Storyglossia Issue 26, January 2008.

Transubstantiation Blues

by A. Ray Norsworthy

 

November 1, 1990

 

 

For sixteen days Gib tells Naomi that she will change her mind about going back to New York City. On the seventeenth day, he drives her to the Oklahoma City airport, a forty-seven mile drive from Indiahoma, most of it on the turnpike. Her flight is scheduled to leave at 9:12, but since it is Thanksgiving weekend the airline advised her to get there a couple of hours early and be prepared in case of a delay. Naomi brings the latest chapters of Gib's novel-in-progress to read during the flight. Gib tells her the next chapter will be a tearjerker. Naomi tells him no jerking will be required.

As required by the natural law regulating romance goodbyes, the autumn morning is cold and gloomy with intermittent splatters of rain and swirling cloud mist from ceiling to floor. And of course it's Sunday, with nothing on the radio but an orgasmic evangelist drawling on the AM station, the only radio station within reach since someone snapped the antenna off his decade-old BMW the last time he parked in downtown Oklahoma City. That was two months ago, when he took Naomi for Tex-Mex on her birthday.

Without the radio on and a sleepy silence between the soon to be parted lovers, Gib is hyper-aware of the clattering of rain, the swish swish of the wipers, the whine and sputter of the tires on the wet highway, even Naomi's cough and his throat clearing. He needs to fart but it seems so inappropriate he clenches his buttocks until the urge subsides. His stomach groans. Indigestion. The whole day is indigestible, in need of a giant I.V. of Pepto Bismol.

After paying at the toll booth, Gib glances at Naomi and says, —This feels like a freakin' movie! Late last night they watched a Bogie doubleheader of Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon on one of the cable movie channels. —I should be puffing on a cig like Bogie and muttering something like, I hope they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.

Naomi gives him a perfect Hollywood starlet gaze, moist with longing and regret.

Gib takes a puff of an imaginary cigarette and does his terrible Bogey impression.

—The chances are you'll get off with life. That means if you're a good girl, you'll be out in 20 years. I'll be waiting for you, sweetheart . . . if they don't hang you.

Naomi sighs and then a few seconds later chuckles. —And I should be dabbing a hanky at my teary eyes and saying, I wish I could make you understand that I have to do this or not doing it would tear us apart.

—You sound like Mary Astor, but your innocence is not as convincing.

—Up yours, Sammy Spade.

Gib grins and mimes blowing out a puff of smoke. He glances over at her and she smirks and shakes her head.

They enter the mist-blanketed city under the orange glow of the sodium vapor lights. Conversation ceases, and in the silence a thousand thoughts spark and die out as if his brain is made of flint but the kindling is soggy. His yawns make his eyes so watery it looks like he's crying. I need wipers as much as the windshield, he says to himself. Traffic is sparse. On the expressway the people in their cars look sleepy and serious, some of them hung-over, all of them intent on arrival, not departure.

—What an ugly town this is, Gib says.

Naomi makes a humph sound in her throat. —You want ugly, go to Newark.

—Nah, I don't want ugly, I want beautiful. I want . . . you.

She squeezes his leg and he looks at her and meets her gaze. Her eyes tear up again. He pulls out his hanky and hands it to her to dab at her eyes.

When he takes the exit to Airport Blvd. a bird flies up suddenly from the median and barely misses the windshield. A white dove, he's pretty sure. Or maybe it was just a pigeon. Whatever it is, it was feeding on the rotting carcass of a belly-up armadillo. It's a sign, he says to himself. A sign of what? A sign of the Apocalypse. A sign that armadillos belong at their world headquarters. A sign of poor avian gastronomy. A sign that his inner cuckoo is leaving the house.

The anti-climactic goodbye outside the airport terminal is sweet, formal, and awkward—like their hello the day they met. No swelling music. No Casablanca re-enactment, no twitch, no grimace, no cigarette. No here's looking at you, kid, hands in the pocket, upturned collar, or fog. Just coffee breath, whispers unheard because of the roar in his head, feeling her eyelash-flicked tears on his neck with their last fevered and trembling embrace. His heart swelling like a toad and threatening to burst. She does give him a last cryptic glance over her shoulder as she enters the revolving glass door of the brightly-lit terminal, but before his eyes can freeze her strange expression in his mind like an instant photograph, a short, goofy looking cowboy steps in behind her and blots her face out with his big Stetson. At the same exact moment a deafening crack of thunder shakes the terminal like a bomb and a gust of wind sweeps through stinging his face with an icy mist. Gib gets in his car and shuts the door. Behind him, a car honks impatiently, wanting his spot. Gib glances in the rearview mirror and says, —Okay, okay, give me a fucking break. He starts the car and whips around the taxi in front of him out into the traffic lane.

