Read parts one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven.
I see the berry eater in the hallway of the Victor B. Tooms building. He’s staring at posterboard, his right hand curled inches away from a tacked piece of paper like a claw, cooing sounds coming from his lips. The effigy he’s fixed on is a visage of Frankenstein’s monster, an advertisement for the drama department. The white t-shirt he’s wearing is riddled with a thousand holes, and I notice that he has no shoes. His feet are long and bony, all knobs and calluses. I can’t remember if he was wearing shoes the last time I saw him.
“All he wanted was a friend,” I say, pointing at the paper. “Victor was such a dick.”
The berry eater looks at me. His eyes are lined with blood, tendrils emitting from a cracked center. He shows me his purple-stained teeth, huffs like a deer, and then takes off down the hall, narrowly missing a crowd as he slides around the corner on the soles of his naked feet.
“Did you threaten to cannibalize his family?” asks Chad, appearing behind me.
“I told him there was a sale at Dillards. Ninety-nine percent off all women’s underpants.”
“Did you know they have vending machines in Japan that sell used panties?” asks Chad.
“We had one at Les Adults, but it never took off. Maybe it’s because Leslie filled it with his own tighty-whities.”
“You work at Les Adults?”
“I stock the shelves, organize the wares, color-coordinate the dildos,” I say. “It’s no big deal.”
“What’s it like, working in a sex store?”
“It’s not a whorehouse, Chad. It’s like working in any other retail environment, except the patrons are scarcer. No one ever buys anything. They just come in to gawk.”
“You ever been in the strip club across the street?” he asks.
“No, but I’m working on a budding friendship with one of the strippers.”
“How much of a fuck-up is she? Daddy issues, right? Is she a crack whore? A victim of the patriarchy? Boobs like watermelons?” He gestures, cupping his hands, eyes rolling like a cartoon character’s.
“She’s beautiful, and I know of no psychological issues.”
“Leona, she’s a stripper. I’m going to assume that she didn’t make good life choices.”
“What’s wrong with being a stripper? A phone sex operator? A prostitute?” I say, my voice rising. “How can you condemn such people while simultaneously masturbating to internet porn? These people are responsible for all the gross acts you try to get your girlfriend to agree to. They teach you things, they build your fantasies. They’re loved and reviled. It’s hypocrisy. A woman who outwardly embraces her sexual nature is empowering. She should be celebrated. She shouldn’t be branded a harlot.”
“Yeah, it’s real empowering to have an eight-inch penis shoved down your throat,” says Chad. “A woman crouched down, open-mouthed, begging for semen to be shot all over her face, that’s a real feminist image, let me tell you.”
“You’re an idiot,” I tell him.
“You’re as charming as always.”
I brush past him and enter the classroom. Peter Gibbons is prancing about the room, humming to himself, legs twitching like a drug addict’s. He’s wearing large black-framed glasses, a tweed sweater, and motorcycle boots. He’s slightly bow-legged, the result of some childhood accident that apparently reduced his potential height. All of his brothers are tall and athletic, he says, which is one of the reasons he gravitated toward the arts. You want to talk about psychological issues, well, I bet Peter has some, judging from his poetry. According to Chad, he should be a stripper. Or me, taking paid phone calls from weirdoes.
“Um, Class, uh, every night I have a writing session. It’s free-form, as you might have guessed. I write what comes to mind. It’s automatic, unconscious, liberating.” Gibbons leans against the chalkboard as he talks, his left leg jittering up and down a thousand undulations a minute. “I have here a piece of paper littered with my scribblings. This is the first line I wrote: I want to fuck my mother, a decadent, decaying corpse, a pulsating pestilence that desires the ugly love that I bring. I read that this morning and I was like, ‘holy crap, this is disturbing.’ What does it mean, you know? Is there truth to those words? The answer, of course, is no. I have no incestuous desires. The mind cycles through infinite possibilities, and sometimes the things you would never consciously think about pop up in your head like bad dreams. This is okay, though. It’s our job to capture these dark designs. Real art is created instantaneously, not in a laboratory. The Rolling Stones wrote some of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time, and I guarantee you they didn’t labor over the composition of most of them. Keith Richards claims the simple riff for I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction) came to him in a dream. Do, don’t try. Write, don’t think.”
