29 January, 2009
copyright 2009 by Jim Nail
The light is bright and the air is hot and stuffy. There’s a sound of voices and then there’s another sound, thunk! like a rock hurled forcefully against wood, followed by a tinkling and a scattering, little particles flaking and falling from where the rock struck. Then the voices again, high, chattering, taunting, then another thunk! and another round of tinkling and scattering.
Wilbo sits upright in bed. A wave of blood rises to his head and breaks into a rush of pain. Outside the voices laugh and muted footsteps scud in the sand. He leaps from the bed, makes three long strides across the room and throws open the door. A young boy in beachcombers rears up from the sand, takes in an eyeful of the naked man standing in the doorway, and lets out a shriek of terror. Behind him, two other boys drop their stones and turn to run. One of them utters a goofy cartoon-like sound, ya…aah…ahh! as he runs. Halfway down the beach they turn back to look and one of them stumbles and rolls headfirst. The others laugh at him but keep running. The fallen boy picks himself up and continues, limping slightly.
Wilbo stands there for a few minutes, scratching his stubbly chin. What time is it? It must be late! The sun is already high in the sky, approaching zenith over the ocean, and there are people walking about down at the water’s edge, bending over, picking up shells.
He retreats back into the house, pulls on some pants, then goes out to inspect the damage. Some of the abalone shingles on the door have broken and lie in sparkly pieces on the porch. The small stuffed owl that usually sits on a perch above the door is now hanging upside down but it seems to be intact. No big deal. It happens all the time.
He sits down on the bench in just his pants and lets the morning sun drench his skin- at least he hopes it’s the morning sun- surely he hasn’t slept that late. His mind is all cobwebbed and his thoughts won’t form a ball and start rolling. Coffee, maybe. He goes back in the house, lights the camp stove and pours some water from the crock into a saucepan.
Old John of Dreams must have been working overtime, last night. It feels like there are more dream pictures in his head than real-life images before his eyes. But what a mess they’re in! What a disarray! No, for sure, sleep has not done its work this time. Sleep has not made a clear distillate of the fruit of last night’s ponderings. Either that or the work was interrupted in process and left dangling with open circuits and broken synapses.
The water boils and Wilbo prepares himself a strong cup of instant coffee. He sits on the bench; his eyes rest unfocused, on the people in the distance, playing in the waves, while his mind goes to work, sorting through the contents of his dreams.
Something is hidden behind something else; like a statue is hidden behind a curtain, or a boat is hidden behind a rock.
A boat crashes into a rock. Many lives are lost.
Something is caught on a rock in a tide pool, something blue and filmy- a piece of silk, maybe. A wave rushes in, the waters rise; the silk rises with the water and appears to break loose from its snag. But then the wave rushes out, the water falls, and the silk settles back into its confinement. This happens over and over, endlessly repeating. It’s like a broken tooth on a piece of machinery. Every time the gear hits the tooth the machine goes clunk! and wobbles slightly, but the shaft still turns. Maybe the wobble will eventually achieve its end. Maybe the wheel will finally fly off the axle and be free.
A boat crashes into a rock. Many lives are lost. Danger!
A girl throws herself off a cliff into a sea of clouds. She spins and twirls as she descends, trailing a silk scarf, until she disappears into the clouds. There’s no sound of impact- she just disappears.
Something is hidden behind something else; like a cat is hiding behind an orange crate, or a piano is hidden behind a stained-glass window.
But the images and the concepts pale as the coffee kicks in. He sits there, staring out into the plain light of day, staring at the people playing in the waves. He doesn’t feel better but at least he feels alert.
Might as well start the day. Work to be done. Gotta make a living.
He goes back into the house, puts on his shirt and his boots, and gathers together the tools of the trade, the concertina in its case, the tablet, the pencils and charcoals. He has no mirror in the cabin, no running water. He does not wash his face or brush his hair. In complete oblivion to his appearance he steps outside to meet the day.
At Mac’s Burger Shack on the boardwalk he stops for breakfast. It’s always the same thing- two eggs, over medium, some crispy hash browns and a slab of Italian sausage drenched in grilled onions. It’s not Wilbo’s choice. Once, a long time ago, Mac said, hey, Wilbo, let me fix you some breakfast, and that’s what he made. Now it’s an unspoken ritual: when Wilbo shows up, Mac throws on the eggs and fires up the griddle for the sausage. The walls of the shack are papered with Wilbo’s portraits of tourists. New ones appear daily.
