Storyglossia Issue 28, May 2008.

Identity Crisis

by Kyle Hemmings


In the elevator, Rollo pans the gaffitti etched across the sides.

For some good hootchie, call Wanda. Enrico's got a missle in his thong. If your tree grows in Brooklyn, you can prune my shrub, baby. Call xxx-xxx-xxxx--Mai Li, Miss Garden of Delights. He shrugs, pushes his bottom lip upwards. How names lie, cover up. Maybe nobody wants to be stuck with their real name. Like the senator's son, Lyndon.

He steps off on the third floor of the Venus Hotel and holds the door for a Hispanic woman, belly ballooning, flip-flops hugging her feet. She thanks him; he smiles but keeps his head angled downwards. Swaggering down the hallway, he sips from a cup of Starbucks coffee. Steam curls from the tear in the cup's lid. The coffee tastes of green mint. Last time, they served him one that tasted like hazelnut. He didn't order that one and they fucked up this one too. He ordered Irish Crème.

The door is thin, flimsy, perhaps a cheap balsa wood. He digs into a jacket pocket, whips out a saw-toothed key labeled 321, twists it to the right, left, back to center. It opens. Some coffee splashes against his leather jacket that still smells fresh as the inside of a new car. Shit.

Inside the room, he whisks the door shut, slides a flimsy chain across, shakes the knob. There is loose play. With face flushed against the door, he spies out the peep hole. It looks clear. Always looks clear.

The room is dank, a putrid smell, the ghost of rotten fruit; his shoulders stiffen, roll back. He imagines a night of rough sex, false names, body odors drifting. Sets the coffee down on a round glass table, smeared, streaked, holding a fat porcelain vase, characters of Asian women twisting around each other. Did they have lesbians back then and in that place? Maybe just a shortage of men. Who the fuck knows.

A king size bed swallows the center of the room. It is firm, hard, and the top sheets smell of lemon, perhaps the cleanest thing in the room. He peers down. A crumpled cigarette box, an empty bottle of Yoo-hoo on its side, the carpet, a faded velvet, marked by depressions. A black ant crawls up and across the fiber loops, towards the bed.

He stomps on the ant. It still hints at life. Mesmerized by its movement, its sudden change of direction, he steps on it again, but no, still alive. He squats, freezes, then lunges, squishes the insect with his left thumb. Nothing moving. In the bathroom, he runs soapy water over the thumb, scratching at it, peeling off every minute remain of that insect. He recalls how his nana always shot him an evil eye whenever a neighbor's tabby cat turned up missing.

He dries his hands. Opens and flexes them. So thick, hairy, and the wrists too, he wants to think they could wrestle a boar. Wrinkles his nose and spits in the sink. Fumbles with a loose button on his checkered shirt, pulls out the necklace, old silver but polished, and kisses the small crucifix.

He had kissed that same crucifix after knocking a kid senseless. It was a scrawny Irish kid from the West End who accused Rollo of cheating at a game of street cards. Rollo countered by calling the kid a liar, even claiming that Costello was not an Irish name. The kid said it was as Irish as Saint Patrick and that Rollo should go fuck his mother.

Afterwards, Rollo was forced to give up half his allowance for a year to pay for the kid's fractured skull as well as to sweep the convent floor of St. Veronica's school. He began to suspect God must have been Irish.

He inspects his face in the cabinet mirror: the bulbous nose, the lips, taunt, like stretched ribbon. Swings the cabinet open, snatches a miniature tube of toothpaste, complements of the Venus Hotel. In the mirror, he parts his lips, gnashes his teeth; they are coffee-stained and yellowed, the yellow of popcorn artificially flavored. He lived on it as a kid. He was never a kid.

He wants to be called Lydia and not Lyndon.