The car seems empty. The car seems sad. The worn leather seat loved to embrace her heart-shaped ass. The mirror adored her face; enjoyed reflecting every freckle and pore, every floating wisp of auburn hair, and especially the sparkle in her eyes. Every mirror that catches her reflection competes for her attention but she seldom offers even a glance, which makes them want her all the more.

He dares to speak aloud. —This blows.

The wind agrees, and buffets the car with exclamation points of rain.

At least he maintained a stoical fašade except for eyes made teary not by yawning. For a supposedly tough guy he's a bit of a tear-stained wretch, the opposite of Spade. What does it matter if you show your emotions? Because life goes on and all tears and sighs are not equal, sayeth the Lord of the Dance. Last night when they lay in bed in the dark talking, Naomi said her theory is that social formalities—the hellos, goodbyes, and daily negotiations supposed to smooth out life's wrinkles—are an agreement to pretend to be civilized in the hope that someday it may come true. What he didn't say last night is that people haven't gotten more civilized; they've simply gotten better at pretending. Instead of Spade, he should pretend he's Rick after watching Ilsa fly off into the noble mists, but he feels more like Major Strasser after Rick shoots him.

—Enough self pity, he announces at a red light. He knows her leaving is for all the right reasons. Her old friend Paul has AIDS. Terrible. Tragic. But how does her performing the lead in the Off-Off-Broadway play Paul is directing make his situation that much cheerier? A little, maybe. No doubt Naomi is one of the more talented Off-Off-Broadway actors. But meanwhile, it makes Gib's life a whole lot less cheery. She's robbing his peter to pay Paul. No, that's crass. She's doing the right thing, but what is that worth? And it's not like her career will get a boost from such an obscure production. Sure, if he knew she would come running back once the play is over he would be more Rick-ish. But he knows how New York gets in your system until the only way you can live without it is a major transplant. He's still got the scar to prove it.

Gib pushes a button on the stereo to play his favorite Louis Armstrong CD. When Butter and Egg Man comes on he turns it up until the windows resonate with Louis' trumpet. The rain pours down harder and finally falls so hard he has to pull over to the shoulder. Hail begins to pepper the hood. The rain falls even harder and the wind rocks the car.It's been a long time since he's felt so melancholy. About the only thing it's good for is his writing. How would he incorporate this heart-kick into his novel?

Her love kept him off the cart.

A great line, even if it's over the top. And the story that created it is true. Ten years ago when he traveled through India he stopped for a couple of weeks in the village of Panskura, near Kolkata. He stayed in a fly-infested hostel behind Neelmani Temple that was only slightly more tolerable than the street. Every morning he watched the corpse collectors take the carts around the streets and pick up the unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on your point of view) ones who didn't make it through the night. They had to use sticks to fight off packs of dogs as starved and desperate as their masters. One morning as the men marched along, slinging the occasional purplish skin-covered skeleton onto what would soon be a burning pyre, Gib, wearing a kerchief tied around his face like a bandit and breathing through his mouth so as not to smell the overwhelming stench, struck up a conversation with one of the young Bengali men, a seemingly happy-go-lucky fellow who was always singing to himself and grinning. Gib gave him half of his mango and the man was very friendly. His name was memorable: Govendrachandra. Gib nicknamed him Go Go and he seemed to like it. He told Gib that the worst part of the grim job was that some days the death haul would include someone of their acquaintance; usually only a casual acquaintance, but sometimes a person they knew well. There could be no sadder job on earth, Go Go said in his sing-song halting English. Gib shook his head and asked Go Go how he kept his spirits up. Go Go said that he was so crazy about his girlfriend, Kika, that the whole time he was loading the stinking, filthy, rags-clad disease-ridden bodies, he was thinking about his next dalliance. —Prem sundar jakhan eta pabitra, he said, and then interpreted. —Love is beautiful when it is pure. Yes, Gib agreed. Yes, indeed. Go Go said that he was himself in poor health, every day a struggle to put food in his stomach and fight off his persistent attacks of malaria.—Love is the only thing that keeps me off the cart, he told Gib.

Write that down, Gib tells himself. That's not bad for a detective novelist.

A peal of thunder shakes the car. The farmers need the rain. The land is parched. Wildfires everywhere. A hot, muggy summer with no rain. It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Seasons. To everything there is. In spite of the weather, for him this summer was full of joy. Bliss and benign mischief. But fall is here and everything has fallen apart. Go Go died and rode the cart. Gib got a postcard from Kika. She's living in Grapevine, Texas where her family opened a successful Indian restaurant called Madhuban. She said they had the best kasha mangsho around.

