08 January, 2009
copyright 2009 by Jim Nail
April 20, 1973. Friday. Early afternoon. Wilbo Hoegarden stands at his usual spot between the tilt-a-whirl and the bumper cars. There’s a ticket window where Earl the grumpy ticket man doles out ride tickets with his wrinkled hands. An inflorescence of pink cotton candy blooms out of a pole by the ticket window; behind it, a row of small teddy bears are crucified to a plywood board. Behind Wilbo there’s a wooden bench. On the bench his concertina lies with its bellows exhausted, next to a tablet of drawing paper and a pile of charcoal pencils. Behind the bench, a channel of muddy water, behind the channel, a jetty of big grey boulders, behind the jetty, a few clouds hang in a pale blue sky. Faintly visible below the sky, the horizontal line of the ocean beckons like an invitation out of the known into the unknown, out of the commonplace, into the mystery.
Wilbo’s appearance has changed some over the years, although his act has not. He’s cut his hair for one thing. It used to be shoulder length and he used to keep it brushed and clean. Now it’s a jungle of mats and tangles and it makes him look a little like a madman. And he’s dropped his trademark colorful shirts and ties and opted for a workingman’s look, khaki pants and plain brown shop shirts with the name torn off the pocket.
He picks out one figure in the approaching wave of passers-by: a man in a flowered shirt, laughing robustly, a small woman by his side. The woman is not laughing. He fixes his gaze on the man until they make eye contact, briefly, then the man turns away. This is the signal. Wilbo springs into action, catching the pad of paper in one hand, a pencil in the other. He steps in stride behind the man, his eyes fixed on the man, his hands scribbling furiously, as if they had a life of their own.
“Your portrait, sir!” He announces, boldly ripping the page from the pad and skirting around the man until he is standing squarely in his path. “Only five dollars!”
There is a pause, a moment of disorientation, at least for the man and the woman. The artist, however, knows exactly what he is doing.
“Wilbo Hoegarden,” he says taking a little bow. “The fastest draw in the west! Portraits and landscapes. Plus I darn socks, and politicians. I’ll mime for a dime!” At this he makes a little Marcel-Marceau-like flutter of his eyelashes. “My specialty is death scenes. Also, I give birth!”
He thrusts the portrait before the man, only a few inches from his face.
The likeness is striking, although not particularly flattering. With only a few strokes of his pencil Wilbo has captured something about the man- the goofiness of his posture, the absurd height of his forehead, the clueless look in his eyes. The woman smiles unexpectedly, then begins to giggle.
“Look, Frank!” she cries, “It’s you!”
For just a moment it looks like the man could go either way. He looks at the picture. He looks at his wife. You can see wheels turning behind his eyes.
Wilbo sees it too. Without missing a beat he releases the picture; it wafts, leaf-like, to the pavement. He grasps his pencil.
“Of course! The little lady! We must have a matched set.” The pencil flies. “I’ve drawn mayors and millionaires. Just got back from Texas. Did a series of twenty-four profiles of Billy Graham- especially his ears. Also his hands at prayer. There! For the little lady. A matched pair!”
As he says this, a breeze picks up and the man’s portrait begins to escape down the sidewalk. Wilbo sets his foot on it, gently, gracefully, while his arm makes an easel in which rests the woman’s portrait.
The woman is clearly pleased. She has a right to be. Her picture is a valentine. Certain little attributes of the face- an elegance of the cheekbone, a sweetness in the smile- are captured and blown up into movie-star proportions.
“On special today- eight dollars, a matched pair!” Wilbo has brought the man’s portrait up into the cradle of his other arm and he holds them both with his head turned slightly down, like a bashful Jesus, exposing his bleeding heart.
“Oh, look, Frank! They’re perfect! We must have them!” the woman exclaims, and then to Wilbo, “How did you do that?”
“Well, I can’t disclose the master’s name. He works in secret- and in abject poverty. The apprenticeship was a mere eighteen years. I am but a novice.”
The man looks from side to side. You can see he’s feeling trapped. Wilbo knows this, but he also knows his traps. This one will hold.
Slowly the man reaches into his pocket. “That’s really pretty cool.” He says, pulling out a handful
of rumpled bills. “No, I mean it, really,” pawing through the bills, “How ‘bout six bucks?”
“Ah, but of course,” says Wilbo, his head still turned down, apologetically. “Six dollars. I understand. Times are tough all over.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, take eight dollars for your silly pictures!”
“No, no, I mean it, they’re good- he’s good, he’s a character!”
“Frank, don’t talk like that!”
