“Auf den Mereen! Aud den Mereen!”
I opened my eyes. German words dropped on me from above, slamming into my hangover headache like pounding in a foundry. I rolled over on my back. Two sets of eyes were peering down at me between wooden planks. I was lying under a porch. I could hear the crash and pull of the surf nearby, seagulls screeching, children screaming. I was still at the fucking beach. The time share in Aware, Rhode Island.
I wondered what the hell happened. I couldn’t remember a thing. Usually, no matter how fucked up I got, at least I retained a few hazy images or impressions in my booze-damaged memory. I’d had blackouts before, but nothing like this. This was just a blank. As if I hadn’t existed for a brief period.
My skin felt sticky and gritty, sunburned. I slowly sat up, groaning. Getting my head upright took effort and strain and pain. I blinked like a wounded animal at the bleached, burning glare of sand and sky. I was stiff to my bones, my elbows and knees were scraped raw and I noticed my stomach was covered with a red rash. Great, I probably had poison ivy to boot. A bottle of cheap Schitkov vodka sat planted in the sand beside me. I lifted it and drained the last remaining sips. It was at that point that, oh shit, I realized I was naked. The Germans giggled above me as I started frantically lathing sand over myself, burying my genitals.
More German jeers and laughter.
I looked around and thank God found my clothes, sand-covered and crumpled into a pile behind me. My makeshift pillow.
I dressed slowly and achingly. The vodka had helped alleviate the painful pressure in my head (a bit) but I felt battered, exhausted. I wondered if I’d gotten into a fight last night or, more realistically, beaten up.
I stood up, wobbling.
“Hey mister!” one of the Germans cried out. “Vatchoo doink down zere?”
I didn’t answer. I walked, hunched-over like Groucho Marx, out from under the porch.
“Did you sleep okay, Hanky?” a woman’s voice said and my nervous system zapped into panic. “I’m sorry?” I turned.
“Sleep. How did you. It’s in that vein.” She was a short, plump young woman with glasses and colorful, Polynesian-looking tattoos (a lot of flowers and parrots and hula girls) covering most of her body. She was wearing a black bikini.
“Fine, thanks. And you?” I said. I had no idea who I was talking to.
“Okay. I’m a bit hungover,” she said. “You look a little perkier than I thought you would.”
“Yeah. Thanks.” Wow, there was simply nothing there. I pictured a piece of my poor gray brain being carried away by the tide.
We stared at each other until I looked down.
“Coffee?” she offered.
“Oh? Sure, thanks.”
“Right this way.”
I followed her through a sliding glass door, into a beach house. There were others inside. Party stragglers, I figured, like myself.
“Coffee’s on the counter there. Help yourself. Cups in the cupboard over the stove.”
I poured a cup and then sat down at the kitchen table, scratching at the rash on my stomach. Someone deep in the house laughed like a scream.
“You get bit by something?” the plump, Polynesian tattoo chick asked me.
“No. I don’t know. I woke up with this rash. I don’t know what it is.”
“It’s probably syphilis,” she said. “I’m a carrier.”
She laughed. “Relax, I’m kidding. Y’know, humor in a jugular vein?”
“Oh, right,” I said. Then I went, “Heh heh.”
“Real hearty laugh you got there, Hanky-panky.”
She bent down and peeked under the table and I leaned back as she (I thought) looked at me. But she wasn’t interested in me or my rash. “Come on out, Karen,” she said to something under the table. “Breakfast time, sweetie-pie...” She cooed her words in a baby voice.
A woman crawled naked out from under the table, whimpering.
Polynesian Tattoo Chick said, “You want some Cap’n Crunch, girl? Huh? Do ya?” In that excited way that gets an enthusiastic response from dogs. “Who’s a goooood girl? You are!”
The naked girl (Karen) barked twice. Tattoo Chick rolled her eyes. “No, no. Say, Yes, Mama. Come on. Yes, Mama...”
Karen stuck out her tongue and began to pant.
“Karen, please. Do you want some fucking cereal or not?”
Karen panted more loudly, smiling. Apparently she did.
I had to look away. It was all too grotesque. Was she on drugs? Mentally ill? Role playing in a sex game? A cocker spaniel trapped in a woman’s body? I kept my theories to myself.
Tattoo Chick went to the cupboard. “Close enough.”
A lanky young guy wandered into the kitchen, sat down across from me, lit a cigarette, and stared into space as if his dreams hadn’t completely played out yet. Polynesian Tattoo Chick said, “You remember Bill, don’t you, Hank? He played bass in the band we saw last night.”
“Yeah, sure,” I lied. How was it possible I couldn’t remember anything? Nothing and nobody rang even the dimmest of bells.
I was about to ask if I could use the phone when the door suddenly crashed open and a man in a filthy rubber yellow raincoat and muddy galoshes lumbered into the kitchen carrying two dirty, ripped grocery bags.
He waved to the smoking guy. “Hello there William – I mean Bill, I mean Billy, I mean BillyBud, BillyBudBillyBill, Billy the Kid drinks Billy beer! Ha!” He looked at Bill. “Late night, huh?” he said. Bill, very slowly, with long struggling effort rotated both eyes toward the person addressing him. And nodded. Once.
