Driver’s Side Airbag #43

shattered wig/normal's books

email eric


samsa.jpg (78264 bytes)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. He’d 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 Manny’s ship came in (a family inheritance he’d 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 didn’t 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.
Mr. Samsa          Eric York

"The way I see it, and it’s 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 Larry’s 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 I’m 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 Larry’s 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 I’m 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 scattering.

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 boss’s daughter in Casmir’s 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 we’ve got. Punk kids probably haven’t 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. I’ll sell my Fort McHenry book and then finish my novel about my first sailing trip to Bermuda and then I’ll take off for parts unknown."

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.

"I’ll take a Budweiser, young lady," Larry chirped.

"We got no beer but Clipper City Ice. We’re having trouble with our distributor. You want that?"

"That will do me fine. I’m here for an afternoon beer and I’m happy about it."

"What’s your pet monkey having?" the waitress addressed Larry, her eyes momentarily sliding over Manny’s shellacked countenance.

"I’ll 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 weren’t 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 everybody’s smoking and shooting and robbing and booze is like the sideline healthy part, the kid stuff. I’d 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 can’t 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. There’s nothing but idiots out there now."

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 who’s 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 don’t see you gathering recruits. I can’t imagine those creepy pamphlet guys shooting anybody."

"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.

"I’m 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 Blake’s 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 bosom.

"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 that’s 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’ Home’s day at the Warm Slide?" Radney called to Manny and Larry, heading for a seat beside them. "I just left Ratchett’s and it’s Postal Workers’ Day. Wallace the postman sitting there getting gassed alone, with everybody’s 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. "Let’s see you chance talking to me like that after I have this shot. Besides, she ain’t 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 don’t want to hear you blaspheme it just because it doesn’t line up with your own freakish experience on the water," Manny told Larry.

"Didn’t you go for a little browneye out on the high seas, Larry?" Rad asked.

"The way you talk around the little girl," Manny muttered.

"Hey, she hears a lot worse in school, I can tell you," Rad answered. "I’m not gonna give her no sheltered life and then let her loose in the jungle."

"I want a candy bar," Chicweed said, her eyes playing hopefully over the three mens’ faces.

"Give the girl a Mounds bar, Sonia," Larry told the bartender.

"A giant Snickers bar," Chicweed corrected him.

"No Mounds or Snickers, only Hershey’s," the bartender answered.

"Whatever," Larry said, smiling at Chicweed. "You learn much in school today, girlie?" he asked her.

"Sam’s mom has diabetes and they’re 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 I’m going to stop in that crummy bookstore across the street for a while."

"I’ll 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 entranced.

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 rain’."

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, "You’re bad. You’re very bad."

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. They’d 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 store’s 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.

Manny’s fingers tapped nervously on the book’s 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 clerk’s 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 couldn’t 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 couldn’t 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 couldn’t see if anything was in the sporting man’s 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. Manny’s 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 Rad’s half-blind punches glanced off Manny’s 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 bartender’s legs. In her sticky fingers she nervously twirled a dark swatch of Larry’s hair, sticking the end without blood into her chocolatey mouth. The bartender’s 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 what’s 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.

AN00020A.gif (1492 bytes)    BS00825A.gif (3117 bytes)    TN00572A.gif (3542 bytes)     opensezme.gif (2743 bytes)   PE03257A.gif (4096 bytes)