“I’m not talking like that! I’m talking like this!” The man changes his voice to make it sound like a radio announcer. “Now see this man- a colorful fixture of this lovely seaside attraction!” All this time he’s counting out more dollars- perhaps he’s not actually counting. More dollars are coming out of his pocket into his hands. He hands the bundle to Wilbo who takes it with a bow.
“I’m serious, ok? This is good work. I know good art. I took a couple of classes in college. Come on, honey, let’s get some lunch!”
And with that they are gone, hurrying down the boardwalk. You can’t hear what the woman is saying as they disappear into the crowd, but she’s not happy. Wilbo pockets the cash without counting it, turns quickly and swoops up the concertina. He must move without hesitation- work to be done! Another wave of tourists, fresh from the tilt-a-whirl, is approaching up the midway.
Wilbo snatches his beret off his head and flings it onto the sidewalk. A dollar bill is pinned to the lining inside the hat. He launches into an up-tempo rendition of the Fisher’s Hornpipe. He dances a little as he plays- he wags his head from side to side and shuffles his feet.
It’s a happy bunch of silly people. A few of them step out of the flow to watch and listen. Two middle-aged women start to dance a sort-of jitterbug- wholly inappropriate for the music, but who cares? Three or four others gather around the women and start to clap, arhythmically. A few coins are tossed into the hat. Wilbo makes eye contact with as many people as he can. He smiles. When he gets a smile back he clicks his heels. He waits until maybe ten people have gathered out of the stream of passers by, then he moves into stage two.
Out of the approaching crowd he selects one figure- a man, one of three men, together. They look like businessmen; their shirts are casual, but not festive. All three faces are slightly flushed, like maybe they’re just coming out of a business luncheon where wine was served. The man he has selected is talking and gesturing as he walks. One hand is making circles like a hamster’s wheel while the other hand is chopping, quick choppy chops. He walks with his knees slightly bent, crouched, as if to pounce. The overall effect is awkward and silly, no movement synchronizes with any other. An easy target.
Just as Wilbo thought, the three men walk right past, paying no attention to the music, the crowd, or the dancing ladies. Like a bit of flotsam caught in their wake, Wilbo is peeled from his post and falls in place behind the gesturing man. Only one step behind, he places each foot in the exact spot where the man had stepped. His body immediately sinks into the knee-bent, arm waggling carriage of the man. Still wringing the Fisher’s Hornpipe from the concertina his hands mime the motion of the man’s hands, circling right, chopping left. The man keeps talking, walking, gesturing. There are a few tittering laughs from the crowd as people begin to realize what Wilbo is doing.
Alerted by the proximity of the concertina, one of the other businessmen turns around, but he sees nothing out of the ordinary. Wilbo, folded back into the crowd, stands at the sidelines, still playing, an exaggerated “O” of innocence on his lips. The crowd breaks into laughter. The businessman glances back, confused- who are they laughing at? But the gesturing man has seen nothing of this. He keeps talking, walking, gesturing. The other man is pulled back after him by the momentum and they disappear into the crowd.
Laughter, applause, coins jingle into the hat. But Wilbo is not done. He chooses his next subject- a risky one maybe, but what the hell? The man approaches alone. His posture is bent over, his head down, like he’s carrying an enormous weight on his shoulders. He’s a stout man, pock-marked face, long hair in a pony tail, sleeveless t. shirt, tattooed arm.
Wilbo slips in behind him and falls into the pose. The man keeps walking, past the ticket booth, past the bouquets of blue and pink cotton candy; he approaches the neon-lit entrance to the arcade. Wilbo is behind him all the way. He is barely able to conceal his delight. This is one of the longest runs yet! A handful of people are following, amused by the spectacle.
At the arcade the man stops, looks puzzled, turns his head from side to side. Someone laughs sharply nearby. The man spins around. The laugh is morphed into a cough. Wilbo shrinks back into the crowd, a few sour notes escape from the concertina. All the onlookers disperse at once. Everyone else is in motion except Wilbo, his instrument hanging limp in his hand.
No fooling this guy! The man steps forward and squares Wilbo straight in the face.
“Hey! What do you think you’re doing?”
“Forgive me,” says Wilbo, unapologetically. “I mime.”
“You what? What the fuck are you talking about? You mime?”
“It’s a nasty habit. Most people have never heard of it. I’ve been in treatment for years. Forgive me, I’ll just be on my way.”
The man hunches over and lunges forward. “Well, you little pervert!” he says. “Are you fucking with me? Hey, man, do you want to fuck with me?”
“No sir,” says Wilbo, turning around. “I just… I mime, that’s all. I just mime. I’ll be on my way.”
