Wednesday, October 25, 2006

My TVC15: Part I, chapter 10 from The Edge of the World (a novel in progress)

Leonard was not at all like me. Which, perhaps, was why he fascinated me so much. Because unlike me he was never able to lose his memory. No matter how far he traveled, his memory was with him. Lines from a popular song, a drop of liquid, a television program, a piece of furniture—the insignificant details and sentimental emotions always caught up with him in his universe.

To him the years he spent in the outside world were a blemish upon that universe. Every night he had gone to bed with Annalisa had darkened it. Every day when he hadn’t used his imagination had diminished it. But as his universe collapsed, his memory expanded.

As for me, I learned to put my memories behind me. To build something with them, a monument which will speak of my heritage. And this history which I’m now writing, and with which I will soon be finished, will serve as my monument. A monument I can carry with me. A monument I can slip into the right hand drawer of a desk, or leave at the bottom of a duffel bag. A monument which will never harm me like the gun with which my great grandfather—and later my grandfather—killed themselves. And although I will know at all times where the monument is, I will never again think of what it says.

When Leonard got back home everything was the way he remembered it—the television, the stereo, the furniture. The only difference being that although Lily and he were still married, it was Lemuel who was now, for lack of a better word, her lover. That and my four year old sister Marly.

Marly was a quiet child, and her eyes always seemed to follow you around the room like those of a suspicious cat. Still, Leonard saw that she was a beautiful little girl, looking exactly the way Lily did when she was that age. And though she would stare out into space when she wasn’t staring at you, there were moments when she would abruptly run in the direction she was staring. As if there were something out there only she could see. When she’d get across the room she’d look around frantically—she was, in her own way, a very active child. Then rush back to where she’d been and once again stare across the room.

I was now seven years old and had gotten into the habit of watching television. I’d set myself in the middle of the living room, on my hands and knees, and gaze at the television for hours. What was on television didn’t matter to me—Leonard could change channels in the middle of a program and I wouldn’t even blink or show the slightest change in the expression on my face. Because although I was now aware of what was going on around me, I had no desire to take part in any of it.

Since the television was in the living room, which was now Leonard’s room, he began watching it all the time. The show that interested him the most was The Cosby Show, because it presented what to him seemed the ideal situation for a young boy to grow up in.

Theo, the boy in the fictional Huxtable family, had parents who were both professionals. With his father being a doctor and his mother a lawyer, it was ensured that he would be well provided for. But what was more important was that Theo had not just one but four sisters. And so if things didn’t work out with one of them, Leonard thought, Theo still had three others from which to choose, one of whom was bound to make a suitable mate. Though naturally he should sample each of them before making any kind of decision.

Leonard always thought that the perfect match in the family would be Theo and Denise. Although their personalities were rather different, Theo had a way of connecting with Denise that seemed more profound than with any of the other sisters. And although Leonard saw him getting his dick sucked by young Rudy, doing the six-pack with Sondra, and fucking Vanessa up the ass while playing with her ample breasts, Denise was the one he saw Theo going back to time and time again. She, of all his sisters, was the one Theo wanted the most. She was to him what Lily was to Leonard, the only difference being that Theo had alternatives, while Leonard did not.

After a time Leonard came to believe that it was his own fault that he lost Lily to Lemuel. When things had gotten difficult, he had failed to put the proper effort into their marriage and went so far as to completely abandon Lily for nearly five years. As he had been gone for such a long time, he couldn’t blame either Lily or Lemuel for taking up with each other. Because, like Leonard, they had no alternatives. If only their parents had had more children, Leonard thought, things might have been different. And he wouldn’t have to spend the rest of his days without a wife.

Shortly after Leonard returned to town Lily got a job as a waitress at a nightclub on Fort Myers Beach. Lemuel, who was still at the greyhound track, had decided not to go back to school, having taken an interest in dogs. He wanted to breed them, which was something he could learn about from being there at the track.

For Leonard it was enough to stay home and take care of the kids. He stayed home all the time now—he never left the apartment. He had concluded that in the last five years, from the time he set out west hitch-hiking to the end of that long bus ride, he had seen enough of the world. At any rate, all that he needed to experience first hand.

