Part II, Chapter 6: Shapeshifting
He’s her first customer. Calvin has a big day planned, after all. Theresa goes to work and from a black barber’s chair, Calvin watches her in a wall-length mirror opposite him. Theresa must think she’s been doing a bang up job of styling Calvin’s hair, seeing as he’s such a loyal customer, but the truth is she had somehow managed to consistently craft an even worse hairdo than he could have ever shaped for himself.
Not that her hairstyling chops matter to Calvin. He’s not here for the cut. He visits because of Theresa’s facial expressions, because what he needs is practice.
“Nice outfit today, Calvin, dressed for success?” She asks, trying to make small talk.
Calvin is wearing black slacks and a smooth black polo shirt. “Yeah, something like that,” he answers.
Calvin sees Theresa smile and brush her hair back through the mirror. He can tell she’s into him, but that gold ring on her left hand is holding her back. And why wouldn’t she be attracted to Calvin? Theresa has only ever known this striking version of Calvin, the one with eyes identical to Brad Pitt’s. He gives her a warm smile and her pale cheeks become red as she works.
Theresa’s facial tick process goes like this: cheeks out like a blowfish, hold hair in fingers, release air from cheeks, open scissors, suck in cheeks tightly to form normal fish face, cut hair. A twenty minute haircut gives Calvin twenty minutes to analyze her facial contortions. Theresa’s is a very interesting face, and one which Calvin takes often. When she’s finished with the terrible trim, Calvin pays the lady, smiles at her with over-white teeth exactly matching her own (to which she is oblivious) and leaves.
Downtown this early holds many busy faces. The glass buildings reflect the early sun, and every face is in some state of recovery. Young professionals with drooped eyes blow on coffee meant to ward off the hangover, overweight men hide puffy cheeks behind their cellphones, women with smile lines don’t smile, women with the remains of smile lines which had been zapped off smile too often.
For Calvin, the ugly ones are the most interesting, the most difficult to replicate. He has learned from shapeshifting that symmetry equals beauty, but that symmetry is too easy.
Ten blocks from the salon, and Calvin’s hair has changed length, no more poofed-up pompadour that Theresa had painstakingly given him but a plain crewcut instead. Calvin prefers the crewcut from his army days. No one ever remembers seeing a guy with a crewcut.
He’s only stalling now. This isn’t the first time he’s robbed someone, and he doubts it will be the last. Calvin whispers a prayer: forgive me.
The first time, he thought a smash and grab was the way to do it. He never thought he’d commit such a sin as this. But an eviction notice makes people do funny things.
So after 2:00 a.m. on a weeknight, a 5’9”, 150 pounds, brown-haired brown-eyed white male forced his way behind the counter of a local gas station, making off with $100. An off-duty police officer pursued the man, but was unable to apprehend him. Anyone with relevant information, please call 1-800-crimestoppers. Persons with tips leading to the arrest of the suspect could receive a cash reward.
Calvin didn’t think it went so cleanly as the news report suggested, and he hadn’t made off with near as much cash as they claimed.
He chose the place because it didn’t have any bars on the windows, and because the clerk was a pie-faced teenager. It didn’t seem a place accustomed to being robbed. He’d gotten that much very wrong.
He entered the gas station fast and hunched, with one hand stuck in the front pocked of his hoodie.
“The register, quick, I have a gun,” he lied, secretly only his index finger was hidden.
The clerk, unswayed, answered “show it to me then, pussy.”
This was not to plan. “Fine, here,” Calvin said and waved his hand above his head.
The kid looked up, Calvin reached past him, punched the green key on the register, and grabbed what he could. The kid punched something too, the middle of Calvin’s forehead, and then ran around the edge of the counter while swinging a tire iron.
Calvin ran, feeling the tire iron brush the fabric of his shirt. He made it out of the store and sprinted down the adjacent alley, almost tripping over some drunk man on a bench, the man Calvin now presumes was the ‘off duty officer,’ turned a corner, pulled off his hoodie and tossed it into a bush and then blinked. 5’3” purple-haired girl in a too big t-shirt.
The clerk, messy-haired and panting, accompanied by the officer who was panting harder and smelling of booze sweat, came soon after and asked Calvin-turned-everyman-robber-turned-street-urchin, “Where’d he go?”
Calvin could not remember what this girl was supposed to sound like, so he pointed in the distance. The two men went running off, Calvin went on home.
Back in his apartment, he counted his haul. $45.
It was enough money to get the landlord off his back for a day, possibly even enough to get the old man to pull down the eviction notice, but not nearly enough for the trouble. Calvin had read how some thieves stole for the thrill, for an almost sexual release accompanied by the act. That night though, Calvin leaned over his tub, trying to slow his heart and stop the shivering and the whole time whimpering “please forgive me,” over and over again. He decided then and there he didn’t share any sentiment for theft.
As time passed without any hint of how to use his newfound gift for some God-willed purpose (or at least to earn an honest buck), the sinful nature which seemed conjoined with his ability wore on him. He knew he’d do it again. He hadn’t yet learned, or God had not yet showed him, how to use his power without sin. And rental dues don’t abate while a man searches his soul.
