THE PEOPLE DOWNSTAIRS: PART ONE
CHAPTER ONE HOW THE STORY ENDED HAPPILY
The story ended happily because she was a healing woman; she used her hands, and her knowledge of chakkras, and she just plain healed him. And she didn't really like him, but she healed him nonetheless. It was her job.
CHAPTER TWO THE PROPHET ARRIVES, JUST IN THE NICK OF TIME
I'm sitting in a coffee house, The Wretched Lamb, natch. Sucking on a mocha milkshake, natch. And I hear this growling, like an ice machine farting up a storm. Naturally, it is the prophet.
He tells me one day, "I ate too many chicken wings, and I bought my girlfriend a necklace with a heart and a cross on it. I was foolish. I spent all my money."
You see, he doesn't want money, he wants to ply me with the prophecy.
Another day I'm sitting in the coffee house, and he yells across the way, "Didn't you just get out of the hospital in Ann Arbor? How did you get down here so fast? You get a ride?"
Fiction has such a strange way of being antsy, he wanted to give me a prophecy.
Another day, he offers me his book on Mercury. "You can be mayor of one of the cities. You should be mayor of one of the cities."
Now he's got my attention, power monger that I am, more power, more power, prophecy.
Splayed feet, my flannel shirt, the maroon one, one tail untucked naturally, his Jerry Lewis Marathon haircut, his Nike sneaks, natch. He's a duck out of water.
Tonight, we came up with the plan, after he ran through the conspiracies: the devil and Jimmy Carter, Ralph Lauren and Richard Nixon, LSD and Albert Camus, the garbage man and quarts of beers and a copy of THE FALL, to which I suggested adding BEING AND NOTHINGNESS, a good book for beer drinkers.
He will ask his mom if he can go back to the nuthouse in Chillicothe, get the rest of the patients to help, put ads in the underground newspapers, in the personals section, "JOIN US. MARCH ON WASHINGTON. MAKE NEW FRIENDS. WHO'S RUNNING THIS DOGGONE WORLD ANYWAY? FREE FOOD & DRINKS." But he's got to ask his mom first, clear things at home, not hit his brother.
Today, he hadn't forgotten about the plan, just thinks he'll have to put it off a bit. He gave me my choice of two out of three incense packets which he happened to have with him.
I had been wishing for incense; he knew it. I bought him a cup of Joe, an endless cup. And skipped out of the coffee house as quickly as possible. He was reading my mind, he calls me the prophet, says that I enter his brain, makes me a tad nervous, all this power, understanding the man who speaks in tongues.
CHAPTER THREE ONE OTHER IMPORTANT THING ABOUT THE PROPHET
He's got a beard.
On his face.
CHAPTER FOUR THE LIGHTS CONTINUE TO FOLLOW ME
I have moved four times in one year, and the lights continue to follow me. Say I go to IN THE FOREST for a well-balanced meal. PLEASE WAIT TO BE SEATED. "May I have a lamp for my little table?" And I sit down and something drips on me from somewhere. Could be clear blood. Could be water.
Something always drips. On my right arm. I always sit viewing the street which means the light across the way will go on and off all during my meal. And on occasion, a little light at another table will blink on and off. Since I have returned to a world of symbols, this must mean something beyond itself.
After my well-balanced dinner, I drive to the coffee house, park in the bank lot, and the spotlight comes on. Sometimes it's a ground light, and sometimes it is an overhead light. And when I return to my car, it goes out. There is a circus air to all of this. Trying to fake out the lights; sneaking past them, but they always catch me.
I'm handling all of this as well as any person can; and I still believe I'm human. Though I remark on the beautiful face of a woman, a wonderful set of breasts, the shape of a pert ass, lips one would kill for, eyebrows of butterfly wings, and I'm thought to be foolish, an old man, perhaps an old fool, an old goat, I raise my horns to the glory that is woman, and all the women in my life. And they raise their horns, and blow and little white flags come out the bells, and every single one says, "Get a grip. Give it up already."