Sitting at the table, waiting for breakfast, Wilbo picks up a crumpled piece of paper on the table top. He opens it up like he’s peeling an orange, and smoothes it out on the surface of the table. There’s a black and white picture. A hippie couple, a man and a woman, but not exactly hippies. The man’s hair jet black and shaped into little quills, like a porcupine. The woman wears a sleeveless leather vests and she has tattoos on her bare arms. He’s not sure he’s ever seen that before, tattoos on a woman’s arms. Above the picture the caption:
FINDING REAL ESTATE FOR NORMAL PEOPLE LIKE YOU
He picks up the paper, folds it, puts it in his pocket. He can’t seem to finish his breakfast. He
glances up at the clock. Ten-thirty. Not so late. Work to do.
His next stop is the public bath house. It’s a cement building that sits in considerable disrepair on the ocean side of the boardwalk, with windows looking out on the beach. There, an old man named Anselm (rhymes with handsome, he informs his clientele) sits at the front desk, smoking a cigar under a sign that reads SHOWERS ONE DOLLAR, TOWELS TWENTY FIVE CENTS, NO DOGS, NO SMOKING. He nods as Wilbo enters but says nothing. He’s reading a book by Zane Grey.
There’s a barricade in front of the women’s showers and a sign that says CLOSED FOR CLEANING. It’s been there for several months. On the concrete wall behind the barricade is a piece of art. It’s a mermaid but not a skinny one, and none too clean. In fact, it looks like the whole piece has been deliberately spattered with mud, as if by a young Jackson Pollock in his kindergarten phase. The tail is fashioned out of soiled blue terry cloth tied together at the fins. Her torso is a puffy pink sponge with protruding tips of toothpaste tubes for nipples. Two toothbrush arms are shaking bristled fists at the sky. The face carved in a bar of dirty white soap sends a mixed message- somewhere between delirium and rage. No locks of hair grace the rounded white scalp. Scotch taped to the wall above her a jagged page from a magazine ad bears the slogan:
FOR THE FIRST TIME IN YOUR LIFE FEEL REALLY CLEAN.
Wilbo always chuckles when he sees this. It went up shortly after the CLOSED FOR CLEANING SIGN, and it’s one of Doralina’s few works that was not discreetly dismantled shortly upon its appearance. It could be that Anselm in his myopic cloud has never really noticed it was there.
Entering the men’s showers, Wilbo breathes in the quiet and breathes out a sigh of relief. This morning he’s going to be alone. It isn’t always so. A surprising number of people avail themselves of Handsome Anselm’s house of soap and clean living. And let’s face it, most of them are not working men like himself, working men who chose their alternate lifestyles deliberately, as part of a code of ethics. Most are drop-outs, victims of their own poor choices, or the poor choices of those around them. Some are mute. They’re the easiest kind, the acid-heads who have severed the synaptic link between their thoughts and their words. At least they don’t say anything. But then there are the talkers. The speed freaks. Ordinarily he can handle the talkers, even the drifting, free-association talkers, the Big Idea talkers, the Johnny One Note talkers, the ones who have a favorite word, like synchronicity or copacetic, and they say it over and over, like it is a key to the lock that God put on the Great Divide shortly after the Fall of Man. Wilbo can handle the talkers. Talk is, after all, a part of what he does for a living. But not this early in the morning, and certainly not without the prospect of getting paid.
Then there are the dangerous ones, beyond speed, the shifty eyed sulkers, the ones who carry knives and unsheath and bring them into the shower, laying them conspicuously on the ledge. Talk does not always work with these people, and although it has never ended in violence there was once when he had to flee from the building without his clothes, forcing him to live out his reoccurring dream of being naked in a public place.
But this morning he’s alone.
He enters the sanctuary of the shower room and seeks out his favorite stall, second to the end on the left hand side, the one that doesn’t dribble and supports a working floor drain. Screeking open the curtain on its metal rings he faces a familiar sight, a permanent marker portrait of a nude woman with breasts each exactly three times the size of her head. He does not know the artist. He sets down his tools on the concrete bench, peels off his clothing, and hangs them on the peg above the bench.
