“…by the time i learned what i really needed to know in life,
i was already too old for any of it to matter…”
–apropos of nothing
“You know it’s not true…,” Harry gasped with all the breath in his lungs straining to keep the inhale-exhale pace of our mad dash down the damp alleyways and gutters of the bitterly crisp late-night city chill. We ran with blistered, soaking, non-slip socked feet through the muck and grime and sewer runoff—discarded hypodermic needles and bottle-caps and damp cigarette butts of the crumbling decaying alleyways and thoroughfares of the junkie districts of the blinkered, fluorescent inner-city night.
Harry’s dirty, untrimmed fingernails dug deep bleeding red trenches in my forearm, gripping and grasping my flesh like it was life itself…threatening to leave his body. I began to yelp in pain, bit my lip till it bled itself…a thin tendril of blood running languidly down my chin. I held my exclamation back, but only barely. Didn’t seem he’d have noticed had I screamed in agony, in any case…
I struggled with all my soft, doughy body could muster to keep pace with his crazed break through the twists and turns of the damp city…the labyrinthine junkie littered maze of puddles of muck sewer grates lampposts and power-lines and stop-signs. My arm began to bruise. The flesh changed color—like the dying purpling leaves of Fall in the city—capillaries bursting and becoming a violet-ish hue of dead around the deep trenches dug in by his fingers. My chest was on fire. I stumbled and made as if to fall, but Harry only gripped harder, dug in harder, pulled me along until my legs had little choice but to strengthen and tromp down harder—faster—keep the mad pace of my friend digging bloody canals deeper and deeper into my forearm. “It isn’t,” you know, he gasped as if dying. “…it’s not true…,” he wheezed and whistled and rattled from the very deepest pit of his oxygen-deprived chest cavity “…that…” he huffed and panted, “…that…a guy doesn’t know what loss is…,” …the words trailed off as if the very syllables—the individual letters, even—had been choked out of the vacuum of his deflated lungs; falling like dead leaves, left floating and falling into the puddles along our path. I began to try…as best I could…to make a sound. To make sure he wasn’t dead, while somehow still running. My lungs—on fire at this point—wouldn’t allow it. What came from my mouth only emerged as the icy breath of a deep, straining exhale in the bitterness of the cold. Still galloping, somehow still running behind and keeping pace with the help of the trenches left by the white-knuckle grip of his helping, rigor-mortis-like hand, he began suddenly to expel an alarming bellow of high-pitched breath escaping his lungs. Like the sound of the hot steam ejected forcefully from a factory release valve. “…HOLY FUCK!…” he bellowed…and then continued his thought, without missing but a step…or perhaps two steps. “…not true one doesn’t know loss—even if—” he seemed to pause, rather than to be at a loss of oxygen now… “—even if you’ve never even had anything to begin with…” his words now trailed off, flowing with the wind at our backs in syllables and then broken letters. Like dead, purpled, oxygen-strangled Autumn leaves. Blowing in the wind. Propelled into the past, ejected behind us with the force of our forward momentum. And falling gently into the toxic puddles and muck; floating, stagnant, in sewer water. Bottle caps. Discarded hypodermic needles. Spent condoms. The jellyfish remnants of $20 blowjobs.
We were now far beyond the jellyfish and bottle caps. But the trenches left in my arm were now deep red lacerations. Canals. Flooded with trails of blood, marking up my forearm with a nearly artistic pattern of flowing red brushstrokes. Criss-crossing. Dripping. I would need stitches. But…for a very fleeting moment, as we stopped finally to catch our breath, sprawled out in damp, trembling fetal lumps of flesh…I began almost to admire the art of it. The art in the mangled, bloody criss-crossing red strokes of my forearm. The pain, for a moment, nearly seemed worth it…
“Good chicken,” Harry said, biting into a deep-fried breast, grease and honey mustard coloring his chin.
“Mmm,” I said, agreeing absently with my mouth full. I downed half a large Pepsi in one gulp, washing the fried chicken down. In that moment, nothing in the world compared to the high of greasy fried chicken…stolen fried chicken…and a Pepsi. I might as well have been castrated then and there, and with little protest or complaint. The satisfaction of chicken and soda in that moment was better than any sex imaginable.