CHAPTER FIVE I WANTED TO SEE A DEAD DOG
I said. And I've seen a lot of pictures of dogs lately. Dogs are coming out of the woodwork, it's raining mostly dogs, a few cats, but mostly dogs. Lots of dogs from the tracks in Florida have been showing up in my dreams, running their last races, their hearts going, Ka-Thud, Ka-Thud.
CHAPTER SIX THE RAINBOW NATION MAKES A REAPPEARANCE
Right after the Atlanta Braves ballplayer walked out of the house across the street, the Rainbow Nation started making its presence felt again.
A golden arrow within an inch of my left ear as I strolled across the campus yesterday. It quivered in the sapling right in front of me. The feathers were ostrich, and also from the blue heron. I did not recognize the tribe at first. Was it the Atlanta Braves or the Cleveland Indians?
Was it the Rainbows mucking with me again? It was a bright fall afternoon and the arrow could have gone in one ear and out the other if I had been standing in the right place, and I know it would not have hurt, but it would have left a groove in my neural passages which I don't need. I'm special enough as it is, I don't need to be any more special. I don't need to know how to fry sausages and keep the eggs from burning at the same time. I don't need math beyond simply adding and subtraction, and a little long division, every now and then.
I put it in the special pocket in my school bag reserved for arrows, and continued on. Never mind who shot the arrow; it's mine now. I have placed it on the wall of my small office to stupefy myself. I will use it when I am good and ready. The ostrich and the blue heron.
CHAPTER SEVEN IN WHICH I MUST GO DOWN INTO THE STORM DRAIN
The fabulous Mildred Peep whispers to me from the storm drain, "I'm down here with the others. You must find a way down and rescue us."
Four A.M. and I've got to find a way down into the storm drain. Thanks, Mildred, but I'm trying to sleep, trying to find a dream of worth, a dream of the loved one, Gloria, maybe.
Of course I had to get through the tangle of male cats marking their territory. But that didn't take more than an hour; the little fuckers haven't seen a female cat in about four years but they're still spraying, "This is me. This is me."
I put on my foul-weather gear, the gray set with the built-in boots, slide out into the damp early morning air.
I pull out my seventeenth cigarette of the day, and light it in the drizzle.
I read the sports page in the newspaper, hoping to find something in the box score I understand more than this life. The Braves are playing the Indians; those white guys have always known how to get the Third World to bang heads, fight over wampum and pussy.
And then, I got homesick. For some reason I wanted to visit my mother's grave; lie down on the foot-stone, shiver a little. Study the Connecticut fall for other signs of death; place my mother's corpse in an Indian cemetery so that her soul might finally cross over to the other side. I want to get someone's karma right; since my karmic wheel seems to be off its rim, dented.
Every so often I look over the top of the newspaper at the manhole cover. Apparently, it hasn't moved. I knew the women were hiding behind the little pieces of brush; the Vietnam Vets were across the way huddled in their camouflaged V.W.: the C.I.A. were driving pick-up trucks and talking into their hats. Was I forgetting anyone? The Rastas—nope, didn't forget them over behind the shed lighting up one spliff after another trying to remember who the hell Bob Marley was. "Din't he die, mon?"
And then, the books started hitting my arms and legs, and one cracked me upside the head. All of these paperbound books tumbling out a third story window and me trying to become a mini-Buddha. The end of one sordid affair; the beginning of another. CHIRPIE: A CANARY'S LIFE. Nope, didn't need to peruse that one.
Now they've moved to separate windows. And me in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle of love. And me re-writing a book I had never read.