Wilbo does not run. He pulls open the bellows of the concertina and starts to play, and as he plays he walks, and as he walks he sings. He sings in a warbly, country-western voice.
“I’m just a mime, I’m on my way, I’m a mime, mime on my way…”
“Hey! Come back here, asshole!” cries the man. “You wanna fuck with me?” But the crowd fills in between them, like the waters of the Red Sea. The man’s menacing voice and Wilbo’s wheezing concertina are separated by a crush of humanity.
Wilbo reaches the bench where he throws down the concertina and scoops up the pad and the pencil. All in a day’s work and no time to lose. He scans the approaching crowd, zeros in on a bevy of happy women, approaches one and the pencil begins to fly.
“Wilbo Hoegarden, fastest draw in the west. Portraits and landscapes. Realism, cubism, capitalism.” The paper rips from the pad. “Your portrait, ma’am. Only five dollars….”
The day moves on. It’s a good afternoon for the work. Everybody seems happy and generous. He draws many portraits and sells several, including a few matched pairs. On three separate occasions he succeeds in attracting a small crowd of happy people, dancing in strange and awkward steps to his jigs and reels and jingling their happy coins into his welcoming hat. He mimes many passers by; everyone is amused, few are annoyed, and everyone is generous. The work delights him and goads him on to try new and different things. At one point he approaches a young couple sitting eating corn dogs at one of the sidewalk tables in the food court. They are deep in talk and she is making distinctive circular gestures with one hand as if she is trying to stir up the conversation from the bottom. So he sits down at a nearby vacant table and mimics her moves while a handful of onlookers watch in nervous amusement. It’s nervy, but it works. She’s an extrovert, and when she catches on to what’s happening, she is nothing but amused. She even invites him to join them at the table where he makes three portraits of her husband and sells them for five dollars apiece. Plus, they buy him a corn dog, which just hits the spot.
In the late afternoon the sun fades out, rather than sets, as the sky turns slowly from blue to a dull yellow-gray and the wooded mountains in the east disappear behind a bank of shapeless clouds. It’s six o’clock now; Wilbo reads the time from the dials of the blue face above the ticket window. He’s a little hungry, he’s a little tired, he’s not sure what he’s going to do next.
Out of the approaching crowd, someone catches his eye. A girl. A wild girl, but very pretty, she’s wearing some sort of blue dress, something thin and flimsy. Her hair is a mass of tangles, full of little sparkly things that glint in the slanted sunlight. He is quite sure he sees her first but she sees him soon after. She stops walking, momentarily. It’s too far away to see her eyes, but he can tell by her posture. She sees him.
She isn’t alone. There’s a man with her, short and stocky, a black leather jacket, greasy slicked back hair, a dirty white t shirt. Up to the point where she stopped walking she was holding his arm. Now she has released it, and for a moment he walks on, oblivious, then stops, turns back.
“Hey!” he barks. His voice is sharp, aggressive.
When she resumes her approach she does not take the man’s arm. She passes him, her attention now fully focused on Wilbo; she moves with intention. The man follows her. He’s saying something but Wilbo can’t hear what he’s saying. He’s gesturing with his hands, palms up; he keeps thrusting his upturned palms forward like he’s shoving something into an oven.
Wilbo sets down the concertina and takes a firm stance, legs slightly apart. He knows something important is about to happen but he has no idea what it is.
As she enters Wilbo’s domain, she slows down. She doesn’t look at him but you can tell she knows he’s there. It is, after all, his domain. She walks with her head bent down; she looks at her hands; she enters the clear space between the ticket window and the helium balloons. There she stops, raises her head, and crouches, knees bent, one hand out, as if she’s holding a spear and she just sited her prey. She looks so ridiculous; Wilbo almost laughs, but no, play the game! He mimics the pose and they stand there in frozen mirror image for just a couple of seconds.
Then she moves. In an instant her arms become snakes, slithering cobras from a snake charmer’s basket, rising and falling in counterpoint, flickering forked tongues made of fingers. She holds every other part of her body level and motionless, her gaze fixed on Wilbo; her eyes say, bet you can’t do this!
But of course he can. It’s what he does for a living. He has a technique. He locks his eyes on hers but he draws his attention to the extremities, the flurry of movement, the vortex of kinetic energy. He allows himself to be drawn into it, like a dead leaf into a whirlpool, and immediately his body responds. His arms rise of their own accord, and they too become snakes, only a few coils behind hers, his fingers splay and forked tongues dart from his hands.
Her face registers surprise, briefly, and there’s pleasure in it. This will be a contest then, and she intends to win.
