copyright 2009 by Jim Nail
Clouds roll in while he sleeps. In the morning the sky is colorless and a light mist of rain is falling. He wakes up feeling groggy and his head is pounding. It’s worse than a hangover- there’s no faint reminder of intoxication.
He gets up, gets dressed, heats the water, prepares the coffee, but he does not drink it. His skin cries out to be clean. His body itches where the clothing touches it. He puts on his hooded windbreaker and pulls the hood over his head. He grabs a handful of change from the money bag and stuffs it in his pocket. He leaves the coffee cooling on the counter, leaves the house, locks the door, and starts for town.
In the public showers, he’s alone-that’s a good thing- and the floors are dry; no one’s been there yet- plenty of hot water. He doesn’t know what time it is, and he doesn’t care. He’s taking the day off.
Standing passively in the shower, he allows the water to work its magic, washing away not only the grime, but also the weariness and the ennui, and the heavy silted layers of unremembered dreams and undigested impressions. Soon he’s feeling fresh and invigorated, ready for adventure. He has the day off. He’s made lots of money. He can do whatever he wants. Like the skunk said, he can do something new.
Dry and naked, he contemplates his clothing. They’re full of the sand he came in with. Too bad he didn’t think to bring a change. For a moment he has a crazy thought. What if I just left my clothes in here and walked out naked? But no. Maybe that’s a little too new. Besides, it’s raining. Instead, he turns the pants and shirt inside out and slaps them soundly against the wall to knock out most of the sand.
At the Burger Shack, Mac nods at Wilbo’s entrance and starts for the icebox where he keeps the freeze dried hash browns. But Wilbo stops him.
“Lemme see the menu, Mac. Think I’ll try something else today. And I’m paying. I made a lot of money yesterday.” He pulls himself onto the stool at the counter where the little toy oyster will snap up any coin you place on its shell for the March of Dimes.
Mac tosses a menu on the formica. “How much money, Wilbo?” he asks. “You know, I’m pretty expensive.”
Wilbo runs his finger down the list of breakfast items. Denver omelets and Belgian French toast, spicy Cajun scrambles, German potato pancakes, poached eggs with Swiss cheese on an English muffin. It’s a veritable trip around the world all right, but somehow nothing sounds quite as good as the usual: two eggs, over medium, crispy hash browns, a slab of Italian sausage drenched in grilled onions.
“Oh, I guess I just have the usual,” he finally admits, “Except, make the eggs sunny side up. And bring me a cup of coffee. And I’m still paying.”
Mac already has the coffee pot in his hand. He fills the upturned and empty cup at Wilbo’s place.
“Hard to teach an old dog new tricks.” he says. “Hey Wilbo, where’s your stuff? You came in empty-handed.”
“I’ve taken the day off, Mac. I told you I made a lot of money yesterday.”
Mac opens the icebox. “You won’t know what to do, man. You’re a slave to the routine. I predict you’ll be back at your corner, drawing pictures by four o’clock this afternoon.”
He throws a mound of onions on the grill and the room fills with the spatter and the smell.
“Nope.” Wilbo lifts his coffee cup. “I mean it. I’m taking the day off.” Then his eye focuses on something on the wall. It’s where Mac pins up all his pictures, the ones the tourists bring in. This is a new one, and it’s a picture of Claudia. He feels his nerves jump and immediately he thinks, is she naked? But no, she’s not naked. She’s wearing the blue dress, and she’s doing that little snake thing she does with her hands.
“Hey Mac, when did that one come in?” He nods to the picture. “That new one. The one of the girl.”
Mac looks up from the grill. “Oh, This morning. About an hour ago. Some punk kid brought it in. He wanted to sell it to me. I said no man, people bring these pictures in, gratis complimentis, or not at all. This is the Wilbo museum. Finally he just gave it to me and walked out. He didn’t pay for his burger.”
Wilbo nods. “You let that go?”
“Yeah. I let that go. I let a lot of things go. Hey, here’s your breakfast.”
So Wilbo enjoys his breakfast, the usual, gratis complimentis. He has every intention of paying, but Mac won’t let him.
“It would be just too weird, Wilbo. It would upset the cosmic balance.”
