Storyglossia Issue 18, February 2007.

Love Me, Love My Doppelganger

by Tom Schwider


Time is flat and repetitive.

Large silver propeller planes rumble overhead dropping bombs in slow motion over the North Side of Chicago. An unshaven man wearing a hooded sweatshirt beneath a black leather jacket approaches me. He smells like a hot dog loaded with kraut and sweet peppers. His face is covered in shadows and his thoughts enter my head without speaking a word. "I am an alien. You've nothing to fear." The bombs don't explode.

I'm in a bedroom with a woman I've never seen before. The room is round with stucco walls. We're stretched beside one another on a water bed.

"We might as well have sex. No one else will know." She smiles as she says it.

"I can't. My grandmother is in the next room making noodles." An eerie light comes through the door and I hear eggs cracking, flour being sifted, and a rolling pin stretching dough over a wooden board. Who else makes their own noodles anymore?

"Use your powers wisely," the alien transmits wordlessly. I turn to look for him, but he isn't there. A scent of hot dogs lingers in the room.

"I'm waiting."

The woman doesn't care about my grandmother or hot dogs. She's summer tan, with red hair and green eyes. I wonder if she can read my mind and try sending her a thought—"I don't like condoms."

"Use a condom. I don't want a mess."


But I can't comply. I look down and see a tubular, drooping wad of dough where my penis should be. The groin end is beginning to separate from my body. It will leave me looking like G.I. Joe.

"The world is so much better thanks to Jane Goodall," she says.

"Have you seen her new book on natural diets? Or her elementary school program, Roots and Shoots?" I ask.

My powers enable me to respond with aplomb. Her green eyes open beneath me. We are both fully clothed, yet I feel the essence of her naked flesh enveloping me. The alien must be responsible. I relax and let everything go, covering both of us with a warm-cold, sticky mesh of dough. I wait for her to comment, something like—what were you thinking—or—now look what you did—surely she must have felt the rawness of me.

But she surprises me.

"I never realized how aggressive and homicidal chimps could be."

Nothing about the congealed yellow yolky lumps covering her black jeans.

"They attack and mutilate the genitals of rivals caught alone and unaware, often killing them."

"More like murder," she says. If she's not going to say anything about the mess, than neither am I. I access a sector in my right brain like a DVD player and see a young pony-tailed Jane Goodall standing on a rain forest hilltop and forty years of her National Geographic specials all at once.

I'm in a hallway being escorted by a woman wearing a dress with the same print as my short sleeve silk shirt, an empty, gilded bird cage against a muted red background. She's wearing vintage black plastic cat's-eye glasses and holds a clipboard tightly against her chest as we walk past lockers and classroom doors. A scratchy 78 rpm rendition of Big Rock Candy Mountain plays through ceiling speakers. It's a nameless school holding a book fair. I'm scheduled to give a reading from my latest work, The Noodle Narratives.

I turn up a laminated identity card hanging from my neck to make sure I am who I think I am and see an unshaven shadowy face in the picture with the name Emmett beneath it in blue letters. I lift my fingers to my nose, not one whiff of hot dog. They're my hands, hairy and a bit ashy because I don' use lotion. My escort looks at me, making little "tch" sounds of disgust with her tongue. She is vaguely familiar but my forehead is heating up as if a bigger creature were focusing the sun through a magnifying glass at me. She has power over my power with her eyes penetrating my skull like some sort of tractor beam keeping my thoughts from wandering down familiar neural pathways.

"I can't let you read wearing that shirt. You'll have to change into something else." She stares at me like a teacher holding on to her last bit of control.

"I can't get over the feeling that I've met you before. Your glasses are so retro-chic." I try using charm in lieu of power, but my delivery is weak and without the confidence I had with the green-eyed, red-haired woman. I don't have another shirt and don't want to read shirtless. My escort's face is taut, made tauter by hair drawn back in a ponytail. She drops the clipboard to her side and I note the gilded bird cage in the print of her dress now holds a lime-green and iridescent-blue macaw. Mine remains empty. I want to point this out, but I'm unnerved by her pursed lips and held motionless by invisible rays shooting from her eyes.

"Change it," she says as she pokes her finger firmly into the middle of my chest, right into the center of the empty cage.

"A bit of misplaced déjà-vu, sorry." I can't keep my bumbling mouth shut. I have got to try something. I cover my overheated forehead with both hands hoping to block her unyielding gaze. This restores a bit of memory. She's the girl who used to bully me at the other end of the block when I was six or seven. It must be her, all grown up, but she should be older, much older than she appears. I feel my face flush; my hands haven't blocked her power. She's forced me to relive the humiliation of a girl beating me up. I need to get away.

Why was I asked to speak in the first place? My book is a bland history of noodles meant to entice hungry shoppers at Wal-Mart, Target, or Kohl's. The cover art is a bed of thick flat noodles covered with orange-pink jumbo gulf shrimp, slathered in Alfredo sauce. Market studies indicate impulse buyers are more tempted by crustaceans. It's useless trying to write fiction since V.S. Naipaul declared the novel dead and who reads short stories anymore?

