Monday
Jan052015

Lame Head

Andrew R. Touhy


 

Lame Head woke to rock pounding and big metal sounds which early that morning were only deep, gravel-throated voices on the windowsill. Below in the street, men on boxy primary blue and yellow machines that looked like dinosaurs with wheels for rolling over things were rolling over things, and would do so all summer, until the intersection of Woolsey and King was left to look like nothing had happened.

Lame Head didn't get right up when the noise woke him for good. He thought about it. What he normally did when he got right up made him tired, as did his thinking about it, so he lay back and called his cat that doesn't come when called and licks its lips when Lame Head pours himself a glass of cold, filtered water. Maybe, thought Lame Head, what this cat sees when he sees me is dog?

When the cat didn't come, Lame Head reached for his other cat, which growls and purrs at the same time when petted.

 

Squeezing his belly pudge is something Lame Head doesn't like but does like. With both hands Lame Head squeezed his belly into a pair of lips puckered to kiss their own reflection. He made kissing noises so it sounded like his fat rolls pushed together made kissing noises to themselves in the bedroom mirror. His hairy nipples were the eyes of the belly face and Lame Head had the fat-roll mouth tell every dirty joke he knew. But Lame Head laughed. His belly told the jokes!

Knock knock? grumbled Belly Face.

Who's—

A wind-up-travel-clock tick came from the nightstand and Lame Head turned an ear to listen. Weeks ago, still wincing from another of Allie's dark-cloud tirades, he had cut through the BART parking lot and found himself at the Saturday bazaar. He was hurrying past the tribal circle of grubby drum-swayers when the old woman called out: Hon don't you need some magic.

Magic? Lame Head scowled.

She said, You heard of it then? and told him to come over and open his hand.

The sign above her stall read REGINA QUEEN PALM READER.

You're not—

She waved a clawlike hand of jeweled fingers, bracelets down her arm. Close your eyes.

Pistachios? Lame Head said. I'm not paying for these.

They're jumping beans, Baby. On the house. You just be sure and keep an eye on them, hear?

She wore a flowing pink gown and one glittering scarf on top of another. All of her small dark face pinched with wrinkles, even her large grey lips.

What is it I'm looking for? Lame Head said.

She clucked her tongue and shook her head. No magic. She told him the beans would jump, that that was the worms inside eating the beans' insides, and that, soon, they would be full and make their way out. Worms, Lame Head said, I'm waiting for worms. The old woman said just come back in a few weeks and tell her what he'd been waiting for.

By the time he walked the aisle of tools and old appliances spread out on tables and blankets, the beans had warmed his hand.

 

Would the little worm heads be white? Would their little white heads poke out like tiny periscopes, look left then right, then left again, like when you cross the street? Lame Head hoped that was what they did, as he took the glass from the nightstand and held it to the window. Maybe some sunlight will start them jumping?

He shook the glass; the beans shook.

Maybe some fresh air?

He opened the window and shook the glass in the air; the beans shook.

Mouth open, waiting for the beans to wobble and jump, then wobble in-between jumps, Lame Head saw the bum, thumb-size in the distance, turn the sidewalk corner. Hunched and pushing a rattling cart of trash bags and cardboard pieces, his whistling filled the air. His was a sweet song, a no-care-in-the-world tune, and Lame Head wondered how that could be. Even birds are jealous of his virtuosity, he said to himself. They are hiding quiet in the trees listening. Bum, Lame Head said then. It means butt in England. Do we call them bums because they sit all day? They do walk a lot too. Lame Head wrinkled his nose. There were tons of bums behind the building where he used to work. In the city they slept in boxes and peed on alley walls and all wore the same outfit: heavy layers of dingy clothing or blankets, mottled baseball or watch caps or hoodies, tattered sneakers—the official homeless uniform. He would hurry by them every day on his way to lunch. How the cabbage smell of them would linger sour in his nostrils for blocks.

In those days Lame Head was not Lame Head but Editorial Assistant. When Editorial Assistant woke in the morning, he went off on a train to a tall, flawlessly-painted olive-green office building filled with bustling young people wearing horn-rimmed glasses and leather coats and drinking takeaway coffee. He sat in an ergonomically correct chair, at a desk shaped like a right angle, before a high-speed computer bookended by chromed mesh-wire cups full of Dixon Ticonderoga pencils and Extra Fine Superball pens he could have replenished at a moment's notice. Everything looked Space Age. But Editorial Assistant learned that everything did not look Space Age but chic. During meetings Editorial Assistant would eat sushi and admire the chic burgundy-glossed conference room table and think about being vital to the core mission of the company. Higher ups most vital to the core mission would say things like, Vegetables make good graphics, and Editorial Assistant would nod in awe and agreement and—inspired—chopstick more wasabi into his soy sauce saucer.

