We sat on the back porch of Sunnytown America, hazed in the soft smoke of cheap cigars and cloudy clear plastic cups of homemade sangria and Pimms—free sunshine juice of a few gold old boys in a big cooking kettle for all or none.
“Fuck all!” someone said. “It’s all clogged with orange rinds and mint leaves!”
The poor man’s tall glass was stuffed full with a farmer’s market worth of chopped vegetables from the Pimms.
The northeastern woman in her bold northeasternness reached over and smacked the bottom of the upturned glass, as the poor man slanted it up like a dump-truck headed to TJ, through his mouth and down his throat.
“See!” he said to God, or someone else in the sky. He looked cross-eyed at the vegetables crowding the base of the glass.
“Tap it!” the woman shouted to the poor vegetable man at her side, and once more she pounded the bottom of the rear-up glass.
The veggies went forth and the poor man gagged at the fiber.
It was all routine to someone like me—grown men gagging on cupfuls of alcohol-soaked vegetables—because I was a graduate of college and a student of observation.
“A ha ha ah HA!” laughed the Anglo man with the gratis cigarillo. He had wide dark sunglasses like a star-filled night in some national park where the city couldn’t reach in and fuzz it all out, and when he bent towards you with a wolverine grin of small human teeth, and you saw some goddamn imposter of yourself shining flat in his wide shades—you wondered at it all. Was it just a reflection, or was it the damned phantasms summoned again through cheap melted-Legos plastic of polished Wal-Mart sunglasses?
Something like that will give you a quick little stroke. I polished my eyes with the backs of my eyelids for a few seconds. Just got to breathe with a rhythm, always remember that. Always breathe with a good rhythm.
I wasn’t a man who drunk much because I knew I needed it with desperate urgency, the way a slug in a pie-tin full of beer needs it—cheap beer that you leave out for skunks and raccoons. It would be a real natural show. I was dressed like an impoverished Key West pimp and reached for another cup because it was the only thing within reason worth doing.
Secondhand cigar smoke it an acquired taste. The northeastern woman smiled and laughed because she hated it. It reminded her of something vulgar. She thought it smelled like a naked old man dying in a recliner sofa, crusted over with happiness and bubbling inside with cancer and depression. The woman didn’t say as much but a laugh at the wrong thing says more.
I told her it smelled like history and breathed it in.
At some point I remember a dark-haired tattooed woman with a supposed black tongue walking out onto our porch with a novelist. The novelist drank from aluminum cans with retro-futurist lemons painted on them and complained about the cigar smoke by fiercely ignoring it. When the caterpillars started to fall from the sky, he said “dammit!” and blew insects that no one else saw from his arm. That rotten lemon fizz is finally getting to him, I thought.
But he was right. The novelist was just the first to notice because he was lucidly sober—always. I had a similar school of thought but lived by soft rules during hard times, and these were hard goddamn times.
The caterpillars came slowly. Not a blitzkrieg. Pure and sluggish carpet bombing. They came down from the sky on invisible silver threads. I’ve heard that the Chinese make flowing shirts and ties from this caterpillar ass thread but thoughts like that made me more fearful than just the caterpillar invasion. No one knew their intent. All they seemed to want was to descend and explore your body like a teenage lover with their thousand feet and back mustache. If you fought them they’d pop—little kamikaze fuckers fallen directly from heaven with seedy intentions.
We did fight for a time and tried to burn them by thrusting cigars in the air like torches at Frankenstein, but there’s only so much you can do against fallen Chinese angels before submitting. The poor vegetable man grabbed one in the air and threw it like a grenade into the bushes. Goddamn valiant but we were covered over by commie fur slugs within the hour.
——I remembered, just then, being kicked out of a store full of men with ponytails and banjos for having no money to spend or talent to use. Jesus, how many hours ago had that been? Only God and his little dog knew. I was caught by the music store’s rhythm lemons—maracas of agricultural shapes. Peppers. Cucumbers. Colorful little rhythm eggs were in a different cardboard display. I shook one and got glared at by a dozen Woodstock children and casually dressed investment bankers. It was Friday, after all, and they wouldn’t take any of my college-boy shit.
The tall Anglo was depressed by the music store. “Hats!” he said, once we were in the little black hedgehog-shaped car. “We need to get a bucket hat and a cigarette holder. Like we mugged Audrey Hepburn.”
The poor vegetable man was driving—it was his hedgehog—but wasn’t yet vegetable-ridden. He took us to Wal-Mart.
I think there was another. The guitar physicist. He approved of the trip like a calm father teaching his children to drive and pressing an invisible break with the tip of his toes.
We parked in handicap spot and pretended to limp, all four of us. We started in unison but it looked like a Broadway show, and someone might become suspicious, so we ran the rest of the way.
There was a little Wal-Martian holding coupons and giving free salutations at the door. She smiled at us from down there. The small woman was on to us. We had to be fucking quick! We had to find the hats to find the dream! For those of us with no sincere religion it was a search for a new god, and for the others, it was a cheap hat errand.
