Side Airbag #43
shattered wig/normal's books
Larry the Swollen
by Rupert Wondolowski
Larry was a swollen man. Both physically by beer, meat and high blood pressure, and
spiritually by the big stories he wished to tell the world. Hed been a sailor once
and traveled to many ports drinking, sleeping with many different women and occasionally
even being kept company by one of his fellow shipmates. They never considered this
homosexual activity, but things that men do at sea far from the world.
Somehow he had washed ashore in a tiny neighborhood in Baltimore peopled by humans as
strange and diverse as the fading, stretched tattoos he bore on his flesh. At this point
he owed money to most of them, so his world felt like it was shrinking. Money was a sick
system of barter that bounced back and forth, amassed by those whose souls had died. Larry
had tapped into Manny the Art Gimp when Mannys ship came in (a family inheritance
hed been waiting on), but Manny had blown through it pretty quick snorting coke and
chatting up wine ladies and now Manny was hitting him up for payback. Larry felt he was
free from these sorts of economic reprisals since he was larger than life. In olden days,
folks would have come to his door requesting stories and advice, leaving his larder filled
with goodies, but in these fallen times they expected him to man a register in a
convenience store, a swollen red target for any cracked-up kid with a stolen firearm. He
no longer felt the call of the Sea, but the call to the stool of the bar was an urgent
whistling wind. When he didnt heed the call, faces began to appear; phantoms
of his past, hanging rubber apparitions that he sometimes slipped and addressed as if they
were real. Once his shower drain spoke to him. It had the fuzzy, canned sound of the old
radio programs of his youth, but in this context it was disturbing.
"The way I see it, and its a pretty clear vision, you owe me forty fucking
dollars," Manny the Art Gimp said, his shriveled, greasy peanut head barely above the
table. Cocaine use and time had reduced him to a little over five feet and among the
oversized but minimal objects (the living room that they were in was dominated by a giant,
painted wooden sculpture of a toucan that the seller swore was once owned by James
Michener, who had personally purchased it from Martin Denny, the "exotica"
composer) in Larrys home he had a tendency to almost disappear.
"Manny, I should be hearing from my publisher on that book about Fort McHenry any day
now. They promised me a very nice advance. At my age Im not going to go out mowing
lawns. How bout you buy me a drink?"
Manny was a victim of anxiety, which he often medicated with alcohol, which had a tendency
to temporarily take his mind off his nerves and then cause a wild spiraling effect the
next morning when the drinks had worn off. He also was a victim of rancid personality
disorder which meant that Larry was about the only human left who would medicate with him,
so he agreed to put aside Larrys debt for the time being and take him out for a
drink. Besides, the bartenders at the corner bar were usually either so drunk, hungover or
strung out that they often forgot to get your money for the drinks anyway.
The Warm Slide had only three customers in it when Larry and Manny showed up at three in
the afternoon. One was a regular - Oily Joe, called such for his frequent hospital entries
and departures. Often Larry had come in for an afternoon bracer and see Oily Joe being
hauled out mid-seizure. It gave him pause but never knocked him completely off his game;
Larry knew he was made of sterner stuff. The other two were an odd couple; a young
artsy-looking girl made up to look like Betty Page with some baby fat, and a shaky,
nervous-looking proto-beatnik type who was obviously having a hard time corralling the
Betty Page girl.
"Christ, with the clientele this place is starting to get Im going to start
bringing my own drinking glasses," Many said for all to hear. The shaky beatnik
darted him a look but said nothing. As Manny said this, he slowly settled his bony
haunches onto a stool, making all sorts of raspy and muffled moaning and groaning noises
that mingled with the rustling and whispering noises of his unwashed khaki pants,
readjusting like the sound of a circus tent crumpling in dawn mist, bowtied midgets
Now that Larry was in his favorite environment and only moments away from a comforting
drink, he began to expand again. "Come on, Manny, take it easy on the kids. Remember
your own young pirate days? Dave Brubeck playing, you rubbing up against your bosss
daughter in Casmirs jazz club, feeding her shot after shot of cognac provided free
by drunk old Norris before he took the cultish pledge of sobriety. I remember when you had
hair and your head was bigger than a peanut. It takes years to reach the sophistication
and cultivation weve got. Punk kids probably havent even read Hemingway or
seen the moon shine above a foreign port. I tell you I can feel big things coming to me in
this town. This place has history. Ill sell my Fort McHenry book and then finish my
novel about my first sailing trip to Bermuda and then Ill take off for parts
The bartender stood frozen and empty-eyed with long, lanky seaweed hair in front of Manny
and Larry, waiting for their transmission, the tv behind her showing in a commercial
depicting Einstein being outwitted by a bratty little girl in curls whose face resembled a
melted hemorrhoid cushion. Television watchers found her adorable at the time.