 

Here is a list of things Lame Head no longer believes: vegetables make good graphics; Myprimetime.com is your personal trainer for life; copy is king, whether or not it can be monetized; cookies are not for eating but tracking users' Web-browsing habits; everyone wants to get in touch with their high school classmates; quizzes equal clicks; OK, OK'd, OKing, OKs—do not use okay; swing for the fences with brevity, levity, and wit; spinning is fair play in foosball; numerals must be spelled out at the beginning of a sentence; the AP Stylebook is "therefore" the journalist's bible. Here is a two-thing list Lame Head can't believe still: he and his co-workers were shut out of the server before HR invited them into their office; one by one they were escorted to the elevators by security, along with the potted rental plants Lame Head had not known were plastic.

 

Lame Head rides his purple girl bike everywhere, even downtown on weekends. With a droopy bar in the middle where a straight one should be, everyone who sees Lame Head on his purple bike knows it's a girl bike. The foldout grocery basket is a big tip-off, too. Once when Lame Head was riding the Blackhills Freespirit girl bike along Telegraph a college guy yelled, Lame! Lame Head had a large brown bag in the foldout basket. That guy was only walking down the street in a sports-team sweatshirt, thought Lame Head, on a Friday night for him too. How lame is that?

Lame Head is pedaling through neighborhoods making S's around oil spots and manholes and jumping speed humps. The morning fog has burned off. For a moment he feels so light and giddy speeding along in the sun on one of the extra next-to-last days of summer that he bunny-hops a wide pothole, his purple girl bike rising an inch above the ground before coming down with a loud rattle and clank. His fat rolls pop from his favorite green T-shirt, grinning angry-white over his plaid shorts, and Lame Head says, No, not now Belly Face. Some black kids skipping rope shout, Nice bike! Blocks later Lame Head looks over his shoulder. It is a nice bike! he shouts. No less so because it's a girl! His left flip-flop gets stuck in the pedal; he and the girl bike go wobble-swerving for the sidewalk curb.

At the café, he chains the bike to a tree with a heavy big-link chain. Then he locks the front tire to the droopy bar with a matching purple U-lock.

 

The last time Lame Head was Editorial Assistant was Easter. Lame Head wasn't Editorial Assistant in fact, but felt like Editorial Assistant because he was visiting Florida, a place he has always considered a hotbed for arrested development. Editorial Assistant visited his younger brother's new condo and wife. His younger brother, his new wife, greatly tanned and excited in mirrored sunglasses, urged Editorial Assistant to look around the newness, and then his younger brother's new wife started the tour. Several times on the tour the tour stopped and the colors of the walls they had painted—each room, from trim to trim—were announced. Editorial Assistant commented that really these weren't colors but "concepts" which, actually, were just paints named colorfully to sound like a "lifestyle" you think you get by buying that company's paint. The tour continued. Editorial Assistant was shown boxy blonde furniture and tables topped with trinkets and interior-décor objects found in every mall store but Editorial Assistant resisted, as a little joke, the urge to lift several candles and candleholders looking for price tags. Out under the raggedy royal palms, in the screened-in porch beside the pool, they sat drinking beer, the bottles sweating even at sundown in personalized wedding koozies that read: To Have and To Hold and To Keep Your BEER COLD.

What is that thing in the corner? said Editorial Assistant pointing.

Those are just Easter baskets, said his brother.

What is the color of that stuff? said Editorial Assistant pointing.

That? said his brother's new wife. Easter grass.

Easter Grass, announced Editorial Assistant. Just Easter Baskets.

Documentation is necessary, thought Editorial Assistant. Surely Allie will see the humor in my day and share my inside jokes with me.

