The magical and foul-odored donkey, standing up there like he owned the place. His manager was a raggedy thing beside him. Coughing into the microphone, bumps and strands of hair spread across the terrain of his sunken face, his eyes were like two pebbles stuck in the cracks of a sidewalk. The donkey's posture, if donkeys have such a thing, wasn't stiff, but stoic. There were maybe two thousand people in the room facing him. He had no leash or harness. There was a podium on the stage before him.
The boy had been dragged here. Articulate donkeys were right up there with the evening news and pop quizzes, as far as his interest went. He and his younger sister were sandwiched between their mom and dad in the last row, row ZZ, of Radio City Hall, and from their vantage point the donkey was the size of the boy’s gnawed-on cuticle. The boy made a show of his boredom, because this is what American boys of a certain age and privilege do when things don't go their way.
The girl hadn't spoken a mumbling word for days, which silence, according to the brother was “the tits.”
The father couldn't have cared less what his brat of a son thought; this was for the boy's mother. She had grown up in a farm or meadow or some such piece of untrampled Earth in Iowa before moving to the city, and she did so much for them, and she deserved a night out like this. The boy had a lot to learn from his angel of a sister, silent as a mouse. The father got up each morning and spent most of his life in a cubicle, on the phone, peddling marginal health insurance to stingy senior citizens on Long Island in order to provide for his family, and his daughter appreciated this fact, and this was all he asked.
This was the last show of the truncated Donkey Disciple tour, and the story was the donkey had cracked. The story was the pressure had finally cooked him, and that’s why they were cutting the tour short.
Ray LeBurke, the opening act, was still nowhere to be seen. The producer relayed a message to the manager to stall. He nodded into his headset, and said to the crowd, “This is no normal donkey, folks. So get your own you-know-whats in your seats and prepare to be ass-stounded.”
The mother smiled stiffly: Of all the places he could've taken her ....
The boy farted, on purpose, loudly, hoping to piss off his dad for bringing him to a stupid thing like this on a freakin' Saturday night. The dad thought, Agh, should've smuggled in some Sour Patch Kids.
The story was the donkey was off his meds and whinnying into the night.
The manager was enjoying himself: a craggy man next to a donkey on a stage in front of a room full of strangers. Life was funny that way. They had no choice but to listen to his words, sure, but he imagined that some of the shrewder members of the audience got a kick of out his pronouncements. Not a bad gig, not a bad gig at all. “Hold your horses! Because this ain't no gimmick folks, this is the real deal. A genu-ine divine bovine ... ”
He was tolerated by the father the way dancing cups of Coca Cola and popcorn receptacles singing about turning off phones and finding fire exits are tolerated by movie-goers.
It was not easy finding an opening act for a talking donkey, even one the Times had called the “the nation's sleepy conscience.” The producer had been able to wrangle fifteen minutes of standup out of Shirley Trupp, the popular G-rated comedian who for a while preceded Melvin the Donkey with bits about the length of certain french fries and how she's all for environmentalism but what was the deal with air blowers in public bathrooms, right? But when the donkey became divisive, Trupp's agent detached her, leaving the producer to scavenge the second-rate entertainment circuit for some magician or musician or another observational hack to warm the crowd up before the main event.
He'd found LeBurke two weeks ago doing Q & A sessions in the basement of some musty cellar in Brooklyn. He was a bit off. Some kind of savant with an uncanny ability to retain the incidentals of the world. What color was President Clinton's tie when he first denied the Lewisnky affair? How many people in total lost their pinky finger during the first Gulf War? He could hold an audience's attention just a little bit longer than an encyclopedia could, and the producer had signed him on to do five-and-a-half minutes.
God-damn State Senator out there in the crowd and where the hell was LeBurke?
It had started out as pure novelty six months ago when a gaunt man in rags walked into the producer's downtown office and demanded an audience, claiming he had a talking donkey on the premises. This was front page stuff for a while, and the producer had parlayed the hype into this national tour. Show Tunes and dance routines in eighteen cities, with a couple minutes for question and answer at the end, time permitting. Turned out it was his off-the-cuff stuff that really got people interested, even worried, and the producer decided three cities ago to scrap the musical portion of the show — which, face it, was as schmaltzy as they come — and to just let Melvin harangue the hour away.
The manager said, “What do they call a homeless donkey? Unstable.”