She goes to work. Her first moves are wild and erratic, all over the map, no grace or artistry, just a crazed flurry of motion, arms and legs every which way, a chicken running with its head cut off, a flopping fish on a wooden plank.
At first he is disarmed, motionless, but only momentarily. He leaps into his own set of frenetic motions, but watching hers closely; catching the nuances, the trends, he begins to duplicate them, roughly at first, approximations, the general feel.
Paradoxically, this seems to center her. She calms down a bit, her moves become more studied, more dancelike, more predictable. It’s partly because she starts watching him, watching to see what he will do. Of course he’s been watching her all along. This gives him an advantage.
He calls upon a trick of the trade. He focuses the center of his vision on an object to the left and behind her, a blue flag flapping on a post by the ticket window, but he draws all his attention to the general shape her body is making in the peripheral. This is what he mimes.
At first it’s a seal shape, but it flutters back and forth between the shape of a seal and a low flickering flame, like a pilot light on a butane stove. He steals a fleeting glance, directly at her body.
She’s doing little finger mudras and her head is wagging from side to side on her neck. He copies. She notices. She turns it up a little. She throws her arms above her head and brings them down slowly, sparkling the fingers like fireflies. That’s easy enough. The mirror he places before her has only a few seconds delay. Emboldened by his success, he looks her square in the face, he locks her eyes. She does not turn away. Perhaps she sees this as an additional challenge, a staring match. The loser is the first to blink.
With their eyes locked she tries more elaborate and fanciful moves, at first with her hands and arms only, twirling them in concentric circles, clasping and unclasping, rolling dough, pitching pennies, unwinding balls of twine. Then she begins to work her legs. Over the years Wilbo has learned to expand the range of his vision, to see more things at once. He thinks perhaps he has actually been able to change the physical shape of his pupils through practice. He calls upon this skill now. In no time, he’s doing everything she’s doing.
Then he has a wild and crazy thought. Perhaps I can take the lead.
He doesn’t try it right at first. He lets the mirrored movement play itself out a little longer, just so he can be sure it’s really happening. Then, on one outthrust arm, he reaches a little further, curls the side of his hand down ever so slightly in the opposite direction. He thinks it works but he’s not sure. Perhaps her arm wobbled. Perhaps there was a hint of distraction in her eye. He tries again. This time the arms are raised, overhead, and he allows his to linger just a second longer, ever so slightly, pressing his will.
Yes! She follows. Surely she’s not aware that she follows, but she follows. At the bottom of the circle he turns his palms inward as her arms rise. Yes, her palms turn inward. It’s subtle. The timing is very close, but he’s quite certain- the impulse was his. He tries more things, always slight, always small, little bends of the waist, thrusts of the neck, little finger dances. Each one works. He gets bolder. He tries things that are unique- things that she wouldn’t ordinarily do, things that are distinctively masculine, distinctively Wilbo.
Yes! He has her completely. He has taken the lead, and she doesn’t even know that it has happened. The flow has changed direction. She is his.
That’s when it falls apart. It starts with a thought. Much slower than movement, the thought drags the movement and pulls it down. What does it mean, I have taken the lead? And what about that point when she relinquished it? Was there a moment in time when neither of us was leading? And what about that moment? How long was it? What if it could be prolonged? What if it could be prolonged indefinitely? How long could two people go on doing exactly the same thing without one of them leading?
What is happening? Is anything happening at all?
It’s too much. He turns away; he breaks the spell. From behind him he hears her voice. “Hey! Hey!” Then she’s drowned out by a completely unexpected sound- a burst of applause, cheers, laughter from all sides. He wheels around to face a wild and rowdy throng of happy spectators, whistling and stamping and clapping. People have climbed up on the hand railing and people are standing on the bench to get a better view. The money starts to pour in- jingling coins and crispy bills. His hat fills to overflowing.
Wilbo looks at the girl. She seems just about as flabbergasted as he is. Then she leaps forward, jumping right over the hatful of money, scattering a few of the dollar bills.
“Why did you stop! Why did you stop?” she cries, and then she twirls around and addresses the hatful of money. “Hey, I did that for you, man. Look at all that money! Look what I did for you!” In a dramatic gesture she plunges her hands into the hat and scoops up a handful of bills and coins, letting them fall back in with a metallic jingle. “Look what I did for you! Hey, we need to be a team! We could go on television.” She leans over and grabs Wilbo by the arm. “What do you think? Look at all that money!”
