06 February, 2009
copyright 2009 by Jim Nail
Wilbo sits at a corner table in Macs Burger Shack, waiting for a cheeseburger deluxe, on the house. Although he carries a drawstring bag stuffed with jingly coins and snappy bills, he couldn’t convince Mac to let him pay for his dinner. “Gratis Complimetis!” protests Mac. “This is the Wilbo museum.”
The window where he sits is steamed over from the frying of onions and the boiling of potatoes. He looks out through the film at an abstract painting of colored lights, the neons and the artificial gas lamps of the boardwalk sparking to life as the evening darkness falls. The shapes shift and wander as people pass by.
It’s better when you can’t see the people, he says to himself. It’s better when the people are just patterns of movement. It’s better when you only see the people because they get in the way of the light.
He doesn’t quite know where to take this thought after that, but it feels good, thinking it, just thinking his own thought, without taking it anywhere. So he sits and watches the shifting patterns caused by people, getting in the way of the light. He starts remembering the faces and the bodies of the people he mimed today, and their movements, the movements of the ones he mimed. It’s a trick of the trade- to look for people with distinctive movements, idiosyncrasies of posture and gait. These are the ones he mimes. The ones he can latch onto. He thinks about a man in a cowboy hat who kept reaching up and touching the brim of the hat with both hands, rotating it slightly every time he touched it. That man must have rotated his hat a full three hundred sixty degrees on his head before he noticed Wilbo was following him. He thinks about a woman who drifted sideways, to the left, with every forward step she took, dragging her small bevy of friends with her. He followed her sideways into the street as she advanced down the sidewalk toward the arcade, but he had to fall back at the crosswalk because the traffic was so heavy. Somehow the women made it across to safety. If that woman was headed for Mexico she might wind up in Pennsylvania first!
A sound breaks his reverie. It’s a knocking sound, and at the same time there’s a sudden intrusion in the patterns at the window, a close and frenetic flurry of color, insistently attempting the form of a human face. Someone is outside at the window, knocking. Someone is trying to get his attention.
Wilbo is startled and his heart pounds. He reaches for the window but a stern voice in his head admonishes him at once- don’t wipe the glass with your hands! So he picks up his napkin and with it he swabs a big oval in the steamy pane.
A face emerges, easily recognizable under a floppy, button-covered hat. Doralina Steindl-Klas. She cups her hands like aviator goggles over her brow and presses her head against the pane. Then she leans back and makes a concise, communicative gesture. She balls a fist and rolls her hand in a circle. It says, rolls the window down!
But that’s silly! This isn’t a car! So he mimes her movement, his fist balled, the rolling hand. Instantly she disappears. Wilbo takes a single breath and then the door of the Burger Shack flies open with a loud clang of the cowbell hanging from its handle.
“Wilbo!” Doralina’s voice is an urgent, grasshopper’s rasp, and she locomotes her arm in beckoning. Quick to respond, Wilbo slips off his bench.
At that moment the door bangs open again and a man is standing there, wearing a ragged overcoat in spite of the seasonably warm weather. He’s unshaven and his hair is a mess. He just stands there with a vacant look on his face, swaying slightly. Then he turns and sits absently in a folding chair by the door.
Wilbo stands there feeling suddenly foolish, but not in a bad way. Doralina is wearing a full length coat of what appears to be some kind of shiny mithril. In the dim light of the burger shack it’s difficult to tell what else she’s wearing, except for her trademark floppy hat, and there’s a dab of blue paint on the tip of her outthrust nose. She gives Wilbo a good looking over, top to bottom and bottom to top.
“Wilbo you look like you’ve seen a horse.”
“Don’t you mean a ghost, Doralina?”
“No, a horse. Everyone sees ghosts. It’s horses we need to see more of these days. Wilbo, you’ve got to come. It’s urgent. A mutual friend is in trouble.” She stamps her feet three times, like a stamping horse. The gesture says, no time to lose!
Wilbo takes a panoramic glance around the shack. He needs little coaxing. Although a stranger to conventional logic, Doralina has never extended an invitation that led nowhere.
