Excerpt from the novel FIZZ
BY PAUL TOTH
I'm sitting in Ray's Bar on New Year's Eve. In the mirror behind the liquor bottles I see my bushy hair, a pair of teardrop wire rims, and a Raiders jersey--not a pretty picture. That's when I decide to change my style. I tell myself that's what it's about now, style. I even think about changing my name to Ray Style. It sounds good to me. Hip.
I'm in this new place because it's called Ray's--same as my first name, Ray. Figure it'll make a good pickup line. Like some hot girl asks, "What's your name honey?" and I say, "It's Ray, just like the bar we're in." Then she slaps her hand on the bar, cracking up.
Now I start drinking faster. Pretty soon the bar's glowing orange, red, and pink, and everything's blinking, bottles fizzing. My mind's going super fast. I feel like I'm gonna spin out. I sit there grinning, looking around at people, grinning, maybe talking to myself a little, then laughing, grinning.
After a while, the bartender grabs my arm. "Hey, you. Let's go, white boy. Come on, get out of here."
"Okay, okay," I say, but I'm thinking, Hey pops, I should dot your eye.
I take off out the door, and then I'm pimp walking down the street like I got billiard balls up my ass, the whole town a cartoon. The cars whiz by. The air goes through my skin. I'm still wearing Hush Puppies, but sweet Jesus I feel cool. My name should be Ice Ray.
At home, I already feel like I got three, four women in bed with me. I can smell their perfume, and they're saying, "Ray, oh Ray." I fall asleep with a big smile, the stars winking at me, singing, "Oh Ray...oh Ray...oh Ray!"
Next day I'm strutting by the shops, my reflection popping and bending in the store windows. I go in a few places--bam--see the prices, and I'm already thinking that there's no way this is gonna happen, no way. The sun struck a damn match on my dream, and now it's burning up.
I got rent $600 a month to live in my neighborhood, which isn't a great neighborhood, but you could do worse. You go with the cockroaches, maybe you get down to $250 a month. That's when I figure it out. The only house that matters is the clothes on my back. That's gonna be my roof now. And if I cut the rent to buy some threads, and some hot girl says, "Let's go back to your place," all I got to say is, "Let's go to yours, honey."
Later that day, I take the bus to the east side. It's mostly black over there. Well, with my personality some people believe I think I'm better than everybody else, but Ray Style don't think he's better than nobody else.
But when I step off the bus, the first thing that happens is some black kid points at me and says to his friend, "Check out that big monkeyhead lookin' motherfucker," and they both start laughing. I turn around, flash them the peace sign, and they start rolling on the sidewalk, laughing even harder. I don't get the joke, so I just move on. I knew I'd find places to rent, so I don't bother checking out the want ads. After about an hour and a half, I find a little building, a square, orange, two story building with windows for eyes and a door for a mouth. Funny thing is, it's only a half mile from Ray's Bar, so I guess I belong here. And to prove it, here's a guy locking the front door with a loop full of keys in his hand."
"Hey, you the landlord?"
He turns around, pulls a cigar out of his mouth and says, "Huh?"
"You the landlord?"
"Your sign says room for rent."
He looks at the sign. "I don't know, man. You got a job?"
"Sure I got a job. Plus my dad left me a bunch of money. I got it in the bank. I get a certain amount every month."
"What job you got, then? I need to know the rent's on time every month."
"Well, I guess I don't got one right now, but like I said--"
"I don't know," he says, shaking his head. "You got proof of that money in the bank?"
"Sure I do." I take my bankbook out of my back pocket, hand it to him. "It's a little torn up, see, because I--"
He flips through it, looks up at me, flips through it. "Your daddy rich or what?"
"Not rich. He took a ton of insurance out, I mean like a ton, when I was a baby, and what's he do but go and die?"
"Jesus Christ. Well, I don't know, man. I mean, you talk kind of funny. You all right?"
"I talk funny?"
"Like some kind of cartoon or something."
"That's just my style."
He puts his hands on his hips, sighs. "All right, I'll show you the place. It's not in too good of shape, though."
He opens the door. We go up a long flight of lime green stairs. "Can't you afford a better neighborhood than this?"
"I only get so much money a month, but I'm doing me a new budget."
He opens the door. He's right, it ain't much. There's some holes in the walls about fist size, and some of the wallpaper's peeling. I'm looking around for bugs mostly. I don't like bugs. "What about bugs?" I ask.
"No bugs. Nobody ever complained about 'em anyway. I get the place sprayed twice a year. If that's what you're worried about, you won't have any problems."