I check my ID again. The shadows around the face are darker and the name is gone. I feel like a chimp outside his territory, frightened and vulnerable. I instinctively cover my groin and flour puffs through my zipper.

I'm outside on the steps of the school. I hear the rumble of more planes overhead. A squadron of World War II B-26 Marauders flies close enough for me to see the bomb bay doors opening. I'm certain they're B-26's; my father was a navigator/bombardier on one in the "big war." Bombs fall, turning into jumbo gulf shrimp shelled and de-veined.

"Everyone inside before the shrimp hit."

The playground is filled with children. They either don't hear me or aren't listening.

"Duck and cover!" I scream, but it's too late, the shrimp explode. My powers shield me from the blast but only shadows of children are left on crumbled brick walls.

"Change your shirt!" Her voice comes from the other side of the wall. I try to run as the children's shadows separate from the Dresden-fractured wall and reach out to grab me. I smell the stink of burnt hair.

"You're sweating."

I'm back in the bedroom with the green-eyed woman. I must have passed through the eerie doorway light, yet I have no memory of crossing the threshold. The comforting sounds of sifting flour and dough being rolled are gone.

"She's out there." I watch the doorway waiting to see if Ms. taut-face-ponytail-woman has followed me, taking deep breaths checking for the taint of singed hair and watching for light reflected off cat's-eye glasses. "They're out there, waiting for me."

"I've never met a man who knew so much about Jane." Her summer tanned hand strokes my spine arched in stray cat nervous tension.

"My father told me it would end this way. Should have nuked them all in '45 when we had the chance." I can't rid my mind of dead children's shadows and the fear of reading shirtless.

"Shhhh, I don't want to hear anymore talk like that. Jane will save us." My hair becomes cellophane as she strokes it and twists it into dreadlocks. We're on a large stoneware plate, but it's bed soft and warm.

"Yes, Jane will save us." I repeat it like a child listening to his mother and try to click my special powers back on. Jane Russell, Jane Austen, Tarzan and Jane, what Jane? The cat's-eye gaze travels across synapses, blocking endorphins, searing away Janes, and forcing me to think of silk bird cages, changing patterns, must change shirt. The bed begins to turn slowly.

"There's nothing to worry about." She stretches her arms above her head. They are supple and flaccid, like there's no supporting bone structure. I feel the same tingling in my head that I get from eating cheap shrimp fried rice with too much MSG.

"My breasts ache." She pushes them out to me and I begin kneading the right one through her blouse.

I'm standing at a kitchen counter. The scent of hot dogs looms. My hands work a cantaloupe mass of dough into a pendulous form topped with an off-center nipple. My special powers return.

"You are a creator."

He's out there somewhere. "I am a creator." I repeat it to myself. I pick up the doughy mass, the weight of it is breast perfect and I squeeze the nipple like a lover. I place it over my breast, trying to become her, aching for the loss of her. I've always been a sucker for red hair, green eyes, and pendulous breasts.

"Fear nothing."

But I am afraid, afraid of taut-faced women in school hallways, afraid of jumbo gulf shrimp falling from low-flying planes, and afraid of reading without a shirt on. My arms are covered with flour.

I'm sitting next to him in a rail car. Passing shadows cover his face. A slight smile reveals the tip of a gold front tooth and his nicotine-stained index finger is in my mouth. I note the ashy skin of his hand when he withdraws it and get a rush as the nicotine works its way through my system. Shadows turn into barren mountains like the Caucasus; I know this having seen them innumerable times on National Geographic specials.

"Noodle," he says out loud and taps me on my forehead, his finger moist with my saliva. I'm sure of it, it wasn't a thought. His breath is laden with kraut and I feel the force of it blowing against my cheek.

"Noooooodddduhhhlll." He repeats it slowly to make sure I understand him over the noise of clacking steel wheels crossing sad brown earth. He changes back to thoughts. "I'm from Traxgallo. Intergalactic travel is made possible by quantum mechanics. It's all done through dimensions. Only you would understand."

Why me, I think, I have enough to worry about. It occurs to me that Jane what's-her-name would be so much better at this. She communicates with chimps, wait, he might take that as an insult. He's holding a copy of my book.

Time is flat and repetitive.

I'm back inside the school and begin to read.

"Noodles were found in China dating back 4,000 years. They are thought to have been introduced to earth by an alien race from the planet Traxgallo who used quantum entanglement to propel themselves through time and space."

I look up. This isn't the book I wrote. I can't stop sweating. The lights on the stage dim and I look out into the audience. The rear wall is a floor to ceiling aquarium filled with shrimp staring at me with beady antenna eyes. The seats are filled with howling chimpanzees. I'm in a white tux and tilt the mike stand to a 45 degree angle to speak. I stammer "g-g-gee" and "g-g-golly."

"Finish the story." It's Ms. taut-face from somewhere off-stage, waiting.

