May 2002 [Home]
The People Downstairs (Part 2 of 2)
CHAPTER TEN WHY RUFUS WAS DOING LAUNDRY ON GROUNDHOG DAY
1. The laundry needed doing.
2. Everyone tries to do their laundry on groundhog day.
3. Rufus was someone I didn't know so it would be a surprise for me when I entered the cellar, to do my own dirty laundry, it being groundhog day, to encounter an unfamiliar face. He said his wash could wait. Thanks, Rufus.
4. Rufescent—tinged with red, according to the American Heritage.
5. Rufus is, evidently, here to stay. And it's no longer groundhog day.
CHAPTER ELEVEN TIME FOR THE JANITORS
I hadn't included the janitors, and they were the ones with the keys to everything. I hadn't been tuned in properly. Janitors with brooms so they can brush shit onto you when you're walking up a long flight of stairs.
And then they'll say, "Sorry,suh," as you're picking the salt and grit off your clothes and lengthy hair.
"Jesus Christ," you say, and you're not praying, and this really pisses them off, so you say it again,"Jesus Christ, shit, motherfucker, goddamn it, fuck the lambs."
It's Old Testament time. Just the right time to slay a bunch of stupid shits. Time to turn plowshares into swords and cut down the thieves. Time to wipe out the theocracy. Time to do full-pitched kick in the balls battle. The old-line Christians don't have a wing to stand on; their wine-blood turned a bunch of people into alkies; their little hosts choked enough small children. The Ten Commandments was admittedly a good movie, but nothing more in this lifetime.
The janitors with their knives pulled out on the stairs, chuckling dumb shits, going through the offices late at night, early in the mornings, going through the trash like old-fashioned garbologists. The janitors, and the sanitation workers, and the mail carriers, all with some wierd ax to grind. The rising of the underclass, amd Karl Marx would be a happy camper, a darned happy camper.
He looked down at the spots of blood on the white shag carpet, and they did seem to fall into the shape of the cross. "I'll surgically remove him from the Cross, if there's any fucking thing to be gained. I'll push the stone away from the tomb, as long as I don't have to be Sisyphus anymore. And I won't be Nathaniel West, or Hawthorne. Oh, no, I'm a stand-up comedian from the Catskills and I'm working out some routines. And there are a hell of a lot of clubs I haven't played yet. And not one of them has a janitor, thank God."
A shaft of light cut across the darkness, a glowing arrow embedded itself in my blue and red comforter as I was about to summon up my mantra from the '60's, and kiss my ass goodbye. It was relatively attractive. And there was no janitor attached to it, as far as I could see. The arrow or my ass.
CHAPTER TWELVE SHE WANTED TO PULL A BIG STING
She said (the She back in Part One, for those of you who have stayed tuned), "One day, I'd like to pull a big sting."
I was a little fish. I didn't have much in the way of stuff, but I had some collectibles: some rings from my mother, baseball cards which I had saved over a twenty year period. She followed me around for a year summarizing my worth, what I had to offer in the way of credit. Then, oddly my identification started disappearing. Then, oddly my cards started disappearing. Then, oddly my identity started getting splintered. Then, oddly people I called friends wanted to practice copying my signature, and they did a pretty good job. Then. oddly she was gone. And more of my things started leaving, and leaving. And other things started disappearing: like people. Where did the beautiful marriage counselor go? A marraige counselor can't disappear. No one could find her. She had a name: Bunki.
"Anyone here heard of Dr. Bunki?" I'd scream down the halls of the hospital. I was in love with the doctor, too, but that's the way I work out my transference. "Bunki, come back. Please, come back."
Bunki was not to be found. And the girl who lived downstairs, gobbled the Prozac like it was candy, read all the trendy new-age books, and stole animals from the neighbors under the guise of "saving them," appears in my apartment one day: the landlord has spilled a bucket of paint all over my stuff and his shoes, supposedly while he's there to fix things, paint, etc. And it's that night, my stuff begins to disappear. You put two and two together.
CHAPTER THIRTEEN A BEAR WANDERS OUT OF THE STORM DRAIN
"Where's Mildred?" he said. I pointed toward the hurricane of dust over by the maple grove. I went back to building my space ship.
