by Charlie Sterchi
Dough Boy Takes You Down
“It serves you right to suffer.”
– John Lee Hooker, “It Serves You Right to Suffer”
At dusk a Mercedes-Benz will pull up, and there will be some raunchy blues music by John Lee Hooker pouring from the speakers. There will like as not be buzzards overhead. There will like as not be gulls, shrieking.
The Mercedes-Benz belongs to Marlowe, who will be driving it, but who only drives it because Dough Boy, the proper driver of Marlowe’s Mercedes-Benz, who functions too as Marlowe’s doofus confidant, has broken legs. Dough Boy got his legs broken in a bar fight that sent him over the side of a red and white riverboat and into the green and brown river in broad daylight with a tour of schoolchildren among the three-hundred-and-seventeen witnesses. Dough Boy is always getting into bar fights and losing them badly. He has a face like a potato dumpling that’s been abused by an errant child’s spoon.
Marlowe told you the other day how he’s grown to enjoy sitting behind the wheel. “Be careful on the curves,” you told him, and then he went off and took a hard curve going just about seven-hundred miles per hour. Marlowe has discovered, late in life, the pleasure of kissing death with an open mouth.
Once they’ve pulled up and given the parking lot a taste of John Lee Hooker’s raunchy boogie-assness, Marlowe will put you in the back seat, where there will be no mechanism for locking and unlocking the door. They’ll turn down the music to tell you not to try anything funny, and then they will laugh, and Dough Boy will laugh for just a moment longer than Marlowe, and Dough Boy will become sullen after the laughing too long. This will confuse you, and you’ll begin to question the gravity of your situation, the intentions of the men in the front of the car, your own wits. Why did Dough Boy laugh too long? Why is he now sullen? Why should you be unable to unlock your own door? Why did you and how did you let yourself become involved in this business of getting locked in a car with people named Marlowe and Dough Boy in the first place? Was there a moment, perhaps as far back as childhood, at which choosing to do one seemingly innocuous thing would have resulted in your becoming a well-adjusted young professional, and doing a different seemingly innocuous thing would have resulted in your becoming a poorly adjusted not-professional and being in this car, and you did the different thing? Is this interior real leather?
You will experience the sensation of not remembering whether you’ve fed the dog, or whether you’ve turned off the electrical stove eye, or whether you’ve left the bath running, or when the last time was that you extruded a good, a truly good, fecal hotdog. You will recall that a fecal hotdog comes into the world when a boy, proficient in trick-shitting, squats behind a tree on the outskirts of a classic, true-blue American cookout, hooks his arm under a leg, holding a hotdog bun so that the back end of the bun is situated two to three inches directly below the anus, and the boy edges the bun out backward past the anus while carefully laying a turd in the cleft of the bun in a motion similar to, but slower than, wiping, so as to avoid getting fecal matter on the taint and scrotum. The boy applies mustard and ketchup, and if he is bitter enough early enough in life, he might also apply chili, shredded cheese, and Fritos, totally obscuring the turd and thereby increasing the probability that some unsuspecting victim will take a bite of it. Then the boy places the fecal hotdog on a paper plate with a handful of sour-cream-and-onion-flavored potato chips, and he places the plate on a picnic table to be discovered by whoever, but hopefully by an uncle who lies about line calls in badminton and not by a girl cousin wearing a nice blue dress. The boy absconds to his spot behind the tree, where he watches the unfolding of whatever unfolds.
The boy will undoubtedly regret having made the fecal hotdog in the first place, just as the boy—who, to be sure, is not properly still a boy in the sense of halcyon or not-halcyon pre-pubescence, but whose definitively not-halcyon improprieties, beginning in proper boyhood and not letting up after, have kept him placed in the boy arena, as it were—will regret having gotten himself locked in the back seat of Marlowe’s Mercedes-Benz. A boy’s actions cannot be reversed, and they hurl him toward the hard curves at incalculable speeds.
