Time With Susan: a novel

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Cover image courtesy of Sinead Linda: http://www.fiverr.com/sineadlinda

Cover made with Canva: http://www.canva.com

Chapter One

     I looked at her and smiled.  “Thank you for doing this.”

     She nodded.  “You’re very welcome.”

     Her name was Susan Schlater.  She lived next door to me.  Today, we decided to hold hands for as long as possible.  If our families and friends reacted strangely, we would pretend not to notice their concerns.  I dressed in an outfit she wanted to see on me.  I had on a gray college sweatshirt worn over a pair of black slacks and light blue sneakers.  I was supposed to represent a cleverly casual professor on his day off.  I did not mind because those clothes were a part of my regular attire.

     She had on a tucked-in grey long-sleeved jumper and black tight trousers with a black belt and black ankle boots with the pant legs tucked into them.  I suggested a tucked-in outfit because that look represented the type of upscale fashion sexiness most prominent on women with boyfriends successful enough to get the type of girlfriends they preferred.

     For Susan, what had mattered most about my outfit was the material of the garments and how a sweatshirt with slacks would feel to the touch if she stroked my back and waist.

     Her tucked jumper gave an appearance of tightness and mystery escaping women who just wore loose garments with no imagination to the way the clothes were styled.  She pushed up her sleeves.  That was an extra bit of eye candy that looked great.  She usually wore cropped shirts that could not be tucked in but she was not uncomfortable with what she had on.

     We were walking down Buchanan Road where the street kept going with few sights except occasional stop signs, parking lots and empty store fronts.  Most people in our town were without ambition other than shopping at dollar stores.  The biggest subject of conversation was about what store would be selling the cheapest cans of strawberry pie filling.  On rare moments, a family might go to a movie but no one liked the film, everyone smoked cigarettes and hand-holding never happened.

     Susan and I had previously discussed the idea of doing something that was not centered on outside entertainment but was about the connection of people.  The point would not be that we were a couple.  Our message to the world was simply that we were continuously touching hands.  We were physically attracted to each other but neither she nor I believed in official commitments.  I had no girlfriend and she had no boyfriend.  Our goal was merely to do something enjoyable and feel each other’s energy.

     I said, “I can’t wait to hear what my mother will say when she sees me holding hands with a shirt tucker.  Not only am I going against the grain of family tradition by associating with someone slim who can tuck in shirts without looking like a person hiding a turkey under her clothes but I will be showing her that there’s more to sexual fulfillment than the typical act of penetration.  She will see someone totally beyond her boring staring-at-the-wall reality.”

     Susan shrugged.  “You’ve been doing that for me, also.  I never really thought much about how to wear my clothes.  I put this on and I felt sexy in it.  If we do ever let go of hands, I’ll tuck in my shirts more often just for you.”

     I smiled.  “Will you also hold my hand again?”

     She laughed.  “I think we’ll still be holding on so it won’t matter what I’d decide to do.”

     I nodded.  “For me, the greatest part of this is the willingness.  Not only are you willing to touch someone for this amount of time but you’re willing to do so with me.  It’s like a dream image when a young woman walks casually up to a young man she’s never seen before and just starts to talk about something incidental like the weather but then she grabs his finger and keeps a tight grip on him while they both talk as if that was a natural and typical thing for anyone to do.”

     She smiled.  “The real reason I’m doing this is because I appreciate the way you think.  You give me ideas I wouldn’t have thought of on my own.  You make me feel upscale and intelligent even if it’s just because I’m hanging around you.  No one in my family does that.  The closest thing to an imagination any of them have is my aunt who’s in a convalescent hospital right now and suffers from hallucinations because of the high dosage of medication her doctor is giving her.  But I don’t think that’s the best way to be creative.”

     “What bothers me about my family is not that they’re strange but because their strangeness is based on a certain shallow sense of normality that is rooted in fear about doing anything new and a devotion to religious beliefs that seem phony when they try practicing them.  Right now, my aunt has accused me of being gay, on drugs, a thief and she constantly says I need to take a shower and change my clothes even if she hasn’t seen me for six months.  Well, if I had to deal with her by myself, I would probably get depressed but if she sees me with you, I’ll be so satisfied with shocking her world that she won’t be able to hurt my feelings.”

     “I like walking on the street.  I feel as if each step is going away from my problems and going towards my future.”

     We continued on our slow and steady pace on our Saturday afternoon stroll.  The weather was pleasantly cool.  There was no momentary need for more conversation.  I could understand what my brother meant by his answer to my question on what was his favorite radio station to hear when he was driving in his car.  He said he preferred listening to the wind blow.  I felt the same way about lying on my bed and thinking about nothing.  There was a sense of contentment I had when I knew I was not thinking about anything.  I felt satisfactorily vacant.  Now, the most beautiful concept I could imagine was the sense that Susan and I achieved the pinnacle of our desires.  She wanted escape from boredom and I wanted to feel successful and we were teaching a lesson for others to see.

     I realized human beings were usually too engulfed in complications for them to communicate together without resorting to excessive interpretations and self-conscious excuses against knowing each other.  There were a lot of situations when men chose to talk more with other men than with women.  The idea of humility and settling for second best was often the case.  Even if they really wanted to talk with attractive women, men were comfortable talking with their male next-door neighbors.  When they did get the opportunity to talk with women, men would focus either too much on inner beauty or typical physical stereotypes.  A typical statement by a man was “I don’t care about what she wears or if her shirts are tucked-in.  I want to see her not wearing any shirt.”  I wondered finally if the reason why some women wore boring outfits was because they wanted to please boring men.

     Before I had the idea of sustained hand holding with Susan, I thought about how I wanted to make a difference in the way people perceived life.  I knew that I had the same chance as anyone else did to alter human connections.  Every aspect of etiquette and manners was based on a person’s idea to put the custom in place.  The things that were now accepted as tradition were originally scoffed at by people who were afraid of change.  However, when those concepts were no longer new, they were accepted.  My hope was that long touches would eventually be a normal part of everyday culture.

     After an approximate twenty more minutes, we were approaching Somersville Avenue where Somersville Towne Centre was located.  In our town, that place was the closest we had to an exciting experience.  Most of the stores had few customers except for either obese grandmothers or druggie punk rocker types who looked six years old.  Occasionally, a dog might run through the clothing store and no one paid attention.  I asked, “Would you like to stroll through the mall?”

     She shrugged.  “I guess so.”

     We looked at each other and realized what we would do.  One store was Colson’s Groceries.  We would walk through the aisles, sometimes she pulling me with her and vice versa.  If I dropped a package of cookies, for instance, she would hold on to me so I could not reach down to pick it up.  If I tried paying for something, I would reach in my wallet with the hand she held and she would wiggle our joined hands so my money would drop on the counter and annoy the cashier.  However, before we arrived at Colson’s, we chose instead to go to Llewellyn’s Contemporary Gear, the clothing store.  I nodded and said, “Let’s be weird.”

     We walked inside.  The salesman approached us and asked, “How may I help you?”

     Susan asked, “Do you sell tucked-in shirts?”

     He looked puzzled.  “What do you mean?  We have shirts tucked away on shelves and in our back room.”

     She shook her head.  “No.  I’m interested in a shirt like the jumper I’m wearing.”

     He nodded.  “We have those types of shirts over in aisle twelve.”

     She shrugged.  “Are they tucked-in?  My jumper’s tucked-in.  I want one already tucked-in.”

     He looked puzzled.  “That sounds strange.  The only way to buy a tucked-in shirt is to have it appear on your body that way before you buy it.  I’m sure that shirt didn’t grow on you.”

     She sighed.  “I forget what happened but it was already tucked in the jeans and I was able to put it on without taking it apart.”

     “Oh, so you’re looking for a one-piece.”

     “No.  I’m looking for a shirt that I can put on and take off without un-tucking it.”

     He looked suspicious.  “Have you been able to do that with your shirt?”

     She shook her head.  “Not yet.  I haven’t been able to take it off at all.”

     He shook his head.  “You’re acting impossible.  Look around the store if you want to but I’m going to deal with some serious customers.”

     She laughed.  “I’m sorry.  We really are serious customers.  We’ll browse and probably buy something.”

     He nodded and walked away.

     We went to the shirt section.  I asked, “Do you see anything you want?”

     She answered, “There’s a few interesting things.  I’ll have to see if I can take off my clothes in the dressing room and try these on.  It will be difficult because I can’t un-tuck my jumper.”

     We looked and noticed the salesman was irritated.

     I said, “You can put the shirt on over what you’re wearing.”

     She nodded.  “That’s possible but how can I slip the shirt on over your hand?”

     I laughed.  “Good point.  My body is too big to fit in the sleeve so we’ll have to improvise.”

     She took a couple of shirts off the shelf and we walked towards the dressing room.  She walked behind the curtain while I waited outside with my hand in the curtain.  The salesman looked as though he thought we were on drugs.  We were acting for his benefit.

     I handed a shirt to Susan.  She said, “I can’t put this on.  My arm is too big and my jumper won’t come off.”

     The salesman started to approach us but then I said, “We’re going to buy these.”

     Susan walked out from the curtain.  She smiled.  “They all fit.”

     We walked to the front counter.  The salesman rung up our purchase and said, “That will be twenty dollars.”

     I tried reaching in my pants pocket with the hand Susan was holding.  Our hands fumbled in there for a few minutes.  I said, “It’s difficult getting my wallet.  Please be patient.”

     The salesman shook his head.  “This must be some kind of hidden camera show.”

     Susan and I walked outside.  We decided we had enough fun at the mall.

     The parking lot outside was close to empty.  Perhaps there were a few cars but they always seemed unnoticeable because the ambiance of the area was like Nowheresville.  We walked around the perimeter of the parking lot.  I said, “Let’s play ‘Traffic’s coming.’  I’ll act like a little kid trying to run off while you keep a tight grip on me.  We can say some silly things to each other so we can pass the time.”

     She said, “That’ll be fun.”

     As we walked, I tried wiggling out of her grip while her fingers pinned my hand tight.  I said, “Please, miss baby sitter, let little Phil do his duty.”

     She shook her head.  “No, sir…  The last time you wandered off, the pumpkin was screaming.”

     “But I want you to let me do the buggy-wuggy and I have to be able to sniff the flowers.”

     “Next time, bring your orange rubber ball so Auntie Vinegar can sweep up the mess.”

     “I’ll do that only if you can keep the dogs from chasing the dust.”  I pulled harder.

     She squeezed tight.  “The only dust available is in boxes for a reasonable English discount.  You have to solve the mystery with a moaning groan and a bad case of your uncle’s oatmeal.”

     “Well, I have to escape before it gets to be four o’clock in the afternoon.”

     “That’s fine as long as it doesn’t get to be ten o’clock at night.”

     We continued walking around the parking lot for a few more minutes without saying anything.  The switching back and forth between conversation and silence was like the mixing of sweet and salty flavors.  Finally, I said, “We might as well go back to my family’s neighborhood so they can be puzzled about our situation.”

     She nodded.  “One thing I like about visiting your family is it keeps me from thinking about my own troubles.  Plus, that’s why I like holding your hand.  I don’t have to worry about anything that might happen.  The point of life, right now for me, is the present moment.  No matter how strange things will become, I have you by my side.”

     I said, “I like how we’re not thinking about the outcome.  All we’re doing is continuously experimenting.”

     “I think there could be a television show about this.  All we need to do is find a producer who thinks creatively.  Then again, show business is full of creative people who have no original ideas.”

     “Now, that sounds like my mother except for the part about being creative.”

     She nodded.  “I can believe that except you probably inherited your imagination from one of your relatives.”

     I laughed.  “My relatives are going to see some quality strangeness for once.”

     She smiled.  “Maybe once is all they can handle but at least they’ll experience it.”

     I did thumbs up.  “Off we go.”

     We smiled and walked together, swinging arms, towards our destination.

Chapter Two

     My mother lived in a trailer park on the outskirts of our small town.  The view was of the hills with no trees.  There was one more residential area past her place and up the road, called “The Mansions.”  It looked very attractive and quite clean as if one had to qualify as a perfect person to live there.  However, my mother’s trailer park was called “Red Rover Plaza.”  Seemingly, tenants were selected by how many cigarette butts they could crush with their feet during the course of their interviews.  If my mother’s lifestyle could be evidence of how everyone lived, they had nothing but books about “how to feed your pet” or “easy Microwave cooking.”  The books stayed untouched on the shelves.  There would be a high quality television in the living room and a large stack of blu ray discs piled neatly in boxes on the floor but the movies were never watched and the television never turned on.

     My mother, Janis Battanoff, had a brother Kevin and a sister Joyce.  Kevin was married to a woman named Ann and they had a daughter named Bretta.  Kevin’s family lived next door to my mother in the same trailer park.  Joyce was staying temporarily with my mother and looking reluctantly for a new apartment.  She and Janis did not get along well.  I was sometimes able to have pleasant visits with my mother but I had purposefully avoided seeing her when Joyce was there.  The last time I visited both of them Joyce dominated the conversation with comments on all of the things that made me a bad person.  Everything on the list was fictional but Janis slowly believed it.  By the end of the visit, Janis was also complaining to me about those fictional things.  However, I decided to remove the negativity they were giving me by showing them I was connected to someone who gave me the type of energy I could have when I did not let my self-consciousness submerge me in doubt.

     We walked up Mohr Lane to Red Rover Plaza.  On the sidewalk right outside of the gates, an obese middle aged man stood, smoking a cigar.  I had talked with him a few times in the past.  Janis sometimes would talk with him on days when they both were incidentally smoking.  They would talk about favorite brands of cigarettes and cigars.  Since the man, David, wore clean suits, he was considered Red Rover Plaza’s celebrity fashion model in comparison to the other tenants.  I had nothing against David except the cigar smoke reeked of a horrid odor but at least he was better than the whole vibe of that area.  Whenever I entered the plaza, I felt nauseous from the ghetto type of junk culture all the tenants shared.  Most of the men wore beer-stained T-shirts barely hanging over chubby stomachs and ripped blue jeans that were always in danger of slipping suddenly down if the man wearing them did not pull them up.  The women wore dresses that looked more like old couch covers that were reassembled to be pieces of clothing.  Tucked-in shirts were unheard of in that place.  The closest thing to hand holding anyone did was when someone fell down and needed another person to help him or her get back up.  The help was accompanied by a burp and a thank you.

     David nodded and said, “Hi, Phil.”

     Susan and I stopped.  David put out his cigar so I figured we could have a pleasant conversation without the musical accompaniment of coughs.  I asked, “Would you know if my mother is home?”

     David sighed.  “Yes, she is.  Joyce and Janis are complaining.  The newest delusion is that you climbed in the bedroom window last night and took your mother’s credit card and your aunt’s clothes.  Joyce is also saying you had previously stolen her VCR cassettes.  At least your mother disagreed with her on that but you know how much Janis loves her cigarettes so she’s going with Joyce on this new accusation.  I see you’ve got a girlfriend.  This might not be the right time to try to make a good impression on her by introducing her to your family.  That is, unless you can keep a tight hold on her like you’re doing when she tries to run away.”

     Susan laughed.  “I’m not his girlfriend.  I’m just holding his hand.”

     David nodded.  “Are you a prostitute?”

     I said, “She’s just a hand holding buddy.  We’re seeing how long we can stay joined without letting go.”

     David winked.  “That’s innovative.  If I were younger and had less of a belly than I do now, I would try that.  Of course, I grew up in San Francisco in one of the low class neighborhoods and if you think the women here are scuzzy, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve been to the city.  If I wanted to hold someone’s hand there, I would need a pair of gloves.  Also, there would be no guarantee, unless I pulled down her pants, that she was really a woman.  I’m curious.  How did you go about setting this up with such a cute number?”

     I said, “Susan and I live next door to each other.  I live on Del Rio Circle, not extremely far from here but it’s quieter than this area.  It has its problems but at least Susan lives there and she’s my age and we’ve liked each other as friends for a long time.  One day, we were both talking and the subject came to what we desired.  Susan said she just wanted someone to hold hands with even if just for an hour or two but without the constant nagging between two people in a relationship.  I mentioned I had a similar fetish that involved a good looking woman wearing a tucked-in shirt shaking my hand as if congratulating me about something but refusing to ever let go.  We both realized that handholding and handshaking were similar so either one would be okay.  I said handholding would look more natural and I was willing to hold her hand if she was willing to tuck in her shirt for me.  She had on a cropped T-shirt that ended above her belly button so she mentioned she had a turtleneck shirt she could put on and tuck in.  Her sister, Lois, had given it to her when Lois moved to Delaware and wanted to be rid of a lot of extra things.  Susan never wore the shirt but we went to her place and she put it on and tucked it in.  The idea of pushing up her sleeves was hers.  She looked in the mirror and decided the sleeves would look better that way.  Then, we went to my house where I put on my college sweatshirt over my blue button shirt that happens to be tucked-in.  Susan said she liked how men looked in loose college sweatshirts so I was happy to oblige.  I asked her how long should we hold hands and she said let’s just keep holding on as if we’re glued together and not let go until we decide that doing so is absolutely necessary.  Now, part of our experiment is showing our family and friends how serious we are about this.  Hopefully, we’ll anger them in the process and they’ll feel like we’ve disturbed their sense of reality.”

     David laughed.  “I love that idea.  Personally, I like your mother because she’ll talk with me.  I don’t care for Joyce but I keep my opinion to myself because she’s Janis’ sister and I don’t want to get on Janis’ bad side.  But I can understand how you feel about them, especially with how they talk to you.  I’d say if you’re willing to take your chances with the verbal stampede, then by all means introduce your friend to them and see how they react.”

     I said, “The only thing that could ruin the visit is if either my mother or aunt tries separating us.  They might take both our hands and pull.  I don’t want their energies to mix with ours.  They don’t understand how connections can either make a positive or negative outcome depending on who’s giving the touch.  I think of families as being the most boring of relationships because they’re all based on something close to mandatory fondness.  My family bothers the hell out of me, except for Uncle Kevin and his wife and daughter.  They’re good people and exceptions to the rule.”

     Susan said, “I’ve never met Phil’s mother or any of the rest of them but I’m curious to see how they compare with my folks.”

     David shrugged.  “I haven’t seen my own family in years so I’ve forgotten what I’ve thought about them.”

     I waved.  “Well, we’re off to the happy hunting ground.”

     David nodded.  “I’m not sure if you’ll want to use the word ‘happy’ but good luck.”

     We walked in the gates.  Janis’ house was the second one from the entrance, next to Kevin’s place that was the first.  I knocked on her door and I heard her yell, “Hello.”

     I said, “It’s you know who.”

     Susan said, “And he brought a ‘you-don’t-know-who.’”

     From inside the house, Joyce said, “Hell, it’s your damn son, probably coming to take more of my things.  I only make ten dollars for frivolous spending and I use my hard earned money to get the cheapest powdered potatoes I can afford so I have a little more protein in my diet than just the stale white bread they give away free at the senior center.  Your son is robbing me of my potato mix and white bread.  It’s a good thing I don’t have real food in the house because I’d starve to death if I had to rely on real food to survive and Phil comes in and takes it.”

     Janis said, “I don’t think he takes the potato mix.  But I’m starting to wonder if he has stolen my cigarettes along with the bank card.  I haven’t had a decent cigarette in ages.”

     Joyce yelled, “You and your damned cigarettes.  You should be eating your fruits and vegetables so you don’t get cancer.  I think I’m starting to get cancer because my stomach’s been fighting with me worse than those low-life ex-neighbors of mine in that last apartment I rented.  There’s an old man who’s obsessed with me.  He’s peed in my car just to show me how much of a shit he can be and he’s installed a camera somewhere in your house.  One of these days, I’m going to hire Phil to come and break down all these walls so I can find the camera.  That old man has put holes in my clothing and he’s inserted a type of device to taint my drinking water.  Poor Kevin has probably the same type of problem.  He hasn’t complained about any stomach upset but I can tell when he’s lying.  It wouldn’t surprise me if Phil was who put in the device in the sink and installed the video camera.  I think he might have installed a camera in Kevin’s place, too.  I think Phil is perverted.  He likes to watch people sit on the toilet and take a crap.  You should sue him for infringement on your privacy.  We need more money for potato mix.  Phil’s birthday is coming up and we ought to do something nice for him by making a potato cake with bread frosting.”

     My mother said, “He’s still outside.  He’s waiting for me to let him in.”

     Joyce said, “Oh, he can’t hear me.  We’re just having a friendly conversation about important issues.  Let the good kid in and give him some love.”

     “He might instead want to ride on the bus and see how transportation works.  He’s not old yet like me and sometimes Kevin’s dogs bark too loudly so you have to make sure they go when it’s not raining.  Kevin needs his television fixed and Phil will have to drag it down the street in the shopping cart.  He’ll need to wear a seatbelt if he’s in the bus.”

     “How can Phil drag the cart down the street if he’s riding on the bus?”

     “He can hold the cart with his hand while the bus is riding down the rainy street.”

     Joyce yelled.  “There hasn’t been any rain today and you’re acting crazy.  Kevin’s last name isn’t Johnson and he has to copy and paste any new name he might want to use.  You’re totally ridiculous and Phil is still waiting for you to open the door.”

     Janis screamed, “I know that!  My son is waiting outside for me to open the door!”

     I said, “I could open up the door on my own.”

     Janis said, “He can come in on his own.”

     Joyce said, “That’s how tricky he is.  He wants to come in and rob us.  I don’t know if we should let him in.  His birthday’s soon and we should make him a nice cake.  We have powdered potato mix.”

     Mother said, “At least he’s not a young girl wearing a football uniform.  When Kevin has his television fixed, he’ll need to go to the department store where the gentleman will assemble all the chords and program the remote control.  He’ll need batteries so it will work properly.”

     Joyce sighed.  “Your son, Phil, will need batteries so he will work properly.  You understand he installed a camera in your house.  He likes to watch people taking a crap.”

     “My son is not interested in watching me take a crap!”

     “But he is interested in listening to you say a lot of crap.  That’s the only reason he’s willing to visit you.  There’s nothing of sufficiency conversation-wise you can supply to him.  He’s better off in the electronics department at the store.  There are video game accessories, paper shredders, phone kits, wireless controllers, vacuum cleaners, printers, pamphlets, chrome, plastic, blocks, colors and light.  There’s everything a druggie like him needs.”

     Janis whispered, “He’ll have to stand watch while warriors come and forge one-fifth of a release for his soul.  Where’s my medication?  Did you take the rest of it, Joyce?”

     “No, Janis.  I only took most of it.  You have one or two capsules left.  Your son could take your medication and you wouldn’t complain but I take it and you make a fit.”

     “I don’t know what you mean by ‘making a fit.’  I have dusty business suits that came from Mr. Riviera from Donner Avenue.  He used to spit a lot.”

     Susan asked, “When are we coming in?”

     I said, “We should wait out here a little longer.  It’s like we’re listening to the soundtrack for a dark comedy movie.”

     Janis said, “I think they’re listening to us.  They think we’re dark.  We’re not football players.  We can’t answer any of their questions.”

     Joyce said, “If they’re not smart enough to come in and visit us, let them stay out there.”

