The Birdman vs. The Salesman (A Short Story)
The shack was Jack’s workshop, and there were greasy tools, disintegrating boxes, and old two-by-fours with nails in them. Topless girls with eighties hairstyles on beer and car posters lined the wall above the “piss funnel.” Drawings by his children hung above the table saw. The floor was littered with cigarette butts, sawdust, various fast food containers, and thirty-two ounce drink cups. Jack spit tobacco into a Diet Coke can. “So, yeah, man, you should see that show. It was a real eye opener, you know? This guy, they had to take his leg off. They broke out the buzz saw, man. The camera focused on the part they were taking off, the leg, you know, and this doctor, he just had a hold of it, and he was pulling on it, really pulling on it! And when you could hear that saw getting through that last bit of meat,” he made buzz saw sounds to illustrate, “that doctor just pulled it off, stuffed it into a little red bag, and someone took it away to burn it. That’s what they do with body parts, they burn them. It was gory as hell, man, but really important.”
“I’m not sorry I missed it,” I said. “I haven’t even heard the news, really, since Bush got reelected. It’s depressing, and it scares me.”
“It’s what’s happening, man. They’re already getting young dudes from prisons, you know, who are doing time for drug offenses.” The white dog was lying on the table, licking Jack’s hand as he spoke. “They’re letting them do three years in the army instead of five years in jail; you see what I’m saying? You watch. We’re gonna go over and fuck with Iran now, and then there’s gonna be a draft. You watch.”
I hit the joint. I said, “That’s fucked up,” then tried to change the subject. “What’s the dog’s name?”
Jack pet the dog and said, “I think the dogs like it back here because they don’t get yelled at for shit.” The white dog’s jealous lover, the black one, the smaller of the two little creatures, had settled at Jack’s feet, unable to make the jump to the table top. “In the house, he’d never get up on the table; I’d yell at him like crazy.”
“It’s like a playground,” I said.
“Something like that, yeah. But, they got this stretch of highway, they called it the most dangerous highway in the world,” said Jack, passing the joint back, spitting in the can. ”But, you wanna know about war? Shit. Talk to your good buddy Bruce.”
“He’s never talked to me about it.” Besides telling me that he had traded his soul for freedom inside an Iraqi prison camp, he hadn’t.
“Your dude likes to brag on shit, but not on that, I guess.”
I wondered how well they knew each other. I asked, “Has he ever told you about the war?”
“Of course.” Hit. Spit. “You got to take a step back, though, take in the whole fuckin’ picture, you know? See, Bruce was a problem child. He got bounced around a lot by his parents. They’d send him to relative’s houses all over to get him away. Every summer it was the same, he was off somewhere because his parents needed a vacation too, you know? Spent some time in a hospital as well. So, here’s this troubled kid. And he’s in the army now, standing guard at his base in Iraq, at a machine gun nest, and here comes this Army truck, you know, one of ours. But, it’s coming in real fast, you know? So, he knows something is wrong. Sure enough, it doesn’t fuckin’ stop at the gate, it fuckin’ bursts through it, and Bruce starts fuckin' shooting!” He grabbed the dual handles of the imaginary fifty caliber machine gun in front of him and proceeded to make heavy machine gun sounds, his fat rolls vibrating from the kickback. “And the explosion was so big, it fuckin’ threw him, man, he told me, from his post out onto the roof of this building he was on and into a wall, fuckin’ knocking all the wind out of him, you know?”
“Yeah! And that truck was heading over towards an officer’s barracks, man, and that explosion was so big, they told him that he saved about two hundred lives. That’s the amount of explosives that were in the back of that goddamn thing.“ Hit. Spit. “I think it’s a good story, you know? This fuck up kid, going over there and killing dudes and saving all these—“
There was a knock at the door. From outside, Jack’s wife bellowed, “Jack! All your shit from the basement is out here in the yard, and I ain’t putting it back! Get out here and do something with it!” It was a warning.
He didn’t budge. “Wayne’s going to take some of it with him,” he said to the angry voice. I didn’t have a clue what she had brought out there, but I was sure I didn’t want it.
You should know that Bruce had warned me about this guy.
She asked, “Why would he want any of this crap?” and we could hear her footprints in the grass as she walked away.
“You a golfer, Wayne?” Jack asked.
“It’s a fun game, man, good exercise, though I haven’t really been able to play since I hurt my back. Good way to let your aggression out, too. You gotta get out there and bash the shit out of those balls, you know? I’ve got maybe four sets of clubs out there, and I think at least one of them is a righty. Let’s have a look, huh?”