So. We had knocked over a fried chicken joint. Two escaped mental patients, without a dime. And without a gun, too. Harry justified it to me. In the short time I had spent with him, after our initial meeting in the hole—at the mental ward—he had become something of a guru. In some respects, a Svengali. Maybe. I still liked to think his influence as some wizened old soul, a street-smart, philosophically prodigious know-nothing was yet tempered by my own powers of logic and observational dissection. Still. He had convinced me to knock over a chicken joint.
To be fair, we were hungry. And more than hungry, thirsty. And nothing quenches thirst quite like an ice-cold Pepsi. I had more than my own part in the chicken joint-job. Once Harry had wrapped my forearm in some bandages improvised from the torn-up shreds of a ladies’ blouse he’d snatched from the storefront window of a downtown boutique, we began immediately to set our minds to water, and food. The blouse—a sheer, cream-colored silky thing made out of either cotton or lycra—in no timed became a blotted, bright-red. Harry stepped through the store window, shards of glass crushing and crunching under the rubber tread of some boots he’d picked out for himself. Picking up the brick he’d used to smash it in, he grinned slyly and with his free hand, grabbed a mannequin around its waist, pulled it off its little plastic fixture, and began to dip it like that broad in the famous V-E Day photo…the one with the sailor molesting and kissing the nurse. The mannequin’s head fell off. Clunking onto the shop floor, onto the shards of shattered glass. Feeling up the ivory woman’s buttocks, he tore off the short black skirt the window-dresser had put on her. The alarm had been sounding for some time now. I stepped through the shattered shop window and began to compel Harry to get a move-on, but at this point he seemed to have all but forgotten my presence. “We’d better go,” I whispered. Whispered, for some reason…as the alarm blared.
Remembering I existed very suddenly, Harry drawled, “Just lemme…,” …and it was clear that thought would remain unfinished. He proceeded to tear off her silk blouse. A black, clingy little thing with white adornments around the collar and white stitching. On a real woman, probably a sexy little number. Massaging her nipple-less ivory-white breasts, Harry made as if to go for a kiss, but with the woman now headless, he undeterred simply placed his lips where the lips (probably—had the woman not been decapitated) ought to be. A surprisingly effortless and graceful pantomime. “Let’s get the fuck outta here,” he said, abruptly and mechanically. And simply dropped the headless woman to the floor; vivisected as her torso broke apart and upper and lower body separated with a hollow thud onto the crushed glass and other debris. My forearm was wrapped now in a crimson-colored sleeve. I tore a section of material from the black blouse with white stitching that the headless and vivisected woman had worn, and we made our way briskly out of the shop and down the street. Strolling, calmly.
In time we found a deserted chicken joint in the bad part of town. To be fair, it was all bad. This part of town was only slightly worse. Nevertheless, Harry was armed with a brick, and I’d picked up a section of steel rebarb I found lying about a halfway-demolished colonial-style townhouse. I had absolutely no intention of using it. In fact, I couldn’t begin to imagine even having to use it. To smashing someone or something’s skull in and shattering it like the boutique window. The thought was absolutely not even the seedling of a possibility in my mind; I couldn’t imagine anything more out of the realm of possibility. Still, I gripped it tight. “This place, right?” I said to Harry, nodding furtively towards the chicken joint. At this point, we thought about the same. We were more or less in tune. He was certainly a lot more free and wild than me, and not afraid to make a bold move or say a bold word or two whereas my natural timidity might otherwise act as a restraint. But nevertheless, however we may have differed in mannerism or restraint or lack thereof, we were the same basically in instinct and spirit. I may have lacked the assertiveness, the sense of wild abandon—but in my mind, I shared the sentiment more or less. Not that what was there was there for the taking. Not at all. Not exactly. But that what was there for the taking (and in quantities of plenty), and being hoarded by something or someone who already had more than plenty—that was for the taking. And without a shred of consequence of guilt or shame for the one doing the taking. The boutique…that was a land of plenty…and a land for those who had already more than plenty. The taking was more or less guiltless. Taking of things not needed by those who want for nothing and already have far more than they could ever need. Overpriced items stitched together by brown-skinned third-world children in sweat shops—poked and prodded with sticks and allowed a pittance for pay—made for pennies and sold for hundreds, thousands. Big-box store discount stretch pants, sold for five bucks and made for five cents, overseas by truck-system wage-slaves living in squalor. You carry 16 tons and what do you get, another older and deeper in debt. Cheap pants, expensive jeans, all in one way or another you could say anything’s for the taking, in fact… Or something like that. Plus, my arm was bleeding pretty damn bad. For all those in the world who owe their lives to the company store, I reasoned, that was reason enough.