Now I know I'm supposed to think, act smart, hem haw around about it, but I just say, "All right." He pauses, like he's supposed to think about it, except he is thinking about it. I can tell by his eyebrows. "All right," he finally says. "Come back tomorrow at ten in the morning. You sign the lease, give me two hundred dollars for the first month, another two hundred for the deposit. Then I'll give you the keys."
It's dusk. I already paid the landlord all but twenty bucks, which he said I could give him the next day. I couldn't figure a way to get the furniture over from the old place, so I just left it. It wasn't much anyway. I didn't have good taste when I bought it.
I'm looking out the window, waiting for night, trying to get a feel for the place. I brought a few crates and boxes I found on the street, and I'm sitting on one. It's pretty comfortable. On the way over, I stopped and bought one of those air mattresses. Maybe you could fill it up with water and have a waterbed, but I suppose air works as good as water.
Figuring in the money I'm saving on next month's rent, I had enough left over for some new clothes. They're laid out on the mattress. I got a pair of pants that look like the colors on a traffic light all mixed together, a green shirt slippery like a fish, a belt that wraps around just right and hangs down my leg, plus a big gold watch that cost me a hundred and fifty whole dollars. When you put them together, it looks like I belong on one of those dance shows. I see myself kicking in the air, waving my hands, that kind of thing. Wave my hands in the air like I just don't care.
Soon I'll change into the new clothes, kickstart the routine. Figure I'll hit the streets to old Ray's. Then I'll play it cool, just wait for the girls to come over, pick up my vibe. I can already hear people in the corners, the ones shooting pool. They keep looking at each other saying, "Goddamn!"
Now I watch the secondhand on my watch. Each little space marking the seconds gets wider and wider, like the day's gonna have to grab the night by its arm, yank its hand and say, "Get your ass in here." And then I look out the window, and the sun's winning, inch by inch, because the sun's sleepy, saying, "I'm tired of lighting up you sorry sons of bitches. Turn a goddamn light on."
Finally, it's dark, and I put on my new clothes. I kind of slip in, not letting the edges of the folds touch me too much yet. I walk out the door and start down the street. And then this next thing that happens, I tell you, it's true. And what I'm seeing, it's the genuine thing, like me, Ray, and I see it, I do.
See, all of a sudden the street turns supercolors. The buildings, they all look like they're drawn on TV, and everything's lost a side of itself. I mean it's all flat, but I'm still walking through it. Coming towards me is a group of black guys. I'm not scared because they look friendly enough. I even recognize some of them, or at least they look exactly like people I've seen before on TV. There's Rudy and Mush Mouth and Weird Harold, that's their nicknames, plus some happy fat son of a bitch, except I can't remember the show they're from.
They sort of let me weave between them, and then just for a second, right before they pass by me, I look down at myself. And I'm still me, Ray, but the rest of the world is spinning around me, a zillion crazy colors. Then I look around, and everything's back to normal, just like that. When those guys turn around, they don't look nothing like they did before. They're completely different people. The middle one says, "You want somethin'?" but I don't say a damn thing. I keep walking. I'm thinking, Ray, Ray, what the fuck was that?
So I stand there a while, looking around, I don't know, waiting for the goddamn Partridge Family bus to give me a ride. No dice.
I start off again to the bar, only I ain't feeling so hot about the clothes anymore. The glow's off. I notice people looking at me, and for now, I don't like it too much. I know they're smiling not laughing at me, but still.
Pretty soon, I start feeling a little better. I decide I might as well forget what happened. I gotta get a little whistle going inside. I'm real close to the bar, but I can't go in there with a bad attitude, not after all my hard work.
When I get there, I notice there's Christmas lights around the sign that sticks out from the roof, which don't make sense. I look at the lights a minute. It's like they're reflecting my shirt, maybe talking to it. It's just that kind of night. Maybe it's National Bright Color Day.
I swing the door open, and then all a sudden I'm looking at everybody, I mean everybody who's ever been in the place. It's packed up tight, and over the bar there's a banner that says, "Lordy, Lordy, Look Who's 40!" with a big picture of the other Ray taped to it.
Well, I'm a little pissed at this point. I mean, it's like everybody's trying to steal my day. I don't ask for much, but when a man changes his style, it's customary for that man to receive some notice, something like, "You're a brand new man, Ray, a brand new man!" or words to that effect. Besides, these are my closest friends, and everybody gets a birthday every year, but this is a once, maybe twice in a lifetime event. I mean, maybe you can change your style every year, but after a while changing your style would become your style. There's no getting out of that rut. I have to split hairs to get through the crowd and order my Long Island Ice Tea. When I get to the bar, Ray's not making the drinks tonight. He's got some skank taking care of that. He's just standing back there, soaking it up. He says to me, "Oh boy, oh boy, you again." So I order four Long Islands, just to show him Ray Style's in town to stay.