Thwack—EVEN NOW THE FLAG STANDS, the bio of Frances Scott Key, as told to Limpid Whit. Thwack—HIGH-PITCHED WHISTLES, a dog's life and times. Thwack—BRUTAL ENEMAS, one nurse's diary of her training. Thud, missed me, hit the ground—THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO FENESTRATION, hmm, that looks interesting. Thwack—MISSING THE G-SPOT. Thwack—MERCIFUL TUNA. Thwack—AMOS AND ANDY DO THE KINGDOME. Thwack—LITTLE MEN. Thwack—LITTLE WOMEN. Thwack—LITTLE OTHER THINGS. Thwack—A HUNKAHUNKA LOVE, Elvis's twin brother. Thwack—KEEPERS: Trolling In The Gene Pool. Thwack—PALMISTRY, CRYSTALS, BIRD SIGNS, ASTRAL PROJECTION, TAROT, HOLISTIC MEDICINE, TEEPEES, TRENDY CLOTHES, AND ME, a thick tome which had been thumbed more than an old guitar. Thwack—GUYS BONDING IN THE WOODS AFTER MIDNIGHT: Wearing Loincloths In the Right Way. Thwack—THE ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES. Thwack—FREE WILL: A Hoot.
I looked up at the third-storey windows, just as a gentle long black glove unleashed yet another Thwack. THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE: A Woman's Guide to Survival. THWACK—GOOD OLD BOYS: Sharing the Dippin Boots. Thwack—VITILIGO: The Loss of Racial Identity. Thwack—yet another copy of GOOD OLD BOYS: Sharing the Dippin Boots. Thwack—PRINCESS POWER: Restoring Old Dreams, Reinventing New Ones. Thwack—BO BELINSKY MEETS MAMIE VAN DOREN: A Ballplayer's Tale, One Starlet's Ass.
My body had taken its share of abuse from love in the past, but I didn't know how long I could last this time. I was running out of body parts to dent.
I wanted desperately to become a Buddhist, but I was losing my focus. My mantra was bruised as well, but I was starting to build one hell of a curious library. I lit my twentieth cigarette of the day.
Back to my Buddha consciousness—clear the mind. Pigeons went flying; squirrels screaming; toads crawled out my butt; lemmings leaked out my ears; snakes slithered from my hair; ear whigs scampered off from their natural dwelling place; dust mites screamed off arms and shoulders; the things that are smaller than dust mites, the ones you can't see, hummed above my head. I wasn't dying, nor was I dead. However, it was a near-death experience; New Age music played inside my head for what seemed like hours, the same margarine on the same white bread, over and over. Everything smelled like the season. And it was the White Bread season in hell.
Thwack—THE AWAKENING. A perfect disengagement present for Gloria, or one of the "L's," or golly, for any number of beautiful women in any number of beautiful cities in the world. Or I'd have to keep it in my new library. What would I name my library? Thwack—WOMEN by Charles Bukowski.
The long black glove as if throwing a piece of tinsel onto the Christmas tree, gently, gracefully lobbed a flaming copy of THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING by Julia Child, the sixteenth printing. A flaming crepe to end all flaming crepes. Right at my feet. I stared at the fire, trying to think of one thing that might be Buddhist about it, fire, crepes, a black glove.
I stared at the flaming book for the duration of its burning, and then stared at its ashes for another two hours, smoked my thirtieth cigarette of the day, having found the flames of the French cuisine an apt lighting utensil, a rather large and cumbersome disposable lighter, and without anything I could perceive as being Buddhist.
This Buddhist thing was getting old, give away your stuff, pretend you're Asian, Indian, something you're not, crouch on the ground, get in touch with your arthritic self.
This is when the prophet came again. He peered over the stacks of books which had fallen in a configuration of a pentagon. Up to my neck in books. The flames now a dying ember. Love, the spark, the quintessential madness, reduced now to a few chips of charred pages.
"Up to your old tricks, eh? Up to your eyeballs in books? What did I tell you about letting stuff go? You don't learn too quickly."
"I was doing my damnedest to become a Buddhist without belongings. I didn't want stuff anymore; I wanted to rescue Mildred and the others from the storm drain, and the people upstairs started throwing shit at me. And here I am surrounded by the Pentagon, and the Lesbian Avengers are on their way, and the Rastas, and the whole goddamn food chain is still whacking away at me. And those two, up there, have dumped their library on me, 'cause they couldn't get along."
The prophet opened one wing of the Pentagon; the one where the self-awareness books had fallen, naturally.
"It's a nice day, let's go for a walk."
"What about Mildred?"
