I moped with insatiable longing for things unexplained that afternoon inside Norms. It was a typically self-involved day alone with my own incompleteness. Seated near me at the counter was an ashen derelict nursing a glass of ice water in which floated a combination of suds and food particles and stringy backwash. He read a book that, from my angle, appeared to be The Autobiography of Larry Tate, though I could be quite mistaken. My eyes have gotten worse lately, worse than my memory. I do recall having read a review of a book bearing that title or one similar. It was, if I remember correctly, which is not at all likely, a delusional narrative by a psychotic savant named, of all things, Alan Funt (for reals), who believed himself to be the character Larry Tate from the television show Bewitched. The book had gained an underground following mostly for its opening line: "Call me Derwood Kirby's boss, or not," which became a catch-phrase in hipster communities from coast to coast. Apparently, the author spends most of the book denouncing civilized behavior as some kind of cultic brainwashed conspiracy. I have some recollection that Funt was arrested for dancing naked down the aisle of a cathedral during Easter Mass, holding his rod and screaming, "I got yer resurrection right here!" But maybe I'm wrong. Yes, maybe I'm thinking of someone else.
Anyway, this indigent specter was sipping at the ice water, enthralled in his reading, while I sat sadly a few stools away, avoiding the pathetic piece of cherry pie I had ordered (is there anything sadder than pie?), letting the ice cream atop it ooze down the sides and fill the plate with soupy puddles which slowly joined into one. Why had I come here? Nothing else to do, that's all. I floated bits of napkin in the melted ice cream and thought about a girl for whom I felt passionate unrequited love. I ran down the familiar litany of phrases I would never use to tell her of my feelings during the myriad confessional scenarios I would never actually let transpire. It was a productive afternoon indeed.
There were several other desperate characters happening. One was an owlish asshole scribbling (a screenplay probably) onto legal paper, convinced of his soon to be recognized genius. I only call him an asshole, I suppose, because I was envious of him, of his ability to believe in what he was doing. He did look like an owl, though.
A middle-aged woman applied make-up and brushed her hair before a hand held mirror, which action would not have seemed extraordinary but for the fact that she continued for over an hour and was still fast at it when I was finally forced to leave. I attempted to eavesdrop on the conversation she was having with herself, but it was just so much muddled muttering about a guy called He who had done all kinds of insensitive neglectful male bullshit to a girl called She. It did, however, validate all the romantic relationships I had successfully avoided. I think I'm a lot like her mirror.
An elderly black gentleman raised spoonfuls of chicken broth to his purplish quivering lips and slurped loudly while staring straight ahead at the halved grapefruits and cantaloupes and bowls of jello with whipped cream on top in the glass display case behind the counter. Next to him a pudgy, bald man wearing a service station attendant's uniform with Ramrod stitched into the left breast pocket was pulling postcards from a shopping bag, saying to his shaky neighbor, who wasn't listening, "And my friend sent me this from Sydney, but my friend's name isn't Sydney, you know, only he went to Sydney, Australia, on vacation, and this one's from a gal I used to go with a long time ago; she's in Hawaii now with a husband, but I think she still has a thing for me; why else would she be sending me a postcard, right? And get this: this one's from a place called Kingdom Come; it's a whorehouse near Vegas. Check out the sign: right under where it says 'Kingdom Come' there's a smaller sign that says 'Get Blown Here.' And they're not kidding, right? Then there's this one from the President Of The United States asking me who would I rather fuck: Samantha Stevens or Ann Marie? And ya wanna know the truth? I'd fuck Ann Marie first. Right in front of her closet-homosexual boyfriend Donald Hollinger. I'd fuck That Girl. Get it? I'd fuck her like Mrs. Livingston riding the throbbing rod of Mr. Eddie's Father. I'd be greasing that thing, like a piston, dude. There's a reason they call me Ramrod. But the one I really want is Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island. Dawn Wells sent me a postcard once. But I kind of wore it out. Oh, and here, my freng, check this shit out: I am about to show you a postcard from a ghost, no kidding, see the postmark? Limbostan. Ghost country. Creepy, huh?" And on and on he paraded these communications from afar. The black guy just kept lifting that lukewarm soup to his lips. Insulted at the lack of interest, Ramrod scoffed, "You know, that soup looks like piss."
"Yeah, well, listen, you smell like real shit, man."
"Hey, that's my colostomy bag, buddy, I can't help it, you know."
"Yeah, well, just watch what you say about my soup. I was enjoying it fine. I don't care what it look like. I'm just tryna get some nourishment. And I'm sick of listening to your crazy-ass bullshit about people you pretending to know."
"Well, fuck me for tryna be friendly. Cheeses of Nazareth!"