"Ill take a Budweiser, young lady," Larry chirped.
"We got no beer but Clipper City Ice. Were having trouble with our distributor.
You want that?"
"That will do me fine. Im here for an afternoon beer and Im happy about
"Whats your pet monkey having?" the waitress addressed Larry, her eyes
momentarily sliding over Mannys shellacked countenance.
"Ill have whatever gin this hellhole still stocks," Manny answered.
"And hold your lizard tongue if you want a tip."
Oily Joe chose this time to shout from the corner, "Faggots, give me some change,
faggots," like a stray Greek chorus.
"I remember simpler times when people werent so damned crazy," Larry said,
his distended purplish lips coming off the bottle lip like insects disengaging from
copulation. "Used to be people were happy with just some booze and sex. Now
everybodys smoking and shooting and robbing and booze is like the sideline healthy
part, the kid stuff. Id like to find me a nice girl and go out to the country and
live on my thoughts and writing."
"Well before you do, you better pay me back, Shakespeare. I cant believe the
way things are going for me. My gallery was the top one in this city until those sons of
bitches creditors started swooping down on me. Theres nothing but idiots out there
As the late afternoon sun started to lower, it managed to send a wobbly, egg-yolk ray into
the bar. Oily Joe gathered himself up and walked into this yellowish emulsion, stirring up
dust. He propelled himself to the end of the bar near the door and stopped still, staring
at Betty Page and the beatnik, who cast him sideways wary glances.
"So whos going to be shooting the guns, who do they shoot?" the Betty Page
girl was asking the beatnik. "You have lunch with that socialist guy every week but I
dont see you gathering recruits. I cant imagine those creepy pamphlet guys
"The anger on the street just needs to be channeled," the beatnik said, still
keeping darting eye contact with Oily Joe. "How are you holding up, brother?" he
addressed Oily Joe.
"Faggots!" Oily Joe responded.
The beatnik reached into his pocket with trepidation and handed Joe a wrinkled dollar.
"Take care of yourself." Oily Joe turned himself mechanically like a jerking
forklift and faced the bar.
"Im not selling you any fucking more booze," the bartender said, the late
afternoon egg-yolk sun playing spots across her face like sliding giant amoeba or like the
rainy tears reflected on Robert Blakes face at the end of "In Cold Blood".
"Cigarettes," Joe croaked, the bartender placing a pack on the counter without
needing to ask the brand.
Joe placed his newly acquired wrinkled dollar on the counter and then turned both his
front jeans pockets inside out, spraying coins, half-eaten candy bars and gnarled lottery
tickets onto the floor. The beatnik jumped off his stool and returned the coins from the
floor to Oily Joe. The bartender took what was needed and Joe shoved the rest back into a
pocket, made a rough ninety degree turn with his body and propelled himself to the door.
"We live our lives in a small neighborhood in Baltimore called Wabern, which is to
say nowhere," the beatnik told Betty Page, his gaze momentarily resting on her ample
"Not me, hon. Not for long, no way. Next stop, New York."
As Oily Joe left the musty bar, Rad Fluoroscopsky, "The Mayor of Wabern", and
his feisty twelve-year old daughter Chicweed came in. Rad had on his customary straw
porkpie hat cocked on his head, a hat leftover from his carny days of running the
Tilt-O-Whirl and sleeping in tents by rivers, shagging the local talent and drinking and
fighting his way to the top of the ride crew.
