Radial Symmetry (4 of 10)
Tentacle 4: Affection
Rob leaned toward the mirror and probed the edges of the bruise that sagged below his left eye.
He heard the freaky trailer-trash kids laughing in the next room. He couldn't keep any of their names straight. Ivan was egging one of them on, talking in some fucked up backwards English, pretending like he didn't grow up here, like he didn't speak our language, like he didn't understand some key piece of data. The little kid, the intense blank black kid, didn't get the joke. He just kept honestly stepping forward to correct Ivan, but Ivan just kept turning the language around, making it twist like a Soviet gymnast around a knot of pipes and poles.
The bathroom he sat in was so small that Rob could sit on the toilet and lean on the sink to look deeply into the mirror. He probably could turn the other way and wash his hair in the shower while taking a long crap. The bulb in the room was bare, and insanely dim—20 watts? 10? A goddamn appliance bulb out of the back of someone's Easy-Bake oven?—and it made his tired bruised face seem gray.
He bit his lip and gingerly prodded his left cheek bone. That was probably broken. He'd never really thought a cheek could break before. It was this fleshy pouch over a flat expanse of bone; breaking a cheek seemed impossible, like breaking a slab of sidewalk. But he realized he'd been wrong. He pushed against his cheek again, and the ache was deep and icy, like a cold burning crack through his eye and brain and jaw. Cheeks can break, he realized, like the eaves can collapse on and old house. And when a hunk of roof goes, the place is fundamentally fucked. His face was fundamentally fucked.
The kids outside were yelling. There was huffing and laughing, and finally a huge crash.
Rob sighed and opened the door to the can.
The Muslim kid sat gleefully astride Ivan's broad chest, his arms raised above his head, his wrists crossed. "Victory!" he exclaimed.
Ivan was smiling too, as he lay amongst the remnants of a coffee table.
Trael darted from the periphery of the group and giggled, slapping Ivan's chest. "You a bad man, man. You was fooling on me." But as Ivan reached around Trael's waist, pinning him to the ground, they both just cackled.
Rob held his left wrist up to his chest, his shoulder throbbing and swollen. He stood in the open door of the bathroom and frowned. None of the boy pile paid him any mind, but Donny sat across the room with an equally worried expression on his face.
Rob picked his way through the pile of wrestling figures, to the window by Donny. They both looked out of the apartment. Somewhere, just a few miles away, out near the horizon, the Squid lurked under a blue tarp, in his crushed and failing walking-suit, in a dirt lot on a trailer park. Dying.
"Can security guards just beat you down like that?" Donny asked, twisting to follow Rob's gaze, unsure of what he might be looking at or for. "I mean, how is that legal?"
Rob shrugged, but the shrug set something off in his shoulder. He drew in a sharp breath and froze, then eased the shoulder back down. Rob knelt one knee onto a bench under the window and rested his good right hand on the glass. Donny repeated his question. "I dunno," Rob said, "It's pretty clear that they can, I guess." Rob's nuts ached dully, as did his ribs. The side of his head pulsed painfully.
"I never knew fags got so violent."
Rob turned and deflated onto the bench, resting one elbow on his knee, keeping the left arm curled up and tender. "Don't say that," Rob said evenly, "This isn't about where Spider sticks his dick. Well, it sorta is, but not like that." Rob had a long stare, not focusing on anything, just letting the blur of the pile on the floor rumble into and out of his frame.
"Well, anyway, that fag fucked you up."
Rob wanted to bitch Donny out, but he didn't have the energy. He sighed. "Yeah."
Donny nodded, agreeing with himself. "Yeah."
"So, did you get some good licks in?"
Rob stitched his brow "'Licks?'" he turned to look at Donny.
Donny frowned. "I don't mean . . . well . . ."
"Have you ever been in a fight?"
Donny said, "Well, I mean, did you get in a few good, like, hits on those guys?"
"Have you ever just plain had your ass kicked?"
Donny said nothing. Rob sighed. He looked back into the room and watched the boys brawling with Ivan, "Fighting isn't like a Captain America 'brawl' or something. It isn't Mortal Kombat. It's like . . . " Rob searched around in his head, "It's like . . . it's like there's a fire inside them — no, it's like a sound, like a roar, but they can't get their mouths open wide enough for the sound to get out — maybe they just aren't into opening their mouths, so the sound builds and builds and builds until it comes out the only way it can: it comes out through their fists, like water from a firehouse. They howl and they howl and they howl until it's all out. Once all the waterhowl is gone, maybe you're standing, but probably you're on the ground. Probably you're blacked-out. Sometimes," Rob didn't look at anything in particular, and didn't think anything especially special, "You're dead." He breathed, and he was glad to breath, glad in a deep and primal way, glad like a dog is glad to lie in a spot of sun.
