a story in Alison’s chapbook If You Wave a Chicken Over Your Head
originally published in The Potomac
We found him first.
One Saturday evening, a few of us wandered into a neighborhood Starbucks and saw him facing a group of empty chairs. He bit his lip and twitched, first one eye, then the other. Then he thrust around the rest of his body, curled and unfurled his limbs, spoke as he wobbled. We agreed: he was very awkward.
We felt so sorry for him that we sat down and phoned more friends to come join us. His performances soon became our weekly ritual.
Often he would spill his coffee, blush and stumble, smoke too many cigarettes, spit as he spoke.
He spoke about the celebrities on the cover of People magazine, the beautiful ones who inhabited his dreams—particularly Winona Ryder. He loved her butterfly nervousness, her predilection for shoplifting, swore she was a kindred spirit.
He spoke about his overabundant chest hairs and farts; demons in the shapes of his boss, his wife and his mother that appeared when he drank too many Grain Belts; all the women he wanted to fuck. The women among us liked that part best. When he talked about how the soccer mom, whose quiet dissatisfaction with her life of laundry, hot pockets and TV football filled her jeans so entirely that he swooned with desire whenever he saw her, we women spilled pearl tears and applauded until our hands were numb.
But us guys applauded too. We saw ourselves in his greenish pallor, hunched up shoulders, thinning hair, in the paunch beginning to develop above his belt, the red-rimmed lids from too many wide-eyed nights spent worrying about his sub-prime mortgage, the cost of Ritalin prescriptions for his ADHD kids, the fantasy of robbing the nearest Super America to pay for his dream car: a Hummer.
We all wanted to hear him whine about how the war in Iraq was bad because Bush’s presidential speeches preempted episodes of American Idol. We wanted to see him shake his fist at a god who refused to make him anything but ordinary. And, most of all, we wanted to see him twitch. He twitched with a desire to leave his skin behind, to have us see how his insides worked: his heart’s contractions; his blood’s capillary action; the filling and emptying of lungs, stomach and intestines; the flapping of his glottal stop. Seeing him so uncomfortable helped relax us. After his performances, our smiles were a little broader, our spouses more attractive. Soon we became a penumbra of viewers crowded around him, clamoring to see him teeter.
He decided to charge admission. Of course we agreed to pay; we wanted to keep his twitchiness warm in our embrace. When he spoke of his desire to be seen by the wider world, our expanding club—which had reached three digits-—encouraged him to perform past the confines of the coffee shop. Why not? Even if he came to nothing-—and we knew he would come to nothing—why shouldn’t he be given a chance?
We helped him book an evening at a real theater and bought every ticket ourselves, except for the expensive front row seats. We sat together, one whispering, giggling, fidgeting mass, waiting for the performance to begin. But before the lights were lowered, a line of people entered the theater in single file and filled all the front row seats. No one looked familiar except for one girl, as graceful as a bamboo reed—the spitting image of Winona Ryder.
Who were these intruders into our universe, we grumbled to each other.
Then the lights dimmed and the curtain rose. There he was. A veil of sweat already covered his face. He stood behind the microphone and stared into the darkness. He scratched his head. He fumbled in his pockets. He walked to the edge of the stage and squinted as if he were searching the dark for our faces.
“Lights,” he shouted, his voice cracking. The houselights were raised. He took his hands out of his pockets and relaxed his facial features. We sighed with relief.
The performance began in earnest. He started with his familiar sequence: the twitch of an eye, a spastic flick of the neck, an arrhythmic jerking of arms and back and shoulders in sync with his litany of sins.
And then he stopped. He stood stock-still and stared straight into the front row of the audience (later we swore he had fixed his gaze on the Winona Ryder look-alike). His face trembled; tears streamed down his face. His whole body shivered in a fluid ripple that flowed through his arms and caused them to figure eight like eagle wings. He flapped and flapped until he had lifted himself off the ground and was spinning in the air.
It was a miracle; and frankly, we were upset because, with each spin, he became more and more transparent until we could clearly see the blue and green and gray of his organs, muscles, ligaments, and bones. All along we had been fooled: we thought we were doing him a great big favor—but we were simply a means to an end. He was circling toward a light beyond us. All we could do was sit in our seats and watch.