Pampers sat in his alley near Second Ave and East 51st, staring at the once-glossy Miss August pinned up against a urine-stained brick wall. He stares at the bricks, the pattern and time’s insidious encroachments on this once perfect order of brick-mortar-brick. He stares at Miss August’s silicon tits. He stares at the mortar deformations. And suddenly he realizes he doesn’t know her name, Miss August’s, her profile’s on the back and in any case it’s probably been long defaced by the elements at play. He doesn’t care. He’s surprised he even thought of her name, especially when he doesn’t know his own. He continues to stare. Eventually his hand slips into his dungarees, reaching past the sweat pants, two pairs of holey briefs and his beloved disposable diapers to grasp his limp member, which he begins ca-slooshing to erection. Miss August helps.
It’s a bright, cold October day with no leaves. And things - the bricks, macadam, dumpster, wind - all exist in gradients of distanced gray. It’s both comforting and perturbing, like staring down the cool empty corridor of death row at four in the morning.
“Pampers” calls a crackled voice, the voice of Pukesick, ringing through his clench-eyed ca-slooshing like a foghorn in a noisy stadium.
“Hey Pampers you over here?”
“Get lost I’m busy.”
“Doing what? Calculating your 401K?”
“Heh. I got something to tell you.”
His hand pulls out as Pukesick rounds the corner. Pukesick is an artifact, an anachronism, a carefully tailored image ripped from those old Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post hobos: he kept his receding hair combed to one side, his beard untangled, and he adorned himself in a filthy tweed sportcoat, complete with shirt and double Windsor polyester tie. He, like everyone else, wore layers and layers underneath, but he made the effort to appear neat and that was the distinction. Respect clung to his vocabulary like the idol of a dying Jesus, much unlike the rest of street who simply trudged to the cacophonous beat of fuckall. But he did have his uses. No one knew more news and gossip and he often provided valuable information that Pampers found helpful. Which is why he tolerated his intrusions. Pukesick had been the one who got him Miss August, a decent trade for half a day-old turkey sub. He also had tuberculosis and’d be dead in a month, an afterthought of The Street and John Doe # 4,002,112 to the world. Fuckall.
“What’s your gripe? Forget to change your diapers? He heh.”
Two weeks ago Pampers had been walking up Second Ave when he came across an unopened package of extra-large disposal diapers, just laying there on the sidewalk. So like any good survivalist he nabbed them in a rush and made for the nearest alley. Once there he stripped down and tried on a pair. It was a perfect fit. And this isn’t as weird as it sounds: street people shit all the time, just like everyone else. But without a toilet you had two choices. Either you wandered around looking for a place to strip your layers and squat, losing precious body heat, or you just went in your clothes and stayed warm. Problem is, the feculence would grow so noxious that you ended up looking for replacement layers within a week, and clothes are a precious commodity. So Pampers saw the diapers as a sort of miracle of efficiency. He could shit for an entire week and not have to strip down. And when he did, he only had to replace the diaper – his clothes remained unsoiled. He was so enamored with the find that he immediately ran over to Begger’s Alley to brag to The Street. They laughed their asses off. Diapers were, like many efficient answers to life’s little problems, extraordinarily ridiculous and patently uncool – and a form of cool did exist here, yes, even in The Street. “You want us to getcha a pacifer too…Pampers?” shouted some filthy cocksucker in a corner. Then everyone laughed that jangled heckle only The Street can produce - the grinding happysickness of the condemned. He’d left them then and never went back, keeping to himself and shunning The Street with the sole exception of Pukesick, who was useful and got him Miss August.
Pukesick coughed up a blot of blood on his corduroys.
“Christ,” whined Pampers, taking his eyes off the wall to look at the blood, then returning them.
“Listen,” Pukesick said wiping his mouth, “some suits been poking around The Street lately. One even smacked up Nub.”
“Yea. Asking things he didn’t know and not listening when he said so.”
“He dead?” Pampers picked up a plastic comb with only half its teeth, then set it back down.
