Xenology: The Get-It Guys

Billy Pilgrim has a Gerber-baby face and a Son-of-Sam haircut. His outfit is Army surplus: he only ever wears the service greens and the camo. It suits him, though. But it’s not the military fatigues, the dino spikes on his head, or the matching mini spikes on his wristbands that hit you first. It’s the unadulterated goofy smiles that keep popping up, somehow untouched by the world of shit around him.

Billy Pilgrim makes his living booking trips to the uncharted places inside. You ever need a stream laid directly through your consciousness, you talk to Billy. Of course, then you’ll also have to talk to Petey. They always work together, a matched pair. And if Billy’s the salt, Petey’s the pepper.

Petey’s more Oscar fish than human. His default expression is one of mild terror, fully complimenting his flying saucer eyes. But look closely at that sullen face and watch the chemical reaction that takes place when he notices your gaze upon him: see the unctuous facial terrain oozing across itself, reforming into the near perfect replica of a human smile. Then just nod and slowly walk away—don’t make any sudden movements—while he rushes towards you, shooting off promises with that faulty submachine gun mouth of his: rapid firing syllables that sometimes jam or completely lock up.

Petey makes Billy look downright cherubic.

“You s-seen them Sony Wega flatscreens in the Sears catalogs?” Petey’ll ask. “I got the hookup on a f-f-forty incher. Practically new. A real steal, if ya know what I mean. Heheheh.”

But the moment his partner heads off to the bathroom right quick, Billy’s there telling you through his trademarked smiles that it’s his own mother’s TV the fish wants to fence you.

Better to stay the hell away from them. I would if I could, but they’ve made connections with my coworkers, signed certain invisible contracts granting them unalienable privileges: free bowling, loitering rights, and a license to practice their shady businesses. Hell, they might as well take up office in the glass conference room and hang a sign out front that says, “Burroughsian Fantasies Sold Here.”

By some miracle, Billy’s alone today. He’s been bowling since I clocked in at one, and likely been at it for a few hours before that. It’s three now, and he shows no signs of stopping.

“Hey Billy.” I finally get the chance to talk to him, after straightening the place up a bit. I can’t help but mimic that sappy grin when he looks over at me.

“Well heya bossman, how are ya?”

“Doing alright, Billy. So no Petey tonight, huh?”

“Naaaaahhhh,” he says, starting on a chugging laugh that builds momentum throughout his sentence, “he sleepin’, man. Got them pipe dreams.”

“Oh, okay.” I don’t know what that means and I’m not sure I want to. It’s nice to get a chance to chat up the time traveler without the fish around though.

“Maaaan, you’re always playing this goddamn Chinese cartoon music.” Billy’s head is bobbing forward at the neck in time with the j-rock blasting through the speakers.

“Oh really? I thought they were Chinese porno cartoons.” I chuckle.  “That’s what you called them before, right?”

“Oh, that’s only when a girl’s singing.” His head is a metronome now, jamming from side to side.  “What’s this one called?”

“Uuuhhh, this is Driver’s High.”

“Alright, alright. I like it. Now…” He leaps high into the air and lands easily on top of a nearby table. He throws one hand skyward and shouts, “C’mon man!”

“What the hell are you doing, Billy?”

His legs quick shift and now I’m looking at his back. He peeks at me over his shoulder and says, “Making a music video.” His body spins around to line back up with his face and his fingers snap into twin pistols that take a few imaginary shots at me.

His lips are synching perfectly with the music now. With an uncanny grace he’s leaping across tables, pirouetting, locking, and popping. He slides across the top of table 32 on his knees before his body goes limp and he folds forward onto himself.

He holds his yoga pose until the guitar comes back, then he’s on his feet performing some kind of preternatural Flashdance maneuver before he’s taking a bow from on top of table 34 as the song fades out.

Billy plops down into a seat and takes a few deep breaths.

I don’t know what else to do so I burst into laughter.

He winks at me and says, “I want a copy of the cameras,” then he sashays over to a ball return, picks up a stray neon orange eight-pounder, pitches it down an unlit lane, and gets a split.

The rake comes down in front of the pins, and stays down.

Xenology: The Stranger

The automatic doors make their distinct whirring sound as they slide open. I turn my swivel seat around, hoping it’s her. It’s not—it’s Ralph James.

Not just Ralph, or James, but Ralph James. You have to say it all at once; otherwise, no one will know who you’re talking about. There’s something about him that can only be contained by his full name, and when people hear it, you can see the flash of recognition in their eyes, and you know they’re also picturing that too-thin, too-weird teenager in the olive drab military coat. The guy whose parents kicked him out of the house for having other gods before the capitalized Christian one. The guy who works at the Burger King on hamburger hill to make the payments and repairs on that piece-of-shit silver Mitsubishi he lives out of.

I respect the hell out of the guy. I wave at him. He nods back and walks towards me.

See, most of the homeless kids his age are more or less bums of their own volition. They’re druggies and junior scam artists in a bad place who would rather study the streets or a really nice ass than any book. That’s not to say that they’re bad people. They’ve got good hearts and damaged minds. Or is it the other way around? Point is, they’re just taking advantage of a system they were never allowed to be a part of in the first place.

