Fiction, Vol. 2.4, Dec. 2008
After he died, my friend Episcopal Johnson was reincarnated as a dazzling and luminous shade of blue. We have yet to decide if this is an improvement.
We still sit in our favorite brick-walled coffee shop, surrounded by people who once might have planned the French Revolution, but now just write screenplays. He can’t drink coffee anymore, but I can, and he asks me to remind him what it tastes like.
“Like watered-down oil mixed with plastic sugar.”
“Fuck, that sounds good,” he says.
When I was sixteen – only two weeks after the first time I ever had sex, (that was with a disturbingly beautiful blonde ghost of a girl called Lisette) my older brother Arlington asked me to help him knock over a strip club that he felt had maliciously ensorcelled him into giving up all of his money. Real guns were too black market back then, but somehow he had gotten a hold of a medical injection gun and hit of Instant Cancer; the kind of thing that death junkies were using to speed up their progression to some kind of moksha.
The thing was a clusterfuck that went down like this: Arlington was beaten to death by a goliath bouncer mainlining HGH and I got shot through the middle by a bouncer with a spear gun, but in the tussle I shot him up with the Cancer. He died before my trial and so I got tossed into a boys’ school which was the lingo they used for juvenile prison. They say that with both her children gone from the world, my mother cried for three weeks straight and then died from dehydration. My grandmother, a skeleton with senility – and my only family – saved me a thin glass vial filled with tears.
I met Episcopal when I was inside. He was a skinny black kid with bad skin. We were lucky because we shared a small cell together and neither of us had any interest in fucking or fucking up the other. We used to talk a lot about movies and how neither of us had families to go back to. He got out about six months before I did. Those were lonely months for me. The guy that replaced Episcopal didn’t talk to me much; he spoke only to Jesus and to the guy who dished out food in the cafeteria.
As a term of my probation, I was chipped with a device as thin as a fingernail and two inches long. It was anchored into the soft tissue of my brain. It was there to keep me on the straight and narrow. It was to be my better angel and only I would be able to hear it. They were nice enough to let me choose its voice from a list. There’s a story that once this one guy picked Truman Capote because he confused him with President Truman. The story goes that after two weeks the guy was beating up cops, begging to be arrested so they would take the thing out. I picked Winston Churchill because I always liked the way he talked, like a poker-playing bulldog. So now he’s my guardian angel.
I have this great girlfriend. She makes me these great T-shirts that say things like: My girlfriend made me this T-shirt. Our first ever conversation went like this:
ME: Hey what are you doing to that stop sign?
LAUREL: None of your fucking business.
ME: If you take it down people might not stop when they are supposed to.
LAUREL: I’m replacing it [she indicated a stack of red and white octagons in the back of her hatchback, which was idling halfway up on the curb].
ME: Do those say pots?
All that time Winston Churchill was going off in my head like buzz bombs were falling: Oh my, Vandalism is a Quality of Life Crime incorporating but not limited to the intentional and malicious destruction of, or damaging to, the property of others. It is punishable by fines and/or imprisonment. It is a misdemeanor and participation in, or providing aid to those committing, acts of vandalism constitutes a violation of your probation … After a while you sort of learn to tune him out.
For a few seconds I stood there on that corner watching Laurel up on her little step ladder as she ratcheted down the stop sign. She wore dark cargo pants and a black wife beater. Her dark hair pulled back tight, her hands dirty. She has one of those small bodies; small in the way that at first you think you might break her, but then she pulled down the sign and she hefted it nonchalantly into the bushes and I became aware of the fact that she could probably break me with just her will.
“Let me help you,” I said, handing her a pots sign from her stack.
“Thanks,” she said, taking it, “but I’m not going to fuck you.”
It was just then that a long black car shot into the intersection. Everything would have been fine but the driver, realizing that there should have been a stop sign, laid heavy on the brakes and the car screamed to a stop, the back wheels sliding sideways.
“Shit!” Laurel said.
“What?” I said.
“… the terms of your probation …” Winston Churchill said.
“What the fuck are you doing!” the guy getting out of the car said.
Laurel folded up her stool and hurled it into her open hatchback. She moved quickly and climbed into the driver’s seat.
The guy from the car was waiving his cellular phone at us, “I got you now!”
“Come on!” Laurel shouted, the car already moving.
So I did, I dove through the hatchback, onto the signs, as the little car wound quickly in reverse, away from the guy and his phone. “What the fuck!” I said.
Then I realized it wasn’t a phone. There was a loud pop and then a metal zing as something hit the car. She smashed the gas. She was turned around, looking past me, out the open back of the car. “Security patrol.”