"A shot of Old Granddad, a Clipper City Ice cause thats the shit you
carry, and a cold Coke for my little woman," Rad told the bartender, spotting Manny
and Larry at the other end of the bar.
"Is this Old Sailors Homes day at the Warm Slide?" Radney called to
Manny and Larry, heading for a seat beside them. "I just left Ratchetts and
its Postal Workers Day. Wallace the postman sitting there getting gassed
alone, with everybodys government checks lying at his feet."
Chicweed stared at Manny and giggled. "Mister, your head looks like a peanut."
Manny reddened a bit. "You should teach your damned kid some manners."
Rad locked eyes with Manny. "Lets see you chance talking to me like that after
I have this shot. Besides, she aint really my kid, just part of the package. What
were you gentlemen discussing?"
"I was telling Manny here that Melville stole Moby Dick from a true story and
then added all that fairy stuff. If any ship had a captain like Ahab they would have stuck
him and fed him to the sharks on day two."
"Moby Dick is a great work of art and I dont want to hear you blaspheme
it just because it doesnt line up with your own freakish experience on the
water," Manny told Larry.
"Didnt you go for a little browneye out on the high seas, Larry?" Rad
"The way you talk around the little girl," Manny muttered.
"Hey, she hears a lot worse in school, I can tell you," Rad answered.
"Im not gonna give her no sheltered life and then let her loose in the
"I want a candy bar," Chicweed said, her eyes playing hopefully over the three
"Give the girl a Mounds bar, Sonia," Larry told the bartender.
"A giant Snickers bar," Chicweed corrected him.
"No Mounds or Snickers, only Hersheys," the bartender answered.
"Whatever," Larry said, smiling at Chicweed. "You learn much in school
today, girlie?" he asked her.
"Sams mom has diabetes and theyre gonna take her leg off. Sam hides her
bottles but she finds them and hits him."
"Que será," Manny said.
"I seen a bunch of midgets fuck up a dude bad once who looked just like you,"
Rad said. "He ended up with a metal claw instead of a hand and he had to piss and
shit into a bag."
Manny slowly slid off his bar stool and tottered on his spindly bowed legs. "Larry, I
was enjoying our aperitif, but the winds have begun to blow. I think Im going to
stop in that crummy bookstore across the street for a while."
"Ill be right here, my friend. Happy hunting."
The atmosphere at the small, cramped bookstore was often loose, verging on vertiginous.
Often Manny was able to lift a few volumes in either his raincoat, umbrella, baggy shorts
or even folded newspaper, without anyone suspecting a thing. His step lightened when he
saw the older fellow behind the counter, chatting up a much younger woman who seemed
The older, bearded bookman was holding one of his own bloody teeth in his hand, calmly
showing it to the woman, who feigned nausea.
"Bloodytooth," the bookman said, "a tri-consonantal root which translates
in Arabic roughly to a fine essence descending almost impalpably. Words from
the same root include sifted flour and a gentle drizzle of
That said, the clerk lifted a can of beer to his lips, with a smile indicating a task well
done. The woman broke into nervous laughter and said, "Youre bad. Youre
Manny waddled over to the Art section to see if there was any fresh kill to be had. His
conscience was clear because these disturbed shop owners were far from Book People.
Theyd be more at home in a tent down by the water, arm wrestling with Rad, King of
the Tilt-O-Whirl. Besides, whenever he brought items in to sell they treated him badly and
tried to lowball him; often turning down his books and water altogether.
Manny fingered a nice folio edition of Weegee photographs that the clowns and underpriced
by at least ten dollars. The book was a good thirteen inches tall so it would be quite a
task to escort it streetwise in his shorts; a newspaper held to his belly like he was a
pondering stroller. He took great care to always find boxer shorts with strong elastic
waistbands. A good waistband and some moist flesh could create a very comforting nether
grip that allowed him to boost with confidence, even at times haughtiness.
Sinister music played through the stores cheap speakers in the front room. Some sort
of almost industrial sounds that brought to mind an earth mover tearing steadily into
roots and soil.