     “But what if they steal more things from us?”

     “True.  They might take the air.”

     “They might take my hair?”

     Joyce yelled, “Do you need hearing aids?”

     “No.  I need a wheelchair and a black polo shirt and some sports shoes.  I also need glasses and a purple jacket.  I’m not in my right mind.”

     “You’re never fully functional.”

     “I might need a universal mind remote.”

     Joyce laughed.  “I’m not sure.”

     Janis sighed.  “Okay.”

     I said, “Mother, I’m coming in soon.”

     Susan said, “So am I.”

     Janis asked, “Who is ‘I’?”

     Joyce said, “You should know who you are.”

     Janis yelled, “I’m talking to the other person!”

     “I don’t see any strangers.”

     I said, “You’re both strange.”

     Susan said, “I’m in agreement and you don’t know who I am yet.”

     Joyce said, “Come inside.”

     Janis said, “Yes, please.”

     We walked in, ready to face the circus.

Chapter Three

     The inside of Janis’ house looked similar to a convalescent hospital.  Her tables and dresser drawers were light brown and the television she never watched was on top of her clothes dresser.  However, Joyce was watching something on the mystery and science fiction network.  As Susan and I walked in, Joyce and Janis frowned at us.  Joyce turned off the television as if she was embarrassed to admit she liked entertainment other than her knitting books.  She said, “So, I see you must have brought a lawyer to help you with the situation you engineered with Bretta.”

     Susan looked puzzled.  “Who’s Bretta?”

     I said, “She’s my cousin, Uncle Kevin’s daughter.”

     Joyce said, “Phil and Bretta have been taking money from his mother for years so now I have finally decided to put a stop to their activities.”

     Susan said, “I’m not a lawyer.  I’m his pretty friend.”

     Joyce frowned.  “You call yourself pretty?  I would say you look like a lesbian.  Heaven knows Phil is gay and wouldn’t be caught dead with a straight woman.  You’re wearing your shirt tucked in and that’s a sure sign of lesbianism.”

     I said, “Actually, you’re totally twisted.  In truth, the guys like girls who wear that style.  Old hags like you and my mother wear faded flabby pajama types of hospital gowns.  You’re closer to lesbian dressing because your boring looks match other boring women like you who complain about men all the time.  I’ve never been gay.”

     She shook her head.  “I can’t believe that.  I guess you’ve figured out I watch true crime shows on television and criminals are very good at lying.”

     I shrugged.  “I guess, then, you’re good at lying.  You certainly are deranged like a criminal.”

     Janis said, “You have to excuse Joyce.  She knows I’ve been forgetting to take my medication so she’s making up a new reality for me to handle.”

     Susan shrugged.  “If I may say something, I’m not sure you’re really handling anything.  Phil and I heard you two talking and I wouldn’t want to be in either of your positions.  If I wasn’t as ashamed of my family as I am, I’d say his family is the closest thing to a complete embarrassment.  Well, he says nice things about his uncle so I won’t judge him yet.”

     Joyce shook her head.  “I’ve had enough of this stupidity.  Did you take Janis’ credit card?  Are you concealing it in your hand?  You’ve been holding hands quite a while.”

     I said, “That’s why we came to talk to you.  We wanted to show you that I could elevate my status to that of better than both of you.”

     Joyce frowned.  “In what way are you saying you’re better than us?”

     Susan said, “Neither of you have any men to hold hands with.  The only thing either of you do is chatter to each other.  In a sense that’s a way to spend time but it’s not quite productive.  Even if you switched from tap water to spring water, that would be an improvement but I don’t see that happening.”

     Joyce sighed.  “Do you see the area we live in?  The bus benches are an odd shade of blue green and made of metal instead of wood.  They are not flat but slightly raised as if a thug tried removing them.  The houses are white but that’s all you can say for them.  Many of them have not been washed for a long time and the outside walls look like muddy dog paw prints.  The funeral home looks respectable but the cafes have nothing but old wrinkly bums sitting outside, smoking cigarettes.”

     Susan said, “I imagine you’re talking about some of your friends.”

     Janis said, “I was never a hippie.  My father was Jewish and my mother was German Catholic so I pledged allegiance to no religion.  What’s your name, if I may ask?”

     “Susan.”

     “Okay.  You were probably named after one of my dogs when I was a little girl.  Her name was either Susan or Hey Stupid.  I used to walk down the street and yell, ‘Hey Stupid!’  When somebody looked at me, I explained I was calling my dog.  The person would say, ‘That’s no way to talk to your husband’ and I would respond, ‘I’m not old enough to have a husband.  I’m only ten.’”

     Susan shrugged.  “It seems as though you had your share of insanity, some of it self-induced.  That is why Phil did not want anything to do with you for a long time.  It’s like he won the family lottery and his prize was a pile of trash.”

     Janis frowned.  “Why are you talking to me this way?”

     Susan shrugged.  “You talked about me in connection with your dog in a way I didn’t like.”

     I asked, “May we sit down and have a sane conversation?”

     Joyce shrugged.  “I guess so.”

     We all sat on different chairs, facing each other.  Janis said, “We don’t have any potato mix to give you.  We’ve either used it all up or we’ve tried to find it after you’ve taken it.  Where the hell did you put our potato mix?”

     Susan said, “I thought you were German, not Irish.”

     Joyce said, “Our family came from good stock.  I forget which ancestor decided to change our family name to Batanoff or what it was before that.  All I know is my father, Elijah, married Antonietta Nellsburger, when he was on shore leave from the Merchant Marines.  He was in town to go to the Nude Picture Show and Antonietta worked the film booth because she needed money and no longer wanted to be a waitress.  She was making good tips at the Gentlemen’s Eatery but the only people she attracted were the fat slobs from the fleabag hotel up the street.  She wanted to go where the men looked cleaner and well behaved.  Someone gave her a phony piece of information that she took to heart and then she started working at the Porno Palace where she met the man who would be her husband.  She divorced him after they had three children because she caught him cheating with another woman in their bedroom.  If he had used a hotel, that would have been different.  However, my parents were very good people and very moral.”

     I said, “Their sense of morals was listening to Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians doing Christmas music instead of Nat King Cole.  Something about the way old Nat had a lilting quality to his voice seemed too much like rock and roll.  Their suppers were spent in majestic silence.  ‘Please pass the beef cutlets’ was the closest thing to emotional conversation they had.  When Elijah and Antonietta divorced, she married a fellow named Bruce Thomas.  They had no children but he liked playing the dice and gambling away his money.  She liked nursing Vodka bottles.  My mother went into town, looking for sexual activity from any member of guys and sometimes the room was filled with many.  Aunt Joyce was married to a few men and each marriage lasted exactly a month before her husband said, ‘I want my balls back.’  She was considered the pants-wearer of her marriage but she’s never tucked in her shirts so it doesn’t matter what she’s worn.  But at least she tried making up for that by being sexy from using street drugs and hanging out with pill pushers.  One friend of hers was a drag queen and I don’t think she even noticed.  She befriended an old woman named Iolanthe who would ask her to go to the store to return a half-used cube of butter.  So, Susan, their sense of morals is very strange.  At least my uncle Kevin liked to jog and take walks so he was health-conscious.  He worked as a pastry chef for Job Core so at least he wasn’t sitting idle and doing drugs.  Nowadays, my mother and my aunt have nothing better to do than relive the old days with a touch of fallacy.”

     Joyce frowned.  “Even if any of that was true, and I’m not going to admit to a stranger if it is or not, I don’t see how that has to do with Phil or Susan deceiving us with their lovey-dovey bullshit.  What exactly is your agenda?”

     I said, “We’re doing this as an experiment to see if we can affect a change in our situations and maybe allow our friends and family to see that there’s more to life than mere humdrum negative triviality.”

     Joyce shrugged.  “I don’t see how holding hands can do anything to make that kind of change.”

     “I don’t see how it couldn’t.  For instance, Aunt Joyce, all you do is complain about everything.  You’re living with your sister because you couldn’t stand staying where you were but you don’t get along with my mother either so you’re only creating a different type of morality for yourself.  I figured I would give you a chance by showing you some beauty in case it melts that bitchy exterior you wear so proudly like a musty overcoat.”

     Janis said, “Who are you more interested to impress, my sister or me?  Are you less fond of your own mother?  I would think you’d want to talk to me and tell me how I could improve myself.  At least, after you give me back my credit card.”

     Susan frowned.  “It sounds more like you think your credibility of character has been taken.  It seems like you think Phil no longer believes in your ability to be a quality person so you accuse him of taking something that represents money because you know it will mean nothing if you accuse him of taking something emotional.”

     Janis sighed.  “I am more concerned with him trying to alter his destiny by pretending he can elevate his position in life.  He’s fooling himself if he thinks he can actually get a shirt tucker like you to fall for him.”

     Susan shrugged.  “The way I wear my clothes is merely an attitude I wear just like a decision a person makes.  If you like someone, you smile.  If you dislike him, you growl.  Those are two totally different reactions that could come from the same person.  If I wear my shirt tucked-in or not tucked-in, I’m still me.  But what Phil means is he wants to spend time with someone who is willing to try a certain thing.  I have rarely tucked in my shirts but I am not against doing so.  What Phil wants to teach you is the willingness to try different attitudes than those you’ve had for so long they have become old like stale doughnuts.”

     Janis shook her head.  “You’re going off in a totally different direction than the one he should be in.  Have you heard of organized crime and drug trafficking?  The people involved in that stuff are focusing their minds on ways of thinking that are negative and shifted in left field.  Phil needs to go towards the right field where he doesn’t focus all of his energy on just you while your shirt is tucked-in.  He’s always had a yearning for a shirt tucking girlfriend but he never got one because those types of women never lived near him when he was growing up.  Fate was trying to tell him something.”

     I nodded.  “Fate told me to change my direction.  If I continued living at home with you, in the part of town where all the women are fat and wear loose blouses, I would never have achieved the type of arousal I needed to fuel my happiness.  It’s not a matter of only focusing on women who wear their shirts tucked-in.  It’s a matter of not accepting the complete lack of achieving anything.  For an example, you can talk about the evening news.  There’s a lot of bad things happening in the world and those kinds of stories are what get the most popularity but there’s an equal amount of positive and happy stories that could flood the airwaves.  All we need to do is make a change in what is presented.  Instead of refusing to accept the magical realm in your life, it’s important to strive for those things that make you feel good.  I never had a situation like this with someone like Susan before.  I am happy because I am making magic come in my reality.”

     Joyce sighed.  “You say we’re on drugs but, if we are, at least we are trying to correct our mental mistakes.  You’ve been living your life of disillusionment and crime far too long and it’s resulted in you taking your mother’s credit card and acting heterosexual with your phony girlfriend.  You’re telling me we should all swim in the rivers of La La Land.  If we did that, we would be no better than Kevin’s dogs spending their time chasing imaginary rats and barking for hours at night.”

     Susan smiled.  “There is a way you can make your lives more productive.  My aunt is staying in a convalescent hospital and the place puts out a newsletter for the elderly community.  There’s a column called ‘You Are Part of Our Stories.’  Patients are encouraged to write things about their lives and a lot of the stories get published.  Both of you have great imaginations, even if you don’t know that you’re making things up, and you could submit stuff to the newsletter.  I’m sure the editors would not realize neither of you are patients because your shared mental disorder is in line with how the patients think.  You wouldn’t get any money but you’d get recognition.”

     Joyce yelled, “I’m looking for money.  In this economy the way it is, everyone pays for name brands of food and the generic brands suffer because of it.  So, the price of living goes up because everyone spends too much money.  If Phil didn’t take my money, I would be a decent American.”

     I asked, “Have you ever seen me take your money?”

     “I don’t have to.  It’s all been filmed by the camera.”

     “Where’s the camera?”

     “I can’t find it yet.”

     “Did you see anyone install it?”

     “Of course not…”

     “How do you know it’s there?”

     “The same way I’d know if it wasn’t there.  I go by belief.”

     I laughed.  “Where do your beliefs originate?  Do you buy them generically?”

     Janis shook her head.  “There’s nothing wrong with generic food.  We don’t buy brand name potato mix.”

     Susan shrugged.  “Why not buy regular potatoes?”

     Janis yelled, “Because they’re too hard to prepare.  With potato powder, all you need to do is add water and it comes out tasting like potatoes.”

     I said, “When you add water to your Vodka, it comes out tasting like reality.”

     Janis sighed.  “My mom was who drank Vodka.  I prefer Cognac.  Something about the drink of Napoleon appeals to me.”

     I nodded.  “So, you know a little bit of history?”

     Janis stood up and yelled.  “I want my fucking credit card returned, you little shit.”

     Susan and I stood up.  I said, “You probably dropped it behind your couch and you’re too lazy to pull it out and look.”

     Susan said, “She’s probably too lazy to pull out her mind and check her thoughts.”

     Surprisingly, Joyce laughed.  “That’s a good one.”

     Janis yelled.  “Shut up, Joyce!  Phil, you can leave.  If you want a pleasant visit, go to Kevin’s place.”

     I said, “I’m glad I found the extent to how far or how not far you’re willing to go to be an interesting human being.”

     Susan said, “At least you’re not my family, and thank goodness.”  We walked out.

Chapter Four

     I asked, “Do you really want to go to Uncle Kevin’s house or would you like to see if we can find a scene where we’d be accepted by everybody without conditions?  I’m almost certain my uncle wouldn’t get upset seeing us holding hands but there’s a chance a part of him will turn into my mother and aunt.”

     Susan shrugged.  “I don’t know.  It might be interesting later if we went to your family’s place for Thanksgiving while we held hands and said, ‘We give thanks to ourselves for our sharing of energy.’  It might become a Thanksgiving nightmare where everyone tries hitting each other with turkey drumsticks.”

     I laughed.  “I’ve always thought of the holiday moments with the Battanoffs as an opportunity for them to gather around and gripe with each other more than usual.  I’m certainly not planning to see them then.  Well, maybe the idea of the dogs dropping rats on everyone’s plate and barking, ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ would be worth seeing.”

     Susan nodded.  “Who could you see directing a movie about them?”

     “A kind of miracle worker…  Otherwise, no one would want to see it.  However, we’re right outside Kevin’s house.  Would you like to meet him or keep walking?”

     “I wouldn’t want to go to this area again so we might as well get this over with.”

     We knocked on his door.  The black Dachshund, Oatmeal, and the white Chihuahua, Peaches, were barking.  After an approximate full minute, I heard someone shout, “Shut up!  Get away from my window.  Don’t touch that meat.  I’m using it for tonight’s meal.”

     Susan frowned.  “I thought you said he was the normal one in the family.”

     I said, “He’s the nice one.  Normal is a word to use sparingly around these parts.”

     The front door opened.  Kevin, three hundred pounds and all, with a red sweatshirt scrunched at his upper chest and showing his bare stomach, said, “Oh, hi, Phil.  Come on in.”  He also wore black sweatpants that he kept pulling up to make sure they did not drop on the floor.

     Susan whispered, “Is he the fitness freak?”

     I said, “Well… thirty years ago.”

     He sat on a chair in the living room.  He smiled.  “Make yourselves at home.”

     We sat on the living room sofa.  Peaches ran on my lap and licked my other hand.  Dog hair had immediately covered my clothes as if I had been shoveling hay.  I moved my hand away to escape the licking action but Peaches seemed focused on her target.  My hand had probably resembled a huge animated dog treat.  Kevin laughed.  “She’s very affectionate.  She loves to lick.”

     Suddenly, Oatmeal ran towards Susan and aimed his nose at her crotch.  She pushed him off but he jumped right back on.  She said, “He’s like a big perverted cockroach.”

     Kevin smiled.  “We have a lot of them too.  Last week, something happened to the toilet in my bedroom so that’s why the door to my room is shut.  I apologize for that.  I hope the place doesn’t smell bad.  Also, watch out for dog crap.  We’re not supposed to let the dogs out of the house without a leash and they have to do what they do so…  I hope you understand.  I’m sorry.  I didn’t catch your name.”

     “Susan.”

     “Okay.  One of my wife’s imaginary names for herself when she was in the mental hospital was Susan.  That was before I met her.  She’s a really nice woman.  I think you’d like her.  She’s out shopping, right now.  She’s trying to find a book of matches with the plain blue cover.  All we have are the blue and white striped kind and I can’t stand those.”

     Susan kept pushing off Oatmeal.  “Does he have an off button?  I’ve never seen a dog so persistent.”

     Kevin shrugged.  “It isn’t really you he likes.  He likes the taste of clothes.  You’re wearing pants and he loves pants.  I have to keep my good stuff in my closet where he can’t get to them.  He keeps chewing on my pants.  I went to the dollar store a few days ago and a woman screamed because she said my dinger was almost showing.  She said it was lucky she only saw a black hole because she would have called the police.  What a nut case she was.  But I was embarrassed.  That’s why I have to lounge around in these and they’re too big for me.”

     Susan nodded.  “There’s a drawstring so you can tighten them up if you’d like them to fit better.”

     He looked down.  “Is that what the string is for?  I just thought it was a manufacturing defect and the store had them on sale because of it.”

     She said, “It might seem that way but it doesn’t work like that.  You have pants like that if you’re heavyset.”

     He nodded.  “Well, I don’t want my pants to be too tight because then I couldn’t breathe.  I wasn’t this heavy when I was younger.  I worked as a pastry chef for Job Core and I ended up eating most of the things nobody bought.  There were days when only one or two customers came in so I must have gained twenty pounds in one afternoon.”

     Susan asked, “Did you sell the pastries in the Job Core building?”

     “Oh, no…  There was a small store I worked at where they had a separate bakery section called Meals So Good.  I worked behind the counter as the cashier and pastry maker.  Monte made the actual meals, mostly stuff like chicken Alfredo and beef lasagna.  The woman who owned the store was named Vita.  Her husband was over six hundred pounds and the both of them used to go to Orange County to a buffet restaurant where it was all you can eat.  A lot of the people who ate there were over seven hundred or eight hundred pounds.  I went to Orange County once and I know the place.  It was called Instant Valu Buffet.  Valu was spelled without an ‘e.’ Job Core was just the place that found us jobs.  I had to do something.  My sisters, Janis and Joyce, used to tease me rotten and I had to get out of the house so I walked ten to twelve hours a day.  But then I worked for Job Core and…  Well, you see the results.”

     Susan asked, “Do you think you might have had issues or problems that you couldn’t solve unless you ate large amounts of food?”

     “I don’t know if that was the case then but I do that now.  It’s not very pleasant living next door to my sister.  Also, having the other sister staying with her can be a real bitch because Joyce has a lot of her things stored in my hallway closet so it’s difficult to organize what I have.  Janis has plenty of room at her place but part of the condition of her letting Joyce stay there is that Joyce’s stuff has to go in my place.  I don’t think that’s right.  She never comes in my house.  She calls me and asks if I can put a certain this or a certain that outside on the porch so she can pick it up.  What a bitch.”

     I asked, “Why did you decide to have a place next door to your sister?”

     He shrugged.  “It’s complicated.  I was here first and then your mother had to leave a hotel she had stayed at in San Francisco.  She was living in a bad place with junkies and she finally stopped paying rent to support her habit.  She did go to a halfway house for a while and cleaned herself up enough to get a place here.  She asked me to help her with rent and I agreed to put my name on her lease.  She promised to pay me back when she gets a job but she’s comfortable with just her social security so her money goes to cigarettes.  She said you took her credit card but I think Joyce took it because Janis wanted her to buy cigarettes.  Joyce hates that your mother smokes.  Joyce probably decided to blame you for her problems telling your mother the truth.  Your mother just wants to smoke and she likes the convenience of using a credit card instead of taking out money and paying in cash.”

     I said, “That’s probably why she’s so frustrated.  She doesn’t think about things like having a good looking cashier touch her hand during the transference of money.  If you notice, Uncle Kevin, Susan and I are holding hands.  We’re doing this because we think of each other as good looking and we want to feel each other’s sustained touch.”

     Kevin nodded.  “I’m married so I’m satisfied with my wife but there was a time when I went to Reno and paid for a hooker.  I wasn’t too successful in the girlfriend department so I just went to satisfy my needs.  Sometimes the body does stuff like that.  Sometimes we don’t think about whether or not we are really doing what our mind tells us.”

     Susan said, “I’ve been using my mind more and more since I met Phil.  I’m wearing my shirt tucked in probably for the first time, excepting maybe a church function or formal event.  I think I like the style.  In my subconscious, I figured I should push up my sleeves because it seemed to go with the look.  I was acting on automatic pilot.”

     Kevin looked puzzled.  “What are you talking about?”

     Susan smiled.  “I was relating how the physical thing Phil and I are doing is based on a mental outlook.”

     I said, “In my opinion, the reason men go to prostitutes is because they think the only sexual sensation they can feel is from the penis.  That’s why they don’t pay attention to things like handholds or handshakes or hand touches during business transactions.  Women are more in tune to touching than men are.  I’m not saying I feel like I’m a woman but I’m saying I might somewhat think in ways that resemble women more than men.  I was who asked Susan to tuck in her shirt.  I was aware of the erotic potential of clothing.  I guess that makes me even more like a woman.”

     Kevin laughed.  “I wouldn’t say that.  Everyone likes their own type of treat.  I never really thought of what a woman was wearing.  I thought more about what she would be taking off.  My father, Elijah, was like that, also.  You could put a bag over the woman’s head and as long as she had a female’s body and she said, ‘Yes’ he went for it.  He usually paid forty or fifty dollars for a piece of action but if he really liked the woman he could go as much as sixty dollars.”

     I said, “I pay Susan with appreciation and vice versa.  Plus, we probably aren’t planning on getting married.  We’re just holding hands as long as possible with no other commitment to each other.”

     Kevin looked suspicious.  “I think you’ll have trouble if you decide you both want to marry other people while the two of you are still holding hands.  If you’re going to go that far, you might as well say, ‘I do’ to each other.”

     “Marriage is an antiquated concept.  Have you heard of the connection of souls?  We are all light energy that lives in human bodies but our souls make our decisions.  Our brains are just gray pieces of matter that hold our knowledge and sensory input but brains are more like storage boxes.  The contents in the boxes are what matter.”

     Kevin nodded.  “Do you know how to spell ‘bank’?  Is it ‘b-a-k-e’ or ‘b-e-k-e’?”

     “It’s ‘b-a-n-k.’  Why?”

     “My friend, Jeff Gossner, loaned me five thousand dollars so I could pay off this house in one lump sum.  He’s been cheating me since then.  I’ve had to pay him four hundred dollars each month until it’s all paid off and he claims there were three months when I didn’t pay him.  I could go to the bank and verify those amounts but I don’t want to start a war.  He could have written off the loan on his taxes but he decided he wanted to make me suffer even though he didn’t quite succeed.  I’m doing not bad.  But these carpets have an odor from a lot of dirt and dog pee and they give out small toxins that are coming out as we speak.  It’s not healthy and I need some extra money to get the stuff cleaned.  If I pay Jeff the extra few hundred dollars, I can get him off my hair.  He sent me a written notice addressed to me and mentioning the amount I owe him.  He sent me the letter a couple of weeks ago.  I’m glad he sent me the letter because now I have written proof that I only owe this amount and no more.  When I pay him off, if he says I owe him even more, I’ll bring this letter to court and sue him.”

