The cream green taxi with black lettering – River City Livery – careened across three lanes of oncoming traffic, barely missing a tractor-trailer that had the face of a smiling pig on its long corrugated side and three-and-a-half mud flaps. The truck driver blasted his horn and shook his fist.
Lungsee held the toilet under one arm as Emile opened the back door and waved his hand for Lungsee to get in. Lungsee looked but refused. He instead carried the toilet around the front of the taxi, past the sideways-turned Chevrolet hood ornament and down the far side fender with its checkerboard paint pattern and he squeezed himself and the toilet into the front seat.
Welcome, welcome. The cabbie could not have been more nonchalant. Pencil thin, black as lead and wearing a canary yellow button-up shirt, he simply pulled closer his ledger-sized logbook and a mason jar stuffed full of cole slaw and fried yucca balls. He grinned big. His teeth looked like bleached wood. His was a smile that showed a deep gratitude for passengers, any passengers and damn whatever their luggage. Excusez-moi, he said as he snatched his things to safety from Lungsee’s fast falling ass. A post card of Haiti stuck in his visor with a pin. It showed one-third of an island.
Lungsee jammed the toilet in between the hard tan dash and his stomach. His canteen dangled into the bowl. And when he let his arms fall to rest, the toilet did not move. He looked at the cabbie and the cabbie looked at him. The cabbie smiled and nodded.
Emile leaned over the seat and relayed the address and Lungsee got even more perturbed at the cocky authority with which his friend spoke. It sounded to Lungsee that Emile had changed, and he did not like it.
The cabbie wheeled his 1974 Mercedes 240 D into a u-turn and headed north up the empty boulevard. Emile rolled down his window and watched south Memphis go by. The thrashing wind felt like a hot wet blanket tussling his head. It felt good. He wondered what happened to his car. He didn’t care. Oddly.
Lungsee picked up a cassette tape case off the seat and looked at it. It was titled ‘Rock a Memphis’ and it had a picture of a singer trying to look like Elvis, holding the mic, dipping one leg and curling his lip.
And who might this buffoon be? he asked the cabbie. The cabbie smiled and twisted the volume knob on the radio and the music came on. Lungsee listened with a blank face for a moment, then said, Sounds like gobbledygook. Gobbledygook. Do you understand gobbledygook?
Johnny Hallyday! Tres bien! Su-pair cool! said the cabbie with a thumbs-up.
Lungsee punched the hard black plastic eject tab on the stereo and the tape spit out. He grabbed it with two fat fingers and whipped it out the window. Im-pas-tair! he said.
The cabbie smiled and took it all in stride. His passenger didn’t like the music? Things could be worse. Plenty more Johnny Hallyday where that came from. Plus, he knew the fare’s destination to be in east Memphis. Profit. Oh, yeah. Then Peaches Records. He could buy a new Johnny Hallyday tape. Play it for his girl, LaTrina. America. He smiled.
From the open back window, the stars looked a good distance to Emile. Too far away, yet welcoming. He couldn’t escape the feeling he got in The King’s shower, the feel that made him act with base impulse from base fear and which had him now anchored him in the base back seat of a taxi with a royal toilet riding shotgun. They rode in silence for a long while, the hum of the tires and the drone of the motor. A King’s toilet.
Lungsee found Orbison’s ‘Cat Called Domino’ on the radio. The beat came on undeniable. He snapped his fingers, bobbed his head. He looked around and they all smiled with the beat.
I’ve snatched much bigger things, oh yeah! Lungsee said over the music and his shoulder. He looked hard into Emile’s eyes. Oh yeah, what you experienced is called cladogenesis. Oh, yeah. That’s all. I get it all the time. All the time!
Emile looked away. Back up to the heavens. What the fuck kind of word is that? He wanted a long view on things. The short was stupid. It got him a toilet. Who’s to say what the newspaper would say the next day? The stars didn’t care, and he yearned for a pact, an understanding. A dispensation with them.
I could’ve thought of that! Lungsee shouted at the windshield. Nothing but cladogenesis! May as well call me ole clado himself…!
They rolled on, the blights of Memphis whizzing by like miscarried aspirations and Emile suddenly worried what Lungsee would think, or say, when the taxi dropped them off. His house was not a mansion, but it was nice, and things like this have a way of driving wedges where before there were none. Two friends: one with a girl. Two friends: one with money. The wedge always appeared because of that third thing. Like a toilet. Or an idea. Or an idea to take a toilet.
Really no big deal, you know... You should’ve seen me in my salad days, nabbing things of ludicrous value, left, right and center, oh yeah… Couldn’t keep up with myself. Talk about transcendent transformations and shit… Whoa. I take it this is us, he said leaning into the toilet to size up Emile’s house.