He began living through Marly and me. He’d watch us all the time, hoping we’d begin to pay attention to each other. Which, to his disappointment we never did. The closest we’d get to interacting was when somehow the same toy attracted our attention. This was a rare occurrence, since all our toys—the teddy bear, the firetruck, the Barbie doll—usually just lay on the floor unused.

Sometimes Leonard would put the teddy bear in my hand, then point to Marly, pulling at my sleeve in an attempt to get me to bring it to her. I’d look in her direction, usually towards her feet, but would never approach her. Other times Leonard would try to get us to roll the firetruck back and forth to each other, but he’d always end up rolling it back and forth himself as we wouldn’t even look at the truck or at each other. And instead would merely gaze at the floor.

Leonard tried playing tapes or records. But music didn’t affect us any more than silence. He’d play the old Tommy James and The Shondells tape. And when “I Think We’re Alone Now” came on he’d look at my eyes, then at Marly’s, hoping that somehow this song would inspire us. All he saw were our blank stares which to him revealed not a trace of recognition or understanding.

Things went on this way for a long time and he resigned himself to the idea that Marly and I would never take an interest in one another. But one day the following spring Lily came home with the news that she was pregnant. Leonard was happy for her, and for himself as well, as he believed that the presence of another child would be the catalyst that would finally bring Marly and I together.

Lily and Lemuel immediately left the apartment. Leonard thought they were going out to celebrate down by the river, but that wasn’t the case at all.

As they shut the door behind them Leonard began to hear the sound of rain falling on the window, followed, in the distance, by the sound the thunder. He turned out the lights, lay back on the sofa and closed his eyes as the sounds grew louder. Despite all the flashing lights and noise, Marly and I, sitting by him on the floor, didn’t cry, didn’t even stir. This, he believed, was a good sign.

He clasped his hands together and dreamed of the day when Marly and I would make love for the first time just as Lily and he had some fourteen years ago.

He could see it all very clearly, and it wouldn’t be long, he thought, before Marly and I saw it too: Rudy, in the sixty-nine position with Theo, sucking on his dick as if it were a popsicle; Sondra, the most conservative of the girls, lying beneath him and moaning, “Oh God, oh my dear dear God”; Vanessa, rubbing his cum over her breasts, then licking her fingers clean; and Denise, after having sucked him off, washing her mouth out with a steady stream of his urine. With the images of these fictional lovers in mind, he believed that Marly and I would create our own world and make our own way within it. Creating new legends, building new shrines, new monuments, and devising new ideas.

He believed that one day we would walk out into the storm to be by the river. That rolling around naked in the shallow water, caressing, kissing, we would spill our love over one another. That the day would come when our screams, the first sounds ever to leave our mouths, blend in with the clamor of thunder. When our bodies, in a fearless act of discovery, flash with each burst of light.

He believed that the day would come when Marly declares “I want you” as I push my middle finger in her ass—“I love you” as I slide my thumb inside her pussy. When gasping for air, she rises, then settles her young head between my legs to suck as if sucking and breathing were the same. When finally, with her mouth full of my cum, she brings her face up to mine.

He believed that the day would come soon, when in our perfect world we’d feel nothing but the gentle gift of rain in all its forms. That and the touch of skin upon skin.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

By the Time I Get to Phoenix and Other Gentle Rants of Madmen: Part I, chapter 9 from The Edge of the World (a novel in progress)

In September of 1984 Leonard had been living with Annalisa for over four years. After spending the entire afternoon of their day off watching television, he told Annalisa that they should dress up and eat out for a change. He took her to Le Moulin, the best restaurant in town, and at the end of the meal he ordered champagne. When the waiter brought it out, he knelt before Annalisa, and as people in the restaurant began to take notice he held out to her the diamond ring which he had bought the previous day.

“Annalisa,” he asked, “will you marry me?”

She looked at him lovingly and extended her hand as a smile came to her lips. A smile that reminded Leonard of television ads and movies. A smile that seemed to connect him to the world.

