HOWARD stood at the lip of the parking lot, just beyond the stairs leading up to the newly reopened pedestrian bridge across the highway, waiting for an Uber driver named Carol to pick him up. He was on his way to Mindy Hair’s to help her and her roommate move again. This second move was unexpected and causing them great stress and worry. Something to do with the lease. Carol came down the street in her Blue Jetta. She pulled up and Howard got in the front seat passenger side. After working their way up through the surface streets, they shot off down the highway in a northward direction.
Carol asked him if he was from Denver, and Howard told her, “Well, not really, but I’ve been here a long time.”
She had to pry it out of him that he’d been born in Ohio, then moved to Arkansas, then Albuquerque, then St. Louis, and he’d been in Denver for the last 35 years, like a wild movie star always being pursued by the press and his fans and detractors. “I should probably just start saying ‘yes’ when they ask me that,” he said,
“Well, I think it’s interesting that you’ve been all those places. It’s a good way to get to know a person.” Carol had a soft voice and was only trying to make conversation.
“That’s right. You’re right. Thank you.”
He kept looking over at her hands on the steering wheel. She had pretty hands. He asked her where she was from and she said she’d been in Denver for the past nineteen years but was originally from East St. Louis. “You ever hear of the Cahokia Mounds?” she asked.
“No, what’s that?”
“Well, I used to live in a town called Collinsville. Not quite East St. Louis. That’s how I know about it. The Cahokia people built a lot of mounds in that area, because they wanted to elevate this one chieftain they had. They wanted to elevate him up higher than God, so they could go up there and worship their gods.
“And really, what they were trying to do was exactly the same thing as the Tower of Babel. Are you familiar with the Bible at all?”
“A little bit.”
“A little bit. Well, Nimrod was the leader of them. But God said, ‘Oh, no.” And you know what he did, he came in there and scattered them all into different languages, and I don’t know how it was done in those days, but they spread the different languages throughout the world.”
“Probably using a computer.” He’d long believed most Biblical impossibilities could be explained that way.
“Well, really, at that point, everyone living was descended from either Noah and his two brothers, Ham and—” something something.
Some people felt better living inside a struggle, like that was doing the real work of life. She didn’t try to sell him any Bibles or give him any pamphlets or anything. Howard felt more like riding along nicely as much as he could was making a better job of it. That was stowaway thinking. At one point, Carol said, “Denver’s got a lot of history, too. Have you ever been to the Gates Rubber Company on Broadway?”
“I sure have. Neal Cassady used to work there.”
They were passing what looked like an old grain silo and Carol asked him, “You see that tower?”
“It looks like a grain silo.” One of those had figured prominently in Cassady’s partial autobiography, The First Third. This might have been it.
“Doesn’t it? Just think of all the people who used to live and work in all these buildings. Once they were the same age as us and now, they’re all dead.”
“That’s right. Human residue in all these things and places. All of it haunted. I bet that’s the grain silo Neal Cassady used to climb into and hide inside of as a little kid. That’s probably Cassady’s Silo. Like the Cahokia Mounds. Full of ghosts!”
Carol started laughing, and hesitated half a beat before saying, “I like having fun with this holiday. I don’t like all the evil, and murders and such.”
“Just fun,” agreed Howard. “I’m glad I could put a smile on your face.”
“Oh, yes. Well, I’m gonna let you off here, and this right here should be the door you want.” He got out of the car.
“In the Cahokia situation, do you know what that chief’s name was?”
“No, but I bet you can look it up on the internet. I bet that Cahokia visitors’ center still has a website.”
“I bet they do. Thanks for telling me about that, Carol, that’s very interesting.”
After spending a few minutes typing the code Mindy had given him into what looked like an old bike lock affixed to one door in the wall, Howard realized it was the wrong one, and moving over a space, swiftly gained access via a keypad, and went up to the fourth floor in an elevator. When the doors opened, Mindy Hair and her roommate Nora were inside with a couple of shopping carts ready to take more boxes and clothes up from their cars downstairs. The three of them cleared out Mindy and Nora’s place in short order, packing both cars full, and drove over to the new one about ten blocks away. There they were joined by Nora’s boyfriend, Frank, a giant with slumping shoulders. Howard observed Frank struggling to remain erect and asked if his back had gone out, only to learn he was narcoleptic. “Wow, that’s a serious concern,” he exclaimed.
“Can be,” Frank rejoined after a long time. Everything he said was coming at the same slow pace. “Someone like me, I don’t share the same sleep clock as everyone else.”