“Nah. Bruised. But watch yourself. These guys are federale types with no badges or laws. They’re Money looking for something. The Street thinks they lost something or someone ripped them off. Anyway, watch yourself. The bastards are legit and right brutal.”
“Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges,” he quipped. The quote came from somewhere in the deep recesses of his mind, over which an ominous gray cloud seemed to constantly hover. From a movie, he thought. The quote. But he couldn’t remember when or where. They often came to him, thoughts from the cloud, suddenly spitting forth like brilliant rays of light slipping through the cracks of this gauzy overcast. It frustrated him to no end. He knew, was certain, that there behind the clouds lay the dimmed out star that was the source and power of his real name, his identity. ‘Pampers’ dwelled on the lightless surface. ‘Pampers’ belonged to The Street. ‘Pampers’ was forced to look up at that faint, overcast sun with irresistible curiosity, part of him desperately wanting to see through the clouds and another fearing that if he ever did, he’d blinded by what he saw.
“Yea. Thanks.” Pampers reached under his back and pulled out a plastic grocery bag containing a half eaten apple. Pukesick leered forward. “Here’s your respect. Now fuck off, I got stuff to do.” He tossed him the yellowed fruit.
“Stuff huh?” Pukesick cast a ostentatious glance at Miss August and stuffed his hand down his pants. “Can I rubber off ‘stuff’ too? He-heh.”
“Get lost.” He looked at the bricks, seeing nothing.
“An old man’s got to rubber off too, he-heh,” he announced as he sauntered down the alley. “Rubber off, rubber off, rubber off. Wanky, wanky, wanky.” Then he coughed up some more blood and was gone.
Pampers briefly thought about masturbating again. He picked up a broken piece of the street and set it back down. He looked at the wall. He reached over and picked up the empty plastic bag and looked inside. He set it back down. He urinated in his diapers. He stared at the patterns on the wall and for the briefest moment debated whether to imagine images in the brickwork, then didn’t. He looked at Miss August and thought about masturbating again. He sat there for hours doing nothing. Then he grew hungry and had to get up. It irked him to no end.
Standing was a struggle, gravity a hard bitch on a powertrip. He took down Miss August and folded her up with care. Then he pulled his sweatshirt’s hood up and stuffed her in the back, so she nestled comfortably around the occiput. Then he made his way out of the alley, beginning the arduous dumpster scrounge for food, the meat and potatoes of The Street life, a hardship only hammered to by his stubborn avoidance of Begger’s Alley.
He thought about watching the alley wall.
He first saw them off East 56th. He’d been hitting the alley dumpsters along each block without much success and was about to turn the corner when he saw two erect dark-clad men standing over some hapless heap of rags. They weren’t shouting, weren’t hitting, weren’t doing anything but speaking to the guy. Pampers hung on the corner and felt the brickwork while he strained to listen. But they were too far away – all he heard were slurred syllables marked by the rising end intonation of questions, followed by the bum’s rattling answers and their murmured assents. They questioned and nodded and then slipped the bum a fiver and turned to leave. And despite the sight of cash, Pampers decided beat it before they saw him. Pukesick was a pain in the ass, sure, but he rarely lied – these guys were still dangerous. In any case, he didn’t want to find out. Men in suits can’t be trusted. Their layers were as crisp and clean and thin as a dollar bill. And everyone knows they despise The Street as the sun hates the dark.
He spent the next couple hours rummaging through the West Side alleys. It was out of his territory but he was fairly confident the suits wouldn’t be over there. It reaped a decent spoiling: a half loaf of moldy rye, an orange, and a dented but unopened can of Alpo dog food. He made it back to his alley, pinned Miss August back in her place, then lumbered down to scrap off the rye’s mold. The sun was just beginning to set.
