read an excerpt from
Wonders of the World
Catgirl, Payback, and I loitered on the steps of the stone church waiting to panhandle the lunch crowd. The sky hung low over Jefferson Street, a fat lip all purple and black, and the air had become so thick I could feel it pressing against me.
As the bruised clouds made a low growling rumble, Canman and Batman got into it. Batman wore a cape, and Canman pushed around a shopping cart full of cans he found on the street and in dumpsters. That was how they got their names, how I named them. One by how he dressed. The other by what he did.
I gave people on the street nicknames just like my dad gave everyone nicknames before he was taken. Sometimes they kept the name I gave them and sometimes they didn't. My dad called me Eric the Fantastic One, Eric the Too Smart for His Own Good, Eric the Tall for His Age, Eric the Barbarian, Eric the Boy Wonder, SuperEric. You get the idea. After he was taken I was just Eric.
To be clear. He wasn't taken from here. Not from Riverton, which was not my home, which did not even have a home for me. He was taken from my real home five years ago when I was just a kid. My real home wasn't only a place. It was a time when my mom wasn't a stranger, when there was no beef-butt, moron new husband between us, and when my father brought home wonders of the world every single day.
Canman grunted when he did what he always did, which was bumped his cart against an object in front of him, in this case the caped crusader. He grunted a lot but he didn't talk often. If you asked him why he gathered cans he would say, “My job.” Wait, you might say, could it be for food or beer or a trip to the Bermuda Triangle to visit your relatives? “My job.” End of story.
Batman screamed, “Holy crap. Watch where you push that piece of crap.”
Batman was big on the word crap. He railed against the world with it. The police were crap. The snooty businessmen were crap. The stingy students were crap. Everything was crap.
“My job,” Canman said. A drip of drool gathered at the corner of his lip.
“You piece of crap,” Batman shouted. “I'll show you your job.”
Right in the mouth.
The caped crusader followed the punch with an unheroic knee to Canman's crotch. Canman grabbed Batman's cape and swung the superhero around in a circle that ended after the second revolution when Canman seemed to lose the will to go on. Each tried to throw the other to the ground then, moving forward and back like very bad dancers or unprofessional professional wrestlers.
Catgirl, who had been my girlfriend once and who I hoped would be my girlfriend again, and Payback, my best friend by default, cheered for Batman. I, on the other hand, gave my support to the underdog, Canman. It wasn't long before Batman got Canman in a headlock and dragged him to the church. He banged Canman's head against its white stone wall again and again. This had to be some kind of uber sin, but not one bolt of lightening shot from the sky to smite him. Definite disappointment.
“Come on, Canman,” I shouted.
The half-dozen street dwellers who gathered around the fight were joined by college students and a few workers let out of their offices early for lunch.
Batman rammed Canman's head into the church again. Canman had only two words as it was, and I guess I didn't want him to lose those. I took a deep breath and a step toward them, but Catgirl put her hand on my arm.
“Remember last time,” she said.
Last time happened a few months ago when a fat guy beat on his skinny girlfriend, and I tried to stop him. This outraged both of them and they joined forces and beat the crap out of me. They walked off holding hands. Hadn't I learned anything?
“Never get between two people fighting,” I said, reciting what she had said to me at the time. It was like rule thirty-two from the street dweller's handbook or something. Not that there was such a book but people living on the street always acted like there was.
Catgirl nodded as if I was a slow but likable student.
I settled for giving advice. “Sink your canines into his bat skin, Bro.”
Several non-street dwellers gave me disgusted looks as if I was the barbarian, but what were they doing? Making ice cream in the back yard or buying their little kids puppies? I think not; they were watching one human being smash another's head into the stone wall of a church.
Canman bit Batman, and the caped crusader did a little dance, jumping and cursing and jumping and cursing. Most people didn't listen to what I said so it was kind of satisfying to see someone listen and get immediate results.
As Batman danced, a police car pulled up and parked at the curb. Two officers stepped out, grudgingly putting on their blue hats and walking over and breaking up the fight.
There was a loud crack above us, and the sidewalk trembled. Raindrops fell like arrows from a fortress. Umbrellas flapped open. The crowd split apart.
“Move along,” the cops said to Catgirl, Payback, and me, the only three still not moving.
Move along? Where did he expect us to move along to? We circled the block.
Pre-order Wonders of the World today from Amazon.com. Due out from Flux Books in June, 2007.
I saw the old guy with the gray dreads who drank Mad Dog 20/20 across the street. Yesterday he told me that the aliens would be around the next day to recruit for sex experiments and the line should form behind him.