Up late that night, in the family room which was shuttered dark and tile-cold with air-conditioning, Editorial Assistant wrote out notes for an e-mail he would send Allie, who Editorial Assistant had decided not to call or write until he missed her, so he could mean it when he said he missed her, and who, still, he hadn't called or written because he was seeing now how long he could hold out. Ignoring Allie's e-mail that said his being gone made her realize how empty her life was in general, Editorial Assistant typed up everything in a fresh e-mail, and like a scene from a story, so she would be sure to see the absurdity of the strangers who surrounded him:

 

POTTERY BARNS

Everyone's married here. And they all have Pottery Barn houses. I'm supposed to want to talk about that. A lot. Excited, my younger brother and his wife showed me their new one. They painted each room a different color. They recited the special names for each. Candlelight. Heather Mist. Latte. Champaign. Colors that aren't colors but "lifestyle concepts." I felt embarrassed for them. Chatting about my life, I picked up a clay pot, a placemat, one, two different kinds of identical candleholders. I checked for price tags.

My old best friend and his new fiancé also bought a place. Someone else decorated it. They didn't know the special names for their colors. I felt embarrassed for them, too.

 

Editorial Assistant then wrote Allie how someday he would write the book When Moral People Hate Their Defenseless Family, adding, in a PS, how he thought they both had empty lives but sometimes spent them together. He clicked send and fixed himself a tart gin and tonic and sat down to watch over two hundred channels of satellite TV. But very soon he felt hollow and mean. Flipping through the hundreds he couldn't stop thinking, Who's the stranger? Who is the stranger? Who's this stranger? When the dying blue light of the turned-off television shrank to reveal the silhouette of himself, tiny and alone on the couch, Editorial Assistant went back to being Lame Head. And Lame Head mixed a gin without tonic and lime and opened the sliding glass doors to the deck and pool, where he stood staring up at the night sky, sipping, and thinking about the beach that morning, out by the old wharf, where he was not Lame Head or Editorial Assistant but Plain Me. Ducking under waves, Plain Me noticed a few things. He enjoyed long calm moments of clarity. He clearly liked that no matter how tight you squeezed a scoop of sand underwater, it slipped out. He also clearly liked how the sky looked, rounded at the edges, the way it would if you looked up from inside a globe. And, out past the tip of the wharf, deeper than the first mile-marker, the clouds' shadows floating on the water, gathering around him like the huge dark shapes of rising sea beasts. Plump sea cows, for instance, climbing to the surface, their bulging grape-brown backs hopscotched with long raw scars, their gentle, whiskered mouths open.

And Plain Me liked that little blond kid, too. Eight, maybe nine years old, with his big-eyed excitement and soup-bowl haircut. How he labored by in an awkward but dogged swim and huffed, I will touch the buoy!

 

Lame Head sips coffee and pages through Travel + Leisure to find Spa Heaven. What Lame Head finds first is seven nights at a French chateau on an exotic nowhere coast for $5,000. But this French chateau is no ordinary chateau: it is run by a husband/wife team famous for being a chef/interior decorator team that knows how to put special touches on everything, from rose petal pasta to driftwood sun chairs to lining up fresh apples on your bedroom windowsill each morning. The glossy-slick pictures with the doe-eyed model prove this to Lame Head beyond a doubt. She looks like she's had very satisfying sex all over the chateau and plans to again, this minute, on the heartwood floor of the "L'Invitation au Bardot" luxury suite she graces, pre-coitus. Lame Head thinks a row of red apples dripping morning dew on his windowsill would be much better than the gruff voices of construction and city workers cracking jokes and comparing what's in their lunchboxes. He thinks soon—when he is Editorial Assistant again, or, better, Assistant Editor—he'll deserve a famous husband/wife-chef/interior decorator tag-team: the quaint and palatial charm of their extraordinary chateau, the vast yet lush surrounding waterscapes and vineyards and woods. Again, he'll deserve to lose himself in blissful hours being stretched and kneaded at the Bangkok massage parlors he does find in Spa Heaven, finally, on page 108.

 

Lame Head is pedaling down Shattuck, a little plastic ReelVideo bag dangling from the handbrake over the handgrip on the handlebars. It jounces, thinks Lame Head, like a caught raptor. An infant velociraptor—not turkey-sized but the size of a partridge—that will punch its way out, hissing but cute. Lame Head stands and pedals: someone stole his bike seat! But then he found a torn and faded coupon under a bush and decided to rent Walking with Dinosaurs. Now he and the baby velociraptor are going to watch the movie, drinking gin and tonics together. One by one streetlights begin to flicker on, lighting his path like a runway, and Lame Head tries to stand-pedal as fast as a plane ready for takeoff. The night looks darker and feels colder than usual, and just as suddenly as Lame Head notices this, it begins to lightning and thunder. Long bolts of lightning branch across the sky, followed by slow deep rumbles and stirring. And just as suddenly as Lame Head can smell rain and mulch and night jasmine, it is raining. Lightning keeps flashing, and with each flash everything—blue-black treetops, grave and curious building faces, spits of grass and plants, the sidewalks and pitted street—lights up white for a quiet moment, like the sky is taking giant flash photos of the earth. It starts to rain hard and Lame Head cuts down backstreets and flies through one stop sign after another. Riding in the rain is nice, dodging and getting hit by raindrops, but he doesn't want to get too wet in the cold, his short fender letting muddy tire-spray fire up his shirtback. When Lame Head gets home he jumps from the girl bike and dashes for the stoop so fast he steps on the bum. What the fu! says Lame Head. Fuck! says the bum, springing hobbled from his corner huddle. The bum is young, or his cheeks and sharp eyes are young, thinks Lame Head. His beard is a bright tangle of brassy red.