He squirts a roll of toothpaste on his finger and begins rubbing his teeth, up and down, across, pushing harder at the bottom. He imagines a cave of stalagmites and stalactites. A cave dark as tartar forming at the bottom of his teeth. Why the last time he saw a dentist was--when? The guy, a friend of the family's, was so near sighted, Rollo wondered if he drilled the right tooth. He filled out false insurance claims and summoned Rollo's uncles to scare off inexperienced investigators. Rollo will not see another dentist. He'd rather suck on the end of a .357.

Entering the main room, he digs into his jacket pocket, pops two Roll-Aids into his mouth. Hell, he thinks, his mother should have named him that rather than after the famous writer/psychotherapist, Rollo May. She devoured his books like gelato on a summer afternoon. His father, a plumber and the president of Local 21, said those books were written by thumb suckers to encourage other thumb suckers to keep sucking their thumbs until they hit forty.

He settles back onto the bed, grabs a remote, flicks it towards a TV, channel surfs, yawns. Regis Philbin is acting cute with some nervous contestant who needs a lifeline to figure out if Henry VIII ate without using utensils.

Rollo props himself up, whips out a .357 Smith & Wesson with six-inch barrel. He cradles it, cleans it, nurses it, inspects the cylinder. Fully loaded. Bitch, he mumbles. After tucking it back it between his belt and hip, he retrieves his back-up, a .32 Barreta, performs a similar ritual, slides and checks the clip.

"And you just won $4,000.00 dollars," says Regis.

He nestles the Barreta against his ankle. He lights up a cigarette, smokes it to the filter.

The audience applauds.

The cell phone whines.

Rollo twitches and jerks.

His cell phone chirps some snappy old pop tune: Love Will Keep Us Together. The phone keeps playing that simple melody. Like music in the dentist's office. That near-sighted bastard.

Rollo jumps off the bed, picks up. His stomach still churns acid.



"No, you got Chinese fucking take-out."

"They're up in 702. And, fuck you, I don't eat Chinese."

Rollo flips the razor phone shut, jumps off the bed.

"For $8, 000. 00, what did the W in John Booth stand for?"

He likes being called Lydia and not Lyndon. He likes dressing in drag.

He dabs the cigarette butt in a glass ashtray, scrambles out the door. The TV is still playing.

In the hallway, he steps briskly, trying to look nonchalant, spots a woman with tight jeans and high altitude pumps. Before she passes, he pins his chin to his chest. On the elevator, he presses the button marked 7, gets off , glances around—nothing. He's starting to breathe a little heavier. He snakes up to Rm. 702, notices the faint shaft of light under the door. Leans his ear into it. Sounds of moans and groans emanate like someone's getting humped by the devil himself. He feels flushed and his pulse quickening. Some of the groans sound painful. Bitch, he mumbles, smirks.

He retrieves a lock picker from his jacket pocket, turns and twists the knob, jimmies the door a bit. It opens partially but catches on the door chain. With a tensed shoulder, he charges, smashes the door open. Gripping the Magnum, he enters. Shuffles towards the sounds.

The john, with a mop of gray stringy hair, and the senator's son with a blonde wig, are doing it standing up by the far side of one wall. Rollo wants to turn away, out of some sense of decency he cultivated from God knows where—the nuns? The john's doing the kid from behind and the face of the senator's son is a paroxysm of delight and wretchedness.

He likes to be called Lydia and not Lyndon.

Rollo walks over, raises the piece with extended arm, expecting a wicked recoil, fires, an ear-shattering explosion, flash of white, the john's blood and gray brain matter blow across the room. Goldilocks is hysterical, turns, crouches down, squeezing his shoulders together, trying to cover the flat breasts, the small tender belly, the prize hooch that is an illusion.

Rollo waves the gun at him, Lydia who is otherwise naked in black nylons, who is slowly transforming back to Lyndon. Rollo rubs his lips together, motions him to put on some clothes.

"Daddy wants you home. It's past curfew."

Lyndon takes blind swipes at him, pushing him away, asking him over and over in his broken effeminate voice how could he have done this, you crazy fuck, and the blood, the john's blood, splattered, streaking down Lyndon's shoulders, his arms of red flecked flesh.