“Just let me get my things.”
From the floor by his table he gathers up the pad, the concertina, the bag of money. When he straightens up suddenly there’s Mac, standing there, holding out a plate, a cheeseburger deluxe, visibly steaming beside a mound of hearty French fries.
“You’re not going to leave without eating, are you, Wilbo?” Mac entreats.
Wilbo looks at Doralina. “What are we going to do with this cheeseburger?” he asks.
Doralina stares at the cheeseburger, glances at Wilbo, then takes a look around the room and her face pops open brightly.
“Give it to him,” she says, indicating the ragged man in the chair by the door. Then she delivers Wilbo a gentle shove in the man’s direction. He stumbles slightly and has to steady the cheeseburger with both hands. When he reaches the man in the chair he is extending the plate out with both hands, but the cheeseburger keeps going- the food slides precariously toward the rim and one fry slips to the floor.
“Here you go, friend. Cheeseburger deluxe. Gratis complimentis.”
It takes a moment to register. The ragged man stares at the cheeseburger like it’s a complicated algebra problem on a blackboard. Then the light goes on in his eyes and the corners of his mouth turn up into a sweet little smile. His hands come swooping up from his sides and the plate rises out of Wilbo’s palms as if by magic.
Outside, the sun has gone down but the boardwalk is still busy. Doralina moves ahead quickly, weaving her way into the crowd. She keeps one hand stretched out behind her in Wilbo’s direction wriggling her fingers at him like a squirming worm on a fish hook. Wilbo is so amused by the gesture that he mimes it, almost involuntarily, planting his heels in Doralina’s oddly placed footsteps.
“Hurry up, old man,” she exhorts him, “Our timing must be impeccable.”
Just past the mad mouse where the crowd is beginning to thin, she takes the ramp down to the parking lot and there her stride grows longer and she breaks into a jaunty little determination-dance with her bent elbows swinging. Wilbo decides on a two-to-one ratio, one of his long strides to two of her short ones, his torso haunched down like some Robert Crumb hipster. To mark the rhythm he cups his concertina and squeezes out the bare bones of the Mason’s Apron.
At the other side of the parking lot Doralina halts. Wilbo locates his bearings and a few pieces of the puzzle fall into place. There’s a grove of young redwoods here and the lesser traveled branch of fourth street makes a sharp bend and heads out of town for the hills, drawing a neat little corner lot for a small business in a low wooden building with a tin roof. A single car, a red Austin American, is parked in front. An unimposing hand-painted sign stands in a patch of weeds at the side of the sidewalk.
FINDING REAL ESTATE FOR NORMAL PEOPLE LIKE YOU.
“It’s Floyd,” Wilbo announces. “What kind of trouble is he in?”
Doralina touches her open hand to her chest and speaks in a hushed voice. “Trouble of the heart. The worst kind. It’s the third anniversary of his wife’s death.” For a moment she seems caught off guard by the coherence of her own remark, so she adds, “You know the one. His dead wife. Every year she calls him on the phone and says what did you do with the dream?”
“Well, why did you come to me? What can I do for him? Do you want me to play him a tune or something?” Wilbo flutters his concertina bellows.
“Maybe. If it’s the right one. I’ve been with him all afternoon. He asked for you five times.”
A loud, crisp blast of electric guitars suddenly rips through the open door. Crosby, Stills and Nash. Wooden Ships. Doralina gives Wilbo a knowing glance.
“That’s six,” she says. “We’d better get in there.”
Even outside, on the steps, the air is drenched with the vapors of cannabis, and through the open door Wilbo can see that the building is filled with a flickering of colored light, like that of a hundred candles. Inside, this turns out to be exactly the case. At least a hundred candles have been lit and placed in multi-colored votives at random locations about the room, set on the desk, on the floor, on shelves and window ledges, on the back of a file cabinet, mounted to the wall and hanging in macramé from the ceiling. The atmosphere in the room is equal parts pot smoke and paraffin. And plants. That’s the second major visual. The room is a jungle of plants. They seem to be everywhere, casting a mesh of shadows in the candleglow. They seem to be growing out of the walls and the ceiling.