The boy's sigh was the sound of the self-righteousness of youth, the impatience that he confused for shrewdness. The father chewed his nails and thought, Little shit, then he thought, Did I leave the car lights on?
The producer’s phone buzzed in his pocket. “God damn LeBurke. They just found him in county jail for public urination.” The producer snapped to the production team. “Talk to me people. Where are we in terms of replacements?”
“We've got those brothers on call.” His assistant Tia stammered after an unsteady silence. “The Dwuggins twins should be on standby. I think they actually live right here on Seventh Ave. — I could maybe call their father.”
“Who the hell — ”
“The Amish Brothers. Remember, they ditched the farm — they do mostly Prince covers.”
“Well, damn it all and call me Paul,” the producer said, stabbing at his phone's screen. “Tell them the job’s theirs if they can be here in ten.”
The sister slumped low in her seat. The image of their downstairs neighbor, shirtless, hairy, and seated with legs splayed like a rag doll — this had had a hold on her attention for a while.
The mother sat rigid and thought, Grown man and he still nibbles on his nails. What a schlub.
Even though she was only thirteen years old, it was the daughter's chore to do the family's laundry. This was her idea when they moved into the top unit of a duplex. She said she wanted to lighten her parents' load, so her mom and dad said, "Great." She was always trying to do this and that to please her parents, doing the dishes, washing the car, vacuuming; she did these things because she could see that her parents were not very happy, and keeping busy like this was all she could do to keep from going nuts.
It seemed like her parents were rooting for the other to make a mistake, to lose the remote, to burn the Cornish game hen, to swing in too wide on a parallel park, so that they could jump down each other's throat and curse at each other with wild eyes.
There was no way in this world that the father was going to let his son have this arm rest. Oh no you don't, with that chicken wing of an elbow.
So one day she took down a hamper into the duplex's communal basement where the washer and dryer were, and she lifted the detergent bottle she’d bought with her own allowance money, and noticed that it wasn't as heavy as she'd expected. At first she figured she'd made a mistake, which is easy enough given that the bottles are opaque for whatever reason, but then it happened again. A just opened bottle all of a sudden half full.
Melvin's tail moved like a car's windshield wiper on the lowest setting, brushing the manager's pant leg on each swipe. This was the donkey who they'd surrounded with a spandex-clad troupe of backup dancers and had sung “The Boys are Back in Town.” But just the week before he'd called the President a heathen, and asked the host of Good Morning America how it was even possible for her to look into the mirror without weeping something serious. But what was the producer gonna do? Give the people back their money? They wanted to see the donkey, so to hell with it, one more show.
A half-full bottle reduced to slimy drips.
The manager said, “What do you call a narcissistic eagle? An eagle-maniac.” Crickets. He stole a look at his watch. Oh boy.
The son said to the dad, “Hey, so you have to pay extra to get us seated directly under the AC vent?”
It's not like the detergent was cheap, the daughter was buying name brand stuff: the green bottle with the buff bald guy for like seven bucks a pop. And the mother had told the daughter, "Stay away from that old man downstairs, he is off his rocker and bad news and his mug is no doubt buried away in some file cabinet in the basement of some precinct, believe you me." But still, her mind worked in the way that until she had concrete proof the whole situation would wedge in her brain like a forgotten word on the tip of her tongue. So she started her own little experiments. She left an unopened bottle down there and brought another one up and down with her, but after a week the old man still didn't bite. Then she used the bottle she left down there but carried a ledger and pocket calculator to keep track, but again, nothing. It was like she scared him off somehow.
The lights slowly dimmed and there was a final rustle in the crowd as the stragglers shimmied towards their seats past the people who did and did not bother to stand up to facilitate their pass. The manager said, “All right. I know you folks paid good money to be here tonight, so let me get out of your way. Without further ado, our first act of the night, Rayyyyy LeBurke. Wait, hold that — ”
Two bearded men jogged onstage in matching overalls. They said, “Who came to party?”
So the girl had started scoping out the side door of the duplex, and one night when she saw the old man walking down there she followed him. But when she closed the basement door real gently behind her, braced for her 'aha!' moment, she noticed the lights were off.
It was a bouncy, twangy version of “Just as Long as We're Together.” The son perked up. He thought, despite himself, Damn, this isn't half bad.
It was pitch black in the basement save a low glow in the corner, and there he sat, next to a single burning candle blowing creepy shapes onto the wall, no laundry but he was just sitting there, only a smile and wide eyes visible through the dark, and why did this scare her so? And she wanted to run but she didn't, she just stood and watched for some time.