Then they came. He was nibbling on the bread and watching the wall when two shadows appeared at the end of the alley. His stomach sank and suddenly he knew, he just knew that they’d be there, that they’d be coming – he’d known it all along, like picking up a phone and knowing who’s on the other end before they speak, but never believing it until they do. A newspaper rustled behind the dumpster and he knew on the other side of the alley was blocked too. He was trapped. The two suits approached. They both wore long navy blue gabardine suits, custom made and available at Lombardo’s on West 47th. He knew this, as they approached, he knew where they could buy their suits, how Lombardo’s albino tailor measured them, how much they cost, that the tailor was an albino. The footfalls of the man behind the dumpster closed in. The two he could see halted before him and one said “Alexander. It is time to go.” He looked up at them, then looked back at the wall and tried desperately to think of nothing.
But the suits had had enough of The Street and quickly grew impatient. They both reached down to pick him up, but he scampered through the speaker’s legs and scooted up to his feet. As he got set to sprint away he was hammered by the ball of a fist driving into his stomach. Pampers collapsed to the street and lay prone as three dark figures rose before him, eclipsing the source of the vermilion-etched overcast hanging ominous above. Then he soiled his diapers and lost consciousness.
* * *
“It’s called a fugue state,” said the analyst. “Very rare but it does happen, especially to men your age.”
He was thirty-nine. He knew that now.
“It doesn’t have any consistent triggers but it does plague people who’ve experienced severe trauma at some point. Veterans, emergency workers, survivors of intense natural disasters.”
“But I don’t recall ever experiencing any trauma.”
“No, you haven’t. Your files are quite informed on this point.”
“I’ve been in therapy before, haven’t I?”
“Yes. You Alex are the rarest of cases: a serially recurrent psychogenic fugue. It’s been known to happen, but not with this amount of regularity. You seem to go through one of these transformations every few months.”
“No, I’m not. I don’t mean to distress you, but we all felt it would be good for you to know.”
“So if trauma isn’t causing this, what is? Regular, old-fashioned stress?”
“No. You hardly live a stressful life. At one time perhaps. Back when you were working the market. But you’ve been out the game for nearly four years now, retired. And very comfortably I might add. You have led an admirable life. Not everyone earns enough to retire at the age of thirty-five Alex. A living success story. That takes a lot of drive.”
“Well, I see no reason why we can’t release you on home observation. You have your private nurse all set up. Take two of these a day and relax. Everything will return to normal soon enough.”
* * *
Alexander Thegorate. That was his name. He knew that now too, amongst other things. He had a penthouse on 67th and Central Park West. Most of his money was wrapped up in long term CDs and mutual funds, and he had a lot of it. He had an austere, graying butler named James (Alex literally fell off his chair laughing when he retold him his name, the poor fellow; he even called him by hollering “James, oh James lad” in a mock Victorian accent for the first few days back). He had a 22-year-old personal care assistant with blond hair and big tits whom he called “Nurse” because he couldn’t remember her real name no matter how many times she told him. He had a 1967 split-window Corvette, a candy-red Lamborghini, a 1926 Silver Ghost and a gold-plated Delorean in his garage. He a small bureau filled with silk boxers embroidered with the letters AT in gilded palace script. He had Bardiglio-tiled bathroom with an ivory seat toilet and a gold-rimmed bidet that made him cackle with glee. He had a 61-inch HDTV in front of a solid gray sofa upholstered in Italian silk. This was who he was now, a character ripped straight from a Dickens novel. It was disgusting like death by chocolate.
He had no heirs or close relatives. He’d never been in love. He’d never been divorced.
He spent his first week reorienting himself with his bank accounts, personal gadgets, and Nurse’s breasts from various degrees of angle. He took the Lamborghini upstate and ripped across Route 17 at 160+ mph, finally pulling over just outside of Binghamton because he was bored and wanted to see what it was like to grease a state trooper with $2000 cash. It felt giddy. After ten minutes of bartering he nearly blew it by giggling like a schoolgirl, he was so happy-nervous, which had then convinced the cop he was on drugs and upped the price by $500. He did the same thing on the way home but it only cost $1500 and was boring as hell. The trooper was old, fat, and had obviously been on the take for years – he took the first bribe offer with an iron nerve and very little cajoling, which of course took the all fun out of it. He did the speed limit the rest of the way home and arrived thoroughly despondent, parking the car in the garage swearing to never return.