Mannys fingers tapped nervously on the books spine as his eyes scanned to left
and right, his head and neck unnaturally stiff. "Now or never," he thought to
himself as he began sliding the volume into his stretched shorts and the store music broke
into some kind of chanting vocals that sounded like that West Indian monkey chant that
matched the racing and hammering of his pulses. Just as the bottom corners of the book
snagged on the fly of his boxers and gave his willie a sharp stab, the book clerks
lady friend passed through the Art section, giving him a withering glance. Manny saw that
his moss-green polo shirt was covering the top of the book and he fanned himself with his
paper and began edging his way to the door.
Once he made it out the door of the cluttered book shop he had a horrible feeling that all
was wrong in the world, despite his successful smuggling of the photography book. It was
now one of those gray Baltimore dusks where the earth and sky became one expanse of
burlap. There was a strong smell of ozone in the air, but no early stirrings of a storm.
Across the street from the bookstore, Manny saw a dapper late middle-aged man stroll up to
his car, a maroon Oldsmobile with an off-white canvas top. Manny felt an awful sense of
dread watching the man, but he couldnt take his eyes off him. Sweat started to roll
down his armpits and midsection and the large book listed in his shorts like an old ship
on rocky waves. The dapper old gentleman had a large bag of ice in one hand and he opened
up the trunk with the other. From the north side of the street, Manny could hear the
far-off approach of sirens and from the south side he could faintly hear the menacing
monkey chant coming from the store. A trace smell of smoke started to fill the air. He
wanted to look back to see if the book clerk was watching him or coming after him, but he
couldnt take his eyes off the man with the bag of ice. The man had the trunk open
and seemed to be whistling as he pushed his white fedora back on his head. Manny
couldnt see if anything was in the sporting mans trunk, but the man opened the
large bag of ice and poured all of the ice into it. Having emptied the bag, he then tossed
the plastic onto the sidewalk and calmly unzipped his pants. Without looking around to see
if anyone was watching, he then took a long, leisurely piss into the ice-filled trunk,
occasionally rolling back on his heels, gently shaking his penis. Mannys legs felt
like rubber. He smelled a musty, metallic odor coming form his own flesh and the sound of
his heartbeat was deafening in his ears. He longed to move closer to the Oldsmobile to see
what was inside, iced, that the man was pissing on, but he was paralyzed. Not until the
man had zipped up, gotten back into his car and driven away could Manny take a step. And
as soon as he did he heard the roar of police cars and fire engines pulling up to The Warm
Slide. Forgetting about the pirated book, he broke into a duck-like run for the bar and
the book jabbed into his nuts. Not caring who saw, he pulled the book from his pants and
ran for The Warm Slide. As he rounded the corner, the gray dusk turned fetid and thick
with heavy smoke and flame coming from the apartment above the bar where Oily Joe lived.
The pavement was a messy scramble of firehose, firemen and shouting derelicts.
In the middle of this chaos knelt Larry, his purplish lips stretched and growling and
sobbing. Rad, the Mayor of Webern, stood over him, pummeling him with frenzied blows. A
few panicked firemen were torn between trying to hold back Rad and to assist in putting
out the fire. Manny threw himself into the fray, the book slipping out of his fingers and
slapping into the newly formed puddles on the glass-strewn pavement. A few of Rads
half-blind punches glanced off Mannys shoulders before Rad pulled back drunkenly,
his face aflame, and shouted, "This bitch tried to feel up my little girl!"
Larry tried to get up, stumbled backwards, a bent silver fork protruding from the ham of
his right thigh. A moustache of mucous and blood glistened on his upper lip.
The little girl, Chicweed, huddled in the door of the bar against the bartenders
legs. In her sticky fingers she nervously twirled a dark swatch of Larrys hair,
sticking the end without blood into her chocolatey mouth. The bartenders seaweed
hair in the murky dusk, flames and smoke took on the form of lank snakes, her face the
blank, grim mask of a scarecrow in a field full of crows, while a cat on the street
yelled, "Good Christ, look whats left of Oily Joe!"
"Mr. Samsa" previously appeared in Vermis Jr. #2.5. $1 from: Maggot Global
Publishing, PO Box 905, Flagstaff, AZ 86002-0905.