     I asked, “Have I ever met Jeff?”

     “You might have seen him but I don’t think you really met him.  He was a good friend of mine for a lot of years but then his father died and left him a large inheritance and he used the money to buy alcohol and crack cocaine.  He did buy a property and got married but then a year later his wife left him because of his drug habit.  He still has a lot of money but his lifestyle insists he swindle his friends so he can continue his habit.  I think he might have quit the cocaine but he still drinks like a fish.  He reminds me of my mother.  He took advantage of my needing help.  ‘Sure, I’ll loan you the money’ he said but he meant he’d loan it to me with interest.  I need to write a letter to my social worker about the situation.  My social worker is Jennifer Zito.  She’s young and pretty, Phil.  You might sometime want to meet her and ask her to hold hands with you.  But she might want money.  She might be swindling me from my money, also.  I had to use her to handle my finances for a while when I was in the hospital for bypass surgery and I wasn’t sure if I was going to live through it.  She’s been handling my bills ever since then and sometimes I feel as if the amount she’s taken out is a bit steep.”

     “Do you pay her to handle your finances?”

     “Yes but I think she’s taking out a little bit of cash for her own amusement.  Well, I’m not amused.”

     Susan nodded.  “Can you get her to not handle the money anymore?  You could say her services are no longer necessary.”

     Kevin sighed.  “In a way, it’s less of a headache for me to have someone else handle everything.  She does come in handy and I don’t have to go through the trouble of hurting her feelings by firing her.”

     Susan shrugged.  “Her feelings won’t be hurt.  It’s a part of business.  You hire someone to do something and, when that something no longer needs to be done, it’s over.”

     Kevin shrugged.  “I didn’t want to mention this but I tried firing her two years ago and she didn’t take it seriously.  I think she’s part of a certain religious order that gives her brownie points of karma if she screws up people’s lives.  Have you ever heard of religious conspiracy?  Certain people get together and focus their energies on altering the course of others.”

     I shrugged.  “To me, that sounds more like a general sense of prejudice shared by shallow individuals.  I don’t think religion is the source of the problem.  A lot of people get wrongly educated to believe in a lot of propaganda.  That’s why there’s the stupidity we have in the world.  People aren’t able to delve into their creative selves.  They prefer to live by the rule book.”

     Kevin smiled.  “Things weren’t that way in San Francisco back in Nineteen Fifty Nine or Nineteen Sixty.  Everything had cost less than a dollar.  You could get a cheeseburger for nineteen cents and you could have a chili cheeseburger for twenty nine cents.  You could watch a full matinee for thirty five cents that had sixty five cartoons and started at noon and ended at eight o’clock at night.  People were happier then and they were more into real entertainment.  Nowadays, everyone is into artificial entertainment.  Bretta had bronchitis a while ago and she wanted cough syrup.  I tried getting her to take Vitamin E or an antibiotic instead but she said that stuff didn’t work.  She’s stubborn.  Whenever I want to talk to her, she says, ‘I want to take a shower.’”

     There was a knock on the door.  He yelled, “Who is it?  I don’t want to get up again.”

     I heard a voice saying, “It is Joyce.  Is Phil in there?”

     Kevin said, “Yes, he and Susan are visiting with me.  What’s it to you?”

     She said, “I’ve called a psychiatrist to help him with his homosexual problem.  His phony girlfriend can come to the session also.  My friend could get paid double.  I’m willing to do that.  Tell Phil and the prostitute that in an hour Dr. Ray Hershey will be coming to your place to talk with him.”

     Kevin yelled, “It’s none of your business what Phil does.”

     I said, “Let’s just leave.  I don’t want to be exposed to any more of her yelling energy.”

     Kevin shrugged.  “That’s fine.  Whatever you want to do is okay with me.  You don’t need to make a report.”

     Susan and I got up and waved.  We both said, “Goodbye” and walked outside.

     As we passed Joyce, she had a strange look on her face.

Chapter Five

     Susan and I returned momentarily to the mall.  We were not looking for a new level of excitement from there because that area had a limit to how much fun was around but we figured we could stroll through the parking lot for a certain amount of time before returning to my uncle’s house.  I had asked Susan if she was curious what Dr. Hershey might say.  She answered that hearing him would be like a different seasoning sprinkled on our situation.  The experience might not be better than our conversations with the family but it could not be any worse.

     An approximate thirty minutes later, we wandered slowly back to Red Rover Plaza.  We sighed, nodded at each other and knocked on Kevin’s door.

     Neither Oatmeal nor Peaches were barking.  I heard Joyce saying, “They’re both here.  Let the storm begin.”

     The voice of a man I did not recognize said, “Remember you are all alive.  We should start from there and think of happy peanut butter sandwiches.”

     Janis opened the front door.  She said, “Thank goodness you’re here.  We need to re-program your mind and get you back to reality.”

     Susan and I walked inside.  Aunt Joyce, Kevin and a man with glasses, wearing a loose blue button shirt, dark blue pants with hexagonal shapes of silver on them and light brown sandals, were sitting on chairs in the living room.  The man first looked at the bright silver wristwatch on his right hand and then the remote to the television set, as if he was trying to determine whether or not he was more concerned with time or if he wanted to watch a show.  Finally, he shifted in his chair and moved his hand to his mouth.  He said, “My name is Ray Hershey.  You don’t need to think of me as a doctor.  We all have reservations in our minds and need occasionally to fly away on a magic carriage.  Personally, I would like to float to Brooklyn but I know I am thinking of a fantasy.  I am assuming you two are Phil and Susan.”

     I nodded.  “That’s correct.  I am Phil and Susan and she is Phil and Susan.”

     Dr. Hershey nodded.  “You have a flood in your mind.  Normal thinking, if it reaches the home of your brain, will come rather late.  A part of you is unreal and you need to know what part it is.”

     I said, “My goal is a breakdown of a social order.  We can mix and match various elements of psychological insights in a multitude of ways and you still won’t get past a frustrating element of convention.”

     Dr. Hershey frowned.  “You are able to have a good way of words but you have also an answer based on your insanity.”

     Joyce frowned.  “Talk sense, doctor.”

     “My apologies…  I am translating some statements to fit a more regular frame of mind, not that any of you have the capability of thinking rationally but my concern is giving a type of intellectual baby talk.”

     I said, “Our goal should be to keep a positive attitude.  We should roll and roll our thoughts into zesty pizza dough and talk about our most wonderful mind hugs.”

     Dr. Hershey asked, “Do you mind if I use that saying?  We need to hug our minds so they can help us feel better about our crazy stuff.”

     I said, “Just look at everyone and you know about my crazy stuff.”

     Susan said, “He means his family is his crazy stuff.”

     Dr. Hershey nodded.  “Are you losing your reality balance?  Does it have anything to do with your food?”

     Susan said, “Our circumstances are our food.  People can be like pleasant coastlines or they could be like sandy landfalls.  An annoying relative can be like a mosquito crawling in your clothes.  I know about that one.”

     I said, “None of us can escape the military if we join the armed forces but we should be able to escape our family once we are old enough to walk.”

     Dr. Hershey said, “You sound like a deranged fellow who has watched too many science fiction shows and doesn’t know he is a human being.  Do you think of yourself as a big scary monster?”

     I smiled.  “I think of you as a slippery poodle.”

     Dr. Hershey sighed.  “You must have grown up in cracked bedpans.  I will get back to my point.  You cannot escape the DNA of hereditary formation.  You might want to leave your body and incorporate your mind with a different genetic configuration but your parents have sort of made you physically imprisoned into the thing known as you.”

     I shrugged.  “I guess that means if your body is destined to only attract people who are ugly and fat into your romantic agenda, you must settle on a spouse who is ugly and fat.  If your friend is able to attract someone slim and pretty, you are in tough shit because you cannot attract someone slim and pretty.”

     “My wife is not a subject for this discussion.  Even if I did marry her as an obligation to my sense of inner humanity and disregarding physical attraction, that’s no business of yours.  We are here to determine the true essence of the validity of your relationship to Susan.”

     I said, “We are not in a relationship.  We are in a moment of fun and games.”

     Joyce said, “Phil is infatuated with her tucked-in shirt.  That’s the sign of a true gay man.”

     I said, “What about shows like MASH with Loretta Swit?  She wore those tight tucked-in green T-shirts and tucked-in black turtlenecks.  Do you really believe people were more interested in the arguments of Alan Alda and David Ogden Stiers or do you think guys looked forward to seeing Loretta Swit, even if they had to wallow in mostly filler before she came on the screen?  What about Kathy Coleman wearing tucked-in red-and-white plaid shirts and belted brown pants in Land of the Lost?  You had to know there was something attractive in that.  The majority of males in the country are heterosexual.”

     Dr. Hershey said, “Most heterosexual males nowadays are more into Avril Lavigne or Shania Twain who wear cropped shirts.  Men aren’t interested in women who wear tucked-in shirts.”

     I shrugged.  “Is your wife ugly and fat?”

     Dr. Hershey sighed.  “She is ugly and fat but that’s none of your damn business because she’s the favorite person in my world.  Before I became a psychiatrist, I lived a hedonistic lifestyle that did me no good.  As soon as I gave up my inclination to love only men, I was able to accept inner beauty.  Your life right now, Phil, is a janitor lifestyle lived in a tent during the storm.  You have a lot of hurt and you should not war with your mother.  Put in the overtime needed and rub the two ends of your conflict together so you can stop doing what you’re doing and be a regular guy.  The world is full of spies who love you and they are observing your every move and criticizing you in a loving way.  The spies are called your memories.”

     Susan frowned.  “I thought we were supposed to discuss everyone’s differences.”

     Dr. Hershey nodded.  “We could do that.  Phil’s mother wants her credit card returned.  Joyce wants Phil to stop disillusioning himself and Kevin wants Oatmeal to stop chewing on his pants.”

     Kevin said, “You shouldn’t discuss that here.”

     Dr. Hershey said, “We have to discuss all various possibilities concerning Phil’s disorder.  Now, since Susan is considered by some to be relatively attractive, she is able to stand next to Phil and he seems less rebellious but, in truth, there is no difference between the two dogs in Kevin’s house and the two nut cases holding hands.”

     Janis said, “Watch who you’re calling a nut case.  That is my son you’re talking about.”

     Joyce sighed.  “You have to make up your mind whether or not you believe your son is a saint or a shit.”

     I asked, “Can I be a shaint?”

     Kevin said, “My butt hurts.  I ate too many lemon peels.  Does anyone want some biscuits?  I have a machine that uses a metal grid and it has a timer.  I baked a few already and I want to make a few more.  I think I have butter but I don’t know where I put it.”

     Dr. Hershey said, “We all have some mental butter in our minds that help us cope with the bitter tangerine peels of existence.  If you’ve ever thought you needed to build two lifetimes, the reason is because a part of you and another part of you were hoping to shop at life’s ninety percent off plan and you were only able to find some pieces of bread crumbs.”

     Joyce said, “Let me explain the situation.  Kevin has a maid who talks on the phone and doesn’t notice when Oatmeal tries to mount Peaches.  Her name is Traci and she talks to her friend, Celine, on the phone all day.  Poor Kevin keeps his sweatshirts in his bedroom while the dogs chew on the carpet.”

     Janis said, “You don’t realize how good he treated me when I was almost homeless and unable to take care for myself.  I used to sprinkle onion pieces all over me and called myself a hamburger.  One time, Joyce was so pissed at me she poured mayonnaise and mustard all over me and said if I really wanted to act like a tart I should get involved with a dull pickle.”

     Kevin said, “I barged into her bedroom by accident when her boyfriend was screwing her with a penis the size of my arm and elbow.  He made a hole in her vagina that was so big she had to go to the hospital and get her insides removed.  My dog, Peaches, is better off physically. She looks like Phoebe Snow on drugs and her tongue can belt out a side of beef bigger than a whole carload full of Joe Namaths.”

     Dr. Hershey said, “I see we are making progress.  We are squeezing out our insanities like they are zits.  I cannot be certain if underneath the garbage lives a logical thinker but at least we are going through a kind of hippocampus dialysis. Our kidneys are not the only things we need to cleanse.  Our minds have been programmed by our egos so we have managed to poison the things we hold dear.”

     Susan said, “There’s too much fear with you people and your phobias are probably a lot like how my family is.  My grandmother would say we should throw away all food that stayed in the refrigerator for over three days but she got all her vegetables from boxes that were thrown out by the grocery stores.  You all seem to think that a new way of thinking will contaminate your chances into rising up towards the heavenly cosmos.  But your thoughts and illusions are what will haunt you after you’re dead.  You need to find a level of acceptance for what your life means to you.”

     Joyce said, “I’ve already accepted the Lord and savior into my heart even though I live in a world with assholes.”

     Kevin said, “I think I have hemorrhoids.  There’s no way my butt could burn this bad on its own.”

     Janis said, “Can we put a rest on this thinking stuff?  I have a casserole to make.”

     Dr. Hershey shook his head.  “You might think we haven’t progressed but every step is an inch towards healing.  Your chakras have been bleeding and you need to heal the cuts in your get-up-and-go power.  I have a good idea for all of us.  We could try meditation.  You can close your eyes and breathe deeply.  Let your thoughts run like milk down a drain.  When your mind is gasping for breath, give it a good dose of conceptual Serotonin.  Let that inner old man do his agonized breathing until his world is happy like crystal bubbles.  The Christmas season is upon us and one of my neighbors already has mechanical-sounding hymns chiming on his front porch and there’s blinking glittery ornaments presenting everything as being okay.  You all can be happy ornaments and tell each other everything is okay.”

     Kevin sighed.  “This is my house and this conversation is reminding me of the first time I was on acid.  Since I am disturbed right now, I have to tell the whole story and make you impatient.  For starters, I had been at a party with friends of mine and we were drinking like the rain was alcohol and our stomachs were the street sewers.  I woke up the next morning somehow in the post office, not sure how the hell I got there but I had what I thought was a moldy sausage in my hand and when I ate it I thought I tasted cellar rot.  I had a few acid tablets in my pocket.  I thought they were for my gastro-intestinal tract but realized they were for my paranoid freak-out.  I looked at my left foot and it was speckled with black fungus or shoe dirt.  I’m not sure.  But I had a vision of my dog Peaches rubbing her face in the marshland and turning into an Irish pest.  I confused my foot with her face and a game was played on me.  I don’t think it had anything to do with my vitamins being stored in a cat litter container.  I picked up a letter and thought it was a knife.  I was freaked so I stood up on air.  I was angry at the Holy Ghost for turning me into a buttermilk biscuit.  I scooped up a lot of dirt with the knife and realized it was feces.  I then threw my lariat of turd and realized I was eating a cucumber.  I asked my nephew if he wanted a bite but he wasn’t there so my pants fell down when I tried lifting a pebble.  If you’ve never heard the opera ringing in your ears and driving you insane, please don’t.”

     Dr. Hershey said, “I think there’s some kind of coded message in that, somewhere.  You could have been re-living moments of your ancestors and changing those moments to suit your contemporary obsessions.”

     I could not help but say, “Moo!”

     Kevin got up from his chair and ran around the house.  He screamed, “Come here, cow.  Where are you?  I can’t find the damn cow.  Fucking shitting cock-sucking asshole barf vomit turd scab crumb cake in my shorts, you little bovine booger!”

     Dr. Hershey nodded slowly.  “Phil, you have woken up a part of him he could not have known existed previously.  Did he ever listen to Elvis Presley?”

     From the kitchen, Kevin yelled, “Never mention Elvis unless you want me to wet your pants.”

     Joyce said, “He has trouble going to sleep after someone’s mentioned Elvis.  He mumbles and wiggles his foot and makes a loud popping noise in his mouth like a popcorn machine.  The whole ordeal is rather horrific to watch.”

     Janis said, “I’m going to have a panic attack if I don’t get my cigarettes.  I think Phil swallowed my credit card, smuggled his way into Mexico, and spit it out behind the bushes.”

     Susan smiled.  “This is more fun than the movies.  I don’t need to pay admission to see it.  Thanks, Phil, for allowing me to hold your hand and letting me be a part of your world.”

     Joyce said, “It’s an artificial joining, you know.  You’re about as real as a bug cake.”

     Dr. Hershey laughed.  “It’s a good thing I’m doing this for free as a favor to Joyce because she is my friend.  I would say you are all trying hard to both entertain and annoy each other and me.  The energy here is crazy but it’s conducive towards creativity, that’s for sure.”

     Kevin ran in the living room, carrying an axe.  “I’m either going to cut up the carpet or make some sandwiches.”

     I nodded.  “I think we’ve made enough progress for today.  Let’s leave.”

     Susan said, “I agree.”

     We stood up and then ran out of the house.  The weather was cooler and the sun was dimming, allowing for a dark overcast to present its beauty.  I felt like a European prince spending time with the princess on the royal lawn.  I imagined electronic music in the background.  I stopped walking and danced and so did Susan.  Our hands stayed joined as we swished and swayed to the ambiance of our feelings.

     I asked, “Are we going to visit your family now?”

     Susan shrugged.  “If you want to do that, I guess it’s okay.  You’ve already met them but they haven’t seen you while you’re joined with me.”

     I asked, “Have they seen you in the tucked shirt?”

     Susan shook her head.  “Not yet.  I’m actually excited to see what they might say about it.”

     “I’ve noticed your family is better looking than mine and they live in a better neighborhood so I’m sure they’ll understand it better.”

     “Now that I think about it, I might have judged them too harshly.  I’m so familiar with them that they seem like way too familiar faces.  You might feel the same way about your folks.”

     I laughed.  “I’d rather not go that far.”

     Susan nodded.  “Okay.  Well, I think I’d like to compare the reaction of my family seeing us with how your family behaved.  It would give a better-rounded picture.”

     “I agree.  Let’s walk over there.”

     We continued on our way.

Chapter Six

     As we walked away from Red Rover Plaza, I could feel a large load leaving me as if the energy from my family had been a backpack now removed.  However, our town was a mish-mash of good and bad areas as if all the neighborhoods had been thrown in a pot like soup mix.  The most troublesome places were within the proximity of the highway overpass.  Everyone who lived near the corner of A Street and Bryan Avenue wore long white T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts on top, carrying coffee cups and smoking cigarettes with the occasional browsing through garbage cans.  In the fast food restaurant over there, some of the female workers wore green short-sleeved button shirts tucked-in, with black long-sleeved shirts underneath, and black slacks belted tightly.  In the past, before I arranged the situation with Susan, I spent money on coffee in case one of the shirt tuckers touched my hand when giving change.  There were times when a non-tucker female cashier wearing the red button shirt waited on me and I felt annoyed as if my favorite opportunity ran by and decided not to wait for my order.  There was one moment only, when I rode on public transportation, when the female bus driver wore her blue sweatshirt tucked into blue jeans with a black belt and she touched my hand when giving me a transfer.  I was so happy until an older man came on and sat next to me, breathing heavily from his mouth so his air touched my hand and ruined the moment.  If there had been a device invented so I could press a button and cause pain to someone who was irritating, I would have used it on him.

     However, I realized finally that a lot of people were not intentionally trying to bother others and they would understand if a situation was explained honestly to them.  The way I would explain my hand touching intentions would be to show how Susan and I did things.  Would I eventually convince them to change their boring ways or would they rebel by mumbling to themselves and use subliminal messages with attempts to stop me before I finished my journey?  People were oblivious to whether or not they talked about subjects that offended others.  Some words could work in a negative way to dispel the positive energy from that day.  Each person was on a certain metaphysical life level and I sometimes thought fate had purposefully played games to make sure no one was one hundred percent satisfied.

     If destiny was such a big deal, why were individuals placed so haphazardly next to each other?  The attractive and slim folks should be placed in one group and the annoying and repulsive folks in another.  I believed our bodies were not merely incidental vessels but signposts indicating what our souls did to handle our bodies.  Certain characteristics like facial features and skin color were merely elements of chance but weight gain and skin lesions were examples of poor body management.  Fashion styles were extensions of body management.  Someone who wore tucked-in shirts on a frequent basis could be viewed as more creative and positive than those who chose not to wear that style because shirt tuckers were aware of their levels of comfort ability and they could accept others more willingly.  Every time I received criticism concerning whether or not I had body odor or needed to shave, for instance, the criticizer was ugly and fat.  The positive comments were from attractive people.  Seemingly, people looked at others like mirrors to themselves.  If one saw ugliness, the reason was that person was ugliness.  A lot of times fat people married each other because ugliness attracted ugliness.  When attractive people connected, they at least knew they were attractive so other issues became of less importance.

     Sometimes, the element of ugliness was not caused by physical means.  A repulsive person was often just boring with no aspects of interesting potential.  A group of people sitting in a restaurant and talking about current events showed a type of annoyingly restricted behavior that gave no promise of transcendence.  I would notice groups of people in conversation and I thought to myself, “When will they touch hands or suggest shirt tucking?”  Our culture was in danger of never moving forward because most people were not aware of my ideas.

     The closest comparison to a pretty woman was a pretty house.  Neighborhoods with pleasant cottages and plush lawns radiated a certain magnificence that altered someone’s consciousness.  My family had never been rich or lived in good looking houses.  Their culture was the most mundane of dull experiences.  When I moved out and found a decent place to rent, the feeling was like the changing of a religion.  My mind went through a mental makeover.  My view of life became extreme because I now had an earlier belief system I could use for comparison.  Culture was not merely tourism like mass-produced art.  Culture was also a smile and a touch and a statement of appreciation.  However, I would not fall into the trap of assuming everything was equal.  When someone said, “Find a real girlfriend”, that person did not say, “Find a real pretty girlfriend” or, “Find a real ugly girlfriend” so I had to interpret what was meant by “real” and I chose to go with “real pretty.”

     Once, while I rode on the bus, a young man and woman had been thumb-wrestling.  Their hands were moving around together for more than twenty minutes and I thought to myself, “They know the inner code.”  I was certain they were not merely thumb wrestling but using that as an excuse to touch.  As they kept it up for the whole bus ride, I was aroused with curious anticipation.

     If one thing served to annoy me, I was not as concerned if another thing served to interest me.  Once, on the bus, a young man was listening to music on his headphones but singing loudly.  If not for the other situation to give balance, I would have been upset.  A young lady was sitting with her female friends.  They were all wearing cable knit sweaters.  However, she lifted her arms to stretch and showed that her sweater was tucked-in.  As the man continued singing, I watched intently to see if she would raise her arms again.  She did and I was thrilled.  I would never know her and most people would not consider the incident to be special but I had a good day.

     There were other situations that served to cause frustration.  If two men engaged in thumb wrestling, I figured they were unaware of how presentation could affect future outcomes.  Even if they were just friends and did not intentionally mean to look like they were sexually interested in each other, they were not paving the way towards having women touch them in the future.  If their intentions were to present entertainment to others, they were acting typically in a boring non-sexual manner that worked like a domino effect when similar situations were taken into account.  The issue was not in their single thumb wrestling event itself but, as part of a chain of male thumb wrestling moments, the result was tragic for our culture’s future.