The chicken joint…that, admittedly, was a little bit different. Maybe. But we were both hungry. And with no money. Surely, it’s okay to steal a loaf of bread if you’re starving. …and maybe a large Pepsi. Or two. In any case, we made sure to take it easy on the poor Bolivian fella minding the joint. Mouth duct-taped, hog-tied (careful not to let the electrical cord we’d ripped off from an electronics store we’d also broken into dig too deep into his ankles and wrists). I first walked up to the counter and in a jovial, heavy Bolivian accent he greeted me, asked what I’d like, and I took the rebarb out from inside the leather jacket I’d swiped from the boutique, gripped it tight and went on to raise it slowly and deliberately up as if to threaten.
The Bolivian began to duck under the counter, presumably reaching for a gun, at which point Harry stormed through the side door and sprang like a wild animal over the counter. I couldn’t make out exactly what was happening from my position and with the rebarb still raised to shoulder-height, knuckles still white, I froze in place. The struggle was surprisingly quiet, no shouting, no obscenities, no apparent sign of any real physical violence. “It’s alright,” Harry said eventually from behind the counter, panting only slightly. “Thanks for the helping hand, by the way,” he smirked, caustically. Luckily for all combatants involved, it seemed, the Bolivian was simply terribly out of shape. Sloppy fat, a bit past middle-age, with a giant mole under his right eye and a terrible comb-over. Not that the comb-over or the mole were factors.
“How’d you do it?” I asked, approaching the counter slowly, cautiously. “He’s alright, right?”
“Well, he could stand to lose a few pounds. …Like…thirty, forty pounds, probably. Maybe fifty, really.” Harry waved me over, inviting me behind the counter to see the end result. “Put up a decent struggle for a guy that fat. Think he might have a heart condition, maybe.” We looked at each other blankly for a second. “Nah, he’ll be fine. Hey, help yourself, buddy,” he added, waving his arm in victory toward the fried chicken, fries, cole-slaw, mashed potatoes and biscuits piled in delicious mountains behind him in the kitchen area. With that, we dug in.
After we got our fill, Harry offered the Bolivian manager of the joint a real nice pair of corduroys and a Casio he’d picked up at the boutique. Unable to answer yes or no, whether he wanted the stuff, Harry chimed shruggingly, “Here, take ‘em anyways…they’re on us, Horse-Teeth. The cords oughtta look real nice on you I bet.” Tossing the pants and watch down onto the Bolivian chicken man’s torso, Harry went about smashing the cash register open with his trusty brick. Hoisting the brick high over his head, then bringing it down with a calamitous bang onto the cash drawer. Trying a few more times, he turned back to the Bolivian and added—beads of sweat forming on his forehead—“…say, you know, hey…I hope they’re your size and all, though…” A few more tries and Harry was spent. He’d made some progress. I sidled in next to him behind the counter, and with my piece of rebarb began to pry open the drawer by exploiting a small ding left by the impact of the brick.
“Hey,” I said, sweating profusely, “Why are we robbing this place, though?”
Harry wiped his brow with the corduroys, tossed them back down onto the Bolivian, and sighed, “’Cause we got no bread, dummy. No jack, no cheddar, no green, you got me? How else we supposed to get by, goofus?”
The register sprang open forcefully with a piercing “DING!” … “I guess I was just wondering…you know, we got chicken, we got Pepsi—”
“Enough with the Pepsi. Coke is where it’s at. Sick of your Pepsi talk…”
“…I was saying though; we got chicken, we got…`soda`…that feeds us, right? I know we need money, I guess, but how long’s a chicken joint knock-off gonna last us…? I mean, what’s next, a bank? We pulling a bank job next?”
“We think about today today. We think about tomorrow tomorrow. Besides. You need guns and a getaway car and a third man for a bank job…”
“In the old days, the fertile crescent, what’s it called, that thing—Mesapotamia—that guy, Hummarabi…isn’t he the guy who came up with that eye for an eye thing…steal a loaf of bread, lose a hand…?”