“Yes, Leonard,” she answered, “I will.”

He was aware that he was still married to his sister—a circumstance Annalisa, of course, knew nothing about. Although it was a marriage which would never be considered legitimate in a court of law, it was a marriage to which Leonard felt bound. And as soon as Annalisa had said, “Yes, Leonard, I will,” it occurred to him that he hadn’t thought this out as thoroughly as he should have.

Still going with the moment, he slipped the ring on her finger. They stood up, and as they kissed and embraced the couple at the table closest to theirs began applauding. Leonard and Annalisa then picked up their glasses and made a toast to their upcoming life as a married couple.

On bringing the glass to his lips Leonard came to the realization that in the years he’d spent with Annalisa he hadn’t been conducting himself in a rational manner. It all became quite apparent to him, at this late point in the proceedings, that he hadn’t been true to his own nature. And now, having turned away from his ideals, from what he understood as right and wrong, he had gone so far as to ask this strange but decent woman to marry him.

As he sat with Annalisa the image of Lily, which he had banished from his memory for so long, came vividly back to mind. He could see Lily just as clearly as he saw Annalisa who now sat beside him at the table. But while Annalisa had a drop of champagne clinging to her lower lip, the image of Lily had what was plainly, in its color and consistency, a drop of semen. And he felt for a moment that Lily was actually watching them—Annalisa with her wide innocent smile and he with his nervous, guilty grin.

Having given in to practicality, to the false ways of the world, Leonard decided that now was the time for him to start thinking clearly again. And the expression on Lily’s imagined face seemed to be telling him that he had to be strong, that he had to take action. Just as he had long ago on the night of Lily’s prom.

When they finished the bottle of champagne he ordered another one. Annalisa was blinded with joy and drank more and more, not noticing that Leonard was hardly touching his drink. When they got home he picked her up and carried her to the bed where she immediately passed out.

He dug up his old duffel bag and threw some old clothes in. When he was packed he looked in on her. She was still sleeping, and after listening for a minute to the peaceful sound of her breathing he took out a piece of paper on which he wrote, “I’m sorry.”

He knew that in the morning things would be bad. He’d be in Phoenix by the time she woke up to find his note. “Suck my dick,” she would scream as she jerked up her shoulder. “Motherfucker,” as she contorted her face. Leonard leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. Then turned away and went out the door, his sentimental universe weighing heavily on his mind.

He walked down the street and got money from the machine at the bank. Just enough for a ticket and meals for what would probably amount to a three day bus trip. He got to the station in time to catch the last bus heading east. It wasn’t the most comfortable ride he’d ever had, but he imagined it would be easier, and quicker, than hitch-hiking.

The only seats available when he got on were in the back of the bus which was where the more sociable—and crazier—of the passengers were to be found. The man sitting directly behind Leonard, in the very last row, felt the need to sing:

And love is just a passing word
It’s the thought you had in a taxicab
That got left on the curb
When he dropped you off
On East 33d...

And when he’d gotten tired of singing he’d mumble to himself. Bitter words, curses. Utterances only he knew the meaning of.

While he went on with his singing or mumbling, other people were telling each other their life stories.

One woman spoke about her old boyfriend—her only true love—whom she had lost touch with. When she mentioned him by name the man sitting in front of her, who explained that he worked as a bail bondsman, said that he knew the name. That he’d gotten a man by that name out of jail not too long ago. And that he might be able to help her find him.

An old woman across the aisle from Leonard talked about growing up in Arkansas, getting married young and having kids who, now that she was old and widowed, never visited, never called. And now, for vacations, she’d just get on the bus and ride for a couple of weeks, stopping in different towns during the day then sleeping on the bus at night while en route to some other place.

The man in the seat next to Leonard talked about his Filipino friend from World War II. His friend was going to come to the States so the two of them could start a farm. “He seemed sincere,” the man said. “I mean, we were good friends and after the war, when I was back here in the States, we were writing back and forth, making plans for our farm. But suddenly he stopped answering my letters. I kept sending them, but I never heard anything back. I never knew what happened to him.”