"Mildred, get your skinny little butt up here right now. And bring the rest of them with you, too."
And she did. Little slimeballs, every single one of them. Eight baths and they'd be as good as new; these sweet urchins, my daughter's close, and imaginary friends, Lolly, Bolly, Molly, Love and Lovalot, Chain and Chainberlain. Eight years down in the hole didn't seem to have harmed them.
"Hi Hi Hi Hi Hi Hi Hi Hi Hi."
And they ran off in search of my daughter, with Mildred leading the way.
And the final book came tumbling out the window, THUD. THREE WIVES: THREE, TOO MANY. The pages were scattered by the wind, as if it had all been part of a maddening, bad movie. Only the book jacket remained.
CHAPTER EIGHT THE PROPHET TAKES A WALK WITH ME; WE SCHMOOZE
We walked by a poodle that had been tinted pink, and seemed to be having an acute flea problem. It was still winter; though the seasons seemed to change at will when I was with the prophet. We continued walking because our feet were moving, and we couldn't seem to stop them. My socks still didn't match; the sock bandits. One blue, one orange, a smashing pair of gray cashmere socks, which seemed to pick up the intensity in his eyes. I was glad to have shared my socks.
He was one step ahead of me, "Where do these poodles come from? Is there a poodle ranch somewhere? I thought it was on Venus, but then I thought, oh maybe, it was next to Saturn, then I wasn't sure."
I kicked another one of the pink poodles over the stop sign.
"They breed them in the old subway tunnels. Let them out at night, when no one's looking."
We walked into the WRITER'S BLOCK, a coffee house, ordered bottomless cups from Rue De Le Morgue, the waitress, who always had a sly grin on her face, "What'll it be today, fellas? Chilly coffee? Risp Krispie? Kapok soup?"
"I just ordered two bottomless cups of java from you," I said, nearly seductively, as I scanned her seamless black pantyhose. I was getting older, and hornier by the minute. I didn't want to waste any more time in my life, with sleep, with food, tuneless frog-wails.
"You've got it."
I looked over at the Prophet who was rubbing the top of his head, which meant the cartoon balloon was about to go up.
"Shiva. Now he's the one we want to keep our eyes on. He's got a future. He's not messing around. Young stud, followers. And he's got those arms full of stuff."
"Must make shaving hell?"
"Only if you use the one with the snake. Then it gets a little rough."
We lit up our forty-seventh cigarettes of the day, almost on cue, and resumed staring off into space. Wherever that was.
I looked over the diagram of Thor's hammer he wanted made; everything seemed perfect. There would be thunder soon, if the designer placed the runes properly.
We drank the coffee as if it were elixir, and a pink poodle humped my left leg. We'd better stay tuned.
CHAPTER NINE I WROTE A SHORT ESSAY TODAY:
THE PEOPLE DOWNSTAIRS
He always lived with people downstairs; what a way to live.
They always had their own baggage; rooms full of imaginary objects, and clothing. They, too, hit the flea markets, over and over again, and pieced their lives together from what was left over by others. They were on the streets late at night, garbage night, scrounging for end tables, and bits of wicker furniture. Under cover of night, thrown into broken-down cars with bad tires. And on weekends, they would head for the flea markets, and gather up bits of clothing they thought they wanted for something. And sometimes in rage and sorrow, they would smash things that belonged to others. They didn't know why they did it; they just did it. It didn't make them feel better; but they thought it did. They sometimes killed puppies for the same reason; twisting their bodies into ampersands, so their little heads bulged and bulged. It's no wonder they were not often invited back. To share anything. And the needle marks began to appear again on his hands, exactly as the detective had suggested for injections: "Close to the heart—faster."
And the people downstairs would always have to live there, whether he were dead or alive.
[The story continues. The second half will appear soon. Eds.]
(Terry Stokes was born in Flushing, New York. He teaches in the English Department at the University of Cincinnati. His books include NATURAL DISASTERS, CRIMES OF PASSION, BONING THE DREAMER, SPORTIN' NEWS, INTIMATE APPAREL. This is his second appearance on the magazine.)