Damn! I should have brought a change of clothes. Oh well.
In the shower, the water hot and substantially strong, he slides his hand along the overhead ledge until he locates a slippery egg-shaped lump of soap. This he rinses in the hot water until he gets to the pure, clean essence within. He lathers his body from head to foot, thinking fiddle tunes instead of thoughts, the Mason’s Apron and the Rights of Man, O’Carolan’s Concerto, Neil Gow’s Farewell to Whiskey. After fiddle tunes he thinks body movements, arm swings and hip swivels, finger rolls, knit brows, eye scowls. He’s warming up for the work.
Outside the shower stall something moves, or there’s a sound. He’s not sure which it is, but something distracts him, catches his attention, startles him enough to make his heart pound. He turns off the shower quickly but he does not immediately throw open the curtain. He waits for equilibrium, for the startle to settle. He wonders, should I say something? Should I announce my presence? But no, his presence is obvious. He is announced. Whoever, or whatever is outside the shower surely knows he is there. There is mutual awareness..
He slides open the curtain in a single bold move, so as to claim authority.
Standing erect and firm-legged between the shower stall and the bench is a large skunk. Scruffy coat, a white line down its back like a freeway divider, it moves slowly, a creature from a dream. At the sight of Wilbo its tail raises and its body quivers. It begins to roll its head from side to side, as if to say no, no sir, this cannot be.
Suddenly Wilbo feels cold. The bracing morning sea air seems to come rushing into the bathhouse and he glances up to notice something at once strange and mundane- a patch of sunlight on the wall above the pegs, blurred with the shifting blue shadow of a tree outside in the wind. But this is not what’s strange. What’s strange is this skunk, standing there dreamlike between Wilbo and his clothes- dreamlike- as if it has materialized out of the labyrinth of last night’s dreams- something is hidden behind something else!
Wilbo consults his dreams to see if there was a skunk in them, but it’s no use. There’s an immediacy to the skunk in front of him that effectively blocks all access to the dream world.
The skunk shifts its weight a little. It stops its lateral head-wagging. For a moment it remains immobile, then it slowly cranes its neck and looks Wilbo full in the face.
Is there eye contact?
There is eye contact, and there is intelligence in the animal eyes, piercing, probing, reaching out.
Do animals really make eye contact with people?. But before Wilbo can ponder the question the skunk speaks. Not audible speaking, not exactly. More like a thought shape that appears suddenly in Wilbo’s head.
You’re covered with soap. Rinse first, so we can discuss this matter with some sense of decorum. This is not a time for foolishness.
OK. Obediently Wilbo closes the shower curtain and turns the water back on. At first the water is full on hot; he has to jump out of its stream to keep from getting scalded. This unnerves him almost more than the skunk outside the shower. He is going to have to keep track of this world while engaging in a dialog with this creature from the other.
Back in the now-temperate flow he ponders.
It could have been my own thoughts. It’s not like I actually heard a voice. It’s a thing that one would think, under the circumstances. I am covered with soap. It didn’t necessarily come from the skunk. But it might have, it might have. Weirder things have happened.
Wilbo’s mind wordlessly rattles off some images of other, weirder things that have happened- sadhus that can materialize cut diamonds in their hands and walk on burning coals in bare feet; a tornado that drives a single piece of straw through a metal road sign; both Carl Rogers and Eric Hoffer mysteriously stricken with blindness at the age of twelve and mysteriously recovering three weeks later. Three years later in the case of Hoffer. None of these things make any difference and he doesn’t know why he thinks them. He thinks them to demonstrate that weirder things have happened.
Either way, there is a problem here. That skunk is standing between me and my clothes and I want my clothes. I need to tell it this. But how? Should I use my voice? It’s the way people communicate with each other, outside of the printed word, of course. I’m a human being, OK? It’s the way we are, us human beings. We don’t have the ability to hurl thoughts into each other’s heads. Sorry about that. We have to talk to each other. We made up these things called words. I mean, there are other forms, too. There’s music. There’s dance. I suppose I could just jump out there and start doing a little dance. But I don’t know, I don’t know, that makes me nervous. I think I need to talk.
