Monday, November 1, 2010

Wantu and the Pigeon

It is not Wantu alone who causes the bowels to quiver. Yes, he is unusual, even bizarre. At first, moving at the periphery, he is often mistaken for a child or "little person," but he lacks the energy and ease of a child and his odd, diminutive stature is without the odd proportions, the wobbly gate, the starched eyes of dwarfs. It takes a closer gaze before one realizes the lined forehead, the mouse-haired mustache, the wizened eyes, the sagging paunch common to middle-aged men. It is only then that you might feel an interior shiver, the kind of startled awareness one experiences when encountering the non-categorical. And it takes awhile, some sifting through the mental databanks, the medical trivia, the barroom tales before one finds the word, the symbol for the reality before you. For Wantu is a halfling, a man in miniature.

Even when this unusual creature is fully received, it is not Wantu himself that creates a shudder of alertness. There is an unwritten protocol when we, the seemingly able-bodied, encounter the disfigured—we become friendly. We smile. We offer a chair. We're eager for small talk. We demure, as if the misshapen creature contains royal blood. I suppose the reason is two-fold: though each of us is as self-centered and greed-driven as the basest Wall-Street trader, nevertheless, our interior reporting is much more generous. We tell ourselves we are one of the good eggs, kinder than most. When encountering such a clear opportunity to assure ourselves of our angelic nature, we feel compelled to play the part of the charitable. Secondly, some remnant of the ancient religion still lives within our spine, incanting the Gods’ demand for sacrifice and suffering: a lamb burned, an enemy’s heart eaten, a virgin thrown from the mountain. In the presence of Wantu there is a genuine gratitude that rises up from us, a relief that we have not been chosen to carry the necessary curse, the scourge of being unusual.

Yet it is not Wantu’s pint-sized anatomy nor his tiny mustache nor Native-American cheekbones that causes the deep discomfort in those he encounters. It is the pigeon. The pigeon at Wantu’s side. The pigeon with the oil sheen neck and empty gaze. The pigeon who has been to the center of the turning world and found it utterly empty, and not as Buddha intended. It is this pigeon that causes you to hoist your children. This pigeon who causes the sphincter to clench. It is this pigeon who exists without name nor lineage.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Dancing Wantu

Wantu danced, sort of. He looked at the ground, dropped his shoulders, let his arms hang loose in front of him. He'd bend at the waist and sort of shuffle a twisting path without any discernible timing. After awhile he'd shrug, then lift his head, look upward, then return to his drooping shuffle.
"It makes me sad," my wife told me one night after watching Wantu dance, unnoticed, at the edge of the classic car rally.
"You mean because it's so bad?" I summarized.
"No. Because it just makes me sad."

Monday, October 5, 2009

One Time We Made a Boat

One time we made a boat.

I woke up in the rail yard on a floral quilt pulled from a Motel 8, my brain swollen thick, my chest anchored in silt and shame. I sat up to relieve my sore shoulder and the sun skipped off the Bacardi Gold and struck my eyes blind. I raised my hand, picked up the half empty bottle and hurled it with a powerful self-hatred. I had never been to the abandoned rail yard and yet the place was familiar—the disorientation, the head full of tears, the dull repetition of failure. I stood, buckled my jeans, and spotted the freeway duplex where I’d once dropped Wantu. I stepped through the weeds and junkyard earth, climbed the bank, and knocked.

He came to the door grinning in an orange winter vest. I inquired about the bird and he pointed to the overpass. I narrowed my eyes and saw a flutter of grey just beyond the railroad cars, alighting in the narrow space between concrete supports. I asked, uncertain, if I could come in. He turned and walked, leaving the door wide. I followed him through the bare gypsum hallway into a dining room with red brick linoleum, a pinewood children’s table, two pine children’s chairs, and a chain link chandelier with pentagons of plastic amber. He sat in a chair that fit him and poured chocolate milk into two tarnished baby cups. I sat into the other seat, my oversized body squatting like an obscenity. He slid a silver cup. I held it and deciphered the cursive engraving: Julia Margaret Campbell 5-23-52. We thank God for you this day!