The walls of the coffee shop were adorned with oil paintings for sale, $19.95 each, $29.95 for the ones on black velvet. Seascapes, portraits of Elvis, dogs playing poker, James Dean and Humphrey Bogart talking to Marilyn Monroe in a diner, girls with large breasts leaning against hot-rods, a couple of sad clowns. I asked the manager if there were docent tours available, perhaps the celebrity-narrated pre-recorded kind. He accused me of being too "retro-chic ironical" (as he termed it) and told me to "take it to Silver Lake."
One curious couple seemed interested in a portrait of Judy Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz flanked by the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. The male half of the couple stroked his chin as the conditioned to be sexually repressed female half remarked, "Wouldn't it look good in the den?"
"Yeah, but that's a lot of money for a painting, don't you think? $19.95. I don't know."
"It's an investment!" shouted the restaurant manager, running over to drive home the sale.
"I don't know," continued the intrinsically exploitative male, "Do you got one with Toto in it?"
The manager sadly told him no. The couple looked at each other and shook their heads. "It's just too many lottery tickets," they agreed, "and we're definitely not paying no $19.95 for a Wizard of Oz painting that doesn't got Toto in it." They left the premises, heading home to fuck probably because that's all he ever wants to do. And she does whatever he wants. While he's fucking her, she fantasizes that he's Derwood Kirby's boss, or not, but it doesn't help. She remains unmoved by the situation.
"Philistines," the manager snarled as he went back to poring over a menagerie of ledgers and calculator tapes strewn across the corner of the counter.
How can so much sadness persist, and in such oblivious ignorance of itself?
With the steamy cloud-castles in my coffee blurry swirling, I contemplated nothing and what it doesn't mean and the way she holds a cigarette and tucks that lick of hair behind her ear and smiles at my jokes and how I can't allow myself to let any of that matter, when I became aware of being watched. And I was correct in my sensing. Two black eyes attached to a gaunt face formed around a fat, lazy mouth saying, "I won't hurt you. I don't want to hurt you. Don't make me hurt you."
"What do you want?" I asked, bowels suddenly churning.
"Could you call my mother?"
I was clearly puzzled. This was a grown man before me.
"I don't know how to use the phone," he explained.
"What do you want me to say?"
"However you can somehow get her to come rescue me before I hurt someone I'd sure appreciate it. Otherwise I might kill somebody, and I don't want it to be my fault. But if my mother comes it doesn't have to happen," he said.
Suddenly very anxious to help the man, I escorted him to the public phone outside Norms. He gave me a number that was written down on a carefully folded piece of paper he had removed slowly from his left breast pocket. Above the number the word HOME was printed neatly. "What's your name?" I asked as the phone rang.
"Uh, hello, I'm here with . . . Rod. He seems a bit confused. Is this his mother?"
"Honey I'm not his mother. This is The Home. That man is dangerous. You need to call the PO-lice. They'll bring him back here." Dangerous? What did that mean? The air began to smell like helium. Was I about to be murdered at a pay phone outside Norms on La Cienega Boulevard? I called 911. They put me through to the PO-lice.
"Yes, I've got a very disturbed man here who says he needs a ride to The Home," I said.
"Just stay cool. Where are you?," gasped the cop.
"Outside Norms. On La Cienega Boulevard."
"All right. Got it. Stay cool. What's the guy's name?"
"Shit. Damn. Rod. All right. Just stay cool; I'm dispatching cars right now. Tell Rod you've gotten him a ride home. But stay cool. Tell him his mother's coming. Whatever you do stay cool, OK? Don't panic. That guy's a leprechaun lunatic. But stay cool. And stay outside Norms."
"Sure ting, mon," I said, tryna stay cool by going all Rastafarian and shit.
I told Rod that his mother was coming to take him home. He smiled a childish grin.
"I'm gonna invite you to my birthday party," he said warmly, "You're gonna be the guest of honor. Today's my birthday."
I patted his shoulder. "How old are you?" I asked, looking at his lined visage, beginning to get the picture.
"Nine," he answered, "Nine years old."
He wasn't going to hurt anyone.
"Call me if you can come to my birthday, Mr. Derwood Kirby's boss," Rod said.
"I will," I almost funted. What I really wanted to say was, "Smile! You're on Candid Camera!" Or perhaps I was hoping those words would be spoken to me. Both are possible.
"There's gonna be a party in Heaven," Rod called to me, as I left him, "And clowns'll come and sweep away our sad times, I promise."
I waved through the window at Rod as I climbed into my car. I turned right onto La Cienega Boulevard and headed north, away from Norms, toward everything. In my rearview mirror I could see the PO-lice converge on the lot, surrounding Rod, guns drawn.
I'm not sure if any of this really happened. I don't even know if it was really Rod's birthday or not.
Maybe he was lying.