Verticordia, Changer of Hearts, Part III – Giovanni
October 13, 2022
The redhead rides shotgun and softly bitches about the fire-breathing cranks making trouble for the greys at some bird sanctuary nearby here. They’ve occupied the visitor center with long guns for lofty reasons I can’t get through my skull. But they’re losing control after a month’s siege. A cowboy was shot dead in the snow.
I can’t help feeling more than a little jealous. Some of these fucking assholes have wives. I don’t know what they look like, and probably they’re nuts, but who cares. The ugliest, craziest wife is a whole wife more wife than I’ve ever wifed in my wifeless life. I just don’t know what I’m doing wrong. I’ve threatened to shoot up my high school and everything.
Wish I’d have grown up in Nazi Germany. Bet I’d have met a nice Nazi girl at a Nazi party by now. Get engaged at a Nazi rally, honeymoon on a Nazi cruise ship. Birth a jinjər bred haus full of Hitler Youth named after death camps and kill time telling Jew jokes around the sausage stuffer as bombs fall from a British sky.
It looks like rain on the empty beach. The redhead always says she’s never seen the ocean, but she seems unimpressed. Though her eyes glow, she smiles at the ocean like a free refill. Maybe it’s just me. Having been here before, I don’t know what to think. The tide spits in my face and I’m shocked blue as though fallen through ice.
The redhead hands me her phone, breathlessly telling where and when she cracked the screen as she skips toward the tide. Hands bunched inside baggy sleeves, she stands knock-kneed at the world’s edge and shivers. The fire of her hair is the blood of the ocean is the sand on the beach is the air in my lungs. We run up the stairs to the street as the ocean explodes.
Uhh I’ll have the fish and chips and an order of fries. Oh yeah sorry. I take care to sit beside the redhead in our booth. She says her aunt’s coworker at the hookah lounge is wanted for murder, but she’s on my deaf side, so I can’t really hear. Only bob my head like a drinking bird and gargle the phlegm in my throat. Let Joey ask questions.
On our way back to the car, the redhead remembers to buy a souvenir for her boyfriend. All the gift shoppes have already closed. We cup our hands around our eyes and press our noses against windows black with rain. She gives up surprisingly fast.
“I’ll just tell him I forgot,” she mutters into a cigarette. I’m delighted, but I can’t physically laugh anymore. A scabby wheeze peels from my Adam’s apple instead. The redhead volunteers to ride in back. Joey climbs into the passenger seat with care and says hi as though we haven’t been together all day.
The car mysteriously slows to an idle on the bulge of a bend. The gas pedal won’t budge. I get out and circle the car with a fist on my hip, scratching my furrowed brow for effect. Get down on my hands and knees and stick my face undercarriage, even though I don’t know shit about cars. Good thing turning the engine off and on again fixes whatever the fuck. Neither Joey or the redhead ask why we stopped. She’s face down in her phone with her boyfriend.
The sun vanishes without a moon and old-growth on either side of the road blends into black caverns shrouded with the thickest fog I’ve ever seen.
“What’s that they say,” the redhead coos. “It’s so thick you could cut it with a knife?”
Joey wants to know if he can have a friend over. He really wants us to meet Neil. Because, he says, Neil looks exactly like Justin. The name is enough to make my teeth grind, but I’m loathe to deny anyone anything. Joey reminds me to stop at the gas station for more beer, too.
Neil arrives with a shoeshine kit tucked in his armpit. His wingtips flash like hardwood. He doesn’t bother taking them off. Neil sits heavily on the side of the bed where the redhead sleeps and claps both hands on his thighs.
“You wouldn’t believe what happened to me, Joey. You know that bar we went to last weekend? They kicked me out the other night because I started a fight. I don’t remember everything, but I had to take a cab home because Jen was using my car. You know how she’s been letting me stay at her place? Well, now that I got another drunk driving, she wants me out!”
“I’m sorry,” Joey grumbles, busy twisting a string of beads in his palm. “That’s fucked up.”
“You’re telling me. Can I have a beer? Thanks.” Neil pops the cap with a lighter and continues to bluster.
Joey wasn’t kidding. Justin has a doppelgänger. Same long, crooked nose, same dark unibrow, that upturned, half-lidded polar eye, bottomless mouthful of word salad and just enough charisma to pass for intelligent life. As ever, he won’t shut the fuck up. To my horror, the redhead gently leans into his gravity.
The doppelgänger must’ve come to take her back. And she probably still loves him, desperately so. She spent a whole summer working three jobs to make rent while he played video games and sold brick weed to their Mexican neighbors. All because I fucked his wife. No wonder he didn’t even try to kick my ass. A dumb fuck with a big mouth is never lonely for long.
