26 February, 2009


copyright 2009 by Jim Nail

Nine a.m., Mac’s Burger Shack, the start of another working day. Wilbo sits in his usual place at the counter with his back to the door, eating his usual breakfast. He hears the cowbell ring as the door swings open. Glancing up at the mirror behind the counter he catches the reflected eye of the man coming in. A familiar face- who is it? Oh, yeah, it’s that guy, the spiky-haired guy, Claudia’s ex-boyfriend, the guy who is “so gone”. He’s dressed in chains and black leather. A girl follows him. She has spiky hair too, metal chains, leather jacket. She looks a little like Amanda, the patron saint of lunch meat.

Wilbo leans forward and speaks in a soft voice so Mac has to come close to hear him. “Hey, Mac, isn’t that the guy who tried to sell you my picture of… of the girl?”

Mac glances up. “Yep. That be the one.”

“Well, are you gonna serve him? Didn’t he rip you off last time?”

“Yeah, but he came in later and apologized. Said he was just having a bad day. Broke up with his girlfriend. Looks like he found another.”

“Did he pay you?”

“Well, no, but he said he would, soon’s he could.”

Suddenly Wilbo feels a strong hand clamped on his shoulder.

“What’s going on here, boys?”

He wheels around on the stool. He can’t tell if the man’s expression is menacing or just sarcastic in a friendly sort of way.

“Hey, I know you. You’re that artist guy. The guy that did all these pictures.”

“Yeah, right. I’m that guy.” Wilbo puts on a cloak of impenetrability, but the man just pushes through it.

“You’re the guy that has that really cool act, with the accordion and… you know, you follow people around and you copy their movements and all that. Hey, Mac, you ever see this guys act?”

Mac smiles. “Oh yeah, I’ve seen it. Wilbo’s famous. This is the Wilbo museum.”

“Well, Wilbo…Wilbo…” The spiky-haired man turns and takes a few steps away, toward the door, stroking his chin. Then he turns back suddenly. “Hey, I want you to do some pictures for me. Remember, you gave me your business card. That bar. Look, I want you to check out my new friend here. Maybe you could do some pictures of her. This is Phoenix.”

Phoenix nods slightly. She does not smile or raise an arm.

“Yeah, well, I’m off duty right now. Maybe you can catch me this afternoon at the boardwalk.”

“Yeah, Ok, that’s cool. That’s cool.” The spiky-haired man nods his head and keeps his eyes fixed on Wilbo for just a few seconds longer than good manners allow. Then he wheels around toward the cash register. “Hey, Mac, how ‘bout some breakfast? Best hash browns in town.”

As the man turns and takes Phoenix by the arm, something catches Wilbo’s eye, just for a second, but he’s certain he recognizes it. A black shoestring hangs around the girl’s neck, and on it a pewter amulet. Arlequino! The clown who cries!

“Hey!” he says out loud. But the man doesn’t hear him. He’s already escorting Phoenix to a table under the window.

Wilbo sits there fuming. He’s lost his taste for breakfast. He’s not sure why he’s so angry, but he’s angry. Finally he pushes the eggs over to the side of the plate, takes a few bites of the sausage, and gets up to leave.

“Thanks, Mac!’ he calls as he picks up the concertina and tablet. “Off to work.” Without looking back, he’s out the door.

At first it seems like business as usual. Everything looks the same as he left it, two days ago. There’s the same polished wooden bench where he sets his things. The bumper cars are crashing and sparking, drowning out the tinny pop music on the PA system. Blue and pink puffs of cotton candy melt on a post at the concession stand. It’s a warm, sunny spring day.

The people, of course, come and go, a constant stream of new faces, but they might as well be the same. He remembers once he categorized his audience into roughly four types, but it has been a long time since he cared enough to remember what they were. Besides, the types have changed gradually over the years, along with fashion and political bias, and he has not felt the interest to repeat the exercise to suit the changing of the times.

He starts out, low energy, the concertina. A few people stop to listen, a few coins drop in the hat. Then he moves on to the drawing. He draws a brawny working man, on vacation, but still wearing a cap bearing a workingman’s word: HALTON. He draws a pretty young teenage girl in clean white play clothes. He draws an over-dressed, fuzzy math nerd who stares at the picture upside-down, trying to figure out what the heck it is. Some of the pictures find an audience, others don’t. He makes a few dollars. He gives a few pictures away.

The problem starts when he tries to mime. His first subject is a bearded, tree-hugging sort of fellow in comfortable clothes and wire-rimmed glasses, strolling along with a group of similar khaki-driven characters. He falls in line behind the man, tracks his footsteps, and begins scanning his gait and posture. But then something happens. His inner body refuses to kick in. He can’t seem to take the man on. Sure, he gets an image. He makes a short little film loop of the man’s movements in his mind’s eye. But he just can’t wrap himself around it. It’s like the organ that does this has died, or fallen asleep.

Realizing he has been tracking this man for more than a block, with no apparent reason, he falls back. The man glances around and gives him a quizzical look, but then moves on. Defeated, Wilbo slinks back into the crowd.