Calvin has shed his crewcut and has cast off his Brad Pitt eyes. He’s taken the form of a jewelry store worker named Brandon, a mousy young man with a comb over and thin lips. Dressed for success indeed, he thinks as he pulls a makeshift imitation nametag from his pocket and pins it to his lapel as Brandon would, a little askew and just above the left nipple.
He stands outside the jewelry store and contemplates. The store is set at the corner of the street at ground level. Many directions for evasion here, which is why he chose the location. The place is still closed this early, but soon it will open and a hundred or more shining stones of types unknown to Calvin and bands and chains of metals unknown will be removed from their hidden safe and be placed in strategic locations intended to reflect brilliant prisms through the store glass and draw covetous eyes. The objects in there must be worth a fortune. He only wants a small portion of it.
He has the opening routine memorized from watching the opening procedure for the last two weeks. He can’t wait another.
It goes like this: Every weekday morning at 8:45 a hump-backed man shuffles toward the jewelry store, attended by a security guard with an overhanging belly and a magnum on his hip. These two unlock the doors and enter first. The old man snaps on white gloves and moves the jewelry from the safe to the display cases, locking each case after placing a bit of jewelry inside.
The security guard drinks coffee and watches his phone.
By 9:15 the old man has most of the jewelry on display. Around that time, a younger man, slender and prematurely bald and wearing a name tag displaying “Brandon” arrives. Brandon nods at the guard and puts on white gloves of his own. Then he pulls out a key from his chest pocket and unlocks the display case nearest the door, removes the jewelry placed inside it by the old man before him, inspects it and places it back inside its case. This he repeats until every case has been inspected.
Calvin guesses this is a sort of double inventory, double quality check.
This double check is where Calvin sees his opportunity. He can’t shift to the old man. Too close a proximity to the security guard as they open up. No way to dispossess the man of the key and then pretend to be that man the next morning and take the jewelry without alerting the security guard, or without committing a real act of violence, something Calvin doesn’t think he can forgive himself for, even if God can.
But Brandon isn’t so integral to the process. He only ever nods at the guard. Brandon’s key poses a problem, to be sure, but one which Calvin thinks he can solve without violence.
Today, Calvin has arrived in Brandon’s place five before nine, he guesses he’ll have ten minutes at least. He needs less than five.
At the glass door now. Going to get caught. Sorry Brandon. Turn around. Too late. The security guard rises and lets Calvin in, Calvin nods as he passes and the guard turns back to his phone.
He’s in, so phase 1 is complete, a mild success. Phase 2 begins: Calvin walks stiffly to the first display case, reaches in his pocket, oh damn no key there. Roll eyes. Grimace. Wipe forehead. Sigh loudly. Shake head and turn to the old man.
The old man works at the next to last case, busy draping a necklace over a small black bust under glass. Calvin realizes he forgot to learn the old man’s name. He is not destined to become a great burglar.
No burglar is ever great, Calvin thinks before he says, “Uh, sir, I forgot my key.”
“What did I say about calling me sir? Goddamnit save that shit for the customers. It’s Charlie, like the gooks. Damn boy, not even 10 a.m. and you got me thirsting.”
“Oh, uh sorry, Charlie. Can I, uhm, borrow yours?”
“I told Mr. Augustine you weren’t ready for it. Now, you’re gonna tell him you lost the damn thing or I will.”
“Yes, yes sir…I mean yes Charlie. I’ll tell him.”
“Someone hit you over the head with a pipe boy? How many sales you made this week?”
“That’s right, not a single damn one. Another week like this and I figure you’re gone, anyway, you call me sir one more time and I’ll make sure of it.”
“Okay, okay Charlie, never again.”
Calvin knows he’ll never call Charlie ‘sir’ again, but he is not at all sure about Brandon. Poor kid. Bad job to start out with, serving the types who shop here like they’re some kind of royalty when we’re all just supposed to be God’s children, and on top of that he has to deal with Charlie and this Augustine character.
“We’ll see about that,” Charles says. “The damn cases are dummy locked anyway, have you truly not noticed by now? Guess that’s why they call it a dummy lock. Dummy.”
The old man turns back to his case. Calvin tries the chrome case handle at the end of the row. Click, and the case door swings up. Dummy locked for a dummy. Calvin reaches in and with his gloved hand grasps a ring with a ludicrously large center stone.
Forgive me Lord, but the rent. The diamond scatters the light beautifully. As Calvin looks it over, he sees, through the diamond, the door swing open. Oh, Brandon, how annoying you are, no wonder Charlie hates you, don’t judge lest ye-
Real Brandon enters, nods at the guard and freezes.
The guard nods back at real Brandon, blows on his coffee, then dumps it on the floor and turns in time to see a man rush past, nearly braining himself against the swinging door as he escapes the store.
