A Dunce Cap by David Hickman

Carlo Parcelli

Stormin' Norman

It was 11:00AM EST as I pulled into the warehouse parking lot. A fetid breeze had begun to blow off the Potomac from the direction of the Pentagon.  Because of the humidity and oppressive heat typical of August in the Washington DC area, the warehouse bay doors were wide open. The warehouse may have been just a block from the Potomac River on the Virginia side, but this provided no relief. And then there was that stench of death emanating from the Pentagon.

I leapt up the warehouse steps letting the door slam behind me. The bang of the door roused the warehouse crew from its sweaty stupor. Several old fans roared away as four bodies slowly rose groggy an d perplexed from the mounds of filthy damp clothes, old periodicals, sheet music, porn mags, books, cast off shelving, rotting blankets and sundry styrofoam food containers. The smell of half eaten food in various stages of decomposition mixed openly with the aroma of marijuana, alcohol and hashish and stale cigarette smoke.

The warehouse crew consisted of five people, Phil, Busby, Leroy, Norman Zhou, the manager, and myself. Norman took a swig from a jar filled with his concoction of what he called sweet tea and what I now realize was raw, unfiltered kambucha, a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. Norman had placed dozens of jars of the slimy stuff all over the warehouse. After months of sitting in the heat and filth, the tea began to take on bizarre shapes and forms inside the jars.  Some resembled bonsai trees floating in swamp water. Others took a more sinister turn resembling aborted fetuses and deformed babies complete with bloated heads and stunted limbs. Still others looked like musky, vegetable galaxies of thick slimy, zoogleal mat swirling in their own pickle jar bit of cosmos.

Norman would break from whatever he was doing, pull down one of his concoctions and take a long swig, screw the cap back on and go back to whatever it was he was doing.
This morning it was playing his violin.  Noman had been declared a child prodigy and after graduating Choate he spent a year studying at Peabody in Baltimore before his first breakdown. Today’s first selection was Hindemith’s Violin Sonata in C.

Norman ran the show. He was short, perhaps 5’2” and weighed maybe 110 pounds. He had enormous black, bug eyes that seemed to be in a constant state of wonderment and long coal black hair that dropped in a languid pony tail well passed his ass. He had broken a lens in his glasses some months before and taped over the shattered glass with electrical tape giving him the appearance of a tiny, skid row pirate.

The warehouse itself was a marvel of filth amidst a Versailles-like sense of order. There were tens of thousands of books of the least desirable kind covered with dust and muck and on occasion aging, rancid carry out.  But, even so, where chaos appeared to be king, every category of book was keenly labeled and in meticulous alphabetical order.  Beyond that there were impeccable subcategories which demonstrated more than a passing knowledge of each subject if not an anal predilection focused on order and taxonomy, but not so much on hygiene and sufficient toilet training. 

“Fuck. You woke us up,” roared Busby a Trotskyite who sported hair and a beard that more than emulated his master, Karl Marx.  If ever man resembled a bear it was Busby and vice versa.

Busby’s knowledge of Marxist literature and history in general was encyclopedic.  He was one of those lost geniuses too erratic and truly outside the box for the military industrial complex that dominated Northern Virginia. It was as though he were there to remind the rank and file that there was a world beyond the Beltway Bandits that lined I495. And remind them he did.

During casual conversation we had realized that a few years earlier he had been slated to drive me to Canada if a 1Y deferment I had applied for was denied. It wasn’t and he didn’t, but still I felt a connection to the guy who was prepared to give me a 600 mile lift to escape the brutal lie that was the US Invasion of Southeast  Asia.

Busby had a deep baritone voice and one of his favorite pastimes was singing Soviet Infantry Songs in Russian, one of five languages he was fluent in.

“What the fuck was that Busby?”
“An early WWII Soviet infantry song. In English it goes and he’d let go in a husky baritone:
‘Let us sing a Stalinists' song about infantry, about glorious Soviet bayonets...’
“Lebedev-Kumach wrote the lyrics.  Chernetskiy, the music.”

Leroy’s main job, after scoring the best dope a couple of noncoms in charge of body bags arriving at Andrew’s Air Force Base had to offer, was to keep the five ton truck used for hauling books in good repair. Needless to say, he was better at the former than the latter.

He also used to ‘disappear’ for a few days to hustle chess at Dupont Circle sleeping in an alley behind P Street.  He’d take some of the lawyers, NGO interns and think tank suits for a couple of thousand bucks, give the cops their percentage and come back and bankroll a blunt and Scotch party at the filthy warehouse or Phil’s sister’s place.

Not that Leroy wasn’t a crackerjack mechanic who could’ve made a good living at it. Once when I was on a road trip with Norman and Phil, the five ton broke down in the mountains of West Virginia with a load of 18th and 19th century history titles, a dozen or so glass fronted bookcases and two pounds of the best hillbilly cheeba this side of the Mississippi. 