“Hank, this is Jerome,” said Polynesian Tattoo Chick.
“Hi,” I said.
He collapsed in the chair beside me. “Who’s this guy?” Jerome asked, eying me suspiciously.
“That’s Hank. He was at the party over the weekend.”
Over the weekend? How long had I been there? Were my roommates looking for me? The police?
Jerome looked at me. “Hey there, Frank. Nice to meet you.”
I didn’t bother to correct him. “Hello.”
Jerome was tall and thin with a long black van dyke and pony tail (both greasy and matted). I noticed a raised circular scar, about the size of a quarter, in the middle of his forehead. His hands were covered with moist black dirt.
“So, how do you know Emily?” he asked me, staring at me as if trying to hypnotize me.
“Oh, you know. The party, the beach, like that,” I fumbled.
“The party the beach. Or was it the beach the party?” he said, as if he didn’t believe me. He went on, “Beach party. Beach Blanket Bingo. Frankie and Annette. Dick Dale.” He gave me a stern look. “Are you Dick Dale?” he said, and then burst out laughing. “Where’s your fucken Deltones, Dick?”
“Leave him alone, Jerome. He’s not feeling well.”
“Sorry to hear that, friend.” He stuck out his muddy hand. “Welcome aboard, Frank!”
“Thanks.” I shook his hand. His grip was weak, his hand cold.
“Ahhh, hemoptysis?” he asked me.
I wiped my hand on my shorts. “What?”
“Hemoptysis?” He stared at me, waiting for an answer.
I just looked at him. “I don’t know what you mean...”
Jerome laughed. “I’m sorry, Frank. I only asked because of your face.”
“Oh. I know, I got burnt pretty bad. Am I all red or..?” Maybe I had a black eye. I looked around for help. Polynesian Tattoo Chick (Emily now) had vanished. Karen was still on her hands and knees, lapping milk out of a bowl on the floor.
“No. You don’t look red. That’s not what I’m talking about."
“So what did you mean...”
“Nothing.” He reached into his pocket and removed a handful of wild mushrooms. He popped one into his mouth, chewing noisily. He held one out. It was covered with dirt. “Had breakfast yet?”
“I wouldn’t eat that if I was you, Frank,” Bill drawled. He had finally come to life. Sort of.
“No thanks,” I told Jerome, grinning like an idiot.
Jerome shrugged, and then ate the dirty mushroom. He smiled at me. His teeth were brown, broken and decayed.
Karen crawled over to Jerome, whimpering. “Hey, girl,” Jerome said. “How ya doin'?” He patted her on the head. “That’s a good girl.” He scratched her behind the ear. Karen panted happily.
Emily came back into the kitchen. “Hey Jerry, I told you not to pet Karen. If we keep treating her like a dog, she’ll keep acting like a dog.”
I kept my mouth shut about Emily’s own indulgence of Karen’s canine behaviors.
Jerome looked around, confused. “Who? Jerry? Did someone named Jerry just come in? That’s weird, I don’t see anybody. I see Emily and Karen and Bill and Frank and Mr. Cooper. Don’t see no Jerry though. Hmmmmm.”
I looked around for the fifth person, Cooper. Nope.
“Sorry,” Emily said. “I meant Jerome.”
“Hey,” Jerome said. “You get those things I asked you for?”
Emily picked up Karen’s bowl off the floor, rinsed it in the sink. “I told you I’m not giving them to you. It’s disgusting,” she said. “Lord, I hope this dog thing passes soon.” She looked at me, shaking her head, looking for sympathy.
I said nothing. What could I say? I said nothing.
Bill said, “Keep her a dog. She chases away strangers and I want to take her duck hunting sometime.”
“Very funny,” said Emily. “Humor in a weather vane.”
“Hey but yeah, Emily,” Jerome said. “It’s for an experiment.” He was almost pleading. “I neeeeed them...”
“Sorry Jerome but I have to draw the line somewhere.” She sat at the table beside Bill and lit a cigarette.
Jerome looked at me. “I need tampons.”
I nodded. “Oh yeah?”
Emily chuckled. “Yeah. Used tampons. Mine.”
“What’s the big deal? I need some of your hemoglobin so I can splice some of your personality. Don’t you want your personality spliced?”
“No. What the hell does that even mean?”
“See, I take a sample of your period blood and I get a colander and a Frisbee and some mint and three pennies and you just...”
“Shut up,” Bill said. “Leave her alone, Jerome.”
Jerome fell silent and stared down at his lap. His crotch was caked with mud and drying green slime.
“I’m gonna get Karen dressed.” Emily said, standing up. She threw a noosed jumprope over Karen’s neck and used it as a leash to lead her out of the kitchen. Bill, looking terminally bored, stubbed out his cigarette and followed.
It was just me and Jerome now. Wonderful.
Jerome opened one of the battered paper bags he’d walked in with and looked into it, grinning like a fevered prospector hoarding gold.
He looked up at me. “Hey Frank...” His voice was conspiratorial.
“Yeah, hey Frank, y’wanna see what I discovered? I’m a scientist.”