“It takes a special type of courage to write those lines,” comments Chad, winking at me.
“I am not a courageous man, although you are correct, being a true artist requires a great deal of honesty, as well as the ability to put yourself out there, reception be damned. So that’s courage, I guess.”
“So I can string a bunch of random words together like Gertrude Stein and be hailed a visionary, just as long as my nonsense is honest and I have the gall to present it as art?” I ask innocently.
“No,” says Gibbons, furrowing his brow in my direction, “you’d just be aping Stein. There’s a distinct difference between drawing from your influences and imitating them.”
“Is this going to be another argument?” whines Roxanne, looking more hung-over than usual.
“What do you think discussion time is for?” replies Dexter, dressed rather ridiculously, as is his wont, in what can only be a lady’s riding jacket. The large brass buttons are nice, though.
“It’s for bullshitting,” says Rupert/Robert, his fat head shaking as he speaks.
“The bullshit is supposed to go on here,” I say, showing my notebook. “It’s not supposed to come out of your mouth.”
“Okay, I think we’re done here,” says Gibbons. “Put the pens to the paper and write.”
What am I but an extension of my mother’s labyrinth,
a creature meant to bend and slide through corridors of refuse,
walking on the chipped pavement till my shoes rot away and my soul touches the grimy earth that yearns to swallow me as it has swallowed millions like me,
women teetering on the tremulous, sharp edged blade of time,
turning out their pockets for cigarette stubs,
shrugging off advances and bills and weak paychecks and everyday people who would
eat your heart if they could,
slice it up and spice it up on a plate,
the inevitable pull of currents dragging us downward,
pregnant and dilapidated, maids to trolls, keepers of the brood,
a sorry lot of bed-wetters, prospective alcoholics,
future drug addicts and wife beaters,
little boys and girls who just weren’t able to be happy,
just like their mothers, just like their mother’s great sprawling messes,
abysses that yawn and call for more and more and more,
their stomachs as endless as the company I keep,
my kin, my kind, my home.
Chad catches me outside. I have headphones on; I stare at him for a while, watching his lips move. All ready I want a cigarette and a beer, anything to make myself forget Gibbons’ class, and the long week that looms ahead of me like a giant black bird of prey. Chad is getting impatient, judging from his scowl, so I take off the headphones and listen to what he has to say.
“My show’s this week. You remember your promise?” he asks.
“Chad, I’m busy with a literal ton of work, and I really mean a cool two-thousand and five-hundred pounds. I’ve had a dump truck drop it like the world’s biggest deuce in the middle of my yard. Construction workers, big, burly guys in yellow hard hats smelling of salami and provolone cheese, they worked for eons assembling the mess. There are veritable layers of paper like geological time zones, each piece of the pie signifying some insurmountable task. There will never be enough time to finish what I want.”
“You don’t even know what day the show is,” he says.
“I never make promises in earnest. It’s a terrible habit of mine. I admit it. I have no honor.” I shrug my shoulders and start walking.
“Hey, what are you listening to?” he asks.
“Roisin Murphy,” I answer.
“I will not let you feign interest in my musical preferences. Why the hell do you want me to go to this show anyway? You and I, we do not gel. We are oil and water. Cat and dog. Hydrochloric acid and human skin.”
“Opposites attract,” he says. “The Part-Time Poets don’t have much of a following. You might think better of me once you see me on stage wearing my leather pants.”
“With a cucumber stuffed down them, I’m sure.”
“I would never use food in such a manner,” he replies, smiling those white teeth.
“That’s a shame,” I say.
“Friday night at Bohemians. Be there or be square. You’d never be square, would you, Leona?”
“I’ve been known to do some strange things,” I answer. My headphones block out anything further he has to say.