By: Chris KasselBy
Wim—short for William—lived in a tall apartment building in the middle of a blustery big city. The building had a narrow little staircase and hallways full of stank, but in the rear was an alley where one of the female cooks from Seoul Gardens practiced Kung Fu forms. In the summer heat, Wim would sit on the fire escape and observe her as she honed her coordination skills and precision. He did not watch her so much as try to deduce what it was like to be her. The Korean cook saw him there and enjoyed his silent, solemn presence, and one day she offered to teach him some Kung Fu, like the Horse Stance or the Bow & Arrow. But Wim was an introverted and iconoclastic eleven-year-old with minimalist tastes and he had no wish to learn Kung Fu. He watched because he was baffled and amused that someone else did.
The Korean cook did not understand this, and she thought the willowy boy was shy, so on another day she brought him a duckling. Now, this was something he could appreciate, and he named the bird Mr. Cheeps for the sound it made, and carried it around in his front pocket everywhere he went. But his parents were butterbrain junkies, and they did not want a cheeping, peeping duck living in their apartment, so they told him to get rid of it.
And this is the story of how iconoclastic Wim took his pet duck and made it free.
Wim began his remarkable journey at the library at Chene and Larned where he found a big map of his state. Although there was a lazy brown river running behind that library, Wim thought that Mr. Cheeps would be happier in a big blue lake, so he stole some money from his snoring parents and that Saturday morning, with Mr. Cheeps in his front pocket, he climbed aboard a Greyhound bus and set off into the lambent, kinetic world beyond the decadence.
Along the way, he saw many remarkable things. He saw green forests and farms with cows and horses. He saw cornfields and towns where people lived in big houses on shady streets. He let Mr. Cheeps peek from his pocket to see these sights, but a pregnant lady sitting next to him threatened to tell the bus driver that he had smuggled a live bird on board the bus. After that, he moved his seat and went into a meditative fugue state until they arrived in the city by the lake.
It was by then just after seven o’clock, and the sun was already well along on its downward tumble. Wim had a map of the city in the pocket opposite the one that contained Mr. Cheeps. He opened it up and hurried along 10th street until he could see the lighthouse that he knew was on the shore of the lake. By the time he got there, the lake was no longer blue; it was painted red and gold and the glory of Shekinah shone brightly. The wind had whipped up and there were waves that Wim believed were too rough for Mr. Cheeps to swim through, but then he found a shallow area surrounded by large rocks where it was calm and the water was warmer. As soon as he bid farewell to his duck, setting him afloat in the warm, colorful water, he felt a vast and strange euphoria.
Then he heard a voice behind him say, “First time you ever been to a lake or what?”
As a rule, Wim did not speak much, and this time was no exception. The person who asked the question was a gangly fellow with a chalky face where acne and freckles were fighting for real estate. He reminded Wim of a drawing of Huckleberry Finn he’d seen in the library, although the young man was in middle twenties and not dressed in runaway rags, but in a thin, cheap gabardine suit the color of a gum eraser.
The speaking man wore a hat set at a jaunty tilt on his small head and carried a feather-grey satchel bag over his right shoulder. His voice sounded hoarse, like it was not yet sold on the lower registers, but it was a voice that resonated with authority. Wim blinked at him through his big brown eyes while Mr. Cheeps paddled around on the frictionless surface of the pool. “Well,” said the suited fellow, “You don’t want to be handling that water there none. That’s where people with boats dump out their toilets.”
Wim returned a perfunctory nod, but this created a problem for him: He did not want Mr. Cheeps swimming around in toilet water, but the duckling showed no inclination to leave the safety of the inlet between rocks, either to brave the broad and windswept lake or to return to shore. Still, Wim faced insurmountable problems every day, and this was just another stank hallway with a pool of blood to step over. He waded out into the knee-deep warm water and fetched Mr. Peeps.
“Now you gone and done it, sir,” said the suited man solemnly. “Well and truly. That water contains cholera germs. Know what that means?”
