the long line of her mouth up at the corners and fooled him into thinking she felt happy.  He raised his glass to hers and they celebrated youth, and young love.  Paula’s stomach rolled guilt deep in her guts.  He gazed on her and her eyes fluttered.  Beneath the counter separating them her blue jeans huddled away from Georgio.

The whiskey went and closing time came.  Georgio stood, arranging his pleather pants and grease-stained shirt, waiting for Paula to come.  She hid her jeans beneath the counter and swallowed the lump in her throat.  Perspiration like moss clung cold to her arms.  Her smile waned as it grew wider.

She had to use the ladies’ room, she said.  She’d meet him outside.

Georgio’s swagger looked and sounded like man as he left her.  She watched him.  Then she felt him waiting outside, imagined him taking her hand and leading her away from there.  She detested her favorite blue jeans.  An absurd desire to strip them off and go to him naked paddled among the reeds and pussy willows of her mind.  Her agony frustrated her until the moon of her face beamed rosy and hot.  She glowed from whiskey and Georgio, too.

Paula intended to leave through the back exit and create an excuse later, but what on earth would she say?  If he did not hate her for wearing blue jeans, he would hate her for deserting him after a flawless night of scotch and shameless flirtation, for sure.

She felt him waiting.  It hurt.

Fear attacked desire.  The indecision annoyed her still more.  Paula’s passions refused her anxieties any compromise, and her womanly will rebelled within her.  She stood.  All the other patrons had gone.

“Bar’s closed,” said the bartender.

Paula’s long, slow strides toward the door struck him stiff.  He stopped wiping glasses to stare.  Her thin red lips pursed in defiance and her eyes shone like sparkling emeralds.  Dainty little freckles dotted her nose and cheekbones.  Her jeans hung on her hips like the foil wrapper on a wine bottle.  How had he failed to notice her before?

She went past the door and doorman, down the stairs.  She stopped on the landing to remove her sneakers.  She pushed down, stepped out of the blue jeans.  She pulled away her shirt.  With only her purse and underwear she went downstairs and out into the faltering light of streetlamps.

Georgio’s heart stopped.  The drunken crowd outside sang and shouted.  Had she not been looking right through him he would not have known her, blinded by skin and lace.  She had an aura from the night mist glistening on her white neck and shoulders.  He raised his open arms.  She stood there.  Then she went to him.  She felt his calloused hands on her and thrilled.  They kissed.  Paula exploded inside.  The street cheered.  The last details Paula remembered were the cold, brisk air on her body and the scent of cologne and gasoline.

She woke up in his bed alone with the morning sun on her face.  A foggy memory of his last kiss lingered.

“Goodbye — good morning,” he had said.

His apartment displayed very little.  A dresser, a bed, a round table with two plain chairs and an ashtray with two smoked cigarettes in it.  A tiny kitchen and a tiny bathroom.  On the wall hung a portrait of Sandra Bernhard on Broadway.  She sang in a negligee with her eyes closed and looked arguably irresistible.

Paula wanted breakfast.  Barefoot on the kitchen tile, she found the refrigerator empty except for beer and a canister of imported Greek olives.  She twisted it open and popped one in her mouth.  With the joyful contentment of a poet she rolled it on her tongue, feeling its roundness against the inside of her lips.  She sucked the oil from it and nibbled.  With her front teeth she pared the flesh from the pit and chewed it, swallowing only when every vestige of firmness had been savored away.  She walked naked to the garbage can and spat the seed into it with a smirk, turning on her heel.

The sun through the open drapes gladdened her.  People walked by and saw her naked body.  Realizing her clothes were still on the stairs at the bar, she laughed and laughed until she fell breathless onto the bed.

In the dresser she found a pair of grey wool slacks that fit her if she left the button undone and rolled the waist down.  In the closet she found an assortment of grease-stained nylon shirts.  She dressed, and to her indulgent delight discovered that the smell of cologne, gasoline, and man were on her like images on a photograph.

Barefoot and dressed in his clothes, Paula walked downtown.  She passed an elderly couple holding hands and whistled a song, poorly.  She kicked a pebble off the sidewalk with her toes.  She sniffed the morning breeze and tasted the salt from the ocean.  She clutched the collar of his shirt to her nose and smelled the Georgio mixed with Paula there.  The morning seemed to last all day.

She had breakfast at the café, and afterward coffee ‘till noon.  Then she had lunch, more coffee, and even borrowed a cigarette.  It was her second cigarette.  It tasted good with coffee.

Later as the sun proved the afternoon, she called Georgio at work and without effort convinced him to take her out.  They’d go to the races, he told her.  They’d bet small amounts on horses they would not speculate on.  They’d have steak, and conversation, and most of all, scotch.

Paula felt unlike herself.  She felt more like herself than ever before.  She dove into her persona and discovered that, after all, she turned herself on.

She walked to the tailor’s.

A beautiful middle-aged lady embraced her there.  She told Paula that yellow would bring out her eyes and go with her hair.  She said there was a dress that, with some minor alterations, would grace her figure and accent her womanly curves.  She showed it, and Paula agreed.  She’d look really good.  The price to finish it the same day was exorbitant.  She paid.

When the dress was complete Paula needed shoes.  The garment lady lent her lavender ones and gave her a lavender sash.  She tied it for her in a pretty circle that clung to her middle in a dainty way, smiling at Paula’s shining face as the knot slipped tight and the ends fell into round, feminine loops.  In the mirror she admired herself.  She looked like a sunflower wearing violets.

Many people passed the garment lady’s storefront.  Some of them eyed her with good things behind her eyes.  Some had no eyes but for each other.  Others seemed to have no eyes.

Paula stood at the street corner wondering what she would do until later, when a handsome pair of lovers walked by and paid her no attention.  In the swamp of her welling disgust she watched them pass, and the sight of denim on a woman’s hips sickened her to death when the faint aroma of gasoline washed over her freckled nose a moment later.

Pollywog tears swam from her eyes.  Her stubby fingers wiped her cheeks and felt clusters of tiny warts there.  She clutched yellow fabric in her hands.  The impulse to tear it away came with the memory of last night’s liberty and lust, making stillborn her infant self-love and stabbing shame deep into her thudding breast.  Powerless against a flood of degradation she felt pressing from everywhere but within, she sank beneath the stagnant surface of her bog and withered.  She shrank and receded inside as sorrow replaced all she knew once more, and the thought of herself made her shudder in revulsion.  Her eyes narrowed and her teeth gnashed.  Her nails cut into her palms as she wept.

Paula hated her yellow dress.

She hated that her yellow dress made her feel beautiful.  Paula hated with the hate of a bride defiled.  She hated with an innocent, poisonous purity.  She hated with the hate of a prostitute placed on a pedestal to be adored.

Paula could not find a lover because she looked like a toad.

Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson

At thirteen, Robert had a routine breakfast.  He had optimum body weight, good posture, and some pimples.  He had some Journey albums, a Snoopy alarm clock, and new basketball sneakers.  Robert hated basketball.  Robert had a C average, a favorite book, and an only friend.  Robert’s English teacher called his life a crescendo of magnificent unpopularity.

“That’s a well-turned phrase,” Robert’s science teacher said.

“Thank you,” said his English teacher.

His science teacher repeated it to his history teacher.

“A crescendo?  Of magnificent unpopularity?” he said.  “How sad.”

He mentioned it to Burt Reynolds, the school psychologist.

Reynolds summoned Robert to his office, which meant Robert saw the principal, first, where the principal told him how to find the counselor.  Robert’s classmates had no idea that he went there, but the principal did, and it came up as dinner conversation with his wife.

“One of our students, a magnificently unpopular one, was called to the shrink’s office, today,” he said.

“Magnificently unpopular!” said his wife.  “My!”

“Yes,” he said.  “I can’t help but wonder what Reynolds tells these kids.

Dr. Reynolds placed a box in front of Robert.  Robert looked at it as though it were ticking.

“Robert,” said Burt Reynolds, “inside this box are four boxes.  Inside each of those boxes are eight boxes.  How many boxes are there?”

Robert stared at it, and back at the doctor.  He looked at the box again, then at Burt again.  He stared.