Calvin dashes down the block. The security guard is after him and shouting expletives as Calvin ducks behind a truck parked at a loading dock and sheds his clothes. Now undressed, Calvin switches to a black man and—before the transformation is complete the guard turns the corner.
The guard stops, slack-jawed, “What in the fuck?”
Calvin turns to run, but the guard is on him and tackles him to the ground. Calvin scrambles for his feet and, using the diamond as a weapon, he slices the guard’s cheek open. The man gasps and wipes the blood from his cheek. The cut is deep, Calvin can see yellow fatty flesh between pulses of blood. The guard reaches for his gun but Calvin kicks him in that bleeding cheek and sends him sprawling. Before the man can reach again, Calvin is on top of him, taking the gun from its holster, he aims it at the guard.
The guard waves his hands over his head, there is desperation in his voice as he pleads “hey, man I got kids, and…”
“If you love your kids, you’ll forget what you saw here today,” Calvin points thrusts the gun at the man to make an aggressive point that he’s serious, but in truth he’s hoping the man stays down. Calvin doesn’t believe he has sufficient principle as a-now-armed robber to pull the trigger.
“I swear. Not a word man.”
“Swear to God.”
“I swear to God, man I swear to whoever you want me to just don’t shoot me.” Tears are mixing with the blood on the guard’s cheek.
Calvin looks in the man’s eyes. Neither of them wanted this today, that’s sure. Calvin thinks for a moment, I should leave the ring. He stoops to place it on the pavement near the guard, but thinks, I’ll be sleeping on pavement like this if I don’t keep that ring. Rather than put the ring down, Calvin gathers the clothes and turns to run. Before he leaves, he looks over his shoulder, says, “forgive me” to his bloody victim. He throws the pistol into a dumpster a few blocks away. With the clothes he does the same.
Back home, he washes the man’s crusted blood from his feet, and later that afternoon Calvin sells the ring for $1,500 at a local pawn shop. Six weeks rent. Calvin isn’t happy about the discount, but that’s the price of discretion. As Calvin lays the money atop his shabby dresser, he prays, yet again asking for forgiveness, asking that the guard heal up okay, and also asking that Brandon be protected. Theft is a sin and worse is beating the hell out of some guy trying to do his job. Calvin knows that much, but what he cannot decipher is the nature of his power. Is it a sin to shapeshift? Is it a lie? The very use of it seems a deceit.
But then, every clerk at every store pretends to be interested in the customer’s day. How is shapeshifting any different, really? No. Rationalizing, equating the benign acts of others to his own malignant ones, is yet another form of deceit. Why had God given him this? If a curse, what sin has Calvin committed?
Maybe tomorrow will be better. He has a prime shift tomorrow. Been waiting for months. If he does well, perhaps this cycle can stop.
Calvin sleeps little in these thin days. He survives eviction notices through petty theft, little jobs like the jewel heist, though he’s never had to resort to violence before. He’d never been so close to being caught. If he’s not going to repent, he must be more careful.
He half-dozes through every night, shirtless and slumped and very often drunk, until the early morning hours, and this night is no different. A shapeshifter doesn’t worry about bags under the eyes. During these confused hours, local television consists entirely of televangelists. A man with no edges watches others sell the hardest of them all.
Most of these programs are obvious scams, modern iterations of wandering snake oil salesmen. Trying to reach into Calvin’s shallow pockets and steal what he’d stolen. They reach through guilt: “Whatever is under the whole heavens belongs to God. Would man rob God?” they reach through hope: “sow the seed, reap the harvest, for God loves a cheerful giver;” they reach through simple grift: “Donate $10 and give water to one hundred and fifty African villagers for a month” (Calvin notices the purveyors of this claim seem to share clipart, a picture of a little black girl in a red headdress).
None of them true Christians save one: a small female preacher who dresses plainly and who goes by the name Tabitha Xuba. Every sermon, she wears a plain gray dress, a silver necklace with a crucifix, and no other adornments.
The woman is a faith healer. Absurd, Calvin thinks, that of all the televangelists scams he latches onto the most obvious. But, like him, it was apparent Tabitha had bills of her own to pay. Calvin didn’t hold that single transgression against her. He thinks, she seems to care about her parishioners, and that is most important.
He watches her every night, for though her claims were outlandish, she seems to believe the underlying message. Her words are pure. Knowledgeable on the text and meaning of the verses, she presents complicated passages in an understandable and passionate manner. Calvin could see this even through a television screen.
Now, had she really healed any sinners? Calvin didn’t believe so, but if you asked him you would hear a tinge of doubt in any of his countless voices as he answered, “no.”
At the end of every sermon, the preacher Tabitha lines up the sick and the afflicted, touches every one and prays over them. No theatrics, no flailing or screaming or going “pow!” Only tears and thanks and once a man stood from a wheelchair, causing Calvin to turn off the television that night. But only the once.
After Tabitha prays over the sinners, she looks into the camera, her eyes green as jade and asks for a simple donation. Not for a harvest or as a penance, or even as a shout out to the Almighty. She simply asks that whosoever might be called to contribute, in whatever amount, in whatever form, answer the call so that His work may continue through her.