The Dwuggins Brothers said something about signed copies of their CD, The Amish Prince, and bowed off stage.
As if carried by the wind, the girl watched herself tiptoe towards the man in the unfinished, damp, concrete basement until she was close enough to realize that he was seated over a game of Monopoly. He seemed totally calm seated there. Disarmingly calm. Stomach hairy and spilling between his legs which were straddling the board. And as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, when she'd moved to a couple paces away from him, he asked her, “Care to play a game?”
The manager moved sideways onto the stage and said, “Just when you thought you've seen it all. One more time for the Brothers Dwuggins. And now, a donkey who needs no introduction .... ”
Melvin waited for the applause to die down and he allowed the silence to really permeate the room, before he began in a voice that seemed to emerge right out of an ashtray, a raspy and phlegmy deep baritone. “If I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, Melvin, which age would you like to live in ....”
And the girl watched herself sit down on the cobwebbed cement and request the top hat piece. He took the car and doled out the money in stacks that were neat enough and they rolled for first. The old man said, “You know, you could fetch a pretty penny, not just monopoly money, see, for some paint down there in Vietnam 'cause all them cowlicked guaps and crocks and even the family men were building houses and whole neighborhoods in them times, so me and my patrol would slither into the navy yard, you see, all sneaky like, and we knew where them navy boys kept the paint, see, we had an inside man with an eye for business, see, because it was their charge to paint the fleet on the morn of the first day of the third week of the month, see, and they had enough paint in there to turn the sun gray, see, and what we did was we broke into the paint shed and hut hut hike we hot tailed the cans out of there, a full night's work yes, yes, and what we did was we sold them hot potato on the black market, to a wholesaler name of Pinto.” The way he was talking to her was like it didn't matter if she were there or not. “And so the Navy commander's walking through the town some weeks later and he comes to me and says, George, you know anything about all our paint up and walking out the shed and this whole gook town being painted Navy gray — and I told him, sir, if you're asking me for my honest opinion I'd say it looks like your ship's got a leak, and when he left I tell you we laughed and laughed and laughed and I'll be a bucktoothed salmon if us and Pinto wasn't the richest men in Vietnam.”
Melvin said, “The world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around.”
The girl told the old man that it was getting late, and he asked if she'd care for a rematch the next night.
The son contemplated picking a wedgie; the father was pretty sure he’d closed the garage door on the way out, but not positive. Each of their respective discomforts caused them to yaw like two buoys in the Hudson.
Melvin said, “Something is happening in our world. The masses are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia: Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same: We want to be free!”
The mother had learned as a young girl how to sleep with her eyes open and make it look like she was paying complete attention.
The girl heard this donkey's sermon and thought of how she didn't even think for a single second to tell her parents about what she'd seen in the basement. Theirs was a household with a door to every room and the TV was always on and talking: communicating was a reactionary thing. She'd felt a queasy sense of anticipation, and she was a little scared, but mostly giddy to find him down there in the same clothes and posture that next evening — some wordless jolt shooting underneath her skin. He was talking out loud when she closed the door behind her, “A man is a man in stages, you see. And if any stage lasts for too long they get to asking — is he fit for duty. If his smile is too wide for too long they'll get to asking — what's so God-damn funny, see. But things stay inside you is what I'm trying to tell you, and it's nobody's choice. And they weren't ready for what stayed inside me. Hell nobody was. Not even me.” He talked and she listened and pushed stacks of money together to make sure they were even.
Melvin's eyes were closed now. He said, “Now we're going to march again, and we've got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be, and force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God's children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out. That's the issue. And we've got to say to the nation: We know how it's coming out. For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.”
The father thought, not my exact cup of chai, but look at the wife, she’s in a trance.
George had told her things. He had told her, “You get a piece of dirt in your eye, see, and how do you get it out? They tell you blink it out? The more you blink, is the thing see, the more you blink the further it gets into the socket, and you blink and blink and blink until you don't know what in God's name is going on here, see, then they say water, splash water, but the water just dissolves the thing is what I'm telling you. Then they say, good, cry it out, see, whatever it is just cry it out, but they don't know. They don't want to know about your pain, they just want it out and gone.”
Melvin opened his eyes and sighed and said, “But you don’t want to hear me say these things, now do you? The misery, the loneliness, the despair. The devastation. You just wanted a nice night out – ooh hun, a talking donkey. What fun!”