It was already late afternoon when the old five ton gave out. I walked down this desolate stretch of two lane flat top, snow flurries scurrying across the asphalt. I turned and looked back. There were Norman and Phil standing on the rusted bumper of the old five ton bent over the engine bony asses to the wind. A feeling of utter failure and bleak desperation came over me. A sense that I was squandering my youth. That I could do better than be standing on a gravel shoulder in Resume Speed, West Virginia with a snow storm and nightfall coming on and winter at my heels.

Norman suggested I keep walking until I came across a phone and call Leroy at the warehouse. I walked several miles with the snow mercifully slacking and reached a two pump gas and repair shop. I figured the shop could put me in touch with a tow. But the only tow truck driver the proprietor knew had “gone to the cockfights over ta Reedy. And tow a five ton. I don’ know. ” The mechanic, grizzled in his mid-fifties, didn’t seem to keen on venturing out in the snowy darkness to take a look at our broke down truck with a group of hippy strangers either.  For all he knew we could be the reincarnation of the Manson cult.

So back to plan A. Call Leroy. First I had to find out where I was so I asked the otherwise amiable mechanic/pump jockey simply, “Where am I?” He chuckled, “”Bout six miles southeast a Baldwin. Hey, you wanna beer?” 

“Yeah’, I said “How much?”

“Shit kid, it’s on the house,” He replied. “Just don’t ask me to go look at your fuckin’ truck.”

I looked around and spied an old vending machine with a few wayward snacks caressed willynilly in its racks. I said,”How about I give you a buck and you front me a bag of Cheetos from the vending machine along with the beer.”

“Deal. Them Cheetos is pretty old,” said my new friend wiping his hands on a rag. He offered his right hand, “Abner.” “Good to meetcha, Abner. I’m Carlo.”

“Carlos?” Making a mistake I’ve heard a thousand times.

“No, Carlo. Italian not Spanish.”

“Italian? We got us a lot of Italians up here. Used to work the mines.” Abner added.

“Yeah, my grandpa worked these mines,” I said.

“Yeah,” Abner replied, “You look a long way from that.”

To call Leroy on the station’s pay phone just about took every coin I had. Busby answered the phone and shouted for Leroy and then proceeded to tell me how the warehouse had taken in $38.00 that day, a pretty good haul considering the general atmosphere of the place, the difficulty in finding it, the awful inventory and that fact that it was not zoned for retail.

To my surprise Leroy said he’d come up and fix the truck. His reasoning seemed to be some kind of misguided frugality. But Busby had his old Volvo and as Leroy put it, “I onced had a woman near Baldwin” and new exactly the stretch of highway we were stranded on. He’d pick me up at the gas station. He even knew Abner.  They’d panned fried a few trout together in their time

Sure enough, two and a half hours later barreling down the road come Leroy and Busby. They picked me up and we drove out to the truck. Norman and Phil were shivering inside the cab.

Leroy set to work holding a flashlight in his teeth while Busby held a lamp plugged into the Volvo’s cigarette lighter. Leroy pulled an enormous crescent wrench out of his tool bag and gave what, to this observer seemed an anonymous element under the five ton’s hood two loud clubbings.  

“Now try it,” he told a half frozen Phil. The engine turned right over.

Phil was quiet and kind, a carpenter by trade and perpetually sad. The kind of guy you were always trying to bribe a smile out of. Like Busby and Leroy he had been in and out of jail and was estranged from his wife and daughters.

Norman’s title was warehouse manager. What that had to do with anything, anything at all, I don’t know. Norman chained smoked right down to the filters, told wild wonderful stories about his time in the NY art movement of the early sixties and his time at Berkeley.

Years later Rosalie and I found an artist catalogue. A group of New York artists had squatted a five story tenement building and lined its walls, floors and Ceilings with old mattresses.  And there was a photo iin the catalogue of a dapper Norman flanked by two pretty art ingenues smiling into the camera in front of a wall of stained mattresses. I leave the deconstruction of such a project to the reader.

Norman once broke his glasses and would for several years go around with the cracked left lens covered in electrical tape. He had a nervous laugh accompanied by a glance that silently pled for harmonious assurances. His paranoia was straight out of Pynchon. One memorable evening he was over our house for dinner. He barely ate anything but then again our guests, in general, barely ate anything we cooked. The evenings were all about the conversation.

As his story goes, Norman had switched to the West Coast where he was studying quantum physics at Berkeley and moonlighting at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. One night, he claimed, he was smoking weed and drinking tequila with some of the other physicists when someone slipped him something in his drink, maybe LSD maybe just an over the counter sleep aid.

But the next thing he knows is he’s in the back seat of a car racing along the desert floor, he was told, toward Area 51. The black sedan stops and two burly Marine types drag his scrawny body into a building that resembles a grain silo.

Once inside he’s stripped and placed on a bare aluminum table, or was its titanium, and several technicians in lab coats begin to scrub his orifices with a foamy cream which tastes like mint is his mouth and feels cool and frothy in his anus.