CHAPTER FOURTEEN IF SHE HADN'T LOST THE BROOCH WITH THE FATES ON IT
My space ship would be finished. There wouldn't be an extra mirror in my bedroom, which I don't believe belongs to me. All the lamps would be lit and burning. Meltdown wouldn't have occurred. The prophet wouldn't have gone off the deep end. I would still be among the living poets. I wouldn't be pursued by stoic, angry, beautiful women wearing white bell bottoms in the middle of winter. Blondes. Pulling on long black gloves as they give their red cars a little extra gas. In the night.
CHAPTER FIFTEEN IF YOU STOP DRINKING, THE THEATER OF CRUELTY AND THE THEATER OF THE ABSURD RAISE THEIR CURTAINS EVEN HIGHER
I keep wandering into the middle of other people's sets. I know I no longer have control of my own theater, or the movie in progress.
CHAPTER SIXTEEN BACK TO MY BUDDHA CONSCIOUSNESS
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN WHY THE SPACESHIP?
The prophet came by while I was puttering around in the back yard, trimming the fruit trees. I didn't know what kind of fruit trees they were, but I knew to prune was god-like. And besides, it probably couldn't hurt anything. I was hoping for pomegranates; it's a good blood stain.
"Why the spaceship?" he wanted to know, rubbing his hair, pointing toward it.
"Way I've got it figured, you know, Twain said Cincinnati was ten years behind the times. You said, Armeggedon was on the way. And then there are the beautiful women from all over the world, lovers, ex-lovers, future lovers, and wives, and ex-wives, all waiting for me to take the big jump off Weldon Kees's bridge. The way I see it, the big blast will come as you say, I've got ten years. But, and this is the big But--the women, and the racists, the thieves and the gypsies, they're all giving me extra rope to hang myself, and the rope is already hooked-up in the eaves, snug, secured, and hell, they just want me to put my head, either one, in that noose, and bango, the floor falls out, and I've kind of done myself in."
"But why the spaceship?"
"Got to have some place to make poems when the going gets rough, and the lights have been turned off in Marxist heaven. If I can get the damn thing into orbit, well, I won't have to worry about time, and I'll already be in space, so I won't have to worry about that. And quite frankly, I'm tired of thinking all this shit through. Let it think about itself for a while, reach a higher consciousnes on its own, I'm real busy staring at the void."
I offered him a generic smoke. Since he had cut back from four packs a day to two, he was starting to breathe again, but I could tell he was still hooked. Same as me. We'd die with little holes in our tracheas; drawing in smoke through those little holes. There was no use in trying to get around it; this was another piece of the truth.
"Why the spaceship?"
"Grown man in a capitalist society's got to have wheels. Lay rubber in the ozone layer."
There wasn't anything more I could say about the subject, since I had no idea what the answer was. Another one of those tricky Zen things, I figure. And since the prophet couldn't figure out whether he was Hindu or Buddhist, I wasn't going to force any program on his soul.
I went quietly back to my pruning; pomegranates were exploding as the sun began to set.
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN INFIDELITY HAS ITS PLACE
I should know, I've steered my flower cart off course enough times; I've upset the apple cart. And when I was true, faithful, look what it got me—a gypsy's curse. I'm going to run out and get a new, full pack of butts.
CHAPTTER NINETEEN THE LAWN AND GARDEN SHOW
God, I love the lawn and garden show. Every square inch of it. The ceramic deer sniffing the plastic daisy. The bird-killers balls in silver, gold, and metallic blue. The red goldfish swimming in their sky-blue pools. The donkeys mating with the ewes. Christ in the bathtub with Mama. Bambi and St. Francis; Luke Skywalker and St. Theresa.
All day long the magnificent melodies of THE SOUND OF MUSIC. And Lawnboys with enough horses to outrun a Mustang. The Bride and Groom under the canopy of plastic roses; the air fresh with magnolia spray, juniper spray, honeysuckle spray, and that down-home sickening apple blossom spray.
Will I never wake from this dream? I have no social conscience whatsoever. I don't give a shit about the poor people when I've got a lawn and garden show. I wear my spats and my straw knockabout hat, and my shoes made of the finest alligator pulled from the swamps just for me. And I tip my hat to the ladies, and Shuffle Off to Buffalo.
CHAPTER TWENTY THE BUNGI CORD DID NOT HOLD
As I could have expected, the bungi cord did not hold. Some gimmick, that was. Somewhere between Grassmere, and the Third World, the darned thing snapped. Was I still at the Lawn and Garden Show? I landed on a Venezuelan lawn jockey, Bogata by name. He has been banned from the tracks forever for having given several horses named Pepe, the highly illegal, but highly competitive drug, Marble Faun. So a once-repected, oft-sought after jockey named Bogata became a quiet little lantern guy for driveways in the suburbs of America, and somewhere, I had landed on him. Not on him, actually, but on the lantern. And that is when I decided I had better learn a couple of things about electricity. Like what makes lights go off, and on, and off.