     If slim women complained about the tucked-in shirt as being too “nerdy” or “old” looking, they were going against the grain of their sexy potentials.  If they were so adamant about the un-tucked look being “cool”, I thought to myself, “They don’t deserve to be slim.  They should be fat.”  When a show on television had all the actresses wearing loose or cropped shirts, I was annoyed at the director’s lack of sexual feeling.

     As I kept walking down the street with Susan, those thoughts kept returning to my memory like favorite songs.  I tried dismissing them but I realized that thoughts were like soap residue on pots.  One tried washing the dishes but could not completely rinse off the suds.

     I remembered that Janis had a friend when in her late twenties.  I was merely six years old but I could recall the friend’s name was Victoria.  She would occasionally visit us and she always wore tucked-in blouses and belted jeans.  One day, my mother was wearing an un-tucked blue paisley blouse with black jeans when suddenly Victoria arrived and wearing the same type of blouse tucked-in and with belted blue jeans.  My mother struck a fashion model pose and said, “I’m wearing the same type of blouse as you.”

     Victoria laughed and said, “Why, yes you are!  We’re a couple of elegant ladies, aren’t we?”

     As they laughed and talked about their similar outfits, I thought about how my mother was the lesser dressed.  She was typical of the type of people who were oblivious to details that could better themselves.  Victoria was the higher quality of person who knew how to look great.  I wished there was such a thing as an experience machine one could travel in to escape the irritating and distracting forces of others who made life unendurable.  That same machine could transport me from boredom to intrigue.  I wished I could be more a part of Victoria’s world.  Perhaps she visited us to do me a favor so I could experience someone like her.  She gave no visible clue to feeling superior to Janis but I could not help but imagine she knew exactly who the better person was.  The type of machine I was hoping for was becoming existent in the form of my mental attitude.

     I could feel my thoughts shifting like one who shrugs off an old coat to try on a new shirt.  My walk with Susan was still new so I had an attitude of defensiveness that caused me to judge others wrongly.  If a man happened to pass me while strolling by and almost touch my shoulder, I formed an angry vibe within my system to give an indication I no longer wanted that type of energy.  I could not completely behave the same way with women because they had the capacity to be sexier.  Men could not look sexy to me no matter what they did because they were men.  So, if a man told me I looked good, I could care less.  I did not feel that all compliments were equal.  Any time a man talked to me about something, I had ultimately felt the conversation was worthless.  The point was to continue to obtain pleasurable vibrations from women to make up for my lack of receiving them when I was younger.

     If I was not a virgin, I might have felt less sensitive to issues other people paid no mind.  However, since I was not able to find a woman willing to help me lose my virginity, I focused on other matters of eroticism that I could obtain.  In a sense, I was even more heterosexual than the macho guys who boasted of many one-night-stands.  Whenever a guy said, “I fucked so-and-so last night” I was angry for two reasons.  First, I was not the person so-and-so “fucked.”  Second, raw sexual encounters were doing away with people thinking about such topics as clothing styles or foreplay.  Pornographic movies were completely uninteresting to me because the people were nude.  Also, one was a man.  If both were women, I would have at least understood the arousal level for some people.  However, I figured that people who were disgusted to watch two women make love were bi-sexual because those people wanted to see a naked man.

     Finally, Susan asked, “What have you been thinking about?  You’ve been very quiet.  Not that I mind but you seem preoccupied.”

     I nodded.  “I could surely tell you how I’m feeling.”

     Susan smiled.  “Don’t hold anything back.”

     I said, “My mother is a complete asshole for believing I took her card, especially since she knows Joyce is a twisted closet lesbian who still yearns to use drugs in spite of her avowal towards God.  As far as I’m concerned, God wouldn’t want either of them unless they obtain decorating skills for their minds.  Joyce thinks I’m a homosexual because I’ve never had sex before and she doesn’t realize I don’t want to get screwed by a homeless disease-ridden druggie with tits like soggy potatoes and a breath that smells like a junk pile.”

     Susan shrugged.  “I didn’t know you’re a virgin.  I could help you out.”

     I said, “Maybe later.  Right now, I want us to continue doing this.”

     “Of course we’re going to continue this but later I’ll take off my clothes and you can see me nude.”

     “What if I don’t want to see you nude?  I might want to have you keep your clothes on.  You’re like a doll but a doll that speaks.  I hope you’re not offended at that.”

     She shook her head.  “I’m not offended at any honesty you tell me.  At least you’re consistent.  Your mother is quite inconsistent and your aunt is not even in a category.  I know your ideas are unconventional but your family is downright strange in the wrong way.”

     “I’m thinking of things on a different level.  I believe I’m a yet-to-be part of the world of glamor.  Looking at you and thinking about everything is like being in a fashion shoot.  When we do let go of hands eventually, I’d like to dress you up in more outfits and take pictures of you.”

     Susan nodded.  “What other types of outfits would you like me to wear?”

     “All tucked-in things.  Stuff like college sweatshirts with pushed-up sleeves or argyle sweaters.  Maybe plaid shirts with T-shirts underneath them…  I feel like a movie director already.”

     Susan smiled.  “In your mind, you can be the things you want to be.  The world is really like a blank slate waiting for our interpretations.  You can think of yourself as who you want to be in your future.  When I imagined holding hands with someone, I thought it would remain a fantasy until you came along.  I agreed to the tucked-in shirt because you agreed to the hand holding.  The reason we’re getting along is because we’re a part of the same air vibe, if you know what I mean.  There’s cosmic garbage that floats in the air and causes havoc for a lot of people so you might have a situation like this that is fun for you but you will also experience someone else’s reality because that person has intergalactic debris.  So, even though right now we’re going through something pleasant, watch out for someone else appearing suddenly and giving us a bad time.”

     I shrugged.  “My family is the only one who I imagine will do that to us.  It’s a shame they have to be so predictable in their unpredictable ways.  If only they did not exist and then get re-constituted to the more stable people they should be.”

     Suddenly, I heard my mother say, “We are normal.  You’re the crazy one.”

     Susan and I turned around.  Janis, Joyce and Dr. Hershey were standing there.  Dr. Hershey said, “I see you’ve continued your quest to hunt for prehistoric animals.”

     Joyce said, “He needs some heavy thoughts in his system.  Right now, he has a demon sensibility.”

     Dr. Hershey said, “He’s a dodger of reality.”

     Janis said, “Phil, why are you acting so crazy?”

     Dr. Hershey nodded.  “I have a theory.  Everyone is a part of a semblance of each other so Phil is part gay because Joyce has pinpointed that emotion in him.  He has a tiny little gay man following him and tugging on his pants.”

     Joyce said, “I haven’t been screwed in a long time by anybody, even if it’s a gay man.  I’d settle for a bald crazy clown with brown face paint and a jungle hat, stomping on the ground as if trying to put out a bunch of wildfires.  I wish a gay man would have sex with me because those types are more like women anyway and they smile with those beautiful red chubby cheeks and they smell like stale beer.  I wish I could have a hobby that consisted of collecting gay men and turning them straight so we could have a nice fiesta with pink poodle puppets.  We could listen to Perry Como.  The guys could have chicken fights by pecking each other on the lips and fraternizing like the best hockey players.”

     Janis said, “I’ve tried collecting gay men by hanging up flowered wallpaper and thinking I was looking at fancy stick figures.  I still need a pea coat.  In my mind, I saw a fellow wear a duck on his head and it quacked in the Russian language and it was not pretty but at least I did not eat Scottish pudding.”

     I shrugged.  “How could anyone have chosen these people?”

     Janis frowned.  “What do you mean?”

     I said, “You know how people choose friends or choose jobs.  How could anyone choose this family?”

     Janis said, “You didn’t choose us.  We chose you.  I made you.”

     I said, “I wouldn’t have asked you to create me.”

     Janis shook her head.  “It wasn’t your choice.  I made you because I did something with someone else and it caused this to happen.”

    I said, “If you had other interests than sex or pets or Microwave cooking or smoking, you could have abstained from creating me.”

     Dr. Hershey said, “This is interesting.  You’re getting everything out in the open.  Phil, according to my estimations, you are a combination of a piece of sex, an image of a cat, a Microwaved food and a puff of smoke.”

     Joyce said, “We’ll never get to solve this problem until we separate them.”

     Dr. Hershey nodded.  “I’m not sure if you’re correct but I’m willing to find out.”

     Janis said, “I want to look through a magazine.”

     Joyce sighed.  “You want to wear a hat.”

     Dr. Hershey asked, “Is it okay, Phil and Susan, to separate your hands?”

     Susan and I shook our heads.  We both said, “No.”

     Dr. Hershey shrugged.  “I guess I’ll have to separate you without permission.”  He reached out for our hands but we turned around and ran away before he could separate us.

     As we were running, I heard Joyce say, “When it comes to those two, you have to do everything without their permission.”

Chapter Seven:

     I felt an emanation was trying to contradict what I was achieving.  I looked back and noticed my family was no longer following me but the feeling of being stifled was not going away.  Suddenly, a fellow I knew named Hugh Bristow appeared.  He had probably walked towards us but he seemed almost to arrive from mist.  He had a girlfriend named Jennifer Padgham who always accompanied him.  Hugh was slightly pudgy but Jennifer was a tub of lard.  If they had been friendlier in the past, I would have not thought of them that way.  However, Hugh always found fault with me.

     Hugh was smoking a cigarette.  He waved and said, “Hi, Phil.  Would you like to buy me a beer?”

     One block away I noticed Jennifer walking towards us.  She said, “Hugh, you are not asking Phil to promote your vices.”

     I said, “He just asked how I was doing.”

     Hugh said, “You see, honey.  You judge me too quickly.  Phil, you need a shave.”

     Jennifer shook her head.  “Do not go in that direction.  Phil is part female and his girlfriend is part male.  We are all a little bit of both, in that order.  You cannot afford to dismiss the blessings.  Everyone is beautiful.  We are having a pleasant time.  If not, you die.”

     Hugh asked, “Is that a threat, darling?”

     Jennifer shrugged.  “Take it in the order it is given.  You cannot afford to keep your fingers if you are smoking.  You could penetrate your butt hole better with your probing.  You could stick a finger far in your ear and tickle your brain until you lose a sense.  I have to go pee and poo but I hold it in because I am a civilized woman who chews my food with toothpicks.  Do not tell me I am too fat because I will squish your eyeballs and make you see my fat hairy ass.  I will put buttermilk mold on your tongue.”

     Hugh yelled, “You want me to squeeze thoughts into my head but I am fucked up from the PCP.  My friend Vaughn gave me a cup of hair lotion and Lazaray spiked it.  Don’t ask me how I came to drink it because that would be like tickling a zebra and waiting for it to spew aqua pencils out of its nostrils.  You’re making me want to masturbate in public, you little bitch, with your shit sandwich of words.  You’ve put me in hell by hanging me on the ceiling with a Doppelganger bicycle to hook on my dick while Sydney and Helmut fling me another burger.  All the corners of my clothes could be taken off in a limit close to the nuthouse but the entrance fee is five dollars and thirty three cents.  I only have until eight thirty to come up with the twelve pennies in saxophones.  You have brought me agony in a goat’s spawn.  You took my stuffed toy and endangered my life by picking garbage up with toothpicks and allowing it to strike venom on my face.  Have you ever thrown a tape recorder in the air?  It causes a toothache in the eye.  My darling love, Jennifer, you have to help me with my puzzle.  If I have the two pieces of sandwich meat and insist on blowing them up like balloons, how many air holes will I have?  I have a big turd in my nose and I have no spoon to dig it out so you need to find a baby kitten to scratch my tongue and force me to tell the truth.  I can hear your bells jangling in my mind.  You camped out in those shoes and it drove me nuts.  There will be swimming swans to enter your gates of digestion and make your plastic bottles dribble down to the sea.  You could make a dress by connecting electric wires from the plug-in socket and shock your electric beliefs so you could mix them in an acoustic jam.  Please imagine me as a pile driver.  Please imagine yourself as a scab healer.  If you question the ghosts, they will talk back.”

     Jennifer took a knife out of her pocket.  “Did you drug him?”

     I looked for a moment and noticed the knife was a plastic toy.  “Maybe my words hypnotized him.”

     “Why would you drug him with words?”

     “Maybe I thought my words were soup.”

     She shook her head.  “Words are not funny things.  Words can work like drugs.”

     I nodded.  “Of course…  Soap can drug the body and mind.”

     “I don’t like you making fun of me.  You must have given him a drug-laced taco.”

     “Oh, sure…  I went to Mexico and met some oysters and brought some magic mushrooms for his taco.”

     “Maybe the tortilla was drugged.”

      “Yes.  Maybe the flies were sipping water with LSD and then landing on the corn used to make the tortilla that drugged him.”

     She waved the knife in the air.  “I hate when you make fun of me.”

     I laughed.  “I’m trying to make sad of you.”

     “That’s better but you still can’t defend your use of acid corn.”

     “I didn’t use corn.  I touched his wrist with a key chain.”

     “Why would you do that?”

     “Because a rock was not available…?”

     “What good is a rock?”

     “A rock has a lot of vitamins.”

     “So you managed to throw a lot of vitamins at my boyfriend and hit him on the head?”

     “No.  They landed in his mouth.”

     She sighed.  “You know that he and I have drugs.”

     I nodded.  “Susan and I have water.”

     “Where is your water?”

     “It’s in the stores.  You can buy mineral water.”

     “Why do you say you own the water in the stores?”

     “Well, we don’t own the water but we drink the water.”

     “How can you drink water that’s in the stores?”

     “How can you breathe air that’s still in the air?”

     She frowned.  “How can air be in the air?”

     I shrugged.  “Air isn’t really in the air.  Air is in the money.”

     “Why did you take the air from the money?”

     “Why did you take the crazy from out of your brain?”

     “I didn’t do it.  I still have my crazy.”

     “Do you pound it with a hammer?”

     “I don’t have a hammer.  I have a knife.”

     “Why do you pretend your hammer is a knife?”

     “I don’t pretend that.  Why are you still making fun of me?”

     “I guess because I’m talking to you.”

     “What if you didn’t talk to me?”

     “I guess I wouldn’t be talking to you?”

     She yelled.  “This conversation is ridiculous.”

     I said, “You’re the one who started it.”

     “Why would I start the conversation?”

     “Because you’re ugly and fat…”

     “Why do you call me ugly and fat?”

     “You weigh over three hundred pounds and you swear a lot.”

     “A lot of pretty women swear.”

     “You should be ashamed of trying to imitate a pretty woman.”

     “Who should I imitate?”

     “A dog…”

     “What kind of dog should I imitate?”

     “Maybe a television…”

     “What kind of dog is a television?”

     “The kind with purple roses in it…”

     She shook her head.  “I don’t see any roses.”

     “They are on your breath.”

     “Are you trying to pick the roses on my breath?”

     “I don’t need your roses.  I have my own cars.”

     “What kind of car do you have?”

     “A lemon car…”

     “Are you talking about a lemon pie?”

     “Yes.  My car is a pie.”

     “What about my sweater?”

     “What about it?”

     She screamed.  “Someone must have taken my sweater!”

     I shrugged.  “Maybe I took the sweater from your dreams.”

     “Why would you do that?  My dreams are precious.”

     “I guess I wanted to see it in color.  Dreams are usually black and white.”

     “It isn’t fair when you take my stuff.  You are someone who likes to take stuff you know you should not.”

     “That could be true.”

     “Why…?”

     “Why not…?”

     “Because you are a cat…”

     “What type of cat am I?”

     “A brown one…”

     “What type of brown one?”

     “That is stupid.  Everybody knows the difference between pink and brown cats.”

      “That is possible but purple is a hard color to locate.”

     She sighed.  “That’s true.  I tried locating purple once.”

     I nodded.  “Were you successful finding it?”

     “Not really.  All I found was a teddy bear.”

     “What did the teddy bear look like?”

     “A piece of bread…”

     “Did the bread look like spaghetti and peanut butter?”

     “In a way, it did.  I touched it with a fork.”

     “Did it cry?”

     “It must have.  I bought it in a Swedish bakery.”

     “What kind of Swedish bakery?”

     She shrugged.  “The kind with bugs in it…”

     I asked, “Did you also eat hair lotion?”

     “Only if it was on a cupcake…”

     “Were you at the same party as Hugh?”

     “I think so but I drove there in a giant ear.”

     “Okay.  I understand.  Was there also a giant accordion?”

     “I don’t know.”

     “Please think a moment.  It would have been in ice.”

     “Maybe…  There was a giraffe in ice and I drank it in my coffee.”

     “Was there rice wine in your coffee?”

     She shook her head.  “No.  There was a giraffe in ice in my coffee?  Why the hell are you so stupid?”

     I laughed.  “I’m sorry.  I thought I was paper.”

     “What kind of paper?”

     “The kind with gum on it…”

     “Can the gum sing a song?”

     “Only if the song is a barbecued mountain…”

     “I think I’ve heard of a barbecued road and maybe a chocolate mountain.”

     “You probably found it up your nose.”

     She waved the knife around.  “Why are you looking up my nose?”

     I shrugged.  “I didn’t do it on purpose.  I thought it was a skating rink.”

     “I’m glad you thought that.  I like Popsicles.”

     “I prefer sunshine pops.  You put them in your mouth and get burned.”

     “Where do you find them?”

     “In the solar section up in space…”

     “Do you have a map so I can drive there?”

     “No but I can point to the general direction with my finger.  You can start from there and the closer you get your car will melt.”

     “Will I be able to lick my car?”

     “Only for a while but then it will harden slightly again and you’ll have to bite into it like a pizza.”

     “How will it taste?”

     “It will taste greasy.  Cars have a lot of grease.”

     She sighed.  “I was hoping to have a car Popsicle on the sun.  Maybe I should try for the moon.”

     I shrugged.  “That could be more interesting but the funny thing is the moon resembles poo-poo powder.”

     “That’s fine.  I never use toilet paper when I take a crap.”

     “That’s smart.  A lot of people nowadays just dip their fingers in water and tickle their butt holes and giggle, ‘Hee hee hee hee.’”

     “I’ve never giggled but I sure tickled.”

     “What did the tickle taste like?”

     “It kind of was like corn.”

     “Did it come with milk?”

     “It might have.”

     “Then it was a good deal.”

     She looked at Hugh.  “Honey, are you doing okay?”

     Hugh shrugged.  “I’m the alphabet.”

     “Are you a soup?”

     “I am a dick.”

     “I thought you were a goat.”

     “No, I’m a box.”

     I laughed.  “He’s really a fat blob of ice cream.”

     She looked at me again and frowned.  “Are you sucking on my boyfriend?”

     “Only if I’m using a ten inch spoon…”

     “What does the spoon look like?”

     “It’s not really a spoon.  It’s a foot.”

     “Why are you sucking on my boyfriend with your foot?”

     “Because my mouth does not have pepper on it…”

     “You should be careful about eating pepper with your belly button.”

     “I think you meant a jelly button.”

     “No, I didn’t.  You’re trying to freak me out.”

     “I can’t freak you out.  You’re already a freak.”

     “Am I also a jar of mustard honey?”

     “I’m sure Hugh would think you are.”

     “Maybe he would but I think you are handsome.”

     “I know I’m handsome but you’re nothing to me.”

     She smiled.  “I could be your nothing wife.”

     “I would rather you be my trim wife.”

     “How would that work?”

     “It wouldn’t.”

     “Then why did you mention it?”

     “Because I don’t like you…”

     “Well, what do you like?”

     “Sometimes I like movies but most of the time I like clock mushrooms.”

     She waved the knife around more.  “You’re praising me with nonsense.”

     I shrugged.  “I’m just trying to calm you.”

     “Maybe it’s working.  I think I’m feeling cute.”

     “It’s good to feel like something you’re not.”

     “How much energy did you put in the air?”

     “Only a little bit.”

     “You’re sure freaking me out.”

     “Try thinking of me as a big wad of popcorn…”

     “Are you yellow and fuzzy?”

     “Yes.  I have lice all over me.”

     “Can I eat worms?”

     “I would prefer you eat twigs.”

     “Maybe if they are prepared with rope…”

     “They could be but they have circles and stars on them.”

     She nodded.  “Who is the girl holding your hand?”

     I said, “She’s someone.”

     “Okay.  I see some canyons in the desert.”

     “Are they positioned mathematically?”

     “Only if you have snot…”

     “I’m sorry but I’m only filled with dandruff.”

     “How does dandruff get filled in the head?”

     “The dandruff man comes in and pours dandruff in you.”

     She frowned.  “Why would anyone do that?”

     I shrugged.  “How else does dandruff get started?”

     “How about picking it?”

     “Have you ever tried picking a dandruff flower?”

     “How about pickling it?”

     “I liked pickled dandruff.  I once tried banging my head on some drums and it was really cool.”

     “Do you like to think about it?”

     “Only sometimes…”

     She frowned.  “Why doesn’t your friend speak?”

     I shrugged.  “I think she’s afraid of you.”

     “Would you want me to use the knife?”

     “Only if you want to slice a pineapple…”

     Hugh had lain on the ground.  “Honey, I’m feeling better.”

     Jennifer shook her head.  “You don’t look better.”

     “Come lay down with me.”

     “Only if you really can’t get up…”

     “I can’t.  Phil, you reek.  You need to take a shower.  Honey, where’s our dog?”

     “He’s in the house.  I had to keep him restrained.  He tried to pee on you.”

     “At least it smells better than that cologne you gave me.”

     “What’s wrong with the cologne?”

     “It smells like a bunny rabbit.”

     “I thought it smelled like a door handle.”

     Hugh yelled.  “You are sick!  Don’t tell me how to smell.  Come and sit the fuck down with me!”

     Jennifer had lain on the ground.  “Okay, my precious tiny pecker pepper.  We love each other, don’t we?”

     “We really do unless there are some days when we don’t.”

     “Oh, Hugh, you don’t really believe in eating apricots?”

     “Yes, my love but I kind of enjoy chewing on ice.”

     They both closed their eyes and smiled.  Susan and I waited a minute before continuing our walk.  She asked, “Are they friends of yours?”

     I answered, “It depends on how that can be interpreted.”

     She nodded.  “Okay.  Instead, are they like your family?”

     I nodded.  “Yes.  Am I lucky to know them?  I’ll have to think about it.  At least, in their own bizarre way, they were interesting.”

     We both laughed.

Chapter Eight

     Susan and I walked to Webster Street where her family lived.  I had met her parents once when I happened to be at her house when they visited.  Her father was George Schlater and her mother’s name was Rose.  Susan often talked about them as though they were negative people who were worse than my mother and aunt but my one impression of them was not unfavorable.  George was quiet and sad, answering questions if asked but otherwise letting others do the talking.  Rose was more energetic, giving occasional criticisms and gesturing with her hands but generally pleasant.  However, I saw them as one would see a town on a map.  I was not familiar with them on a day to day basis.

     Webster Street was the most scenic place in town.  There were trees shading the sidewalks so the neighborhood always looked like the time was six o’clock at night.  Something about the area reminded me of a cool winter afternoon with heavy rain outside while people were warm and cozy indoors, sitting by the fireplace and drinking tea.  As Susan and I were getting closer to her parents’ house, I wondered why she disliked them.  I asked, “What exactly did your mom and dad do to upset you?”