"Do you need a fucking hearing aid? Let's go, you wannabe twat." Rollo says.

Lyndon spits at him. Rollo slaps him. Lyndon grows quiet and inert as he makes the difficult transition back to being a man. Rollo throws him the clothes piled pell-mell on the carpet, tight leather skirt and fuscia pull-over knit and size 36 or 38 brassiere. They remind Rollo of the clothes those mignottas parade in outside of The Lone Ranger Bar and Grill on South Street, a men's only club in the back, and some of the girls, runaways from well-furnished modular homes in Jersey.

Rollo follows him into the bathroom where Lyndon rinses his face, shoulders, the absolution from blood and guilt by association. Then, Lyndon dresses, asking Rollo not to watch. Rollo rolls his eyes, snaps his fingers at him to hurry, hurry you stupid bitch. The sobbing causes Rollo to pinch his lips. He even cries like a pussy, thinks Rollo, one who lost all her coke money. The john's blood is making abstract patterns on the carpet.

The john, Rollo knows, is a real estate lawyer and supposedly more than just an acquaintance of the senator, Lyndon's father. He procured the senator some great deals in a home market boom several years back.

They dash out the room towards a back exit, Rollo holding Lyndon by the arm, down six floors, walking out into the night air, onto a sidewalk of couples holding hands, offering each other bags of chestnuts, warm pretzels, women carrying shopping bags with the logo: Discount Stop. Rollo presses Lyndon's head close to his side as if they are wounded lovers. They slacken to a more leisurely pace. He whispers to Lyndon, "Slow down. You're making us conspicuous."

Lyndon throws him a half-crazed look, "Conspicuous?"

He pushes Lyndon in the van, tells Sweet Pea to put up the radio, some soft jazz to relax him. Then he orders Sweet Pea to stop at Starbucks; he wants another coffee—an Irish Crème with mocha-flavored half and half. The creamers are what give it that distinctive taste. The taste reminds him of farms and cows where he would someday move with his amica, Theresa, a waitress at the Golden Egg Diner who can't make up her mind about anything.

Out in the country, Rollo once thought, there would be no need for people to huddle in groups, to seek out protection. He would forge a fake identity; he would escape without ever being found.

"I'm not livin' with no fuckin' cows," Theresa told him, "they stink." Rollo knew by the following week, she'd beg him to escape for the weekend to her uncle's small farm in Jersey.

No, he thinks, it's all bullshit. Wherever you go, somebody wants what you got. It's all bullshit from here to the mountains of Mongolia. And even there you ain't safe. You might be kidnapped by whaddyacallits: those Kubla Khan Capos and their soldiers who hunt wild boar. And where do you get an Irish Crème in Mongolia?

Stop it, he thinks. You're making the ulcer worse.


"Stop for a coffee? Are you fucking nuts? After that?" the Sweet says to Rollo in a squeaky voice like somebody getting his nuts pinched.

Yeah, Rollo tells him, the last one was cold and fuck the ulcer.

Lyndon, in the front seat, fidgets. He is still shaken, still sobbing.

"Why can't that prick let me live my own life."

"For what? So, you can sell your ass and ruin his career? I mean, excuse my French and all but maybe some respect is in order."

Lyndon turns abruptly, removes the wig, reveals a close-cropped head of spiky reddish hair. His blue eyes bulge.

"There's an art to what I do."

"Yeah. I'll say."

As the van races through Battery Tunnel, Rollo throws him a pile of clothes from the backseat. The ebullient Lydia has now drowned completely in the more somber Lyndon. Removing the nylon stockings with runs and wrestling with the jeans, he complains that they are too big and the man's dress shirt is ugly. It's really for geeks who go church on Sundays and can't fuck to save their lives, he says.

"How can I wear these? How? Look. It's for a gorilla. They're horrible."

"Shut up. Who made you an expert in fashion design? " says Rollo, but he shakes his head, as if meditating on something deep and elusive.