Fully rinsed and having made this resolve, Wilbo shuts off the water and throws open the curtain again. The skunk is still there. It has changed its position only very slightly. Its front left paw is lifted off the floor, bent at the knee. Is it a knee or is it an elbow?
“So what do you want to talk to me about?” Wilbo asks, boldly out loud.
The skunk’s expression is blank, uncomprehending, a dumb creature from the woods. Wilbo feels suddenly foolish. What am I doing, talking to a skunk? I should just throw this bar of soap at it. But then the skunk sets its paw back down on the cement and speaks again.
I have something for you, it says. Its voice is matter-of-fact, neither portentous nor threatening.
This is getting ridiculous. This has to be his sleep-deprived mind, playing tricks on him. Why would a skunk have something for him?
Yeah, like what? Wilbo forms the words in his head but the skunk answers before he can voice them.
Oh, it’s not much. Just a little something. I’m only a skunk after all. You might call it an amulet. Or a talisman. Something to carry with you on the journey. It might give you some clues.
Wilbo feels a little dizzy. He leans his wet naked shoulder against the cold concrete of the shower wall. He wrestles with a thought which is getting harder and harder to deny. Another presence outside of him is conversing with him. It isn’t just his own thoughts. He decides to bring himself down to the animal level, physically, by squatting on his haunches so he can look the creature in the eye. He keeps his shoulder on the cold concrete until he gets there. He is chilled and wet and stiff. The effort is challenging.
“So what do I have to do in exchange,” he says out loud, “For this thing you want to give me? If I know skunks, they always want something in exchange.”
The skunk shakes its head, physically. You don’t know skunks.
I could have made that one up, he thinks. But the thought just hangs there. It’s beginning to matter less and less, who made up what in this conversation. Wilbo finds himself being drawn into it. What the hell? This is interesting. He refuses to entertain the thought that he might also be a little frightened.
“Oh, you don’t want something from me then. You’re offering this for free.”
I didn’t say that.
“Well then, there you go. You’re just like every other skunk. Face it, pal. I know skunks.”
At this remark the skunk seems to bristle a little. Wilbo chuckles silently to himself. I’ve put it on the defensive. But immediately he feels a shiver run down his wet arms. Maybe not a good thing, a skunk on the defensive. He takes a deep breath to gain control over his physical rhythms. The skunk does the same. Its body relaxes a little although it does not sit. It chooses not to honor Wilbo’s comment with a reply. Instead, there’s a moment of contemplative silence between them, man and beast, each slowly accepting the limitations of the other, working out the innate inter-species conflicts, seeking the common good.
It’s been like this for awhile, hasn’t it? The skunk says at last.
Interesting question. What do you mean by that?
The way it’s been, like this. The same thing happening over and over. I think you know what I mean.
Immediately Wilbo knows what the skunk means. Every day the work, every night the Dogfish, and then sitting on the bench, pondering, counting the waves, and then the ritual, the four directions, and then sleep. A relentless, blind repetition, seven days a week for uncountable weeks, the only change being the seasons, the weather, the appropriate clothing. Not a bad thing really, comfortable actually, like the smooth surface of the sitting log. But there was once something more. And lately he’s noticed a chink in the structure, a barely perceptible shift in the tides, like a wobble in the wheel, threatening to throw it off its intended course.
I mean it’s been going along about the same with you for quite some time now, or at least on the surface it has. But there are always things happening underneath the surface that we don’t know about, building up pressure until they cause change.
The skunk allows a moment for this to sink in. Then it delivers the punch.
That time has come. You are about to go through a change.
The thought jams in Wilbo’s head. He won’t think it. Part of him still believes this is no more than a conversation with himself.
Oh, give me a break! How do you all this stuff about me anyhow? I thought skunks just liked to.. I don’t know, run around in the fields and eat… bugs or something. Why should a skunk know, or even care about what’s happening to a man? Are you just a regular skunk?
The skunk makes a smiling shape appear inside Wilbo’s head. The skunk itself does not smile. It just projects a little picture of a skunk, smiling. Oh, we eat just about anything it explains. We eat bugs. We love baby mice. A nest of baby mice when the mama is away- what a treat! We like to find abandoned houses so we can eat wallpaper for the glue. We’re nocturnal. It’s isn’t easy for me to be here talking to you in the middle of the day like this. Yes, I’m just a regular skunk. It’s difficult to explain how animals are sometimes used to bring things to people.