I’d forgotten my point, exactly. “I…”
“I think you’re thinking of the Bible anyway,” Harry said after a pregnant pause. “That eye for an eye thing. I think…” He glanced down furtively at the Bolivian, who had taken to simply staring absently at the grouting between the tiles on the floor…breathing heavily. “And it’s Hammurabi.”
“What did I say?”
“Hummarabi. Like ‘Hum-ar-abby’. It’s Hammurabi. Like ‘Ham-burger’.”
“We stole chicken. And Pepsi,” I said, not to Harry in particular…
“Fuck Pepsi, I said! I stole Mountain Dew.” Harry pushed me aside aggressively and began stuffing the cash from the register into a white trash bag. “And so what? According to you, by the laws of ‘Hum-arr-abby’, we’ve both already lost our hands. We’re two amputee motherfuckers here, Jon. You got that? You want to get by out here—in the real world—you gotta lose a metaphorical hand or two now and again. If we all lived, for real, by the laws of your fertile little crescent cradle of civilization bullshit, you know how many people walking down the street everyday would be missing limbs? You wouldn’t even see people walking down the street. They’d be in wheelchairs or some shit. Or just dragging their legless asses along the pavement.” He finished cleaning out the register and began tossing warm biscuits, french fries, chicken wings, and packets of ketchup, honey mustard and hot sauce into the bag. “Sorry to say.”
Helping myself to a free refill and taking one more chicken thigh for the road, we began making our way out of the joint. I looked back at the Bolivian chicken man; still just staring, catatonic, at the tiles on the floor. I looked down, taking a sip of my drink, and observed the grouting between them. Maybe a square is really just a square. And god knows what that Bolivian might’ve done in his life to make it in this world. And god bless him for it, I supposed.
At that moment, I sincerely hoped the corduroys were his size.
“What’s the plan then?” he asked suddenly. We’d been walking for some time now, in dead silence. We were good silent. The silence was comfortable, natural. Just as natural were our words, resumed; and, often once resumed, in great quantity. The words were also good. But the sudden question threw me.
“Plan,” I echoed off him. 3rd time round now.
“Plan, yes,” he parroted. Plan, for the fourth time. We easily could’ve taken a sharp left-hand turn into an Abbot and Costello routine just then.
“Plan,” I parroted back, ‘plan’, for the fifth time now; no question mark fixed to the end of the word, for the fifth time. No plan. I have a plan? I thought you were the man with the plan. …this I didn’t say. Silently, it was absorbed. Via the osmosis of our natural rapport. Our silent, vaudevillian comedy routine-style rapport spoke well. It spoke natural. Just then, we both realized there was no plan, though. And for some time, there had ceased to be one. Rather, there had neglected to be one.
Walking down the Fan District, staring blankly ahead. Is it enough of a plan, simply breaking out of the joint? Isn’t it? Shouldn’t it be? Freedom ought to be enough. All the plan one ought to need. Freedom had been made ours. Claimed. Or reclaimed. Whatever the case may be. Freedom. Sweet, sweet freedom. I supposed then—and for the first time too—that maybe freedom was not in itself the end we’d meant to justify through all those means…the mad dash from the nut-hut, down the alleyways, through the gutters and the trash, the shattering of storefront windows, the knocking over of chicken joints, the theft of corduroys and electrical cord and hog-tying of Bolivian fellas…
Fine means, no doubt…I still reasoned. But as we’d both now realized we’d in fact lacked an end, those means had suddenly been ejected right through the windshield as our vehicle’s momentum came to a dead halt. Crash-test dummies flung at 150 mph direct at a concrete wall. Dummy heads split open, dummy bones shattered and broken in a million little pieces on impact. Not enough to just be ‘free’…not if neither him nor me even knew what that thing—‘free’—even meant. I suddenly felt not so pious.
“We oughtta think of something,” he said.