Lungsee got out of the Mercedes like a downtown businessman, his briefcase a well-used black American Standard toilet, and strode to Emile’s front door oblivious to the fact that it may be locked. He tried it. It was. He stood aside and looked at the black doormat with pale gold trim. Cab smelled like baby powder. Nazi vinyl and baby powder, he muttered as Emile unlocked his front door. Tell me about it, said Emile.
Lungsee followed Emile in and slammed the big black door. He watched and waited for Emile to disappear down a hall and then he looked around. The place was tall and its style flat and plain. The formal living room was to his immediate right. Rigid. Long sleek furnished. Black wood. Square tables, tubed lamps. A paper-like chandelier, round with about a six-foot diameter, hung low, giving the room a sunken modern Parisian den feel. Plain soft colored rugs with big block patterns. On the long wall over the simple maroon sofa was what he thought to be a Rothko. Lungsee knew and liked Rothko but for some reason, he didn’t approve of this one’s setting. Oddly, because it fit well here, he thought. He noticed this. Things needed looking at.
The way the house was planned, the natural flow of the space ran to the casual living room in the back left. The kitchen, Lungsee presumed, was to the back right and he could tell they would connect back there. He was right.
The back wall of the house was glass with some sliding doors between the kitchen and the casual living room. The glass doors opened to a small amoeba shaped swimming pool. Fat oak trees overhead absorbed most of the sun that wanted to warm the water. He set the toilet on the massive wood and glass-top coffee table and sat on the long leather couch. The cushion exhaled, hissed. For a while.
Emile set a bottle of bootlegged Coors Beer and a glass on the coffee table in front of Lungsee, and then sat with his own. The glasses had old sailing schooners etched into them. Emile drank half his beer and felt better, calmer. Lungsee did not drink. In silence, they pretended to study and consider and understand the perched, regal toilet.
Man, if that thing could talk… Lungsee said finally sipping his beer. He flecked away the foam from his mustache with a forefinger.
Man, if we’re not careful, somebody will make us talk.
A cenotaph like no other.
Not exactly something to believe in, though.
Maybe not. But it’s something to wager with.
Emile thought about luck and fate and he discounted them both. Entirely. He discounted them with an authority that soothed him. He drained his beer knowing Lou and Delly would show up sooner or later with shotguns. But he thought he was ready. Tired of being told who he was by unknown forces. His whole life. He now felt different.
Fuck it, Emile said with a silent burp. We’ll write Lou a note. Send it by courier. Tell him the plans changed. Rum’s gone. We got something else. He’ll freak, but we’ve got the leverage. He leaned back and sighed, his back dissolving into the taut fabric of the firm burgundy pillow. He let his head fall gently back and his hands slide into a rest, holding his glass at his crotch.
Got it, said Lungsee. Sounds good. Roger that. Oh-kay, doh-kay.
I’m going to bed, Emile said. He rolled his head and read the little digital clock on the end table in the corner under the lamp with a wooden Chinaman base. 7:17 AM. He noticed the morning was cooler. The air conditioner wasn’t blowing. His legs were heavy. He feigned a strain to get up and then walked out of the room.
Right. You go to sleep, said Lungsee to himself.
Lungsee watched Emile go and decided he didn’t want to think about him anymore. A sour taste, an ill feel. He stared at the toilet and heeded its neutrality. Observed its utility. A necessary thing, but one that had just got out of hand. Like rum. Or other people. Or loneliness.
He wanted to be alone, and he knew he was, but he wanted more of it. He looked over his shoulder and out the window and took relieved note the mighty oak branches dipping over the porous brick walls around the pool. He stood and found the sliding glass door in the glass wall and went out back and felt much, much better.
Dark blue tiles under the water made it look icy black. The bricks around the pool were skinny and rough and uneven, like the front of the house. A metal table with a hole in its middle sat at the deep end and in the hole was an umbrella. Pale yellow and white stripes. Three metal chairs sat tucked under the table.
Down by the shallow end hung a mad junction of branches, a crazy tangle of higher life that silently told Lungsee, It’s okay, you’ll never be alone. Easy but urgent. Underneath the mad tangled were two blue mesh lounge chairs with white tube frames. Lungsee walked by the pool and chose the lounger closer to the wall to be more under the branches.
He stood over it, straddled the mesh and then eased on down, and as he eased on down, the armrests eased on out. His ass met the mesh and he leaned back, popped his moccasins up and looked treeward. The grand southern oaks, rich specimens with knotty gnarled bark that he knew to be surprisingly flaky, made a most prosperous awning, and he felt the pulses from all the more junctions he found above. The morning sun tingled and vibrated and hummed inside the leafy spheres. Pansophical.