     She shrugged.  “Maybe everyone feels uncomfortable about one’s own family.  It’s not as though they really did anything bad.  They just never did anything great and they hardly ever listened to me when I mentioned my problems.  My dad would read a book and my mom would listen to music.  My two sisters had used to pick on me and my brother was the only person I could talk to about it.  I would mention that Grace, my older sister, stomped on my foot but mom would say, ‘She wouldn’t do that.’  My dad would just shrug and say, ‘Kids will be kids.’  Since my parents were relatively oblivious towards me, I became that way towards them.  I now get along well with Grace because she lives in Delaware and we only talk on the phone once a month.  My other sister, Tiffany, doesn’t pick on me anymore but we don’t really talk with each other.  We seem to get along better that way.”

     We arrived finally at the Schlater’s house.  The place looked like the dream location compared to any house my family lived in.  I was happy to forget about the Battanoffs while visiting Susan’s parents.  She rang the doorbell and her father answered.  He was well dressed in a light brown corduroy coat buttoned and matching slacks.  He smiled and said, “Hello, Susan.  I’m surprised to see you here.  Would you like to come in?”

     She nodded.  “Yes, we would.”  We walked inside.  The living room had matching sofas and chairs with flower patterns on them.  Everything looked comfortable.”

     George said, “Please, have a seat.  Would you like any refreshments or something to eat?”

     She said, “No, thank you.”

     I said, “I’m fine.”

     He nodded.  “Very well…”

     We sat on the sofa and George sat in a chair.  Susan said, “I agreed with Phil to come over here so he could see how my family compares with his.”

     George shrugged.  “I understand.  Well, I don’t know if I’ll meet your expectations, Phil, but you’re welcome to visit.”

     I nodded.  “Thank you.  Susan is only half right.  A part of this visit was so I could make a mental comparison but I also needed to take the flavor of my family out of my mouth.  Just sitting here in this pleasant neighborhood is almost too good to be true.  Even if you presented yourself as the most boring person in the world – and I’m sure you’re not – this is such a refreshing change from the disgusting mayhem of my mother’s and aunt’s attitudes.  You haven’t met them but, if you did, you’d choke on their insanity and brush off my mom’s cigarette smoke from your clothes.”

     George said, “That may be true but I wouldn’t know because I never met her.”

     Susan asked, “How do you like my outfit, dad?”

     George nodded.  “It’s Grace’s shirt.  It looks good on you.  I’ve never seen you wear something tucked-in before.  You look very nice.”

     She smiled.  “Is this a compliment coming from you?”

     He shrugged.  “I must have complimented you before but you probably thought I ignored you.  I have to say that raising four children is not easy.  Each child wants to be the special kid with all the privileges and toys.  I might have put up a distant front at times but my intent was to not play favorites.  Now that all my children are adults and self-sufficient, I can be more like a human being than a ‘disciplinarian’ or a ‘warden’ or whatever other word you want to call me.  You don’t visit as often as you should, Susan.  You’re welcome any time.  This is the house you grew up in.”

     She sighed.  “Maybe I will visit now.  I’m feeling better about things because I finally found someone to help me cope with my feelings of loneliness. Phil and I are holding hands as long as possible until we somehow feel we cannot hold on any longer.”

     George smiled.  “That sounds romantic.  Have you ever seen ‘Two for the Road’ with Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn?  You two remind me of them, not so much in looks but in the way they had various moments of their lives show in a back and forth manner.  When you’re both older, you might go through some ups and downs but, in the long run, it’s all worth it.”

     I said, “We aren’t a steady couple.  We’re doing this just to do it.  I did see that movie and there’s a scene when Audrey Hepburn wears a tight tucked-in red turtleneck and it’s really sexy.  I think Stanley Donen did a great job on that film.  It’s much better than that film ‘Sabrina.’  Billy Wilder had the typical male attitude at that time of women looking best in dresses.”

     George smiled.  “If you liked the tucked-in shirt look, you would have loved the Nineteen Fifties.  A lot of women wore dresses but others wore tucked-in cardigan or cashmere sweaters and skirts.  The idea was to look like the outfit was a dress even though there were two pieces.  A good representation of that look was what Reese Witherspoon wore in ‘Pleasantville.’  I thought that movie was cute.”

     “That film is great.  I watched it specifically because I loved that look.  I’m thinking to myself my dream life would be to come home to a place like this and live with a woman who usually wears thick cable knit sweaters tucked into jeans or Jodhpurs and I can write stories and novels that sell a lot of copies and eventually some of my books get turned into films.”

     “I love reading.  If you write your novel, bring it over and I’ll take a look at it.  My favorite author is Thomas Mann.  ‘Buddenbrooks’ was quite enjoyable but I also liked ‘The Magic Mountain’ and ‘The Black Swan.’  Who are your favorite authors?”

     “I have different favorites according to my particular moods.  I like Robert Penn Warren if I’m in the mood for a nice long and slow-paced story that makes me feel I’m resting in a hammock on my front porch.  ‘All the King’s Men’ and ‘The Cave’ were my favorites…  I also like Louis Auchincloss.  ‘The Rector of Justin’ and ‘The House of Five Talents’ are classics but I also like some of his short stories…  I also like Robert Coover, Mary Caponegro, Richard Brautigan, John Barth, Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Yates.  I can be an impatient reader if something doesn’t attract my interest right away.  Sometimes, I’ll start reading something that too much resembles a lot of other things that don’t interest me so I don’t finish it.”

     He nodded.  “I can be patient with some books.  Charles Dickens was known to start his books slow and draggy but then suddenly they became fascinating because the reader got familiar with the characters.  His novels were a lot like soap operas.  A lot of people consider Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare to be the greatest writers in the English language.”

     “I think Jonathan Swift was the greatest because of his imagination and wit as well as his language style. ’A Tale of the Tub’ is really a beautiful piece of work.”

     “Have you ever read ‘Tristram Shandy’?  A lot of people claim it is one of the most unreadable books ever produced but I was able to get into it.  Laurence Sterne reminds me of Swift, in a way.  They both have a fascinating way of rambling on.”

     I nodded.  “One of my goals is to do something that is like a word collage that incorporates elements of what William Burroughs and Bryon Gysin were doing.  It would be part free form stream of consciousness and part newspaper text and magazine articles, all cut up and re-arranged with just enough syntax and grammatical order to appear logical except without a plot or sense of reality.  I would be able to drink a lot of Vodka and then read it as if it was a psychedelic trip.”

     “I used acid a few times when I was in my twenties.  I loved it but I was always sure I had gone into a trip.  I didn’t ever think that the things I experienced were real.  But then I got older and got married and had children so I found books to be a healthier form of escape.  I feel that, in a sense, our realities are merely a product of our minds and we have the ability to alter our realities by having new thoughts.”

     “That’s what I’m dealing with now.  I don’t like to just accept the conventional propaganda dished out to everybody.  I like to think for myself and look at the world as though each new day can be treated creatively.”

     “That was what I was going for when I was taking drugs.  But then I realized a lot of things that happen in life are due to cross currents of people on different levels.  I married Rose so I could have someone who shared a lot of things in common with me.  I found that marriage to a loving partner can be the best gift life has to offer.”

     I shrugged.  “Maybe eventually I’ll think about marriage but right now I like the spontaneity of the single life.  However, I’m not like my friend Hugh who I just ran into before coming here.  He was with his girlfriend, Jennifer, and they were drugged out of their minds.  But once I talked with Hugh and he said I shouldn’t be as picky about the type of girlfriend I’d get.  He said I should take whoever I could find because I wasn’t the most successful man in the world and I didn’t have a lot of money or a car.  I told him I was not too picky but I at least wanted a girlfriend who would sometimes tuck in her shirts.  He said he thought my attitude was negative and God was challenging me because I was going against God’s plan.  But then Hugh took another swig of his Vodka and forgot about what he said.”

     Susan said, “I thought Hugh was like a chubby whacked-out clown and Jennifer was the more exaggerated version that grew from his cells.  I could imagine them rubbing each other’s tummies and thinking it sexy.  A part of me thinks their story ought to be told and the other part of me feels some people ought not to reproduce.”

     I said, “This is my idea of a normal conversation.  I do like crazy talks once in a while but there has to be a balance in life.  I’ve been immersed so much in what I have been used to, I have neglected other elements of living that can help me.”

     George nodded.  “I still sometimes feel like that.  You might think every moment in this neighborhood is a complete delight but we have our problems, too.”

     Suddenly, Rose entered the house.  She was wearing a dark gray long-sleeved cowl-neck shirt tucked into black slacks with a black belt.  She saw Susan and smiled.  “Hello, dear…  I notice you’re wearing your shirt tucked-in, just like me.  I don’t know what prompted me to say that but I notice you never wore your shirt tucked-in before and I have just started doing so myself.  It seems like karma is working some sort of magic.”

     George smiled.  “She’s been listening to experimental classical music so her mind is getting elevated by unconventional chord sequences.  I’m more of a Beatles and Rolling Stones fellow myself but I like a couple of things by Stockhausen.”

     Rose sat on a chair next to George.  She said, “The common belief about Stockhausen is that he worked mostly in electronic music but that is incorrect.  His main musical output was conventional music, not in the sense of the harmonic structure but in the sense of it being played by acoustic instruments.  Some of his works were atonal.  He wrote a piece for, I think, five saxophones and it resembled John Coltrane’s ‘Ascension.’  I believe Coltrane did two versions of ‘Ascension’ and both were very intense.”

     George laughed.  “She’s the musical one in the family.  I’m more the reader.”

     Rose nodded.  “I like some fiction like Sherwood Anderson and Frank Norris but my main thing is listening to music.  Alton Berg and Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg are my favorite contemporary classical composers right now but I’m also really into Jean Sibelius.  I also like Richard Strauss.  Even Glenn Gould, who was known mostly for his interpretations of other composers’ music like Bach, wrote some interesting stuff.  You are lucky if you are able to hear a good one tenth of the stuff that’s out there.  I am having a ball with our local public library.”

     I said, “I like listening to music, also.  When I put on a CD and have on my headphones, I can be in a totally different world.  I am really fond of groups like Tangerine Dream, Roxy Music, Gong, Radiohead and stuff like that.  Those groups make the world go round.  I can be on a BART train and I feel like I’m a business man in the movie Risky Business.  If I could be like Tom Cruise’s character, that would be great.  But, right now, I’m really happy because Susan’s agreed to hold hands with me.  We’ve been joined for at least a few hours.”

     Susan shrugged.  “Who knows?  We might stay like this a few days.”

     Rose laughed.  “You might hold hands forever.”

     I shook my head.  “We’re not fixing our thoughts in that direction.  We’re taking each minute as it comes.  If we decide later we should remain joined, that’s fine with us.  If we feel suddenly we need to separate, that is also fine.  It’s a minute by minute process.”

     Susan nodded.  “You know, mom, how lonely I’ve felt.  Even when I went out on dates with guys like Jonas or Isaac, I felt alone because they weren’t interested in me as a person but just as a plaything or decoration to put on their arms.  Phil was interested in connecting with me through skin contact and holding me close and allowing me to hold him close.  I mentioned to him I might feel like I own his hand and he’ll never get it back and he was fine with it.  He told me his ideal situation was almost exactly the same thing.”

     I said, “I asked her to tuck in the shirt.  To me, it’s not just a little fashion detail but a sensibility of sexiness.”

     Rose said, “I started wearing mine that way when I looked in some of the fashion magazines and noticed models wearing clothes that were like mine and they wore their shirts tucked-in and looked really good in the pictures.”

     George said, “Rose and I have been eating healthier.  That could be a reason for why we are feeling contented.  We’ve been taking L-Tryptophan, Chlorophyll, Vitamin C and Vitamin D3.”

     I said, “My uncle takes vitamins and medications to help him sleep.  He uses Vitamin E and takes antioxidants like Selenium.  But, when I visited him a month ago, he opened up a large plastic container that had been for cat litter.  He made a sour face and said it had the most horrid smell of shit he had ever encountered but he took out a few bottles of medication from the container.  I was puzzled and asked him why he had his pills there and he said he was going to clean it soon.  But then, after he took his pills, he put the stuff back inside the container.  I asked him why did he put the pills back in there and all he would say was he would clean it soon.”

     Susan said, “In a way, I think Phil’s family is interesting.  At least they stay inconsistent so some moments they are less creepy than others.  It’s like they’ve drank a load of coffee and have never waited for the effect to wear off.”

     Rose asked, “What will your family do for Thanksgiving?  I like to ask people that because a part of what makes a family a certain way is their ideas of holiday cooking.  George and I used to do traditional turkey dinners with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes with gravy and stuffing.  Now, since the children no longer live at home, we make a baked ham with our special pineapple juice glaze and we make Korean cheese corn with corn kernels, mayonnaise, condensed milk, salt, pepper and we sprinkle grated parmesan cheese on top after it’s heated up.  We also make salads with crumbled gorgonzola cheese sprinkled on it and we make our own special salad dressing made with olive oil, anchovy paste, sugar and a dash of Kitchen Bouquet.  We also have custard pie.  That’s a Schlater family Thanksgiving dinner.”

     I said, “My last Thanksgiving with my family was chaos.  To the Batanoffs, it was business as usual.  My uncle Kevin got a turkey from a friend of his named Donald who worked at a bargain grocery warehouse.  The turkey had more bones than meat and my mother kept dropping it on the ground while trying to prepare it because she wanted to focus more on lighting a cigarette than keeping the bird steady.  Kevin decided he wanted curry sauce as a glaze on the bird but he accidentally grabbed a jar of cayenne pepper and put half of the jar full on the stove to heat.  The only problem was he didn’t add water or butter or something to keep the pot from scorching.  After an hour, he looked to see if it was done and there was nothing left but a big black and red charred mess.  He put his finger in the pot to try some and he burned his finger.  Joyce screamed at him that it wasn’t alcohol.  He said he knew that and he was testing the curry.  She said that whatever it was, it wasn’t it.  Then, my mom said it was cayenne pepper.  Kevin tasted what was on his finger and he screamed and said it was way too hot.  My mom repeated that it was cayenne and Kevin kept saying it was curry until my mom showed him the jar and told him to read the other letters after the ‘c.’  Anyway, the turkey was cooked but somehow got dry and tasted strange.  Kevin said he took a can of seasoning and poured on some.  We found out he used Metamucil and he said he thought it was margarine.  As to how he figured margarine came in flake form in cans and was a seasoning, I wouldn’t know.  Well, after each successive horror, Bretta got angry and threw mashed potatoes at everybody and said someone ripped her poster of Richard Simmons.  My mom decided to put cigarettes in the ice cream and light them as candles and she called it her version of baked Alaska.  I left before the physical fighting started.”

     George said, “Well, you’re welcome here this holiday season if you’d like to spend Thanksgiving with us.”

     I said, “That would be great.  Thank you.”

     Susan smiled.  “Yes.  Thank you, dad…”

     That afternoon was the most pleasant I had experienced in a long time.

Chapter Nine:

     Susan and I figured we ought to return to my family’s neighborhood once more so we could be entertained by their madness.  Kevin was still a nice man and his family was decent – with the exception of Bretta’s mashed potato fights – but even he was eccentric.  No one knew the real story of our ancestors, aside from Joyce’s tall tales, and I suspected the truth was too embarrassing for Elijah and Antonietta to tell.  If I supposed my grandparents were embarrassments to their children, I could only guess how much more insane they could be.  However, another example of insanity was approaching.  Hugh and Jennifer were stumbling towards us.  Hugh said, “I want to talk with your mom.”

     I asked, “Do you know her?”

     He tried nodding but his head looked like a wibble-wobble.  “Her name is Janis.”

     I frowned.  “How do you know her?”

     “From the greasy spoon…”

     “Did she turn into a lump of grease and land on a spoon?”

     “No.  She went to the restaurant and I was there.”

     “What made you decide to eat in a restaurant?”

     “Where the hell else would I eat?”

     “Don’t you usually cook food in your shoes?”

     “That’s a lie everyone says about me.”

     “What’s a truth?”

     He looked puzzled.  “What’s a tooth?”

     I shrugged.  “I guess so.”

     “What about snow?”

     “Don’t you put snow in your jammies at night?”

     “I’ve never burped in public.”

     “That doesn’t answer my question.”

     “It does so!  I never burped my jammies.”

     “I’m proud of you.”

     “Thank you.”

     “You should turn into chocolate syrup.”

     He yelled.  “I want to speak to your mother!”

     I shrugged.  “What for…?”

     “She invited me to something she’s doing.”

     “Is she inviting you to watch her pick her scabs?”

     “That’s part of it.  But she wants me to eat some yogurt ice cream.”

     “What flavor?”

     “Some sort of tobacco baked Alaska tofu ice cream yogurt dish.”

     “Is my uncle Kevin going to be there?”

     “Yes.  He said he was going to get a pig.”

     “He has you so why does he need another pig?”

     He sighed.  “You’re acting worse than when I saw you yesterday.”

     I nodded.  “Yesterday was, in your case, an hour ago.”

     “I need to visit Janis because she said she had a bubble she wanted me to pop and the dogs have been licking behind her ears so her mind feels like it’s been leaking.  Would you know a good plumber I can call so I can fix my intestines?”

     “You can call the Ugly Man Bakery.  Sven fills pastries and plays with your goodies, all for the same fee.”

     “Can I lick your stomach?”

     “No, you may not.”

     “Good.  My lips are growing fungus.”

     “Why don’t you have sex with a dwarf?”

     “What the fuck good is that?”

     “You will be able to sing your way into any bathtub and your lover will crawl into your fingernail and make you ask for a removal of your cuticles.  You can go to the Martinez estuary and have your troubles blown away with a lady named Ginger.”

     He shook his head.  “Please bring me to your mother’s house.”

     I nodded.  “Okay.”

     Jennifer had stayed quiet.  However, she said, “I’m not going with you.”

     Hugh frowned.  “Why not…?”

     “She is part horse.  At least I am a rhinoceros, a big, strong and loving animal.  You need me to chew on you when you turn into shit.”

     “I’m not a pie and you’re not a wino.”

     I said, “Hugh, if you’re looking to see my mother, we have to go.  Come on.”  Susan and I walked.

     Jennifer walked away in the opposite direction.  Hugh stumbled with us.  He said, “The purple grass hates me.”

     I said, “I’m sure it hates you since you called it names.”

     “What else could I do?  I’ve been living by myself with ten other people for twenty years and fifteen of them have been on parole.  I need an excuse to further my quest for mind algebra going on a park bench while Magda baked her fluorescent bicycle birthday cake with hula hoop icing and a mouth full of shingles.  The dodge area of insanity in a station has a tide of keys in the multitudes of maelstroms.  I need my Zen based surf board brought to me by trigonometry tomorrow with a half-baked skunk and a trespass occasion for permission servitude.  Just ask for Zaza in case of safe-keeping geraniums and Victorias and I’ve seen them all in the malls and the markets and the pinball machines sky-gazing towards the sun.  Every point of upward mobility has a straight line delving downwards in the bottomless bit of lakes.”

     “I’m happy to hear that.  I have a question for you.  When you tap into the technology of insanity, how many gems do you find?”

     He shrugged.  “I’m not sure what I see.”

     I nodded.  “You have been looking for lint, I imagine.”

     “I don’t know why they call it lint when they’re lima beans.”

     “Maybe because you scared the trees away…”

     “Might be…”

     “Also, you’ve grown an acre old.  That’s significant.”

     “It’s only marshmallows.”

     “So, you’ve had a sniffing party.”

     “Only when I was down the chimney…”

     “How many miles did you fall?”

     “A quarter pound of a mile for a whopping fifty cents…”

     “That’s a lot of keys.”

     “Tell me about a habit.”

     “You won’t want to hear about it slip-shod.”

     He sighed.  “I’ll try it.”

     I laughed.  “You come up eight cents short.”

     “That’s what the mirror told me.”

     “Did you give a humdinger?”

     “I had a pocket full of toadstools.”

     “You can flame broil them.”

     “That’s only if you get a chance from God.”

     “Doesn’t he live in Poughkeepsie?”

     “I don’t know.  He died young.”

     “Didn’t that happen before he died?”

     “I guess so and I told you so.”

     “So what makes everything havoc?”

     “A potato changer…”

     “Do you fry your time with bacon?”

     “Only during the dumb seasons…”

     “Are you telling me you’re a mango?”

     “In the wintertime…”

     “You must have been swimming.”

     He nodded.  “It’s called a chicken balm escape.”

     I asked, “What flavor is it?”

     “Maybe mashed potato…”

     “Does it have orange gravy?”

     “Only in the spinning…”

     “What does it have in the plankton?”

     “You have to be careful what you ask me.”

     “For what reason…?”

     “You’re coming close to dangerous grounds.”

     “In what way…?”

     He sighed.  “There’s going to be a panic in your family.”

     I shrugged.  “How so…?”

     “Your mom needs my healing.  She said things.”

     “I’m listening.”

     “You have a destiny to stop being the way you are.”

     “How do you mean?”

     “Do you remember when I let you use my computer?”

     “That was two years ago.”

     “I know that but I was trying to stop you.”

     “I don’t understand.  You didn’t want me using it?”

     “That’s not the point.  You were rude.”

     “How so…?”

     He shrugged.  “You were mean to my girlfriend.”

     I frowned.  “In what way does that surprise you?”

     “I didn’t like how you made fun of her.”

     “I understand but aren’t you talking about ten minutes ago?”

     “I’m talking about every time.”

     “Well, I don’t like when she says I look like a big toe.”

     “That’s her right.”

     “It’s still wrong.”

     He waved a finger at me.  “You swear too much.”

     I sighed.  “That’s not true.  I swear enough.”

     “Your mom loves you.  Give her a chance.”

     “I didn’t take her credit card.”

     “You’re holding your girlfriend’s hand.  That upsets your mother.”

     “My mother should be glad I’m not homosexual like my aunt says I am.”

     “You don’t need to listen to your aunt but your mother does love you.”

     “I guess in my own twisted way I love her too like a mouth loves a cold sore but I don’t have to revert back to the person I was before today.”

     He shook his head.  “It’s not a matter of reverting.  Everyone has an ethnic background.  You came from a silly family so you have to be silly.”

     I laughed.  “How do you think I’m acting now?  If this isn’t silly, I don’t know what I’m doing.”

     “You’re being honest with me and I like it.”

     “We’re not too far away from her place.”

     “I hear your family wants to give you up for adoption.”

     “That would be the greatest gift they could give.”

     “You still have their blood.”

     “Where could I return it?”

     “Blood doesn’t work that way.”

     “Then how does it work?  Does it run on batteries?”

     “You can ask your DNA how it works.”

     “I don’t have the phone number.”

     “You don’t need a credit card.  You just need to verify you are who you are.”

     “I thought that being me verifies it.”

     He laughed.  “Only if you’re a maverick bookworm…  You have to have Heaven in a jar and be pretty stupid.”

     I nodded.  “I’m good at that.  I’m with you, right?”

     “We’re like sesame and milk.  We talk nice.  We lost the boat.  Have you seen that image so beautiful?”