A simple call. Tonight’s sermon is on the importance of honesty, a particularly moving topic for Calvin. Calvin leans across his couch, reaching for the phone. He takes it in his hands and tears swell in his eyes. He will donate something tonight. Before he dials the number he thinks—he’ll need to commit another crime to pay the rent—and tosses the receiver to the edge of the couch. “Forgive me Lord,” he says.
Before he drifts to sleep, he glances over at the offering envelope he’s sat on his coffee table. Someday, he thinks, he’ll make an offering. Maybe even tomorrow.
He slips into unconsciousness. He sees a young girl, no more than twelve and plainly dressed. Her face is misshapen. She stands in a field of prairie grass bluer than the open ocean. Calvin tries to make out the girl’s face but it is obscured. The harder Calvin focuses on her face, the less form she takes, until finally she shimmers, she wavers, she combines and becomes the very field in which she stands. Calvin begins to look away from her and she refocuses, holding a silver crucifix in hand. Tabitha? Calvin thinks. The girl shakes her head, kisses the silver piece and hands it to him. “For her,” she says, and now she is gone and now the field is gone and black fades to nothing.
In 1998, Calvin turned eighteen and he had to make a choice. He briefly considered joining the priesthood, and though Calvin’s family was one of faith, it wasn’t one of the cloth. The Nelson men were soldiers.
So Calvin’s father being a soldier turned factory worker like his father before him, and his before him, Calvin enlisted in the Corps. Private Nelson, another in a long line of them reaching back further than any Nelson could recount. Basic training then assignment at Fort Sill, Lawton, Oklahoma. Could’ve been Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, any of those fly over states, Calvin didn’t care or strive for more or even simply different, he just didn’t know anything else.
Calvin wasn’t a particularly good private. He didn’t aim to be, he stuck right under average. Could’ve been inscribed on the family crest, had they one: “stuck right under average.”
Not that he minded. He only wanted to serve his country for a time like his father had, get out, land a union job, marry a wife and they’d have a dozen or so kids, and maybe if he was lucky he could serve as a deacon in his church.
He hoped to find a good Catholic girl around the base, take her back to Michigan with him. Kind of like killing two birds with one stone. But all he kept finding out here in Oklahoma were drunken townies.
One particularly smashing evening Calvin tried to remember the name of a girl he had met only a few hours before pulled up to the base entrance at 0 200, a solid three hours after curfew, expecting to see a friendly MP. She said she was from way out in the country, and that he’d happened to have met her on her first night in the city, if Lawton, Oklahoma could be called such. She was fairly plain-looking, with straight brown hair and a nice, if forgetful, smile. But, on her otherwise nondescript dress, she wore a necklace adorned with a glittering purple pendant in the shape of some lizard-like reptile. Calvin had asked her what the animal was, and she just smiled and said, “what does it look like to you?” Calvin tried a self-deprecating joke as an answer, saying he thought it looked a lot like himself. The girl didn’t find the answer funny, and so their conversation drunkenly steered on to some other topic before she bid him goodbye for the evening.
He tried to picture the pendant in his mind, but he kept recalling an image of a horse, though he knew that, no, it should have been that strange looking reptile. He stopped the attempt upon realizing who was posted at the entrance. Tonight, Mike, a kid from New Jersey who’d trade a bottle of whiskey for discretion, should have been on watch. But Mike was not at his post, in his stead was a prick named Joey who’d report this violation with a smile.
Calvin reached for his wallet, thinking maybe if I give him some cash Joey will lay off, but all he found was a bright pink condom, strawberry flavored, another reminder that Calvin was not a good Catholic. And in his drunkenness Calvin had a thought like a wish: if I was the Colonel, Joey’d give me that serpent smile of his and wave me through. Probably say some kiss-ass bullshit as he did it. But since I’m a private like him, he’ll screw me over. The Army has a way of doing that to us. In Calvin’s experience the Army was a perfect chef who served up boys, congealing them when it needed them in a jelly; slicing them apart when it needed them served up on separate plates. And here Joey would be serving Calvin to the Colonel.
Calvin rolled the window down and Joey stood outside grinning at him, his face an unnerving yellow under the security lighting. Joey’s smile stretched his thin lips to pencil lines. The guy couldn’t hide his joy at seeing a fellow private falter.
“Sir,” Joey greeted him.
Sir? Who is sir? Smart-ass on top of being kiss-ass.
“Who are you calling sir?” Calvin said.
“Sorry, Colonel Jacobson, I…”
Colonel? Was Joey drugged? Playing confuse the drunk? Could Joey not tell Calvin was absolutely trashed? Calvin rubbed his forehead. His skin felt greasy to the touch. All the sudden he badly wanted a hot shower.
“Look, Joey I’ve got to get going, so whatever you’re doing,”
“Yes sir, uh, yes, Colonel Jacobson, sorry to keep you,” Joey said and waved Calvin through the gate.