The hats were so goddamn economical and ugly that we all needed them. But the shirts—Hawaiian, Aloha, Acapulco, or whatever—weren’t gaudy enough for everyone to wear. The Anglo found a blue one with swordfish. He thrust a red shirt at the reluctant vegetable man—who I think is probably Samoan, but knew not to ask about this fact. I grabbed an eggnog yellow shirt covered with sailboats and palm fronds. Not perfect but it would have to do.
We had to look like idiots and were right on our way. The guitar physicist acquiesced only to a blue three dollar Panama Jack hat. Good enough for now.
The little cashier women suspected nothing until the Anglo shouted at us all, “Gummi-Worms ninety-eight cents!”
I grabbed the worms and knew that was it, the last mistake in a series. Security would come falling from the ceiling, hanging by invisible silver threads and would take us in on nameless charges. They knew my name from some online fun I had over the years and wouldn’t be afraid of using all that they knew of me to justify the buzz chair. I knew it—Texas style.
But I played cool and slashed at the electric machine with my credit card until the Wal-Martian woman handed me my bag. Yes! Freedom and the dream!
It was all nearly lost when we were escaping threw the asphalt fields that surrounded the corporate bazaar and the guitar physicist got hit in the face with a Gummi-Worms wrapper. Right when the Anglo went for his worms like the fish on his shirt and let the wrapper fly back, hitting the guitar man’s face, a giant shipment truck accelerated towards us. There was madness in most directions. The black hedgehog driver expected stops where there were no stops and the Federal Express man had deadlines. It was an albino elephant stampeding towards a melatonic rodent and only accelerating with the fear. The dream nearly ended then. The hats would have been for nothing and the Gummi-Worms would be strewn through the car and over the bodies, giving the image of sweet little decomposers doing their thing in a Wal-Mart parking lot around four o’clock in the afternoon. “What’s with the hats?” the coroners would ask each other—and they’d conclude that four men wearing made-in-China hats and Hawaiian shirts while eating Gummi-Worms was a cursed combination.
But somehow the hedgehog scurried through the albino Fedex elephant’s feet and we made it home.
I snapped back to it then—the porch, the sagging sun, caterpillars and cigars. Jesus, maybe I had a stroke, I thought. Maybe a caterpillar had gone into my ear and was humping all the nerve endings. At some point I sat down.
There was a game of shirtless middle-aged volleyball going on in a renovated minefield just across the way and some of us gawked hard at them. One of the players was a Russian bear in little red running shorts that they’d probably imported as a ringer. I understand a clown can train those bears to do most anything with a rubber ball. We watched this bear and discussed Aztec sacrifices.
A small angry woman came from inside the stucco log cabin and complained about the smoke. She was belligerent and spoke fast loud words but that’s what I’d gathered. Then she shut the door and ran away. The poor vegetable man knew it smelled like history and propped the door open again—taking it to be a sort of victory for Feng Shui, I think.
I saw a thin man in lime green and rainbow sunglasses talking on the Sunnytown porch. Likely a spy, I thought. Spies with rainbows are never suspected but I knew better. I was a graduate of college.
No matter! A pleasant girl explained that the free horse bus was arriving imminently! Some of the men ran from the tire swing and sucked the last of the cigars. We all poured cups from the liquor kettle and ran away, as careful as a dime butler not to spill anything. I hadn’t planned on having more but found it was easier to run with an empty cup than a sloshing cup, and so I consumed for the good of my speed. Besides—no cups on the bus! It was against the law!
We sang Jewish folk songs on the bus to throw off any tailing Feds and chewed Gummi-Worms.
I tell you the rest is unclear. Some of us successfully looked like idiots and we went to a cartoon Italian restaurant. There was pizza balanced on empty tin cans and there was a plasticine head of the late pope on the corner booth table. Goddamn it, man! How do you get the pope-head Vatican table? Who do you pass a Hamilton to? Aaron the waiter? No, he had no weight. Who knows what man or woman has pope-head table authority in this town. The only thing within reason worth doing was drinking more wine.
Later I was in a blue car with a giant glowing clock display, going fast down the palm-lined road. It was barricaded totally with the frond trees on both sides, and they could fall inwards at any moment, it seemed. I advised the Seattle girl to drive real fast. We talked about fungi and I ran away to shower it all off—the worms, the caterpillars, the giant cartoon meatballs I had seen somewhere, the spaghetti sauce under my fingernails, and the intrusive cigar smoke.
The smoke had learned to open door handles and was tenacious—it wandered through all the neighborhood houses within a few miles like nuclear wind, and anyone with the right kind of nose could stand in the thickening air and smell it, the history and the Gummi-Worms, and the singed hairs of the dive-bomber caterpillars too impatient to wait for their turn in the air as free brown moths.