I wasn’t interested in the clubs. I was paranoid from the weed and war talk. I said, “I dunno, man.”
“Come on, let me show you.” I followed him out of the shack and into his backyard. There were golf bags with rusty clubs. Lawnmowers. A pressure washer and a leaf blower. Boxes of shit. He spit in the yard with abandon, leaving little land mines for me to avoid. He picked out a driver and said, “Here’s everything you need to know, man. Square your feet with your shoulders.” He told me how to hit the ball, talking about English. He said, “It’s cow-pasture pool, man. Do you know where this game came from? A couple of bored Scotsmen were out on their farm one day and thought they’d hit some rocks with some sticks and it went from there. Don’t let any asshole in plaid pants and a fuckin’ polo shirt give you shit because you’re out there in a Superman shirt and jeans.”
He pointed at me with the driver while talking, making points. His t-shirt bore a deer’s head and the phrase, “Vegetarian is an old Indian word for Bad Hunter.”
“You’re not out there to run a marathon,” he continued. “If you’re out there to run a marathon, you’ll never learn anything, and you’ll never get any better.” Jack’s wife talked to herself as she emerged from the trapdoor at the back of their home, carrying a box from the basement and into the house. The sounds of commercial country music on the radio wafted out like a fart. He said, “I’ve been out there, shot almost forty over par before, but that’s okay. I got better, you know? You can’t get to giving up. Especially now, when you’re young, Wayne, cause you’ll go and get used to it. Take your time at every hole.”
I asked, “What do you do when there are people waiting for you to play the hole?”
“If they’re cool, and most people will be, you let ‘em play through. No problem. Shake hands and play nice because you want to play the course again. They had to learn too, you know, they’ll understand. But if they’re assholes, make ‘em wait.
“If anyone ever hit a ball at me, the first thing I’d do is I’d step on it and mash it into the ground real good. When they found it, if they found it, they’d usually get the idea. If they did it again, I’d hit one back, cause it’s not funny.” I was laughing. “Those fuckin’ balls hurt.” He picked a ball from out of a box and said, “I’ve been hit before, but not by someone else. If someone else hit me, I’d of gotten myself thrown off a course, cause I don’t fear anyone. I won’t take shit from no mother fucker. But I’ve gotten too drunk and hit myself, you know, fuckin’ around. Got myself in the shins a few good times. Popped one up and tried to catch it once, but it hit me in the head. Got my fingers a lot. Hold your fingers out.”
I was laughing, but you should know he wasn’t joking.
“I said hold your fingers out,” he repeated.
“Because you think it’s funny, and I want you to believe me when I tell you it hurts.”
I said, “I believe you.”
He pointed at me with the driver and said, “You fucking better.”
It was three hours since Bruce had dropped me off. I had woke in his car with the sun that morning, his cell phone ringing in the otherwise empty ashtray. He checked the number, put it back. It rang again immediately and he said, “Goddamn it,” but said, “Oh,” when he recognized the number. I couldn’t believe he was still driving. His black wraparound sunglasses were on, and I figured they had probably been around his head all through the night. “Can it wait? No. Hold it for me,” was all he said to his cell before hanging it up. To me, he said, “Hey.”
“Hey,” I yawned, rubbing my eyes. I was hung-over. I had to pee.
“I’ve got to take a detour.” He drank Wild Turkey straight from the bottle. One of the razor cuts on his shaved head looked infected. Sweat greased his shirtless form. Conversation was all but impossible with some stoner metal band chugging fuzz and feedback from the stereo. I wondered what kind of drugs he had taken. Mushrooms? I should have asked someone else to drive me. I should have just stayed at school. I didn’t want to spend Spring Break with my parents anyway.
Pulling in front of Jack's house, he said to me, "I have some personal business to attend to. My associate, Jack, lives here. He's going to watch after you for a bit." He removed his sunglasses and looked me in the eye. He said, "Remember, when I leave you, you're open to attack, to being wounded or killed, but I can't always be with you, Wayne."
Who knows what the fuck he was talking about. I said, "Okay." I had to pee so bad.
"I'm serious," he insisted.
"Where are we?" I asked.
"Where in Indiana?"
"At my associate Jack's house." He put his sunglasses back on. "Wayne, Jack is not my friend. I would not associate with him if I didn't have to. Go in there, introduce yourself, get high, watch your mouth. Understand?"