A sad, regretful look came over him, and Leonard wished he could tell him his own story. He was suddenly in the mood to let out his personal history and say, “Well, when I was fourteen, my sister and I ran off and got married. You see, she was the only woman in the world for me...”

But of course Leonard couldn’t tell him that. So he sat back, shaking his head, saying, “Yeah, it’s a damn shame how things seem to get lost in this world.” Whatever sentimental observations came to mind. Then he kept quiet, lest he be overcome by the perverse desire to talk to strangers.

It took over two days to get to New Orleans, and in this time the man behind Leonard never once got off the bus for food or simply to stretch his legs. Whenever Leonard went to use the bathroom in the back of the bus he’d look towards him, trying to get a brief glimpse of a madman.

But the madman would invariably be facing the window as he sang or mumbled words which, for some reason, Leonard felt were directed at him. In New Orleans, however, the man finally got off the bus and it was here, during the morning breakfast stop, where Leonard got his first good look at him.

The man was sitting in the waiting area at one of the television booths where one puts in a quarter and gets to watch for fifteen minutes. While staring intently at the screen the man suddenly turned just as Leonard passed by.

“Do you see that? Do you see that?” he shouted after Leonard.

Leonard didn’t know it was the man until he heard him speak. A deep gravelly voice that whether it was shouting or whispering seemed to carry across a room.

“Do you see that?” he asked again, pointing to the screen.

He was a tall, muscular man, not much older than Leonard. Sitting there in the TV booth, he reminded Leonard of an overgrown school kid, the kid who kept getting held back a grade and was too big for the desks in his classroom.

“You know what that is, don’t you? You know!” He looked solemnly at Leonard. For some reason it was important to him that Leonard know what he was watching. “Come on, you know what that is.”

Leonard looked down to the screen. The man was watching a cartoon.

“You see that? You know what that is? You know what that is.”

Leonard watched for a minute. It wasn’t something he was familiar with. Even as a child, Leonard had never watched cartoons. With their garish colors and oddly shaped figures, they were set in their ways and left no room for his imagination. He preferred the filmed images of actual people, because it was only upon actual people that he had the chance of imposing his own order.

“Oh, yeah,” Leonard finally said, looking down at the man. “I remember now.” And walked back to the bus.

As soon as Leonard got off the bus in Fort Myers he headed straight for his old apartment building where Lily, Lemuel, and I still lived.

It was noon on a hot, overcast day near the end of summer. I was at a point in my life when, although I had yet to look into anyone’s eyes, I had begun to understand the things that went on around me. I had known since earlier that day that Leonard was coming home. That he was coming home believing he could repair what had gone wrong between him and Lily.

By eleven that morning I had grown quite restless, knowing what no one else in my family knew. Soon Leonard was inside the foyer of our building, checking for the name on the mailbox and seeing that it still read “Bodine.” He wiped the sweat from his brow, tucked in his shirt, and breathed deeply. Then walked upstairs and knocked as I sat in front of the television watching the same cartoon the madman from the bus had been watching.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

All Concern Rests with the Dead, Annalisa: Part I, chapter 8 from The Edge of the World (a novel in progress)

Leonard was on the road for a month. He went through El Paso, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle. He circled around to Billings, Bismarck, Minneapolis, Des Moines, Denver. At the end of the month he was in Reno, the town where Lily and he got married, and he had decided, after being away from her for the first time in his life, that he wasn’t going back to her.

Having considered his situation in every respect, he had come to the conclusion that he was too young to be married. He needed to spend some time by himself, he thought—one year, two years, perhaps the rest of his life. And after a long month spent wandering in an attempt to be alone, he now, at last, actually felt alone.

He found a job bussing tables and washing dishes at a restaurant. After being on the job for a week—and getting his first paycheck—he moved out of the cheap hotel he’d checked into upon his arrival and into a one room apartment over a wedding chapel. Moving meant picking up his duffel bag, walking down North Wells Street a few blocks, then up the stairs to his new apartment where he set his bag down again. He then used what was left of his paycheck and went out to buy a used mattress at the Salvation Army thrift shop.