Calvin knew not to look a gift horse in the mouth. He drove through, confused by Joey’s odd behavior. Calvin didn’t notice for another hour. Joey had thought Calvin was the Colonel because Calvin looked exactly like the Colonel, right down to the greasy complexion. Calvin thought, I want to look like me, and within seconds he looked like himself again.
The next weeks are blurred. He spent considerable time in the sick bay, considerable time in prayer, considerable time completely alone. He didn’t understand his new found capability; he didn’t want to believe it. He tried to stop for a time, but he could not. The enticement of wearing a billion faces and more is something even a guy stuck right under average could not ignore.
Soon, the possibilities seemed endless. Calvin could be anyone. Beautiful, rich, oversexed. More than he’d ever bothered to dream.
But there was another voice, lower even than a whisper but Calvin could not ignore it, saying: this is not a gift of man; but of God. To do other than the work of God is to turn to sin. So Calvin prayed, what do I do with this, and God answered.
Calvin decided to use his power to be more than a country’s soldier for a few years. He’d become a soldier of God forever. Something about having a superpower makes us think we can be superhuman. But that was all before he went AWOL, before he had to learn how to hide.
Now, Calvin wonders if this so-called power is in fact some sort of punishment. Take a man’s face from him, and what does he have left? Calvin hasn’t much left at all: no name but a stage name, sins from which he can’t seem to repent; and today, on a test-basis only, a prime shift at the Paradise Cabaret, Boston’s (pretty close to) premier male review.
Since he went AWOL, Calvin has asked Jesus to enter his heart, oh, a thousand times or more, but he can’t be quite sure if Jesus had gotten in there. He’s not quite got the repentance part right. But the guilt, he’s got the guilt down cold.
Calvin stands nude in front of a full length mirror in his studio apartment. The place is simple. Not much in the way of furniture, a futon, a small table with one green plastic chair, a twin mattress on the floor, all used. Not much in the way of décor, bare walls covered in faded beige paint a little brighter than the beige carpet. But the lighting consists of long rows of overhead fluorescents inexplicably installed here which leave little to the imagination, so Calvin tries to hold onto this place. Under this unforgiving light he can do his best practicing.
He tries to shake the memory of that poor guard’s bleeding face as he makes his own face take on another shape. The hairdresser’s face is easy enough, duplicating her face is like snapping his fingers. Same for her forearms, hands, anything exposed. The rest though, her gait, her mannerisms, what the hell was going on under her clothes, those are the real trick. He thinks he could fool a friend of hers, maybe, but not a close one.
Calvin distracts himself over the next half hour approximating the hairdresser’s particularly askew way of standing, her breasts, her hips, her everything else. He’d never know whether he’d got those bits just right, if he had to guess he’d say he’s always been too generous.
He shuts his eyes, thinks big, and opens them. He looks like something near his own face, but with a striking sharp jawline, piercing blue eyes, and now he stands 6’4,” sports a chestnut tan and he’s bulging where bulges should bulge and taut where things should be taut. Gay men at the Cabaret don’t seem to care for the crewcut, they prefer hair softer to the touch, it’s something he suspects reminds them of Superman. Calvin’s hair is jet black then, feathery, silky. They’ll touch his hair and more. A shiver goes up his spine.
He says a little prayer as he dresses. “Jesus, please forgive my sins. Please provide me with another way to pay my rent.”
Calvin pulls a silver cross over his neck, kisses it. Calvin has finally been scheduled for a Friday shift, a real chance to make some money. The subway takes him downtown and forty minutes later he is backstage at Paradise, picking at a black banana-hammock, trying to arrange his oversized cock barely hidden within the thong. Symbol of masculinity, what a crock. The thing is cumbersome to the point of comedy, like Cockstello to his Abbot. Who’s on first? My cock. What’s on second? My cock’s there too. Calvin laughs. If only they’d seen the real thing, he’d have never got the job.
A small, trim man in a blue suit walks up behind Calvin and smacks him on the ass. Robin, the club owner, in fact The Club Owner, he owns twelve of them in Boston alone, and he is a truly, thoroughly homosexual male. Calvin had his doubts as a soldier, but now he knows gay is no choice. What man would choose it in this world? No, God had made some men that way, Calvin concludes it is no sin to be gay, just another mystery of God.
But pretending as Calvin does? Gay for Pay? A lie. Another sin in a long line of them. But one which allows him the finances to pay his rent by the month rather than by the week.
“Remember,” Robin says, “keep the hips loose. They don’t like your stiffness out there, at least not in the hips.”
“Right,” Calvin could do a pretty decent impression of Robin, including his manner. He’d think of an even thinner, much happier Woody Allen, and he’d hit Robin about dead-on.
“When can I work a ladies’ club?” Calvin asks.
Robin laughs in his high-pitched way. “Those women would eat you alive. If it weren’t for your body, I wouldn’t even have you stripping. You’d be waiting tables at most. Do me one good night, just one before these lambs, and I might throw you to those wolves.”