“Take your time.”

“The question’s wrong, I think.”

“No.”

“Yes.  You mean eight boxes, not four.  Four boxes would only fill up half of it.  They’d all shake around.”

Reynolds sighed through a smile.

“The question does not say the box is full, Robert.  There are four of them in this one, and eight in each of those.”

“But, that’s wrong,” said Robert.  “Why would you do that?  If you put those thirty-two small boxes on top of the four medium boxes, they’d fill the big box perfectly.”

Burt Reynolds shook his head.  Robert received a poor grade on his evaluation.  The doctor also called the office to recommend a phone call home.  He wanted to meet Robert’s parents.

They wore sunglasses to the meeting.  His mother cried.

Soon, Robert had twin prescriptions, an upper to balance his depression, and a downer to mitigate any anxiety arising as a side effect.  Robert’s only friend called them meds.  His parents called them vitamins.  Robert took them.

The meds numbed the back of his neck as he sat at his desk on the first day of school.  He felt his spinal chord become spaghetti.  His head lolled as he looked around.  Posters of movie stars holding their favorite books lined the walls above the blackboards.  A stuffed Beethoven doll sat on an old speaker installed over the door beside the American flag.  Beneath it, as Robert’s eyes dulled, a girl appeared in the doorway.  She looked to Robert like a light hid under clothing, shining in the doorway with pale flesh that peeked below bangs and above blouse and bra, and when the teacher spoke to her, she nodded.  Yes, her name was Brooke Williams.

Robert had only that first class with Brooke.  Their teacher, Ms. Finch, looked like a hamburger.  Short and squat, with a round face creased by too much smiling in her long, mysterious life, Finch could not have garnered more animosity from the sixth graders at Ethel Dwyer Jr. High.  Kids treated her like the nerdiest kid in class.  Robert liked her.

The nerdiest kid in class would have been Robert Johnson, except he had his mother’s good looks.  Unfortunately, though, he also had his father’s anxious temperament.  Handsome and tall, with ears like the handles of an urn, he spoke when spoken to and otherwise hid himself behind the cover of a book.  He loved to read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and felt like the only kid in the world who had read it four times.  He sympathized with Captain Nemo.  He fantasized about making his own empire beneath the waves where beauty meant kindness and anger meant ugly.

Robert’s parents beat each other up.  They never did it in front of him, but neither his mother nor father ever went a month without a black eye.  For years their penchant for sunglasses seemed natural to him, until he learned from television that people wear them to disguise abuse.  They loved each other, though, he thought, and they treated him like a god, except when he talked back to them or had not done the dishes.

“Everybody else has a dishwasher,” he said.

“Yes,” said his father, “but we’ve got you.”

Robert Johnson did the dishes and went to his room.  He had a record collection there that his Aunt Sue had given him, but most of the albums he played were his own.  Kids at school had CDs, but those cost twenty dollars apiece.  He could get three used records for ten bucks, his weekly allowance.  Today he played one of his favorites, a blues record by a guy also named Robert Johnson.  Lots of his Aunt’s records had screamy singers on them, and he liked those, but he couldn’t sing to them.  He could sing the blues, though.  He listened and listened, and learned the words.

“Old John Henry,” he sang, “steel drivin’ man.  Steel drivin’ ma-n, John Henry.”

He sang as he typed on an old computer.  He wrote a story about a man who lost his daughter on the foggy moors of Victorian England.  Searching in vain, he stumbled upon a magical book that led him to different worlds to search for her.  Robert planned to reunite them at the end.

Robert wrote by candlelight.  He knew nothing of paragraphing, so it all came out in blocks of PGDN.  He’d written scores of pages that way, by candlelight and the light of the monitor, in the silent hours of night when his parents slept.  He would go to bed at one or two, and wake up at seven for school, every day.

School gave him a world of joy and hurt, joys open and evident, and hurts not so obvious to those around him.  School formed faces and emotions for him, and he injected people into his writing like a god, picking out traits and happenstances as he liked and imagining America reading about them, wondering if anyone would ever know that he’d stolen them for fiction, as copy after copy sold out at Barnes n’ Noble or some other chain book store.  He stole his friends, his enemies, and, most recently, he’d stolen Brooke Williams.  She was the lost daughter in his tale.

Each day he had math with Brooke, he thought to himself that she had no idea how famous he’d make her.

He knew she didn’t know.  He knew he’d make her famous.  He knew he had to pursue her for her sake, because she deserved him.

Kids passed notes in class, and teachers would read them aloud if found, teachers who wrote kids up, threw notes away, reprimanded, or otherwise.  It excited Robert to take part in it.  He wrote notes designed to draw a positive reaction if read aloud.  He made them poetic, incendiary, funny, and brilliant.  He begged to get caught but never was.  Brooke and Robert exchanged a few.  Her notes read like journals.

Im in 1st period with you now.  Can you believe Finch?  This homework is so lame!  I got grounded for staying up too late on the phone.  My dad really needs to die.  I got new shoes yesterday there black and purple.  I love purple!  Purple purple purple purple purple.  That’s the bell hold on.  OK now Im in 2nd period.

Sometimes they went three pages like that, little windows into Brooke Williams’s life.  She folded them into triangles, or clever arrows that needed dismantling, or angular hearts that looked like valentines.  Robert sweated when they looked like valentines.

One day, Robert decided to tell Brooke he thought her beautiful.  He wrote a poem during science class, folded it into an airplane, and waited for the bell to ring.  When it did, he went into the hall with everyone else and stood away from Brooke’s locker.

He waited for her to appear.  She had a trio of pretty girls with her when she did.  They talked in rapid sentences all at once, over and around each other.  Listening to them reminded Robert of an orchestra tuning their instruments.  They looked like sisters, all of them in black skirts and knee-highs, Mary Jane doll shoes and white, short-sleeve business shirts.  They could have conquered Africa.

Robert Johnson stepped toward them, poem plane in hand.  He inhaled.  He exhaled.  He flipped the poem airborne.  It sailed straight, dipped a wing, collided into her open locker door and fell.  They backed away from it.  Robert panicked.  He stamped between them and took it up, thrusting it into her locker.  Her locker had a wall of textbooks in it and the plane fell again.  He snatched at it, missed, picked it up again, and shoved it inside.

He tried to hurry away and jostled one of them.  The busy hall prevented his escape.  He blended into it with difficulty.  He sweated through his next class.

“What’s the matter with you?” said his mother.  “I hate the attitude you’re giving me.”

“I don’t have an attitude,” said Robert.

“What’s the matter with you?”

“Nothing!” said Robert Johnson.

He played his Aunt Sue’s rock records all weekend and bared his teeth through the guitar solos.  He did not sing along.

Brooke didn’t answer his notes on Monday.  She glanced at him as though he were a panhandler, looking his direction but never exactly at him.  When he sneezed, she did not bless him.  He told Mike, his only friend, all about it.

“Whaddya see in her, anyhow?” Mike said.  “I mean, she treats you like fuckin’ furniture.”

Robert winced at the cussing.

“No, she doesn’t.”

“Sounds like it.”

“She didn’t before.”

“She does now, though.  Right?”

Robert shrugged, looked at his sneakers.

“I guess so.  I mean, yah, kind of.  Gosh,” he said.  “she’s so hot, though.”

Mike sighed.

“We’re doomed to walk alone, man.  Doomed to walk alone.  Fuck it.  Let’s go rent a movie.”

Mike and Robert had a tradition.  They ran most places they wanted to go in as straight a line as possible, vaulting fences, using each other as ladders, crossing the rooftops of houses, leaping from heights and rolling like paratroopers, using their jackets to blunt barbed wire and the tops of chain link.  If they bled on the way home, they considered their cuts and scrapes medals for another successful mission.

They rented a science-fiction movie about an intergalactic siege and felt inspired.  Mike knew where Brooke lived, he said.  They should toilet paper her house.  He talked Robert into it.  Robert called his mom, and she said he could spend the night.  They filled a backpack with rolls of toilet paper and snuck out late, having devised several booby traps to set around Brooke’s house.