This happens again and again. Every time he tries to mime, it happens. He picks his subject, he falls in place, but he can’t do the deed. It’s almost like sexual impotence. His miming body will simply not become engorged. And he feels a similar sense of humiliation, as if he were in bed with a beautiful woman, unable to perform. For this reason, he tries again and again, but the result is always the same.

Finally he just gives up. It’s mid-afternoon by the time he gives up. He just gives up miming. He does not give up working. He continues to make music and draw pictures. These things he could do in his sleep. He could rattle his spiel off mindlessly while reading a book or running from a pack of wild dogs. I’ve drawn kings and I’ve drawn drag queens. I’ve drawn politicians gone crooked and I’ve drawn pot-heads gone straight. I once drew Eugene McCarthy doing a cannonball into the pool at the Hollywood Hilton. My specialty is hairy backs.

But his heart is not there. He’s just doing his job, that’s all. Just making a living.

It’s well past suppertime when he calls it quits. He’s hungry and tired but he has no idea where
he’s going to go or what he’s going to do. The money in the hat is meager at best. He sits on the bench, next to his things. He slumps forward and rests his wrists on his knees, his hands folded.

This is not good. Nearly half my livelihood has been taken from me. What will I do if I can’t mime? I’ll have to get a regular job. I’ll have to work in a factory. I’ll have to bag groceries or sell used cars. I’ll become a stevedore like Carl, and fall off a boat and collect disability and read lots of books. Maybe this is just temporary. Maybe if I get some rest.

This is not good. What will I do if I can’t mime?

Suddenly he feels the bench give, as if it has taken on some extra weight. It’s just a slight give. It’s just a small weight. He looks up.

Claudia is sitting there on the bench next to him. She’s wearing a black dress made entirely of lace, with a black shift underneath. There’s a gold link chain slung low around her waist with a clasp of two hands just below the visible indentation of her navel. She holds a brown paper bag.

“Hey,” she says, “I brought you a sandwich.”

The moment he sees her, the words he wants to say form in his mouth. I can’t mime anymore, Claudia, and it’s all your fault. But he doesn’t say them. He takes the bag and peers inside.

“Thank you, I really need this.” He grabs the sandwich and begins to devour it ravenously. “You want some?” he asks with his mouth full.

“No, no. I already ate. Hey, where have you been, anyhow?”

“Where have I been? What do you mean? I’ve been right here all day.”

“Yeah, but yesterday. You weren’t here yesterday.”

“Oh, well, yesterday… I took a day off yesterday. You know, we made so much money. I just thought I could take a day off.’

Claudia sits upright and pouts her lips. “Well, I helped you make all that money, you know. At least you could have taken me with you. And then you weren’t in that bar last night, either. I went there looking for you. They wouldn’t even let me in. I thought that was like… you know, your office or something.”

These words stop him. He can’t think of anything to say. He must look distressed because she leans over and frowns into his face.

“What’s the matter, Wilbo?”

Well, you asked for it. He shakes his head miserably. “I can’t mime anymore, Claudia,” he says. And it’s all your fault, he thinks, but he does not say it. Then before he can stop himself, he says it. “And it’s all your fault.”

Claudia’s reaction is unexpected. She seems to know exactly what he’s talking about. She sits back on the bench and folds her arms across her chest.

“You bestow upon me powers I don’t even pretend to possess.” she says. Her words sound like lines from a play.

Wilbo feels exasperated. “That’s bullshit, Claudia. You know exactly what you’ve done to me; you’re a sorceress. I remember the very last thing you said to me. I’m not done with you yet, Wilbo. That’s what you said.”

Claudia giggles, unfolds her arms, stares into the passing crowd. “I did say that, didn’t I?”

“I saw your friend this morning. Your boyfriend. He came into Mac’s while I was having breakfast.”

"My boyfriend? What boyfriend?”

“That guy, that punk guy. The guy you were with the other day. The guy who hit you.”

“Who? Gary? He’s not my boyfriend. He’s not even my friend. That guy is out of here. What does he have to do with this?”

“Well, maybe he’s not your friend, but he’s been seeing you.” He waits for her to register some surprise, but she registers no surprise. “You know how I know he’s been seeing you?”


“He was with a girl. Phoenix. She was wearing that amulet. The Arlequino amulet. The one you took from me that night.”

Claudia makes a little gasp of recognition. Then she starts to laugh. “You silly man, He didn’t get that from me. I gave it back to you. You don’t even know I gave it back to you. I slipped it in your pocket, just before you left. If he’s got it, he must have gotten it from you.”

Wilbo catches his breath. The implications of this little piece of information hit him in waves. The other night. When something called him into the ocean. There was a couple on the beach. They took something from his house. One by one, the facts fall into place. It all makes sense. No, it doesn’t. Only some of it makes sense. There’s much that remains unexplained. Even the things that make sense don’t really make sense. They just fit together. Really, nothing makes any sense at all. Nothing. In confusion, he hangs his head.