Floyd Collins is sitting behind a heavy green metal desk, completely oblivious to the presence of anyone else in the room. His arms are spread out wide and resting on the desk top with the fingers splayed; his head is slumped forward like he’s gazing into a deep pool. There’s an empty Southern Comfort bottle and a glass ashtray with an extinguished half-joint and numerous roaches. The desk is also covered with toys- little wind-up toys mostly; a plastic train on a circular track, Scottie dogs that promise barking and wagging tails, monkeys in circus hats holding cymbals, all four Beatles on a tiny bandstand, guitars poised, ready to rock and roll.
For a moment there’s a pause in the action, a moment of adjustment, eyes growing accustomed to the smoky dark of the room. On the stereo, Crosby’s sassy guitar licks tease the song toward its opening lines. Wilbo gradually focuses on an image on the wall directly behind Floyd, dimly lit by candlelight and partially obscured by philodendron vines. It’s a poster. He’s seen it before but he can’t remember where. Fancy people dancing in a ballroom, men in ribboned shirts and women in evening gowns, while below the floorboards darkly scraggly people are pressed, and one has thrust a clenched fist up through the floor. Just below the image a single word is scribbled in purple crayon:
Floyd starts to roll his head from side to side, drawing the sign for infinity. At the appropriate point in the music he joins in with the song.
“If you smile at me… I will understand…”
“Floyd!” Doralina barks.
Floyd rears up his head in terror and throws up his arms. “Holy shit!” he cries and one arm flings back to strike the phonograph on the shelf behind the desk. The needle makes a sickening drag through the grooves and the music goes silent. A plastic ladybug on the desktop suddenly springs to life. It scurries about through several hairpin turns until it strikes an upright brown bear in suspenders, knocking it to the floor. Having achieved its mission the ladybug settles to rest.
“Doralina, don’t you ever do that to an old man!”
“But Floyd, I brought you Wilbo. You’ve been asking for Wilbo. Don’t you remember?”
Floyd squints and then he turns his hands into two little spiders that crawl toward each other across the desktop until they clasp in a sound embrace.
“Wilbo, you shouldn’t be here. You belong at the Dogfish, with the rest of us.”
“So do you, Floyd. Why don’t we go there together, all three of us?” Wilbo is not sure why he says this. It’s just the first thing that pops into his head. His next thought is, but how would we get him there?
“Sit down, Wilbo. Stay awhile. Talk to me. Have a drink. Here, take a drink.” Floyd disengages his fingers and wraps them around the empty Southern Comfort bottle, holds it out horizontally like a paperback novel, and roughly in Wilbo’s direction. “How was your day, Wilbo?”
Wilbo reaches for the bottle, tightens the cap, then places the bottle surreptitiously in his lap.
“Well, actually, it was good, Floyd. I met this girl. Yesterday. She did this thing with my act. You know my act. Well, she did something with it. I can’t explain what it was, it was sort of like a mime duet. But she had a name for it. She called it psycho syncho.. something like that. She told everybody it came from Burma. And we made lots of money. Look at this.” Wilbo lifts his bag of money and shakes it. The sound of coins jingling around bills is distinctly different from the sound of coins jingling alone.
Floyd lifts his hands and touches the fingertips together. He makes his voice sound businesslike, almost sober. “Oh, so you came to buy some property.”
Wilbo knows Floyd well enough to laugh at this. “Beach front, preferably.” he says. They both laugh but Floyd’s laugh lasts longest and in the end it warps into something closer to a sob and then it escapes his lungs as a sigh and his head slumps forward again. He is lapsing in and out of lucidity. His voice makes a long slow moan that somehow enables him to lift his head and deliver a sad little smile.
“They shut down the Morningstar. Did you hear about that?” Yes, Wilbo remembers. The Morningstar commune. The food supply for the Diggers. They were talking about it just the other night at the Dogfish. But he doesn’t get a chance to reply.