Then it was food. All of the West Side’s finest restaurants, he sampled them all. Indeed, in a single month he earned himself both a reputation and name: The Sampler. He’d go to whatever restaurant tickled his fancy and order the menu – the entire menu. They’d bring it out in five dish spurts and he’d sample each and every one, nitpicking at some and devouring platefuls of others. He gained forty-two pounds in less than thirty days. His arms sagged, his gut bloated, and a second chin began to come in like a finely groomed goatee. Then, late one night while sitting in an empty LeMonde, he looked at a candle, lost focus, and slipped into a thoughtless daze. When he snapped to he found himself gnawing on a meatless rib with feral intensity, several waiters orbiting, wide-eyed.
“Wrap it up.”
“All of it. Put it in bags. Tonight I want it all with me.”
Within five minutes he had five grocery-sized bags of escargot, veal cutlets, lobster thermador, roast quail, and all sorts of other dishes lined up on his table. He stood up, threw his camelhair coat around his shoulders and stopped short of reaching for a bag. Again he slipped into a thoughtless daze about nothing. After a few minutes he came back, absorbed the dimly lit room, then paid a pockmarked dishwasher fifty dollars to drop the bags off in some random East Side alley. He left in a rush. As he made his way home through the faint, off-white wind he felt unnaturally thin, interspaced, as if his body’s density had suddenly widened out to allow the elements to blow through his waning spirit. The idea suddenly came to him that he was a ghost. When he arrived home he ran a cold bath and leapt in. But try as he might, he couldn’t shake off the tingles of those thoughtless dazes. They somehow seemed comforting. Relaxing. Maybe even euphoric. Then he pulled the plug and swore off restaurants for good, ending his short but stunning career as The Sampler.
A week later Nurse quit. It wasn’t because of his leering. She’d worked as a personal care assistant for dozens of wealthy and perverted louses; she was under no delusions regarding her exemplary employment record – pretty face, shapely body – she knew. But one day she’d lost track of Alex and had wandered around the house calling him. He didn’t answer. Eventually she happened upon a slightly ajar bathroom door and entered. There, straddling the bidet like a happysick victim of Vlad the Impaler, was Alexander. He was giggling manically, had his legs in the air, his gut in wave-motion, and his hand ca-slooshing away at his penis. Now this itself wasn’t that shocking; she’d given enemas to ninety-year-old men who moaned, actually moaned, as she pulled on the suction. A fat man masturbating on a bidet was nothing. It was what he looked at. Directly across from him, taped up on the wall, was a glossy-new centerfold of a naked buxom blond. Nurse looked at Alex’s contorted face, then she looked at the centerfold. Then she briefly looked back at Alex and then returned to the centerfold, captivated. A minute later she strode out of the penthouse screaming “Alicia!” as loud as she could, over and over until she hit the street. She had quit her job. She had quit her profession. She had quit her general life. Four years later she was an obstinate lesbian enrolled in Columbia’s highly selective grad program in post-feminist studies. No matter how hard she tried, she just couldn’t shake the feeling that the centerfold had looked like her in every possible way, from hair to eyes to breasts to the way she had laid herself out.
The next day while watching TV Alex looked at the wall and suddenly realized he never knew her name. Then he remembered he didn’t care, turned on The Real World on MTV, and went back to watching the wall.
Months passed and for the most part Alex stayed inside. The silk couch engulfed him and his HDTV became the bright warm center of his reclusive lifestyle. At first he’d begun each day as usual – he showered, had breakfast in the dining room and then changed into one of his dapper Italian suits that shimmered when he moved. But, as with most hermetic lifestyles, things began to slide. Showers slacked to a weekly occurrence, then a biweekly chore, then stopped altogether. James began serving bagels and coffee in the living room. And eventually Alex stopped wearing his suits. For weeks he lounged about in jeans and a t-shirt. Then he stuck to his pajamas. Then just his boxers and increasingly fetid skin.