Back in his new home, he put the mattress on the floor and lay down. It was, he had to admit to himself, a very inauspicious start as far as beginning a new life was concerned. He had no radio and no television—none of the things that made a person feel connected with the world. But he knew that soon, very soon, things would get better.

He worked the night shift at the restaurant, and when he left at three in the morning he would walk home, taking a route along the Truckee River. He’d take his time, sometimes stopping along the way to sit down under the stars and watch the river. Since he didn’t have a television, he had found himself taking long walks to entertain himself when he wasn’t working.

Leonard’s day would invariably begin around noon when he’d awake and walk across town to Idlewild Park, the main attraction of which was a statue called The 53d Whispering Giant. Over thirty feet high, it caught the gesture of a man in the act of whispering, his hand held near his mouth as if he were imparting some great secret to whoever was standing beneath him.

Leonard would watch the tourists. Families from northern California with young children taking a cheap vacation. Young men and women from back east or from across the Atlantic backpacking across the states. Gazing up at the statue’s face, they’d try to guess what message the giant had for each of them.

Usually they came up with such quaint messages as “You will get married before the end of the year” or “A great fortune will come your way”—the sort of messages one would get from reading a horoscope. But to Leonard its message wasn’t so quaint, and when he looked up at the statue for the first time—unaware that he was supposed to be receiving some kind of communication from it—the words that came to mind, and which he actually thought he was hearing, were, “You will die with a smile on your face.”

Leonard wondered what the meaning of these words could be. At first he was frightened. But after reflecting upon them, he determined that the statue was telling him he would die happily, in his old age, while fucking some athletically inclined girl some fifty years younger than he. Which meant that somewhere along the line Leonard would have to start fucking girls who weren’t related to him—and he was determined that now was the time to start. Doing so would be strange, he was sure, but since he was a young man with many years ahead of him, it was something to which he’d have to get accustomed.

He had been at the restaurant for a month when Annalisa began working there as a waitress. She was twenty years old with reddish-brown hair that draped over her shoulders and fell all the way to her waist. But even more impressive, like a building rising stoically from the snow, was her body. All breasts and hips, it seemed ready to burst out from beneath her waitress’s uniform, which was a size too small for her. She was the first girl other than Lily who could give Leonard a hard-on by the mere sight of her.

And like a widower whose sense of mourning and reluctance was beginning to disappear, Leonard began to consider the possibility that being with another woman might not be as difficult as he had thought. That blood ties went beyond family.

Still, there were some peculiarities about Annalisa which disturbed him, the first of which were her various tics and twitches. Sometimes Leonard would see her, when she thought no one was looking, suddenly jerk up one of her shoulders or contort her face in what looked like an impersonation of a frightened school girl. Then he began to notice, when he was working her tables, that she often mumbled things underneath her breath after taking a customer’s order. “Motherfucker,” “fat ass bitch,” or “suck my dick” were the words Leonard heard most often.

Soon other people began to notice—indeed, it would have been difficult for people not to notice as Annalisa’s looks alone drew attention to her—and after a couple of days the restaurant manager brought her into his office for a discussion. He asked her blankly if she were taking drugs. Or, if not that, simply crazy.

These were questions she’d been asked many time before. Questions which, despite their ill-informed brusqueness, bored her. Annalisa had to explain that no, she was not crazy, nor was she on drugs, but that she did suffer from an affliction of the nervous system. After she pleaded with him that she really needed the job, and that she actually enjoyed working there, the manager made a compromise. He switched her job from waiting tables to bussing them, a job where she wouldn’t actually have to converse with the customers and so would be less likely to let forth some obscene whisper.

It wasn’t much of a compromise—anyone else would have been fired on the spot. But Annalisa’s looks let her get away with things. They gave her a power which she was never aware of. With her body she could have easily made it as a dancer or as a call girl down in Vegas, yet she was too naive to take advantage of it. And although she was smart enough to know that the life story Leonard would later tell her was fictional, she was naive enough to believe that the real story, whatever it was, was all part of the past.