Wim shook his head and the man said (as if it was the most obvious thing in the world), “Cholera germs make you puke black until you die. Now you know what you gotta do? You gotta strip down nekkid and rinse yourself off in the clean part of the lake there.”
Wim didn’t want to undress in front of anyone, but he also didn’t want to die of the black puke disease. It was another dilemma, but the man said, “Don’t worry, I won’t watch you none,” and grandly turned his back.
As Wim removed his pants and shirt and stepped into the frigid, lapping waves, the man on the shore continued to talk: “My name is Dobias Tinn. ‘They call me tin but I’m made of steel’. I never seen you around none. You new to town? Where are you stay at? What’s your name?”
“Wim,” Wim whispered in a faraway voice.
Dobias laughed. “Wim? You come to town on a whim?”
“On a bus,” Wim began, but when he looked, Dobias had turned around and was staring at his delicate, fey, somewhat androgynous body. He turned around again and wrung out his clothes as best he could while holding the duck, and got back into them as best he could while holding the duck, and when he clambered back up the beach, the light was fading from the sky and he was shivering and shriveling and his lips were turning a shade of cyanic blue.
“Well, looka there, Mr. Wim, you now done caught the quaky quivers, so you’ll die of the pneumonia instead of the cholera. Your little duck, too. He’s too little for the wild—he’ll get et up by the other ducks first day. So if you got nowhere to sleep tonight—and I’m a-guessing you don’t—you can come stay with me at the Three Dollar House.”
Wim had brought along the $18 he needed to buy a bus ticket back to his own blustery city, and that had been his plan, but now the cash was soaking wet from the lake water and stuck together. He understood that by this point his mush-headed parents would have come around and discovered their missing money; they’d be agitated and aggravated and even violent, and they’d probably put two-and-two together since he was also missing. He weighed his option and in the end he decided to extend the grand adventure by falling in behind Dobias.
“But first,” Dobias said, “We got to spread the rest of the Good News.”
Wim watched as he removed some leaflets from his satchel and began to scan the area for potential marks. The street they followed was dingy, populated by a few murky, lurking people. Dobias approached them, announcing, “We’re living in the last days, my flock—the end of the Gospel age. The good news is that God’s heavenly kingdom will soon end the wickedness and transform the earth into paradise.”
His cracking voice quaked and boomed and people were just startled enough to take a leaflet, although most of them quickly dropped it into gutters. Following behind, Wim thought he might be of some use by retrieving the jettisoned Good News in case it could be repurposed later.
“This is the dawn of a new age,” Dobias said to shadowy men in baseball caps whose wallets he lifted when he could, “…a fact discerned not only by a student of the Word, but foretold in prophecies and borne by outward signs.”
He darted among the demimonde as they spilled from doorways or passed into alleys: “God’s theocracy is called Zion and Christ Jesus Is the Chief Officer thereof, the rightful King of the new world. You need not be uneasy any longer, my friend. ”
Green gloom lowered upon the city as before a storm; Dobias emptied his satchel bag among the final handful of stragglers and Wim picked the pamphlets up again.
“Okay,” announced Dobias, suddenly. “So we have piled up a mighty heap of witnesses to honor and glory Jehovah’s name, so now we is done.”
With that he led Wim into a welter of tear-down shanties built along the banks of the river that poured into the lake he’d seen on the library map—the lake where he’d sought to liberate Mr. Cheeps, who now shuddered wet and limp in his pants pocket. They came to a tragic house at the end of the road and walked up the weedy, broken pavement bisecting an unmown lawn. This was the Three Dollar House, so named (Wim soon learned) not for its relative value on the real estate market, but because inside, on the refrigerator, Dobias had taped three dollar bills.
“The Eternal can endure the transient,” he explained, “ but this dang ol’ house gets kick-door robbed so often that first thing I do when I get home is check to see if those dollar bills are still there. If they’re gone, I known I been jacked during the day, so I go over a checklist of every item in this house to see what else is gone. Today—as you can see—we was non-molested.”