Slipping off the counter stool, his eyes lock in on the picture of Claudia on the wall. Suddenly the implications strike him with a wave of dread. He realizes they were festering in the back of his mind all through breakfast. As he steps out of the shack into the rainy street, he feels dizzy and he stumbles once.
How did he get the picture? When was it drawn?
Was it the same guy?
He looks up the street toward the boardwalk. Even with the light rain falling, people are beginning to mill about. He locates his place of employment, the sidewalk in front of the bumper cars. Two winos are sitting on the bench, elbows on knees, staring vacantly out into the day, a brown paper bag between them. They sit so still and sepia-colored, they could be a painted backdrop, while all around them motion and life swirl in cheerful hues. Men and women. Out of habit he focuses on one person after another, looking for a likely target.
A girl emerges from the crowd, subdued dress, red hair- it’s Claudia! But no, of course it’s not Claudia, don’t be silly. It doesn’t look a bit like Claudia. But there’s another girl, walking away from him, slim, and meandering pensively, blue parka with the hood pulled up. That could be any girl! What is he doing? He turns away.
I’m taking the day off. Don’t know where I’ll go, but I’m not going to the boardwalk.
Facing the empty street that leads to town, away from the midway, he feels something like a mass of kinetic energy at his back, like the spattering of onions on a hot grill, like the snakes on the head of Medusa, writhing in every direction, like a wild and happy audience, stamping and clapping and calling out for an encore. The temptation to turn back is overwhelming, but no! He won’t do it. I’m taking a day off! With firm resolve he steps into the wet empty street.
The first thing he notices is a commotion, an unexpected gathering of people. The territory around the boardwalk is so well-worn and familiar to him that he immediately registers anything out of the ordinary, even if it’s just in his unconscious mind. There are people standing on a corner where people don’t normally stand around. He feels curious. he draws closer.
It’s a bunch of hippies, hanging around a corner lot. Old guard hippies, he thinks. Even from a distance he senses this. It’s in their movements- slow, languid motions, none of the unbridled enthusiasm of the very young. They’re just hanging out, that’s all, waiting for the next big thing. It’s a little be-in, a lonesome remnant of the big be-ins of the sixties. As he gets closer the details fill in. There’s music, someone playing conga drums, someone banging out chords on a guitar. Some people are sitting on a bench or a log, acting a little silly, rocking back and forth. There’s a circle of five or six locked in a communal embrace, swaying slightly as one. Drawing closer he recognizes the costumes, thrift store clothes, draped and wrapped and patched and soiled. Most of the men have full beards and long uncombed hair. The women are a little plump and bleary-eyed. There are several children, some of them naked.
One of the figures catches his eye. It’s a woman, standing very still, one arm outstretched in an improbable gesture, her back arched. Her hair is punked; she wears a leather halter top and hot pants, a gold chain of charms and baubles slung low around her waist. As Wilbo approaches she remains frozen, motionless, like a mannequin. In fact she is a mannequin. Wilbo stops suddenly in his tracks. The recognition funnels into him like tawny port into an empty bottle. He sees what he didn’t see at first. Her outstretched arm leans into a crude wooden sign. It’s hard to tell whether the woman is holding up the sign or the sign is holding up the woman.
FINDING REAL ESTATE FOR NORMAL PEOPLE LIKE YOU.
“Hey, big brother, what’s happening?” A voice breaks into Wilbo’s reverie. The man’s face is completely covered with a coarse black beard. He wears thick-lensed glasses and a dirty denim jacket. “Hey, do I know you? You look familiar, man. Did you used to hang out in Sebastopol?”
“Nope. Never been to Sebastopol.” Wilbo thrusts out his hands to shake. “Wilbo Hoegarden. Realism and Surrealism. I’ve drawn…” But then he stops himself. His spiel is meaningless without the props.
“Cisco,” says the man, “Cisco Austin, like Cisco Houston, only Austin. Same state, different city. We just got off of Morningstar, me and Lemonade.” He nods to a woman, sitting on a guitar case, nursing a baby. “I mean, we left early because they were going to be busted. Hey, we didn’t do it, man. We didn’t fink. We were just warned in advance. By the Oracle.” Cisco leans into Wilbo’s face and glances around to see if anyone is listening. “There’s an Oracle in the trees, you know.”
