Verticordia, Changer of Hearts Part I by Giovanni DiPietrantonio
Blowing a raspberry, I parked the car and gaped at the glowing porte-cochere of the Hilton Fort Collins until my eyes checkered.A deafening yawn tore the corners of my mouth, though I could still feel however many cans of zero ultra frothing in my fingertips.I licked my lips ear to ear and trundled across the parking lot as quickly as my luggage would allow.
I’d expected to meet the redhead at the front desk, but she wasn’t there. I would’ve waited in the car had her coworkers not noticed me. They already knew my name. The clerk made a pair of keycards, his manager asked too many questions. As always, I made a bad impression and took leave of them with a wave. The bar was soon to close.
I held my gimlet like a glass slipper and watched the mute television strobe. I’d forgotten how to breathe, so bruised was my brain. Trying not to shred my nails, I fruitlessly swatted the dandruff ground into my sleeves. Ticklish globs of cold sweat broke underarm. I thumbed her Facebook for a pulse. She was online, or else recently active.
Christ, who can understand the ridiculous price of a little poison. Hope that’s a big enough tip. No, no, fuck this bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch, don’t pay her fucking rent. She’s a bartender, she probably makes more than you. Seems nice, but everyone’s nice. Bullshit, asshole! Okay, but she’s not the love of my life. The love of my life. I’m goin t’ blow maw goddamn head off. No, shut up shut up shut up!
Over my shoulder wove a leggy blur of soft soap and capsaicin through the empty tables stacked with chairs. Gulping down my palpitant heart, I waited for her to say my name, jumping a bit as I turned around.The redhead smiled so wide her blue eyes squinched shut.She opened her arms.
“Are you a hug person?”
“I thought you were wearing a blazer at first!”
“No, it’s some kind of jacket, I think—”
“It looked like a blazer from far away. I almost didn’t recognize you! What happened to your hair? It was poofy, it was nice—”
“It’s not so nice anymore.”
“Oh!” She leaned on her tiptoes and craned her neck, smoothing her eyes over my sheared scalp. “Well, that’s alright, you have a nice-shaped head.”
An old man materialized. He offered his hand.
“Nice to meet you—”
The redhead giggled.
“He’s the maintenance man slash security guard. We work together every night, just the two of us.”
I nodded, shuffling my feet.
“So, I’ll text you when I get off.”
I killed the gimlet and rode the elevator to my room. Undressing, I mounted the toilet like a gargoyle, absently squeezing my sphincter and scrolling the redhead’s feed, though she hadn’t posted for days. I paced in the shower and unwound on the bed, flaccid cock in my fist, wishing upon the full moon for a knock at the door.
Suppose she kissed me goodnight. A chapped peck on the cheek, that’s all. I’d sleep like a log. I’d quit my job and hang a hammock in the crack of her ass. And we can ride the boogie, share that beat of love. Oink, oink. Not a chance. It’s not impossible, but I can’t imagine she gives a flying fuck about your blistering pud anymore. She’s not trying to fall in love. She’s trying to visit Joey and you’re her ride.
Joey moved to Portland for college because Kurt Cobain once lived there. He studied radio broadcasting for a while, dropped out for lack of funds and turned to drink. He can barely hold down a dishwashing job. He’s autistic, that’s why, a sweetheart more often than not, but slow. We’ve spent many hours on the phone having the same conversation about grunge music and killing conservatives. I make him laugh, which makes me feel good, so we get along when I have jokes.
The redhead laughs hard as Joey bearhugs me. He smells so bad, my eyes water. I can’t think of anything funny to say. He looks like his mom, but that’s not funny. His matted mop seems to have thinned out. Looks like we’re both prematurely wasting away. Ope, that’s not funny, either. Standing in a shadow, I watch them rollick with a toothless smile.
It’s past bar close and bedtime, but the redhead wants to buy beer.Her big blue eyes decide for me.Googling grocery stores in my lap, I climb another spaghetti junction and sail through a purple sky of orange starbursts.We each grab a six pack only for the cashier to confiscate everything at the register.You can’t buy alcohol until six.
Dawn is breaking when we check into our room at the Hilton Beaverton.
The redhead wrinkles her nose.
“I can smell my armpits.”
Dropping her luggage, she gently shuts the bathroom door.
I strain my good ear, but the air conditioner tsks and hymns. She’s probably taking another piss. Panties bunched about her ankles, shiny thighs fanned out, pubic mound of goosebumps. She posted such a selfie on Facebook once.
Joey and I stare at each other in the mirror. I can almost taste his greenish aureole of unwashed ass. He slacks his jaw and squints.
“Wait, I’m taller than you?”
“I guess so.”
“What? That’s weird. How am I taller than you?”
“I don’t know—”
“Do you like my leather jacket? I got it from a homeless guy.”