“Are there medications to counteract narcolepsy?”
“I’m on it,” said Frank after a long time, with a slight undertone of somnolent defensiveness. “I take a stimulant during the day, then I take a sleep aid at night,” he continued in the same soporific tone.
Frank’s whole life was regulated by drug use, all the way down to his sleep schedule. He seemed to be falling asleep all the time but gave sensible answers. Nora said, “What entertainer does he remind you of? A popular comic entertainer of our times.”
“I can sort of see Jacky Dacky,” Howard said to appease her. If Stephen Colbert had white hair and wore contacts and had different facial features, maybe.
“Jacky Dacky??!!” screamed Mindy and Nora.
“I just saw it flash for a second.”
‘He’s dressing as Gorgo the Dwarf for Halloween,” hinted Nora.
That was when Howard saw Frank’s uncanny resemblance to Blork Jork, star of Gorgo the Dwarf, for the first time. It was truly remarkable.
He was a hard worker, too. Between the four of them, they moved all the boxes and clothes from the cars into all the right rooms of the new place in about ten minutes, then Mindy ordered dinner, and they sat around drinking wine and eating jerk chicken and potatoes and ribs and talking.
“I’m sorry I slurped your knee last time I saw you,” said Howard to Mindy.
“Oh, Howard, I’m a grown ass woman,” she said. “If I didn’t like it, I’d tell you. And we’d been drinking.”
“Yeah, I figured. Still, a breach of protocol.”
Mindy proposed a toast to the new place, and all the work they’d done that day, and Frank could barely lift his own glass high enough to toast anyone. He said he was planning to take a cat nap at the new place before driving home.
“A guy like me,” he said, “I think I’ve got to keep going. Because once I start getting going, it keeps me up, but when I sit down for a few minutes, I don’t feel like moving for a while. Something else is cat naps. I can take five or six in a 24-hour period and I’m just fine.” He sounded like he was talking in his sleep.
Mindy Hair had planned to come to Howard’s speech at a cannabis church but had not. Howard told her all about it. “And now I’m talking to the guy about hosting a new series there. It’s just starting to take shape.”
“How old are you, Howard?” asked Nora.
“I’m older than I look.”
“He is,” said Mindy
“How old are you?”
“Geez, I thought you were . . . 38.”
“I’m a babyface.” For years, Howard had looked younger than his true age because he lacked a mature sense of gravity, keeping his mother alive with an unending childhood. That was how it had been for so long.
He heard his cell phone ringing inside the pocket of his jacket, which was hanging on a hook behind him and went over and answered it. “Hi, Irma.” He stepped outside into the chill evening air, pulling the door shut behind him.
Irma apologized for missing his talk at the cannabis church. “Are you one of the high priests now?” That’s what it said on a T-shirt they sold.
He was standing on a little porch with steps going down to the sidewalk. A couple went past, on their way to one bar or another in the little nightlife district northwest of Denver near the stadium where Mindy Hair was staying until they finished working on her house. “I don’t think so. I’m actually trying to open it up as a creative space in like a non canna-centric way. Might not work, but we’ll see.”
“You know you have a role to play in tomorrow’s meeting.” Howard and Irma were members of the same public speaking group.
“Yeah, lemme check. Says here you’re the General Evaluator. Just be encouraging. A lot of people are playing official roles in the meeting tomorrow. I think you’ll be just fine.”
“Thanks, Irma. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
His Uber driver on the way home was named Yosdeni Daddar. Howard asked him, “How’s your day?”
“Oh, busy. I’m sorry, sir, my English.”
“Oh. Okay.” Howard didn’t say anything more until Yosdeni Daddar went one stop past the exit he thought was the right one. “Hey, isn’t that the one you want?”
Yosdeni Daddar had GPS. “The next one is it.”
The next exit led the car straight to the street Howard lived on by a hitherto unknown back passage of grace and efficiency. “Yes, this is great. Thanks,” said Howard. Yosdeni Daddar laughed politely, stopping his car at the lip of Howard’s giant parking lot.
“Thanks, man!” They shook hands. Howard got out of the car and walked across the lot and back into his building.
A few minutes after he got back, Billy dropped by to return the parking pass Howard had forgotten to retrieve from his dashboard.
“The cannabis church would be the perfect venue for a Bleeding TVs style event,” Howard told him. “Only more sedate, more structured, since they’re extremely security conscious, and it’s a cause more than a free-for-all.”