I emptied the tepid chocolate and suddenly lost all purpose. What was I doing? Why had I come here? What did I want? I blushed, feeling lost in my being, when Wantu said, “You want to build a boat?” I stared at him not knowing how to react. He stared back. “Sure,” I shrugged. He stood and we walked downstairs, through a darkened garage that smelled of burnt leaves and orange peels and headed through a hand-cut doorway out to a field of star thistle, glittering glass, neat stacks of railroad ties, and wrappers fluttering like racing flags. We followed a thin rabbit trail down to a creek I never noticed before, a creek with clumps of cattails and wild willow branches growing thick along level banks. The water was thin and sickly, clotted with plastic bottles, a clump of faded panties, a leg of jeans, submerged shopping bags, and other signs of the careless human beast. We stepped like cranes until we came to a clearing bordered with tilting oaks and clusters of washed-out foxtails. He pointed to a log, a clean, skinned, beeswax trunk, sitting in a nest of its own golden shavings. “It’s cedar,” he said with pleasure. Once he said it, I tuned my senses and noticed the warm fragrance. It was like breathing a mother’s prayer, and it gave me a sudden urge to surrender tears. I walked over and placed my hand on the primitive vessel. The boat was maybe seven or eight feet in length, shaped more like a bathtub then a canoe, it’s edges heavy and thick, the inside pounded like a copper kettle, the heartwood as red as sunset.

Behind me Wantu stood sticks within an ashen circle of stones. He gestured to the trees and I walked over and collected the dried branches. He made a cone of kindling then placed a ball of dried grass at its center and lit it with a cheap yellow lighter. The grey branches were soon aflame and Wantu walked back along the trail returning with chunks of splintered ties. He placed the tarred wood on the kindling until the fire turned tall and blue and smoke billowed thick like a steam engine. Wantu stood back and smiled. We walked to the water’s edge where Wantu showed me an aluminum stock pot, the lip as tall as Wantu’s waist. We filled it halfway with water and then I waddled it back to the fire where Wantu helped me position it on a platform of cement blocks, until its bottom was wrapped in flames. Then Wantu gathered stones as big as cantaloupes and dropped them into the pot. I looked at him questioningly. “To soften the wood,” he said and pointed to the boat. He stood and waited for me to piece it together. “We pour this into the boat…” I asked. He nodded. “Then we dig it out?” He held up the sharp rock and smiled. “Ah-ha!,” I smiled, grateful for the plan.

We sat and waited for the water to boil. Wantu pulled out two dimestore, corncob pipes from his vest. They were new with tiny stickers on the stem that read “Made in Taiwan.” He pulled out a red foil bag and poured a mixture into each bowl. I looked closely in my bowl and noticed what looked like dried apple, splinters of cinnamon, and clove spikes. Wantu smiled and handed me the plastic lighter. I lit the concoction and took a hard draw. It burned my tongue, bit my throat, and fumigated all oxygen from my lungs. I stood reflexively and began to cough. “What the hell is this?” I shouted at him. Wantu, pipe stem clamped at the edge of his mouth, looked at me with concern, then handed me the foil bag. The package had an ornamented pine tree and read: Christmas Seasons’ Old World Mulled Wine.” “Wantu, this isn’t tobacco! This isn’t for smoking,” I admonished him. “This is for wine. At Christmas time.”
“But I like Christmas,” he said apologetically. I was stunned.

“Oh. You like Christmas. O.K.” Then Wantu looked down. “You are right. This is terrible,” he said shaking his head. And then, for no reason at all, I started to laugh. And then Wantu looked up at me and laughed. We laughed and looked at one another, and before I knew it, I had started over again.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Dear Anonymous: The Headband That Haunts Me

Dear Anonymous,

Wow. You "hate me?" Remember what Freud says, "Hate and love are twins." If you feel that kind of intensity, I'm guessing there is also an attraction. Trust me friend, Wantu's spirit is working on you.

You want to know why I write this? Well, I guess I'm used to a public search for the truth. AA breeds that into you. They way they make you tell secrets within a room full of strangers. That's what I'm doing, Dear Anonymous, I'm working out my secrets. My friendship with Wantu is my deepest secret. I don't know why, but this blog pulls Wantu out of me so I can see him, see what he's been up to in the back of my head. Doesn't everyone we meet live within us in some way?

Like this morning. I woke up and remembered this terry cloth headband. It was white and said "Atlanta Braves" on the front in blood orange lettering with tiny tomahawks above the ears. It was the kind of thing Bruce Jenner would've worn in 1976. Absolutely ridiculous now. One morning Wantu showed up wearing this headband while the pigeon wore a matching band of elastic string--the kind of string you'd pull from the waistband of your underpants. For weeks he wore that headband and the bird mirrored him. Let me tell you something my Dear Anonymous, I've got a standing inquiry on e-bay and craigslist offering real cash to anyone who has one of those Braves headbands. I don't know why. I think it would give me some sort of peace to have one now.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Incident at TippyCanoe

When Roy and I entered the TippyCanoe with Wantu, and the two men at the bar turned and laughed, and the red nosed man said to Wantu, "Puberty can be hell!" and they both fell into laughter. Well, I remember Wantu staring and smiling, like a true imbecile, enjoying the laughter. But Roy, protective of the little guy, noticed the nametag hanging from the comic's neck and said, "Hey Digby. I don't know if you were notified, but all rights to humor at the expense of others were revoked when you were born. Because your name is Digby. Dig. By. You see? Your mother marked you, so that all would know that you are to be the butt, the brunt, the laughing stock--the Digby that causes women to twitter at the sound of your name and then continue walking."