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE A PERFECT DAY FOR PUFFER FISH
J.D. and I and the moneyman had been kicking around the idea of miniature golf courses in Cuba for a long time.
"What do you think about the idea of miniature golf courses in Cuba?"
"With each hole representing an important moment in Cuba's revolutionary history."
"With each hole representing an important moment in Cuba's revolutionary history."
"I just said that."
"So you did, and I have repeated it for emphasis."
It became one of those loopy arguments. We couldn't decide whether the Bay of Pigs hole would have bays, pigs, or tanks.
Would the Papa hole have books, or mojitos?
Would the Mafia hole, have Mediterraneans scrambling, fists full of dollars raised in the air, or a shrine to the Holy Mother?
Would the Che hole have a courageous fist, or an asthma inhalant?
Meddling in another country's personal history is what we did best; we were Americans. And we knew how to do it so no one would forget us.
A miniature golf course, say, smack-dab in the center of Havana. Wow.
CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO WE ARE ALWAYS HAUNTED BY GHOSTS THAT HAVE NO NAMES?
Why is that?
CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE THE PROPHET AND THE UGLIEST WOMAN IN THE WORLD
Are hidden away in some remote part of Kentucky; waiting for the Final Four basketball games to begin. Or they're locked in some lodge, The Randingo Bama-Rama, finally getting acquainted. I get postcards from them every day: Listening to Lyle.—Catching Lyle's flicks.—Am growing hair like Lyle's.
The ugliest woman in the world has four lips, I think, and she stares at me as if she hated me, but somehow, her four lips inhale one cigarette after another. She always wears a woolen bonnet which hides most of her face except for those eyes which hate me, and the four lips which smoke the cigarettes. There's nothing tricky about her; she just hates me.
I know she is smiling in her love-nest Kentucky, and that keeps me going.
I know they are discovering the beautiful caverns together, and that keeps me pleased.
They're studying Krishna, burping the future babies, and waiting for Lyle to stop working the greasy spoons, and the pizza joints. No future there; the guy can sing and act up a storm.
Meanwhile, I've got to sort through this impossible library of foreign phrase books, notes on runes, THE JEW AND THE LOTUS, Pogo and the other assorted tomes he's laid on me. He's not an easy friend to have, traveling all the time to the far planets. Having a prophet for a friend is not the most relaxing of friendships. They're so doggoned busy.
'Lyle's doing this,' and 'Lyle's doing that,' and 'We caught Janis Joplin in Louisville the other night.'— 'Watch out for Richard Nixon. He's armed and dangerous.'— 'The F.B.I. don't know my whereabouts.'— 'LONG LIVE SHIVA and the seven dwarfs.'
Hand-stamped postmarks; postcards drooling from the constant rain, wherever they are.
CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR THE PROPHET RETURNS FROM KENTUCKY BUT ALL IS NOT WELL
Someone has mauled him. His face. Just above his beard-line. How'd it happen?
"Ninjas. I used to know Tai Chi. I forgot it. They got me. Just like that."
He looks tired. "The witches are after me."
I know that feeling; the witch who lives downstairs keeps fiddling with the light switches, the electric door opener, opens my common door at night. But she's moving. I hope she's taking the pumpkins with her. And the cats. And she's going, going, gone.
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE OF ALL THE BEAUTIFUL WOMEN IN THE WORLD
I shouldn't have had anything to do with her. Cleveland. Even her mother said so, "She's not reliable." She's not reliable; she's evil. She broke my teeth, and she messed with my writing for seven years. Sex and drugs. Black with vitiligo, so that she wasn't black nor white. She had quickie programs for cleaning up any mess: the broken teeth deserved a couch and a love seat in blue velour. Full teeth impressions on the arm or shoulder deserved a blow job or a dinner out. A torn bicep muscle in the right arm deserved a batch of ironed shirts.
