(Sub Cultures: Theodore Vulpin)
Tall girls with long legs and hair down past their shoulder blades where wings might have been attached because they are, after all, only birds. Anything much more would be too much because it’s August and beauty like that may trigger something rampant in him. He thinks of a sweaty, brown-white horse on the crag of a mountain, nostrils flaring out snorts of musky steam
Tall girls with long legs, he watches closely, measuring the distance one step makes into the next, until one of them turns (there are three) and he lingers on her lips full and sensual and dwarfing suddenly her long legs because, after all, she’s not a bird pretty on a wire string, but a girl fresh to womanhood and he tingles for her even though – even though he’d rather not.
The ache in his heart – a literal ache, like a bruise – pulls him back into his casual clothes, standing beside the G section reshelving a pile of vacuum-wrapped cd cases. He closes his eyes and shakes his head vigorously. He wants to find a way to get out of this strange sore ache. He squints his eyes and tries to chough.
Tall girls with long legs. It’s not so much the long legs as their swivel between the hips. He was never big on legs unless wrapped tight and sheer in pantyhose. But it’s been a while and because he’d rather not, he focuses on reshelving the cd cases.
The girl is standing in front of the new releases and she looks a little upset. How old, do you think? No more than eighteen, maybe younger. The slouch of her shoulders. Only girls slouch like that, as if their spine is too short for their skin, waiting for the right day to bloom aright and fearsome into womanhood.
But something in her eyes. A likeness to maturity.
He thinks: The old to be young and the young to be wise. We should assume that age is relative. But her shoulders still are a bit too tight. Unsure?
He walks over to her.
“Anything I can help you with?”
“No, I’m just looking…”
But in the ellipsis wavers a little desperation. Like somebody on a dance floor who can’t remember which step to take next. He asks:
“Are you looking for yourself or for someone else?”
She stares at him. He smiles. Looking for yourself.
“I got some birthday money,” she says, “and I want something different. I’m tired of all this crap. Do you think people have ever tried to make seriously good music?”
“What do you mean?” he knows, he plays along.
“I mean, all this crap they sell! You sell!”
“Hey, if it weren’t for the people who buy it, we probably wouldn’t sell it.”
“Probably,” she repeats as if she doesn’t quite believe him.
“Probably not. But once upon a time, there were some good musicians…”
“You know what? I’m not interested in once-upon-a-time. I may look young to you, but I take my music seriously.”
“I can respect that.”
“So then, do you know of any good music that I can listen to in reality?”
He slumps dramatically, puts wraps his face in concentration, then looks blankly at her.
“I’m sorry. I’m not really this sassy. I guess I’m just frustrated because I don’t know what’s good and what’s not.”
“What kind of music do you like?” he asks.
“I don’t know. Jazz. Vocals. Real good vocals.”
“Yeah, but it doesn’t really matter, as long as, you know—“
“Uh… stuff that’s real, that’s got real emotion to it, you know?”
He nods briskly, shifting his weight from his right to his left leg.
“I mean, like, in pop – in all the stuff on the radio stations – there’s always the same sort of vocal thing going on, the same feelings and hooks and its hollow. I like real things – and they don’t have to be big. The world doesn’t have to be falling apart. But I love those singers who can make a stubbed to sound interesting…”
“Sure. So does that give you a good idea of what I’d like?”
“I’m thinking “Constipation Blues” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.”
“Never heard of it.”
“That’s too bad, but we’re out of stock on it anyways. I can give you a few other suggestions though.”
“Lead the way.”
He takes her up and down the aisles. Everything he points out, she picks up. He wonders if she’s doing this because she thinks he’s cute. It doesn’t seem so. He wonders what she’s all about.
Eventually, he runs out of suggestions.
“Anything else?” she asks.
“Yeah, a lot. But… maybe that’s enough?”
“Should I ring you up?” he offers.
“You take plastic?”
“If its good.”
“Oh, it should be.”
He watches her as she walks away. Not her body, but the way it moves, the way she carries herself. He decides she’s got something authentic, already.
“Already,” he mumbles to himself. “Todd the perceiver. I see past shrouds and shadows, spying on the kernel self inside each one of them.”
He glances at the clock, adding up the minutes till he’s done for the day.
One hundred and forty minutes later, he follows her out the door. Hefty head start, he thinks, turning the opposite way she turned and walking the habitual course to dinner.
Hamburger, fries, vanilla malt. He watches idly the sun shifting mellow through the leaves of young trees. Cars sweep the air, leaving behind fractions of rubber, spinning a plastic cup someone discarded. He blinks his eyes, sweating out the residue of eight hours fixed between neon and all those hundred thousand album covers. He takes a deep breath, and the ache of his heart gyrates against his sternum. He puts his right hand to his chest and pats it, wondering if it’s a permanent condition, or even deserved.
He stops short of playing the question why?
He walks down the street, his hands spread out parallel to the ground, like he’s dribbling flat rubber blocks, or maybe beams of light, like the sensors in an elevator door, set to detect a leg or arm so it’ll be sure to take off with the whole person. Nothing done halfway. Take all of me, Lord, leave not a smudge behind.