"—in an amazing coincidence that can only occur in a multiverse of possibilities, the word for noodles in Traxgallolian, is noodles, of course it's spelled differently, but its meaning and pronunciation remain the same. The aliens originally tried to get the Han peoples to use the word noodle, but their dialect didn't contain an ell sound."

"Ridiculous," she says.

The pits of my tux shirt are wringing wet and my face is flushed. "Jane will save us." It's the only thing I know to say, "Jane, dear Jane wherever you are, help me." The green-eyed woman walks out to my side looking up and over everyone. I stutter with "ers" and "uhs." My heart is pounding wildly. I want to hold her forever, but before I'm able to touch her I'm grabbed around the waist with an old vaudeville hook and yanked off stage.

"How dare you read in that shirt."

The hook throws me to the floor and Ms. taut-face-ponytail's stare forces me to flip on my side like a fish out of water. I'm back in silk shirt and jeans.

She steps on me to stop my flipping and her hand tears through my fly like an Aztec priest ripping the heart from a sacrificial victim atop the temple steps and pulls out a long, drooping wad of dough like taffy. She keeps pulling and coiling it into a globular wad atop my groin. Big Rock Candy Mountain plays again over hidden speakers, where peppermint twists

I'm standing. He must be here somewhere. My knees bend and feet come together shuffling back and forth. He's making me dance, or is it Ms. taut-face? The song changes to Sam Cooke's Twistin' The Night Away.

"Come on and dance. It won't kill you." I reach out to her and she pulls me through the center hole of an old 45 rpm record. I hear her laughing as I fall through a thousand reflections of the shadowy face in mirrors surrounding me.

Time is flat and repetitive.

"Like Lady from Shanghai." I say.

"It's all done with mirrors." He says.

"Like Lady from Shanghai." Me.

"It's all done with." He.

"Like Lady from." I.

"It's all done." He.

"Lady, Laaaaady." Me.

I appear on the edge of an athletic field with mars lights flashing all around. I feel something cold, heavy, and metallic in my hand. It's a spud wrench.

"Emmett's coming with his damn dog. He insists on talking to you," the deputy standing beside me says.

A squat, black, metallic object, three times the size of a beach ball, sits in the middle of the field.

"Look out, it's going to blow!"

Instead of a huge mushroom cloud, a giant Portobello sprouts in fast motion animation.

"The spores of life," Emmett says. The air takes on the musty smell of a Northwood's forest. He smells like kraut. The dog looks at me with his tongue hanging out, panting.

I'm vigorously scrubbing bathroom tiles. They reveal a mosaic of the red-haired woman dressed and posed like a Roman noblewoman pouring wine from a vessel. When in Rome, I think as I'm standing in line to receive communion. The priest is Ms. taut-faced-ponytail in a silk chasuble featuring the macaw instead of cross. "Body and Blood of Rice," she says. "Amen," I say. "Stop that man. He's an imposter," she says. The macaw animates and flies from her chasuble to chase me down unending aisles of terrazzo floors through red and yellow stained glass shadows. The bird is the word, bbbird bird bird, the bird is the word. I didn't want to make a scene. Go along to get along and now I'm running from the long arm of the claw.

For chrissake how did noodles get me into this mess? All I ever wanted was to make a meager living through writing and now I have to contend with taut-faced terrors and tests of faith. My stomach is full of raw dough and guts are ready to explode. This is no way to live. The click is almost imperceptible.

I am writing anything and everything, seeing backwards and forwards, swirling in a helical spiral of DNA merging into dreams and quantum matter. I feel something wet on my chin. My drool makes the pillow case cold and moist and it smells somewhat rank, like kraut. My eyes open to my plain white wall, white for the expanse of light from the sun, from pulsars, from full moons, from fluorescent tubes humming, always humming. I understand everything and nothing. I know that I can't breathe underwater and that salt in an open wound will cause pain. Quantum entanglement is a mystery beyond my comprehension, yet I feel a tingling connection to something alien and thousands of light years away. A dream is all and I shake it from consciousness, pushing it back to wherever dreams go. I instinctively reach down and pat my crotch feeling everything as it should be.

I shower and dress. I'm hungry and walk outside. I look up. The sky is free of propeller driven planes. My father is long dead. Jane Goodall, I can't forget her name, repeating it silently to myself. I'm getting old and can't always remember names. I read somewhere that people who do crosswords have less risk of Alzheimer's. Jane Goodall, Jane Goodall, Jane Goodall. I turn the corner. I live a block from Chip's Dog N'Go on the Near North side. I continue to go there even though I once watched a roach crawl out from beneath a bun. What doesn't kill you will make you stronger. A man gets out of a cab in front of the stand. He's wearing a hooded sweatshirt beneath a black leather jacket. The hair on my arms tingles and I look around for chimps, macaws, and ponytails. Jane Goodall, Jane Goodall, Jane Goodall. I say it like a silent prayer for protection. He pauses and looks at me. Shadows cover his face with one glint of light reflecting from the tip of a gold front tooth.

"Nooooooddduuuhhhlll." He says and walks away.

Copyright©2007 Tom Schwider