Meanwhile lurking below this unrelenting rage was the healer. A real two-headed monster, this one. The herbs that would fix this or that. A tape of the ocean for relaxation. And then, the kicker was the horoscope which she had plotted for me. Not oddly, it indicated a whole mess of trouble when I reached fifty. And that's when she started the break-ins, the thefts, the endless screwing with the simple things in my life. The cat and mouse games. But she enlisted aid: Her mother. The do-gooder; viscious as they come, and a former member of the Balderdash University staff. "I could run, but I couldn't hide." But she enlisted aid: the ex-wife. And that turned it into a race relations issue.
Solo white guy goes up against at least three angry black women and their cohorts. I was just a liberal white guy with three unhappy ex-wives, and a violent ex-girlfriend who would as she said, 'Find a way to hurt me very badly.'
And so she stole the manuscript of ten years of work, left me dangling like a scared cat at the end of a fishing pole.
Invoked the race card. But that doesn't work with old liberals, they can't be turned into racists that easily.
I welcomed the third world into my life, and welcomed my friends of the third world. I welcomed Cuba, and the African countries into my life. Found joy in liberation.
As the prophet has said, "And then they come down from Mars, and enter your head. And make you feel funny." Talk about witches.
CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX THE PROPHET MUSES
"That last chapter sucks."
"Sounds like the O.J. Simpson trial, or some other made-for-TV movie. You can't invoke the race card to win a jury. This is art on the line; this ain't life."
"Well, shut up my face before I go off."
CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN IT'S QUITE SIMPLE, REALLY
1. Ex-wife is given info from ex-girlfriend which enrages her. New boyfriend becomes active adjunct. Daughter becomes willing participant; others move in at the same time to square what they perceive to be misdeeds.
2. Victim isolates himself—too many nights without sleep; comes into contact with what he perceives, wrongly, to be dark forces. Splits what is a haunted, but not really a hostile environment. The only hostility which comes to be is brought about by himself.
3. Because he is open about nearly everything; he brings grief to others.
4. However, it is another former wife who is doing everything; from a distance.
5. As long as the kids reap the benefits, what do I or my narrator care?
6. Too many ex-wives.
7. Too little time.
8. Too many cigarettes —& booze.
9. Dragon-breath and a skim of sweat.
10. Too few flowers, and jokes.
CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT SOME OTHER ANSWERS
1. The gypsies.
2. The Prophet.
3. Dogs in heat.
4. Somebody with an axe to grind.
5. Wild Magic.
6. 76 Trombones.
7. A few dozen planets out of line.
8. Poets with thin skins.
9. Baby Mozart.
10. The evil genius; the author.
CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE THE LINE FORMS ON THE RIGHT
For the people with teeth. I look like a vampire, four bottom teeth gone. But I'm ready for the jugulars, and the sweet maidens. And I'm ready for the next half of my life. It will be polysyllabic, and full.
CHAPTER THIRTY DOWNSTAIRS SMELLS LIKE DEATH
Downstairs is always full of the young dead bodies of war. New war, old wars. Used cars, new cars. Youth in Asia. A bad place to be young, a very bad place. There is nothing nouveau on the menu, ever.
Downstairs is filled with the depressed creatures who lunch on the relatively happy creatures. They see nothing wrong in this, they do it, as a routine.
The prophet tells me I must go through yet another stage of death; the third stage.
Evidently, this stage will lead me to the Enlightenment.
What I know: the washing machine is not working; there are extra keys floating around to the apartment downstairs; the coffee machine suddenly went on the blink; more teeth are loose and need to be pulled. Landlords can't be trusted.
Downstairs always needs rehabing; leaks, water-damage, the color of the walls is always wrong, the music is too loud, too bad.
Out in back, however, there is a beautiful yellow flower growing, solo, in the early spring sun. I will tend to it; take care of it, as if it were my own.
Downstairs is where the soul needs rehabing.
CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE THE PROPHET GIVES ME A POSTCARD WHICH MAKES IT ALL CLEAR
Pink roses cluttering the front.
On the back in blue crayon, "Guns and Roses is a good Rock Group. But since we're not gonna be the Main Character, what is our mission?"
CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE OUR MISSION
Our mission is to rid the world of bad music; read books and pass them along; fall in love with impossible women. Become the people downstairs.
(Terry Stokes was born in Flushing, New York. He teaches in the English Department at the University of Cincinnati (Ohio). His books include NATURAL DISASTERS, CRIMES OF PASSION, BONING THE DREAMER, SPORTIN' NEWS, INTIMATE APPAREL. This is his second appearance on the magazine. He will contribute a substantial piece to the August issue on Cuba.)