A huge, umbrella-shaped tree stood in her front yard.  They threw toilet paper over it until it looked like a bride.  They tossed roll after roll over the roof like grenades.  They gave the garage door a white curtain.  They hopped the fence and stuck a safety pin into the top of the front door’s frame, then opened a second and hung it on that one.  They threaded string through the wire circle of the first one and tied it to the doorknob.  They tied a balloon to the other end, filled with whipped cream.  They lined little glass stink bombs under the doormat, and traded the key there for Mike’s.  They looked identical.  They vaselined the doorknobs and and the dial on the padlock at the gate, and balanced a tower of eggs on the knob leading to the separate garage.  Then, hooting and whooping like Apaches, they leapt over the fence and ran home.

Having taken his meds, Robert watched the door for Brooke on Monday morning and waited to feel their effects.  Brooke walked in.  Her eyes looked a little red, and her hair was up, something he’d never seen before.  When he passed a note to her, she wrote back.  Her house had been toiled-papered.  The kids had played pranks on her family, too.  Her dad made her clean everything up, and she got locked out of her house the night before.

That’s so unfair!

I know!  I wish hed just die.

You don’t, really.

Not really hes just really lame sometimes and I wish he would.  I wish I could live with my mom in virginia but shes in virginia and I don’t want to live there.  Virginias so lame.

Robert wanted to ask her if she’d read his poem airplane but thought better of it.  His forehead creased at the thought of the conversation.

Then this face smoothed out, and he felt oil making a second skin over him.  He swiped his fingers across his cheekbones and imagined leaving streaks, but his skin felt dry as hardpan.  The tops of his ears tingled cold.  He looked up at Brooke again, the back of her head, the nape of her neck, and saw it glow with a pearl light that pulsed around her.

He pushed his eyes to the folded notebook paper and rested the tip of his ballpoint pen on a blue line.  His hand moved.  He expected to leave greasy smears as his wrist slid over the page.  Words came out.

Virginia’d be less lame with you there.  What would they do with you?  The trees would lay down.  Sidewalks would turn to marshmallow and golf courses would sprout wildflowers.  The sun would stay out ‘till you went home, and stars would wait through dawn to see you off to school.  But, yeah, he wrote, Virginia’s probably lame, now.

He folded the paper into an octagon and drew a big happy face on it, then slipped it to the kid in front of him.  The kid asked another kid to borrow a pen, and dropped the note into his book bag when he opened it.  That kid kicked the girl next to him, and she looked over.  He nodded at the floor.  She picked up the note and tickled Brooke’s neck with it.  Brooke took it from behind her ear and unfolded it in her lap.  When Ms. Finch started scratching at the blackboard, Brooke twisted in her seat and looked at Robert.  Robert locked eyes with her, smiled, and looked away.

The bell rang.

The rest of the day shined like gold to Robert.  He went to a coffeehouse with Mike in the afternoon, and wrote until two when he got home.  The next morning, having enjoyed the benefits of the previous day’s medication, he ate a double dose.  An hour later, he felt better.

He cruised through the main hall at school heedless of his footsteps.  He studied the antique chandeliers and gilded crown molding for the first time, looking out over the heads of his classmates like a runway model looks over a crowd.  People made way for him.  A boy with hair in his eyes bumped into him and excused himself.

“Sorry,” said Robert, smiling at and steadying the kid before moving on.

Robert started a new short story in pre-algebra that morning.  He wrote with fluidity and confidence and flow, and by the end of the day it looked like something excellent was happening.  He kept at it, and the confident feeling stayed.  It took him until the start of eighth grade to get the story where he wanted it.  When winter break came along, he tied the manuscript in a ribbon and gave it to Brooke for Christmas.  She took it with wide eyes, thanked him, and went off to join her black skirt and knee-highs troops.

Winter break distracted Robert from school life.  He took less of his medication to make it look like he wasn’t doubling up on it.  As a result, his demeanor changed.

“Why are you so mean?” said his mother.  “It’s Christmas.”

“I’m not,” said Robert.

“Well, what’s with the attitude?”

“I hate when you say that!”

“Well, what’s with-”

“I don’t have an attitude!”

“Okay, okay, okay, okay, okay.”

“Jes’ leave me alone.”

Christmas came and went.  Robert saw lots of drunk relatives, wrapped and unwrapped presents, and received lots of clothing he hoped his mom wouldn’t make him wear.  He had forgot all about his present to Brooke Williams by the time school started.

He had only just stepped onto campus when she raced up to him.  He shrank from her.

“Oh, my god!” she said.  “Oh, my god, Robert, your story – was so good!  So good.  I cried, I cried so hard at the end.”

Robert gawked at her.

“Um,” said Robert, “so you liked it?”

“Oh, my god, I loved it,” said Brooke.

“Oh.  Good!  Thank you,” he said.

“Thank you,” said Brooke.  “Thanks, Robert.  Thank you so much.  Thank you.”

Then, she left.

Robert became an author.  He started work on a sequel to the story he’d given Brooke right away.  He stopped reading during math and science, and started writing.  He finished the novella before summer.  It had seventy-seven pages.  He thought the number lucky.  When he edited it, he re-arranged the words and changed the punctuation in such a way as to not lower the page count.  He wanted her to know how much work he’d done for her.  He also liked the number seventy-seven.

That’s how he spent eighth grade.  He wrote and read, read and wrote, and learned how best to take his vitamins.  Rather than popping them every day, he took them as he liked, tightening and loosening his nervous system according to his whimsy.  On bright days when he felt energetic, Robert chopped up his downers with a butter knife and sniffed them up his nose.  On gloomy, overcast days, he snorted uppers and took walks.  When he wrote upbeat material, he took uppers, and took downers for writing more dramatic portions.  Robert felt fine.  Mike worried about him.

“Dude, you should take it easy on that stuff, man,” he said.

“I can’t.  My psychologist says I’s gotta take them.”

“Dude, I don’t think he meant for you to take them like that.”

“What’s the difference?” said Robert.  “As long as I’m taking them.”

It rained one day, and Robert snorted uppers.  He stood near the enormous doors leading into the auditorium that housed the students at lunch when it rained.  One kid had brought a palm leaf from outside and stood on the steps above Robert, batting Robert on the head.  The other kids paid no attention.  Robert waited and let him do it.  The kid said things Robert didn’t listen to.  He wondered when the doors would open so they could go in.  They stayed shut.  The palm leaf had thorns along its branch like saw teeth, and the kid started poking his scalp with them, lifting his hair, and bopping him on the head.  It continued.

Robert had the longest arms and legs in school.  When he turned and seized the boy’s neck, pinning his head to the wall behind him, Robert barely had to move.  The palm leaf fell, and the kid spasmed, kicking his legs and clutching spasmodically at his throat.  Everyone turned around.  Robert’s voice sounded like rocks grating.  He spat in the kid’s face, close enough to kiss him:

“I – am not – amused.”

Robert threw him to the floor and curled his lip.  The kid, rigid, made a show of agitation but stood there shaking.  Robert looked at the other kids, back to him, and turned around.

It never came up.  He wondered if anyone would remember it long.  Brooke heard.

“I heard you beat up Clem,” she said to him.  “Did you beat up Clem?”

“I didn’t beat him up.  He was being a jerk.”

“I heard you did.  Didn’t you choke him and throw him down?”

“It wasn’t like that.”

“Well, he’s my friend, okay?  So don’t do that anymore, okay?  I’m mad at you.  I can’t believe you did that!”

Robert watched her stalk away.  Mike heard, too.

“Dude!  I heard you kicked the shit out of Clem Hutchinson.”

“It wasn’t like that.”

“You know that’s Brooke’s friend, right?  Fuckin’ shit, dude!  That’s so rad.  You’re crazy, though.  She’s never gonna talk to you again.”

“I talked to her today.”

“What’d she say?”

“She said to stay away from him.”

“You gonna beat him again?”

“It wasn’t like that!”

“Well, I bet you anything he gets his friends and wants to fight you.”

Robert’s shoulders drooped.

“You really think?”

Mike raised his eyebrows, smiled, and nodded.

“He’ll take you to the park.”

“I won’t go,” said Robert.