The refrigerator trick worked, but the refrigerator did not since the house had no electricity. As soon as they got inside, Dobias lit candles scattered around various shiny surfaces. Wim could see that the interior of the Three Dollar House was small and indifferent, stacked with a hamster-maze of boxes and trash bags filled with lumpy things. In every corner hung muculent mats of cobwebs—Chia Pet curtains so vast that it appeared the spiders had developed a condominium-style ecosystem. Wim backed away from those spidery drapes found that Dobias had removed all of his clothing and was standing naked before a mirror eating from a bucket of Popeye’s fried chicken.
Dobias spread his arms wide and exposed his hosy dipstick, and through a mouthful of old breading, he said, “So, Mr. Wim, you now come to realize that my real life is not the sunny-side-up eggs I been a-preaching. Inside the Three Dollar House, I’m more about the coldness and nihilism.”
Then he sat at a stool in front of the mirror, picked up a beat up old Squier six-string and began hammering out an approximation of power chords, but since there was no amplification it sounded stannic and thin. After a few minutes of this, he cried, “Come on over here and get you some fried chicken, boy.”
Wim did not want to approach the naked man with his hosy dipstick, but he was very hungry, and he was also very scrappy, and he believed he could overpower Dobias if he suddenly went pedo-bear. So he stepped up to the bucket and in doing so, he realized that the stool upon which Dobias sat was actually wedged between two mirrors. There was the one that Dobias faced, with another behind him, so that when Wim glanced into one, he caught multiple images of his own long-lashed, limpid eyes preserved in the lushness of youth—a vision of himself in eternal duplicate.
“Well, now you’ve gone and done it,” Dobias said.
“Done what?” Wim said, keeping a wary eye on the fellow in case he lunged.
“You looked into the mirror and saw Xibalba. See, by day I’m meant to spread the good news, but truly I’m a scout on the lookout for the obscene and the unnatural, a consigliere to the profane and repellent. Oh, and I find ‘em all right. They’re sloshing around everywhere…”
Dobias began to click them off, folding back a long skeletal finger with each name. “Mr. Beauchamp, that angry, gasoline-huffing man-faced, balding, inanimate, brooding doinker; Galilea, the wifty space bunny with the Tarot deck; Vulk Wax, last of the scabby Skoal-dipping thrash punk wannabes, Notorious Xizzo, a vaguely appealing poontang warrior, and now you, Brother Wim and his dying duckling. I find ‘em, string ‘em on the clothes line, and lickity-split, every one of y’all winds up vanishing into Xibalba.”
Dobias pointed a bony index finger at the mirror where both their images were an infinite recession: “Xibalba—the microclimate of the macrocosm. And now you’ve peeked down the rabbit hole, so that’s where you’re headed, too.”
Dobias Tinn sounded insane, which was reasonable because, despite having an IQ of 145, he was insane. When he was thirteen, he was taking a shower and discovered his first pubic hairs and immediately marched naked into the kitchen where Hale and Aurelia Tinn were listening to Rush Limbaugh on their short wave radio and said, “Now that I got pubes you all ain’t gonna order me around no more.”
When old, mythically masculine Hale stepped up to face him down over the non compos mentis declaration, Dobias wacked him in the skull with a toaster while his mother locked herself inside the adjacent pantry. Hale went to heaven and Dobias went to the Anderson County Youth Development Center.
“At the time, I was taking everything and everyone for granted,” Dobias explained later. “My public defender was a decent fellow—a perfect gentleman, honest to a fault—he said there was no way to avoid lock-up, but if I followed the rules, I’d be out on my 21st birthday.”
