The Freest Man Alive
Chapter from High in the Streets
My whole life I’ve thought myself defective or at least peculiar. As a boy, I could do what the others did—with some effort I managed algebra, chemistry experiments, and reading Conrad. In this way I was not strange. However, there was one thing I simply could not suffer—foreseeing a future for myself, an attainable goal, something to strive for—as all my friends and classmates did. They saw themselves becoming doctors, teachers, engineers, and judges, and planned accordingly. Take this set of courses, get this certification, intern for this many years, keep your head down, work hard, and you’ll reach your aims.
Sometimes, as a kid, I used to get jealous. I thought it must’ve been thrilling to know what hopes the future held—the luxury of salary and raises, of finding a wife and building a family, saving for vacation and retirement.
And despite all evidence to the contrary, I always did believe myself destined for great things—saw myself to be of an elevated status. Perhaps that’s what gave me permission to act as I have. But after years and years of waiting for an event to come along and change everything, it finally has, and nothing is better; perhaps things are worse. I feel totally hopeless, but in that despair comes some relief. The burden has been lifted, the need to succeed banished, the desire to fulfill some latent potential no more. No longer do I have to envy my colleagues and compatriots because success is of little value in life.
But this is a troubling realization. What now, if the realization of the American dream is no good?
Oh how I miss being a poor and miserable failure—I was so free then!
It’s morning now and I’m lying in bed with Frannie, her back to me. With the start of a new day, the rising of the sun, the sound of the birds chirping, the garbage men collecting their cans, the thoughts in my mind have been turned upside down. I can’t stop thinking about time—rather the passing of time—and how it is my enemy.
Every month, week, day, hour, minute, and second I don’t do something is a small defeat. I’m crying out for a disaster, a calamity, a grand failure to rob me of my possessions and bring me back to my humble beginnings to begin anew. And as I lay there considering how I’d like to see the whole world thrown into chaos, watch as the people claw out their own eyes or disappear into the mountains or sea, I feel Frannie press her bottom up against my penis. At first I figure this must be accidental, but as she wiggles more and more, it becomes clear she is doing so with intent.
So I reach my hand under her nightgown and massage her breasts. Both nipples go hard and after a few moments she guides my hand down between her legs. I notice immediately she is hairless.
“What have you done to yourself?”
“Huh?” she asks between throaty sighs.
“Down there, what have you gone and done?”
“Oh—I got a wax.”
“What do you mean, why? Don’t you like it?”
I can’t say what I’m thinking. No, I’d be killed if I were to reveal that. What I’m thinking is this: A waxed cunt looks like a dead clam.
“Of course I do,” I say. “I just prefer a bit of hair, that’s all.”
“Yes, it’s the bit of hair that gives it its mystery and allure.”
“You must be kidding.”
“Yes, of course, I’m kidding,” I recant.
She throws off the Egyptian-cotton sheets she purchased for more than the cost of some used cars, and straddles me. Frannie really does have a magnificent body, and I’ve got the best view in the house. I place my hands behind my head and lie back and watch the whole production unfold. Her tits bounce up and down in perfect rhythm, and her tight stomach stretches and unfolds like an accordion in the hands of a master polka musician.
But Frannie’s eyes are closed, and she looks as if she’s off in a distant galaxy—lost in a world of passion in which I scarcely exist. At no point during the act does she acknowledge my presence. I might as well be a piece of machinery or a robot. In this moment, I suspect that everything we once shared has evaporated into molecules and spread out across space. In a desperate attempt, I try to force a façade of intimacy by first placing my hands on her breasts and then on her ass, but when she makes no indication of noticing, I cease my efforts and allow myself to come without warning.
“Ugh,” she says, climbing off of me, “You don’t make any effort at all, anymore.”
“An effort, I don’t make an effort? What about you? Where were you throughout all of that?
You certainly weren’t here with me.”