“You have to go, man.  Or he’ll fuck with you all the time.”

Robert sighed, examining the ground.

“What do I do?”

Word spread through school faster than Robert could hear it firsthand.  He was fighting Clem Hutchinson at Lake Park after school.  Clem never said a word to him.  Everyone knew.  Robert ditched school.  He walked home, took out his downers, and cut up eight of them.  He snorted them in a pile with a swizzle stick taken from his parents’s coffee set.  He swaggered back to sixth period English.

The ceiling drooped in class and the walls bent inward.  He saw the windows bulge convex and the teacher’s desk sag.  His shoes felt like anvils.  He hid behind 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea like an ostrich, but the words seemed pointless to him.  When the bell rang, it rang dull and matter-of-factly.

The bell is ringing.

Robert shuffled into the hall.

Robert’s schoolmates herded him out the south door and through the parking lot, across the street and into the park.  The crowd left an open circle on the grass, like nobody wanted to be in the middle.  Cars crawled by.  Adults walked onto their lawns and stood hands-on-hips, watching.  An old man talked on a brick-like cordless phone.

His peers pushed him through the crowd.  He couldn’t feel their bodies.  In the middle of the circle, he swayed on his feet and tried to feel his pocket change.  People shouted and hollered.  They sounded mushy.

Clem stood with his friends.  They laughed and clapped him on the back as he stepped around.  Robert made eye contact with him, and Clem shouted something.  Robert smirked.  He wondered if Brooke was watching.

Clem ran across the circle.  He smashed his elbow into Robert’s cheek.  Robert spun to the ground.  Robert felt grass in his hands, spongy, wet, and crisp.  He squeezed it.  Clem kicked him in the stomach, kicked him again and again.  Robert tore up fistfuls of grass and got up. Clem hammered at Robert’s stomach.  Robert doubled over, and Clem kneed him in the forehead.  Robert stood upright, and sprinkled grass on Clem’s head like snow.  Clew, bewildered, turned around and said things.  Robert draped his apelike arms around his back and hugged him.  Clem threw him off.

“Whoa,” said Robert.  He staggered.

“What the fuck is the matter with you?” said Clem.  Uprooted grass hung from his hair.

Robert laughed.  Clem stomped on his chest.  Robert laughed harder.  Clem jumped on him with both feet.  He slipped on Robert’s tee shirt and fell, hard.  Robert laughed harder.  Clem rolled over and started beating him.  Robert, laughing, took some hits and grabbed Clem’s fists in his hands, guffawing like a maniac.  His smile gaped like he was on a roller coaster.  He did not let go.  His face bled.  Clem thrashed and kicked.  The more he flailed around, the harder Robert laughed, and the harder Robert laughed, the more Clem threw his arms.  Robert let him go and held himself, laughing.  Clem stood back.

“What the fuck is the matter with him?” he said.

Robert saw Mike sail over him.  He crashed into Clem like a meteor.  Clem’s blood spattered them both.  They went down.  Robert laughed until his breath ran out, laughing in stuttering little coughs and sputters as mike battered Clem, arms flying like a windmill.  Robert felt himself carried.  He woke up on Mike’s couch.  He smelled sausage frying.

“Am I spending the night?” he said.

“Dude, where the fuck have you been?” said Mike, shaking spices into the frying pan.

Robert sat up.

“Does she hate me?” he said.

“You didn’t do anything – except act like a total nut.  She’ll hear that.”  Mike stirred the sausage.  “She might hate you.”

Robert breathed through his teeth.

“My face.”

“Mike scoffed.

“You should see Clem,” he said.  “His dad’s gonna sue me.”

“Why would he sue you?”

Mike laughed and held up his hand.  It resembled a Thanksgiving turkey.  Robert laid back down.

“I love you, man,” said Robert Johnson.

“Oh, fuck off,” said Mike.

Robert stopped passing notes in class.  He also stopped his medication.  He flushed it so his parents wouldn’t know.  He got lazy and dressed in the same jeans and tee every day.  His mom responded by buying more of them.  When wallet chains came in fashion, he bought one.

Sadie Hawkins came around, and he waited for Brooke to ask him to be her date.  When Nicole from Social Studies asked him, instead, he said he was going with Brooke.  Brooke never asked him.  He didn’t go.  When the spring dance came, he petitioned Brooke.  She said she wasn’t going.

It happened like that.  Soon afterward, they graduated.  At their ceremony, he gave his novella to her.  Seventy-seven pages.  She held its weight in her hands, unstapled and handwritten, and stared at him like they’d never met.

“You-”

“You liked the last one so much, I wrote you another one.”

Her graduation dress blew in the ocean breeze.  Robert straightened his tie, the way men did it in the old movies he liked to watch.  She looked at him.  She looked at the manuscript.  Robert’s handwriting looped and crossed and dotted without a single word crossed out or corrected.

“Thank you,” she said, and kissed him on the cheek.

Robert’s toes stung.  His fingers flexed and relaxed.  His stomach knotted.  A lump in his throat choked him like he would cry.  His back tightened.

He smiled as debonair as possible, but looked down at her with every honest thought he had.  His eyes peered into hers, and she thanked him again.  Then, Brooke walked away.

Robert started learning guitar that summer.  He tried writing, but with Brooke gone until high school started, it felt empty and pointless.  The guitar came easier; he always had something to sing, but his fingers hurt from practicing all the time.  Notes came differently than words.

Notes never left him.  He played a chord, knew which note he wanted to hear next, found it, and played that one.  He could play three clumsy blues songs by August.  He wrote lyrics and memorized everything.  Robert became a musician.

“Did you know he could do that?” said his mother.

“He couldn’t do that a few months ago,” his father said.

“He’s a genius.”

“I’ve never heard of a kid his age playing the blues before.”

“How do you think he does it?”

“It’s a little scary.”

“Do you think he’s a natural?”

“I think it’s unnatural.”

She glared at him.

“He’s our son.”

“I just don’t understand it, is all.”

Robert played the blues all summer.  He played through side A, and when it finished, he refrained the last song for sometimes half an hour, singing through the middle.  If he erred, he laughed and played on.  He laughed more than his parents had heard him laugh since grade school, but made mistakes ever less frequently.

“He laughs like an old man,” said his mother.

“He sings like one, too,” said his dad.

“You notice him talking different?”

“It’s those old records you gave him.”

“I never listened to the blues; he bought those on his own.”

“Unnatural,” said his father.

The first day of school came, and Robert snorted a couple of downers in preparation.  Mike had gone to a different school, so he had no friends to meet there.  He ran into Brooke, though.  She went up to him.

“It was very good,” she said.

“What?” said Robert Johnson.  “Oh, sure.  Sure.  The story.”

“I’m going to type it for you,” she said.

Robert’s eyes widened.  He smiled.

“That’d be all right,” he said.  “That’d be really cool of you.”

“It’s going to take some time,” said Brooke.

“Sure enough,” Robert said, “I expect it will.  Thank you.”

She never did it.

Robert made acquaintances and a few friends.  He dressed in his jeans and tee every day.  His mother gave him money for a haircut and he spent it on records.  He slicked back his hair and shaved his neck, and his mom never mentioned it.  He skipped his meals and saved his lunch money, and since he never ate dinner, lost weight.  He had to cuff his jeans.

He started walking to school with his guitar so he could play during lunch.  It took a week for someone to find him where he sat playing, and another week for others to come.  Soon, Robert Johnson never stopped waving in the halls.

“You seem like a totally different guy when you play music, do you know that?” said a girl one day.

“Really?”

“Totally,” she said.  “Your eyes get small.  And you stick out your lip.  You sound older, too.”

Robert laughed.

“Maybe I am older,” he said.

Brooke heard about him and went to hear him play.  She stood behind a group of people tapping their feet and nodding their heads.  When the bell rang, she tried to get to him, but a circle of kids walked away with him.  He saw her and smiled, waved.

“You like Brooke?” said someone.

“Sure, I do,” he said.  “Mayhap a little.”

“She’s got a boyfriend.”

“She does?  Who?”

“Clem Hutchinson.”

