This is one of the stories I heard told under an overpass when I was, for a variety of reasons, listening to stories told under overpasses. And, even though I, for other and equally various reasons, no longer listen to stories told around garbage fires, fires fueled with cardboard and plastic smoldering under cement pylons, fat tires thrumming overhead, some of those stories that I did hear bear repeating.
In such environments—underpasses, crack houses, abandoned cars, cheap motels and the like—the usual denizen possesses but a limited repertoire of stories and repeated haunting of such environments and repeated interaction with the usual denizen and, perhaps, even becoming a usual denizen oneself soon exhausts all shallow wells of anecdote. Despite the varied backgrounds one will find represented, despite the varying degrees of social, economic or educational history, the stories tend to the deadenly familiar.
When one day is pretty much like any other, when all days are pretty much just one big blurry today, when not a lot different happens from big blurry day to big blurry day, amusing stories do not usually spring to mind. Despite popularized imagery, the occupants of this particular segment of the underworld actually see very little of it, entrenched as they are in the niche of addiction. They tend not to have their ears to the ground except for a single word: “dope.” They tend not to be tapped into the grapevine save where it concerns their own habits. They tend to be unreliable, capricious sources of information, eager to please but woefully lacking in both judgment and memory retention ability. They tend to lack the inclination or perspective required for anything remotely resembling an objective overview, to lack access to any kind of big picture. The same weary tales of violence and sex and some kind of pathetic, trivial triumph clung to all these passing years conveyed in a could-have/should-have/would-have mode of discourse; the same wearisome explanations and justifications and self-flagellations comprise the usual and expected gamut of street derelict cocktail conversation.
Most stories are truly in-one-ear-and-out-the-other oratory, ethanol or methamphetamine inspired rambles that start with tearful childhood reverie, veer off into social injustice and end with the tellers face down in their own white froth. It's hard to keep an audience when one's stories continually begin, "Last night, as I lay huddled in my filthy clothes and felt the tangible hand of my own self-loathing and shame spread it's long fingers into my freezing entrails...." People will tend to drift away from the fire when one begins one's narrative in such fashion.
But if one collects and sifts, if one listens long enough and closely enough, one will hear the truth of the world in the drunken whispers uttered by the lame, the broken, the insane and the outcast.
If one is to hear a story that begins, "Last night, I watched this woman and her dog save this blind guy's soul...," one tends to draw closer to the toxic flame, to carefully eye the speaker for clues as to where such a statement might lead, as fervently, Christianly evangelistic it may be.
"I have a talking cat in this here bag, but it's day-ed," while a suspect claim, carries enough intrigue and promises enough novelty to provoke a willing suspension of what's left of tattered disbelief.
"I used to be in NASA," will, of course, be greeted with derision but, more often than not, the speaker will be encouraged to elaborate for the sake of the yarn itself.
And if on one early November evening with gloaming still crisp and not heavy somehow on the western horizon, that kind of sky that makes a razor swipe of every telephone line, each troop of river-bound ravens dragging the night sky with them, if on that kind of night with the trash just catching flame within the barrel, with a jug of alcohol extracted from two cans of AquaNet® hairspray still two-thirds full, with no one yet hurt or in tears or screaming hollow noises against the sound of the interstate that shelters all...if on that kind of night a fellow draws into the circle and holds his cracked and bleeding hands toward the fire as if they could be warmed in that way or as if warmth was what they needed and that man says "I seen me how come people do so many bad things" well, that is indeed the kind of story that has a good chance of making a lasting impression.
And when he continues to speak, one can’t really help but listen.
“They’s like this worm, see?” he would mumble through filth-encrusted lips. “An’ that worm jes’ digs isself inside they heads and puts some bad, bad thoughts in theyah.”
And if one thinks about a “bad-thought worm,” it won’t make any sense at all, but if one just listens as his mumble draws one’s eyes into the fire where he stares himself while, unbroken, a stream of words falls out of his mouth and into the air beneath the highway.
“You can see them worms almost any bad place you care to go…I seen ‘em in Vietnam feasting in ’72 and it had got so bad by then that they’s come right into the cities and sometimes right inside our camps…and you better believe they was ever’where in the boonies…couldn’t hardly find a clear spot in the whole damn country.”
This is a point where some will ask for clarification, offer feedback if you will.
“What the fuck are you taking about?” might come the query.
“You weren’t ever in no Vee-yet-nam,” another might suggest.
“Why don’ ya shut yer fuckin’ mouth?” another of one’s company might suggest in a particularly vehement fashion. “Ya don’ know wha’ tha’ fuck yer talkin’ about.”
“I seen ‘em when I got back, too,” the narrator would continue, undeterred by his audience. “I started lookin’ for ‘em and then I started seein’ ‘em. They was inside the heads of the worst sort of folk, the sort of folk you see in the crazy house or the penitentiary. But I’d see ‘em on the street and know they was doin’ all sorts of bad things.”
“Anybody else see your worms, old man?” would come the inevitable question.
“Some do, some don’t,” he would reply. “Some can and some don’t want to.”
“What? Are these magic worms? Only magic guys like you can see ‘em?”
“I don’t think magic has a goddamn thing to do with it,” he would reply. “Magic is rabbits in hats, card tricks and sawing girls in half. These worms is part of somethin’ bigger’n any magic act. I don’t know what it is and, man, I don’t think I want to know. I just try and squash ‘em when I see ‘em.
“They’s bad and they make folk do real bad things. I watched one of ‘em dig it’s way into my sergeant when we was LURPing the Central Highlands an’ I still don’t like to think about what he done to some people after that, how long it took us to finally kill him and what that worm done after. Took us more’n six weeks to find that lil’ fucker and we tracked it from bush pig to VC sympathizer to a whore in Da Nang what liked to suck G.I cock with a mouth fulla broken glass.”
“You are so full of bullshit,” the same vehement soul would rejoin. “What the fuck are you trying? Who the fuck are you trying to scare?”
“Mebbe I’m talking about the fucked up worm inside your head that gives you the ideas to do the things you do to those kids,” the wrecked storyteller would conclude. “An’ mebbe I know the way to dig it outta theyah.”
And, with that, this underpass oracle would produce a rather impressive blade and begin to thrust it rapidly into the throat of one of the assembled company.
Now, these things happen in the course of this kind of life and no one is really terribly shocked when it does, but, still, to be standing in such close proximity to both victim and killer, to feel the warm spray of life pumped from a dying throat, to taste the rusty sweetness of another’s blood on one’s lips and to wipe it from one’s eyes in revulsion is quite another matter.
And, should one observe what appeared to be lavender gray, throbbing muscle, oily and wet and gasping, issue from the dying ragman’s wounds, uncoiling into firelight and poisonous air before flopping to earth, one might reconsider one’s earlier assessment of the storyteller’s veracity.
“I really hates them things,” the man with the gore-dripping knife would say. And placing his boot across the squirming, squealing thing’s back, he would skewer what could possibly have been its head and all the assembled would involuntarily take one step back to watch it writhe, twist and arch itself in futile agony against the blade which pinned it to the ground, the body of their one-time drinking pal forgotten in their fascination with the slimy knot of muscle convulsing in the dirt.
“God-damn,” someone might interject but it might also remain deathly quiet until long after the thing stopped twitching.
“Where’s that jug?” someone will eventually ask and agreement will be unanimous that it will be time for another series of drinks.
(Originally published in Cthulhu Sex Magazine, December 2005)