The son made a move to the bathroom, not that he had to use it.
Melvin started to lose his composure. His front legs kicked out and air thundered through his nostrils. He said, “The donkey and the honkey went wonky together and went to the king’s ball and drooled at his feet.” Melvin was stomping his feet up and down and positively cackling. The manager smiled with just his teeth; the audience sat in a stunned silence. “And all the while the court jester is juggling knives and telling them to be discrete.”
There was a way George seemed to look through her. Like she was a lace curtain on a beautiful summer day. George told her on the third night: “We are evolving, see, shifting, twisting, our blood is quiet as a midnight pond and then it's all twisted like a bedsheet after a nightmare from the other side of hell, see?” His eyes were as empty as pearls. “I told my son, I told him, the world is a'spinning boy, see, so you keep on running from your problems you're likely to have them sneak up on you from the other direction. The doctor said take your pills, Georgey boy, drink up soldier, and my boy, he shook to the touch. A trembling piece of spaghetti he was, see, and my wife told me, George, you're scaring him so — what's wrong with you? Well, I'm not sure anyone is equipped to answer a question like that.”
“Forgive me father for I have sinned,” Melvin said. Then after a deep sigh, “I have tried to hide from the darkness by closing my eyes. Oh save us from your fiery pit! Oh, no, no, no lower us deeper into the charcoal flames. Ha ha ha! Look at you! You want to run back into your holes like a line of ants. Ha ha! Run, run. But I’m the anteater nosing in after you! The reckoning, it will come!”
The father took a peek at the program as Melvin’s voice took on a demonic character.
George had said on the third night, “Well him and my lady left eleven years ago to the month and not a postcard but there are two worlds, see, at least two worlds, and they left me in this one, but in that other one you better believe they are reckoning with George. Yes, sir. My wife was the most beautiful woman in this world. Certified beautisimo. And she still is. And them both — her and my boy — they are still with me, in ways you can never hope to be. I can see them, see, flapping away in my memories and making tidal waves in my heart, and they can leave but there are some things we don't control, though they are not here in my den of dens. My boy was insistent about being the top hat, see. My lady wasn't one for board games, but I'll be damned if the boy ever once was disloyal to that top hat. And here I am, see, whooping your ass.” His laugh was little more than a dislodging of phlegm, but she felt compelled to laugh along with him, to add to the basement's camaraderie her girlish trill.
“Oh God. Oh God. The frowns on the faceless masses,” Melvin moaned. “On the massless faces. Chlamcha! Yee-pow! Gesuindheit. I’m a slave! I’m a slave! Oh I’m sorry Mister Senator. Do I offend your sensibilities? Would you prefer I do a little dance.” Melvin started a tap number, then quickly abandoned it, standing there making deep, guttural neighing noises, and eventually a front kick sent the microphone stand went flying just short of the front row.
The state senator and his entourage walked quietly up the aisle and out. And they were not the only ones. People with less tact were falling over each other into the aisles, and the producer was barking orders into one phone and how the hell did he already have a call from a PETA rep on the other line, but let's not forget that there were those few who were enraptured, those few pairs of eyes that lit up the auditorium like cell phones screens, those who were nodding their heads at Melvin’s every word.
The father thought, Love to leave now and beat the rush, but look at the missus.
She had finally worked up the nerve to ask George why he stayed down there, and he did not make her feel it was a stupid question. Certain things must be acknowledged. He said that it is a scary world up there, and that sometimes people just need a little hibernation time in order to clear the air, see. He had a hypnotic voice which never changed pitch or volume; it was a steady non-stop stream trickling gently into the nighttime ocean. He said that anyone who tells you it's not a strange, scary world is trying to mess you upside the head. The girl felt comfortable with him, the air down here in the basement was less taught, somehow, than at home or school. She liked to listen to the words fall off his tongue.
The son had forgotten his phone in the auditorium, but there was no way he was going back in there. He sat in the stall and counted the number of squares on the tissue paper.