Robert stopped.  He looked for Brooke, but she had gone to class.  He spun on his heel and walked home, saying nothing.

Brooke found him the next day.

“I didn’t know you could play guitar,” she said.

Robert scoffed.

“I didn’t know you dated assholes.”

She eyed him up and down, and stomped away.  Her sneakers slapped the concrete.

Robert started snorting his downers every day.  He told Mike they helped his guitar.

“That ain’t good, man.  You should quit.”

“Doctuh Burt Reynolds’ orders,” said Robert.

One day, he stopped playing behind the gym where he’d been hiding, and sat on the concrete stage of the amphitheatre.  Students ringed the tiers before him, eating from cafeteria packages and brown bags.  He checked the tune of his guitar, and bowed his back.  His head dipped.  He stuck out his lower lip and closed his eyes.  The first chord came out louder than he thought the guitar could sound.  Kids looked up.

High school disappeared.  Music came through him, and he heard people clapping.  Someone sat beside him.  He felt kids standing around.  He heard people singing.  He heard himself talk between songs.  The amphitheatre listened.

“She weren’t no good, nohow.  Foolish, foolish woman, don’t never know a man love her right.  No, suh.  No, suh.  An’ I let ‘er go, mm-hmm.  And den,” he said, and opened another song.  Robert heard applause and smile.

The principal called him to the office two days later.

“Some students are very upset at you,” he said.  “They say you’re prejudiced.”

“They sure is,” said Robert Johnson, “in’t dey?”

“Why do you talk like that?” said the principal.

Robert smiled like a jack o’ lantern.

“Why you talk like you do?” he said, squinting.  “I play, tha’s all.”

The principal sighed.

“You’re making some students very upset,” he said.  “They’re very offended.”

“That ‘fends me,” he said, “but I only come to you cause I’m called.”

The principal drummed his fingers.

“Look,” he said, “if this continues, there’ll be trouble.  I can’t let you play in the amphitheatre.”

“Mm-hmm,” said Robert Johnson, licking his lips.  “All right.  That make you feel better?”

The principal frowned.

“This can get much worse, Mr. Johnson,” he said.  “Let’s not let it.”

“If I could stop it,” said Robert, “you’d never hear no blues outta me ever ‘gain.”

Robert played behind the gym after that.  More kids showed up than the space allowed for.  They had to stand.  Some ate, but most held their sack lunches in their hands.  He finished a song, and as the kids applauded, a small group of students booed him.  He looked up, heavy-headed and bow-backed.

“Naw, c’mon.  Le’s not start a waw, heyah.  Der’s music n’ der’s fight’n, an’ dere ain’t no fightin’ I evah liked much’s music, so le’s all jes’ have a good tahm n’ keep the warrin’ for de football fiel’, hoh?  Yeah?  Well, awlright.”

He played.  His guitar rang.  People swayed and clapped and tapped their feet.  Some danced in place.  Somebody said things up front, and others booed him.  He didn’t listen.  Other students told them to shut up.  People shoved other people.  When he finished the song, his applause divided.  Kids argued.  He tried to quell it.

“C’mon, it’s jes’ music.  Ain’t nothin’ fo’ nobody to fight over.”

Somebody walked up to him.

“You’re a racist bastard,” said Clem.

Robert played a chord.

“That right?” he said.

Clem grabbed the neck of his guitar.

“And you need to quit playing here,” Clem said.

“Ain’t gone quit nothin’,” said Robert, “an’ I ain’t gone fight choo, neither.  Why don’t choo go stan’ over der’n listen a bit, swear t’wont hurtcha none.  Might even like it.”

Clem pulled on the guitar.  Robert looked up, saw Brooke.  She squinted at him, shaking her head.

“Nah leave off,” said Robert.  “I’m gone play some, cause’n deres more here wanna hear, than wan me go ‘way, an’ I can’t see no sense in quittin’ less’n deres sense in quittin’.”

“Stop talking like that!”

Robert Johnson shut his eyes and nodded.  He hung his head a long time.  People said things.

“Leave him alone, Clem.”

“Let him play!”

“Let him play!”

“Go away!”

Clem stepped back.  Brooke came from the side and took his hand, pulled him back.

“He’s fuckin’ prayin’ or some shit,” said Clem.

Brooke faced him.

“I am,” she said.

Clem scoffed.  Robert looked up.

“No prayin’,” he said, wiping his nose.  “I’m writin’ a song.”

He began to play.  Clem moved.  Brooke caught him.  The guitar hummed out, loud and demanding.

“Pea-rl,” Robert crooned, “weren’t never mi-ne.  Never mi-ne, my Pearl.  Who is’t done cast yo-u, befo’ dem swi-ne, my Pearl.”

Clem stepped forward.  The crowd closed infront of him.  Brooke let him go.  She stared.

“Pea-rl, swee-ter den wine.  Sweeter den wi-ne, sweet Pearl.  Why is’t cain’t have yo-u, why inchu mi-ne, my Pearl.”

Clem had hands on him, holding him steady.  His face looked ready to pop.  Brooke’s lips parted.  The edges of her teeth showed.  Her eyes, large and blinking, seemed unable to look anywhere else.  The bell rang.  No one left but Clem.

“Pea-a-rl!  My Pearl.  You been unki-nd.  You been unki-nd, my Pearl.  Ever’body knows ah love you, an’ dey knows it ain’t no lie, my Pearl.”

The kids cheered, yelled and whistled.  The noise continued.  Class had started a while before, and the ruckus brought the security guards in their golf carts.  The crowd scattered.  Brooke stopped staring only when she reached the corner.

“What do you think you’re doing?” they said, taking Robert.

The principal’s neck rippled with tendons and veins when they ushered Robert in.

“You held students after lunch?” the principal said.  “You’re suspended!  I’ve called your parents.  Your father’s on his way.  If I ever see that guitar again, I’ll expel you.  Do you understand?  Do you hear me?”

“Yessuh,” said Robert Johnson, “yessuh, I do.  Won’t happen ‘gain, not on yo’ life.”

“And stop talking like that.  Get out of here.  Wait in the lobby.”

Robert’s guitar hit the doorframe with a loud knock as he left.

Robert’s father wanted to take his guitar away, but his mother prevented him.  They scheduled several appointments with Dr. Burt Reynolds.  Reynolds changed Robert’s medication.  Robert would take two of these twice daily, one of those, and another one every other day.  Dr. Reynolds knew what they were.

The pills made him nauseous the first week.  When the nausea stopped, Robert changed.  He spoke less, and more like his peers.  He seemed to have forgotten all his slang.  ‘Mom’ became ‘Mother’, and ‘Dad’ became ‘Father’.  His responses never strayed far from ‘yes’ and ‘no’.  He played guitar, still, but the blues went stale to him.  He played rock n’ roll, instead, but with a halting, changing rhythm.  He only sang the plainest melodies.  He started writing again.

Clem tried to organize a fight again, but students laughed at him.  Did he think he was in jr. high?  Clem’s reputation suffered.

Brooke brought a typed manuscript to Robert at lunch one day.  He stood alone in the amphitheatre, writing on a notepad that lay on the concrete stage.  She startled him.

“You’re not eating?”

“No.”

“Here,” she said.  It had a ribbon around it similar to the one he’d tied around the story he gave her for Christmas in seventh grade.

“I corrected some spelling,” she said.  “I hope it’s okay.”

Robert smiled.

Shirts

Shirts

Nick walked in long strides through the heavy rainfall that drowned the city.  His combat boots slapped puddles in the parking lot, carrying him through the wide rivers that the gutters had become.  His designer jeans were soaked from the knees down, and his pompadour glistened with pomade and beads of water.  He walked swiftly past the college library and stopped before his classroom door, which had a yellow paper sign taped to it.  The paper sagged and bled ink onto the door.  It read that class had been cancelled due to flooding.  Nick had expected as much; because just a handful of students were there, armed with battered and bent umbrellas, and ponchos improvised from trash bags.