Rob leaned back, resting the bruised crown of his head against the glass of the window. After they'd dragged him outside — two lunks in blue shirts with SECURITY embossed on his name tag, the pimply one hissing in his ears about "ripping your pedo kiddie-fuck nuts off", the other silent, but mouth breathing because he was more fat than stacked — after they'd punched him in the face and the nuts and the throat, his knees had buckled, and he'd gone down. The kicks had come, into his tailbone and kidneys and ribs, and then the back of his head, and he was gone until he woke up, laying in the crisp grassy median between two parking lots, behind a dumpster, laid out in the cold gold of the autumn sun. He'd awoken with his face and hair wet, but the sky cloudless and bright. The wetness wasn't thin and slick, like tears, or thick and slick like spit, or sticky slick like cum. Also, Rob was really wet. Upon reflection, he was pretty sure the two security guys who had dragged him our of the Best Buy at Spider's behest had pissed on him.
Donny nodded. "So, you got any plan for our next move?"
"I'd like it if Lord A didn't die."
"What's with these kids?" Rob nodded toward the boys smiling, red cheeked, as they came in for strikes against Ivan who was good naturedly pulling them close, or pushing them away, turning slowly to engage one attacker at a time.
"Well," Donny considered the situation. "It's an adventure, right?"
"I guess we could call it that," Rob said.
"I'm not supposed to talk to you," the woman said.
Rob lay on Ivan's bed, the boys still wrestling and cackling outside in the living room. He cradled his cell phone to his wrong ear, his "good" ear having the unfortunate honor of being attached to the mostly broken side of his face. It was swelling.
"I know, Mrs. Ramirez. I know."
"Spider is so angry," she said quietly.
"I know, Mrs. Ramirez. I know. He's an angry young man."
"He's a good boy, my boy. He's come back to the fold."
"I know. Can you just tell me—"
"I didn't want him to hurt you, okay? You sound like a nice young man, too. I'm sure you are a nice man. I'm sure you have problems, but your parents, they help, yes? You understand that parents need to be there for to help their boys? A mother needs to protect her boy? You're someone else's boy. I can't help you. I have my boy I have to help."
"I know, Mrs. Ramirez. I know. But can you—"
"I'm sorry Spider asked those men to hit you, but it has been so hard for him. You have to understand that he has worked so hard to turn away from that awful life . . . He has become who he was supposed to be. He has come back to what he is. I don't think you should call for him again, even if you are a nice boy in your heart."
"I need to find a man Spider used to know, Mrs. Ramirez."
"I don't know. I don't want to know. He's my boy, you have to understand. He's my little boy. He used to bring me little creatures he had found, little grasshoppers and little beetles and little flies. He used to capture all sorts of creatures, my little boy. He was such a good boy. He is such a good boy."
"I need to find D—"
"I don't want to know. I don't want to know."
"Mrs. Ramirez. Can you at least tell me where I can find Goat? You have another son, Mrs. Ramirez, and we used to call him Goat. Can you tell me how to-"
"I don't know. I am sorry the men hit you. Your mother can help you. You are her little boy. I have such a good little boy."
"That's just it. I need to find . . . I need to find another boy. A boy your son knew. And if I can't find him, I need to find your other boy. Do you know Devo, or can you tell me where-"
"Don't call again."
"Don't tell Spider we talked. He's worked so-"
"I can't." And she hung up.
"Fuck." Rob stared up at the peeling paint on the ceiling above Ivan's bed.
Rob sat on the hood of his Honda for a long time, looking at the blue tarp that covered the Squid's wreckage, and hoping that when he pulled it back he'd still see the Giant Squid trapped inside a wrecked suit, and not the carcass of a giant squid trapped inside the wreckage of a velocitating suit.
he finally nerved himself up, approached the hulk and peeled the tarp back enough that he could peer into the Squid's clouded and unfocused eye. He could only discern life by the faint pulsing color changes deep in the back of the lens. The speaker box of the Squid's P.A. squawked, made odd phonemes, mumbled and barked. The squid was thinking, almost talking, but not really.
Rob sat down on the ground. There were a few bits of gravel and pea pebble in among the limp, dying grass, and Rob absently sorted through the bits of stone, lining them up along the edge of the concrete path that led to Hazel's stoop, first from smallest to largest, and then from darkest to lightest. He recalled, dimly, the endless entertainment he could derive from this activity when high. Back then, in the deep, mellow haze, that patterns would grow, would take on weight and color, and he'd see in some incommunicable way how the four-by-four groupings by texture must ultimately yield to the line from darkest to lightest, by way of a set of triplets grouped by shape, like a series of unit conversions to resolve meters per second into milers per hour, or yards per year, or inches per decade. Back then, as he sobered, he'd always hit a point, invisible yet tangible, when he'd suddenly remember that the patterns didn't mean squat, and were just an over-busy mind finding voices in the static of a dead channel.