“There’s something you should know about Gary,” Claudia says. “You should just avoid him, really. That’s what I do, just avoid him. He’s kind of dangerous. He’s like schizoid. One day he’s just the nicest, sweetest guy you’d ever meet, and the next he’s like… I don’t know. He’s like a demon. You should just avoid him.”

Wilbo considers this advice. At the moment it’s only another piece of information. Information is always flowing in, a constant stream of little facts and big facts, asking for attention, asking to be considered, asking to be assimilated or discarded. Sometimes it feels like the whole world is a reflection in some cosmic lake; periodically a stone gets tossed in and the image turns to chaos, then it gradually reassembles until the next stone is tossed.

“Well, at least now he has a name. I don’t have to keep calling him that guy. But what about you? If he’s so dangerous, shouldn’t you be careful?”

“Oh, he won’t hurt me,” she says pensively. “He knows better than that. I’m more worried about you.”

“But he doesn’t even know me.”

“He knows you well enough.”

They sit for a while with their thoughts. His are mostly thoughts of annoyance that she would think he has to be worried about Gary. He certainly doesn’t have to be worried about Gary. Her thoughts are clearly about something else. Eventually she turns to him and expresses them. She places a hand limply on his folded hands in his lap.

“How about a little Kinko Syncho Quinto?” she offers. “Maybe it will help you get your mime back.”

The suggestion elicits a feeling of dread. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to.” he says.

“Don’t worry about it. Just try it. Tell you what. You get up and walk that way for thirty seconds. I’ll get up and walk this way for thirty seconds. Then we turn around and walk toward each other. When we meet we just start doing it. Kinko Syncho Quinto. People will think we’re just meeting for the first time, on the street. It’ll blow their minds. And if you can’t do it, just keep on walking, that’s all. If that happens we’ll just come back around and sit on the bench.”

Wilbo doesn’t answer, at least not in words. He thinks it over. He’s not sure this will work, but oh well, what the hell? Something has to happen. He nods. He stands up and walks away in the direction Claudia indicates.

At the arcade he turns around. A crowd has surged out of somewhere- maybe some event has just let out, or maybe it’s just an oddity in the flow of traffic. For a moment he’s afraid he might not recognize her in the crush of faces. He notices some blonde children hopping up and down outside the bumper cars. He notices an old wino sitting by himself on the bench. Then, there she is. When he sees her he feels a rush of energy as if seeing her for the first time, and she is incredibly beautiful. Their eyes meet and lock, or at least her eyes lock on his. He tries to turn away but her eyes won’t let him. She is moving toward him at an accelerating pace, like a meteor entering the atmosphere. He has no choice but to quicken his.

He doesn’t know who makes the first move. It just happens. The first movement is hands, both hands, rising, palms nearly touching. When the hands get as high as they can, they arc outward and circle down, rise again, arc and circle, each circle a little smaller than the one before, until they reach a center and stop. Theoretically the spiral could keep on going, getting smaller and smaller into infinity- this is Wilbo’s last thought. Smaller and smaller, into infinity, theoretically. But they don’t. With brief reluctance he releases the thought, and what follows leaves him breathless.

Perhaps their eyes register a sense of astonishment, and they pass it between them, like an electrical current. The moment is too brief for words, but later, in his ponderings, Wilbo will reflect, it was like something greater than both of us took control.

The dance begins in earnest. It continues. It’s difficult to say how long it goes on, how many seconds, minutes, even hours their bodies move together in perfect synchronicity. Perhaps the drunk on the bench glances up at the clock over the concession stand the moment the dance begins, then glances at it again the moment it ends, and says to himself, hmm, they did that for eleven minutes and thirty-two seconds

Through the eyes of the drunk on the bench, this is what it looks like: two people, a man and a woman, the man older than the woman, meet in the street and begin to dance. If you have to give the dance a name, you might call it a tango. In the dance they do not touch, but their bodies are very close. Their eye contact is unbreakable. Their movements are graceful and flowing and perfectly matched, like two sides of a mirror. They move with their arms and their legs, and they sway with their whole bodies. They move forward and back, and from side to side. The dance draws pictures even though there is no pencil, and creates rhythms even though there is no music. The dance is also not without sensuality or the glow of desire. A few people watch. A few people drop coins in the hat, but most people seem to be put off by the intimacy, and they pass on by.

After an unspecified time it just falls apart. It’s not clear when it starts to fall apart. Piece by piece the coordination breaks, one arm moves one way, the other moves another. An element of clumsiness is introduced. There is a moment of staggering, then a moment of severing. Eye contact is broken. The man veers to the side, the woman throws her arms in the air and begins to laugh. The man laughs. They fold together into a brief embrace, then pull apart, hands still held, laughing. Then they stop laughing and they just stare at each other, sharing an expression close to fear. The woman speaks.

“Maybe we can go find someplace where we can be alone.”

This is what the drunk sees. It’s different for Wilbo.

He gathers together the few coins that have been tossed into the hat. She takes his arm. They slip into the crowd.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jim! I'm quite behind at the moment. I'm onto chapter 12 but I'm finding it hard to scroll down all the time to find my spot and carry on. Would you be able to add links for the individual chapters on the side? That would make it easier to catch up.