No goat curry for Gib. Too gamey.

After St. James Infirmary finishes, Gib turns off the stereo. The rain lets up and he takes off with a whoosh, leaving fountains in his wake. He exits the Interstate and stops at the first bar he sees on the south edge of Oklahoma City. It is not an upscale bar. There are bikers' hogs and rednecks' muddy pickup trucks out front. After several belts of Johnny Walker (the only scotch in the house), Gib's eyes wander in and out of focus, tattoos and teeth float in the air and a couple of greasy Bikers dance rings around a large breasted woman named Rosey and pool playing truck drivers with snuff-cheeks sing Merle Haggard and George Strait songs along with the jukebox. Some little nervous guy called Goose keeps asking him if he thinks Jesus rides a Harley and sails upon the highway and only bitches with big tits can see him and Gib keeps grabbing his shirt and sayeth-ing unto him variations of a delirious madman's gospel, the last verse being that Jesus and his disciples work at Wal-Mart as greeters and Mary Magdalene jumped Golgotha riding a crotch rocket and ran off with the thief because he was a backdoor man who could eat more fried chicken than any man she'd ever seen. Another man elbows Goose aside and slobbers, —Hey, man, what I gottuh do? Huh? What I gottuh do? Know what I mean? A man . . . cain't . . . live by bread and shit alone, know what I mean? That's what my old lady expecks! What I gottuh do?

At first Gib thinks he's spoiling for a fight, but then he recognizes the Lucian Freud face of a philosopher. —You mean besides die?

—Uh huh. Yeah, that's right. What I gottuh do? That's what I asked that bitch that I promised to love and cherish forever! Dumped me for a fuckin' car salesman, you believe that! Give me a soul shake, brother!

Gib gives him a soul handshake and then shakes his head soulfully and says, —Do the right thing, man. That's all I can tell you. And let the shit fall where it may. Either that or go down to St. James Infirmary!

The drunk stands up straight and wobbles. —How the fuck do I do that? The right thing, I mean. I don't know where that other place is at.

The pontiff speaks. —Find out the right thing to do, I guess.

The drunk thinks about what he said and then nods and says quietly, —I'm onuh go kill that bitch. He takes two steps backwards and then sinks to the filthy floor like his backbone has been stripped from him by an unseen alien. In a minute he starts to snore.

The right thing to do, Gib says to himself. —Who wants to do the right thing? he yells. —Who wants to save our souls, fo' shizzle?

A yell goes up. Everyone looks at him like he's crazy. I've got to get rid of the right thing, he says to himself. Before it kills me. So he goes to the men's room, bounces off a stall wall, and then falls to his knees and vomits into the commode.