I spent some hours in a Memphis hospital this weekend. I had thought, what with all the talk about Memphis crime, that there would be a good deal of guts and gruesome in the emergency room, but here Memphis failed to live up. There were just a handful of quiet, sad-faced people like you find in any town, a man in a windbreaker coughing up black phlegm, and a prisoner in shackles with his two guards. This prisoner had some of those teardrops tattooed on his face, muscles in his arms that were like to crush a man’s skull, and two kind, merciful eyes of Sinatra blue. He, the prisoner, did gracefully all what was asked of him. He seemed reformed to me, and yet there were his shackles, and there were his guards looking bored. Me, I was bleeding from the gash across my forearm.
The nurses took me to the back rooms and sewed me, and I walked home to the hotel in the brisk dark Memphis night. I poured a drink and went up to the hotel roof, where I watched the Mississippi River moving by. After the nothing at the hospital, it was good to look at something happening—something big with force behind it, miles and miles of American mud coming on down through the night. You throw a knife in the river and the river swallows it up, not like the arm of a man, which is delicate and will need sewing. You throw a man in the river and the river eats that, too. A river has no Methodist hospital. A river has no mind, and that helps make it strong. A river keeps moving along not knowing to give a damn, and this works out for it fine.
In the Gravel Lot at Will Shakespeare’s House
This was several years ago, on the seventh day or thereabouts of our trip to England. We had done the London thing to good effect, and so we drove Mother up to Stratford-Upon-Avon so that she could see the flowers at Shakespeare’s old house. She had heard the flowers were beautiful and further that the house itself had a thatched roof, which appealed to her, and because the site was in connection with William Shakespeare, an important person from history, Mother wanted very much to see it. We took the long way through the country and saw a great many sheep and bad weather and old stone walls. The typical English things abounded, and it was not altogether unpleasant.
Well, finally we were at Will Shakespeare’s house. We dropped Mother off at a semblance of an entrance in some overgrowth with plans to meet her in the house. Then we pulled into the parking lot. It was about a hundred yards or so from the house. From there, you can see the big thatched roof rising out of the thick, good, green English creeping vines and oaks. There were other people standing around the parking lot reading to each other from leather-bound books, as if anyone cared whether they were literate or were not literate. All of them in their brand new woolen scarves from one of twelve thousand gift shops across the United Kingdom. You know how people are.
Father got out of the driver’s seat and started pissing himself right there on the gravel, pretending he was only interested in the trees. Right away I knew I was in trouble, or we were in trouble, or rather that I was not in so much trouble, that it was only Father who needed helping, on account of the wet, but that it was my help he was going to need. Changing of the guard, you know.
“Let’s get you in some new pants,” I said, coming around the hood of the car to him. The words came out naturally, as if I’d said them a thousand times before, but this was only the first time. We got him in the back seat of the car and in a new pair of khakis, threw the old pair in a garbage bin. I remembered a time from back home in Memphis when he had helped me similarly in the parking lot of an abandoned Chinese restaurant. This new occasion was more picturesque.
Well, after that, Father and I went into Will Shakespeare’s house and met Mother and looked at the plastic food on Will Shakespeare’s table, and we saw where Will Shakespeare had slept, where Will Shakespeare had done it with his wife, and where he died—you know, these things everybody does, the humanizing activities, they want you to see that this god of Western letters was a human who shat like the rest of us—and Father said to me, keeping his voice low and speaking from the side of his mouth, almost smirking, “I don’t suppose little Willy Shakespeare ever wet himself in yon parking lot.”
“You’re one up on him.”
“Yes, in a funny way I suppose I am.”
“What?” Mother said.
“Nothing,” I said. “Just some plastic bread there. I doubt William Shakespeare would have eaten plastic bread.”
Mother looked at me queerly, then at Father. Then she went out to look at the flowers.
Father and I hung back in the house before we, too, went out to stroll the grounds. We walked slowly and watched the sky and enjoyed the cool, quiet air. I told you he was almost smirking, but now there was a subtle change in his eyes that looked something like defeat. His posture was different, too, not worse exactly, but different. It had never occurred to me that Father could look that way, the same way it never occurs to some people that William Shakespeare had to eat sometimes.
Father has not wet himself again that I am aware of, and we have not spoken of the incident since, but he still carries this new look in his eyes and this new weight on his shoulders. He carries these everywhere he goes. Sometimes, when I happen to see myself in a mirror, I am convinced that I look a little different, too.
Charlie Sterchi studies fiction at MFA@FLA, the writing program at the University of Florida. He lives in Gainesville.