Despite Robin’s protestations, Calvin thinks he could handle himself better in front of the women. And if he’d still be sinning as a kind of thrusting prurient object, at least he wouldn’t still be lying about his sexual orientation on top of it. Plus, he’d heard the money was every bit as good.
A lusty voice from the overhead speakers, “welcome to the stage, George the Engorged,”
Calvin takes the stage and gyrates to Motley Crue’s Shout at the Devil. Despite the fast rolling beat, his hips are tight, his movements rigid, jarring, like he’s made of wood rather than flesh. His smile looks like bared teeth. The man just isn’t cut out for a life on the stage.
But, in these sorts of places, the meat on display mattered more than the performance, so Calvin had a messy pile of bills at his feet by the end of the song. These he scoops up and takes backstage with him.
He places the bills in a lockbox inside his locker, heads to the bar area and orders two shots of whiskey. He grimaces after knocking them both back. The alcohol helps and hurts. Helps him do this job, helps him sin better. Closer to the eternal flame, further from the cold street.
A few times around the club floor, another three trips to the main stage, a few brisk hands knocked away and he won’t need to work for another week. You can do this, he tells himself.
By 12:15, the place is getting into the swing of things. Acrid alcohol mixes with male must and a miasma of cologne and under the black lights of Paradise a thin film of sweat shines on Calvin’s smooth chest. A Korean man offers $50 to take a shot of Redbull-vodka from Calvin’s naval, and Calvin obliges him. The man gulps down the shot from Calvin’s belly button and then, to Calvin’s surprises, chases it with a tongue-full of sweat from Calvin’s ribcage. But by now Calvin has downed a pint of whiskey in addition to the shots from the bar, and so he is able to feign a smile as the man hands him the $50 note. When the man leaves Calvin orders a Redbull-vodka for himself, put it in a glass please.
By Calvin’s second trip to the stage, he’s relaxed quite a bit thanks to the alcohol. He gyrates almost to the rhythm, and by the end of his dance a pile of bills twice as large as the first rests at his feet. And though his hips have loosened, the tightness in his chest, the inhibition telling him this shit isn’t right, never leaves him. He’d learned before, he’d vomit first. He’d pass out first. The feeling that this shit isn’t right stays until he lies unconscious. Calvin was a rat in a pit of vipers, and though he could metamorphose to appear as the viper, he could never partake in their orgiastic fury.
It made the job tough.
By 1:45, full-on drunkenness has taken the night. Calvin has a droning buzz but he still carries some semblance of control, unlike most of the patrons. Robin is perhaps the drunkest of all. Calvin takes the chance of Robin’s mental state and retreats to a corner with only a few tables scattered about, this area is populated by wide-eyed newbies learning the customs of their strange tribe. They won’t pay him for a dance, they don’t know how to do it even if they wanted, but Calvin has already earned his month’s rent. More, even, than he had predicted a Friday might produce.
Calvin sits at one of the newcomer’s tables. Four kids, all of them look to be just out of college. Probably in finance. Well-dressed and oval-faced and each of them is open-mouthed and speechless, yet drunk and smiling.
“Like losing your virginity all over again, isn’t it?” Calvin says to the youngest of them, a man in a plaid sweater, probably still in the closet.
“You could say that,” the man answers.
“How about you buy me a drink,” Calvin says.
A voice from another table, “How about I buy two for you to come sit with me, what do you say, Calvin?”
Calvin—not his stage name, not his current alias John Grant—but Calvin. Now Calvin is the one rendered open-mouthed and speechless.
“Come on over,” the voice says, “grats on the dick.”
Calvin stands, not giving the young men at the table salutations. At the other table sits a man Calvin had never hoped to see again. He’s wearing a black suit, crisp white shirt, black tie. Black sunglasses. Even an unattractive man such as the colonel, or more rightly, the ex-colonel, when wearing a well-fit suit such as this one, is presented to all as a man in control, a man to gravitate toward. A man who deserves respect
Calvin holds no such regard for this man.
There had been rumors around the base.
Calvin had been reading his bible more often lately and one verse had struck him as particularly meaningful: As water reflects the face, so one’s life reflects the heart- Proverbs 27:19. Like water, Calvin could reflect any face. What did that say of his heart?
Typically he ignored the chatter of the other enlisted men surrounding him as he read. It played like background music for his monkish devotional. But the topic of tonight’s conversation had been impossible to ignore.
“How does he get away with it?” Richardson wanted to know.
“What’s there to get away with it?” Nate said. “He only gets ’em wasted. No harm in that.”
“I tried this weekend,” Richardson said. “On that Patricia Rowlings.”
“Yeah, great set on her.”
“Yeah. Well I never got to see for myself. She yakked all over the bar and got kicked out. Too sick to fuck. I don’t know how he does it.”
“He’s an old pro.”
The Colonel had been using more than drink to bed these women, had to be. Calvin had found out about this pill. Makes you forget, makes you go limp. Like alcohol but more like a tranquilizer. They never said yes, couldn’t if they wanted.