“It’s interesting this is happening. We could have a paranormal society, maybe.”
“Or the Fortean Fun Group could meet there. Too soon to count on anything, of course, but very intriguing. Such beautiful art in that building.”
“I’ve got to wait a few days—maybe a week—before I can go out again.”
“I understand. You’re a family man. You’ve planted seeds. You’ve got a garden. I want that. I’m really starting to wish I had that.” Howard was lately shocked by how old he was starting to get without being married or having any familyhood prospects. “Come to me from the universe, family life.” He made a gesture with his hands like he was pulling what he wanted from the universe.
“Well, maybe just being open to it will make a difference. It’s not too late.”
“I hope not. I keep doing those sit-ups.”
“Are you still thinking of moving to New Mexico?”
“I’d like to start over somewhere. It really could be anywhere cheaper. I’ve never thought of doing it, just striking out somewhere like that and starting over, but people have done it forever, I mean, our parents have done it.”
“Where else would you like to go?” Billy asked him.
“Well, I probably wouldn’t want to go anywhere that’s, like, a right-wing stronghold state. I probably wouldn’t want to go to Georgia, or Arizona, or Florida.”
He had a hard time falling asleep that night, turning from side to side and trying all different kinds of positions. He got about three solid hours before his alarm rang, took a shower, drank some coffee, and caught a train and a bus to the speakers club meeting on Broadway, where he sat beside a pleasant Emily, who was one of the speakers that day along with Irma.
“I’m not being anti-social,” she told him. “Just making sure I don’t forget my lines!”
“I understand. Good luck.”
Emily’s repeated speech on body language was top-notch, as was the second run of Irma’s humorous speech on karaoke. Both were trial runs for their competition in a regional contest in a couple of days.
Howard did an alright job of evaluating the meeting—his assigned role that day—comprehensive, if haphazard, touching on everything, with some sections being reviewed perhaps more thoroughly than should have been, other crucial portions barely mentioned. When the meeting ended, Howard asked Irma if she was free to join him at this blues bar Mindy Hair had invited him to this coming Saturday night, but she told him she was going to a Halloween Party.
“How’d I do?” he asked the bald-headed bodybuilder with insane goggle-eyed grin, who he’d privately nicknamed Enormo Man, on his way out.
Enormo was a close talker, always standing right up against his listeners and looking right into their eyes the whole time. Public speaking juju of uncertain provenance. “This is your safe space,” he told Howard elliptically while looking straight into his eyes. “Your practice space.”
Howard felt challenged and stood there looking right back at him to show his courage. “I spoke at a cannabis church on Friday, and it went really well.”
“Really?” Enormo Man staring deep into his soul with his mouth open, grinning.
“Yeah, but I read from a script, not from memory. That’s what I came to this speaking group for, to finally learn that skill.”
“You’re here to do the best you can, and you’re here to go out into the world and do an even better job.”
“That’s right, thank you.”
Howard made a run to the bank after leaving that meeting, walking past a guy standing up taking a piss against the side of a building on Broadway. When he got home, everyone on IdentiPal was caught up in the midterm electoral rage, expecting everything to go one way or another irrevocably at any moment, each profile trigger-happy and triggered all at once; Was it the Russians? Is Trump the new Hitler? Do you support equality? Should the electoral college be abolished?
Just stop that shit. Just shut up now, Howard thought. He felt glad to have already voted, that part was over, but now there were all these posts explaining why to vote for or against this or that proposal or amendment for everyone who hadn’t voted yet, and more than anything he wanted it to stop. Just stop that shit. Just shut up now, he thought. But he knew patience was a virtue. “Looking for work,” he posted, then, “Laughter, conversation, sarcasm, music, and dogs. Looking for work.” And “Just doing a little social media networking. Send job please. Laughter, music, jokes.” Not your usual job search. Maybe just being open to it would help. “Looking for work,” he posted, then, “Laughter, conversation, sarcasm, music, and dogs. Looking for work.” Just doing a little social media networking. “Send job please. Laughter, music, jokes.”
Maybe just being open to it would help. But his only response came from someone he didn’t know saying his post was insulting to people who really needed to find work.
At this, Howard broke down and wrote the editor at Please Read Me a friendly ask regarding payment for his piece on Jimmy Sneer and was instructed to send an invoice to another party: “Sorry about that, I’m a little slow sometimes.”
“No trouble at all.” He felt like a winner again for a minute.