Propellers

By Michael Dean Clark

The glare off the helicopter propeller is blinding until Stazi realizes two things: there is no helicopter and it’s nighttime. He’s also wearing sunglasses and his name is not Stazi. Rather, it is Stalin Lenin Gordimer, but his parents’ hatred stopped at his birth certificate because, for no discernible reason, they called him only Stazi until he killed them. Of course he didn’t actually kill them. He calls them every day at the same time, but he feels like he should shoot them or at least burn their house down because what other destiny awaits a man whose given, legal nomenclature is Stalin Lenin? If he doesn’t slaughter at least a million people by the time they are erecting statues in his honor, he will have to encourage posterity to declare his life a failure.

But the propeller won’t stop glinting, even when he says aloud, “There is no helicopter! And helicopters have rotors!”

For at least an hour, or possibly five minutes, he stares at the pitted tan wall of the faux-Spanish courtyard where he stands, the party’s collection of skin heads and jugglers and New Black Panthers and clergy spinning in circles behind him, taking turns at the keg but never intermingling except to exchange secretive handshakes that assure each other of the love they share but cannot do so publicly without losing street cred and business opportunities. Stazi is part of none of them and like them all, but the longer he stands rooted like a misnamed tree in the shadow of the invisible rotor blades, the more concerned he becomes that he will end up personally responsible for starting a race riot.

So he moves, sliding one foot along the uneven brick surface that makes up the courtyard’s floor, extending his toes like sonar above the grass growing between the bricks to the limits of his leg’s reach before drag-rasping the other from back to front to repeat the process. He’s sure people think he looks weird, but it’s the only way to detect land mines without a minesweeper or small Middle Eastern child and only he knows how real the danger is.

He keeps his eyes low, throws a noncommittal fist bump in the direction of the largest Panther – a guy, no joke, named Flex Murder – and an even less natural Hitler flap to the Swastika crowd, and shuffle slides himself into the safety of the massive mansion attached to the courtyard. He has no Hail Marys for the priests and even less for the jugglers.

Inside the double tall, double French doors he can walk normally again and takes a moment to wring his compact five-foot-four-inch frame, letting every possible joint crack as he presses down against the floor in a hurdler’s stretch that blocks both doors. Switching his back leg from right to left, Stazi watches in horror the scene of decadent bullshit going on inside the house that makes the nonsense he’d just left behind outside seem like a glass of chocolate milk at the dinner table in a house nothing like the one he grew up in.

Nearest to Stazi’s seat on the floor, two pro-ana twin blondes with acid-pitted teeth sit on a gilded divan that swallows their eating disorder perfect frames in crushed red velvet, tossing faux-bon-mottes back and forth with such tangible contempt Stazi wishes he had his digital recorder with him so he could take their words home and play them on repeat for the next five days. Instead, he leans his head down into his stretch, letting his coarse shag of dyed-gray hair flop low over his naturally gray eyes, and tries to memorize every phrase as the girls utter them.

“…and the simple, simple woman would not or could not understand that all that mattered was tampons. Just tampons! I really needed some tampons. But I guess if your idea of feminine hygiene needs was formed before the bra got burnt, you’re just incapable of knowing anything.”

“Seriously,” Skeleton Girl Two says in her ‘No, I’m Serious’ tone. “Some people just want to see the world burn and the rest do nothing but try to put our fire out.”

“I know, right?” They both go silent but won’t stop nodding, like they think the first one who does will lose some argument no one else knows they’re having and, after a full minute of chins bobbing up and down, Stazi begins to believe the conversation is continuing in some silent, girl-only, telepathic way, if only because he does not want to believe anyone is vacant enough to actually have nothing to say after a line as deep as the last. When he is almost desperate, Burning Girl speaks again.

“Pixie Stix are the cocaine of the younger generation.” Her eyes are wide as she says it and her nods get harder, as if willing Tampax to agree, which she does not. Stazi does not realize this from her face, which is Botoxed into the leonine flatness of expression generally reserved for aging female local news anchors, or from her words, of which there are none.

Instead, it is in the swift, singular movement that begins with her shooting to her feet, apexes in her swinging down with a back-handed pimp slap, and ends with obligatory tears from both women.

“After the orgy of insensitivity is out of your system, call me so I can tell you I never want to be in the same room with you ever again.” Stazi doesn’t want to seem like a typical male-stereotyping-female-mannerisms-writer when he describes this later, but he can’t make up the fact that the girl actually reaches up and uses the back of her slender left hand to help flip her long, carefully curled blonde hair with force as she turns and click-clacks away hard on her stripper-pole, overpriced stilettos. He might edit that detail out, though, so people will believe him.

“Wanna get some coffee?”