“We oughtta.” I agreed. We’d both been penned up like factory-farm chickens in that mental ward, made crazy by the smallness of it all. Pumped full of hormones and antibiotics. Force-fed, too fat to support our own weight and given but four inches one way or the other in which to move or even breathe. Four walls one way or another, fluorescent track lighting that never, ever, ever goes off. They don’t switch it off. You lose all sense of time. And, eventually, place, that way. And it’s not just the loss of the sense of time, or of place. But the hum. The hum of the fluorescent track lighting above. It became some kind of deafening whisper…a single note, a flat tone, always there. Before you noticed you even noticed it, you’d already been driven crazy. And the irony still not being lost, that at least one of us had gone in to the nuthouse sane and been made crazy on coming out, and not the other way round. The cruel, unfunny irony of that. One thing preceding the thing that ought to precede the thing preceding it. A rattling, faint, cold hum producing the cause only after it’s caused the effect. And if you don’t like the effect, you ought not to produce the cause. A single note, one note. Like that composer…Schuman, or Bach, or whoever maybe, they say he went nuts because he couldn’t get a single note out of his head. It was a ‘B Flat’, I believe. One day, from what I remembered hearing on some TV show and certainly not from reading a book, he simply realized he’d been hearing a ‘B Flat’ in his mind, in his head. In his noggin. Couldn’t get it out, and only realized that well after it’d already been buzzing around inside his noggin for weeks, months…maybe even years. Something had been buzzing quietly, consistently—a sustained hum…a constant throb—and only after it had been firmly implanted in his brain, burrowed in there like a fat, blood-engorged tick, only then had he realized it was there. Burrowed in there. Like a tick. Like ticks do. I realized and I think Harry did as well—the hum of those fluorescent lights had burrowed into our minds and the tick was already well fat and happy and sated on our blood. So maybe it was the constant throb. The hum. That made us forget to even affix any kind of terms or conditions on this noble grab for freedom. Any meaning.
We were now free of that tiny cell…of all tiny cells. Free to roam. Free from the constant throb. The hum. Free to move around. And it occurred to me as well as it did him, Thomas Jefferson wasn’t talking about the freedom to simply move any which way, four inches this way or four inches the other, not even four miles this way or the other—not physically, in any case—when he wrote down all those ye olde words in our constitution. A factory-farm chicken can be released from its pen, or otherwise escape its pen, and still be just as penned in on the wide-open pastures out there over the hill. The claustrophobia swaps places with agoraphobia. One just as good as the other, really. One just as stifling as the other. Without an objective, a constitution, a bill of rights…just as enslaved as before. We’d neglected to even think to write our constitution. Freedom meant chicken and Pepsi and decapitated mannequins. Not what Jefferson had in mind, probably. Probably not Plato either. Plato likely wouldn’t have apologized for chicken and Pepsi. Plato and Jefferson, those were guys it seemed to us, I think, that wouldn’t have ever gotten that constant throb. No ‘B Flat’ hum. We’d been waylaid by a ‘B Flat’. A constant throb. Without warning, we both felt chilly. The skin on our forearms became all gooselike and clammy. We both felt, I think, a chill of sudden-onset agoraphobia. The Fan was narrow, and dirty. Cramped, adorned with fire escapes utility poles and pawn shops and same-day check cashing joints. Still, far too wide open. An acute agoraphobia struck me. And an acute anxiety. A faint, cold fear. Like I’d forgotten something on my way out the door on my way to work one day. That feeling you get, like you’ve forgotten something and you know you have but you don’t know what and not until well after you actually find yourself wanting for it do you remember what that something was. I tried like hell to remember. …what had I forgotten?
We came by a comedy club at a certain point here in my thinking. I hadn’t remembered a comedy club being here. And I hadn’t remembered where ‘here’ was. But somehow, like the cell phone or sack lunch I’d forgotten on my way out the door, I just knew it wasn’t meant to be here. Wherever ‘here’ was. It had no place, despite how placeless we were. It was a faint, Flat B…a constant throb.
“Let’s go in,” Harry said. By now it must’ve been something like 5 in the morning. Maybe 4. Perhaps 3, or 2. Maybe it was 10. But it seemed like in all our running and smashing things with bricks and molesting of inanimate, headless women, it should’ve been way past business hours for almost anything. Regardless, the neon sign was still bright. Still pink. Still buzzing. Still neon. Humming. “The Giggle Hut.”
“Giggle Hut.” My voice carrying his own echo.
“How much you wanna bet the phone number for the place is ‘1-800-TEE-HEE’?”