“Busted, every one of them, except the ones that were tipped off and ran away. But it doesn’t matter. It was too late, anyway. It had already gone bad. Hepatitis, hepatitis. Just like the Indians. Except the Indians fought back. Hippies, they don’t fight back. That’s the problem.”
Floyd reaches into the ash tray, finds the half-smoked joint and places it between his lips.
“You got a light, Wilbo?” he asks.
Wilbo shakes his head. “You don’t need that right now,” he replies. “Don’t cloud your thinking. You need to talk to me.”
Floyd nods in agreement but he keeps the joint in his mouth and talks out of the other side, like some hard-boiled detective.
“Gottlieb stopped by the other day. He said he knew it was coming. Three years ago I tried to sell him some land up by Aptos. I said try again, try again, Lou. Learn from your mistakes. But that was foolish. He knew better than I did. The nova was already collapsing. It couldn’t be helped.” The unlit roach slips from the corner of Floyd’s mouth and bounces on the desktop. Floyd pays it no mind. He scoots his chair back from the desk and leans forward into the well for awhile, like maybe he’s tying his shoe, or politely picking his nose. When he emerges again, there is no evidence of what he’s been doing except that the furrows of hair on either side of his head are in disarray.
“You know what the problem is, Wilbo?”
“Well, no, actually I don’t. What is the problem, Floyd?”
Floyd sniffs sharply.; “Hygiene,” he answers. “Just personal hygiene, that’s all. Those crazy hippies. They didn’t have to wind up with hepatitis. Shit, who gets hepatitis anymore? I don’t care how much brown rice you eat. That’s not the point. You just gotta wash your hands before you eat it, that’s all. That’s the point. Especially after you wipe your ass. Nobody should get hepatitis these days.”
After this speech Floyd allows his shoulders to slump and his hands slide forward across the desk, drawing his head toward the desktop. Just before he strikes he catches himself and jerks back into an upright position.
“Oh! The music!”
In fact, the music has stopped, the needle insistently bonking into the record’s label like a bored child banging his head against the wall. Floyd swivels around and strikes the phonograph broadside with his hand. This kicks the arm into eject and it rises from the record.
An image is forming in Wilbo’s head and he isn’t quite sure why. Staring at Floyd through the smokescreen and the candle glow he keeps remembering something. Two things. The sign out in front of the real estate office and the advertisement he picked up at the Burger Shack, still folded in his pocket.
FINDING REAL ESTATE FOR NORMAL PEOPLE LIKE YOU.
Something is wrong with that sign and it bugs him that he can’t put his finger on it. It distracts his attention.
“You want some music, Floyd?” Doralina’s voice breaks into his thoughts. “We got music. Wilbo brought his concertina. Wilbo can play you the magic song.” She punches Wilbo on the shoulder. “Play Floyd the magic song, Wilbo. You know the one.”
Wilbo has no idea what the magic song is, but he knows at times like these he must act without premeditation. He lifts the concertina from his lap and lets his fingers decide. What comes out catches him completely off guard. He doesn’t sing but he hears the words ringing clearly in the overtones of the reeds.
Brightly beams our father’s mercy
From his lighthouse evermore
But to us he gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore.
Indeed, the song does seem to work some sort of magic. Floyd sits up straight and his eyes slowly clear. He folds his hands in front of him as if in church, and a slight smile curls his lips. He almost looks sober. When Wilbo reaches the chorus, Floyd starts to sing.
Let the lower lights be burning,
Send a gleam across the wave,
Some poor struggling, fainting seaman
You may rescue, you may save.
Wilbo ends the song with a flourish and Floyd raises his arms and claps his hands above his head.
“Beautiful, Wilbo! That’s beautiful!” he cries.
But Doralina is less impressed. She’s sitting with her arms folded across her chest, her neck shortened.
“I’m not so sure that’s the magic song,” she says.
Floyd frowns. His speech remains unslurred. “Don’t get hung up on ideologies, Doralina. You of all people. Everything is usable. We use whatever tools we can get our hands on. Think about Hendrix at Woodstock. The god damned natural anthem!”