But again, neither could the drunken ones. Both the same sin, but maybe separated by a matter of degrees. The little pill was always a secret. That’s how it was worse. Calvin always saw the look on the woman’s face the night after he’d done it to them. That look burned Calvin up.
He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but who confesseth and forsaketh shall have mercy. Proverbs 28:13.
His newfound ability might right the wrong. He called it a blessing, but one he’d have to keep to himself. A light too dangerous to reveal to others. But he must use it on the concealed sins of another. That’s the way God wanted him to shine this light.
Whether he was drugging the girls or just getting them drunk, Calvin thought The Colonel’s secret needed exposure.
Did the Colonel deserve mercy? Calvin left that for God to decide. Was Calvin the one to do it? He prayed, but he had no answer. Dear Lord if it be thy will, speak it.
The next morning while passing through the main lawn, Calvin overheard the Colonel in another blowout argument with a female officer named Alice Gentry. Something about bookkeeping. Calvin overheard the Colonel end it with this zinger: “You’ll get yours, by God,” before storming off to his office, leaving the woman standing silent with her mouth agape. It seemed to Calvin this was his chance to act.
Calvin took it. That night, the Colonel would be at Lucky’s Bar. $1.00 drafts and honky tonk karaoke every Monday. Calvin didn’t have much time to prepare. He didn’t know exactly what he’d do, but he left that in God’s hands. Calvin had to make a move. He made his face like Alice, he approximated her body. Her face was sharp-featured, taut and serious but made more beautiful than intimidating by an upturned nose which seemed more fit for fairytales than active duty. Calvin did his best with the body. Athletic, maybe too much so. Calvin didn’t really go for the type, but he thought the Colonel probably wasn’t overly picky when it came to this sort of thing.
He had Alice’s look at least. The voice was a perfect match but he had no time to practice her manner of speech. He had never spoke with her personally. He’d have to hope the Colonel did most of the talking. And he’d need Alice’s clothes to pull this off. And what is this? He gives me this body and I use it like this? Am I really going to let him…no.
Evidence of the act. Not the act itself. Then the Colonel won’t do it again. God will let Calvin know what to do.
A man’s heart deviseth his way; but the Lord directeth his steps.Proverbs 16:9.
Officers’ housing on base was made to look like a neighborhood. It had all the familiar elements: wood siding, hedges, recently cut Bermuda grass and its accompanying smell, mixed trees (silver maple, birch, and pinoak here), mostly un-cracked sidewalks, Calvin even spotted stands of begonias or petunias around every neat structure. But something was off about this place. It lacked the neighborhood feel of home. Everything seemed too squared, too measured, too lined up to be an authentic home. It should come as no surprise that a military man cannot design a community. Calvin thought it looked as though the American dream had gotten a military haircut.
Calvin took a breath and straightened his Alice-hair. He’d have to get out of these sweats soon. The others on the block were pacing in this subconscious military stride—one which Calvin had also adopted in his service—but he attempted to consciously imitate what came naturally. He botched walking. His gait came off robotic rather than merely disciplined and if anyone had bothered to look for more than a moment, they may have noticed something amiss with Alice that day.
The door was locked. Calvin had hoped for some reason that Alice, or God maybe, would leave the thing unlocked. He went round back. Locked tight.
Had he seen a sign where there’d been none? He’d done it before—saw an imprint of Mary in an ancient vase. Bought for mom, brought home, found out it was a fake when she shone a flashlight inside it to reveal the imprint: Made in China.
Reading signs was an inexact practice.
He turned to leave. No way he’d commit a break and enter. She’d report the incident, it’d tear the whole plan down. He’d just have to wait.
He stepped off the porch and nearly tripped on the outside mat. Looking down, Calvin spotted an old dirt rectangle in the shape of the mat. The rubber mat under this door had been moved recently. Calvin stooped, lifted the mat—a solitary house key lay flat on the concrete.
He looked to the sky, “Thank you,” he said and picked up the key.
Five minutes later, and Calvin-cum-Alice exited the house wearing a slim black dress over garters and a pink g-string. Alice—the real Alice—would recognize these as her own. Sufficient Evidence of the act, that was all Calvin needed. That anyone could forget the ride of a string up one’s ass crack seemed an impossibility to Calvin as he retreated the house.
At nightfall, he headed out. He had some inkling that the real Alice might show up—but he had no clue how to alleviate this chance. If she did go to the bar that night, he could call the plan off. No heroics but no loss.
By 10:15, Calvin had steeled himself to go through with it. He figured he’d need the drink, that’s all. The tainted drink, the dress and the undergarment to remind Alice (and hopefully a few witnesses) where she’d been that Monday. There had been worse schemes formulated before Calvin’s.
The festivities were in full swing when he arrived: a local barfly on the stage swung her amber-liquid filled glass perilously as she performed a slurry sultry rendition of Toby Keith’s ’Mommas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys’ while a few dozen males—a mix of young flat bellied enlisted and some fatter townies—hooted her on. Calvin made his way to the bar. Immediately he felt eyes on him like lapping tongues. This was new. He hadn’t felt this before. He put his hand to his forehead and looked down as he walked through the crowd. Is this what it feels like? To be a woman in a black dress? He didn’t think he could take it for long.