“Oh please, don’t get all emotional. What kind of man are you?”
The urge to grab her by her hair and throw her to the ground and beat her surges through me, but instead I climb out of bed and go to the bathroom. My intention is to take a shower—to rinse myself clean. I refuse to spend my day covered in her influence.
But my shower is unrecognizable to me—it’s gone digital. Frannie has had it upgraded in the past twenty-four hours, since my last wash. Where there were once handles marked “Hot” and “Cold,” there is now a keyboard. I poke around at it with no success. It is beyond my comprehension.
I abandon my effort and go back to the bedroom.
“I can’t get the shower to work.”
“Surely you’re not that inept.”
“You underestimate my incompetence,” I say. “Now come show me how to use this damn thing.”
“I need a minute to finish up here.”
“Finish what up?”
She pulls back the sheet covering her lower half, and holds up a vibrator.
I slink out of the bedroom and go find another shower.
When I’m done rinsing off, I decide to head down to Venice Beach. There is no parking anywhere. Finally I spot a woman coming out of her house to walk the dog. I offer her twenty bucks to let me park in her driveway, and she agrees. The boardwalk is packed with bikini babes, tourists, misfits and freaks. Two bicycle cops have a teenage boy pushed up against a palm tree and are searching his pockets.
When they find nothing, they let him go, and as the boy is walking away, he screams an obscenity at them. The cops jump on their bikes and pedal after him. After a short chase, they tackle him to the ground and put him in handcuffs. All the people stand around and watch as if it is theater.
I buy a coffee from a Mexican man pushing a cart. He’s got an enormous, bulbous nose and emits a hearty but unwarranted laugh after everything he says. “What size do you want? Ha ha ha!” “Do you want room for cream? Ha ha ha!” “Have a nice day. Ha ha ha!”
I sit along the seawall, facing out toward the ocean. The head-high waves are populated with rubber-limbed, long-haired surfers. Each new set sends them jockeying for position. The same three or four guys are always in the right spot and catch all the good waves, while the rest of the pack sits on the shoulder waiting for scraps.
Whenever one of the lesser surfers tries to break rank, a better surfer always dives in at the last second, forcing the inferior waterman off the wave. Too many infractions of this kind and the novice is forced to the beach.
A man with no legs at all, a human torso, cruises along the bike-path on a skateboard, using his arms to propel him forward. He’s got a steady rhythm, like a master kayaker, negotiating his way in an out of beach traffic. The man wears the long black hair of an Indian Chief tucked up under a cap with a picture of a yellow smiley face on it. His skin is the color of soft baby shit and a long scar runs across his neck.
He’s taped a paper Burger King cup to the front of his skateboard. Periodically he stops and the kind folks within a close proximity reach into their pockets to see what they can spare. When the cup is nearly overflowing, he takes out the bills, wraps them in a rubber band, and places them in his jacket pocket. The jacket is forest-green and military-issue with a collection of gleaming medals and decorous ribbons pinned to the chest. The bottom of the jacket is held together by safety pins, creating a diaper effect.
“Hey, crackerjack, help a wounded veteran out?”
I hand him three singles from my wallet.
“That the best you can do, crackerjack? I lost my legs fighting for this country so you could have your freedom.” I pull out a twenty and he snatches it before I make the effort to hand it to him. “Thanks, crackerjack, that’s real generous of you.”
“Thanks for your service,” I say, reaching for my cigarettes.
“You spare one of those, too?”
I hand him one and bend down to light it. There is the heavy stink of whiskey on his breath.
“You want to grab a drink, soldier?” I say. “It’s on me.”
He agrees, and we start down the boardwalk together. Random boardwalk passer-bys offer him hi-fives and words of encouragement. Whenever there is a pretty girl nearby he steers himself over, and grazes his hand against her legs and ass. Some of them shout reproaches at him, but most are too shocked to say anything.