“Do you have any money on you?”
“I already gave you gas money, dude.”
“I’m asking because if you have money, he’ll smell it on you. Don’t let him sell you anything, Wayne, we haven’t got the room. I am coming back soon. Hold on to what you have, so no one will take your crown. Get out of the car.”
In his backyard, Jack said, “I’ll sell you these clubs for fifty bucks.”
I didn’t have fifty bucks. I had eighty cents maybe. I said, “They’re rusty.”
“I’ll put you together a fine starter set,” he said, studying the assorted clubs in the bags and pulling out the choice ones. He told me the difference between clubs as he went along. He said, “Clean them up a little bit if the rust bothers you. Thirty five bucks.”
“I don’t even have a job.”
“Bruce can pay for them; he knows you’re good for it. You’re good for it, right?”
“I don’t know. I guess I am.”
“Sold! Let’s get some coffee.”
In his kitchen, at the coffee pot, he said, “Sales is all about changing perceptions. For instance, you perceived the golf clubs in one way, and I showed them to you in another. Now you’re a golfer.”
The dogs bickered with each other in the living room. “Right,” I said. A car pulled in the driveway and I washed with relief. “There’s Bruce.”
“I doubt it,” Jack said. “He should be gone a while still. That’s probably my brother, Danny.” The dogs were wagging their tails at the door.
Danny was a caveman with crossed eyes. He was bigger than me, bigger than Jasmine. He fumbled through the door, the complex combination of screen door, front door, knobs and dogs, his bag of take out. He was taller than his brother. He snorted snot and swallowed it. The underside of his left forearm looked as if a dinosaur had bit him. He kicked at the dogs, saying, “Shoo! Shoo!” in a shrill voice, pitched high, like for a baby. He spoke to them in the same way, saying “Who wants to eat Uncle Danny’s food? Who wants to eat Uncle Danny’s food?” They were jumping on him, impeding his progress to the table. “You do! You do! Yes, you do! Don’t you? Yes, you do!”
The brothers exchanged greetings. Danny asked, “This him?”
“This is Wayne. I’m babysitting him for Bruce.”
Danny’s face went white. He said, “Bruce?”
I held out my hand for Danny to shake, but he didn’t look at me. I asked him, “You know Bruce?” Had he been expecting me?
“I know it’s none of your goddamn business what I know, Dipshit,” he replied, country twanged, still eying his brother with suspicion. “Is it?” he asked the dogs in that shrill voice. “Is it?”
“My man here’s been looking to the phone in there, Danny,” said Jack, joining us at the table, water for his brother, coffee for him and me. “I think he wants to make a phone call.”
“Who ya gonna call, Dipshit?” Danny disassembled his take out bag, removing four Styrofoam sandwich boxes. He didn’t offer any to his brother. Snort and swallow.
“That’s a good question,” Jack said thoughtfully. “Who would you call?”
“No one,” I said. “I never looked at your phone.” Of course I had. I had a growing sense of unease. My cell phone was in my pocket, but it had been cancelled for nonpayment.
I watched Danny inhale his first sandwich with joyous abandon, sucking barbecue and Coleslaw from his fingers, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Sell me on it,” said Jack.
“Sell me on it. Sell me on that idea. Change my perception, because I’m perceiving you as the kind of guy who would go through my drawers to look at my mail so he’d know where to tell the pigs to come, you know?”
I fidgeted, speechless. What the fuck, man? I couldn’t tell if I was being fucked with. I felt trapped. Threatened.
Danny said, “I got these barbecues at the corner market for seventy five cents each. Four of them, and it only cost me,” snort and swallow, “three bucks.”
“That’s a deal,” said his brother.
“Sure is. Right down the street there at the corner store. They got all kinds of good shit, man. Fried chicken. Meatball subs. French fries. Onion rings!” He bit into his second sandwich, saying, “Fucking good too!”
“How’s the diet going?” asked Jack.
Danny got defensive. “Goddamn it, man, I done gave up everything! I’ve barely eaten in three days for Christ’s sake. Anything I ever want, my old lady won’t let me have any damn ways.” To me, he said, “I ain’t drank no Mountain Dew in almost a year. I can’t fucking drink no more. You see this shark bite?” I acknowledged that I did. “That’s from dialysis. Hopefully I’ll be getting a kidney transplant here in the next month or so.”
“That’s terrible,” I said.