He’s a little embarrassed by this. It’s an unspoken rule of street performance: you pretend the money isn’t there until you get a chance to be alone with it. But then several people from the crowd rush in at once with compliments and questions.
“Hey, that’s great!”
“What do you call that, anyhow? Is it a form of martial arts?”
“Is there a school where you can learn it?”
The girl turns to the crowd, basking in the glow of the attention. “Yeah, it’s a school,” she informs them out of the blue. “It’s called Kinko Syncho Quinto. It comes from Burma.”
Wilbo is astonished and delighted. Kinko Syncho Quinto? Burma?
“Yes, that’s right,” he jumps in, “Kinko Syncho Quinto. You practice it in front of a two-way mirror. You know the kind, glass on one side, mirror on the other side. You take turns being on the mirror side.”
She looks at him and makes a funny face. “You usually practice naked.”
Suddenly there is a shift in the dynamics of the crowd. It’s a kind of thing Wilbo has learned to sense from many years of performance. The moment breaks. The onlookers are distracted and one by one they get caught like paper boats in the flow of movement. A clear space opens and with a jolt of uneasiness, Wilbo recognizes the man.
He has separated himself out from the others. His separateness is conspicuous. He leans, slouching against the railing by the bench with the slough and the jetty shimmering behind him. His head is thrust forward with his chin jutting out and his eyes narrowly set on Wilbo.
Wilbo calls upon a trick of the trade: when the man is alienated, approach him. Even so, this one won’t be easy. The wall of repulsion around this man is almost visible. Wilbo keeps his eyes on his face. Taking in the details he snatches up his pad and pencil from the bench.
“Wilbo Hoegarden, portraits and landscapes, comedy and drama, your portrait, sir!” The paper rips and flies. At first he isn’t sure the man will take it. It hangs in the air like a flag of truce before the man abruptly snatches it up. He looks at it for a long time without smiling or frowning. Wilbo begins to worry. Who is this guy? His face is a closed book- it can’t be read. Wilbo is just about to say something when the girl, still panting and reeling, grabs the man’s arm to get her balance.
“Whoa!” she cries when she catches sight of the picture. Her eyes get big and round. “Look what he did. He stole your soul, man. He captured it and put it in that little piece of paper. You better look out, man! He got your soul!”
“Ah, but no.” Wilbo makes a sweeping bow. “On the contraire, you have nothing to fear. The soul remains intact. It takes hours to catch a soul with a charcoal pencil.”
The man chuckles dryly, turns to to the girl, and shakes his head. “You’re so fucking weird,” he says, “What makes you say something like that?”
“Well, it happens. I mean, it could happen. It’s possible.”
“Happens all the time.” Wilbo replies. “She knows what she’s talking about. You pay attention to this girl. She’s a fount of wisdom.”
She lets go of his arm and punches him in the shoulder. “That’s right, Gary. You heard what he said. A veritable fount of wisdom.”
“Well, he didn’t say veritable.”
She grabs Wilbo’s arm. “Hey, man, say veritable. That’s ver-it-a-bull…”
“Obstreperous, too, I see.” Wilbo turns back to the man. “You can keep that portrait. Free for the laughs.” He lowers his head, trying to find an angle from which he can peer into the man’s face, trying to see if he’s made any in-roads.
The man nods slowly, staring at the drawing. He doesn’t smile. “Yeah, well, maybe,” he mumbles. “You got a business card?”
Wilbo chuckles. “Now, if there’s anything that’ll steal your soul...” He reaches into his pocket. What he pulls out is not a business card, but a cocktail napkin. “Most late nights you can find me at the Dogfish Pub, third stool down by the salty-shell peanut bowl. Until they kick me out.”
The man pockets the napkin. He looks Wilbo, up and down. “Yeah, well, you’re an interesting character, Wilbo Hoegarden,” he says. “I’ll keep you in mind. Come on, Claudia, we got stuff to do.”
The girl gives Wilbo a helpless look. Clearly she wants to say something, but she can’t. She even opens her mouth and begins to move her lips soundlessly. But the man grabs her firmly by the arm.
“You coming or not?”
In his head Wilbo hears her reply, as a matter of fact, no, I’m not. But she does not say this. The man tugs on her arm; she gives Wilbo one last entreating look but he has no idea what to do with it. In the next moment they have disappeared into the crowd.
Wilbo stares at the rush of people swallowing up their departure. For a long time he stands there while a slow gnawing emptiness forms and grows in the pit of his stomach. At first he attributes it to the turn of events, and their strange lack of resolution. But gradually it dawns on him.
“I think it’s time for a drink.” he says out loud, and he turns to the bench to gather up the tools of his trade.