But Ralph-fucking-James is different. He got kicked out for sticking to his guns, his beliefs. And as a recovering Mormon who had the luxury of not getting kicked out, I have a deep respect for the guy. It’s not that I think more of him than the other homeless kids, but the respect I have for him is built on a particular kind of empathy. It’s different.

He walks up, smiles off into the distance, and says, “How is your night going?”

“Pretty good. Super slow. Quiet.” I notice he’s holding something close against his ditchcoat—which is what I always call his coat in my head since it’s not really long enough to be a trenchcoat—some kind of small square plastic thing with a pentagram and some numbers on it. “Whatcha got there? Some kind of pagan spell thing?”

He shakes his head, smiling. “No. It’s Rush’s magnum opus: 2112.”

“Ooohhhhh. Sounds cool.”

“Indeed, it sounds very cool.”

I’m pretty happy with the opening theme song to the Great Teacher Onizuka anime that’s playing over the sound system right now, so I don’t offer to put the CD on. He doesn’t bring it up.

Then I get that uneasy feeling. I don’t know if it’s the way he’s always looking off into the next county, or how he likes to slant his head like a pigeon eying the tossed-off butt of a street hot dog, but the guy kind of weirds me out. So I tell him.

“Hey, Ralph James.”

“Yeah.”

“There’s something kinda weird about you.”

His eyes go wide and he whispers, “So you can feel it? My aura?”

“Uhm…”

“You have the power, then! Same senses same, friend! Join us!”

“The hell are you talking about?”

“No, no, I must ask the others first…”

“Join what, Ralph James?” I have to know. “What others?” I have the same feeling I had the time Paulie and I made up superhero backstories for ourselves and were so high on the blue pills we believed them. Or the time I missed a call from the smartest kid in school and made up stories in my head about how he was going to invite me into some secret hacker group he had formed, and I had this same feeling up until I called him back and he just asked if I knew anybody who could sell him some Ritalin.

Ralph James pulls up his coat sleeve and there, on his forearm, is a stretched out S next to a crescent moon. “This is the tattoo of my ancient clan. We call ourselves the Fianna.”

“Wait, Fianna? Sounds familiar. Clan of what?”

“Werewolves.” he says, deadly serious. “I…am a werewolf.”

I immediately recognize the tattoo and clan name from the Werewolf: The Apocalypse pen-and-paper rpg I played a few times. But I never tell him.

Xenology: The Changeling

Names are not to be trusted. A baby named Patrick grows up to be that damn kid Pat who plays in traffic, and is later buried as Ole Pattie, the eccentric townie who took a little too much time off from his heroin habit to remember how tolerance worked when he picked up the needle again.

This is to say nothing of the government-binding practice of legal name changing, or the game and art of taking or leaving a name upon entering a marriage compact, like so many pennies in a sloping dish on a 7-Eleven counter.

Names are too subjective, too malleable. I’ve always placed my trust in faces. But this late-night bowling alley job has shown me how faces can shift too.

I have seen heads hop freely between shoulders until the day they are caught and rebuked. A certain face can be pruned and dusted and reshaped into something that never resembled itself. Some faces make it a point to say as little as possible, in the hopes that no one will ever be able to single them out from the backdrop of the other thousands that one might encounter on a typical earthy night outside.

I don’t know her name. I might ask, but I worry that her face isn’t her own. She is actress, scout, diplomat, and master of the art of the errant tress. (That is, she knows exactly how much stray hair to leave hanging over her forehead to achieve the necessary erotic effect when she reaches up and brushes it back behind her ear.)

She comes in every week and the ritual is always the same. She’ll nod at me and I’ll return with a bow and head over behind the counter to play my part.

The ritual starts with her explanation of how she is on a bowling league that meets every Tuesday or maybe every Thursday. She has no proof of her claim, but I never push the matter. I put her down for the discounted league rate—fifty cents under the standard rate per game.

When our performance arrives at the subject of shoe rental, the routine diverges slightly. She would like to have those for free. When her league meets to bowl on Tuesdays or perhaps Thursdays, her shoes are always free. Why shouldn’t they be free now? Sometimes, she has a pair at home, and she simply forgot to bring them when she headed out the door this time. I make a proper show of letting her win, defeated by her logic of the day, and agree not to charge her for the rental. The prices are too high around here anyway, and I firmly believe any immediate loss of profit will be returned fivefold in repeat customer business satisfaction.

The going rate negotiated, she smiles and leaves, returning moments later on the arm of an unfamiliar man.

It is the newness of this man’s brick chin, the unmistakable curve of the bicep up to his bare shoulder that his tribal tattoo follows, and the number on the back of his freshly pressed sports jersey, that reassure me that I have never seen this fellow in my life.

Her face is always the same, but his never is.

And that puts the doubt in me. Is this lady, the summoner of this exquisite Batmanesque chin, really the same human I performed the sacred rite of bargaining with last week?

Or has her face switched too?