Stazi’s head shoots up to find the girl who just got Bishop Don Juaned, the pink-fingered slap stain still fresh across her cheek, wiping her tears onto a delicate white handkerchief and giving him a kind of pathetic version of the eye that makes his stomach roil like a quake-driven tsunami and it’s all he can do to keep his 7-Eleven hot dog dinner down while climbing awkwardly to his feet.

“No ma’am,” he says, masking an acid-reflux burp with a smile that, by the revulsion on her sunken features, he knows bordered on manic. “I’m not good under pressure…at least not that kind of pressure.”

“But what about my needs?”

“Girl, you need a full meal.”

Apparently, she can drop a backhand as hard as her friend, which she does and then walks away, but with a little less bounce than her friend. Stazi rubs his cheek like it’s the Shroud of Turin and translates the feeling as sadness, letting her clear the room before he crosses the small sitting area he’s now alone in and takes the same narrow hallway out through the back kitchen and into the huge dining room And it is huge. Horror movie huge with one of those long walnut tables that seat 18 people in high-backed, equally walnut chairs so obviously hand-carved that Stazi breaks a horizontal spindle off of one just to prove his point.

“What…the…hell?”

Stazi is startled more by the outfit on the guy who says it than the fact that he’s sitting in the chair Stazi just broke a piece off of and he never even saw him there. He’s wearing a lime green T.D. Jakes prosperity gospel suit – the big-ass kind with doublewide pant legs and a five-button jacket that reaches down to the knees that only large black men ever wore – and smoking what appears to be a baseball bat-sized cigar of vaguely Dominican origin. The guy, who is white and looks smaller that the small he is because of the suit, except for his teeth, doesn’t stand, just cranes his neck awkwardly to glare at Stazi out of impossibly Aryan blue eyes. That doesn’t stop the four other no-neck, corn-fed guys who actually are big enough to fill out their identical green suits from jumping up from their seats across the table.

“This one’s uneven,” Stazi says, handing the piece to the spindle to the small guy, who takes it with his thumb and forefinger like it’s toxic.

“What am I supposed to do with this, bruh?”

“You guys like some kind of Motown throw back, only like the picture negative version?” Stazi asks. For a second, he’s sure one of the linebacker-sized dudes is going to leap across the table and mustang his Sally when they all sit back down, smiles across the board.

“It that obvious?” the guy asks with a laugh, dropping the spindle and kicking out the chair next to him as an offering to Stazi, who declines by kicking it back into place and walking to the head of the table.

“What do you call yourselves?”

“A Good Man Is Hard to Fine. Always liked plays on words that end up double intenders.”

“Entendres,” Stazi corrects, wincing at the guy’s lack of culture. “It’s French.”

“So’s this suit, but you don’t hear me bragging about it,” Little Limon Man says.

“If you didn’t get that suit at the Three Day Suit Broker on Crenshaw, I’ll give you a thousand dollars.” Stazi is so sure, he pulls out his wallet and shows the guy the money to prove he’s good for it. The little guy raises his hand.

“Alright, alright, it is. But Daquan the Suit Guy – you heard of him, right?”

“Yeah, in the commercials; ‘Don’t say Daquan can’t suit you right, less you want Daquan to shoot you, alright?’”

“That’s the one. Anyway, Daquan cut us a deal on these when we agreed to change our name from This Is Sparta? with a question mark because it made him embarrassed just to think about Temptations songs being sung by five white guys with such a questionable sense of themselves. We tried to switch it to “For the Emperor!” but he said he’d physically cut my neck with a straight razor for overuse punctuation.” He pauses and smiles at the memory. “Ah Daquan….so that’s how we ended up A Good Man.”

“Seems too easy to me. What are you doing in here?”

“It’s hard to remember those things.” As he says it, the five Sprite bottles break into perfect four part harmony, belting out the line “and so the lion fell in love with the lamb.” Stazi is about to be impressed when he realizes that A) it’s in the key of C; and B) the bass and the male mezzo are singing the same note. Hacks.

Without a word or the applause they seem to expect, Stazi turns on his left heel and does his slide shuffle out of the dining room into the large main hall that curves gently so far into the future he can’t see where it ends. The lack of vision makes his mouth sweaty and Stazi slows to glance at his profile in the full-length mirror he doesn’t notice until it’s reflecting him. Still short. Still gray-blonde like a Q-tip. Still fat as a Pier 39 sea lion. Still bags under the eyes like an “Insomnia is progress” bumper sticker. Still wearing a pair of jeans from Australia and a shirt from Goodwill.

And then the staring is too much and he’s running too fast, leaning into the curve of hallway like sprinter on the second leg of a relay and as the passage opens into the wide mouth thirty or so people in various stages of hipness, leaning with contemptuous languor against anything with enough surface to support such vague fashion. Instead, he stops, mildly embarrassed at how hard he’s panting, how red his face feels, how shallow his lungs must be.