He turned to look at the liquid crystal curtains that ran off of the eaves of the walkway and splashed into the muddy grass beside it.  He breathed into his nose the sweet, thick smell of clean that city dwellers relish in poor weather, and especially in places like Orange County where it often rains but twice a year.  Behind the waterfalls swayed palm trees in the gale, their fronds swept back like hair against a background of gray, burgeoning clouds.  Nick tasted the air on his tongue and smiled.  He took a cigarette from a metal case with an etching of a bee on the cover and lit it with his Zippo (clink).  The warmth of the little fire licked his nose.  He puffed twice and snapped the lighter shut (clanck).

Nick reflected on the meaning of rain on a guy’s birthday, because daydreams often gave him pause.  A fantasy of ill fortune like a Shakespearean tragedy played out in his mind.  He did not consider himself superstitious, but the irony of a deluge on his birthday (and during a drought, no less) was impossible to ignore.  He blew smoke at the ribbons of water before him and watched how it swirled around the streams, curling upward against the raindrops.  He felt heat coming from inside his jacket and shivered, zipped it up.  Then with a chuckle and a sigh, he walked back to his beat-up Japanese car and drove back to the 405 freeway.

“Fuck school,” he said, signalling to merge into the confused traffic.  “I should’a been a bartender.”

Nick was twenty-five that day, and he felt a quarter century old.  His grandma Beautrice had been right when she snapped her fingers in his face and cried, “It goes by just – like – that!”  Friends had moved, and friends were married, giving birth, serving tours of duty, getting masters degrees in worthless subjects…  Several of them had entered the real estate game after high school and now owned houses of their own.

Nick had gone to school to learn, and secretly believed college would guarantee a nice salary, though he worried that his love of knowledge made him just another pauper in the land of the successful illiterate.  Even so, he felt proud, and only regretted that California respected capital gains above all else.  He chain-smoked when outdoors, and laughed cynically at spandex-clad joggers.  He spoke easily among strangers, and knew the best people in cities all over California.  Nick would not have changed a thing.  He felt that he could not change and remain content.  In that awareness, he rested.

And today was his birthday, so with the last class of the week cancelled and college loan money in his wallet, he made up his mind to celebrate.  He called everyone he knew, but all of his friends had work or school that night, so he called girls.

Kaitlyn had got a boyfriend.  Donna’s phone was off.  The other Donna would have loved to go, but she had given up dating for Lent, which was not in June.  He should not have said what he’d said last time, he decided.

Eh, fuck ‘er.

He also thought to call Jennifer in Los Angeles but decided not to.  She was too unstable for a birthday.  She could show up with lots of expensive balloons and a hired celebrity, or something.  With options limited for the night, he figured to party alone, and he intended to start right away.

He turned off the 405 to get new clothes to go out in, parked at the mall, and found his favorite store.  The blue jeans they sold hung perfectly on his hips, and he could never find another place that had them like that.

“Hello,” said a passionless teenage girl.  “Can I help you find anything?”

“Not right now, thanks.”

“Just let me know if I can help you find anything,” she smiled.

“Uh-huh,” said Nick.

You can always tell a bullshit smile when there’s no crow’s feet, he thought.  Very pretty, though.

The new fashions tended towards thirty years ago, as all Los Angeles fashions do, with only enough alterations to make clothing cheaper to produce and seem innovative at the same time.  Nick preferred used, vintage clothing; but he was out to spend money, and if there were nothing but cheap modern rags for sale, then he would buy some, by God.

He tried on cigarette pants and Italian belts, square-toed loafers and mock-eighties style shirts.  He tried on collared shirts with metallic ties, leisure jackets, cotton suits, wool vests and knit sweaters, but nothing flipped his lid.  Nick looked better in what he was wearing.

Leaving the dressing room for the last time, he opened the door on another man’s face and almost toppled him over.  Then, upon seeing him, Nick gasped.

Wolfgang Krautfrog, as he was called by his friends, was half German, half French, and happened to look precisely like Nick in every way.  In the corner of the men’s department they circled each other, gaping and smiling and making small sounds of exclamation such as long-separated friends are like to make when reunited, though neither had ever seen the other before.

Quoi la. . .?”

“The fuck?  Hah!”

Wolfgang had come to Orange County to practice psychological pharmacology, and moonlighted as a freelance journalist.  He had left Germany a homosexual and had taken up women during his first year in Los Angeles.  When Long Beach boys balked at his female exploits, he shrugged and laughed the blame onto the girls in Huntington.  The gay community’s hostile reaction to this shocked and disappointed him, and Wolfgang therefore dated mostly females in Southern California.  He made good money, and lived in a town home too large for his liking, but his friends from Europe visited him often.  He typically wore shorts and tank-tops since coming to America, but he had spilled a cup of coffee onto a stack of high-fashion jeans in the very store he and Nick were now in, and had had to buy them all.  To justify the outrageous expense, he wore a pair of them every day, these same jeans that Nick was now wearing.  They had the same combat boots on, which were common at any Army-Navy store, but that they wore the same vintage sweater was unfathomable.  All in all, with their hair cropped at the same tight length and their chins squared with the same natural angles, Wolfgang stood in awe, just as Nick did.

“We’re – I mean – we’re not, but. . .”

“Well!” said Wolfgang.

They laughed and shook hands.

“Do I look like you, or do you look like me?” Nick coughed.

“My image!” said Wolfgang.

“What the fuck?  This is –” Nick scratched his head.  “This is amazing.”

Wolfgang made a sound like a small kiss.

Ouai,” he said.  Whey, it sounded like.

“Jesus Christ.”

They talked, stunned, and Nick invited him to have a drink at the tiny, ritzy bar there in the mall, and Wolfgang readily went.  Nick expected that they would order twin drinks, but this proved false.  Wolfgang ordered Ketel One and soda, and Nick called him a pussy.  They were immediate friends.  Just the same, their conversation only felt natural after the second round.

“So, you’re French, I guess.”

“No.  I am German.  I just speak French.”

“Oh,” said Nick.  “That’s fucked-up.  A kraut that speaks frog?  Ha-ha!”

Wolfgang smiled.

“It’s common in Europe.  My friends sometimes call me Krautfrog, as you say.”

Nick chuckled, but he didn’t think it was very funny.

“I think I’ll call you Wolfgang.”

“But that is not really right, you see.”

Nick listened.  His bar napkin stuck to his elbow.

“My name is Voolf-gong.”

“Volfgang.”

“Voolf-gong.”

“Volfgong.”

Ouai.”

“Way,” agreed Nick.

They laughed in such a similar manner that people turned.

Before long, the subject of Nick’s birthday came up.  They had a toast, and Wolfgang said something quick in a language neither French nor German that went un-translated, and they soon found themselves in a cab on their way downtown to spend their time, money, and sobriety elsewhere.

An upstairs bar and grill called Hurricanes had the best view of Main St. in Huntington, so they went there.  The sun was inches over the Pacific, and oil tankers made oblong silhouettes on the horizon behind rows of palm trees along Pacific Coast Highway.  Even the stoplight at Sixth St. looked beautiful above the cluster of SUVs, luxury cars, bicycles, and foot traffic that made up Main and Walnut.

The bartender whom greeted them had a playing card’s worth of cleavage, and freckles more than pale skin, and she was the first to call them twins.

“Twins!” she said.

And without flinching, twitching, or pausing, they put her on.

“This is my brother, Wolf,” said Nick.

“Hi.”

She flashed her eyes and smiled at the handsome pair, and just like that, the ridiculousness began.

Within a month they had bedded four brunettes, three blondes, and one redhead, the redhead being the bartender, herself.  Nick learned to fake a very slight accent from time to time, and to deny having one when girls asked.  Wolf would say things in French to him, and he would respond in a handful of ways that he had learned:

Ouai, ouai, s’il vous plait,” which he liked because it rhymed;

Tu point du cul!” which never failed to make them laugh, because he was calling Wolf an ass whisker, and;

J’ne sais pas,” because Nick often had no idea what Wolf was saying.

The set-up was flawless.  They looked too identical to be lying and, after all, they spoke French.  Girls fell at their feet on general principle, because no young woman with her wits about her would turn down laughing, sexy, fashionable, French twin brothers, and when at last they tired of the game, their yawning apathy only attracted more women.  By then, Nick had learned enough French to actually communicate with his brother, and they said unspeakable things when less than perfect young ladies accosted them.