What to do? he asks Home, to put up with my roommates and their neurosis? That’s not fair. Still, I’m not up to it. Bar? No, I’d rather not. Would make me feel stupid. Loud music and hunched losers. Stare at women and wonder why some more. I could go to a movie? Nothing playing. This town is dead. I should take up karate or guitar lessons. Nothing better to do. If I had a girl, just to walk with, maybe I’d…
He rubs his hands together, speeds up his pace. He crosses the street, enters a convenience store. He selects a two-dollar beverage, looks over the magazine racks, playing avoid-the-rather-nots. He turns away before he looses. At the counter, he buys a pack of gum too. The clerk is about his age, something greasy about him, Todd asks how he’s doing.
“Alright, man,” answers the clerk. “No robberies yet, man. You want, you know, anything else?”
The invitation slurks across the counter. Inside himself, Todd recoils. His heart’s ache comes back. Strongly. He scratches the back of his head, digging his fingernails into his scalp.
“Here,” says the clerk, leaning forward. “Try one of these cigarettes. We just got them in.”
Todd restrains himself, slowly takes a cigarette from the proffered pack.
“You need a light, man?” the clerk’s voice gyrates like a basement centipede. Todd resists the urge to sneer.
“Sure, yeah,” Todd accepts the matches, backs up a step to go.
“Hold up, I’ll smoke with you.”
Todd waits next to the double doors. The clerk sniffs, then sniggers as they walk outside. They light up. The cigarette makes him nauseous by the second drag. The smell of tar, the oily grime of the storefront rubs grainy and acrid against him. He preservers. The clerk rhapsodizes on various parts of women. He seems an expert in acts of disgust. Todd’s eyes water, he can’t seem to step away.
“Hey man if you want a magazine, you know—“
“I don’t thanks. Actually, I gotta catch my bus.”
“Seven oh two.”
“Ah yeah, I think you just missed it.” The clerk sniggers again. “Like the smoke?”
“Um… what’s in it?”
“Huh… isn’t that—“
“An illegal substance yeah. But you don’t have to pay me for it, really. My pleasure man.”
Sniggers. “I’m just joshing you man. No worries. No chemicals. Just a mess of hashish and tabacc. All natural. Belgian, Nigerian. Mixed special…”
The clerk, his jaw wide and flat, making him look somehow reptilian, begins sniggering. His nostrils flare. His eyes shift right and left. Todd tries to take a step backward, trips over a parking median.
Looking up, face ruddy with self-criticism, Todd becomes transfixed by the clerk’s posture. There’s a presence to it, a gravity that brings up a twisted admiration for whoever the hell this weirdo is. The clerk reaches out a hand, his lips puckered, like he’s deciding on the flavor of a pasta sauce he’s cooking – whether it needs more salt, basil. Todd allows himself to be lifted up. The movement is smooth and casual back to his feet.
“You know man,” the clerk’s voice has shifted. Its as if the mellowing brick-red light of the evening has fixed itself to him. The greasiness evaporates, replaced with the smooth, pervasive insinuation of a snake sliding through a desert.
“You know man, I’ve been thinking -- why don’t people give up, why do most of them stick around here? I mean, look at all the survivors. Common sense says people are idiots, right? But then why aren’t car accidents happening all the fucking time? Fucking cunts. We’re just a bunch of lucky fucking cunts.”
The clerk flicks his cigarette into a black, oil-smeared puddle. He cracks his neck and sniggers and leaves Todd alone with a slight headache.
The cigarette must have been just another cigarette. He doesn’t feel anything out of the ordinary – except for the extraordinary dislocation of the day shifting into night. The sky subdues its reds to violets, its warm oranges into ethereal pinks. The clouds overhead look as though airbrushed by an artistry far beyond your standard RV mural as he walks his sneakers down the street.
He kicks a rock, adjusts his backpack with his shoulders. Thinks:
Boys. When I was a boy, when I was curious enough about any given thing to just run right after it, no matter if my shoe strings were loose and whipping between my ankles or tied to choke my feet. Before I got tied up in…
He takes a swig of his bottled drink, replaces the cap and wipes his mouth with the back of his wrist. He spots a glossy magazine on the sidewalk, torn a bit and pink, as if fallen from the sky, jagged despite its rectangular cut and the familiar sultry feeling in him already leaping up with heated, oily hunger.
He bends down, picks it up, opens it, twisting inside himself as he turns the fleshy pages, as he feels his heart cry out, but not like the faces in these pictures in his hands.
Todd closes his eyes, feeling the glossy pages stick to the sweat of his fingers.
What is it about girls? he thinks behind his pounding eyes. Question of the ages. Yeah. They walk by, and you look at them, at the wiggle-swoosh both hips produce as she strolls her saunter. Saunter. And then the eyes, the lips, the breasts, and you’re pulled their way, just because something in all that there you want here. And then when they talk to you. Shoulders you want to hold. Put an arm around. Squeeze. Yeah. And a belly, just to rest the hand on… just soft like that. And when they talk to you. Gravity in the mystery. Like about to get stuck in them. A fish in a warm net. Squirming in their saunter. But there’s something different here. The far. The picture of a sultry glance that would be out of place if a real live she was close and coming near. Wrap it up in a rather-not ready-made for me to mate with. Yeah. But it wouldn’t be true if a sexy you came up to me and steamy said ‘Lets go to bed.’ No. That would never happen. There’s something different here.
He opens his eyes and shivers at the naked creatures twisting in the pictures in his hands. He drops the magazine. So much. So much.
The sun has set. Todd makes a beeline for the park.