We come to a bar just off the sand called Lahaina Beach Club. It’s more like a wooden shack with a patio, but it’s popular, and the place is packed. The white exterior paint on the building has been corroded off by the salty sea air. The railing is covered in seagull shit, and the three wooden steps leading up to the deck are wobbly and splintered. I stand back to see how the invalid attempts to manage the stairs, but he doesn’t try at all. Instead he shouts at me:
“Goddamn it, crackerjack, don’t just stand there, pick me up! I’m a veteran, for Christ’s sake!”
Most of the bar’s patrons have turned their attention toward us. The half-man grabs his skateboard, and I pick him up from under his armpits. His shirt is covered with sweat; sinking my fingers into him feels like squeezing a wet sponge. I hold him out away from my body, careful not to make any unnecessary physical contact. He’s surprisingly heavy and I feel a twinge of pain in my lower back.
He points to a table by the railing. “Put me in that chair,” he says.
I set him down gingerly and lift my hands to my face and sniff them. They smell like a tire fire. I excuse myself and go to the bathroom, where I scrub them until the skin nearly peels from the bone. When I return to the table, there are already two empty shot glasses, an empty beer bottle, and a second beer bottle, nearly empty, as well.
“I ordered us some drinks, crackerjack. But you took too long so I drank them.”
“Why don’t you call me Lou?” I say, looking away from him, signaling the waitress.
“Alright, Lou, call me Vic.” The waitress arrives, and we order three tequila shots and three more beers. “He needs to catch up to me,” Vic says, reaching out to caress her arm.
I intercept his wandering reach and force his hand back to the table.
“He’s harmless,” I say.
“Vic is anything but harmless,” the waitress says before walking away.
“They really know you around here.”
He smiles broadly.
“So you’re a veteran. Where’d you serve?” I ask.
He finishes what’s left of the second beer.
“Operation Desert Storm. Daddy Bush’s war, not baby Bush’s. I worked a checkpoint at the Kuwaiti border. Two months in, I got caught on the wrong end of an IED.”
The waitress delivers the drinks. I lift a tequila shot and Vic does the same.
“Here’s to you, pal,” I say, and we both take back our drinks.
Vic coughs violently, a chest full of phlegm comes up, and he spits the lugie onto the ground.
“You ever come close to death, Lou?”
“I’ve tempted it a time or two, but nothing like you.”
“And how did that feel to you?”
“I used to tell myself I was ready for it, but now I think I might be more afraid than anyone I know.”
“Did you know there is a time when each of us is scheduled to go? It’s true, it’s pre-destined. On that day, the heavens are waiting for you, and when you die, you’re shepherded to paradise. However, it’s possible to miss your appointment. That’s what happened to me. Something went wrong and only half of me died: my soul. My body clinged to life when it shouldn’t have. Now my soul is locked out of Heaven, because it doesn’t have a body. That’s part of the deal—your body has to go with the soul in order for it to find peace, otherwise it’s lost. And now I’m stuck down here without it. The death of the soul while the body still lives is worse than Hell.”
“So how do you go on?”
Vic forces a smile. “I live for the pleasures the Devil gives me. I know I can’t go to Heaven, so I’m free to do as I please. I’m the freest man in the whole world.”
“You don’t believe me, do you? Let me tell you something. I once killed a man for no reason at all. It was the middle of the night, and I was wheeling my skateboard around the outer edge of skid row¬¬. It’s something I do when I can’t sleep due to my nightmares. But on this night I decided to venture past the perimeter of the row and into this old, abandoned industrial park. I found a man passed out atop a pile of old tires, and I started rooting through his pockets. But then something came over me. I can’t really explain it—something primal, something visceral, something almost erotic or sexual. I took out my knife and stabbed the man in the neck. He woke up immediately as the blood sprayed out of him like a fountain.