Then Digby rose from his stool in a threatening manner and the air went stiff and I thought Roy was going to suffer violence, when Wantu suddenly stepped forward and hugged Digby's leg. He hugged and continued hugging until Digby went from shock, to embarrassment, to tears. Roy apologized, careful not to repeat Digby's name, and we took a table and ordered three O'Doul's premium non-alcholic beers while the pigeon stared at us through the streetside window.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

An Open Letter to My Anonymous Commentator

Dear Anonymous,

Why do you continue to send comments to me? I admit this blog is futile. I will not defend it or myself. Believe me, "pathetic" is often how I feel, not only about this site but about my life in general. I too often wonder if Wantu is real or a sign of some deeper disturbance within me; and if my experience of Wantu is simply some sort of illusion or psychological break, then how sad that would be, for Wantu is truly a pathetic figure and his bird, even more so. My experience of Wantu was, and continues to be, sadness upon sadness upon sadness. And the pigeon, well he just left me cold. If you have any advice, Anonymous, for how I might attract some other figures to interact with in my life, I would like to hear it. I do continue to attend AA. I do not do drugs. Wantu is as real as any experience I've every encountered (I realize this may not be saying much). The changes in me can only be traced to him. Please don't be angry with me Anonymous, it just makes me envious, envious for a kind of ignorance I can no longer enjoy.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Wantu's First AA Meeting

What I remember from that first meeting is the bird. The bird standing, unaccompanied, in the Christian education wing of First Presbyterian Church. It was a young woman in a baby blue windbreaker who drew our attention. Arriving a good half hour after the meeting had started she gave a series of "Whoos!" in the hallway. Startled, we stood and pushed our way out of the classroom and saw the woman pressed against the nursery room door with the pigeon silhouetted against the green exit light. An old drunk named Wolfgang elbowed forward to get a better look, then stepped back onto my boots at the sight of the two-legged creature. The facilitator, a security guard and recovering crackhead, took charge. After directing a flat-topped woman to crack the basement door, he encouraged us all to make clapping sounds. It was in the midst of this applause that Wantu stepped out from the men's room. Our hands slowed as the little man looked up and down the hallway, strode over to the pigeon, bent down, cupped the bird in both hands, and dropped it down the front of his shirt. The bird sank beneath Wantu's buttoned plaid, then rebounded, his profile emerging at Wantu's nape, the left claw visible above the third button.

The room went still. We stared, releasing a disturbed silence. Like stumbling across a missionary in the bush, we natives of the First Presbyterian AA meeting weren't sure if we should filet the odd stranger or welcome him.

It's not unusual to see a human being with a bird--a pedestrian shouldering a golden Macaw or a colorful neighbor with an African grey parrot, but to hold against one's breast a bird that is commonly seen scrounging in dumpsters, shitting in parking lots, pecking at dried french fries; to have this bird, with a single red-ringed eye staring, as Wolfgang later remarked, "was like finding a man in an alley with his fly down and his one-eyed monster gaping at you." It was Scott, the facilitator, who ended the stand-off. Familiar to the range of human perversities he called to us, "Circle up."

I can't say why Wantu attended the Wednesday night meeting at First Presbyterian Reno; maybe he just needed a restroom. The more time I spent with Wantu, the more I realized his decision making process was unconscious--although that may be overstated. It might be more accurate to say that his thinking wasn't conscious. Wantu seemed to think in instincts: He needed a bathroom so he walked into the nearest building. A man said, "Circle up," and having no other appointments, he joined the circle.

The meeting began with the reading of the creed: a description of human weakness, an invitation to transparency, a dream of restoration. Wantu sat, his feet eighteen inches from the floor, the bird's face pressed against his hairless chest--the red eye watching without expression, just like his companion.

As custom, we began to open and release the carnal desires--wild turkey, Kentucky bourbons, forty ounce malts. We talked until we all smelled of death and tears. When it came Wantu's turn you could taste the curiousity on our lips, voyeurs every one. Wantu began to speak. What he shared at this first meeting and subsequent gatherings was so strikingly plain and domestic that we couldn't help but weight his words with our own burdens. What did Wantu say? I can't quote him directly. Most of it was entirely forgettable. He'd say something like:

"The pond filters in the park turn on at five a.m. The ducks do not mind. A man with a green jacket lays seed at the water's edge. That is how the ducks get food."
We'd nod at one another thinking: He got wasted on Cold Duck and woke up in the park.