Dobias entered the Center correctly believing that he was beyond the moral sphere of the very system that had incarcerated him: “It was too crowded in there for supervision. Put a hundred pounds of rice in a fifty pound bag and the seams split. That first month, in the C-Pod TV dayroom, behind a held-up towel, I was forced to perform a series of unutterable acts on some unholy youths. Took me a while to work out the inner code of conduct, but in all my years inside that pestilential palace, the only demerit I ever received was the time I stole a cookie. One cookie from the commissary. A single moment of sugary pleasure was my only infraction.”
As such, and as promised by his honest attorney, he was released on his 21st birthday. Whereupon he found a needy-looking Pentecostal church in the city by the lake and gave them a line of bootlickery, whereupon they took pity on him, bought him a cheap Goodwill suit and sent him out among the confluence of shadowy people to spread the Good News. And that’s what he’d been up to for the past few years, earning a pittance from the church, committing minor jacks and petty thefts, squatting in the flippity floppity floop house under the big trunk line bridge. He’d renamed it the Three Dollar House and magnanimously shared it with any interesting vagabond who needed a place to crash.
That night, Wim crawled into a small space beside the ratty couch and away from the spider webs and snuggled up under some wintery clothes he found inside a black garbage bag. He tried to remain vigilant, though; he was worried that his host might try something ugly, and not only that, when he pulled Mr. Cheeps from his pocket, the little bird seemed to be having trouble walking. It was as if his little yellow legs had turned into spaghetti. In the middle of that sweltering hot night, Wim got up to take a piss out back and also found himself a little spaghetti-legged. He hoped that this was not the onset of the black pukes of which he had recently learned, but his stomach felt nothing but rumbly and empty and not particularly sick. So then, naturally—being young and impressionable and painfully naïve to matters not connected to street survival—he wondered if this might be the first stage of vanishing into Xibalba.
Also, being suddenly taken ill, he couldn’t fret about it indefinitely, so he made a corral with his circled arms and placed Mr. Cheeps inside it and fell asleep. In the morning, the duckling was a feathery puddle, unable to even stand, and although the bird was not dead, it wasn’t alive by much. By then, Wim was also a puddle with a fever into three digits. He looked around and it seemed like a mist had rolled over his eyes. He remembered where he was, then dragged himself onto the damp and stench-soused couch because it was still better than the clammy, sweaty floor.
Dobias was back inside his tan Goodwill suit when he approached the couch, scowling, “So you thought you were invincible, huh. Mr. Wim? Gaddin’ about in that toilet water? Well, I was a-gonna take you down to Victory to Vision Church of God in Christ and set you up with your own Good News route, but that a-better wait until your template plays out here in the Three Dollar Manor. The prodigal son will return tonight and meanwhile, I wouldn’t lie on that couch none—when it’s cold out, that’s where I pee.”
That explained the smell and the dampness, and Wim wanted no part of it, so with considerable effort, he rolled back down to the floor and crawled over to the sleeping bag that lay between the two mirrors. He raised his head and held Mr. Cheeps against his steaming skin and watched the measureless images recede. He felt that he had crossed an invisible threshold and entered a limbo state, which for all he knew, was Xibalba.
He fell asleep again, cradling his duck, and had a nightmare about an elephant who was suspended over the edge of a cliff with his curly tail tied to a dandelion; the dandelion was the only force preventing the elephant from falling into the abyss. This dream should have been more inane than disturbing, but Wim’s delirium murmured; whatever was inside his head swelled feverishly against whatever barrier was holding it in.
Confused and ludicrously cold, Wim awoke again, shrouded himself in the sleeping bag and pulled himself onto the stool where Dobias had hammered on the guitar, the place where transcendence, transport and ultimate escape bounced interminably back and forth between two sheets of glass. He began to doubt that anything he could recall of his life—a pool of sunlight on the fire escape, the shiny silver polyester curtains and dirty beige carpet in an apartment, the acrid stink of the pipe, the Korean lady spasmodically kicking air in the alley—were more than fantasies in a larger hallucination.