The redhead suggests a game of Bullshit. She shuffles a deck of cards and deals. Joey has the ace of spades, so he goes first, placing the card face down on the bed. Now the doppelgänger has to put down a two. He can also put down another card and pretend it’s a two. If someone calls bullshit, the doppelgänger has to take the deck into his hand. Whoever gets rid of their hand first wins.
Though I’ve never played before, I manage to sweep five straight rounds without bullshitting. The redhead smiles like Elvis.
“You’re a little hustler, aren’t you?”
I bare my teeth and mumble into my lap. An incredible cowardice is mine under the eye of the doppelgänger. I’m afraid to provoke the smirk and sneer built into his face. Embarrassed to have won too easily. I fucked his wife, now I’m beating his cards. I’m pure evil. And so’s this fucking asshole. He’s drinking all our beer. But there’s nothing about drunkenness in the commandments.
I make up my mind to go to bed when the redhead suggests another round of 21 Questions. I yank the covers over my face without taking off my clothes. My jeans chafe like tree bark. Socks turn to sludge. I can’t breathe through the snot in my nose, tongue’s bone dry, twice the size and stuck to the roof of my mouth. Though laying on my good ear, I can hear everything.
The redhead wants to remove a tattoo she got on her calf when she was a teenager. It reads Die, Cry, Hate. Like Live, Laugh, Love, but funny. I always thought she had an unusually good sense of humor. Guess she doesn’t get the joke anymore. She might as well have said she wanted to erase me with a laser. I probably won’t even scar.
Ridiculous, but my heart soaks through. I leap out of bed and into my shoes.
“I’m going for a drive. I’ll be back.”
It’s two in the morning. The moon never rose. Between black trees and black sky, I tunnel through nameless neighborhoods, nowhere else to go. My phone judders.
“Are you okay? Is there something you’re not telling me?”
“I’m fine. I’ll be back soon. I just want to be alone.”
Justin and my ex had been dating for three years, married for seven months. Or maybe it was only five. That’s right. They were friends of a friend. We went to different schools. They were married in the park right after she graduated. They hadn’t even had sex because they were saving themselves.
Everyone used to smoke pot and play Smash at their apartment behind the Subway on 92 and Greenfield. I had to take two buses from my dorm at Marquette to get there. The 63 never ran on time so I usually had to walk the last two miles. That’s where I met the redhead. I wasn’t into her at the time. I only came over because of Justin’s wife.
It was something like having a girlfriend. I’d never had a girlfriend but for two months I went with a retarded scene girl in junior year. She blew up my MySpace until I said yes. Her parents mistook me for a player, but I can hardly function around a girl I like. I was inexplicably at ease around Justin’s wife.
I tried chili for the first time at her insistence. And her homemade iced coffee. She made me peanut butter toast the morning after I got piss drunk and floundered on their bathroom floor. One time we played Bop It on the couch, shoulder to shoulder under a blanket. She dropped about the nastiest fart to ever torch my nostrils. I didn’t say anything. We just smiled at each other and kept passing the Bop It.
Everyone but her husband said she was into me. Bullshit. Besides, I had no intention of taking his wife. I had become strangely comfortable with the possibility that I might never get another girlfriend. I might never have sex. And I was serene because I was such good friends with Justin’s wife.
It was a Sunday in November. She said I was the only person in the world she wanted to see. I took the stairs down two at a time. Her caravan was parked on the street outside my dorm. The cold had shattered a back window. We said hello and held hands in heavy silence. Then we slowly squeezed the breath out of each other.
I cupped her face. Her cheeks were fat and cold.
“I want to kiss you, but I don’t know how.”
We were all tongue and teeth, gluey slobber and sonic booms. I pulled back and scooped her tits out of her bra. She leaned against the window, brilliant blonde against an orange dream of frost, pouty lips wet and swollen. Cross-eyed nipples staring blindly in the dark. There were people everywhere. Someone knocked on the window and laughed.
We checked her license at the desk and went up to my room. The Jesus freak wasn’t there. Peeling away our clammy socks, we climbed the ladder into bed. She bumped her head on the jagged ceiling and I apologized up and down. We clumsily undressed each other and threw our clothes on the floor. She wouldn’t let me take off her glasses. Her blue eyes were little black suns. Her pussy was gray and prickly. She kept trying to hide it in her hand.
“Do you want to lose your virginity to me?”
I couldn’t get hard enough. I don’t think she was wet enough, either. We knew what we were doing and we were nervous. Assuming I was dehydrated, we went to the cafeteria and held hands while I drank lemon water. I excitedly told her about my idea for a Misfits video. I don’t think she understood. She smiled anyway. And took my virginity that same night.
There’s no higher love than having your way with another man’s wife. Here I thought I had rescued my soulmate from a bad marriage. Justin read her texts and found her out within two days, but she came over every day for a week, the happiest of my wifeless life. I’ve never been so in love. It seems impossible now.