Some distant thunder rolled in, like a ghost train, and the swirls of signs and symbols finally came and came silent, flowing. Incantational. They unspooled themselves and settled into their chummy chaos. The wind picked up and what Emile had thought about fate and luck had been bullshit. He’s still scared, Lungsee thought, he’s still feeding his monkeys, and the proof of his friend’s fear, he knew, had to be dealt with. The toilet. Lungsee listened to the trees, murmured back in a tongue unknown.
If the toilet were handled right, there would be no need for the toilet. Resonance. Existence inferred. Like placing your hand on my chest, you know my heart’s there. Resonance had haunted Lungsee for decades. Resonance.
Its crippling grip came when he was 12 and already mammoth and abandoned by his family and living with a floozy auntie down on the near south side where the whites were dirty angry poor and the blacks much, much more. The neighborhood was one where car batteries sat chained to their chassis, savage dogs yanked on their dug-in chains and the people laughed mystified at their so-called equality.
One day, a beautiful crisp Saturday afternoon in late October when the trees sang so loudly he had to stay indoors, Lungsee sat alone at the octagonal kitchen table, staring at the faded yellow striped wallpaper but not escaping the white hot melodic din, when his auntie came in, tipsy and brash with two lit cigarettes and said, Want me to suck your cock right now? Cause I’ll do it. Lungsee had said no but in some very real way, he felt it had happened, it had been done, just from the asking. He wanted to say yes. He wanted to see what it was like. He knew she would do it and he knew no one would know because she wouldn’t remember and then he felt he could feel it and then he came in his pants right under the table and he turned in his seat and walked out of the kitchen, wet. Finished.
Erect, Lungsee shifted in the lounger under Emile’s trees and thought about this and resolved to call the paper, place the personal and know that Grover would show. Emile would come around. But who cares? The wispy air of the toilet. Lou would never know. Had to be done. Better this way. Resonance. Thank you, he said. Please relieve me from the horse shit of self…
But first, the note. Lungsee scrawled it out in the first seat of the number 55 bus, so it had a sinister, child-like wrench to it. To word it, he had studied the passing world, its stores, signs, female hairdos, male footwear, cars, dogs, trash, whatever. Not much inspiration came, his golf pencil at the ready, until his squealing hissing taxi passed a splashy bail bond outfit that had the word ‘lieu’ painted on its front window. ‘Bond in Lieu of Cash! Ask us how now!’
Lungsee enjoyed the wordplay, and thus the note: ‘In lieu, Lou, of rum, we accrued something else, in toto, and of boundless value. Will be in touch, Lou. PS: if you plan a set-to, we will set-to to set-to on you, too. And you, Lou, in lieu of life, will die. Cheers, Lungsee.’ The legal jargon he thought a nice touch, giving the correspondence a particular, learned chill and the concluding imperative a doozy of a kicker. He smiled. And as soon as he finished the note, the bus hit nothing but green lights all the way until he tapped the driver’s shoulder.
He looked up and down the pleasant leafy street, a street just like in the movies. And there were no people on this street, like sometimes in some movies. Some of the noirish Bs. How many neighborhoods can a studio fake? He remembered Bogey in Lonely Place. This street looked like that. Lou’s street.
Lungsee strolled. Strolled as casually as an everyman with a job, a girl and thirty dollars. But it was an act. He new damn well having a girl and a job and thirty bucks was no cause for unconcerned strolling. But they didn’t know. So he strolled and took in the sights of the examples of the target to come. Mailbox after mailbox. Some big, some small. Cheap and naked, robust and housed. Most black. One white with painted blue flowers, like by an especially simple child. Another shaped like a fish. Fisherman owner, no doubt. One festooned with toilet paper. Teen daughter residence.
Lungsee continued his easy stroll and spotted the mailbox in front of Lou’s Tudor job, a job he’d only seen at night. Nice house. Nice mailbox. Black, classic. Not housed, but not exposed either. Sensible red flag. Down. Ever been up? Irrelevant.
Instructions to self: move in closer. Smaller steps, casual. Dart eyes, but not head, face. Keep aloof. Continue, advance, stop, inspect, greet, reach. But the mailbox door was stuck. It would not open. While Lungsee looked like a freakish beatnik bruiser who could pick up Santa’s massive mailbox and toss it into next year, Lou’s flimsy mailbox door simply would not budge.
Note: Try left hand, ahh, that’s the problem. I’m righty. Pivot, spin, shift for left. Tug, shake, rattle. Still no give. Maybe lefty got it more stuck.