But when he was good and stoned, he could see how an entire bookshelf of books, when arrayed on the floor from smallest to largest, then thickest to thinnest, then chromatically, then alphabetically by last word yielded the Face of God. He sorely missed occasionally feeling like he had a good clue what was going on.
He worked through each sequence once with the pebbles, and then he was done.
The sky was dim, the air wet. It smelled of dying leaves, of sugars gone bad and rotten, of soft and melting jack-o'-lanterns.
Rob reclined against the dome of the squid's suit, his face, resting against the bulging eye of the squid.
"Man, Lord A. what kind of whack shit is going through your unskulled brain?"
The Squid's lens fluttered, pulsed, then repositioned randomly, seeming to focus somewhere out in the street.
"Is there, like, some fucked up world in there now? Like all Terry Schiavo for the split second between when she was awake, and when she was all, y'know, dead?" Or is it a library? he wondered, Ordered by number of pages, by first verb, by sexiness of the chicks, all laid out for football field after football field, all built up into a dome covering the sky? Where was Terry's rock pile now? Her library? Where were they when she spent ears in a bed, dead but undead, rotten but not rotting?
The eye didn't move, but the speaker let out a decreasing hiss that could have just been feedback, or could have been a lover's forlorn sigh.
"Can you imagine Spider as a kid?" The tarp covering the squid fluttered briefly in a cool gust of wind. "Yeah, me neither. That's fucked up. All I imagine is, like, a little gay five-year-old in bondage pants and a vinyl hobble-shirt, swigging Everclear from the bottle and hollering Pet Shop Boys songs as he kicks some butch chick's ass."
One of the leaks started dripping again, the liquid tinging against some twisted snag of metal buried beneath the mess.
Rob put his hand against the glass. "Man, good bye, dude." He wiped his hand in the wet of the glass and stood, holding his palm in place. Then he turned and walked across the gravel drive back to his Honda. A truck roared, out in the distance, and Rob's cell phone vibrated. he dug it out of his pocket, glanced at the little screen to check the number, and found the LCD had a blobby black tumor, obscuring everything save for the last digit. The security guys must have caught him one on the thigh when he was out, or he just fell on it when he lost his feet. The digit he could read was seven. Rob sighed and flipped the phone open.
"The man's coming!" someone shouted at him.
Cops? Rob thought, What the fuck for? I haven't even done shit. "Who the fuck is this?" Rob shouted. The reception was crappy, and someone was driving what sounded like a semi at breakneck speed past the trailer park; Rob could hear for crap.
"He said to get a fucking hose and shit, if there's still leaking. A threaded house, like a garden hose, one in real good shape. Like new. And find a spigot that ain't shut off for winter yet."
"Who's coming?" Rob shouted, the phone clamped to his left ear, and his right hand painfully blocking noise out of his swollen right ear.
"The fucking cavalry, yo!" But Rob couldn't hear this, because the semi racing past wasn't racing past the trailer park, but into it. Rob turned to see a tow truck skid to a halt on soft gravel of the parking lot. For a second, he imagined a black midget was gonna hop out, beat him, smoke him down, and haul him off to some fucked up magic fairy land where he'd have to duke it out with some other angry mutherfuckers he didn't even know, "Fuck it," he sighed, "Just why fucking not?"
But luckily, that didn't happen.
An energetic man pushed up the door and stood up on the running board.
"Hey, cocknob. Where's my fucking hose, hoser?" He smirked at Rob and then looked over to the pile of squid and steel. He hopped down, marched behind the rickety tin shed and flipped back the tarp. He paced around the mess of steel and chrome and glass and rubber, appraising the damage, what had failed and what had held, "I don't think this was designed for this kinda crap" he said to Rob absently, not looking at him. He leaned in to look at something closer, "How's about you, darling? Why'd you let him do this to himself?"
The man had lost weight, gained muscle and shaved his head clean. Seen in any other context Rob would not have recognized him, but here next to mechanic's tools and the bent steel of the squidsuit he was unmistakable. Devo plopped down to his knees to peer up under the main body of the carapace; his fashionable bowling-shoes happened to clip Rob's line of ordered pebbles, sending them skittering across the concrete pad and into the grass, lost forever.
"I had other shit going on last year," Rob mumbled, "I was outta the loop."
Devo finally turned and looked at Rob. "Hey, Miller," he said. "You lost weight. Look clearer headed, too. Goat says, 'Yo.'"
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