There was another blast and another zing.
“He’s shooting at us?” I yelled.
“… fleeing from officials empowered with shoot-to-kill and/or detention authority is a misdemeanor punishable …” Winston Churchill was saying.
“They hate my art!” Laurel yelled back. Then she hit the brakes and cranked the wheel, the car spun around, and she gunned it. There was another – distant – blast, but it missed us and went wild into the night; as did we.
Yeah, so because she had some unresolved issues with her father (mainly that she didn’t like him) Laurel had gone to one of the most expensive art schools in the country. She felt it was fitting that he was both her patron and her muse. Then she dropped out her senior year because, she said, “I realized that they were training all of us to work for Disney.”
We talked a lot that night. I bought a cheap bottle of inky red wine and we sat on her bumper – just like in a movie – and watched airships drift in and dock at the towers outside the city.
“I think the thing about art,” she told me, “is that it should be doing something. Even if all it is doing is failing.” She told me about this performance artist who put on a show. The show was just the artist lying naked on a surgical table and after awhile the audience realized that they could do whatever they wanted to her and she wouldn’t object. Laurel told me that the performance artist still has scars.
“What did that accomplish?” I had asked.
“It revealed our nature,” Laurel had responded, and then she had taken a massive tug from the bottle.
I think she fell in love with me when I told her that I had Winston Churchill in my head.
This was a couple of weeks in, after she had let me peel the clothes away from her body and trace her shapes with my fingers; after she had come to receive me at night with familiarity, like a memory.
“Winston Churchill?” She asked.
“Can you make him say whatever you want?”
“No. He only tells me what not to do. We don’t really chat.”
“What’s he saying now?”
“Nothing. We’re not doing anything wrong.”
“Does he talk when we have sex?”
“What’s he say?”
“He tells me about the dangers of STDs.”
“Yeah, it is kind of annoying,” I admitted.
“Well then we will have to start giving him something more to talk about.”
Smile. “Like what?”
“I’ll surprise you.”
Laurel liked Episcopal quite a lot because, by this point, he was dead. She would turn down the lights whenever he came over so that his blue glow bathed our apartment. She would have these parties and all her quasi-avant-garde friends would come over and get drunk and paint our refrigerator. They liked Episcopal too. They would pull their clothes down and have the sex right there next to him on the couch. They found in him some spiritual connection to the great beyond, as though their sex was raised above that of other people because of their proximity to his glowing soul. Sometimes Laurel and I did too.
He told me once, while we were getting coffee, that it made him miss his previous incarnation. “I mean,” he said, “I don’t even pee anymore, much less have sex. It makes me envious, it makes me want to die again and take my chances.”
“Yeah but you might come back as a dung beetle,” I told him.
“Yeah, but at least dung beetles can fuck.”
I am working as a personal assistant now. But not really. I got recruited by a guy called Mr. Ginger, though I don’t think that’s his real name. He pays well, but he does have me do a lot of odd things. One time I had to find a pay phone and – at a very specific time – call this phone number and say: New England Clam chowder.
And the guy on the other end asked: The red or the white?
And I had to say: The white.
And then the other guy hung up. Later that day somebody killed the Vice President by putting a .50 calibre depleted uranium round through his sternum, but I think that’s probably just a coincidence.
Since I can never be sure whether or not I’m doing something illegal, Winston Churchill can’t object.
When Mr. Ginger needs something, I get a time text messaged to my phone. At that time I go to the hospital downtown and take the service elevator up to the twelfth floor, where I pull the emergency stop knob. That always makes me smile, Emergency Pots I think. The elevator is that kind with doors on both sides. The back doors open up and there is Mr. Ginger. He has a rutted face and close cropped red hair. His metal desk is pushed right there up against the doors, so we have our meetings with me standing in the elevator.
“How’s it going kid?” he asks.
“Good. Good,” I say.
“You look good. Did you use that coupon I gave you?”
Mr. Ginger had previously given me a coupon he’d clipped from the paper for 30 percent off a colonics session. “Haven’t had the chance,” I say.
“Oh, you really should. I think it expires at the end of the month.”
“I’ll have to look,” I say.
He reaches down and pulls something from the bottom drawer of his desk. It is a little clear plastic case. He waves it at me. “Open up.” He says.
When I started working for Mr. Ginger I had to undergo a small surgical procedure. I pull up my shirt and stick my finger into my belly button, all the way to the bottom. I fish around until I find the edge and I peel my belly button back, exposing the small plastic cavity inside my abdomen.