Wilbo nods. “I know about that oracle. He tends to be a little sappy.”
Cisco doesn’t catch the joke. His gaze seems to be scanning the tops of the trees over the houses across the street. “We’re going to buy some property. It just came together out of the blue, this morning, like the gathering of the tribes. We all arrived here at once. Some of us are from Morningstar. Others just came down out of the hills. We don’t know each other, we just came together, out of the blue. We saw the sign.”
“Oh, you mean the sign. That one. For normal people like you.”
“Yeah, that’s the one. Normal people.”
Wilbo nods again. It’s definitely a time for nodding, this one. Pieces of a puzzle are rapidly falling together in his head but the picture they are forming is a strange one.
“It’s the woman, isn’t it? That woman. The woman pointing to the sign.”
Cisco’s eyes rest on the mannequin and he smiles benevolently. “Her name is Amanda,” he intones. “She’s the patron saint of lunch meat.”
Just then there’s a whoop of voices from a small group of people standing on the steps to Floyd’s office. Suddenly the air is filled with little bits of paper, fluttering down like winged alder seeds.
“They’re tearing up their birth certificates,” Cisco explains. “We’re all born again.”
A voice pipes up from the side, a woman’s voice. “Hey, I know you. You were there last night. At the church.” Wilbo turns. It’s the woman he saw last night at the Lighthouse, the woman with the tabla and the little white dog, and Claudia was dancing. He doesn’t see the dog anywhere.
“You mean at the Lighthouse.”
“Yeah, the Lighthouse. Praise Jesus!” She throws up her hands. Wilbo suddenly feels so uncomfortable that he just has to walk away. He walks straight into the crowd, across the parking lot. At the center of the crowd a man is juggling three bowling pins, a circle of people gathered around him. He juggles very poorly. At any given time two bowling pins are in the air and one is on the ground. Wilbo stops and watches him for a moment, then he turns around and retraces his steps. He pushes past a beardless boy playing a pennywhistle and two dogs at a tug of war with the tattered remnant of an American flag. He goes straight back to Cisco who is now face to face with Amanda at the sign, one arm on her shoulder.
“Hey Cisco, how are you gonna buy this property, anyhow? Who’s got the money?”
Cisco seems a little off guard. He drops his hand from Amanda’s shoulder and wheels around with his back to her, as if protecting her from bandits. It seems to take him a moment before he recognizes Wilbo.
“Oh, the money,” he says at last. “Oh, there’s always money. Money is everywhere! Besides, the man here, he’s going to help us. The man inside.”
“You mean Floyd.”
“Yeah, Floyd. The man inside.”
Wilbo takes leave of Cisco and heads for Floyd’s office. The door is wide open but the way is barred by the people on the steps. They have run out of birth certificates and now they are onto dollar bills. Actually only one of them is tearing up dollar bills, the tall man in the middle. The others are just passing dollar bills around, throwing them up in the air, catching them, passing them around. The tall man holds up his hand at Wilbo’s approach.
“If you want in it costs you a dollar,” he says. His shirt pocket is stuffed and bulging with crumpled dollar bills. There’s a dollar bill rolled like a cigarette wedged behind his right ear.
“Well, that makes about as much sense as anything else.” Wilbo stuffs his hand in his pocket but of course there are no dollar bills in there, only a generous fistful of loose change. “You’ll have to take it in silver.” He pulls out what fits between his fingers and thrusts it at the man who looks perplexed, then takes the coins and steps aside.
Inside the office there are more people, people sitting on the floor; a woman has laid out a spread of tarot cards, a couple of people are playing jacks under the philodendrons, someone is blowing soap bubbles. Bob Dylan whines from the speakers, The Times They are a-Changing, Pot smoke rises from a burning reefer in the ashtray. Floyd sits behind his desk discussing some documents with a huge pony-tailed man whose body pours like lava over a footstool in front of the desk. Wilbo glances up at the side window behind the vines. It is wide open.
Floyd looks up and his face breaks into a big smile. “And there he is!” he cries. “The man, himself!”
“No, Floyd, you’re the man,” Wilbo counters. “That’s what they told me out there. You’re the man inside.”
Floyd laughs and laughs. He’s acting a little silly but he’s clearly sober. “See, I was right about the future, Wilbo. It’s blue and egg-shaped. Just like I told Doralina last night.”