There at the bar, with a half-emptied beer and tired eyes, sat the Colonel. He was keeping to himself, almost contemplative, as if he had something on his mind other than rape.
Calvin could still feel all those eyes on him. What would the Colonel’s feel like? Would he have to touch him? What’s the move here?
Leave.For your own good leave. No. Find strength. If the Colonel goes on doing this after tonight, his sins are on your head.
Alice-Calvin waved to the Colonel. The Colonel’s eyes lingered over Alice-Calvin’s breasts a bit before meeting the eyes.
“Officer Gentry,” the Colonel said, “you let your hair down tonight, eh?”
Calvin’s voice came out in a croak, “yes, sir.”
“Ah, no need for sir here, come, take a seat. What’ll you have?”
It was clear the Colonel had been drinking for some time. Good thing. Perhaps he’d miss Alice’s odd mannerisms tonight.
“Coors,” Calvin said and winced. Alice should’ve ordered wine.
The Colonel laughed. “Beer –drinking gal, eh? I bet you have your pick of the men. I always did want me a beer drinking gal. But the wife prefers red wine. Stains her teeth.”
The Colonel signaled for the bartender and ordered a Coors, “make it two.”
The Colonel had a grin like a gaping hole and his eyes were wet and dumb. Calvin started to think, the Colonel isn’t in power here. Hands on a dress, a tainted glass and Calvin would be home free. For the Colonel, the opposite.
“Here’s your Coors,” the Colonel said and handed Calvin a head glass of beer. Calvin took a sip, “thanks,” he said. Okay, one beer. After this, ask for another and make to go to the restroom. He’ll do it then.
“My pleasure. Here, you got a little beer mustache,” the Colonel reached out and wiped the foam from Calvin’s upper lip. This he put to his own mouth, “sweet,” he said.
Calvin forced a smile. No wonder he has to drug these women. The Colonel was every bit as alluring as an earthworm. Calvin took another drink.
“Look,” the Colonel said, “about earlier, I just lost my temper, okay?”
Okay? Fine by Calvin. He had no interest in in discussing Alice’s day, as he had no clue what Alice might say about it if asked. He’d have to better prepared in the future if he was to make proper use of his blessing.
“Water under the bridge,” Calvin answered.
“Cheers,” the Colonel said and raised his glass.
Calvin clinked his glass with the Colonel, took another drink and thought how long since my last one? It had been months. The last had been on the night he first shifted. Hadn’t had a drink since. Funny how the tolerance goes away so quick. Only three-quarters of the way through one beer, but Calvin feels as though he’s drank several.
He finished his first, but he didn’t order a second. His plan fell apart. The world disappeared, or Calvin disappeared from the world. The next thing Calvin remembered was waking at 6:30 a.m. in a squalid hotel room. Oh how his head thumped.
The room was completely empty, save a small bed. Empty walls and beige carpet were the only décor. It strikes Calvin now that the place was not unlike his current digs, a constant reminder that he hasn’t progressed an inch since that fateful morning.
He tried and failed to remember anything of the night after the first beer. Where the fuck (forgive me) am I? What happened. Calvin ran his hands over his head. Oh no. A crew cut. Not Alice anymore. Him.
How’d the Colonel gotten it in that glass?
Calvin dashed to the only window in the room and looked out. The early light nearly blinded him. Like a hangover on steroids. No vehicles parked near the room. Calvin turned back. He needed something to link the Colonel to this room. He ran to the bathroom and it was clean; nothing to be found. Too clean for this sort of place. Fuck (forgive me). The Colonel must’ve wiped everything down. The dress was all Calvin had.
How’d he gotten it in that glass? And then, did he do something to me? Then the worst, did I change in front of him?
Fuck (forgive me) fuck (forgive me) fuck (forgive me)
He hadn’t planned well enough. It was clear the Colonel had been planning for some time. There was no sign of the man. If he had shifted and the Colonel saw—they’ll be on their way.
Why aren’t they here already?
No time to question the intricacies of military bureaucratic practices. Maybe the Colonel never saw him change. Or Maybe he didn’t believe what he saw. Calvin himself had a hard time believing it at first. But what if he did see and what if he did believe?
Dear Lord God what do I do?
Run. You run.
And so Calvin ran. Calvin Nelson had never been Calvin Nelson after that day. John Doe, or Jane Doe. All the John Doe’s and Jane Doe’s he could muster. But Calvin Nelson no longer.
Some time later, Calvin mailed the dress and a note to internal investigations, no return postage address, and the Colonel was discharged within the year. Calvin didn’t know for sure how the discharge happened, didn’t have any means to find out. After all he’d lost for that one small good deed, his family, even his own name, Calvin wasn’t so sure he was meant to be the sword of God. His faith wavered, and so he’d hunkered down in Boston to try and figure this thing out. He hoped he’d never see the Colonel again, but it turned out that man had been the only person on earth who recognized him.