What do you want? says the bum.

Lame Head shakes his head. Raindrops hit his face.

Well?

I don't know, says Lame Head. To go home?

Well you might call before stopping by. Next time, okay, how about a heads up? At least send an e-mail.

Lame Head stares at the bum, who stares back. His eyes are wet, rimmed red and bloodshot.

Who are you? Lame head asks. Were you crying?

Who am I? says the bum. Who the fuck are you?

When the bum blinks and rubs his nose on his sleeve, Lame Head steps forward and the bum shoves him down pushing past, leaving Lame Head on his butt in the mess of blanket and splayed cardboard box and eggcrate pillow. Lame shakes his head. Is shaking his head long after the bum is gone.

 

After four or so gins without tonic Lame Head wants the spinning to stop. Walking with Dinosaurs was not Walking with Dinosaurs but Down by Law, and Lame Head got so tired watching he started falling asleep until he started to jerk off and then slept anyway, penis out. He opens his eyes: the ceiling won't stand still. His bare legs lead to shorts around his ankles. The TV does not show Tom Waits but snow. Lame Head had been dreaming, in black and white, that Tom Waits was trying to back up his pickup truck. Tom Waits was careful to avoid a tree but he hit a Porsche. The Porsche went spinning around the video arcade parking lot, flipped then, and the couple inside blew up. Tom Waits hitting the Porsche didn't blow up blow up the couple, but blew up the couple, like an airbag or air mattress or big balloon. By the time Tom Waits reached the flaming wreck the couple had swelled bigger than the Stay Puft marshmallow man from Ghostbusters, but in their eyes was fear and anguish instead of demonic possession and an angry desire to eat New York City. Lame Head is disappointed in his dream. Even in his dream he was disappointed in his dream. His only reason for going to the video arcade was to get Tom Waits's autograph, and that was never going to happen with the blown-up couple floating around above the parking lot.

 

Lame Head sways before the mirror, squint-eyeing his pudgy belly reflection: has it changed at all since morning? All his clothes are off but he wears his flip-flops. Belly Face looks too grumpy to wake. He does not like the wee hours. He doesn't tell jokes. Not good ones anyway. The two cats come barreling in, scattershot across the room, looking. They want something other than Lame Head, or want to look that way. He gets hold of the cat that doesn't come and licks its lips when he pours himself a glass of cold, filtered water. He shows the cat its belly reflection in the mirror. He pats the shown belly, which no surprise is drum tight, until the cat attempts to relax, hanging like a rag doll. Two bellies in the mirror: round pink-white beside long, lean black. Jerking, twisting, the cat frees its paws and slips out, a scratch left on Lame Head's thigh, a mushroom puff of fur hanging in the air. Lame Head looks for the other cat but hears ticking. The glass! Inside, the worms are eating the inside of the beans they're cocooned in. They are eating and eating until done, and then they will poke their heads out like periscopes looking for land.

He's going to wait for them. Rocking, Lame Head decides. What he's going to do is wait right there, goddamn it, until they're done and poking their goddamned worm heads out tonight.

Lame Head waits.

Waits.

Rocking.

I incline to be Plain Me, he says to the beans. Understand? It is my primary inclination.

He switches off the light. He stumbles to bed and pours the beans into his hand. They jump and wobble in his palm. Lame Head makes a fist and brings them close to his ear. They are warm and his eyes fall closed. The beans vibrate and they tickle and Lame Head smiles wondering if that is the magic. He laughs with the tickling until his heart jerks a little. It pulls hard then and he is hearing his own gasps in the dark. He is laughing but crying. Crying but laughing. He holds his fist tight, his shut eyes tight in the dark. He sees the colors. The flash and flick of wings. How they fly once they take off.