“Comedy sure can be unfunny,” I said.
“Comedy is the worst.”
“Like they go out of their way to be corny. Hey,” Harry said, leading the way into the Giggle Hut, “who’s your favorite comedian?”
“I dunno,” I said. “Bill Cosby maybe.”
“The Cosby Show sucked.”
“Not The Cosby Show Cosby. Not that Cosby. The stand-up Cosby.” Harry seemed not to be well aware of the Coz’s body of stand-up work…pre-Jell-O Puddin’ Pops and all that nonsense. “He’s a great comedic storyteller. Go online, find any of his old comedy albums. It’s not like…,” I paused, thinking how to go about selling it, “…it’s not like, a ‘hand on a hot stove burner’ reaction kinda funny. Like, you won’t be laughing out loud, guffawing exactly. Not most of the time. It’s more like you just really smile a lot and laugh in your head…it’s not that ‘hit you fast and between the eyes’ kind of set-up, punchline kind of comedy. It’s a story. Like your grandpa—your mom’s dad, the funny grandpa, not your dad’s dad, the mean grandpa—it’s like you’re just listening to funny grandpa tell a really funny, amusing story. A funny grandpa story.”
“That sounds putrid,” Harry sneered. “Can’t think of anything I’d rather do less than listen to ANY grandpa tell any kind of story. Old people stink.”
“You don’t get it.”
“Stop being a pretentious fag.”
“Pretentious has nothing to do with it. I fail to see how Bill Cosby of all people is pretentious, by the way. If I’d said Lenny Bruce or Bill Hicks maybe, then you could probably call me pretentious. Cosby’s mainstream. …Who the F is your favorite, then, anyway?”
“I dunno…” Harry thought it over as we took our seats in the dimly lit lounge. Tiki torches, and not surprisingly, a brick wall for a backdrop up on the stage. “I don’t really ‘do’ favorites. But if I had to throw out a name or two, I’d say just off the top of my head maybe Richard Pryor or George Carlin.”
“Of course. Geniuses. Them too.”
“Hey…” Harry elbowed me in the ribs and manufactured a corny plastic smile, “You think there’ll be any inquiries tonight as to ‘who these people are’, in a general comedically indignant manner…? Huh? Huh?” Big plastic corny smile. Well-made. “What about the likelihood of a few insights inquiring about airplane peanuts, and what the deal with them is?” Big plastic corny smile. Well-made. He seemed quite pleased with himself and his `somewhat` clever little turns of phrase, ironically. I only smiled, plastically. “What?” Harry dropped the corny plastic smile, “No good?”
“What?” I said. “Are we doing a thing…?”
“Nevermind,” he said, turning his attention back toward the wall in front of us at the back of the stage.
“Anyways…” I only smiled, plastically. Then stopped. Then we both continued to stare silently at a brick wall.
“Anyways,” he echoed.
The club was nearly empty. Four other people, all alone and spread out in separate corners of the small lounge. That was it, besides us. I’d not forgotten about the constant throb. But it seemed only natural maybe, the best thing to do when one is wandering is to immediately stop wandering. So we’d stopped. Maybe this wasn’t the place to stop our wandering. But it was as good as any. It felt like a thing to be doing, anyway. If not the right, objectively correct thing, then simply ‘a thing’. ‘A thing’ was enough for the moment. We weren’t any freer, as newly free factory-farm chickens. Trading a pen with only four inches to move one way or another for a brick wall and an empty, corny lounge.
We both probably still felt at a loss. The faint, cold fear was still there, constantly throbbing, incessantly humming. I still strained to remember what it was I’d forgotten on my way out the door and I supposed Harry was straining and stuck on the same general theme. “Spleen,” I said.
“What about it?” Harry asked, both of us sitting—staring straight ahead at a brick wall.
“The headliner’s name.” I pointed to the chalkboard with the evening’s performers listed on it, propped up against the empty bar adjacent the stage.
“Funny name, anyway.”
I kept struggling. Straining. Trying to remember that thing I’d left on my way out the door…that blood-engorged tick burrowed in the back of my neck now throbbing, pulsating a constant, cold, ‘B Flat’.
You only remember that thing you forget to remember until well after you find yourself needing the damn thing. Always how it goes.
Life’s funny that way, I supposed.