And when it was her turn to talk, the girl told George that she felt deep down it was her fault for how messed up her family was. She said that she had never been happy and this made her spoiled and what right did she have to not be happy. She said this and she felt heard. George did not interrupt even once though he did not look at her or nod, and she admitted to him that she had all these dark thoughts, that sometimes she imagined doing terrible things to her parents when they went to bed, just thoughts, she emphasized, of carving up her brother in his sleep. It was hard for her to walk past the knife block in the kitchen without some gruesome image coming to mind. She couldn’t control the thoughts in her head and she just wanted to be a good and decent person, she was crying as she said this, and so why was that so hard if it sounded so bland and easy. George sat silent for some time then told her the story of the weary traveler who gets lost on his canoe in the middle of a perilous ocean. He is happy to have a canoe, for without it he would drown, see. And he paddles and paddles, but weeks later when he finds his long lost island and comes to shore, he told her that this man does not carry the canoe above his head for his journey inland, see, he just leaves it there and walks on home.
It was as if, down in the basement, her self no longer completely contained her thoughts. He’d slipped through her skin like a pebble through the foam on an ocean, and in doing this, if her brain, if her life, was still a cage, then at least in the murky basement, it was occupied by two.
“I’d rather be a glue stick then a puppet any day! Yuppity-yeehaw-kai-yo!”
George told her he gave up trying to pull the strings a long time ago and he'd been living nerve spasm to spasm for better or for worse. And when he said that loneliness had very little to do with other people, for the first time he met her eyes; his weren't teary but perhaps a little more present, and there was a silence between them. She moved towards him then, clasping his calloused hand and then climbing onto his lap, and as she moved her lips towards his, he turned away. “No. No. This is not right. Please don’t.” But she persisted, kissing his twisted neck and exposed chest, forcing his heavy hand onto her body, crying and whispering to him: “Please, please! I know what I’m doing. I want this.”
Through the slot in the stall the son could see the senator come in and take a leak. He zipped up, stared at himself in the mirror for sometime, then left without washing his hands. This made the son giddy.
George smothered her in a bear hug. He told her to calm down, to please stop, and she punched and slapped him until she wriggled free, and when she did, and stood above him, she felt an expanding balloon in her core; she felt nothing in all it’s power. She looked at this man, splay legged on the basement floor, looking up at her with earnest, pleading eyes, and thought, Who the hell is this disgusting creep of an old man? She screamed, “You bastard! I never want to see you again!” and ran out of the basement.
“Aaaghhh! Dare to grab God by his loins and say you Bastard, I didn’t ask for this, so fuck your meekness!” And was it possible they were locking eyes across the crowd, Melvin and this girl, his eyes like two precious dreidels, this girl scanning the crowd manically all of a sudden because she was sure of it, absolutely positive that George was in this room with her.
But of course he wasn't there.
Melvin shouted, “Down with Lucifer!” and issued a startled whinny before kicking the manager square in the chest. The audience gasped, and there went the rodeo clowns with the big mesh net, and was that the fire alarm the son heard with a start just as he’d finished etching Senator Wilbers has a small unit into what unblemished space there was left on the bathroom stall’s door?
As the girl was led out of the confused hall by her father, as the donkey’s hellish voice rattled around in her head, she was suddenly overcome by the desire to see George one more time. To apologize. To ask if they could still be friends. And with this thought, a strange peace with it as it settled in, like after one’s body adjusts to the temperature of an ice-cold bath.
Murderous traffic on the long drive home. The mother kept saying what a wonderful show it was, and, in the heat of the congestion, the father and many other drivers pressed the heel of their hands down on their horns like so many wolves howling for release from the terrible New York night.
The girl waited for her family to lock themselves into their respective rooms before walking downstairs, but he wasn't there: down there next to the swishy clunk of the washing machine, there was nothing but a heap of dirty clothes and a closed monopoly board. She left him a sticky note on the bottle of detergent anyway. It said: “Sorry. No hard feelings, I hope. P.S. Have you been stealing my detergent?”
The next morning was a Saturday. The paper's headlines read, Deraged Donkey Put Down — Producer Faces Civil Suit — Manager Maimed. The father angled the paper towards his wife and said, “Huh, how about that?” Then, “Say, hun — is there any orange juice left?”
She said, “Why don't you get off your butt and check, and pour me a glass with three cubes if there is.”
The sister was pushing yolk around her plate in total silence.
Her brother was using the wrong end of his fork and his knife like two chopsticks and dropping egg all over the place. He said, “The eggs are friggin' cold. There's nothing worse than a cold friggin' egg.”
The father said, “Why can't you just be more like your sister and just zip it up, baby boy?”
//Mark Jay is a co-founder of The Periphery.