Having taken great offense at his mocking sarcasm, the right thing comes to life in the toilet as a beauteous glowing shapeless ectoplasm, more entrancing than the baby Jesus, gorged and groaning with love and mercy and swaddled in the grace of good intentions. Sore afraid, Gib quickly flushes but the commode stops up and the right thing rises with his vomit and flows over the white porcelain edge as if self-birthed to the world of men: a pulsing luminous turd-star beaming with a thousand points of light, the most beautiful turd-star in the universe of cause and effect. It slides down the commode into the floor and floats out of the stall where a drunken redneck standing at the urinal freaks out and kicks it with one of his shiny lizard-skin boots at the exact moment another man opens the men's room door. The right thing goes zipping like an oversized hockey puck out into the raucous bar between the crawfish legs of an aging rouge-otimized cocktail waitress, bumps into a leg of the pool table, and flips into the fireplace where, being naturally incendiary, it flames up, dehydrates, and floats up the chimney with the smoke and ash, and out into the dreary November sky where the cold rain puts the fire out and a opportunistic raven plucks the right thing out of the air but drops it when confronted by a loaded C-130 Hercules Troop Carrier full of guilt, and so the right thing freefalls down, down, down, through the clouds and the wind and the rain, but just as it's about to hit the ground a prideful hawk snags it with his beak and carries it as far up and away as he can fly, but somewhere over the rainbow the careless bird is sucked into the jet engine of the American Airlines 737 that Naomi is onboard, and the right thing is violently snatched from the hawk's shattered beak, disintegrates, whooshes out the other end of the jet engine and through sheer determination, reintegrates in time to stick to the rudder where it clings for dear life, buffeted by the bitter wind made turbulent and fetid at these heights by the last gasps from the world's expiring corpses, until somewhere over LaGuardia, while the plane circles for a landing, a bolt of lightning strikes the right thing and it loses its grip and is sent hurtling downward through the air, shooting sparks as it wobbles and veers through the hostile air currents across Manhattan Island like a miniature spaceship until it loses its buoyancy near mid-town and starts to freefall like a suicide jumper. Seconds later, it splats across the bald dome of a portly tourist sales rep from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania who is peering through the telescope from the observation deck on the Empire State building at the hookers on the corner of thirty-fourth and 4th Ave. 86 floors below. The right thing knocks the voyeur unconscious and he collapses. Since the right thing now resembles an angel's toupee, an envious avant garde Japanese hair stylist grabs it from the bald man's head and stuffs it in his bag; then he rides the elevator down to the street and hurries around the corner to catch a taxi, but a thuggish purse snatcher grabs his bright red bag and runs away. Several blocks later the purse snatcher goes through the bag and seeing the right thing he tosses it with disgust into the gutter where it lies unused and abandoned for three days until a heavy redemptive rain washes it into the sewer and it rides the shitway express all the way to the East River where, nestled against a piece of dismembered corpse, a hungry shad swallows it—a Brooklyn shad as it turns out—who swims toward Brooklyn to hang out with his homefishes. By this time, having lost or shed most of its original intent, the right thing is an abominable mess; it resembles a slightly luminous cluster of wrathful grapes (or else very large angry roe) in the fish's stomach. The stupid fish, who has long been a disappointment to his parents, gets lost in the harbor, so he surfaces to get his bearings, but at that moment a speeding cigarette boat knocks him high into the air, his silvery fins flashing in the sunlight, and the blades of a low flying traffic helicopter slices and dices the shiny shad into fillets, but the right thing squirts Jonah-like out of the shad's ass at the last instant, snags on the tip of the helicopter's blade and is flung like a Frisbee all the way to Chinatown, where it unceremoniously plops into a puddle of wino piss just before a stray toy poodle picks it up in his teeth and snorting at the pungency, delivers it to the back door of a Chinese restaurant where he usually salvages scraps. A shrewd cook taking out the garbage excitedly rescues what he thinks is an epicurean's dream cluster of oversized roe, and serves them to his most devoted customer, a Wall Street tycoon, who praises the culinary delight to the seven heavens, goes home to his Chelsea loft, makes passionate quickie to his expensive, haughty wife and then leans his head over the bed and regurgitates the indigestible glob of mysterious protoplasm all over their fancy Persian rug. In the morning, their Haitian servant cleans it up as best she can, dumping his elegant puke into the commode and flushing it. However, the right thing clogs up yet another toilet, causing it to back up and overflow. The building's super works to free the reconstituted and almost unrecognizable right thing and in the process causes a minor flood. He retrieves a mop and cleans up the mess, but when he is through he slings his mop over his shoulder so hard the right thing flies out the open bathroom window and falls six stories to the street below where it lands on the epaulets of the building's stoical doorman and sticks, using suction born out of desperation as the doorman meets a limo out front where he opens the door for Mrs. Lovelady, the eccentric hair restorer heiress. When the doorman bends over, the old lady grasps his shoulder for support, and her hand touches the foul goo that once was a radiant seraphim of love and light, and she screams and slaps the exhausted right thing as if it were a pile of snot. The right thing loses its grip and drops onto the windshield and slides down the sparkling glass until it becomes wedged in the limo's windshield vent; the impatient limo driver takes off into the traffic, carrying the right thing along to the intersection of Canal and Broadway where a wild-eyed indigent cleaning windshields covers it with glass cleaner and then swipes it off into the street where it adheres to the tire of a careening taxi that bumps a curb on the corner of St. Marks and First Avenue and knocks what is left of the tattered, dim, nearly disintegrated, completely foreign and unrecognizable right thing onto the sidewalk in front of the Alphabet Mania theater, where Naomi, having taken a taxi from her East Village apartment for the opening night of First You Die, Then You Get Old, strolls through the East Village cutting edge crowd radiant and proud of doing the right goddamned thing goddamned right thing goddamned right thing goddamn the motherfucking goddamned right thing, Butter and fucking eggman right thing, the princess of Off-Off Broadway slips on the last futile and tragic expiration from what was nobly born as the right thing and ignobly falls on her beautiful callipygian ass, her puckered immaculate asshole landing smack dab on the right thing and transubstantiating it into the body and blood of Gib the Martyr.

Gib slaps some water on his face and staggers out of the men's room.

He waves over the diminutive female bartender, who bears an eerie resemblance to Peter Lorre. —Love is beautiful when it is pure! he yells at her above the boisterous crowd. —But I won't play the sap for you!

Copyright©2008 A. Ray Norsworthy