Between heaves, he notices an elderly man and woman standing just to his left, deep in conversation with the hat rack between them like a U.N. peacekeeper too long in the African Sahel. The man, a rail thin Buster-Keaton-goes-to-the-disco type, is twirling his right hand at the wrist, his index finger extended like he’s directing the Met. His pants are so short that Stazi catches sight of his smokingly sexy purple and teal socks with a Mona Lisa smiling broadly on them. Geezer’s date, who must be 90, clutches the hem of her bangled flapper dress that shows more leg than Stazi feels his gag reflex can handle. Her voice is loud and flat and works like bolt cutters on the air around them.

“Excuse me! I have some news for you! Did you know chewing gum can lower your blood pressure?”

Rather than respond to the question, Benjamin Unbutton looks directly at Stazi and asks in a deeper-than-it-should-be voice, “You know why Alzheimer’s is a wonderful disease?? Because you go to bed with a different woman every night!”

Stazi wants to answer, but old people are worse than jugglers and render him mute. Before it becomes too awkward, the old lady punches her date in the throat and the guy hits the floor like a sack of old bones and gasping curses. The coat rack, Stazi notes, is unmoved.

“But I get the same thing every damn day,” she says to no one and Stazi slips up the open stairwell to the right, if for no other reason than to avoid any further attempts at conversation. As he climbs the first flight, he swears can feel the woman watching him go and chafes under the rough texture of her lasciviousness. At the top of the stairs, his hand still on the ice-smooth walnut banister with spindles suspiciously similar to those on the dining room chairs, Stazi looks down the long hall to a set of double doors with two big guys in acid washed denim tuxedos and he laughs out loud because it’s the first joke that’s made sense all night.

“And that’s how they make methamphetamines,” Stazi says to the two guys, who reach into their waistbands and retrieve the largest guns he’s ever seen without the word machine attached to them. “The hell?”

“Up here, there is only the password.” It’s the guy on the left who says it, but Stazi can’t take his eyes off the silent man on the right. His red shirt screams in yellow letters “We’re all fart wind.” and he has it tucked into the high waist of the jeans some Oklahoman got married in one day while the rest of the congregation popped tabs on Bud cans and tried not to take a sip until the preacher said “kiss the bride.” Of course, the newlyweds would have walked the aisle with Georgia Satellites buzzing in their ears if they’d actually kept from crossing lines and their hands to themselves.

For Stazi, there is only silence and the belated realization that the party is completely lacking in music, a lack that means it cannot be called a party. Well, silence and the sound of a round snicking into the chamber of Right Guy’s Dirty Harrison. Left Guy seems bored. At a total loss, Stazi blurts the first words to come unglued from his tongue.

“Church baptize robots.”

“Not even close, not at all.”

Stazi closes his eyes, unafraid of death or bullets. Mostly, he’s disappointed that the guys about to kill him are so inexplicably products of 1985. But instead of gunshots, voices fill the hall. Stazi’s eyes snap open and he finds the double doors wide open, revealing a master suite larger than his entire weekly rent apartment but just as empty of meaningful furniture. Silent Right is no longer silent as he tucks the small cannon back into his waistband and waves him forward. Before Stazi crosses the threshold, the guy puts his meat paw on his shoulder.

“Tomorrow’s password is actually gonna matter so get it down now.”

“Wait, wha—“

“–The superhuman stargazer and his disparaging mainmast covered in desecrated hibiscus.” The whole time Levi Strauss is talking, he’s giving Stazi that weird, one eye lazy look like he should already know this too.

“Was that like the set up or something?”

The guard gives Stazi a shove and shuts the door with a thin click behind him. Inside, the lights are dim and people on the verge of formless move in and out of shadows deep as swimming pools while a man in silken robes sits on a round pillow in the center of the room with his hands poised above the strings of a sitar. Stazi watches him for at least a minute, waiting for the first notes of a song that does not come. At the moment he is about to give up waiting, Ravi Shankar-gone-John-Cage stands and the room fills with gentle applause like someone turning on the fake creek in the front yard of a house where the people have more money than sense.

Stazi’s cheeks are wet before realizes he’s crying and he wants nothing more than to leave, but the door behind him is obscured by bodies he didn’t notice he was stepping over and the round pillow is still empty and the shadows are deepening and in the middle of it all comes a rhythmic slapping that is so familiar that Stazi is filled with dread. He closes his eyes, but the sound draws closer and closer until even with his lids sewn shut in fear, he can picture the small rubber balls spinning from hand to hand, passing each other in the air as they arc up and down, slapping lightly against the palms before repeating their flight.

Michael Dean Clark is a writer of fiction and nonfiction living in San Diego. His work has appeared in Fast Forward, Relief, and Coach’s Midnight Diner among others.

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