Lungsee placed his left hand on the back of the curved top of the mailbox for leverage, grasped the irritating little nub of a flap handle and leaned away from it, but all for naught.
Repivoting back to switch hands, because for some reason he felt more comfortable opening a mailbox with his left, he shook the little tab of a handle up and down rapidly, the very motion to extract something from a puppy’s mouth. But no.
Pause, check area. Relax. Wheeze. Casual now. Maybe just look at it, like a professional mailbox man would, you know, analyze calmly, reasonably diagnose and then… Attack!
Lungsee hopped forward and rattled the sad little black half tube with vicious fury. Cease fire. Hold your ground, but no retreat. Jesus fucking Christ. He set the note, now a bit crumpled, down on the grass by the mailbox’s post.
He needed to be casual, more casual, as if knowing the mailbox’s trick because there must be a trick. But looking at the damn thing didn’t help. He couldn’t figure it out so he regrouped and acted like he did this everyday. A mailboxer. As if this mailbox were his own private mailbox and the trick to open it had inexplicitly escaped him.
So he stood there for a long moment before realizing, deciding, that it would be obvious to anyone who may be watching that this was not his mailbox nor a daily event, so he flung his cape away from any moving limbs to be, and lunged back into the scrum and wrestled and twisted and turned and squeezed and pinched and punched until the little flat black nubby door tab came clean off.
He looked around and put it in his pocket, as would one with a found nickel. He then turned to face the street, the mailbox at his side, like an ugly dwarf date. His arm nonchalantly draped over its ridged curved top, Lungsee swept his right foot in front of his left and let the toes stand on end. Never has a man looked so casual next a mailbox. He snuffed his nose, upturned his mouth and hiked his Prussian Walking Trousers one handed. His hair fell a bit in the way, so he shook his head and flipped the wayward lock back. He looked down to the tips of his moccasins, noticed a new smudge mark and remembered stubbing his toe while getting on the bus. Bus grime.
But deep inside simmered a humiliation that had festered his whole life. From as early as he can remember, being watched or studied or looked at only lead to laughter and ridicule. All those early years he tried to nail down exactly what it was, exactly why other people teased him so mercilessly and he always came up empty. Occasionally, a jock or cool guy would take pity, forge a brief loyalty, and protect him for a day or a moment. But what so startled Lungsee in the aftermath of the charity was his own resentment of the protector. He hated that guy as much as the abuser. Friendlessness is all that can follow. And then confusion, and rage. Sorrow. And now this fucking mailbox.
He knew it was not the mailbox’s fault. So he relaxed. Breathed deeply. And with foot daintily on toes, arm resting on the thing and eyes down, it was the perfect time for… Attack Number Two!
Lungsee slipped his arm all the way over and then under and gripped the mailbox in a headlock. His casual right foot sprang out and around and shot behind him and he planted it on its ball for extra-super dug-in force, and his left hand became an enraged superfist and he hooked it around to come in from the front and he pounded and pounded the feeble little flimsy door until he could pound no more. His hand hurt. It bled. He wheezed mightily, like a panicked teakettle.
The meager little door was crushed in and the curved top and flat bottom of the mailbox had puckered in on themselves like a big mouth having chomped a great lemon. Lungsee bent forward and inspected the damage. The fucking little mailbox had become the fucking little mailbox that could.
Lungsee hung his head, noted his bloody knuckles and admitted defeat. Violence, once again, proved double-edged. He looked up the street and there was nothing, no one. When he looked down the street, there hung a few kids on bikes staring at him. Special… delivery, Lungsee huffed from gasping little breaths. You kids go on.. back to… horsing around… or whatnot.
Whatnot? shrieked a blonde straddling a heavy red Schwinn. What the hell does that mean? What, not, what, not, what, not…
It means he’s fat and stupid! chirped a pig-tailed girl.
Hey everybody, it’s Bigfoot! I found Bigfoot! yelled a meager shit off the safety of the gang. They roared with laughter and pointed fingers. But he’s got a cape so he’s SuperSasquatch! SuperSquatch! Their shrill roar pierced the street, defining it in a way.
The Bigfoot slurs had come relatively recently, the last few years or so, ever since that damn home movie and that prick Leonard Nimoy. So Lungsee simply placed his note on top of the crumpled black mass and ambled away down Tishomingo Lane hoping he would not have a long wait for a bus. But a royal blue Bluff City Cab appeared and the Gandhi-looking driver said to Lungsee, This is not your neighborhood, friend. You better be careful.
Tell me about it, said Lungsee approaching the window.
Special delivery? asked the cabbie inspecting at the battered mailbox.
You know it. Lungsee hopped in the back, the taxi took off and the kids on their Schwinns rode after, taunting and laughing.