“Like a toad, no?”

“Hah!  Like a bus, really.”

“She talks a lot.”

“She’s a clown.”

“Get rid of her.”

“It’s your turn!”

“Fuck that, I’m too drunk.”

Huntington Beach was their throne room, and Hurricanes, their throne.  Nick’s friends and acquaintances were shocked, of course, to discover that he had a twin, and some were doubtful about his dubious European heritage, but the likeness dispelled every cynicism, and even the most dumbfounded of his compatriots could not question their validity.

Enter, Stephanie.

Stephanie stood just taller than five feet, with long, brick-colored hair like a curtain, and notorious breasts that left her lovers wondering, are they, or aren’t they?  She had a heart-shaped face with noble cheekbones and a button nose tipped with pink, and her genuine smile bespoke a good nature.  Her dark eyes stabbed sensual innocence through the sad, materialistic atmosphere that characterized Huntington in those more modern years, and unlike some innocent, beautiful women, she lacked the power to dispel gloom with a laugh or smile.

Stephanie loved love, loved it truly, and it was this trait, coupled with an irreversible naïveté, that caused her to trust well-turned pickup lines, and gave her reason to cry each Sunday morning upon waking in her plush bed, alone, alone, alone.  It was also this that led her to other women’s beds, where her innate wantonness found gentle and caressing recourse.

On the day Stephanie met Wolf and Nick, she was teetering from two glasses of champagne she’d indulged in, more drunk than she’d been in months, and at that time Nick was ready to sock his faux brother like an inmate.

Putain!”

Arrete ca!”

Fucker.”

“Stop it; elle est tres joli, non?”

“Go fuck yourself, Wolf.”

Stephanie was a high school psychologist.  She professionally intervened.

“Hey.  What’s the problem?”

They were in bed, the three of them, before midnight, but at dawn Stephanie woke up with only Nick.

“Good morning, sunshine,” she cooed, coiling around him.

Nick felt soft warmth on his skin and reclined into the mattress.

“Augh,” he said.  “What day is it?”

Stephanie initiated more.  More was good.  Two cigarettes and some time later, they stood naked in the kitchen, drinking mimosas and frying eggs that ended up, oddly enough, in the garbage.

“So what were you two fighting over, yesterday?”

Nick groaned like an old house.

“We settled that last night.”

“No, we came here.  We didn’t talk about it at all.”

“Yes, we did,” said Nick.  “You wouldn’t let it go.”

“But nobody told me anything,” she said.  “Not in English, anyway.”

“Forget that.  That’s nothing.”

Stephanie shifted.  She sensed the embryo of something more gestating on his tongue.

Nick stood apart from her and grasped the sink with one hand.  He held his champagne glass away from him as though it were someone else’s cigar.  His eyes fixated on the orange drink, squeezing it for anything that would help him with words.  Then, as simply as if he were spitting, Nick fucked everything up.

“Wolf grabbed my dick last night,” he said.

Stephanie showed no expression.  She turned without meeting his eyes, and said clinically, “Oh.  Well, that’s not necessarily evil, or anything.  Was that the first time?  How do you feel about that?”

But Nick had nothing to say in that vein, and hung his head.

“That isn’t the first time, I take it.  Do you think your brother’s in love with you?”

“He isn’t my brother.”

“No –” Stephanie cooed like a whispering owl, “of course he is, even if you have a disagreement, or – ”

“No,” said Nick. “He isn’t.  Do you see?  I met him last June on my birthday.  I met him while I was shopping for jeans.”

Stephanie, whom had drawn close, now slipped slowly away, receding into the small kitchen to examine him at a distance like a cornered animal.  She took up the champagne they were mixing with orange juice and drank from the bottle.

“You mean you’re – not related?  You met him at a birthday party – and – and you lied to me, to get me into bed?”

Nick nodded gravely.  Yes.

Stephanie drank the remainder of the bottle, vanished into her room, and instantly emerged dressed, thundering to the door.

“Wait, Steph,” he said, but she cut him short without turning as she searched her purse for keys.

“No, you wait,” she said.  “You wait.  You come here with your accent and your identical, twin brother and have an amazing night – at least, I thought – and then wake up and tell me he grabbed your fucking dick, but that’s OK because it’s not incest?  Fuck!  That you’re actually not twins?  What the fuck is the matter with you?”

She threw the front door open, impaling the knob into the drywall.

“No, that’s –”

“You know, I have eyes, Nick.  I have fucking eyes.  He’s not your twin?  Oh, my God.”

And with that, she left, the door flung open to the morning light, leaving Nick standing with a champagne glass in one hand, and his dick in the other, which he had unconsciously gripped at some point in the debacle.  It seemed hilarious dangling from him when he released it.

Stephanie went to the bar with the express intent to get drunk without crying.  This former goal she accomplished by lunchtime, but failed in the latter before she got there.

After drinking alone for a couple hours, Stephanie discovered Wolf at the bar’s alternate balcony in the mid-afternoon.  Her manicured hand on his shoulder went unnoticed while he laughed with the barfly seated beside him.  Wolfgang had not spoken to Nick since the night before, and was heavily buzzed.  When he turned and saw her, he exclaimed and hugged her close, bringing her to stand with him where they watched people walking down Main.

“Hello!  Want a shot?  There are some coming.”

His warm and delighted reception assured her that his brother had gone mad, and, abandoning Nick to the obscurity of the afternoon, she partied the day gone with beer, foolishness, and Wolfgang, who by now had quite an audience of new acquaintances.

“We didn’t know Nick had a brother, you know,” they said.

“Or that he was French?”

“German, actually.”

“German!”

“Yeah, I thought Nick was from Santa Monica.”

Stephanie’s day had taken a turn.  She drove the morning’s complications willingly and effortlessly from her mind, and drank with Wolf and his new friends with neither care nor abandon.  It was not until night had fallen and the others had gone that their drunkenness caused them to talk like lovers, rather than strangers.  They spoke easily and without pretense.

“Were you married in Europe?”

“No,” said Wolf.

“What was her name?”

“Alex.”

“That’s a pretty name,” said Stephanie.  “What happened?”

“Well, we were boring after a long time; and I wanted to come to Orange County.”

“Oh,” she said.  “So that’s why you didn’t marry her?”

“No,” laughed Wolf, smiling around his mug.  “We couldn’t get married.  Alex is a Catholic.”

Stephanie frowned diagonally at him.

“And you’re…”

He swallowed beer and wiped his mouth, and spoke behind his sleeve.  At length, he mumbled.

“I’m gay.”

Stephanie’s face became a mask, hard, opaque, and impenetrable.

“Alex is a man.”

Her expressions melted into each other, mirroring her thoughts.  Images led to images, one disbelief into another, and in her present condition nothing would do but that she believed everything and nothing at once.  The result left her shaken and speechless, and Wolfgang knew better than to let her stew.

“I started dating women in America,” he said.  “After Alex, I discovered how American men feel about it when you date women.  That’s been very hard for me.”

Stephanie stared as if at any moment he could transform into a toaster.

“So you like women, now?  Just like that?”

His shoulders fell.  He sighed.

“I liked women before.  I like men more, I guess, but I like women.  Sometimes more.  It’s not this complicated in Germany.  People don’t ask questions this way.”

Stephanie bit her lip, nodded, and then, inexplicably, laughed.

“Is that funny?” said Wolf, coming to stand off his stool.

“Only because I understand,” she said.

“Oh.  You’ve been to Germany?”

“No,” laughed Stephanie, her face flushed.  “Last night was the first time in a while I’ve slept with a man.  I’ve been with girls for a long time, now.”

Wolf chuckled deep in his chest.  Could irony be complete without the solidarity of non-fiction?  How many times had he found himself in a frank, honest place with no one but actors all around?  But then, everyone felt that way, didn’t they?  He felt sure most people did.

Stephanie told him about the disappointments of her life: her men, mostly, and that her women were too like them outside of the bedroom to make a partner.  She wept twice in the telling, though briefly, and Wolf let her tears come and go without trying to make her smile.  They had everything in common; everything, as unlikely as it was, and they were together in her bed that night without making love, perhaps because each was as wasted as the other.