     “It’s a sunset.  We could be in a quarry and you wouldn’t know it.”

     “We have a flood of possible gatherings to worm our way across to the mother ship.”

     “You need a nightmare gown and stir up pabulum for that to happen.”

     “We’re talking now about buzz words.  They can cause damage.”

     “Only if you use oil on them and that is not about to happen…”

     “I told you when you were a boy to stir the cake.”

     “I tried tying your hair up in a mess.”

     “I laughed.”

     “That’s good for you.”

     He frowned.  “Have you ever reviewed Taiwan’s situation?  I love their butter cake.”

     I shrugged.  “That’s an easy thing for you to say.  You’ve always been good at biting elements of the final baking.”

     “What if you called up one of your old girlfriends?”

     “I never had an old girlfriend.  In a way, even though Susan is holding my hand, I’m a putz.”

     “So, this woman’s name is Susan?”

     “If you need to know…”

     “Fine…  I can tell your mother.”

     “She knows.”

     “How is that possible?”

     “I told her.”

     He nodded.  “Well, the weather is sure fine right now.”

     I smiled.  “Something about the cool makes me mellow.  Even though you’re an asshole, I enjoy walking with you more when the weather’s cold.”

     “How is that possible?  My butt cheeks spew out only so many poops and it makes the world milky inside.  I once traveled to a nursery and the plants were singing songs to me.  I had a bad case of gastro-intestinal fire brain and my neurological data screwed up on me like a waterfall of vinegar blinking its lights.  I needed you to get from one place to the next and it was not the right time for a toasty toot-toot.  I could not have jumped farther if I tried.  It rains wigs in the morning time so I can be rest assured I am doing all the stuff as subjected to me by a water thermometer.  I was always a nose with a ladder up my spine so there were never any lessons left in the pedagogic liturgy.  Have you ever tried calling a can of corn and making it come to you?  There are creeps and silly things to make everything stable.  On another day, I handpicked a rosary of noodle flavors next to the oak hen.  Your teeth can turn into squishy jelly if you just call the rooster.  My love for my kitten was four years old.  Other than my other loves, which I collected and furthered their outings in a blossoming movie, I kick boxed my glass shield and made a problem.  You have never known goodness until you counted to the number Q.  Every foot that grows in your ear needs a mother to slap it.  I knew a man who spun around in circles practically forever and never once knew how to mend a habit.  He had a spiritual breakdown that consisted of bone marrow and a fourteenth-century text concerning the afterlife.  He was not you and he was not me but he was the one who mattered.”

     “That’s nice.  Here’s my mother’s house.”

      Hugh, Susan and I walked to the porch of Janis’ house.  Hugh knocked loudly and yelled, “Janis, please open up!  I need some cigarettes.”

     Janis opened the door.  She looked at me and shook her head.  “If I had any saliva in my mouth, I’d spit at you.  I love you, my son.”

     From inside the house, Joyce asked, “Is that Hugh, the no good lazy hippie I’ve tried to screw all these years?  He must be a woman by now but I’ll still take him.”

     Hugh laughed.  “I’ve always liked you, Joyce… even though you had tons of warts on your back and had a hard on for television sets…  If you want to screw me, you have to wait in line because Jennifer is still fat and I like her better than you.”

     Janis shrugged.  “Do you all want to come in?  I’ll forget about the credit card for now because you won’t give it back but I don’t want to lose you as a son.”

     We walked in the house.  Susan and I sat on the sofa.  Joyce, Janis and Hugh stayed standing.  Joyce smiled and bowed at Hugh.  She said, “I’m looking forward to eating butter cakes and grease filled pastries so I can be the size you want.”

     He nodded.  As he talked, his words were more slurred than usual.  He said, “The way to a happy fat body is to smile at it by chomping on lard.  If you have psychological problems that need mending, you can heal them with every bite of caloric garbage you slide down your stomach.  Your insides have never known the words ‘Thank you’ until artificial ingredients and belly expanding cuisine makes its comfortable way in your insides.”

     Joyce clapped her hands.  “I’m excited.  I can’t wait to be the High Priestess of obesity.  You just show me the way, Hugh, and I will follow.”

     Janis said, “I tried making love to a cigarette by rolling it around in my mouth but I had a feeling I was sexually violating it because it became wet and tasted awful like a burned out tobacco version of an abuse victim.”

     Joyce said, “You have to use yogurt instead.  I was once sleeping in bed and I felt dog hairs in my mouth and I woke up to a nightmare.  Some type of hairy creature with fur was licking my tongue and it felt like a wrong note played by the Accordion Philharmonic.  I was angry.  But, to get back to the point, you need dairy products to satisfy your oral sex habit.”

     Janis said, “That’s good to know because I tried using another source of fiber material during my days as a rag whore and I found a mop submerged in what I thought was Earl Gray tea but was really dirty water.  I guess you could imagine a decrepit war veteran peeing in that and I ended up tasting his traumatic memories through his liquid.  But then I decided to rinse my mouth off by licking the concrete steps of an old abandoned bank building and it too tasted like the same person peed there but also defecated.  I needed to get some real food to rid my mouth of the awful taste so I went to Kevin’s place and ate some of the corned beef and cabbage and it tasted worse.”

   Hugh put one arm around Joyce and one around Janis.  He said, “Ladies, by the time I get through with you, I will have two bloated beauties to add to my future harem.  I will take naked pictures of you and put them in Porker’s Monthly.  You will have all the boyfriends you want.”

     Joyce smiled.  “That will be fantastic.  I haven’t felt this happy in years.”

     Janis said, “I’m looking forward to it.”

     I said, “I think we should go now.”  Susan and I got up.

     As we walked outside, Joyce, Janis and Hugh said, “Goodbye and good luck.”

Chapter Ten

     The time was approaching seven o’clock at night.  Susan and I had started the handhold at noon.  I was surprised we managed to stay joined so long.  However, today was Saturday so neither she nor I had to go to work.  As we now were walking down Oak Street, I wondered how Susan really felt about the situation.  I asked, “Are you really enjoying this?”

     She nodded.  “I really do.  The only reason I didn’t say much when you were talking with Hugh was because I wanted to appear more like an observer who didn’t know him and had no intentions of doing so.”

     “That’s smart.  How did you like wearing that outfit?”

     “It feels snug like the handhold.  If I decide to wear it again at another time, I’ll want to grab and hold your hand again.”

     I smiled.  “I’ll be looking forward to it.”

     Del Rio Circle, our neighborhood, was ahead.  We turned and walked there.  Susan squeezed tighter and laughed.  “I’m keeping you a little bit longer.”  She swung our arms.

     I asked, “Would you like to go to my place or yours?”

     She shrugged.  “Yours will be fine.  I like your choice of music and movies.”

     We approached my house and went inside.  The lights were on and I noticed a strange sight.  Kevin, Ann, Bretta, Joyce, Janis and Dr. Hershey were sitting in chairs and couches.  Kevin, Ann and Bretta were sitting on a small sofa, squeezed tightly together in an awkwardly uncomfortable manner.  Bretta wiggled from side to side, between Kevin and Ann, as if trying to make more room where there was none.  Kevin yelled, “Would you stop that damn couch dancing?  You’re going to put a dent in my leg.”

     Bretta shook her head and pouted.  “I don’t care.  I was supposed to get mashed potatoes for dinner and all you’ve come up with so far is this air I’m breathing with a few mouthfuls of Aunt Janis’ cigarette smoke.”

     Ann said, “Honey bear, you know you never eat your mashed potatoes.  All you ever do is you throw them around the room like a stupid twit.”

     Joyce, Janis and Dr. Hershey were sitting in separate chairs.  Dr. Hershey nodded.  “Now, this is progress.  I think, Ann, you should spend less time being friendly to your child and tell her how you honestly feel.  Maybe you could make some death threats while holding a knife or going into her room at night while wearing a scary mask so when she wakes up she will think she’s been kidnapped by demons.  You’ll see your relationship with her will improve one hundred percent.”

     Ann nodded.  “That is fine except I don’t have much money to buy head gear.  I have a jar of olives and some instant potato powder mix I can apply to my face and look like a ceremonial war god.”

     Kevin winked.  “You ought to see her when she covers her body with fruit jam.  She looks really sexy but sometimes she adds dog pellets and I freak out and explain those are not raisins.”

     Bretta sighed.  “The dog, Oatmeal, tried to French kiss me.  He had been eating cat poop.”

     Dr. Hershey nodded.  “There is a certain tendency to do more than bring everything out in the open.  You actually almost poo and pee in front of each other, if not in a physical sense then in the words you say.  Most families hide that stuff and later get impacted bowels.  You’re healthy.  I mean, you are totally insane but at least it’s a naked insanity you exhibit twenty four hours a day.  You’re a nice bunch of folks.”

     Ann smiled.  “Thank you.  You should see me when I put noodles in my ears.”

     Joyce sighed and stood up.  “It’s an insult to talk about our nakedness while we’re all here.  We’re family.  Yes, we’re pests and we’re kind of like canines but we have feelings and quality.”

     Dr. Hershey said, “The point is not whether you have quality or if you’re pieces of rat shit.  The point is that you need to say whatever you want to say and allow the truth to flow like a strange bubbling river, possibly consisting of sulphuric acid so your bodies will melt into nothing but, as you disappear in the void, you’ll have learned the truth about one another and that’s what counts.”

     Joyce grabbed Janis’ arms and pulled her out of the chair.  Joyce screamed, “You want to see some truth?  I’ll show you some fucking truth you son of a bitch maggot doctor from hell.”  She pulled down Janis’ pants.

     Janis yelled, “Hey!  What the fuck are you doing?”

     Joyce pushed Janis’ back so her stomach and head were bent forward.  Joyce pointed to Janis’ bottom that was covered with welts and bite marks.  Joyce said, “Now you know the truth, Dr. Fuck Breath.  I whip her with a belt and bite her on the ass.  Do you want to see a demonstration?”

     Janis screamed, “That’s a private thing between two sisters.  You’ve screwed up my reputation with the family right now.”

     Kevin shook his head.  “I still don’t think any less of you.  There’s no way I could.”

     Dr. Hershey said, “You can save the biting for when we have a private session in my office but a gentle demonstration of your activities would be sufficient so we all can participate in your enjoyment.”

     Joyce spanked Janis on the butt with her hand.  She laughed and said, “It’s not a flyswatter but I fingered myself this morning and forgot to wash my hands so you’ll get the full brunt of my stink.”

     Janis cried, “You’re hitting me harder than usual.  It hurts.  You know I have hepatitis C and Kevin needs a kidney so you’re ruining my chances of helping my brother.”

     Joyce said, “You could give him some rat feces and it would be a good substitute.  His body is made of fire.  If I could light your brain with a match and watch it melt, I would.  I’m looking forward to the day I can stick a knife in your heart.”

     Janis laughed.  “Don’t pay attention to her, everybody.  She just likes to joke.  That’s how we talk to each other when we stick plastic dolls up our vaginas.”

     Ann said, “One of these days you’ll have to let me watch.  I like entertainment.”

     Dr. Hershey pointed at Susan and me.  “Lest we forget why we’re here.  Phil and Susan are still holding hands and Joyce is afraid she will look like a fool if she doesn’t meddle in other people’s lives.  I can’t betray confidentialities, even though my degree was doctor of organic farming in Orleans, California.  Yet, I can mention she wants to be a closet lesbian and is fixated with Susan.  Joyce wants Phil to let go of Susan’s hand so Joyce can have her.  I think that’s a good idea because I am fond of Phil and want him to go to my house for Thanksgiving dinner.  It’s his destiny.  I want to do a type of handshake with him that takes about ten seconds and ends with a butterfly motion.  My wife is a foreign and large woman from Pakistan who used to own a bird cage and practices New Age Spirituality.  So, I’m fond of Phil.”

     I nodded.  “I have another conclusion about this.  Susan and I have found our comfort center and the rest of you are still struggling with your turbulence.  We figured on letting you understand a different way of thinking about reality but you’ve apparently let the conflicts of your existence prevent you from moving forward.  Joyce, could you please stop spanking my mother’s behind and pull her pants up?  Mother, could you look behind your furniture to see if your bank card has been hidden under something?  Kevin, I would suggest you take your vitamin bottles out of cat litter containers.  Ann, I’m not sure what to say because this is the first time I heard you mention anything so strange.  Bretta, you might want to eat mashed potatoes instead of throwing them.  Dr. Hershey, now that I understand what kind of doctor you are and what kind of stuff you like to smoke, I’m tempted to think you’re just on one of your trips.  However, I’m concerned with your insanity and I have no advice to give you because I think your mind is on vacation.  Susan and I will continue holding hands until we decide to stop.  So, now you know.”

     Kevin frowned.  “What did you say?  ‘Susan and I fill fondue fishing cans until we decide to pop?’  I don’t know what that means.”

     Ann said, “Your hearing is going bad again.  Don’t worry about it.”

     Bretta pouted.  “I want more mashed potatoes.”

     Janis pulled her pants up and walked away from Joyce.  “That was a little too much for you to see.”

     Ann sighed.  “Janis, I have to confess.  I took your credit card.  You dropped it in our kitchen and it landed on the floor.  I needed something so I could chop celery so I picked it up.  Do you want it back?”

     Janis shrugged.  “I don’t know. I’m just happy my son didn’t take it.”

     Joyce smiled.  “Of course he wouldn’t take it.  He’s a really nice man and his girlfriend is beautiful.  I love that tucked-in shirt you’re wearing.  I’m an old hag so it wouldn’t matter how I wore my clothes but I could treat you to a candlelight dinner one of these days.”

     Susan shrugged.  “I have to decline because I don’t like you in that way and there’s a possibility Phil and I will continue holding hands for a long time and he would have to come with me.”

     Joyce nodded.  “I understand.  However, if you change your mind, please let me know.  I’m staying with my sister until I get another apartment so you know where to find me.  If Phil has to come along, that’s fine.  But, please remember, you and I will be who matters.  I could hold a pleasant conversation with you while Phil stays out of the limelight, like a stage prop.”

     Susan nodded.  “Just out of curiosity, I’d like to know what you would make for dinner.  My family is known for their interest in good foods and I share that interest.”

     Joyce winked.  “I’m a great cook.  I learned everything from my grandfather.  I make great buckwheat lasagna with ham and eggplant and corn chips.  I have a special lemon-curry-chocolate sauce and I sprinkle orange gummy candy on top.  Then, for the second layer, I broil potatoes and lamb with kidney beans but I use ginger ale instead of water and I also add grape juice and whipped cream so everything has that spicy sweet salty sour goo flavor in your mouth.”

     Susan laughed.  “I must say you make the invitation certainly worth turning down.  I would almost rather chew on raw beans and uncooked rice.”

     Joyce nodded.  “I’ve had that.  It’s delicious.”

     Suddenly, there was a loud knock on the door.  Before I could open it, Hugh stumbled in.  He asked, “Why did you leave me like that?”

     Joyce sighed.  “We told you we were going to Phil’s house.”

     He nodded.  “I thought you were going to get ashtrays.  My mind is screwed up often.”

     Janis smiled.  “Join the club.”

     Joyce asked, “Would you like any popcorn?”

     I said, “There’s no popcorn here.”

     Joyce shrugged.  “We could pretend to buy some.”

     Hugh shrugged.  “Before I came here, I saw two dogs biting at each other’s ears.  There were about ten dead rats sprawled around them and they were rolling around on top of the rats.  It was quite a spectacle.”

     Kevin stood up.  “Those are my dogs.  I have to get them.”  He ran outside.

     Bretta said, “I didn’t want any more room on the couch, damn it!  I wanted my mashed potatoes and I was making a protest!”

     Joyce shook her head.  “There aren’t any potatoes.  My mix has been taken and I don’t know who did it.”

     Bretta said, “I took the potato mix.  I was angry at you because you stole my cocoa powder.  I was going to dye my hair chocolate.”

     Joyce sighed.  “I’m sorry.  I thought you were having a nervous fit because you forgot to take your medication.  I’ll give you back your cocoa powder.”

     Ann said, “If you could find some toothpicks, I would appreciate it.  I like to play cards but the numbers and letters and designs make me feel paranoid so I like playing cards with toothpicks because they make me feel safe.”

     Hugh said, “I never use toothpicks unless I insert them the right way and they penetrate nice and smooth.  Sometimes, one gets stuck so I have to add lubrication.  The toothpicks get soft and user friendly.”

     Joyce said, “My husbands had sometimes mentioned they were user friendly but, when I tried using them, I heard nothing but screaming.  They didn’t like me as much as I thought they did.”

     Janis said, “That’s because they would come to my house.  I had more to offer them.  They were using me as more than pen pals, I’ll tell you that much but then they screamed a lot during our fun moments and I was tired of hearing that crap.  I had to kick them out of my life for good and that’s when they divorced you.”

     Joyce nodded.  “I’ll have you know that I arranged all that because they were less satisfied with me and something about watching you smoke a cigarette reminded them of those films from the Nineteen Forties when everyone smoked and visited Prague.  But you had to be low class by smearing blue paint in your hair and dance like a zombie.  Still, my husbands had liked you.”

     Bretta said, “I have boxes of pictures I took with a hidden camera and if you don’t give me either one hundred thousand dollars in the next two minutes or one hundred thousand pounds of mashed potatoes, I’m going to publish them.”

     Janis frowned.  “Are the pictures of me having sex?”

     Bretta pouted.  “No but they might as well be.”

     Dr. Hershey nodded.  “The point is not if the pictures are real but if you can close your hand and you imagine feeling the cardboard.  You have a tendency to pretend that the thing you think of is real even if it was real at one time and still real today.  If you look at your skin and imagine a scab, all you need to do is cut your skin and make the scab so your reality will be normal and you won’t have to go in a mental institution.”

     Hugh said, “You can proclaim that mental institutions are good if you want.”

     Dr. Hershey frowned.  “What do you mean?”

     “I mean that I’m imagining I’m an orange and I’m scared.”

     “Are you wearing shoes?”

     “No.”

     “Are your shoes stuck in the sand?”

     “No.”

     Dr. Hershey sighed.  “Your shoes have to be somewhere.  Oranges don’t go walking around with only bare feet.”

     Hugh yelled, “That is correct if you are only thinking about how one can find a large vat of poo and rub it on your shirt.”

     “I believe you speak from experience.”

     “I only read newspapers.”

     “So, how is your blood flowing today?”

     “I don’t understand your terminology.  I woke up this morning with taco breath and it was the most horrifying experience I ever encountered.”

     Dr. Hershey nodded.  “I’m sure you were relieved not to have the sour cream monster attacking you.  ‘Hello, I’m made of dairy products and you will die!’  I’m sure you tried to avoid that.”

     Hugh shivered.  “You don’t understand, doctor.  My situation is worse.  I chew on pork cracklings and they tell me messages about Russian newspapers.  It’s horrid.”

     Dr. Hershey nodded.  “I’m sure that would be.”

     Ann smiled.  “I like sour cream.  I don’t think it is a monster.”

     Bretta pouted.  “I wish sour cream could turn into a monster.  I don’t like noodles to turn into bad guys all by themselves.”

     I looked at Susan.  I said, “Let’s go in my bedroom for a moment.”

     She shrugged.  “Okay.”

     We entered my bedroom and I shut the door.  I said, “It’s probably about eight o’clock which would mean we did an eight-hour work shift, in a sense.  Let’s stop now.”

     Susan let go of my hand.  “That’s fine.”

     I looked at my hand.  “I still feel your energy.  Maybe touching isn’t just a physical thing.  You can un-tuck your shirt now if you want to do so.”

     She shook her head.  “No.  I like how it looks better this way.”

     “So, are you ready to go out and show everyone what they probably want to see?”

     “Let’s do it.  I’m interested in seeing their reactions.”

     We walked back in the living room.  For a moment, everyone looked stunned but then suddenly did not seem to notice.  Dr. Hershey got up.  “I have some other patients to see, tomorrow.  Good night, all.”  He waved and walked outside.

     Janis said, “You know, I was not against you holding hands with your girlfriend.  I just thought you were holding my credit card in there and I wanted it back.”  She waved and walked outside.

     Joyce smiled.  “I see you are slowly coming around to my way of thinking.  Please come over to Janis’ house tomorrow so we could have dinner.”  She walked outside.

     Hugh mumbled something incomprehensible and stumbled outside.

     Ann and Bretta stood up and walked outside without saying anything.

     Susan smiled.  “So, would you like to do this again, tomorrow?”

      I said, “That’s fine with me.  Do you have another shirt you could tuck in?”

     “I think I have another one.  Do you have another college sweatshirt?”

     “Yes.”

     She smiled.  “So, there’s one more thing I said I’d help you with.  For that thing, my shirt will not only be un-tucked but it will come off.”

     I said, “I understand.”  That would be fine.”

 

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Four people get together to do performances at Fisherman’s Wharf. I don’t give a damn I’m not out there for the money. I’m there to perform. Hand to hand combat reenactments. Going into costume for nostalgic duels. Posts is Russian Canadian French speaker who also speaks Russian. Then Larry (Saint) Prle or junior Todd Rhett Brannon’s.

Cooperation chapter one

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            When I am sitting on a bench in a park when the weather is not unpleasant, I do not like to be distracted. My uncle knows this and ignores it. I go to Blackberry Park, not only because of the abundance of fresh blackberries that never ceases to delight me but because it is the one area in this neighborhood that is always shady. I do my best creative thinking outdoors when the sun is not too hot.

            However, considering my uncle lives across the street from the bench where I sit here and his front window directly faces me, I will admit I take risks with considerable odds against my favor. I have assumed he will be in his bedroom away from the window and more than fifty percent of the time I have been incorrect. Maybe he was in his bedroom and could hear my footsteps so he walked into his livingroom but that scenario seems unlikely. Yet, I will not put anything past the sneaky fellow.

            He did not yell my name this time. He had merely waved his hand with a gesture that told what words could not say politely. The message was that I would go immediately to his place. If I did not do so; well, I had just better do so.

            Now, as I sit on a recliner in his living room while my uncle and his two friends are watching television, I am glad I did so. Suddenly, there is rain. I did not bring a jacket or umbrella. My next-door neighbor told me there was a chance of rain today but I never listen to anyone who mentions things reported in the newspaper. I consider news to be biased toward giving negative information so, even if the information is accurate, I prefer to listen to my own observations. As far as I was concerned, the sky was slightly overcast but with no hint that a surprise downpour would occur. Today, watching my uncle, James, his friend, Timothy, and his other friend, Patrick, chatting nonsense, is peculiarly appealing.

            Ordinarily, for me to spend time with these older men – not older men generally but these three specifically – inside my uncle’s apartment where no windows are ever open and the smell of canned beans cooked previously mingle strangely with Timothy’s patchouli-scented cologne, would cause me to feel anxious in a way similar to the urge to take off my shoes and tight tube socks in a place where doing so would cause major problems. However, since the rain threatens to continue on through the n9ight, I am in no hurry to leave. Uncle James had not told me why he wanted me to be here, yet, but I had a sense he would do so soon. If I ask directly why, he could delay the answer for the heck of it.