“That’s right,” counters Wilbo, “And what about… Walt Whitman! Why, at a time like this… Walt Whitman!”
Floyd breaks into a huge grin. He points a sloppy finger in Wilbo’s direction. “And Winnie the Pooh!”
Wilbo is delighted by this turn in the conversation, more by its spirit than its semantic integrity.
“And Merle Haggard!” he intones enthusiastically. “Jimmie Rogers! Roy Clark! Hagen Daz Chocolate Ice Cream!”
Floyd starts to laugh. It’s a forgetting laugh, sustained and full of mirth. When the laughter dies out he grows quiet for a moment, but he retains his brightness.
“Wilbo, I’ve seen the future. Just now, when you were playing. You have to believe me. I caught a glimpse of the future.”
Wilbo whistles through his teeth. “Well, you’re a lucky man, then, Floyd. You should get yourself right down to the racetrack.”
Doralina suddenly comes out of a sort of shadowed anonymity she had wrapped herself up in. She unfolds her arms. Her voice is cautious. “Hey, I’m interested in the future. What did it look like?”
“Well… I don’t know. I just now saw it. It was kind of… it was kind of… kind of bluish green.”
This softens Doralina considerably. “Did it have a shape? I mean, was it oval? I always thought the future would be an oval.”
“An oval… isn’t that like an egg? I think it was… egg-shaped.”
Doralina raises a finger like a politician, making a point. “And there was a crack in it, right? A crack was just beginning to form.”
Floyd stands up abruptly and his chair teeters on its back legs. “I know what you’re talking about!” he announces. “I know exactly what you’re talking about. Let me show you something.”
Once Floyd is on his feet the magic seems to wear off a little. At first it looks like maybe he is going to sit back down again. He blinks his eyes and his body starts to go into an eccentric wobble. Without first recapturing his balance, he makes a move, a sort of sideways lunge with no clear destination. His feet clunk into something under the desk, a briefcase or a wastebasket, and his obstructed momentum somehow propels him up into the air, tumbly-bubbly, like 8-ounces of Coca Cola flying out of an overturned cup. He grabs at the first thing that he can, the spidery tendril of a hanging houseplant and a terra cotta pot leaps from the top of a high filing cabinet. Barely missing Floyd’s head, it smashes to the floor.
Floyd is unfazed. He knows what he wants to do. Behind the wall of foliage is a sliding pocket door. In fact, the Empowerment poster is taped loosely to this door. When Floyd slides it open the poster catches on the frame and rips loose.
Floyd stands still for a moment, staring into the darkened closet. Clearly he’s having second thoughts.
“Oh,” he says finally, “No, maybe you don’t want to see that after all,” and he quickly closes the closet door.
But it’s too late. Wilbo has seen, and he’s quite sure that Doralina has seen what Floyd has in the closet.
There’s a woman in the closet. Maybe it’s not a real woman, but close, close enough to suggest a real woman. A woman in the closet. In the afterimage that lingers on the closed closet door, where the poster formerly hung, Wilbo hastily reconstructs some details- an outrageous beehive hairdo, a tattooed arm, a leather halter top and hot pants, a gold chain of charms and baubles slung low around the waist. The image fades before any more details can emerge.
“Hey, what was that, Floyd?” insists Doralina. “That was interesting. Let’s see that again!”
Floyd casts his eyes down. “Oh… no, that wasn’t what I wanted to show you. That was…”
“That was interesting, Floyd! Let’s see it again!”
“Well, it was…”
“It’s just interesting, that’s all. Don’t be embarrassed. Open the closet!” Doralina rises to her feet.
Floyd stands with his back against the closet as if he’s guarding some national treasure. “Well, it was a gift. It was a gift from one of my clients. The people at the Sunflower Boutique. I helped them get a lease on their storefront. They wanted me to have something… they just wanted to show their appreciation.”
“Well, it doesn’t belong in the closet. This is exactly the kind of thing that needs to come out of the closet. Hey, when you get appreciation, you need to pass it along.”
Doralina approaches the closet door but Floyd blocks her way. He looks entreatingly at Wilbo.
