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?

Xenology: The Tall Man

Jack is a possessor of the kind of height that makes six-foot-sixers look up and say, “Woah, you are one tall drink of water.” Which is kind of like telling fire that it’s hot. He lets them get away with it though, the ones with a height at the upper end of the spectrum of average. I think he enjoys giving them the chance to say those words themselves for a change, instead of just hearing them all the time. He understands, more than anyone else around here, what it’s like to live up there where your height will always be your defining feature.

“So I tell her,” he booms from across the counter, “you’re just gonna let some crusty old white guy tell you what you can and can’t watch?” If a cavern could talk through its stalactite teeth, it would probably sound like Jack.

“Yeah,” I say, smiling, “the whole no-rated-R-movies thing isn’t as hard of a rule as it used to be. Kinda like the no-caffeine thing.”

“Exactly!” he says, and pounds his fist down on the counter. The two cans of Copenhagen Snuff resting on the glass in front of him jump half an inch into the air. Jack isn’t thickly built, but he’s strong. Is it even possible for much extra weight to stick itself all over a frame that big? “There isn’t even any goddamn nudity in Being John Malkovich. And hardly any fucking swearing!”

I chuckle. When Jack gets into it, he gets into it, always throwing up a wall of profanity any time the discussion gets too close to his former religion. I never did learn his real name, but in my head, he’ll always be Jack Mormon.

“So, what’d she do then?” I ask.

“She got upset and refused to watch it.” He shakes his lowered head and throws a crumpled twenty on the counter.

“I’ve never seen it myself,” I reply, hitting the number two and rapid-tapping out three zeros afterward. I could hit the button that says “2000,” but why rush when the line is down? “So, Being John Malkovich…it’s pretty good, huh?”

“Oh, it’s fucking great. You haven’t seen it yet?” He squints at me, patting me down with conspiratorial eyes. “Hey, you aren’t still one of…them…anymore, by any chance?”

“Not since I was fourteen-and-a-half,” I reply, as the whole shock of my past, of the whole struggle just before and after my sundering hits me all at once—for all of a good two seconds. Then it’s over. I’ve long since made my peace with The Church. I’ve even come to terms with the fact that those words, “The Church,” will always be capitalized in my head. “C’mon man.” My hands reach out, holding a hammock of three clean bills with a pile of change resting on top. “You know I’m a Jack too.”

“Yeah well, sometimes they go back.” He reaches out and the money disappears. Soon he’s leafing the dollars away into his wallet and stuffing a can of Cope into his rear jean pocket. The chew slides neatly into the permanent circular indentation already there. He carries the other can out in his hand; his pendulous limbs swing towards the door. He stops before the exit and adds, “You be sure to watch that movie now.”

I promised I would, but I still haven’t.

Xenology: The Gambler

Vic works all night at the Denny’s across the street and comes in on my shift about twice a night, weather permitting. He’s a lean man who wears button-up shirts with sleeves that never reach his elbows. His avian eyes have two speeds: dart and rest. Those eyes take in the world with the astute speed of a House Finch, never pausing on one object longer than absolutely necessary to comprehend it.

Vic loves two things more than anything else, as far as I can tell: Mexican jokes, and big honkin’ piles of two-dollar Scratcher tickets. The former passion probably stems from some sort of rupture of self he had as a wee mijo, something he never patched up. The logic behind the latter is a bit more self-evident: two-dollar Scratchers have the best odds of winning per dollar spent, if you’re just looking to win.

Some people aren’t looking to win. Might sound bizarre, but it’s true. Some people are addicted to the act itself. (Not everyone copulates to procreate.) They just want to feel the thin resistance of an obscuring layer as they slide the penny across the ticket. To them, Scratchers are a compartmentalized vacation. And when that vacation ends, they touch back down to that little Lotto kiosk off to the side of the checkout counter, and sigh or shrug and walk away. I always wait until they’re out of sight before I go over and wipe up the half tin, half eraser dust.

Now, you’ve got your Crossword Scratchers, your Bingo Scratchers, and your bastardized crossbreeeds of the two—these types of tickets are the ones folks buy when they plunk down the three dollars per. Those people are not here to procreate. They are here for the thrill of the hunt. Sure, they might say, “Just the winners, please,” when you ask them which tickets they would like to buy today. But they don’t really mean it. The free ticket here, the five or ten bucks there, that’s all just icing on top to them.

But that ain’t Vic. Vic is either an incredibly lucky man, or knows something I don’t. In fact, he might be the only man in the golden state who can rightfully claim to be gaming the glorious California state-sanctioned gamble card system.

He’s in early tonight, over staring thoughtfully into the Frito-Lays endcap display. He picks up a bag of Chester Cheetah’s Flamin’ Hot Flavored Fries and cocks his head at it. When he understands the bag he returns it to the display and sidles up to the checkout counter. He hums low and taps his pointer finger on the glass counter that shields the sacred tickets from errant hands. The Scratchers are safely on display like a fine décolletage. But unlike the forbidden fruits advertised by a low neckline, those Lotto tickets can be had for the night, long as you’ve got the money.

He closes his eyes and his restless finger becomes the slider of a ouija board. He’s conjuring up the spirits and I wonder to myself if it feels the same way I feel when I stumble upon the perfect word when his fist comes down atop the case and he declares, “That one.”

His eyes are impossibly wide. “Also, two Lucky Sevens. Oh, and, uh, three Triple Cherry Pluses. And, let’s see…five Crazy Cash Cows.”

“Five?” I ask. No sense in letting him burn all his tip money on his first break. “You sure?”

“Five,” he says. “Can’t you feel it, man? It’s five, right? Five.”

“Hey man, I’m just the guy behind the counter. You’re the winner here. Five it is.”