Shortly thereafter, he had another revelation: Those who had vanished could return. He considered this when people began to enter the Three Dollar House, swirling and cavorting, slinking and slithering, grinning and frowning, drinking from quarts of beer, and he shortly recognized them as the obscene and unnatural folks that Dobias had clicked off on his bony fingers. At first, they paid him no heed, but in a while the space bunny Galilea came over squatted by the stool. She had a broad orangutan face and an air of invincible placidity; her fingers were grubby as she took his right hand and began to trace the wrinkles. She spoke in an artificial Southern lilt: “You have ancient lines, little man—your soul is very old. You have lived your code of silence through multiple transmigrations and are now midway between Hell and Buddhahood. My advice to you is that you put everything you own into tiny pouches, one inside the other, like Russian dolls. That’s your Kri.”
Watching with languid interest, yawning melodramatically, dusty blue eyes bulging beneath an expertly crafted pompadour, was Notorious Xizzo. Had Wim not been visibly ill, this fellow would have worked on seducing him.
“When I lived here,” Galilea said, looking around, “I wanted to paint everything white—that’s the power totem.”
“I have a pair of white suède shoes,” Notorious Xizzo answered blandly. “And a white ascot.”
“Gotta hand it to you,” said Mr. Beauchamp, peeling the three dollar bills off the refrigerator. “You always had the style.”
“Not style, but burnish,” he answered. “I can certainly hold a room.”
Behind them, Vulk Wax had unearthed a gigantic hundred pound bag of rice, of which half had not yet been eaten by vermin. He said, “Don’t know why he stays. How many times can one guy allow himself to be robbed?”
“The silence must be unbearable.”
“Well, he’s found himself another penumbra.”
we lived here, at least the gas was turned on.”
“You used to sleep half the night with your feet in the oven and the other half with your head in there.”
“This house has always been a snow globe filled with hungry wraiths.”
“More like a big, heady whiff of glue.”
“Bingo! Mother lode!” cried Vulk Wax, beating on his chest then spilling the contents of a black trash bag onto the pee couch. The bag contained a pair of Smith & Wesson handcuffs, two rolls of black electrical tape, a fake police badge, several empty wallets, a glass cutter and something that looked like a fishing cap.
“Willie’s always up to tricks—ain’t he cute? He’s twenty-six.”
“Dobias. Brilliant in everything but the ways of life. Look where he ended up.”
“Speaking of Dobias,” Notorious Xizzo said, leaning in close to Wim and breathing spearmint into his face. “You’d be doing him a favor if you didn’t die here.”
“He won’t,” Galilea clucked. “Death and birth are twins; one leads to the other and the presence of one calls the presence of the other, and I’m not pregnant. Besides, the Divine Mother is strong within him.”
“Well, his duck’s dead.”
“Awww,” said Galilea, and after that, the burglars loaded up the pilfered items into a step van in the driveway and then, as quickly as they had come, vanished like rats over an embankment.
Wim sat in the semi-darkness for the rest of the day. He didn’t think that Mr. Cheeps was entirely dead, even though he had stiffened into a hard little nugget of cold feathers. Wim petted him until his fever broke, and after that, he made his way out the front door of the Three Dollar House—now the No Dollar House—and walked to the foot of the metal truss bridge that loomed over the river. He climbed onto the superstructure and onto the mesh walkways and was awed at the elevated view; one side was a view of the moody, pastel lake-canvas. On the other side, the bosky banks of the river blazed toward the setting sun; the water sizzled and whipped in bravura swirls and the cumulus clouds piled up into an audacious alcazar of saffron and purple.
It was into the heart of this drama that Wim chose to liberate Mr. Cheeps, living, dead or in the state between.
By then, Wim had not only deduced but adduced what it was like to be himself. And so, when Mr. Cheeps hit the water after a languid late-day drop through confidant, radiant and unstoppable space, he was still in Wim’s front pocket; and thus, in the city by the lake, the grand adventure came to an end.