The redhead appears in the mirror.
“I’m really sleepy, so I think I’m gonna go to bed. Which bed do you want?”
I screw up my lips and lean toward both beds twice.
“Okay, I’ll take this one!”
Bellyflopping onto the bed nearest the bathroom, I burrow beneath the covers and squirm like a squished bug. I think it’s funny, having made the same joke some five years earlier in the marital bed of my ex. She laughed. Joey was there, he laughed. I bet the redhead is splitting her sides—
“What’s he doing,” she whispers.
“I don’t know,” Joey mutters.
I surface with a chuckle.
“Ah whiz jess . . . heh—”
“Okie dokie—I’m going to bed now. You can sleep with me if you want, Joey.”
Without a prayer, I watched the sheetrock quiver like a trillion trillion amoebas, fingering the bubble of bone where my cowlick used to grow, the lymph nodes in my neck, tallying those times I’ve almost knocked my teeth out, cock painfully stiff. Tugging the covers over my itchy eyes, I counted backwards from twelve, slowly drowning my good ear in the pulse of the pillow.
My phone juddered.
“Good morning! I’m off now. Just so you know, I have a mystery drug I could bring. Do you think you’ll want to do some? I don’t know what it is.”
“I’ll swill, swallow, smoke, snort, or syringe any substance, doesn’t matter if you found them on the ground or under a sink.”
“lol okie dokey. Meet me at my place. Hayden wants to meet you, just so he knows who I’m going to be spending a week with.”
We shook hands in the parking lot of their complex. I’d been stalking his Facebook for months, jealously trying to fathom his mojo. I know. He plays guitar in a band, so that’s something. He’s taller than me. Not unusual. Full head of hair. Perfectly normal, probably nice, scilicet insufferable. Evil. I can’t believe he gets to live my dreams and I don’t.
The redhead giggled.
“Hayden hasn’t slept in two days—” She gasped and pointed toward the dumpsters. “Look at that chair! It’s so pretty! The neighbors must have made it—our neighbors are acidheads, they paint stuff for a living, like furniture and stuff like that. Babe, can you bring the chair in with you?”
“You smell like ball sack.”
A tipsy smile puddled her face. She swooned against his gut and gazed into his eyes. Should’ve looked away, but I watched them kiss wetly, hindbrain throbbing like a lava lamp. Awestruck, I turned around as though walking on ice and pretended to putz with our luggage.
We waved goodbye and fastened our seatbelts. Punching the address into my phone, I narrowly dodged a clutch of college kids bumbling across the road. She told me to drive slow like Hayden drives. I kept my big toe on the gas and bugged my eyes.
“Wow! Look at the mountains! Goddamn. They’re really something else, huh?”
“Yeah . . . I see them every day, so.”
I didn’t want to say the wrong thing again, so I listened to the redhead bitch and moan. Her very first boyfriend recently committed suicide, her lazy little brother hates her, her sickly little sister grows sicker still, etcetera. The intimacy of her confidences emboldened my roving eye. I fixed upon a lonely pair of freckles satellite her little lips and the slope of her shoulders, not unlike floating islands.
“I’m not boring you, am I?”
“No, no, absolutely not! If anything, I’m afraid I’m boring you.”
“No! I’ve never not had an interesting conversation with you.”
“It’s crazy how we know each other.”
“Yeah, we’ve been through a lot—”
“Yeah. I like that we can just talk, you know? I can talk to you about Wisconsin people. Hayden only pretends to listen when I talk about Wisconsin people.”
“Yeah, it’s great, especially after not talking for three years.”
“Yeah . . . Joey said you said we had a falling out, but I never thought that . . .”
“Well, I guess we didn’t, then . . .”
“Can we stop somewhere when you get a chance? Sorry—I have to pee.”
“You don’t have to apologize! I’ll stop at the next stop.”
The redhead dropped the seat and dozed in the plains outside Cheyenne. Tubular factories blew smoke, a lonely hotel kicked rocks. Crinkle cut clouds of frosted glass blanched the cold sunshine. I couldn’t keep both eyes open. The roar of the road and the warmth of the vent mellified me. Watching the redhead murmur in her sleep, I forced down a black smile.
I’m such a piece of shit. But she already knows I’m a homewrecker, so there. It doesn’t matter. You’re allowed to eat her dirty ass in your dreams. It’s not like you’re going to do anything. I never do anything to anyone, I always mind my business, that’s why I’m all alone, obliged to drive a thousand miles plus for the company of a beautiful woman my age. I’m so pathetic, someone pity me!
Besides, I’m told all that twiddly diddly, kissy, kissy chocolate-covered high school sweetheart bullshit’s make-believe. Every great romance an economic transaction toward the biological imperative. Marriage a tax rebate, divorce a coin toss. Sex is rape, your parents don’t care for you, no one does, statistically speaking, you’re nothing special, so what’s there to love.