            The show they are watching does not interest me. I am purposefully avoiding paying attention to the dialogue of the actors or what type of show it is other than observing it is black and white. Uncle James once said he dislikes all forms of entertainment past the nineteen fifties and I believe him. He once told me the only kind of rock and roll music he enjoyed was the sound of a rock that he threw on the ground which caused it to roll.

            He knows I am sitting in the recliner furthest from anybody. He is purposefully pretending he forgot I was in the room. I am fine with that. Part of my contentment is in not being noticed while I listen to the soothing sounds of the storm. However, Timothy turns his head back to look at me. His expression is to let me know he has not once forgotten I am here.

            Timothy turns his head away again and watches television. He says, “It’s hard to find a good banana in the local stores, nowadays.”

            James says, “Would you know it! They’re the kind that stay green all year round and never get ripe. I need them ripe so I can put them on my potato chips.”

            “I like to use real potatoes on my bananas, not just the chip. I like the whole fruit.”

            I am never certain, when I hear these conversations about food, what is the purpose of the talk. Timothy may or may not know a potato is not a fruit and that there is no part of a potato called a chip but, if he is testing me to see if I will respond, I am not succumbing. I arrived because James insisted. When the time is right for him to tell me why I am here, then he will tell me and I will respond.

            Finally, James says, “Patrick, it’s getting close to three o’clock in the afternoon. Do you want me to tell Gordon the errand you need him to do?”

            Patrick never contributes a word to the surreal food conversations – and there have been many of them – but he will be very direct when the subject is serious. He says, “Yes. Gordon, you’ve rested long enough on that recliner. It’s time for you to go to work.”

            I figured I would need to do a type of chore and I was right. I say, “I wasn’t resting. I was waiting.”

            He nods. “Fine. Waiting’s over. I need to send a message to someone. My phone is getting repaired. You can send it.”

            “That’s no problem. What’s the number?”

            “I’m not giving you the number. I have the message written down. You’re delivering the envelope.”

            “I’m delivering the envelope to whom?”

            “My daughter.”

            “Why don’t you want me to call your daughter?”

            “Because I want you to hand her the letter.”

            “A phone call is easier.”

            “Handing a letter to someone is not hard.”

            I am annoyed. “So, you want me to walk out of here and go somewhere else and hand this letter to your daughter, wherever that may be.”

            “That is the plan.”

            “You understand it’s raining outside. It’s pouring out.”

            “I am aware of that. We’ve needed some rain. I like it.”

            I did not appreciate his smug tone. I say, “I don’t have a raincoat or umbrella.”

            “I can see.”

            “I’ll need a raincoat at least or an umbrella.”

            “Will you also need a pacifier and a teddy bear?”

            I sigh. “Are you saying you don’t have a raincoat or umbrella?”

            “No. I came here with both those items.”

            “Will you let me borrow them?”

            “I will not let you borrow them.”

            “Why not?”

            “I could tell you why I don’t want you to borrow my things but let’s get to the point. You came here dressed like that. You’ll deliver the letter dressed like that.”

            “What’s in it for me if I go?”

            “I’d give you twenty dollars but now I’m making it ten because you’re stalling.”

            “Okay. Ten is fine.”

            He nods. “Ten is fine, you say. You will get it when you return from delivering the letter.”

            I am not surprised that he is suspicious. Patrick is not a mean man. He is generally an honest character but he never blindly gives anything generously. One has to earn what he will give, if he so decides to give anything.

            I ask, “Where does she live?”

            “432 Roseland Park Drive.”

            “This is 428 Roseland Park Drive.”

            He winked. “You got it. Not far at all.”

            “It’s in this apartment complex a few doors away. I don’t have to go out in the rain at all.”

            “You’ve earned merit points for using your intelligence.”

            I realize he has been behaving like this on purpose but I will not let it bother me. I say, “I’m curious, though. If she lives so close to here, why don’t you deliver the letter?”

            “I think she might like seeing a handsome man more her age than mine. I’m sure you’d like to talk with a woman, regardless of what she looks like, more than with me.”

            “What does that mean? Is she attractive?”

            He laughs and shakes his head. “I’m her father. I love her. But I think her personality would win you over.”

            I was concerned. “In other words, she’s not too hot.”

            “She’s not too hot.”

            I should have realized this was going to be another situation like many others in which I have dealt. James is the only living relative with whom I still have contact. My mother, Iris, my aunt – Iris’ and James’ sister – Tonya and their parents, George and Sandy Blum, died five or more years ago. I never met or knew anything about my father. One cousin, Betsy – Tonya’s daughter – lives in the next town but we have nothing in common. We make little effort to communicate other than occasional birthday or holiday cards as acknowledging each other’s presence. They all weighed over three hundred and fifty pounds except my mother who managed to stay slim. All of their friends and neighbors were equally overweight.

            I was not upset at my family for that reason. I was bothered because they preferred looking that way and loved the flavors of cheap processed junk foods and hated anything organic. James has said he is not attracted to slim women. Iris tried several times to introduce me to heavy women. She thought I needed a wife and heavy set women –according to her – would be more loyal to a husband than who she considered – in her words – ‘those fickle twigs.’

            Patrick is not as heavy as James but he is not slim. Timothy is four hundred pounds but he dresses in good clothes and manages to go out on dates with women friends, if he has told me the truth. I am not sure if Patrick is trying to set me up with the type of woman in which my mother would approve.

            I ask, “Does she have a good figure?”

            He shakes his head. “I don’t think so.”

            “Does she dress sexy?” As far as I am concerned, if a woman wears a tucked-in shirt, she is sexy.

            He sighs. “She has never dressed in anything other than one way and that is boring.”

            I hold out my hand. “Give me the letter.”

            He does so. “Thanks.”

            I leave and approach apartment 432. Other than the ten dollars that will come in handy until I get paid in two days, I am doing this to prove to myself that there are some things in life that are predictable. If one is a family member or friend of the Blum’s, that person will be heavy set.

            However – now that I just realize something – James’ daughter could be gorgeous. If his idea of beauty is similar to that of James’, I could be headed for a wonderful experience. I am very curious to discover the case. I knock on the door.

            From inside the door, she says, “I’m coming!”

            I say, “Okay!”

            She opens the door. “Hmm. Hello. Do I know you?”

            “We haven’t met. I’m a friend of your father’s, James Parker. I’m Gordon Blum.”

            “Okay. Very nice to meet you, Gordon Blum. I’m his daughter, Sinead. Is there a reason you are here?”

            “I hand her the letter. “James asked me to give this to you.”

            She looks at it and smiles. “Oh, wonderful! That’s so cool. I appreciate it. Would you like to come on in?”

            “Sure.” I do so and shut the door.

            “I’m making lemon tea. Would you like some?” She walks in another room, presumably the kitchen.

            “That would be nice.” I like her. Something about her energy is sticking like Velcro, as if it is trying to pull me next to her. I remain standing still, however, until she returns. I am a first-time guest. I will behave like one.

            She returns. “Not ready yet. A few more minutes. My apologies.”

            “That’s fine.” I had not noticed her outfit when she first opened the door but now I do. I am in complete disagreement with Patrick, to the point of not wanting his opinion on anything ever again. She is wearing a tucked-in beige sweater with a white button shirt underneath it. Her burgundy trousers are tight and the belt is cinched snugly. I know nothing about her other than what I see but, since I have never met anyone like her before, this experience will be stored in the Exceptional Moments compartment in my mind.

            She stands still, smiling at me for approximately ten seconds and then she says, “The water’s ready. Want to come in the kitchen with me and get your tea?” We walk in.

            “What kind of tea is it?”

            “Lemon. I add a cardamom pod. Gives it extra zing. Here you go.” She points to a cup on the center and I take it. “I’m happy you’re here. You’re rather attractive. I’ve been trying to figure out a logistical problem and I’m thinking you could help me with it.” We sit down at the table.

            “Logistics? I don’t know much about that subject.”

            “You’ll understand when it’s presented to you.”

            I want to hear whatever she has to say. She could talk about apricot stems for several hours and I would be attentive because she is the talker. “Okay.;”

            “I’m trying to figure out whether Leonhard Euber was missing something regarding the seven bridges of Konigsburg.”

            I nod, though I have no idea what she means.

            “I’’ make it very easy. The bridges of Konigsburg is a theory based on seven original bridges in that city. People were supposed to be able to walk across all seven bridges without needing to go back on one bridge to reach the second. People were supposed to walk continuously through each bridge.”

            “That’s easy. Set the bridges like one straight line.”

            “It isn’t that simple. The bridges were connected at different areas, like in the middle.”

            “That would make it difficult.”

            “Euber approached the predicament another way. It’s not easy to understand but it got me to thinking about topology.”

            “What’s that?”

            “It’ll be too complicated to explain everything but the idea I have is that a thing can continue on without interruption if another thing that is blocking it gets moved.”

            “Oh, well I get that. Like, if I want to go to a store but I can’t if it’s closed and the door is locked but once the store is open I can walk inside.”

            She shrugs. “Fine. I’ll get to my dilemma and I’m really hoping you can help me with it.”

            “I’m listening.”

            “Are you aware of the cooperation game called The Human Knot?”

            “I’ve heard of it.”

            “It’s hard for me to formulate what I want to say in the way I mean. I’ll just ask you a question. Do you think it is possible to untangle the Gordian Knot with enough patience?”

            “What’s the Gordian Knot?”

            “It’s like a big ball of tangled twine the size of a mountain.”

            “It would take an extremely long time, possibly more than one lifetime, to untangle it.”

            She nods. “Okay. So, it would be obvious that something very small could get untangled very quickly.”

            “That sounds right.”

            “Thank you. I think so, too. Before you go, I’ll need you to double-check something with me. It will be like a formality to confirm what we talked about.”

            “I’ll be happy to help you however I can.”

            “Okay. I’m so glad you said that. Most people I’ve encountered are so centered on their own situations and don’t want to help other people. My father is like that but it’s really nice what he sent me.”

            “What is it?”

            “It’s really something I gave him a long time ago and he gave it back to me. Wait. I want to see.” She opens the envelope and looks at the paper. “He kept the original. I wrote a poem to him when I was a little girl and he said he would find it and give me the poem’s lines. This is his handwriting.” She puts the paper back in the envelope.

            “You write poetry? I write stories.”

            “I do. I have. I haven’t been inspired much recently. My father thinks I don’t have a good physique.”

            “I think you look great. You’re not overweight at all.”

            She sighs. “He thinks I’m too slim. He says I need to put on the pounds and look like him.”

            “My family thought the same way. James is the only living relative I still see. I don’t agree with them. I think you look perfect just as you are.”

            “I’m so glad you said that. It makes me feel a lot better. My father says I dress boring and need to wear more dresses instead of pants and tops. I like the mixing and matching of pieces.”

            As far as I am concerned, her outfit is a work of art. Even the pushed up sleeves of the sweater and shirt – by the elbow – cuffed to show the layers of each, complement the already almost too sexy ensemble. Her mental concepts and her physical appearance match her whole body like the right song handled by the right producer. I do not know her well enough yet to determine if I can freely talk about my appreciation for women who tuck in their shirts but I want to say something. “I love your outfit.”

            She laughs. “You’re so great.”

            Outside, the rain is louder. The sound seems appropriate, as if it is cheering in my favor. Sinead is sipping her tea and looking at me in a way similar to that feeling of energy Velcro from earlier. I think I hear a barely audible hum but I am not sure. I should feel nervous but I do not. I do not know what to say next so I sip my tea.

            She asks, “Are you mimicking me?”

            “No. I figured you gave me this tea so I could drink it.”

            “I know. I’m kidding with you. Anyway, I’d like to show you something in the living room.” We get up and go in there. We walk towards the window. She points outside. “The dilemma I told you about? Look at the trees. Look at the bench. Look at everything. You can categorize it by type such as ‘tree’ or ‘bench’ or ‘wind’ or ‘water.’ It can also be categorized by substance such as ‘solid’ or ‘liquid.’ Yet, none of it is really disconnected from any of it. It is all one thing called the universe. That’s the gist of it. Any problem can be solved no matter how complex it is. Diligence is the key. Let’s go to my front door. I’d like to prove something to you.” We go to the door. “Okay. We have moved away from the site we just observed outside, correct?”

            As a writer, I have thought of concepts similar to what she is explaining to me but I have never had a conversation remotely similar to this one. If I answer, I am doing so merely on automatic pilot mode. “Yes, we have moved towards the front door.”

            “Okay. This area by the front door is different than the area outside the window but also it is not. It is all connected. If you look, ou can still see outside the window. So we really have not moved away from it. Here, let me show you something.” She holds out both arms crisscrossed. “Take my hands.”

            I do as requested, my right hand in her right, left in left. She grips firmly. I say, “Interesting.”

            “Yes. This is what I needed your help with. I needed to confirm how simple it is to untangle a small knot. This should only take one second.”

            “It is simple. We just put our arms straight.”

            She nods. “Okay.” She tries to undo the crisscrossing of her arms but, since she is still gripping my hands, she cannot do so. However, she keeps trying. She frowns as if encountering a problem she had not previously considered.

            “Sinead, it won’t work like that. We have to let go of hands first.”

            “No, we don’t.” She moves her arms in the other direction so hers are straight and mine are crisscrossed. “Still not right.”

            “Were you trying to get us both uncrossed or just you? If it was just you, you did it.”

            She shakes her had. “No. I wanted to get both of us that way.”

            “Okay. Like I said, it’s not going to work. We need to disconnect and then we can solve the problem” I feel awkward calling this a problem because I enjoy holding on but I semse she is annoyed so I try to help.

            She sighs. “It has to work. You said you’ve heard of The Human Knot. You’ve seen people play it, right? They’re able to get their arms straight without letting go.”

            “That’s because there’s more than two people.”

            “It should work if there’s only two.”

            “If we both had our arms crisscrossed then it would work but your arms crisscrossed and mine straight won’t work.”

            She frowns and raises her voice. “It works in The Human Knot!”

            I am annoyed. She is supposed to be more of the intellectual. “That’s because there’s more than two people!”

            “This is why I needed you here to prove what I mean. Do you remember me mentioning diligence is the key? If the solution doesn’t come right away, we have to keep at it until we find the answer.”

            “Here is the solution.” I try letting go of her hands but she is gripping tight. This is strange but I need to prove a point so I pull harder and harder and she squeezes tighter and tighter. I enjoyed this at first but now I feel I am caught in another dilemma. “We have to let go!”

            “Not until we get untangled!”

            “It will never happen the way you are suggesting.”

            “Yes, it will.”

            “Suppose it were possible there was a solution but we had to spend months or years figuring it out?”

            “Then that’s what we would do.”

            “You’re not going to hold my hands for that amount of time!”

            “I’ll hold your hands until we get untangled. If it never happens, then welcome to your new home.”

            Since there is no solution forthcoming on our predicament – and standing awkwardly for hours does not appeal to me – I say, “I need to see your father.”

            She frowns. “Why? Were you supposed to give me something else and you forgot?”

            “No. He’s going to give me ten dollars.”

            “Can that wait? We’re busy here.”

            “If I don’t get it from him now, he might forget.”

            She shakes her head. “So, I’m less important than ten dollars?”

            “Quit acting like this.”

            “I’m in the middle of figuring out one of the most complex mathematical equations ever in existence and you want us to stop right after we started so you can go out in the rain and look for my father? You don’t have a raincoat and I can’t put on mine because my hands are full. You don’t make sense.”

            “Your father is visiting my uncle.” They’re only a few doors down on 428.”

            She smiles. “Oh, that’s different. We can go there.”

            We try opening the front door but, since there is no way to grab the doorknob, I use my fingers as best I can to push the knob until it unlatches. She is pressing securely on my hands to make sure I am not trying to escape. Somehow, it works. The door is open and we walk out.

            I say, “We look ridiculous like this. I don’t see how they’ll not wonder what’s going on.”

            She shrugs. “My father is used to me. He’s seen me do some really eccentric things in the past. He knows about my phobia against wearing any type of shirt or top not tucked in. He’s seen it all.”

            I was not going to mention anything about how she applies her clothes because of my past experience many years ago. I was a teenager and one of the cheerleaders in my high school was Missy Baker. I did not know her at all, except for seeing her walk through school. However, one day, she approached me. She said she was asking various students to mention her best qualities so she could use the list in a campaign speech when she ran for school president. She was wearing the high school sweatshirt tucked into her jeans. Nine days out of ten her shirts were tucked in. I said that she looked great in tucked in shirts and that made her look like a winner. She smiled and said thank you. However, from the next day onward, ten days out of ten her shirts and sweatshirts were not tucked in. I could not be one hundred percent certain my words caused her to feel self-conscious but I made sure – from that moment on – not to take a chance by saying anything that might cause a woman to quit doing something attractive. In this case, Sinead mentioned it first and I doubt she will let go of my hands just to change her outfit.

            I ask, “How often do you tuck in your shirts?”

            “Always.”

            “How many days have you ever worn something not tucked in?”

            She frowns. “What do you mean? I told you I always wear them tucked in.”

            “So, you have never in your life ever worn a shirt not tucked in?”

            “Well, I can’t remember what I wore when I was an infant or toddler. My mom dressed me then so I can’t account for the years when I was really little. But I remember as far back as ten years old I had to make sure my shirt was fully tucked in before I would go out of the house. Mom would tell me to hurry up because I’d be late for the school bus and I’d tell her the bus had to wait.”

            “Did you ever get criticized for how you dressed?”

            “When we went to places like the park or hiking, and the weather was cold, I was told I had to wear a jacket or a sweater. I wasn’t going to let circumstances ruin the look I wanted to achieve so I would either wear a cardigan sweater or a windbreaker jacket and I would tuck it in. Mom would say I didn’t need to tuck in that type of top and I would yell at her that I was not going to wear it outside of my pants. I don’t know why you’re asking me these questions. I’m not going to stop the way I dress for anybody. If you don’t like it, that’s tough. You’re going to have to get over it or avert your eyes from my waistline.”

            I am aroused hearing her say this. “You misunderstand. I’m asking because I’m interested. Women look great wearing tucked in shirts. Not many women I know do so. Meeting you is a high point of my life.”

            She widens her eyes. “You’re the first person who has said that to me. Wow. Thank you.”

            “I’m just glad you didn’t take offense to it.”

            She raises her voice. “What I take offense to is my father who buys a lot of sweatshirts and knit sweaters for me, not realizing they get tucked in, too. He wants me to gain weight and dress like a sack of potatoes.”

            The door opens. James says, “So, it’s you two I heard.”

            I ask, “Is Patrick still here?”

            “Patrick and Timothy. The gang’s all here. You might not remember that song. That was before video games.”

            Sinead frowns as if not sure how to take James’ tone.

            I say, “That’s just how he is. Sarcasm is his fashion statement.”

            She nods. “Understood.”

            We walk in. James, Timothy and Patrick are watching television. Occasionally, Timothy turns his head to look at us. There is no discernible expression on his face but his looking at us becomes more frequent.

            I say, “Hi, Patrick. I delivered the letter.”

            He takes out a ten dollar bill and hands it to me. He says, “Very good.”

            “If you could put it in my pants pocket, that would be better.”

            “Hmm. I think there’s a solution better than that. I’ll put it in my shirt pocket.” He does so.

            I am in the awkward position of not being able to rectify the moment. My hands are not free. Patrick shows just enough hint of a small smug smile. In most cases, such would irk me but now I see the humor in it. Truthfully, there is nothing I can do about it.

            Sinead shrugs. “This means we can leave now.”

            “I would rather stay if you don’t mind.” I say this because I want to observe how many minutes go by before anybody acknowledges the peculiar way Sinead and I are joined. So far, other than Timothy’s occasional glances, which could be for any reason, they appear not to care in the slightest degree.

            We sit down on a couch, behind them. They are laughing, supposedly at the movie, but the scene does not look humorous, from what I can deduce. I assume they are laughing at us and use the television screen as a front so we will not know what they are really thinking.

            Finally, Patrick says, “I see you two are getting along.”

            I say, “She refuses to let go of my hands.”

            He nods. “Sounds good to me.”

            I am annoyed. “You don’t understand! She’s doing a weird two-person version of the human knot that can’t get solved and she says she will never stop until it gets solved. She plans to hold on forever.”

            “Yes, she has her ways about her. I’ve learned not to question it.”

            “You sounds like you don’t get the seriousness of this! She’s snapped somehow and thinks we can live like this, continuously holding hands.”

            “I’m fully aware of what you mean and I cannot honestly say I think you’re better off alone. What do you do all day? You stay home and watch television most of the time. I know I’m watching television but I’m visiting two friends. We watch television in the name of keeping each other company. You’re alone when you’re home. You’ll go to the park sometimes but you’re alone then, too. I hate to say it but you need a companion. If the only way she can accompany you is by physically holding on, I’d say you’d much prefer that than to be in a padded call and kept as a ward of the state.”

            Sinead looks content, as if she needed her father’s advice during a desperate situation and he said something that saved the day. I have stopped trying to pull free. Her determination to hold on has given her more than enough strength to prevent my leaving. For now, I will stay quiet in my panic.

            James smiles. “Relax, Gordon. I don’t really usually take out liquor unless it is a special occasion but today is pretty special. You have a new friend. Vodka and orange juice is a simple but perfect combination. It’s not like a Bloody Mary where you have tomato juice and Worcestershire sauce and the option of hot sauce or not. It doesn’t have one hundred different varieties of the recipe. It’s simply Vodka and orange juice. Since it’s so simple, it doesn’t need a fancy name. It needs as simple of a name as it can get. I call it The Drink.” He holds a glass. “Open up and I’ll pour.”

            I say, “I’m not in the mood for a drink right now.”

            “Please just indulge me. You don’t need to have more than one if you don’t want it but the first one is mandatory. Open up.” He pours the drink in my mouth.

            “Oh! That’s good. I guess I needed a drink, after all.”

            “That’

s the ticket. Do you want another one?”

            “Sure.”

 

 

A New Connection (second part)

The time was closer to three o’clock. The weather was a pleasant overcast Thursday afternoon. Sinead was guiding me towards Nineteenth Street and Franklin Boulevard, where the restaurants and business offices were located. I knew that area existed but I generally did not roam around Antioch often so I forgot there was more to the town than I thought. I would never had any business to do in any of the establishments. I remembered once Ivan telling me he ate at a Mediterranean restaurant on Nineteenth Street a few years ago when a friend invited him for lunch. I am not sure I would have accepted the same sort of invitation if I was invited. I always felt like I did not belong amongst city workers except as a pedestrian on my way to the bus stop. However, accompanied by Sinead, who was dressed as well as other employees if not even better, I could pretend I was one of the gang. She had not told me where we were going, except to say that the place was one block away. Conversation was minimal during the last few minutes. I felt like we were in an alternate reality, directed by an unknown choreographer.

Sinead pointed to an office called, “King, Ellis & Conrad.” I assumed it was a lawyer’s office. We walked inside.

She said, “We ought to sit down. Tim will be here to talk to us shortly.”

I asked, “Did you need me with you? Is that why you brought me here?”

“Correct. I don’t really want to do what I need to do but it will be easier with you around.”

I felt relieved. “So, you’re not keeping me, right?”

“I’m not keeping you. Don’t worry about that. You can go see your uncle when we’re finished.”