Oh Lord. “Okay.”
He reached carefully into the bag as if removing a fragile artifact. “I found these down by the river.” He lifted out something that looked like a rotten yam covered with strawberry preserves. He placed it on the table, eyes glittering, smile wide and brown.
I leaned forward. “What is it?”
“Wino larva,” he told me.
“Wino larva?” I asked, figuring I’d misheard him.
“Wino larva. What? Did you think winos were human? You didn’t, think that, did you?”
Jerome shook his head vigorously, sending a white gob of spit sailing across the table. “No, no, no. They’re not. NOT!” He took a deep breath and began to lecture. Strenuously. “They hatch. You need to understand that. They hatch from eggs under the riverbed. Like tadpoles and pollywogs. Okay? They measure around twelve inches long at birth. Dozens of them are born at one time. They have gills and tails and webbed hands at first. But once they develop lungs and the tails fall off, and their fingers separate, they go out at night and scavenge for wine. They slither into bars and liquor stores after they close and suck the wine out of the bottles with these long tubular tongues. Like this.” He stuck out a curled tongue at me. “The pointy part of the tongue can burrow right through cork. Okay? And when they get good and drunk, they return to the muddy banks of the river and they secrete this thick mucus from their thyroids and it hardens into a protective carapace. See, but you have to understand, this causes radical changes in their skeletal structures. They start out amphibious and then gradually turn into mammals. Invertebrates into vertebrates. METAMORPHOSIS!” His voice had risen in register and volume and began to quaver. His eyes jumped and shined with manic fury, his dirty hands squeezed into tight fists.
I just nodded, and tried not to look scared shitless.
“Their intestines shorten to adjust to a carnivorous diet. They eat worms and grubs and insects.” He pulled another jelly-covered yam out of the bag. “These are still in the larval stage. So if you have any wine, it’s safe. They can’t drink it.” He picked up the first one and sniffed it. “This one smells like Cabernet Sauvignon.” He held it out to me. “Take a whiff.”
I leaned forward and sniffed. It smelled like mud. That’s all.
“See? And and, and you see this secretion? If you ate it you’d get so high your fucking gray matter would melt. It’s the key to the universe. Everything. You’d understand everything. Okay? EVERYTHING. But then you’d die. See, it becomes a lethal toxin when it reaches the colon.”
He picked up the second larva and sniffed.
“That’s very interesting,” I offered. Get me out. Please...
“I also found an amontillado, a claret and a Chablis...”
“What are you going to do with them?” I asked him, hoping my innocent question wouldn’t trigger a sudden irrational rage. Maybe Jerome was the one who beat me up. If I’d even been beaten up...
“I’m gonna let them hatch. You have to understand, bottom line, okay? In another few days they’re gonna start to grow. In a week they’ll be as big as a man. Then the carapace will dissolve and the winos will come out. They’ll be disoriented and open to suggestion. Tabula fucking rasa. Know what I mean? And they’ll be MINE. I’ll put them to work. Send them out across town to beg for money. And it’ll all go to me. I’ll own this fair city...”
A small Asian man sat down at the table. “Didn’t you already try this Jerome?” he said, yawning. He shook salt from a shaker into his open palm and then licked it off.
The Asian guy winked at me. “Yes you did. If it wasn’t for Bill and Emily throwing away all those wino eggs, this place would be crawling with hobos and bag ladies by now. They’d drink us out of house and home.” He looked at me again, grinning. “Crazy bastard can barely remember his own name. Schizo.” He dumped more salt into his hand.
“I’m not crazy,” Jerome said. His voice had gotten low and sad. I felt sorry for him. I wanted to smack the Asian guy.
“Hey, why don’t you tell Hank here about the time you drilled a hole in your head.”
Jerome mumbled, “That was a sound medical procedure. It released the more talkative elements from my skull.”
“Talkative elements? It almost killed you, man.” He licked more salt off his palm.
I was staring, horrified at the scar on Jerome’s forehead. It was pink and raised, an almost perfect circle.
“You actually drilled a hole in your head?” I said, appalled but fascinated.
“He tried to. Used a goddamn hand drill. Emily and Karen found him passed out in the kitchen in a pool of blood.”
“I could have finished the procedure if I’d gotten some help. I needed help.”
The Asian guy said, “I want no part of your dementia.”
“I have learned more from my own hallucinations than in a thousand of your universities,” Jerome said.
I stood up, as if prodded by shock. When Jerome said that, it was like a key had unlocked the cell in a prison I didn't know I'd been locked into.
I tried to contain a smile as I left. I didn’t thank them or say goodbye. I didn’t ask for Emily or Bill. I just marched out the door and didn’t stop until I was back at my own rented cottage on the other side of the island.
Marley lay on a towel in the front yard, getting some sun.
“Here he is,” she said, shielding her eyes. “Where you been, handsome? We were worried about you.”
“Sorry. I guess I got carried away.”
“I guess you did. Where were you?”
“With people. At another cottage. Another time share.”
“What did you do there?”
And I heard myself say, “I have learned more from my own hallucinations than in a thousand of your universities.”