“Wow. You can remember saying that?”
“Of course I remember saying it. Why shouldn’t I? I remember everything about last night. You played the magic song and I remembered the future. Then Doralina went out the window.”
“You remember Doralina going out the window?”
“Yeah, that’s the most important part. Doralina had to go out the window so she could get Amanda out of the closet.”
Wilbo catches his breath. Again! he thinks to himself, Doralina’s logic supercedes the pattern of the world. “But Floyd,” he says, “Can these people really buy real estate? Do they have money?”
“Money? What’s that? Money is just information. These people are well informed, Wilbo. Francis here, he’s got a contract with Simon and Schuster. He’s writing the next Tibetan Book of the Dead. He’s good buddies with Jerry. And there’s people out there from Morningstar, ready to learn from their mistakes.” Floyd laces his fingers together and grins. “It’s the dawning of the age of personal hygiene.”
Wilbo shares his grin. “And Amanda out there, I suppose she’s the patron saint of lunch meat.”
Francis the future author reaches his massive arm to the ashtray and picks up the joint. He turns to Wilbo.
“You wanna hit?”
Wilbo considers briefly, then declines. “Floyd, I’m going to leave you to your business. You’ve clearly got work to do and I don’t. I’m taking the day off. I made a lot of money yesterday, so I’m taking the day off.”
Floyd takes the joint from Francis’ hand. “Oh yeah, that’s right. You told me last night. You met this girl.” He takes a drag from the joint and speaks through a smoke-filled outbreath. “I remember everything.”
Outside the crowd is warming up in the noonday sun. a few more guitars have joined the music, a few more drummers. People are milling, voices are more animated. Children trailing colored foil streamers weave in and out among the forest of legs. Wilbo hops down the steps through a shower of dollar bill fragments. Cisco spots him at once. He pushes away from Amanda and slithers through the crowd, rolling his head from side to side like a big fuzzy tennis ball.
“Well, did you see the man?” He rests his hand lightly on Wilbo’s arm.
“Yeah, I know that man. That’s Floyd Collins. He’s my friend. We drink together just about every night at the Dogfish.”
“What did I tell you, man? It’s the gathering of the tribes. It’s finally happening. We’re gonna get our land back.”
Wilbo leans in close to speak to Cisco directly, an idea that just pops into his head.
“Floyd said he had one thing he wanted me to tell you. Just two words. It’s like a message from the Oracle.”
Cisco’s face gets suddenly very serious. “What are they?”
Wilbo enunciates deliberately. “Personal hygiene.”
At that moment there’s a crunching sound on the gravel behind them. Shaken from the solemnity of the moment, both men spin around at once. A very dilapidated Plymouth sedan has hobbled into the parking lot. It has so many dents it looks like a crumpled piece of waste paper. Each of the four doors is a different color and the body yet another color, all of the colors rust-stained and peeling. Out-of-state license plates: West Virginia. A single word painted in bright orange across the hood: GANGA. The driver’s window rolls down and a brown face emerges, framed by a halo of wiry locks. The man’s hair is so wide it won’t fit into the window opening but spills out across the windshield and over the seat back. Next to him sits a petite woman in a brightly colored dress. In the back seat an uncountable number of small children are thrashing about.
“Good morning, good friends.” the man announces himself in a strong Jamaican accent. “Perhaps you can help us. We’ve been traveling now for twenty-seven days. Taking the back roads. It’s a beautiful country you have here, this America. But we are ready to settle down. We’re just looking for a home.”
Wilbo laughs out loud. This is all too much. The gathering of the tribes, indeed! He suddenly feels an urgent need to get away, not because it’s a bad thing. It’s just too much.
“You gotta see the man inside,” he says through his laughter. “Talk to Cisco here, he’ll help you.”
Just before he turns to go he glances at the car. One of the children in the back seat catches his eye, a little boy with a dirty face and a head of hair as wide as his father’s. He flashes a big smile and waves. Wilbo waves back. The boy waves again. Wilbo waves again. For a moment there’s a little Kinko Syncho Quinto thing going on. Then the car door flies open and the children start tumbling out. Wilbo turns and faces the road ahead with a renewed interest in where it might lead him.