He hands me the case, which appears to be filled with diamonds. “Rain seeds,” he says.
I stick it inside and then tuck my skin flaps back into place, securing the edges back in my belly button.
Mr. Ginger finds this whole process unremarkable.
He hands me a slip of paper to look at. “Go to this address this afternoon about 4.30; it’s in the Heights, a laundromat called Lenore’s Laundromat. There will be a gnome there named Kelvin. Ask him if he’s seen any good movies lately. He is supposed to say no. Then give him the stuff.”
“Okay,” I say, memorizing the address, “How will I know who he is?”
“He’s a gnome. I’m comfortable assuming that there won’t be more than one there. They don’t usually go above 110 th on the Westside.”
“Oh, gnome,” I say, “like, actually. I thought that was maybe slang for something.”
“Nope. He’ll have the hat and everything.” Then Mr. Ginger took the paper back and looked at me. “Oh, and take Geffen with you.”
Shit. “Do I have to?”
“He always screws up my day. And it’s not noon yet, I will have him like five hours.”
“Take him anyway.”
“Because he’s annoying me.”
Then Mr. Ginger presses a button and the elevator doors slide closed and I’m going back down. Geffen is waiting for me in the lobby.
We hop the subway and go get some noodles at a place I like in the Village. Geffen is Mr. Ginger’s step-son. He is about thirty-five, with a chiseled jaw and jet black hair. To look at him you’d never imagine his problems. The story goes that he was in astronaut college but he had a gambling problem and he got into a bookie for more money than he had. When you’re an astronaut-to-be, they chip you up with a microprocessor that speeds up your reaction time and helps with arithmetic calculation; the thing is wirelessly upgradeable. Well the bookie found out about this while he was at the end of his rope with Geffen and so rather than break his legs, the bookie hired a guy to fry Geffen’s chip. Well it worked really well and so now Geffen only has bad ideas.
“I think I’m going to vote Republican,” Geffen tells me.
“Oh yeah?” I ask, slurping my noodles.
Since we have several hours to kill, I hang out with Episcopal. We sit in the park and talk. I buy Geffen a milkshake from one of the ice cream trucks that are owned by the mob.
“So they stuck you with him again?” Episcopal asks.
“Who said that?” Geffen looks around. It is a bright day and so it is hard to see Episcopal in the sunlight.
“Don’t worry about it,” I tell him.
“Okay.” Geffen goes back to his ice cream for awhile, but then he turns to me and says, “I think I should start a business inventing new flavors.”
“New flavors of what?” I ask.
“Of whatever. Ice cream, yogurt, fruit.”
“What kind of new flavors?”
“Stuff that you wouldn’t think of. Stuff like vinyl. Vinyl-flavored ice cream. Or fruit that tastes like when you put your tongue on a battery. It wouldn’t be hard. Anybody with a lab can synthesize flavors now out of basic amino acids. Oooh! Or napalm! Napalm-flavored yogurt.”
I relax a little on the bench because I still have several hours to go. I sigh and think about what a nice day it is.
Episcopal says, “I wish I could still taste.”
Geffen keeps talking, “See, the thing about flavor is that it doesn’t matter if it is good, because people can develop a taste for anything. That is true, tongue scientists have proved it! What matters is if it is new and interesting and fun. Even if it is bad it doesn’t matter. I’m going to make yogurt that doesn’t just taste like napalm; I’m going to make yogurt that is napalm and explodes when you eat it.”
“Why would people want that?” Episcopal asked.
“Because people want stuff,” Geffen says.
Neither Episcopal or I can argue with this point.
At 4.30 I take Geffen with me to the laundromat. The gnome is small and Puerto Rican with a little red hat. He is sitting on top of one of the washers, smoking Pall Malls. He has prison tats on his arms and the back of his neck. I say to him: Seen any good movies lately and he says: No.
“I like your shirt.” He tells me.
It is a shirt that Laurel has made for me. It says, NIALISM ROX™.
“It is a commentary on the commercialization of faux punk, pseudo-self-destructive youth culture,” I say, repeating what Laurel had told me to say.
“I get it,” the Gnome says, “Hot Topic, shit like that. Scenesters. Hipsters. Dakota Roses.”
“Yeah,” I say.
The Gnome nods, impressed. “Hot shit,” he says.
“Would you like some of my napalm yogurt?” Geffen asks.
“Sure,” the Gnome says.
“Oh. I don’t have any,” Geffen replies, suddenly sad.
The Gnome hops down and opens the round door of an empty dryer. “Go on,” he says to us.