Like the world needs more problems, thinks Rollo. Like the world really needs to be more fucked up than what it is. Men wanting to be women, women wanting be men, politicians wanting be dictators. They can't even control their own sons and daughters who humiliate them. They pay guys like me to either bring them back alive or pump them dead. And all I want is a good cup of fucking coffee that doesn't taste like hazelnut.

Rollo slips the Barreta from an ankle holster, aims it at the back of the kid's head.

"You know most guys prefer me to a woman."

The kid spins around for a second, catching Rollo's eyes. Rollo drops the gun below his knee, out of the kid's view.

"You know why . . . You know why they prefer me?"

The kid turns around. Rollo lifts the piece to the kid's skull again.

"I'm all ears."

The Sweet snickers.

"Because what I got is sweet, honey. Sweetest tush this side of the Big Apple. They always come back for more."

"That so?"

"Sure is, Mister. And I do something else their wives don't. I listen to them. I actually listen to their problems." The kid smacks his lips and hums along to the radio's soft jazz, some Chuck Mangione with throbbing bass and a muffled horn.

The kid reaches over, turns up the volume on the push button.

"Turn it up louder," says Rollo.

"Louder?" says the kid.

"Yeah. Louder. Are you deaf?"

"Okay. It's louder."

"Lower that shit," says the Sweet.

"Guys, make up your mind. I can't do both at the same time. You sound like my parents."

Rollo notices the van wobbling, the front end rumbling. Shit, says the Sweet, all we need—a flat tire. The van pulls over a few feet from the entrance to a bridge. Rollo instructs the kid to stay inside the van. The night is drizzly, misty.

With lug wrench, the Sweet curses, twists and tugs at the lug nuts. Cocksucker, why do they make these things so hard to get off. It's like mayonnaise jars. Rollo hears a door slam. The kid announces he has to take a leak.

"Thought I told you to stay inside," says Rollo.

"I can't tie it in a knot," says the kid.

"Do it where we can see you," says the Sweet.

Rollo grapples with a donut, mounts it on the frame. He stops, wipes his forehead, listens to the sound of the kid's whiz against pavement. The most work you've done in three months, jokes the Sweet.

They jump back in the van. Fortunately, there are few cars out tonight. The mist is getting heavier, the visibility poorer.

"Where's the kid?" snaps the Sweet.

"I don't have him in my pocket," says Rollo.

"I thought you were watching him."

"I can't do two things at the same time."

The van peels off, the Sweet crouched over the steering wheel, blaming everything on a faulty defogger. He says he thinks he spots a figure running, weaving along the bridge, but this he can't be sure. Rollo leans forward, squints his eyes. There's something murky in the distance, something concealed by the fog.

"Do you know if this cocksucker gets away, he'll rat us out?"

"I shoulda did him in the van."

"Why didn't you?"

"I was gettin' edgy about it."

"I was getting' edgy about it." The Sweet mimics a little girl's voice while jerking his shoulders.

"I didn't want to do it. I thought I might not do it. I started to feel . . . well, okay . . . a little sorry for him. I mean, what did this loony kid ever do to me? Okay. Maybe he thinks he's Betty Boop. I got nuthin' against Betty Boop. See? So I didn't do it because I might have dreams of Betty Boop coming back from the dead."

"The fuck you talking about? You didn't wanna do it. It's a hard order. Extinguish contract. Non-negotiable. The fuck has gotten into you? You been watching Dr. Phil and all those sissy asses who can't decide how to get a kid to wipe his ass?"

Rollo leans forward, snatches the wig from the front seat. In the rearview, he tries it on.

The Sweet, with his bald head and beady eyes, peers up in the mirror.

"Now what the fuck are you doin'? Do I work with a bunch of fucking wackadoos or what."

"Nothing," says Rollo, shrugging, "nothing."

In the mirror, Rollo tilts his face at one angle, then, another.

"You know, I'm gonna get out of this. Soon. Real soon. Buy a farm and wear my hair long, change my name, my looks. Just work on a farm. None of ya's gonna find me."