Winter came and he hardly noticed it. He sat ensconced in the couch, surrounding himself with all the things he deemed necessary: the remote control, cordless phone, and a bell to summon James. He began sleeping there. A month passed and didn’t get off the couch once, ballooning up yet another forty pounds. His doctor came by to check up on him and after a brief, depressing conversation revolving around television programming and the intricate patterns on his wall, he ended up doubling Alex’s Xanex prescription. He lied and told him Nurse was on her day off. The doctor hadn’t known her name either. He still didn’t take the Xanex.
The doctor left and Alex picked up the TV remote and turned the channel. He set it down.
“I am Elmer J. Fudd, millionaire. I own a mansion and a yacht.”
Six months ago he would’ve laughed all morning with Bugs Bunny. Now he just picked up the remote and changed the channel. A rerun of the vintage surfing show Happy Wave came on. It bloomed into being halfway through an interview with Lance Way, the 1954 Southern Californian Surfing Champion. He looked deeply tanned, even in black & white, appearing with a smooth sheen of dark gray skin. Alex set the remote back down.
“Well sure Chip,” Lance was saying, “every wave is different. You just have to feel its groove, that’s all. ”
“Super. Do mind telling our viewers how one feels a wave’s groove?”
“Gosh, it’s not really something I can explain, you know, like a chemistry textbook.”
“Haha. Yes, I see. Give it a try.”
“Well ok. I suppose you have to understand the ocean Chip. You have to feel how it works. How it makes waves appear.”
“Ah, you mean the tidal forces and pull of the moon.”
“Ah shucks Chip, I never was any good at science. I always thought waves were like that English thing.”
“Yea, you know. Mr. Via, my high school English teacher taught us about waves when he explained the plot structure of stories. He said that stories work like waves: you have a beginning of action, you know, like a force. Then there’s a swell of increasing power. And that’s the rising action. Then the swell hits its maximum height and that’s when it climaxes, you know, when the crest reaches its peak height. Then the whole thing comes crashing down in a what’s that word. Denouement. Waves are just like that Chip. The key is to get out there with your board and ride the rising action as long as possible, you know, until the climax, the peak, the point of the ultimate ride.”
“Wow that’s fascinating stuff Lance.”
“Ah I’m just telling ya what Mr. Via said.”
“Well I’m sure he was one heck of an English teacher.”
“He was. But there’s more. One time during the Hawaiian Internationals I was riding this monster wave, and I suddenly realized that if life was nothing but a series of unfolding stories, and like Mr. Via said - stories are waves, then life must be like the ocean Chip: a series of unfolding waves, rising and falling, rising and falling. And that’s when I realized why I like surfing so much.”
“And why’s that Lance?”
“Because surfing is grooving with all of life’s rising action. You ride the action up to the peak until the whole story collapses and then you fall with it, bound up in its death. But the ocean always provides another wave Chip - that’s the beauty of life, of the ocean. There’s always another wave.”
“You heard it here ladies and gentlemen: surfing, like life, is loving waves. Inspirational thoughts from our very own Southern Californian Surfing Champion, Lance Way.”
The show faded to commercial and Alex picked up the remote to turn it off. But when he did he noticed that some words had been carved in the back, he could only assume by him during some previous fugue state: CH SURFER. He set it back down and stared at the wall, seeing nothing.
The next morning he looked at the floor. He looked at HDTV’s blank screen hanging before him like a giant unblinking monolith. He looked back at the wall and saw nothing. He picked up the remote and ran his fingers along the grooves of CH SURFER. He set it back down. He picked up James’ bell and rang it. He set it back down and looked at the window. It was etched in the cold gray shadows of a winter he didn’t see. James arrived.
“Go to a dime store on the upper East Side and get me a pair of gloves, a jacket, and a hat with ear flaps.”
“Specifically on the upper East Side sir?”
James began walking away when Alex called after him.
“Pick up some extra-large disposable Pampers too.”
Then he went back to starring at nothing, the only thing of interest being himself and the rising blank newness welling within.