Nick began to leave flowers on her doorstep, sometimes, with choice phrases from her favorite poet attached.  Owing to her emotionally indulgent nature, they began to see each other again.  They had lunch, then lunches, then the occasional dinner, and then weekends, during which sex was notably absent.

Wolfgang saw Stephanie, as well, though their relationship had changed without his consent.  Where before he had been a lover and a friend, he had slipped into the habitual role of confidant and friendly counselor, and it pained him dearly.  He felt the division particularly sharp upon finding Nick’s bouquet at her door one morning when he came to take her to breakfast, and, with a shudder like it were human, tossed it into the hedges by the door, but not before noting the author of the poem attached.

Nick and Wolf had widened very much apart by this time, having not spoken for weeks, though Wolfgang had certainly called him.  He attributed Nick’s silence to a sudden homophobia, rightly deciding that it was his own hands that had frightened him away in the hours following their consummate lovemaking.  Americans, he thought, were very much enamored of boundaries, and when those lines were crossed, had swift and severe finitudes with which do dispatch anything colored gray, and he felt great disappointment in it.

Nick, himself, had managed through perseverance and sincerity to date Stephanie from time to time, and because he sweetly made her feel like royalty wherever they went, she began to dote on him, too, though the problem of sexual stagnancy began to set in as she spent her time in the evenings with Wolfgang more and more.

She and Wolfgang went out together and made a game of pigeonholing the appearances of men and women around them.

“See, I like her,” Stephanie said once.

“She’s cute.  A little Orange County, though.”

“What do you mean?” she giggled, slapping his arm.

“Well, nothing – except that her brown hair is attacking her blonde hair, and she thinks sneakers go with dinner dresses.”

Closing times saw them leaving together, and most mornings saw her waking alone, because he worked early. Wolfgang and Stephanie became better friends than either of them had ever had.

Nevertheless, Stephanie entertained a deeper romance with Nick, who for an unknown and un-discussed reason, refused to bed her, and in all other ways charmed her more naturally than Wolfgang, whom she considered her best friend.

Nick surprised her at work with a song he sang amidst her coworkers one day, and they swooned and envied her, one and all.  Nick and Stephanie discussed philosophy and religion, politics and literature, modern art and traveling, and Stephanie found herself in love with a man whom lived in two bodies.

Then, one night after a round of tequila, she let it slip to Wolf that she had fallen in love with Nick.  Wolfgang acted non-plussed, but his young, impetuous ingenuity went violently to work.

The next night, Wolf went to Nick’s home and used the hidden key, which he had once been well-used to, and crept inside.  Nick slept soundly in his bedroom at the rear of the house, and Wolf easily stole away with Nick’s cell phone, and replaced the key in its hiding place where he had found it.

Stephanie called the next day, and Wolfgang answered the phone as if he were Nick, himself.

“Hi, honey.”

“Hey, Steph.  Did you sleep well?”

“Better, yeah, thanks.  But I can’t talk right now.  You wanna meet me at the café, tonight?”

He went to meet her, affecting Nick’s particularities with impeccable precision and ease.  He doubled the cuffs in his jeans as Nick did, and smoked in chains as Nick did, and said to her all of the things he imagined a would-be poet like Nick would say to a girl he loved, which was easy, because he did.  Stephanie had a wonderful time.  They slept together, and when she pressed against him with her lips and with her body, he rolled over and pretended to sleep, knowing her dissatisfaction well.  She had told him of her concerns regarding her sexual tension with Nick, and Wolf wanted her to experience them.

The next morning, Nick rang her doorbell, and Wolfgang answered.

Nick’s mouth gaped.  “What?” he hiccupped.

“Whadd’re you doing here?” said Wolfgang.

“Fuck you!” said Nick, approaching the door.

“Now’s not the time,” Wolf countered.

Their eyes locked, and their faces retold an old lovers’ tale, staring each other down, Nick’s features stretched and white, eyes bulging and brows twitching, with Wolfgang standing slightly above him inside the door, looking down with all the indignity and righteousness of a Roman senator.  Nick stopped at the threshold, nose-to-nose with Wolfgang, and they breathed each other’s air for a mere second before Wolf shut the door on him.  Nick beat upon it with his fists, yelling for Stephanie to talk to him as they threw clothes over themselves and fled out the backyard.

They slid through the alley and down a narrow, disused old street flanked by rustic, beach-city houses.  Sand choked the gutters and muddied the potholes, because the road was too narrow to sweep.  They heard Nick’s shouting fading away over the rooftops behind them.  Like a blameless force of nature, Wolfgang said nothing, and not until they reached Palm Ave. did Stephanie talk to him.

“I – I never knew he could be like that.  I knew Wolfgang was a tense guy, but I never thought he would be the kind of guy to beat on my door and scream in the street.”  She paused too long, laughed anxiously, and then said, “That’s the sort of thing you would do, Nick.”

They kicked loose gravel along old asphalt downtown streets as they walked.  On the sidewalk, masons’ stamps bore the years they laid the concrete: Smith and Sons, 1923; Bottel Co. ’72; Mathieson Const. 1936.  It made Wolf feel old and young at the same time.  Those men’s working days were long over; and his had just begun.  But nothing really mattered.

“Wolfgang’s in love with you,” said Wolfgang.  “He’s not himself.”

She sighed.  Her head hung low.  Wolfgang stared at the round M shape her hairline made at the nape of her neck.  Flakes of skin clung to wisps of her hair above a sterling silver necklace.  He kissed her there, making her jerk her head up and laugh.

Later that day, Wolfgang called her from Nick’s phone and left frightening, delusional messages.  Stephanie did not mention them, but he could tell by her countenance that she had checked her voicemail.  He tried to call her again the following day, but Nick had disconnected his service.  The same day, Stephanie got a call from a number she did not recognize, and let it ring.  She checked the message afterward, and found that it was Nick, speaking in a low, dire tone.  Nick swore his devotion to her, and urgently pleaded that his twin brother was not only an alien from Germany to whom he was not related, but was also masquerading as he, himself, in her home.

The stalking continued.  Nick continued to leave flowers and poems on her doorstep, along with other such small messages and piles of cigarette butts, until Stephanie finally moved in with Wolfgang.  Nick found himself without recourse, and the matter was settled without bloodshed or policemen.  Nick the chain-smoking American dropped out of school and disappeared for some time, and Nick the French-German doppelganger married Stephanie within the year, never to be called Wolfgang in those parts again.

The affair had another bizarre consequence, also: Wolfgang having obtained a driver’s license, social security card, passport, and even birth certificate, Huntington Beach possessed two Nicks for a while.  Rumors circulated of a man who was in the drunk tank and the bar simultaneously, and of a man who both surfed the south side of the pier and shouted angrily down at himself from it.  Several witnesses saw him standing stately on the corner of Main and Olive as he passed himself slowly in a car, making threatening faces.  But Nick Krautfrog moved away with Stephanie to Las Vegas at last, and the debacle faded into nothing but urban legend.

Wolf continued to abstain from relations with men, although with some confusion, and maintained a happy marriage in spite of his sexual proclivities.  When his past relentlessly pricked his mind and made him wonder about himself, he consoled himself with the mantra: “She loves me,” and disallowed his self any further thought on the subject.

Nick the American quit smoking, began writing books that he did not publish, and eventually wound up pouring drinks at Hurricanes, where he remains to this day.  Having completed therapy to the satisfaction of his doctors, Nick thinks Wolfgang Krautfrog to be an apparition, believes he never had any brother to speak of, and that Stephanie moved on from their passion just as he, himself, needed to.  In the end he renounced belief in both Wolfgang and Stephanie, for she was certainly nowhere to be seen, having vanished without a sign.  In the end, Nick was cornered intellectually by his therapist, whom forced him to admit that one could not truly love a ghost; and therefore, he could never have loved Stephanie.

Even so, it was years before the loss of his cell phone ceased to trouble him, as he had always habitually – religiously, even – kept it at the end of a wallet chain, attached to a belt he almost never removed from his jeans.

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