Used by who? Wilbo asks. Were you sent by someone?
The skunk makes a little inward sigh. Not exactly sent. Not exactly by someone. It’s hard to explain. It doesn’t matter, really. You don’t have to understand it.
There is a pause of genuine silence. No thoughts appear in Wilbo’s head, and the air outside the window is very still. The skunk’s eyes move, then its head, a slow rolling motion that expresses weariness.
This is very tiring for me. It takes a great amount of energy. Can’t I just give it to you? I’d like to be on my way. And remember, I’m just a skunk. I’m not a magician. Now, Coyote- he’s a magician, but I guess he didn’t think this was important enough. So remember, this has no magic powers. It can’t change anything. It’s just a token. It might give you some clues.
Wilbo can feel the spell breaking a little, like the part in the dream where the images are getting too absurd and you’re thinking, hey, this is just a dream!. He smiles and speaks out loud.
“Well, I don’t know, pal. I don’t see how you can give me anything. You’re not wearing an overcoat. You got some secret pocket there I don’t see?”
These words have a dispelling power. Suddenly the skunk changes. It’s like all of the magic drains out of it. It seems to shrink in size and its fur goes flat and scruffy. At the same time the sunlight in the bath house shifts; it becomes normal, like the sun shining just about anywhere in the world today.
The skunk rises and moves, an ordinary, creaturely movement, propelled only by the survival instinct of fear. It saunters across the floor toward the daylight streaming in through the bath house entrance. It doesn’t look back. A moment later there’s a human cry, forming a single comprehensible word, yow! Handsome Anselm dozing in his chair, ambushed suddenly by an uninvited bath house guest.
Wilbo is staring at the spot on the floor where the skunk had been. Yes, there is something there, something round and shiny. At first he thought it was just a patch of sun, but no. His arm flies out to pick it up; he takes it in his hand and turns it over several times before his eyes can focus on what it is.
It’s some kind of a charm- an amulet-that was the word. An amulet .It’s molded out of a soft, heavy metal, maybe pewter, with a hole at the top for stringing on a chain or a charm bracelet. Maybe it was there before. Maybe the skunk just happened to sit on it. There doesn’t have to be magic in everything.
The shape is teardrop and there’s a face, something out of mythology, he thinks, something Italian, maybe. Commedia dell’arte. He remembers it vaguely from his days with the San Francisco Mime Troupe. At first it doesn’t have any emotional effect on him, except for the strangeness by which it came to him. He is, in fact, a little disappointed. It’s some sort of clown, wearing a partial mask and a smile that seems to droop down from its face like melting wax. Wilbo stares at it for awhile but it doesn’t yield up any immediate clues. Perhaps it’s because he’s cold and wet and he wants to get on with his day.
Work to be done! His disappointment seems in some way to free him. Perhaps it didn’t really happen. The skunk thing. Yes, of course, there was a skunk, but maybe he just made all the rest up. Of course there are intrusions from the other world. Dreams are intrusions from the other world, and there are dreams constantly lurking in the shadows of everyday life, like morning mist. But it doesn’t really matter. What matters is doing the work. And keeping to your code of ethics.
He tosses the charm on the bench and reaches for the towel. Drawing in a deep breath of the cold sea-perfumed air, he feels a sense of vigor flowing into him as he contemplates the prospects of the day ahead.
I love my work, he says to himself as he takes his damp, sandy pants down from the peg.
Fully dressed, the concertina slung over his shoulder and the pad and pencils under his arm, he steps out into the bright sun. Anselm looks up from his book. There’s a stray lick of hair sticking straight up from his mostly bald head, like a single fence post in a field after a tornado.
“Hey, Wilbo, did you know there was a skunk in there with you?”
Wilbo doesn’t reply. There’s something sharp about Anselm’s voice, like a phonograph needle cutting into a groove in his head. Everything in front of him seems to adjust itself into a sharper focus, the leaves of the trees, the pebbles in the path, the sharp edged outlines of the here and now. Clutching his possessions he steps forward in a kind of trance.