"You're full of shit. Oh, they'll find you. Bet your ass, they'll find you." Sweet leans forward, squeezing his eyes. He mutters curses that he can't see the kid.

"No, really. I think I have what you call—aspirations—yeah, aspirations to be a farmer. You know, grow things. Raise cows. Because you can't get nuthin' on a cow. A cow just is. It squirts some milk in your pail and then, it don't give a fuck. I can get Irish Crème from a cow . . . In fact, I knew a kid once, an Irish kid, lived on 10th and 52nd. He loved cows too. I think he did. I bashed his head in. Every now and then, Sweet, I dream about him. Talkin' to me like he ain't making any sense because what I did to him. I think he cursed me. I think he tries to tell me to give up this life . . . It's gettin' to me, Sweet. I swear on Saint Lucia, it's gettin' to me. I'm tired of wacking all these minchiones"

"You're full of shit. Fucking cows, my ass."

The van veers past the center of the bridge, then, crosses back into the right lane.

Sweet wipes his eyes. "Can't see for shit... What are ya gonna tell me next? That Bobo Buschione likes cows?"

"Maybe he does. Who knows? Bobo Buschione is a cow."

Rollo laughs. Sweet shakes his head.

Modeling the wig, he says to the Sweet, "Hey, do I look good or what?"

The Sweet eyes the rearview, slaps the steering wheel. "Take that shit off. You look like some fucking busone."

The van moves in jagged lines up the drawbridge, below, Rollo can barely make out the dark solitude of a river. He imagines distant docks pitted along its edges, docks owned by his family bosses. Sweet still complains he can't see for shit.

"Where the fuck is he?"

"He can't be far, says Rollo.

Rollo can now make out the kid's figure in the headlights. The kid, turning around, looks breathless, scared. He continues to run in a zigzag direction, but his steps slow, falter. He'll lose his wind sooner or later, Rollo figures.

The van lunges forward.

"Take it easy," says Rollo.

"What do you mean, take it easy? I'm running this cocksucker over."

He can barely make out a wisp of blinking red lights up ahead. Slowly, he feels the van lifting, towards the sky over Brooklyn, Queens, over everywhere.

Rollo watches the kid turn around, his arms flailing, losing his balance, the van aiming towards him. The kid turns around, suddenly—disappears.

"Did he jump or fall," says the Sweet.

"Does it matter? At this height? You think he's gonna swim back home?"

Increasingly, Rollo feels the van edging up a terrific incline. Stop the van, he yells to the Sweet.

"I wanna make sure he's dead."

"He can't get much deader. Stop the van."

The Sweet jams on the brakes, but too late. They sail over the breaking bridge. The van glides in air, sailing over the river. For a few moments, he experiences a freedom he never felt before.

The sound of Sweet saying a prayer almost amuses him. "Mary, Mother of Jesus," he says, "have mercy on me. I donated every Sunday. Took good care of my father-in-law. And you know I couldn't stand his guts."

The van's fall accelerates.

Rollo leans back against the seat, folds his hands. The wig slides over his forehead, his eyes. He thinks about that Irish kid petting cows. Cows who are what they are. That kid who would stutter, could no longer remember his name.

Rollo pushes back the wig.

The van crashes into water. Tossed from side to side, Rollo closes his eyes, attempts to hold his breath. He opens them. He can barely make out something murky in the water, in the darkness, something swimming towards them. He can't tell if it's a fish, or maybe that crazy kid, Lyndon, puffing out his cheeks, mocking them, as if to say "see ya, suckers."

The kid disappears.

Feeling his lungs heavy, running out of air, Rollo gasps, says, "Sweet, don't tell anybody this, but I gotta confess something."

"What," says Sweet in a soft monotone.

I never learned how to swim.

Copyright©2008 Kyle Hemmings

Kyle Hemmings has an MFA in creative writing from National University, CA. He likes to cook, bake, and usually winds up burning whatever he cooks, or bakes. He likes listening to The Beach Boys sing of an endless summer that never arrives.