The next day the manager told Leonard that he was no longer a busboy but a waiter. Annalisa, who was now bussing his tables, acted coldly towards him and would sometimes mumble “fuckhead” or “stinking asshole” as he walked by.

This was, obviously, not a good beginning for them. But then beginnings rarely are. This isn’t simply some trite or excessively romantic observation on my part. I’ve found that anything worth striving for involves at least a few false starts—it’s always the things that eventually turn bad that have good beginnings. Which isn’t to say that anything good that’s been achieved stays that way, as bad endings are always with us. Like Leonard’s true past, they always seek us out no matter what measures we take to avoid them. Which is why it’s best to create our own bad endings before someone else creates them for us.

And so it was that one afternoon, as Leonard sat in Idlewild Park before going to work, he saw Annalisa. She was standing in front of The Whispering Giant, gazing up at its face. He watched her for a few moments. Her body, for once, was completely calm, as if the steadfast carriage of The Giant had transposed itself upon her. And as she stood there listening for its message not a single “motherfucker” or “suck my dick” came from her mouth.

“It told me I’d die with a smile on my face,” he said as he approached her from behind.

Annalisa glanced at him, then quickly turned back to The Giant.

“What does that mean?” she asked after a moment of silence.

“I’m not quite sure,” he said as he stood beside her. “What message did it have for you?”

“It hasn’t told me anything.”

Leonard looked down Annalisa’s blouse and noticed the freckles over her cleavage. He was beginning to get a hard-on. Annalisa turned to him, then glanced down at his pants.

That night they left the restaurant together. Although he didn’t show it, Leonard was nervous as they walked home. Feeling as if he were about to do something that had to be kept hidden, he kept looking around to see if anyone was watching. When they reached the door to his apartment he opened it quickly, let Annalisa inside, and promptly shut the door behind them. Being with Annalisa felt dirty, which excited him even more.

Without even bothering to offer her a drink, he immediately pulled down her skirt and panties. Then kneeling he stuck out his tongue, momentarily holding it half an inch away from her pussy as if to savor the sense of anticipation he felt at receiving what was to him a perverse gift. Finally he grabbed her hips, shoved his face forward and licked her pussy as she leaned back against the door running her hands through his hair.

Annalisa was surprised by the lack of ceremony with which Leonard took her. Yet she was intrigued by him, and rather than being frightened by what she didn’t know about him, she gave in to it.

“Oh Leonard,” she moaned, “you...” as he tongued her clit and slid his finger in and out of her pussy. When she was about to come he stood up and put his dick inside of her, pushing in and out as he pulled her shirt over her head.

In another minute they were done. Annalisa put her arms around him as they fell to the floor, laughing as they caught their breath. But despite his laughter Leonard felt a twinge of guilt that bordered on regret. Indeed, he nearly found himself mourning, as if he had lost his humanity and fallen victim to the ways of a corrupt world.

The first time they were out in public Leonard had to keep reminding himself that being with her was not something he had to hide. They were sitting in a restaurant that evening, waiting for their meals, when he leaned over the table to kiss her. They had been holding the kiss for a few seconds when Leonard suddenly jerked his head away from her.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Well,” he said, pausing as he tried to think up an explanation, “I’m not all that comfortable showing affection in public.”

“Didn’t you ever make out with your high school girlfriend in front of other people?”

“That was different,” he said after a moment. “I was a kid. I guess I’ve become a bit conservative since then.”

“You’re too young to be so conservative,” she answered as she stood up. Then putting her hand around the back of his neck, she pulled him towards her and kissed him on the forehead. “But it’s all right, so long as you don’t get that way when we’re behind closed doors.”

Two weeks after they started seeing each other Annalisa moved in with him. Because Annalisa had brought with her, among other things, a television and a stereo, the apartment was now a comfortable place to relax. They found themselves spending most of their free time at home, listening to music on the stereo or watching television which, aside from fucking, was their favorite activity.