I bend down and climb into the dryer. The back of it hinges open and I crawl though, followed by Geffen. Behind us the Gnome closes the outer door.
On the other side, there is a dark, narrow stairway of concrete steps leading down. I go down, followed by Geffen, who says, “This would be a good place to be during an earthquake.”
The stairway twists around into complete darkness. “Hold on,” I say to Geffen. I reach into my back pocket.
Since he can’t get a job, Episcopal likes to tag along with me sometimes. I take him out of my pocket and he lights up the darkness with his blue glow. I unfold him to his regular size.
“See, I’m all kinds of useful,” he says.
He leads us down the stairway as it spirals down into the earth. Eventually we come out at a jagged circular hole in the wall. I climb through and I’m in some sort of subway tunnel, but old. The tracks are rusted out. The platform itself is odd and old and vaguely Victorian looking. There are makeshift lights strung up over the tracks. People are here and there, busying themselves with computers. The whole place is arranged around a circular hole cut in the bottom of the track bed.
A skinny bald man with thick round glasses comes over to us. “Ah. Are you from Ginger?”
“Okay. I’m Verne,” he says, “Not to be rude, but can I have it? We’re in a hurry.”
“Sure.” I stick my finger into my belly button and pull it open.
“That’s really clean. They did a good job on you. I’ve seen some that aren’t that good.”
“Thanks,” I say, handing him the small container and putting myself back together. “So is that it?”
“Yeah,” Verne says, “unless you want to stay and watch.”
“I like making cab drivers angry,” Geffen says.
“I would like to watch.” Episcopal says.
“Oh wow. I didn’t even notice you,” Verne looks Episcopal up and down, “Sorry. I went to school with an orange. You’re much more aesthetically pleasing though.”
Verne takes us over to the edge of the hole. We all peer down into it. For the first ten feet it is just a hole, but after that it seems to open up to the sky and we are looking down as if from a plane, several miles above the green and brown landscape below.
“What are we looking at?” I ask.
Verne is busy emptying the contents of the container into something like a crushing device. “What? Oh, it’s the past. Last May, over Indiana.”
“Yeah.” Verne poured the crushed rain seeds into something like a snow blower.
“So, uh …” I ask tentatively, “whatcha doing with a big old portal to Indiana last May?”
“Oh. Well Ginger and some of the other guys had a whole bunch of money sunk into soybean futures, but there was a drought last year in the Midwest and they all took a bath. The story I heard was that people lost like billions, with a B. So we’re – uh – fixing it.” Verne flipped on the snow blower and a white cloud of shattered crystals began to blow out of the machine and down the hole and out over Indiana last year.
“Cloud seeds,” I say.
“Yep,” Verne says, “Condensation nuclei, technically.”
“You’re going to make it rain.”
We all watch as the flakes drift down into the hole and then blow away swiftly on the jet stream.
I tell Laurel, “I met a guy today who liked your shirt. He was a Puerto Rican gnome.”
“Where did you meet a Puerto Rican gnome?” She asks.
We are just bumming around our little apartment. I am making a little salad in our plastic salad spinner. She is sitting cross-legged on the couch in just her black underwear. I like that she does that. I like the way that her limbs fold smoothly under one another. It reminds me of the way that we lace our legs together when we go to sleep at night.
“Ginger sent me up to the Heights with Geffen and I met him there.”
“I didn’t think gnomes went above 110 th,” she says.
“Well there he was,” I say, “He liked your shirt.”
“Did he get why it was misspelled?”
“He seemed to.”
“Well that makes me happy.”
“Good,” I hand her a bowl of salad.
We watch TV and eat but Laurel has it on COPS and so Winston Churchill starts to freak out in my head. “… fleeing from an officer of the law is a misdemeanor under section …”
I change the channel to the evening news. The anchorman looks embarrassed under his fake hair, his finger is pressed to the bud in his ear, “Well, um, I’m really sorry folks, but I’m being told now that … yeah, the news has been stolen. Uh, we have nothing to report tonight. Um, yeah, probably stuff happened today but I don’t know what any of it was. Um, if people maybe want to call in, um, I guess, and tell us what happened today, that would be good.”
We finish our salads and brush our teeth and slip into bed with the lights off. There is a blue glow coming from my pants on the floor. “Ah hell, I’m sorry Episcopal,” I get up and take him out of my pocket and unfold him again.
“No problem,” he says, “I was taking a nap.”
Laurel pulls the sheet away from her slim, bare body which always looks beautiful in the blue light. “Hey Episcopal, do you want to watch?”
“Sure,” he says, “why not?”