There was a moment when the two of us locked eyes—a shared mutual recognition. I’m telling you it lasted only a split second, but it was the most alive I’ve ever felt. It’s hard to describe, other than to say, I felt more God than man. Afterwards, I felt terrible, but not because I had killed him. No, I cried for a different reason. I was jealous of his death. I knew that both his body and his soul were together in Heaven.”
Vic picks up his beer bottle, and when he realizes it’s empty he places it back on the table, picks up mine, and takes a long pull. “So what do you think of that story?”
“I think that after sex, murder might be the most natural instinct in the world.”
“You really think so?”
“I do, I really do.”
Vic reaches out, taking my hand. “Can I tell you something else? Something I haven’t told anyone?”
“You’ve already confessed to a murder. I don’t know why you’d hold back now.”
“I didn’t lose my legs in the war.”
I yank my hand from his grip. “What the fuck are you talking about? You weren’t in Iraq?”
Vic finishes the last drops of my beer. “I was there, all right, but I got sent home because of my diabetes. That’s how I lost my legs.”
“Diabetes?” I say. “I’d say that’s ten times as tragic as having them blown off in war!”
“After the doctors took my legs I couldn’t get a job, and the military didn’t give me shit, so I went out and bought a bunch of war medals and ribbons and pinned them to my shirt. And when I did that, people started treating me real different. All of a sudden I was some sort of hero, and not just some guy whose body doesn’t produce enough insulin.
And after telling my story enough times, I actually convinced myself the story was the truth. I really believed it, through and through. I thought I’d done all those things I’d claimed to. And even when I did remember that I was only telling lies, I’d tell myself it was okay because I really think I would’ve been a fine soldier and could’ve done all the things I said I did, if only I’d been given a chance. So if you ask me if I feel bad about being an impostor, I’ll tell you no, I don’t feel bad about it, not at all.”
The tears spring up in my eyes. I’m horribly ashamed by my own cynicism. What right do I have to be angry at the world? I should drop to my knees and thank the heavens for my good fortune. I’m the luckiest man on Earth. I should walk the streets with a happy smile on my face and a bounce in my step, greeting everyone I see with well wishes, spreading my joy around to those less fortunate.
As I’m about to reach over and take Vic in an embrace of brotherhood and camaraderie, he screams out, “I gotta have a fucking piss!”
“I need to empty my fucking bladder.”
“So what do you want me to do about it?”
He unfastens the safety pin that holds the bottom of his shirt together.
“I need you to lift me up over the urinal. That’s what I need you to do.”
I pick him up, and this time, inspired by my newfound fellowship, hold him securely to my body, as if he were my own child. He clings tightly around my neck. His sour breath is in my nose and mouth, and his sweaty torso is pressed up against my chest. I can feel the wetness clinging to my shirt. All around us, people try to look away, but there are whispers, laughs, and cries.
Once inside the bathroom I hold Vic up in front of the urinal, and he pulls it out and starts to go. I’m tempted to have myself a peek, but I’m afraid I’ll be scarred for life. Years of comfort and excess have developed in me a weak constitution for human frailty and suffering. But a little voice in my head tells me that I need to look, that it’ll remind me once again of what sort of true cruelties exist in this world—the kind I used to be able to describe so well in my writing, not these third-rate cruelties I’ve been obsessing over now for so many years. Vic has a good, steady stream, and he makes carnal, pleasurable grunts.
Finally I work up the courage, and I casually crane my neck over his shoulder to get a glimpse. It’s fixed to the very end of his body, appearing to float below him, all twisted and battered, scabbed over from rubbing against the deck of his skateboard. When he’s done, he shakes it out and says, “Sorry, Lou, got some on your shoes.”
I look down to see that the toes of my boots are dotted in little pools of urine.
“Let’s get another drink,” he says.
“Why don’t I take you home instead?”
“One more for the road?”
“Okay,” I say. “One more for the road.”
Matthew Binder’s debut novel, High in the Streets, is scheduled to release on April 29th from Roundfire Books.