In the early afternoon, before going to work they’d watch the soap opera All My Children. Annalisa had been watching the show for years, and after watching it with her for a week, Leonard was hooked. The Brady Bunch, which was now on in reruns and showing opposite All My Children, no longer interested him. Taken on its own terms, without pretending the Brady kids were having wild orgies, The Brady Bunch became just another boring situation comedy. All My Children, on the other hand, was interesting the way it was—Leonard didn’t need to use his imagination and create his own little stories for its characters. He could just sit back and watch without having to strain himself in the least—the show would do it all and give him tales of romance, intrigue, and even, here and there, action sequences. And although what happened on the show was never as wild as what he had created with his own mind—and in so being was more like real life—it was something he could openly discuss not only with Annalisa but with other people as well.

Annalisa and he soon began inviting friends from the restaurant over for dinner on their days off or for drinks after work. Their apartment was now completely furnished—they had a sofa and coffee table for the living room, another table with chairs for the kitchen, plus a queen sized bed and a dresser for the bedroom. They threw out the mattress he’d bought at the Salvation Army.

Although Annalisa and he didn’t make a lot of money at the restaurant, each of them had—Leonard for the first time in his life—a credit card. And in addition to using them to furnish the apartment, they also bought a set of china, flatware, a food processor, a coffee machine. They also began buying records.

Every week Annalisa would pick up one or another of the latest disco releases. Being with her he grew to like disco, and when she came home with a new record they would immediately put it on the stereo and dance, which would inevitably lead them into the bedroom. By this time sex with Annalisa had ceased to have the slightest trace of dirtiness about it, and in fact seemed completely natural, wholesome even. Because they were just two small people in the world. Because her blood and his were the same. And although they never peed together, never did the six-pack or had sex outdoors, Leonard found that their sex life was never anything less than exciting.

It wasn’t long before Leonard realized that he loved Annalisa. It was something he didn’t think he’d ever be able to feel for another woman. But besides that he understood that they were also good for each other. When she was with Leonard, or even when he was just nearby, as at the restaurant, Annalisa rarely exhibited any symptoms of her nervous disorder. With him she was living a normal life, and rather than being a beautiful freak, she was, simply, a beautiful woman.

As for Leonard, he felt, for once, at peace with the world. His thoughts, his desires, were no longer at odds with everyone else’s. Were without dislike or suspicion. He no longer had to stretch his imagination, creating a universe of his own, as the real world with its common ideas and routine conventions was now good enough for him.

Dancers and Other Freaks Staying up Past Midnight: Part I, chapter 7 from The Edge of the World (a novel in progress)

Leonard packed just a small duffel bag—he didn’t want to carry a heavy load—and walked down to the highway ready to hitchhike west. After being on the side of the road for almost an hour he got a ride from a young couple in a station wagon. They were on their way to New Orleans.

“We’re going there for our honeymoon,” explained the woman.

“I take it you just got married,” Leonard replied. Then added hesitantly, “Congratulations.”

“Thanks,” she said, jutting out her chin. Raising her eyebrows and widening her already bulging eyes, she smiled like a six year old girl who had just won a stuffed animal at the carnival.

“Yeah, thanks,” the man said as he looked into the rear view mirror at Leonard. “It’s too bad you couldn’t make it to the wedding.” Every time he spoke the tone of his voice gradually rose so that with each of his sentences Leonard felt as if he were being asked a question. “But we’re mighty glad you could make it to the reception.”

“Oh honey...” the woman exclaimed as she looked to the dashboard.

He eased up on the gas pedal and moved into the right lane. “Good Lord, I was going five miles over the speed limit there for a minute.”

They were good people, this couple. Bank tellers from up north who always rose before dawn and went to sleep by ten. Sports fans whose love of sports was curiously devoid of enmity for rival teams. Model citizens who in all sincerity wished their neighbors “a nice day” and believed in fellowship and the dignity of man. They were the sort of people I liked when I was a child—the sort of people who now fill me with disgust. As for Leonard, he too found them disgusting. But later he would change his mind.