When the drinks come, I decide to stay right where I'm at. I don't care if I'm in the way. How am I supposed to carry four drinks anyway? I take a good long drink, feel it go down. It doesn't take long to start working on me. I drink the second one, and now I'm in a whole new mood, feeling better than anybody in this place. And maybe nobody's noticed yet, seen my changes, where I'm going, but that's all right. I know it, and they'll know it, soon as they stop paying attention to the other Ray's stupid goddamn birthday. I'm just sitting looking at the skank, thinking how she doesn't even know how to make a drink, always flipping through a book for the recipes. What an idiot. Couldn't he hire somebody else who knows how to--
"What'd you just say, you stupid looking son of a bitch?" Ray says, cutting in on my thinking, which I'm not too happy about.
"I didn't say anything. I'm sitting here drinking, that's all."
"That skank is my wife," he says, pointing his thumb back at her.
"That's your opinion. I didn't say it."
"You're lucky this place is packed. Next time I'm throwing you out, and this time's the last time. Keep your stupid thoughts to yourself."
How am I supposed to keep all this straight, what's happening, what ain't? My whole plan's going wrong. Nobody can even see me in here. I should go home, try again tomorrow. But I got drinks to drink, and I might as well drink them. It takes a while longer to swallow the last two. I have to choke them back. I take a drink, look up at the ceiling. I let the liquid roll down, then shake my head a little. I get a feeling like I'm on stage, everybody else below me, my head up in those lights, brain filling up with the light. Maybe my skin's gold now. If you cut me open, diamonds would spill out. You could take one home as a souvenir and later on swallow it, so you could have just a little bit of me inside of you, sparkling.
I'm finishing off the last drink when this tall guy the size of two of me stacked on top of each other bumps into my arm. I look up. I ain't stupid. I try to say I'm sorry, but the guy starts laughing.
"What do we got here?" he says.
"Jimmy," Ray says from behind the bar, "this guy's a little screwy. You do what you want with him."
"What are you, a soul brother?" Jimmy asks me.
"My name's Ray."
"You a rock star?"
"Ray, that's my name."
"You're standing in my way, Ray."
"Well, I could--"
"Listen, Ray," he says, and then he grips my arm, bends down until his teeth are even with my eyes, and says, "What kind of style you call this?"
"Well," he says, picking me up under the armpits, lifting me straight into the air and sitting me on top of the bar. Now the place is quiet, and he's standing in front of me, the back of his legs against my shoe tips. I hear the other Ray laughing, but his skank wife's going, "Shh, shh," like she's embarrassed for me.
Jimmy's shouting now. "Hey, everybody, this is what you call Ray style," and they all start applauding. "Look at the fine tailorship, the way the colors go together like a car slamming into the back of a bus. Pretty, ain't it?"
People start edging closer, trying to get a look.
"This guy's name is Ray. Ain't that funny? Just like the bar. Take a bow, Ray." What am I gonna do? I stand up on the bar, and I hear the other Ray say something, but Jimmy mutters, "It's all right. Watch."
Then I'm taking a bow. It's just like it's supposed to be.
"He should be a rock star, shouldn't he?" Jimmy asks, and the crowd starts whooping, and people are yelling, "Rock star, rock star!" And now the whole place is in front of the bar, which ribbons out from me. Now I'm looking at them, taking it all in, when Ray pushes me from behind. "Get off my fucking counter."
I reel. I fall like a shot bird. I stretch my hands out. I fall into a thousand hands that add up to one big hand cupping me there, holding me above. And then that hand unfolds, and I fall out of its palm, and the next thing I know, they're tearing at my sleeves, my pants.
The liquor's killing me. I'm sliding in a blur through all these people. I try to catch their faces. It's beautiful the way everybody's smiling. I'm making their night, their whole year. And I know everybody's there, other rock stars, rap stars, blonde scarlet black girls, world famous comedians and sheiks, all of them circling around me, everybody with their tickets, tearing and ripping, taking a piece of Ray. Go ahead, I say, take a little Ray. You deserve it.
I'm sinking to the floor, almost naked, when they back away, trying to give me a little space. In a second, I'm flat on the floor, and this movie star girl lifts her dress up. She sits right on top of me and yells out, "I never done a rock star before." And I lay there, not believing. It's too good to be true. Somebody yanks her off me, and then I hear the champagne corks popping, and everybody's laughing, and I'm laughing, my head rolling. I'm hearing glasses clinking, and I'm still laughing, and people are stepping over me, and I'm thinking, What a day! I mean that was just the best day a guy could have. And I'm just laying there saying, "Thank you, everybody. Thank you and good night."
Fizz is available through Bleak House Books