A man entered the lobby. He was wearing a buttoned blue blazer and matching pants and shoes. A white shirt collar was shown underneath. He nodded. “Hello, Sinead. Are you ready? Hello, sir.”

She said, “Hi, Tim. This is Paul. Is it okay if he sits in on our discussion?”

Tim said, “That’s fine. Come on in.” We walked in another room and sat at different chairs by a table. “So, Sinead. Were you able to find out if the Vietnamese restaurant around the corner serves good food or if they’re just so-so.”

She smiled. “It’s really good. I’m not a fan of most of the stuff in this neighborhood but that place was really good. Have you ever eaten around here, Paul?”

I said, “My uncle ate around here once. There was a Mediterranean place he went to with a friend.”

Tim said, “I remember that place. I don’t think I ever went there but my brother said the food was awful. Anyway, Sinead, I know someone who is willing to buy those CDs from you. He’s collecting obscure artists. How much are you selling them for, each?”

“I’d like to get ten dollars. I bought them at ten cents each because the store was going out of business. I have at least a hundred of them.”

“I would think you ought to have twenty each. Reginald is not poor. He used to be an engineer for a big name studio. His name is on a few releases by lesser known groups who were still on the major labels. He doesn’t need to work anymore but he wants to. He’s collecting stuff so he can show his clients he has a wide selection of stock. If his name appears on a few of the CDs, that’s even better.”

She sighed. “Well, twenty is a good price for them. I’d sell them for that. But it’s hard to find that stuff now. It’s out of print and you can’t order them in record stores. It’s what the dealers call, ‘Rare Junk.’ It’s rare and hard to find but it’s cheap and not desirable.”

Tim took out a piece of paper from his desk. “I need it official. Reginald will sign it too. He’s to give you twenty dollars each for all the CDs you have. How many do you have, approximately?”

“At least one hundred and fifty. I have more than that but I want to keep a few of them.”

“That’ll be three thousand dollars he’ll pay you. I don’t want much of the cut. I’ll take one percent. Thirty dollars to make it so I’m legitimately involved. Paperwork, you know. I’m really handling a bigger deal with him and I’m doing this as a favor.”

“Why do I need to sign a contract, anyway? Just curious.”

“Reginald prefers that. It’s so he gets some kind of write-off finance-wise. In case the men who chase the paper trail come a-calling.”

“Okay. It doesn’t bother me. So, we’re done?”

Tim smiled. “Yes, we’re done. By the way, how long do you plan to shake Tim’s hand? You’ve been holding on rather tight the whole time. I find that interesting.”

Sinead shrugged. “It’s no big thing. I’m just going to hold on always.”

I was nervous. “Wait a minute. You said you would let go after we were done!”

She shook her head and laughed. “I’m so sorry, Paul. I didn’t think to tell you because you probably wouldn’t handle it so well. I’m not letting go when I’m done, here. But I was honest in saying you could go back to your uncle’s. I’ll be with you.”

“So you are keeping me!”

“Oh, no! Don’t think of it that way! I’m accompanying you.”

“What you’re saying is you’re going to grip my hand forever.”

“Yes, I am. But don’t worry about it. I have our schedule set out for us. It’ll be fine.”

I was partly intrigued and partly in a panic. I wondered what a moment would be like if I spent it with someone of higher quality, especially a woman who wore her shirts tucked in, which was rare among any of my friends and acquaintances. For me to be physically stuck to her every single day with no possible way of escaping because she would not let go of my hand, causing me to accompany her everywhere she went and be a part of her world in a way that was much more involved than what seemed humanly possible, was too surreal. Even if her sleeves were rolled up, which looked quite sexy and complimented her grip and how her fingers pressed against my hand, the whole thing seemed illogical. I could not think of anything else to do other than get up and run. I did so.

Sinead’s eyes widened. She squeezed my hand as tight as possible. I pulled as hard as I could while she screamed for me to stop and slapped my hand hard with her other hand. Finally, I stopped because the pain was a bit much. I was not so much calming down as just trying not to freak out completely. This was way too strange and I could not fathom how she would have the kind of state of mind to behave as she did. However, I decided that I would wait until we arrived at my uncle’s house. Perhaps Ivan would be able to help me.

A New Connection (first part)

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Cover image courtesy of Sinead Linda:

http://www.fiverr.com/sineadlinda

I was walking towards my uncle’s apartment. He lived in a building which was of better quality than many of the places in the neighborhood. Antioch was mostly in the middle of nowhere, as far as I could assume. There was one café that I frequented because I needed energy before dealing with him. He was the most logical of my family but he had his problems and I would sometimes need to go on errands for him and that was an all-day endeavor. Today, I volunteered to visit him. He had a copy of an old movie on video cassette. The movie had one small scene with an actress whose role was secondary but made a lasting impression on me. She goes to her neighbor’s house to give him some mail. Apparently, the postman delivered the neighbor’s mail to her by mistake. She is wearing a windbreaker jacket tucked into tight belted jeans. After she hands the neighbor his mail, she stretches her arms and the windbreaker creases tightly. I figured my uncle would let me borrow the movie since I had done many favors for him in the past. I did not want to tell him I wanted to take pictures of that scene. He would not understand.

I lived in Oakland, California. Compared to Antioch, Oakland was Manhattan, New York. There were poetry readings in Oakland and sometimes the women dressed sexy in tucked-in shirts, like the woman in the movie. I would not go so far as to say that clothes were the only thing that counted about a person but I believed there was a connection between arousal and creativity. I would give copies of my stories to the attractive women at the poetry readings. My influence for writing the stories was my goal to hand them to those women. In Antioch, at that one café, there was a female cashier who always wore her shirts tucked in every time I saw her. When she waited on me, she would touch my hand when giving my change. That was another motivating factor for me to write a story. If a good looking woman, especially one who wore her shirts tucked in, touched my hand, I regarded the touch to be transference of energy and I wanted to put that energy to use. Some of what I am saying is psychological and could be a placebo. There may be nothing to any of it. However, I did not think there was anything wrong with having an eccentric thought process if the results of that process were positive.

Part of my attitude about people who were attractive was based on a counterbalance against my birth family that ate foods that were unhealthy and wore clothes that looked like they were originally towels from the nineteen sixties that were reconstituted as garments. I lived in foster care homes until I was eighteen. Only my mother’s sister, Danielle, came occasionally to visit me. My mother was too busy smoking cigarettes and laying in her room watching television to do anything else, according to Danielle. Not that she saw me often and not that I wanted her to do so. My mother was unmarried when she was pregnant. Her parents would not let her bring me to their house because they had enough troubles raising their own children. My mother, Greta, my aunt, Danielle, and my uncle, Ivan, were definitely a handful, if I am correct in believing they were worse at kids than they became as adults. My mother died before I could see her again. Apparently, she was helping Ivan. When she died, he looked for me.

I would not have wanted much to do with them but I finally figured that a screwed up family was better than no family at all. Even if my visits were filled with Ivan requesting continuously I give him glasses of water when he already has two full glasses right next to his arm, I could somewhat feel that I was reliving a childhood I could have had and did not. When I first went to the café where the good looking female cashier worked, I thought that I located the one special gem in the otherwise forgettable town. I printed up a copy of one of my stories and, when I went there again during my next visit to my uncle, I gave her the story. I did not know her at all but my giving her the story was connected to my reasons why I wrote stories and I could use the moment to shield me from the impending visit to Ivan. I gave her the story last week. I was going to patron the café today but it was closed for repairs. I was not too upset. I did put my email address on the story. If she wanted to contact me, she could do so.

The story was surreal. The plot concerned a man who walked his donkey every day to a store that sold only artichoke hearts. He went there merely to talk to the owner about golf clubs. During their conversation, another man enters the building and talks about pillows. However, during the conversation with these men, I included just a few sentences about shirt tucking and hand touches, just enough so I would not go overboard on those subjects but a perceptive person on my wavelength would notice them. As far as I was concerned, if I did not have those sentences in the story, there would be no point in me giving it to her. As I went in my uncle’s apartment complex, I felt great. I knew I gave a copy of my story to the type of woman I hoped would read it. That was satisfaction enough. My getting a copy of my uncle’s movie was an extra bonus, if indeed he allowed me to borrow it.

What happened next was almost too good to be true. Before I could reach the left corner of the corridor by my uncle’s apartment, I heard a door close. When I started walking past that area, I saw the female cashier from the café. During the split second before she acknowledged me, I saw she was wearing her shirt tucked in, like usual. She had on a denim shirt with rolled up sleeves and black jeans and a black belt and pant legs tucked into tall black boots. A part of me was nervous thinking she might wonder why I was in her apartment complex but I did not have enough time to be too nervous about it because she looked into my eyes and seemed happy.

She said, “Oh, hi! I didn’t know you lived in this building.”

I said, “I don’t. My uncle Ivan Anderson lives here. I came to visit him.”

She nodded. “Okay. I don’t recall the name. But, anyway, my name is Sinead.” She extended her hand. We shook.

“I’m Paul Anderson.”

“Nice to meet you. I love that story you let me read. Are you a professional writer?”

“No. I mean, I have written some stories that were in a few periodicals but I just mostly write for the enjoyment of it.”

“I understand. I’m the same way. I like to write too, now and then. I just do it as a hobby. Do you live close by?”

“I live in Oakland. It’s several hours away, no matter what type of transportation you use to get there. So I wouldn’t say I live close by.”

She kept holding on and her grip was firm. She might have been giving a hint she understood those few sentences in the story. I could not help but think about that possibility. Perhaps something about my attitude on creative energy was manifesting. I certainly was in no hurry now to visit my uncle.

She asked, “Do you get inspiration to write when you visit Antioch?”

“I’m usually helping my uncle when I’m here. I don’t think much about writing until I come back to Oakland.”

“Is Oakland your muse, so to speak?

“It just has a lot more places. Even if I wanted to sit somewhere, like at a park, and write, there aren’t any benches anywhere.”

“Is that the kind of setting you like to write in, a park?”

“Not just there. I like to write wherever the mood strikes.”

She nodded. “Do you think Antioch needs more cultural activities going on?”

“It couldn’t hurt.”

“Do you know anyone who could start something like a poetry group here?”

“The only person here I know is my uncle.”

She shrugged. “If you would like, I could pass your story on to a friend of mine who is a publisher of a small literary magazine in Cotati. It’s not a hot bed of discovered talents by any means but it’s a start and my friend might like your story and want to publish it.”

“Sure.”

She smiled and looked at her watch. “It’s two o’clock now. I have to go to an appointment at two thirty. I enjoyed talking to you and I’d like to continue our conversation later. Is that good for you?”

“I’d like that, Sinead. What would be a good day and time?”

“Anytime at all. You know where I am.”

“Sounds good.”

She started to walk away, still gripping my hand. Suddenly, she stopped and tugged at my hand. “Well, come on.”

“What?”

“I have to go to my appointment. If we’re going there together, you need to walk with me.”

“Oh.” We walked.

This was strange but not unpleasant. Certainly, my knowing a woman like her was not in my roster of experiences. If I was lucky, I might talk with the wife of a neighbor in Oakland while the husband went to the refrigerator to get some refreshments so we could all sit and watch a football game but the wife never tucked in her shirts and she was not in the least interested in giving me a pat on the back, let alone a handshake of any length. My uncle was not yet aware I was planning to visit him today. There was no law stating my priorities were not ever to change. I decided to walk with Sinead and I would enjoy doing so.

Bobby McAnnoying (work in progress)

Bobby McAnnoying: a surreal tale by Lee Gerstmann

Copyright ©2017 Lee Gerstmann

Chapter One:

Bobby looked at the ocean. He saw a dog swimming. The dog had a bracelet made of broccoli around his neck. Sounds were emanating from somewhere unknown. A woman passed Bobby. She blew him a kiss. He knew he was no longer in Poland.

Last night, Bobby imagined he was in Eastern Europe. He picked up his imaginary guitar and chewed his gum. His mother, Priscilla, frowned. She asked that he put down the imaginary guitar and eat dinner.

“If I eat dinner, mommy, I will take away the broccoli from the dog’s collar.”

“Never mind, dear. You are moving forward. What you just told me will not happen until tomorrow.”

Fine, Bobby thought. Let the so-called black pepper of Unicorn Land trip its way into the marshmallow gravy. He would ask someone else for help. His musical heroes were too busy tying shoelaces and smoking sage to agree to his command. He needed a new hotel.

Wilhelmina, his next door neighbor, walked by. She wanted to blow him a kiss but she used up her supply. Instead, she tripped on the sidewalk. Coupons were steady and complaining in a hut of saddles. Into the otherwise known region was a bellhop concord encyclopedia mayhem flute. Yeah, she knew as such. Did not ask for a penny but got some.

“Hey” Bobby said, “the espadrilles come into town. You can buy half a quarter full.”

Wilhelmina frowned. “So you say, Mr. Bobby McAnnoying. You shall be a thumpity-thump of pride. We cannot hold a conclusion without you.”

“Yes. That’s what the alphabet says. Stick it in your eardrum, cloud chief. We know better than you around these parts. Take away you dildo and scream.”

Wilhelmina turned into the dog Bobby saw tomorrow. That meant he saw the dog yesterday, which was today. How could he know? Perhaps he was in class. He looked around. Mr. Shint sneered at him

Mr. Shint yelled, “You are the rascal in the prairie, aren’t you Mr. McAnnoying? We were trying to concentrate on the physical realm of the planets and you snored like a grape being peeled. That would have sufficed if I had not eaten dinner yet but, since this is the afternoon of the chipmunk, I had to piece together the rhythms of the puzzle. You lost.”

Bobby spit. He did not know where the substance landed. He did not care. Next thing he knew, he was grabbed from behind by a gum-faced tee-totaller whose voice sounded like an accordion. Bobby figured he was stuck in the tuba again.

“Snatch me a number for the spruce, you little thingamabob spaghetti cockroach festival hamster. The times will not change until you put onions in your yogurt. I have your right side on my left and my left side on your Republican. Make sure you vote this coming election.”

Bobby laughed. He had other realms to occupy. None of this cartridge holding. The worms were handsome enough without their female counterparts. No more fans were blowing his way. The ergot came by way of cosmic dancing. Damn, the alcohol was as good as the puppy. He sat down on the ground, next to the abandoned playschool. He had his bottle with him. His friend, imported from San Francisco all the way to Cotati and under the basement of the Indian restaurant, was listening to a battery-powered radio with no juice. Bobby understood the placebos of the bitchy. He had to tell an old friend of his to stop following him by way of telephone. If the friend was this new friend who happened not so much to be new than to be newly seen, that would have been different, However, such was because Bobby’s state of mind changed every minute. Otherwise, the sad friend could do with a sandwich.

Bobby’s words were looking at him, asking how he was doing. He could not speak because he was inside a piece of paper but his message was that he could do better. The paper laughed because the author could make Bobby better but the author was afraid of turning into a piece of paper.

Wilhelmina followed Bobby. She said, “I am a train and I am dressed in a way you do not like because you have never entertained the idea of pursuing me. If you had decided to come with me when I was poking dominoes, I could have folded some cardboard and let you eat it. But, no you had to be selfish. Just because I am not your girlfriend does not mean I cannot be your boyfriend. I am not a boy but labels are changing all the time. Just ask a can of soup. The price is not determined financially but by the weather. Make of that what you will.”

Bobby nodded. “I shall. I will make it a spice rack where all the tourniquets will go in the morning. Did you see mother and father? How did they react to my dream?”

“I didn’t know you were dreaming. I thought you were a bug.”

“The dream bug. The best kind.”

“For sauces. Use some of that apple pan dowdy, why don’t you? Wear some glasses, for gosh sake. I have a urination problem. It does not go on a shelf.”

“That’s something I will say something about. However, right now I cannot slow down.”

“Too bad. I have a gang to ride and you have a licorice to pick. We all have burdens.”

“That’s what I thought you’d say. I was concerned you’d say it in the wrong context but, like always, I was wrong.”

“You should not be wrong in these circumstances. That is not religious.”

“It can be if you have the right books.”

“Show me the books.”

“You show me lyrics and I will show you the books they should not be in.”

Enough of this Bobby thought. He knew the train would leave without him. No more sleeping on grass. He went through wave upon wave of consciousness until he could no longer decide if he was deciding. Next would be a caboose. If he chose wisely, he would pick a pink one.

Lo and behold there was a mobile that quacked. It did not jingle like the rest of the ducks but it had solemn enough tactile force to be reckoned with. He knew his uncle would be inside. If not his natural uncle then his philosophical makeshift alternative. He really was not one to want to think of men in that way but he could not help it. He was who he was. He thought how he thought.

A breeze whispered a warning. “Do not package yourself until tomorrow’s sale.”

Bobby answered, “I have a demonic presence in the form of my counting.”

“That would be fine, my sweet. Give me your anger. I am an angel who will tickle you.”

He knew what that meant. He would not tell anybody if asked but he could surmise anonymously. He danced, mimicking plastic.

The wind continued. “Make all of your dreams come true in an Irish sailor uniform. Restaurants are calling upon the unicorns to do a soup dance. What have you got to sell? A book? We shall use any tapes handy. They are for ostriches.”

So, now we are feisty, thought Bobby. I give up everything I have and more to be out-thought by a transaction of the other universe. It cannot be done. I want to get on the train and see where it goes.

The wind said, “You’re ignoring me all awash fruit jam and ham make a turkey wing for the whales in the desert by the blue goose in the Monday habit.”

Suddenly, Bobby realized his pants were too tight. They were making his crotch suffocate. He was not a woman. He was merely harassed. He tried to take off his pants but realized he was trying to peel off skin. His pants were made of flesh. That was strange. He was not wearing anything. But, if that was true, how was he able to think? He had thoughts. He must be wearing his thoughts. Maybe now he understood what it meant to be worn out.

Wilhelmina returned. Not that she ever left but Bobby never paid attention. She was shaking her head as though she was making a lice milkshake. She figured her emotions could be measured by increments of protein. She screamed, “Come here, Bobby. You don’t want to miss that train. The broccoli dog is there.”

“Oh, can it with your clairvoyance. I care about the broccoli dog but you should not do so. He is not yours to understand. He is in another game.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. While we’re on the subject, you’re as annoying as your name, Mr. McAnnoying.”

“Don’t make fun of my name. My father thought of it because he was making fun of his father. They were both drunk and just having a good time laughing. You can’t fault anyone for wanting fun.”

Suddenly, another person showed up. “Hey, Mr. Bobby, if I am correct in assuming that’s what you go by, I’ve been on that damn train all day and now it’s your turn. What do you want, vibe-wise?”

“Hmm. Never thought about it much. Maybe I’d like a nice woman to accompany me and touch my hand.”

Wilhelmina touched Bobby’s hand. “As you wish.”

He shook his head. “Not you! You’re like my mother. My mother who’s younger than me, if that sounds rightly odd. No, I mean a woman who dresses the way I like in plaid shirts and not any of this one-piece dress stuff that the guys love in Wisconsin. You should know better.”

“Sorry, mister. I do as I wish. Most of the population is dumb. That’s why we listen to top-forty music. Do you not like tambourines? Get it into your head that society is changing. You cannot have it the way you used to want it. You have to have things the way they are now because it’s like it is and not like it isn’t.”

Bobby tried running for the train but his feet got caught in weeds. “What the hay?”

The other person laughed. “No, it’s not hay but clover. You are stuck by your own admission. Your thoughts are tangled up in your feet. You cannot get by another way without another hurt in your stomach. Your family is laughing at you, right now. How dare you say you can go on the train when you’re not doing yourself any favors? Make sure you leave a tip on the way out.”

“That is not going to happen!” He stomped his feet up and down until he resembled a disco dancer.

Wilhelmina and the other person, named Gregory, giggled.

Bobby said, “Somebody please help me. I want to get on the train but I cannot do so because I am stuck in the weeds.”

The dog continued to swim. “Go back to the old vision. I am not on ground.”

“So, you’re not a dog? What are you?”

“Yeah. I am a dog. I am not a dog that is another thing but I am somebody.”

“That does not necessarily sound like a somebody.”

“Maybe I can beat you to the words.”

“You can try in a smoothie.”

The dog continued swimming.

There was nothing around for Bobby to use so he could surmise the consequences. Everything became French. That was not of his doing. He did not mean it. He thought he could surround the vacated area with his shenanigans. He was half-wrong.

Tabitha said, “I like you, Bobby.”

“Wait a minute. Who are you?”

“I am the sweetie.”

“You were not introduced to the story.”

“That is correct but I am introducing myself to you. I think that is enough of an introduction.”

Bobby chewed on broccoli. Did it come from off of the dog’s neck? There was no more dog. There was no water. He was on a hill. The train was waiting. He was not sure if the train waited for him or for another reason. He tried to think about how people would act in New Orleans. He never visited the south but there was always a first time. He preferred Canada. A librarian suggested Canada to him when he asked about a specific thing. She wore a blue shirt. She was stretching her arms. He liked that. She was nice. He tried to think of a reason why there was no water.

The train spoke. “Are you confusing me with something, young man?”

“If you are not a train, what are you?”

“I am a figment of the pamphlet you were reading. Someone told you I was a train but I am clearly just a figment.”

“A figment of what?”

“Just a figment.”

“That is not possible. There are no figments of just figments. Figments are of something.”

“No, not if they are figments. If they are whole things, yes. Figments, no.”

“So you are not a figment of my imagination?”

“How the hell could I be that? I’m talking to you. Correct?”

“Oh… yes.”

“That would mean I am sociologically incapable of encumbering any number of juxtapositions in the time frame according to the ratio announced by the producer. He organized and engineered everything. Look at the credits. They give me the position of executive arranger.”

“On what?”

I“On nothing. I appear on nothing. But I appear on nothing as an executive arranger.”

“How could that be?”

“You’re going around and around in a psychedelic form of mathematics. You should stop drinking beer. I am not a goofy vibrant mass. I am a connector or wiring. But that is not what I am today. I am a figment.”

“So, if you are not a figment of anything, does that mean you are a figment of nothing?”

“Yes. How could I be a figment of something? Nothing is just a word we use when we say we are not connected to another thing. I am not a blank.”

“You could have fooled me. You don’t look like a blank but you’re sounding like one. What is it that you are?”

“I am a figment.”

Bobby was getting more impatient. How long would this rigmarole last? He needed to get on the train, which was telling him it was not a train. So, he did not need to get on it. But, he needed to do something, even if the not-train told him that it was not connected to anything. Bobby was confused.

Wilhelmina said, “I have another answer that could help you.”

“Any answer is better than none.”

“That’s not true. The figment has a non-answer that could help you even more than any help I could give you but I can give you my help, nonetheless.”

“Sure.”

“You are being pigeonholed by members of your family.”

“Which family? I have one in which I purposefully have no contact and another family that I like to see.”

“It would be the family that bothers you.”

“Okay. How do I go about changing that?”

“You can’t but I can. All you have to do is follow me.”

“Where?”

“There is no logical answer to that. But, if you follow me, you will allow me to make use of my time and you could get help. How about it?”

“I have no reason to say no.”

“You have every reason to say no.”

He shook his head. “Let’s just get going.”

She walked. He followed.