Lying on the seat next to Leonard was a boom box. Leonard looked down at it and for a moment his thoughts turned to Lily. Noticing his interest in the boom box, the woman handed him a tape.

“Here, put this on.”

“I love disco,” the man said as a song began to play:

Tommy Mottola
Lives on the road
He lost his lady
Two months ago...

Although for once the tone in the man’s voice didn’t seem to beg for a reply, Leonard asked, “So, you two go out dancing a lot?”

“Oh no,” the woman declared. “Discos always start way too late for us.”

“Though last night we were up past midnight,” the man said as he looked into the rearview mirror and winked.

“We just love the music,” the woman continued. “And we just put the music on the tape player there whenever we want... and dance whenever we want. Like sometimes after work we’ll put the tape player on the roof of the car, and then dance right there in the bank parking lot. It’s so much fun. And people passing by think we’re getting in some extra practice for some kind of contest but we’re not. We’re just dancing for ourselves.”

Leonard tried to picture them during one of their afternoon dancing sessions and chuckled to himself. He imagined that their moves would be clumsy, like those of two drunks who, rising from their bar stools at closing time, end up dancing because they’re unable to simply walk. Only with this couple that clumsiness was natural, and the afternoon sun—not the turned up lights of a bar at closing time—was what shone in their faces. But just as the drunk couple would go home to fuck, or try to anyway, so would this couple.

Leonard coughed, then cleared his throat, feeling, for a moment, as if he were about to vomit. The image of this couple fucking made Leonard feel slightly ill. That and the thought that there were millions of Joes and Marys in the world just like them.

They had just passed through Tampa. New Orleans seemed a long way off to Leonard—especially while riding with this obnoxious duo whose ways were completely different from his and who seemingly had no idea of the life that went on beneath the surface of things.

But like an insect shedding its cocoon, he began to discard his old ideas and opinions. Like a tourist in Times Square watching a game of three card monte, he was taken in by the scam. Believing that paradise was gone, he took the bait. And by the time they reached New Orleans, Leonard had decided that he wasn’t all that different from them. That the blood that ran through their veins was the same as his.

At midnight, eight hours after they’d picked him up in Fort Myers, they dropped him off in New Orleans near the French Quarter. Leonard thanked them sincerely, smiling at them as he’d never before smiled at anyone outside of his family.

It was November and at midnight it was too cold for Leonard to be sleeping outside. After wandering around the French Quarter for a couple of hours he went to the train station. In the waiting area he sat on one of the hard plastic chairs, setting his duffel bag beside him. He’d been asleep for half an hour when a man in a uniform woke him.

“Sir,” he said looking down at Leonard, “if you’re not waiting for a bus or a train you’ll have to move on.”

“But I am waiting,” Leonard answered, without looking up. “Only my train doesn’t leave until morning.” He was suddenly afraid, startled by the sound of his own voice.

“May I see your ticket?” the man asked.

“Well I haven’t bought it yet,” Leonard argued. Tilting his head upwards, he looked directly in the man’s eyes. “Because I don’t want to fall asleep here and have someone steal it from me while I’m sleeping.”

He eyed Leonard suspiciously for a moment then moved on. Leonard sat back again and closed his eyes but he was wide awake now. He sat there the rest of the night, and during the whole time he waited the thought of Lily never entered his mind.

In the morning Leonard went to the rest room. Studying himself in the mirror he saw that he had a strange, untrustworthy look about him again. He was just twenty-one years old now, but with his beard grown ragged and his slept-in clothes, he looked like a long time vagrant.

Leonard pulled a razor from his bag and worked at his beard. Soon it was all gone. He washed his face and hair in the sink, then hit the button on the hot air dryer. Leaning over, he placed his head beneath the nozzle and dried himself. When he looked into the mirror once more, he combed his hair away from his face. He looked better now, he thought—almost like a clean cut kid just out of college.

He picked up his bag and walked outside. In twenty minutes he’d found the highway again. Standing by the side of the road, staring down at the cars coming from back east, he held up his hand, ready to make his way through the world. And with the bright, almost blinding sun shining upon him, he stuck out his thumb.