They’re not soulmates, they’re roommates. They’ll break up as soon as the lease ends. I’m good.
The sky grew dark. Fat snowflakes pebbled the windshield and smothered the headlights. Several wailing
semis loomed in the fast lane, bleeding my knuckles white. Easing the gas, I let them pass, cascades of slush beating down on the hood. Glancing at the redhead, I noticed a black cat standing in the snow on the side of the road, a paw in the air. I slammed the brakes as the black cat dove under my wheels.
“Good morning,” she yawns, stretching with a squeak.
“Good morning, man.”
“How did you sleep?”
“Oh—I couldn’t fall asleep . . . I mean, I must’ve slept a little, I think, yeah, but I kept waking up—”
“Oh!” The redhead furrows her brow, though her eyes remain huge and round. “Aren’t you tired?”
“No, no, I’m good—”
“Oh—okie dokie! Do you still need to use the bathroom?”
“No, go ahead—”
“Can I borrow your deodorant,” Joey whispers.
He slept in his clothes and refuses to bathe. Peeling his greasy shirt over his face, he fumblingly daubs his hairless pits and names those politicians he wants dead. We’ve already had this conversation.
“Why don’t you, y’know, why don’t you just get a bunch of guns and go shoot them? If you want something done right—”
“No! No,” he shouts, whipping his head. “No, fuck that! They should shoot themselves!”
Wrapped in a towel, the redhead stoops over her suitcase. Joey and I turn our backs out of courtesy.
“Try to be a little quieter,” she coos. “I don’t want to get in trouble.”
“Sorry . . .”
We keep our backs to the bathroom until water rustles in the walls. Slapping a ragged rubber band in his palm, Joey blusters as I stare at her suitcase, flowering with colorful panties and plain bras. He eventually shuts his mouth and broods over a string of beads. She’s playing French music on her phone. That and the blow dryer rockabye, but the snap of the lock rouses me.
She’s wearing a black tank top and miniskirt, hoop earrings and red lips. Bending over the desk, she piles her damp hair and paints her eyes like a pharaoh. Joey and I take turns floating compliments. A leather jacket, platform boots, and little handbag complete her.
“So, what do you want to do? I don’t have much money to spend, just so you know . . .”
“That’s alright, I’ve budgeted a thousand dollars for this trip—”
Her eyes pop.
“That reminds me, here—”
I conspicuously hand Joey a crisp blue hundred.
“Sweet! Thanks, dude!”
He insists upon his favorite pizza parlor, where every pizza is named for a rock band. He struggles to name all of them as we ride the elevator downstairs and mill around the car. The redhead suggests calling a cab. I shove both hands in my pockets and shrug. I’m so fried, it’s all I can do to stay standing.
She fixes her eyes on me. Though its sunny, her pupils are huge.
“Did I ever tell you why me and Justin broke up?”
I shake my head.
“I went to the park, you know, where we lived, next to the Domes, I went to that park to swing—there was this little girl there trying to feed the ducks . . . so I went to go get a piece of bread for her. And Justin freaked out, like I was wasting food or something, I don’t know, he just freaked out and shoved me into a cabinet. I moved out that same day . . .”
“Shit, I didn’t know that. That’s fucked up.”
“Yeah, that’s fucking bullshit,” Joey mumbles, twirling his string of beads. “Fuck him.”
She seems to stare at me with the whole of her face.
“So, what do you want do?”
We ditch the car on a dead-end street and slouch toward Old Town. After picking through an antique shop, where the redhead buys a pair of purple sunglasses, we cross the Burnside Bridge, snapping pictures of the White Stag sign. Joey points out Big Pink, whose head chef he vows to murder, and a strip club where Courtney Love used to dance.
By the time we reach the pizza parlor, his exuberance has exhausted me. What’s more, I’m dead sober and unbelievably horny. I order the ace of spades, the ace of spades and slurp my slice with an air of disgust. The glare of the failing sun on the floor makes my teeth grind. Joey chews with his mouth open, eyes shut, head cocked back like a baby bird choking down raw cinnamon.
I steal a glance at the redhead as she quaffs a tall beer, but her eye lands on me.
“What did you get?”
Joey hears a song he likes and excitedly chronicles the history of the band. I’m reminded of a talking hand and its shadow. The redhead answers him with her eyes in mine.
“Hayden plays guitar.He’s in a band.” Thumbing through her phone, she opens their Facebook page and plays a song with a shrug. “They’re okay.”
Total fucking applesauce, you stupid, stupid idiot. Yeah, you’re right, they’re okay. Why you would date an okay guitarist is beyond me. Better to date the world’s worst woodblock player. Whosoever lays claim to such a title is bound to impress. This goddamn hack is e-begging someone to dance with his girlfriend. Please, excuse my language, but I’ve heard retarded cripples with fused fingers speak much worse of Kurt Cobain while folding boxes in a billiards warehouse. And your boyfriend is not Kurt Cobain, so fuck him!