“It isn’t what you think, Wilbo.”
“Well, I’m not really thinking of anything,” Wilbo replies, but then he catches himself, realizing he is thinking of something, although it has nothing to do with what’s in the closet. It dawns on him all at once, like the sun popping over a ridge.
“Well, actually I am thinking of something, but it has nothing to do with what’s in the closet.” The pace of the events in the room is not keeping up with Wilbo’s thoughts which are whirling out of his brain, unchecked. He quickly decides to let them fly.
“I’m thinking about your sign. The one out front. Helping Normal People Like You. I keep thinking there’s something wrong with that sign. I’ve been thinking about that for weeks now, months, maybe ever since you put the sign out in the first place. I think I just figured it out.”
Floyd’s shoulders relax, almost imperceptibly. He wrinkles up his nose and knits his brow.
“There’s something wrong with my sign?”
“Yeah, I’ve always felt there was something wrong with your sign. I just now figured it out. Your ad in the paper says, normal people like you, and it’s got the picture, the punky couple, you know, normal people, get it? But the sign doesn’t have a picture. You don’t know who the normal people are you’re talking about. You might be talking about Tricia Nixon. You might be talking about the goddamned Beach Boys! Who knows what you mean by normal people?”
Doralina maintains her threatening stance in Floyd’s face for a moment longer but her face betrays thoughts turning in her head, turning over Wilbo’s words. Then suddenly she breaks; her shoulders slump, she puffs out a breath of air and turns around. Her eyes dart around the room and then lodge on something, a small wood framed window, partially covered by vines. It doesn’t open to daylight. The color behind it is a shadowy grey. With one-pointed attention she crosses the room, grabs the sash, and throws the window open.
“Wow!” she exclaims, her head thrust through the window into whatever lies beyond. She pulls back, turns and gives Wilbo a knowing look.
“This window has no lock. A person could just crawl right in through here if they wanted to.” She thinks about this for a moment and she adds, “And they could crawl right out!”
Then suddenly Doralina is crawling out through the window. It’s as if no time elapses between her remark and the sight of her stubbly legs kicking and scrambling in crazy cobwebbed tights, one leather sandal hanging precariously from a toe. She makes some grunting noises and then she disappears with a plop.
Floyd and Wilbo stare vacantly at the open window until Doralina’s arms appear, then her face.
“Just like I thought!” she says, “You can climb right out!” Then she disappears again. She is a magician, Doralina. Her specialty is disappearing.
Floyd and Wilbo stare at each other. The next thing that happens is a sound. The front door rattles and flies open.
“Come on out now, Wilbo,” Doralina calls. “We did what we came to do.”
Although he can’t explain it, Wilbo knows she is right. He smiles at Floyd. “You heard what she said, Floyd. We did what we came to do.” But then he feels something unexpected, something like a wave of tenderness mingled with regret. He has no idea where it comes from. It has something to do with the way Floyd stands there, guarding the closet, the little-boy-lost expression on his face. It’s like something a mother might feel when her child is trembling by the door for the last time before leaving home.
“I wouldn’t drive a car tonight if I were you, Floyd.” Wilbo says. “Or operate any power equipment.” Then he has to turn away quickly because his eyes fill with tears.
Outside in the parking lot, Doralina is jumping up and down and slapping her hands together as if to ward off the cold, although the night is warm and balmy. She beckons with her hand.
“Come on, Wilbo. We have to move along. The magic won’t work if we stay here.” When Wilbo catches up with her she grabs his arm. “And you have some work to do yourself,” she tells him.
“Yeah, you do. What are you gonna do with all that money?” Doralina slaps the canvass bag and the coins jingle.
“Well… I don’t know. What should I do with it?”
“It’s not all yours, Wilbo. I’m surprised you didn’t think of that sooner. Half of that money belongs to that girl. She worked for it.”
The truth of her words hits him with a thud. He doesn’t know what to say.
“It’s not too late. You just have to go find her, that’s all. She’ll accept the money. She’s young. She hasn’t learned her manners yet.”
Then again, Doralina disappears, like magic.