“No aliens?” I shouted at him.
“Delayed because of the weather,” he shouted back.
After we made the block, we got under the church eaves that hung over the top step. We were soaking, pants and shirts heavy with fallen rain, tennis shoes squishy. Ten minutes later the sun shone through the thinning clouds. That was November in Riverton. Could be anything two or three times a day.
We stepped into the sun to dry our clothes. No dryers or clotheslines for us. All natural. All the time.
A few minutes after the rain stopped students flowed out of the college and past us, a river of Gap clothing. A few professor types and worker bees joined the students.
Payback and I took up spots in front of the church. Catgirl crossed the street to work the boys. She had one of those throaty voices that seemed to promise sexual secrets in a simple greeting.
We worked our spots for about a half-hour until the crowd thinned, then reunited on the church steps for a count. Four for me. Two for Payback (poor hygienic habits doomed him to low returns). Six for Catgirl.
“Some guy told me to screw myself.” Catgirl said as she bitterly folded up her ones and stuffed them in her pocket. “He does not have the holiday spirit.”
“Thanksgiving ain't really your giving holiday,” Payback said, unusually reflective. “Christmas, now that's a giving holiday.”
I noticed Birdboy round the corner.
“Don't talk to him about Thanksgiving,” I warned Catgirl.
“Hey Birdboy,” Catgirl shouted. “Eric says I should ask you about the Thanksgiving.”
Like usual, he charged a conversation, all ninety pounds of him, ready to batter down any opposition.
“Pilgrims,” he said, spitting the word out. “Ya'll want to know what really happened on Thanksgiving? Wisely he didn't pause long enough for an answer This ain't in a textbook, either. This is the honest truth. What really happened is the massacre of the Indians. See they invited the Indians all right. They pretended to make all this food for them and got them to the table. As soon as they did, this guy up on a hill blew this big horn and all the pilgrims pulled out rifles and pistols. They started shooting. They killed every one of those Indians that didn't get away. And you know what they did then? I'll tell you. They sat right down and ate for three days straight. Ate everything those Indians had brought and everything they brought, too. Just ate and ate with all those dead bodies on the ground around them. They stepped over the dead Indians like they were rocks or something.”
All the while he gave this version of history, he hopped around like a bird on a feeder.
“Sounds as true as anything else I've heard.” Catgirl pushed back her long auburn hair. Her large, cat-like green eyes got that mischievous look to them that always made me want to be the person she was looking at.
“As true as anything else you've heard?“ I sputtered. “Like it's all the same? History happened. It's not made up.”
“Whatever you say, Dude,” she said.
“It's not whatever I say.”
Birdboy flapped his arms like he was trying to lift off the ground. “The pilgrims are responsible for all the crap that goes on in this country. Our messed up ideas about sex and the way we love our guns. Mass murder. The pilgrims planted every one of our bad seeds.”
Birdboy was supposed to be some kind of genius--at least that was what he told everyone. If genius meant someone who could talk near the speed of light and had something to say about everything then I guess he might be one. Except he wasn't. Here was one of his ideas about originality. Never read a book because if you did you wouldn't know the difference between what you thought and what someone else had thought and planted in your mind. Does that sound like a genius?
Not to me because I knew what a real genius sounded like.
My dad was a real genius. They told him when he was in first or second grade. I.Q. at the top of the mountain, right up on the peak with the great ones. He remembered everything that ever happened to him, every word that someone said, and every word he ever read. Give him a puzzle like the New York Times Crossword Puzzle and he'd have it done for you in minutes. He was scary smart.
Before my arrival, my dad traveled the world having adventures and seeing wonders. When he met my mom they settled in New York. Then she got pregnant and they decided that New York was no place to raise a kid. For some reason they thought Iowa was. We lived on a farm for six years and then moved into Iowa City where my mom got a job teaching at City High High School.
But the plan had always been to leave when I turned thirteen.
“That's when your real education will begin,” my dad would say.
Then he was taken.
Everything in the world was smashed to pieces. You can't put something like that back together. You can't even find what you've lost.
“Time to go,” Catgirl said.
I looked down the street and saw the Hole-in-the-Wall gang making their way up it, about seven boys and as many dogs.
Payback, Catgirl, and I slid on our packs.
“You can't defend the pilgrims,” Birdboy said, not moving from the stairs. “They're why we're living on the street.”
I didn't bother to answer as we walked off in the opposite direction of the Hole-in-the Wall gang. I knew none of us was on the street because of any pilgrims though. We all had our own reasons. I didn't have to guess about mine. It was all those lost pieces.