We trash our trash and pick through the largest independent bookstore in the world. Such a grimace twists my face, I can’t help cracking a smile. Laughter swells my cheeks only for tears to prickle my eyes. The redhead seems to notice. I avoid her gaze lest she read my mind, worse yet, ask what’s wrong. There’s no delicate way to tell someone you’re suffering because they won’t fuck you.
We leave the bookstore through another door and drift. The city turns blue as the sun scabs over. Stoops and alleyways leak smoky shadows full of eyes. Several misshapen brutes smack their lips and whistle after the redhead. Crossing her arms, she quickens her pace.
“Where are we going?”
Just like that, we’re lost. Joey doesn’t recognize this block. Neither do I remember where we parked. We ought to turn back, that I’m sure, but I don’t say so. Joey suggests we keep walking and take a bus back to the car.
The redhead agrees.
A bum draped in a green comforter staggers toward us, craning his neck as though he fell out of the sky. We make way, but he trips over his feet and bumps into the redhead.
“Stupid bitch,” he snarls. “Fuck you, whore . . .”
He almost loses his balance but for me.
“Hillbilly loser . . .”
I smile and clap my hands.
“Thank you, thank you, fucking asshole!”
“Fuck you . . .”
“Keep talking,” I scream, shaking my fist.
We resolve to ask someone for directions at the bus station. The first black people I’ve seen in days chill under the marquee. The only woman among them staggers in circles, flailing her arms and speaking in tongues, upside down eyes like buffalo eggs. We hurry through the door. Joey immediately seeks out a toilet.
Staring at her feet, hands clasped near her crotch, the redhead seems to have shrunk.She slowly raises her big blue eyes.Black tears warp like hot knives in her lashes.
“Am I dressed slutty?”
She gasps as though her heart has popped. Her entire face breaks. She’s unrecognizable for a moment.
I puff my chest and narrow my brow.
“No, you’re not.”
But she hangs her head, having made up her mind.
My heart falls like a whale and turns to stone in the toe of my shoe. I clench a fist as Joey flickers through the crowd. I want to bust his lip as soon as he opens his mouth. Some friend. Whatever, he doesn’t give a fuck about me. Vote Republican this year and you’ll never hear from him again, that’s for sure.
We ask for directions at the desk, but no one heeds them, so we mope across the street and wait for a bus in the middle of the sidewalk. The sun falls further. Joey starts walking, the redhead follows. I trail her heel, trying not to stare so hungrily at her thighs, casting an eyeball over my shoulder now and again as though I’d stand a chance against a larger predator.
We cross another bridge, a crocodile of joggers and bikers clipping our elbows. What a freak show of barefaced ambition! These goddamn busybodies think they’re going to live forever. But they’re as thin as skeletons doing a danse macabre. As it happens, the redhead is way too skinny. Lord willing, I’ll give her plenty children and feed her fast food until her legs are lumpy and her tits point down.
A big fat housewife, that’s the dream. I’d suffer every mortification on the ladder to midheaven with stoical pride if only a big fat housewife kissed my wounds after a long day. And should I lose my grip and putrefy in beggary, only a big fat housewife could possibly cushion my coffin. Absent a big fat housewife, all the world high and low seems like shit on a shingle.
Streetlights blossom in the black trees. We march in single file, silent but for the orange pavement ringing underfoot. It seems as though we’ll never get where we’re going. Assuming our lives are over, I’m compelled to tell the redhead I’ve fallen madly in love with her. Fuck the car, fuck Joey, let’s fuck! Tuck your legs behind your ears and take my cock in the wad of meat and blood and mucus at the bottom of your heart! My guts flashover to the point of fever.
The sight of a green cross instantly convalesces me. Dazzling buds with first and last names repose in showcases like precious stones. How sweet it is! To think you used to have to call every stoner from high school and wait hours to buy a five sac of seedy schwag from a friend of an acquaintance in a handicapped stall at Wendy’s. I bashfully buy a couple joints of Obama Kush.
We eventually track down the car only to simmer through a traffic jam for another eternity.I watch the redhead in the rearview mirror, wondering why she didn’t ride shotgun this time.She’s facedown in her phone, probably texting her boyfriend.Maybe she’s homesick.
But the hotel already feels like home.I apologize for my lousy attitude in the elevator.Neither of them say anything.That’s good enough for me. We take turns in the bathroom and go outside to smoke.I’m fiending, but I let Joey have the first hit.His glasses gleam for a moment in the blaze of my Bic mini.Shivering like the little match girl, I breathe deeply and fly to the moon, gills on my face.