I’d love to love the redhead like that, but I don’t think I’m capable. And she doesn’t want me. I bet my ex wouldn’t even want me. I don’t have a full head of hair anymore. It hasn’t been five years since we broke up. Since we were teenagers. And she said my hair was getting thicker. I bet her husband would have a laugh. He’ll probably have his hair forever.
Christ, I’ve gone and blown up the pity potty again. Can’t even eulogize my truest, bluest love without sniveling over male pattern baldness. I could’ve waxed so poetically about the profundities, the pregnant mysteries and fecund truths of love and life comma ampersand etcetera. Too bad all my brains jumped with my hair. And that’s not even true. I’ve never been smart. I used to think I might like to go get castrated so as not to go bald. Well, go ahead.
I swing back into the parking lot, tear out the key and talk to myself until I can see my breath. Surely the doppelgänger has gone home to beat up on his ex. I slide the keycard and quietly open the door. All the lights are on. The room is empty.
Door the out backwards walk I. The redhead appears out of nowhere at the end of the hallway. She’s wearing a bright red rose kimono. I don’t have my glasses, but I think she’s barefoot. The kimono swishes about her ankles as she glides toward me like a dream come true.
“You’re back! I was so worried about you! I thought a gang of bad guys beat you up and kidnapped you and I’d never ever see you again!”
Her eyes are huge and crazy. I’m too miserable to explain myself. I stagger toward bed and undo my belt.
“Neil is sleeping over. He’s too drunk to drive—”
I’m already out the door with a spin of my heel.
Turn the key, crank the heat. Fix every vent onto my face. Until my skin cracks and spits fire. Eyes chap and turn to glass and see nothing.
I’m such a piece of shit. I’ve been called arrogant and condescending by my lawyers, rude and unsociable by my mother, socioeconomically retarded by my pediatrician. I’m also an adulterer, and a homewrecker, and maybe even a rapist, too.
You think she would’ve said something by now. To an officer of the law. Maybe. I’m told most victims never file a report. Maybe she’ll just castrate me while I sleep. And then my goddamn hair will grow back. I just don’t want to make the sex offender registry. I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.
I think the Lord of this world is getting even. That’s why I’m all alone and nothing ever works out. I didn’t do anything to anyone ever. What. Yeah. It’s nice to know your life is all fucked up because of divine retribution. No need to pray like a beggar.
I ought to try and manifest my destiny from now on. You don’t even have to have love in your heart. The universe only deals in brainwaves. But suppose the universe mistakes all my unwanted thoughts for my deepest desires. And I’m forever faced with my fears and made to relive the past.
Alright, it’s been an hour. They’re probably asleep by now. Manifestly zonked. And I can only imagine Joey and the doppelgänger are manifestly sharing a bed because they’re manifestly friends. Which manifestly means the redhead will have fallen asleep alone. Goddamn. I may well have a bedmate for another night.
I hurry back upstairs. The goddamn fucking keycard won’t fucking. There we go. Opening the door on a dark room, I notice the doppelgänger’s feet on the floor, finally shorn of shoes. Joey and the redhead snore side by side. My bed is empty. Undressing in the dark, I creep into the mouth of my bed like a spider and hug a pillow half to death.
First thing in the morning, the redhead says our guest groped her thigh and stole a kiss while I was gone. They were smoking cigarettes in his car when he forgot himself. She had to shove him away and talk him down from another go.
“What a piece of shit,” I hiss, keeping a cracked eye on the bathroom door. “I should have known. He looks just like Justin.”
Joey violently bangs his head. The shower crackles. The redhead sits pretzel-style on her bed, eyes in her lap.
“It’s okay, I’m over it. He’s not a bad guy. Not as bad as Justin.”
And I’m no better. It’s all my fault. She’s only here in the first place because I can’t stop thinking about her ass crack and the deadbeat universe won’t do shit about it. I didn’t even try to defend my claim. Pretty soon I’ll have pimped her out for gas money. Can’t trust myself to do the right thing under pressure. I always seem to break for evil.
The doppelgänger shines his shoes before he leaves. I clench my teeth as he thanks me specifically for a great evening. He seems so genuinely grateful that I’m compelled to thank him. We exchange numbers, though I don’t at all intend to keep in touch. I’m almost ashamed. Everyone waves and wishes him a good day on his way out the door.
The redhead is hungry. She wants to eat at a food truck in the city, so I take the wheel and Joey drives from the backseat. We park a ways away and slowly round a square crowded with food trucks, pausing here and there to crane our necks at menus from the curb. I privately despair at the superabundance of healthful third world fare. I just want a fucking burger and fries. But I haven’t seen the golden arches anywhere.
Never tried Ethiopian before. The food truck looks like a thatched hut inside. A leathery black woman wearing a headdress deafly takes my order. I’m given a mangled limb of chicken drowned in spicy brown rice and wet bread. I scarf down my slop as quickly as possible. The gulls, even the flies leave me alone.