He took his left eye out and dropped it in his ice water. He took a sip and said, “Could be worse, I guess.”
You can only imagine how I must have looked at that moment.
Jack roared in laughter. He said, “Fucking classic, man! That’ll always be funny.”
“That was the most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen,” I said. I was smiling. Maybe they were just fucking with me. Maybe Danny wanted to trade eyes. I wanted escape, but there was none.
Danny fished the eye from his drink, dried it on his pants leg, and popped it back into his head. “There’s something more disturbing to see.”
“Like your own glass eye in your own shit in the bowl, eh, Danny?” Jack smiled. Danny moved on to sandwich number three. The gray pocket of his t-shirt had caught a white clump, a sliver of carrot. Jack said, “This dumb ass has been doing that trick for years. Once, he got real drunk at this bar and was fucking with these old dudes, and when he went to take his drink, he fucking swallowed it.”
“Swallowed his own fucking eye.”
“How is that… Is that even possible?”
“Yup.” He was considering the last barbecue.
“He spent the next few days picking through his shit with a chopstick, hoping that it’d come out the other end the natural way.”
“You’re goddamn right it did,” Danny bragged, well into the last sandwich. “I shit it out, cleaned it off, and put it right back in my head.”
“That…” was all I said. “How did you lose your eye?”
“He did it,” he nodded toward his brother before stuffing the last bite, sucking his fingers, and wiping his hand on his jeans.
“He wanted to make a phone call, and that’s plain rude.”
Danny said, “I should have never looked at that phone. That’s how you lose things. You want what your brother’s got and that’s when shit goes down, you know?”
“If you would have dialed it, I would have taken your hand,” Jack patted the table in Danny’s direction and gave a laugh. “Mom would have killed me!”
I said, “I never looked at the phone.”
“Are you calling my brother a liar?” asked Danny. “Are you saying you’re not happy to be here?”
“Are you saying that I’m a bad host?” Jack looked hurt. “I even gave the boy a deal on a set of clubs,” he said to Danny.
“For shame,” Danny sighed with disappointment. “We could have been golf buddies, Dipshit. You probably got a good starter set out those clubs in the basement, huh, Jack?”
I felt anxiety like an anvil sitting on my chest. The dogs were fighting under the table.
“Hush up,” Jack ordered them. The little one was trying to hump the bigger one.
Danny said, “She’s fixed, but she thinks she’s a boy.”
“Hikes her leg whenever she pees,” added Jack.
Danny said, “He only let’s her get away with trying to hump him like that cause every once in a while she’ll reach under there and give a little lick at his pecker. He suffers it for that little bit of attention. You getting any attention lately, Dipshit?”
“Bruce told me about your girl, Sally, Wayne. I’m sorry to hear about that.”
Snort and swallow. “She done the dog food, right?”
“That’s what I heard.”
Jack’s wife came into the room, purse and keys in hand. I thought, “This is it. I’m going to be alone with these lunatics. This is when it really turns ugly.”
She said, “I have to go to the store and pick up a few things for Mom. You going to help me in the basement today or what? I’m not putting any of your shit back down there. I’ll leave it sit in the backyard first; I don’t care. Same as you’re likely to do anyways.”
“I’m visiting with Danny,” Jack said. “But our new friend, Wayne here, he said he would work in our basement this afternoon to pay for those new golf clubs he can’t afford. That way, he won’t have to be indebted to our old friend, Bruce.”
“Bruce?” She gave me a surprised look. “That’s very nice of you. Come with me downstairs, and I’ll get you started real quick.”
Jack said, “Remember what I told you. Don’t go down there and get to giving up, cause I like you too much to have you getting used to giving up. I simply won’t have it, you understand me?”
I said, “Yes.”
Danny snorted and swallowed. “Hurry up down there so I can get you home, and then you can get my basement done before my old lady gets off work. She’d love me if I got that shithole cleaned up.”
“Watch out for the ghost,” warned Jack.
“There’s no ghost, he’s just fucking with you,” said his wife as we took the steps down into the basement. Even the walls seemed to be made of dirt. She said, “He likes to fuck with me and tell me there are bodies buried down here. If he didn’t get on top of this shit today, I would have added him to the collection, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
She gave me my mission, and I sorted shit into boxes, arranged, and swept Jack’s basement until Bruce arrived for me, two hours later, drunk, insisting that our next detour be a golf course.
You should know I never made it to my parents house that spring.