The redhead yawns. She wants to take a nap now. I get the impression she’s not having fun anymore, that she misses her boyfriend. I’m not her boyfriend. I watch her reflection watch skyscrapers scoot across the window.
“I like Portland, but I would never live here. I don’t like big city life. I want to live in a small town where everyone knows each other.”
Fuck that. I want American food dispensed by mute machines. I don’t want to get to know my bartender. Just a best friend and a friendly acquaintance who never meet. Keep a fat wife and newborn cherub and a turreted chateau near the freeway enroute a major metropolis. We’ll feed the squirrels and shoot at passersby. Okay.
I really don’t know what the hell she’s talking about. She has never lived in the big city or a small town, as it were. I don’t know where she expects to get her haute cuisine in the boonies. And suppose the local gentry catch wind of her constant anonymous threesomes.
Sorry, I’m just mad because she won’t let me have my way. Watching her pull the covers up to her earlobes and turn her back, I feel as though she’s left me at the altar. And I can’t expect anyone alive or dead to care because it’s all in my head. If anything, I ought to keep my mouth shut. Do your part and burn after reading.
Joey and I drive back to the dispensary for more Obama Kush. It’s the first we’ve been indefinitely alone together since I got here. The first I’ve really seen him in years. We’ve spent hours upon hours on the phone making conversation about absolutely nothing, but I’m at a loss tonight. I don’t really want to talk to him.
All of a sudden, I’m spilling my guts all over the place, tearlessly blubbering at seventy some miles an hour.
“I’m in love with her, man!” My voice cracks. “It’s been so long, and now it’s almost over. I’m probably never going to see her again after this.”
“I know how you feel, man. I love her, too.”
That’s right. Sure, I knew that. He once said that he fell to his knees in his backyard and screamed her name at the sky. But I didn’t take him seriously.
“I heard you two smooching the other night . . .”
My eyes water. Joey smells so goddamn motherfucking cocksucking bad. He’ll shave his whole body and wear women’s panties and bathe in the cold blood of a mauled conservative before splashing his ass with warm water. I can taste the funk of his purple cock in my nasopharynx. Blind with tears, I hunch over the wheel and stomp on the gas.
The love of our lives is watching Drumline in bed with a box of panda cookies.
“I thought you didn’t like chocolate?”
“I like a little bit of chocolate. These are good. Want some?”
“I love Nick Cannon.”
“Ha. Did you hear Mariah Carey left him? He’s weird now. I just saw an interview with him. He had a crazy look in his eyes.”
I bug mine and make claws. The redhead only stares. I don’t really give a shit, but I thought maybe she would appreciate my tabloid knowledge of has been pop stars. I rack my brain for something else to say. She thumbs her phone.
“Apparently he has lupus.”
Yeah. Better concentrate on the movie. Tonguing the chocolate in my teeth, I forget to breathe until commercials. The redhead gets out of bed.
“I’m going to go smoke and call Hayden, okay?”
“Okay,” Joey and I squeak.
The door squelches shut and echoes. An ugly silence settles over the room as deafening commercials bang on, drowning the ambiance and washing my brain. I breathe heavily through my mouth. Itchy sweat flashes across my back like a swarm of mosquitos. I can feel Joey’s eye on my cheek.
“Are you watching this?”
“Yeah, me neither.”
Our eyes drift back to the blinking screen. Joey sighs through his nose.
“You can change the channel if you want,” he says, string of beads thwacking his palm.
“Well, what do you want to watch?”
“I don’t know. It’s up to you, man. What do you want to watch?”
“I don’t know. Nothing.”
Joey rolls his eyes and smiles like his mother.
“Okay, man. Whatever.”
I duck into my phone. To think we used to have fun. At his parents’ place on Schlinger. Never liked his little brother. They were both such hipsters. But I didn’t know any better at the time. It was better that way. I don’t even think Joey had opinions or thoughts beyond Nirvana lyrics. He loved everybody and hated Pearl Jam.
I know where I’d like to move. Ethiopia. Their calendar is seven years slow. It’s not even 2009 over there. I could do everything over again. Maybe I wouldn’t even fuck the doppelgänger’s wife. I’d go for the redhead instead. She worked at Arby’s and always brought over a big bag of roast beef. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. It’s all so manifest.
The door unclicks and the redhead slowly walks into the room carrying a mountain of beefy nachos bejeweled with brilliant tomatoes, red peppers and green onions, sliced and diced and chopped and drowned in melted ophanim of glistening Mexican cheeses and singing Gloria in Excelsis. It almost smells like the guts my first love dropped all those years ago. It’s beautiful. Each nacho tears and sags like a slice of pizza. Joey and I give thanks and feast.