Two more figures in lab coats enter. It takes him a moment but these two are shorter than the others with far larger heads and huge bulbous eyes which are eerily reminiscent of his own.  He recognizes them from all of the bad reality shows he’s gobbled up since he was a kid. These are the aliens of fact slash fable. But these are the real deal.

They probe and prod him briefly seemingly unhappy with his malnourished state. One alien gestures to a human technician to turn Norman on his side, which he obliges. The aliens communicate by telepathy.  Norman is somehow privy to their telepathic conversation with each other and the surrounding human technicians.

One alien says, or rather thinks, ”His cortical froth is quite active. The Critters should transport a lucid raw state of images ripe for editing. But his sex drive and digestion are quite subnormal so we can expect pronounced penal and colonic self-subjugation. “

From his years studying electrical engineering, Norman understood that the aforementioned ‘Critter’ stood for CRTs or cathode rays. But nothing in his long and colorful encounter with the elite US educational system from Choate to Yale to Berkeley and Stanford had prepared him for what occurred next.  A cone was placed over him that completely depilated his already nearly hairless body.  Time birds picked Norman’s teeth clean of all ‘chink’ carry-out debris.

“But how did you know what time birds were,” I asked.

“You just know,” smirked Norman taking a puff and putting out the butt in his mashed potatoes.

Then one of the aliens began rubbing the enormous skull of the other until a black greasy film began to appear. The film quickly morphed into what appeared to be leeches perhaps a foot long and an inch in diameter which clung to the alien’s skull, a kind of space rasta dreadlocks thing.

Then removing two leech forms, one alien attached them to Norman’s scrotum. One of the human technicians began to fiddle with dials and levers on what appeared to be an oscilloscope. Suddenly a flood of images burst onto the screen, a raw unimpeded Stan Brakhage-like flow of sexual aberrancy and excrement-based raunch that would make DARPA blush and shut its doors. There was an air of adolescent verve in the room as well as the smell of burning ectoplasm.

“We may have underestimated the parameter values of his erotogenic flow,” One of the little alien guys thought to the assembled crew of technicians. “We are receiving images that may not respond to bio-neural control cues. This specimen appears unsuitable” at which the big headed bald little fucker without the bed head of cathode leeches removed the two from Norman’s nut sack and the oscillator screen went blank much to the chagrin of all gathered some still with their dicks in hand. Several applauded.

One tech was heard to whisper, “We could make a fortune if we could burn this little fucker’s cream cheese ballsack storm onto 8 millimeter film.”

“I’d still like to transit a cache from his cortex through the occipital region before we entirely reject him,” the little big headed fucker who appeared to be in charge thought.

Once again the cathode leeches were applied wriggling and glowing and sliming up Norman’s now  utterly cue ball head. “Another larger monitor was hooked up and images began to appear.  Again Brakhage-like cascades of light and images filled the screen. But this time whenever a penis or pussy became visible an algorithm would brandish one of its components and literally castrate, snuff out the sexual image and replace it with one or many of death and mutilation.

The staff again had its hands in its zippers, when the toddly alien in charge thought, “Stop! Stop! This specimen will never do” at which point Norman collapsed and the next morning found himself sleeping on the manicured grass of the Berkeley quad.
After four or five beers and several more tall tales Norman would curl up and fall asleep on our couch. We took off his shoes and covered him with a blanket.

And, oh, did I mention Norman was a concert violinist.

But back to opening the warehouse for business that humid August morning.  I get settled in with my coffee while the boys slap a little water on their faces and enjoy that first smoke and toke of the day. Then the talk turns to breakfast. The consensus choice is Chinese but there’s only about $50.00 in the till.

We could either clear out the till and hope there were no book sales that required change or we could put it on the business account credit card. Paying our own way was never considered. When a mere neophyte, maybe my second day, I had suggested we pay our own way. I was laughed out of the warehouse.

Another practice was for the whole crew to go to a restaurant, order virtually everything on the menu, eat what we wanted and skip out on the bill. Norman’s calling card was the butt of a Marlboro Light standing erect in his untouched mashed potatoes like a flag on Mount Everest.  Always the grand gesture with Norman. After skipping out on a couple of bills, I bowed out of going to restaurants with the crew.

But carry out, that was another story. Phil wrote out the order on a greasy brown delivery bag. Norman wanted a large order of Duck’s Feet with Curry Gizzards, Bloodcake and Pork Intestine in Special Sauce, Baby Shrimp with Sour Vegetables and Squid with Dried Bean Curd & Yellow Leeks, Steamed Eel in Black Bean Sauce with an order of white rice, enough food for all five of us times five.

Busby opted for the chicken low mein and, if they had it, the sea cucumber with black mushrooms and snow peas. A loud and virulent argument ensued over whether the Hunan Palace had the cucumber on its lunch menu.

“Okay.  Okay. If they don’t have the sea cucumber get me the star fish,” Busby offered as a solution which Phil dutifully wrote down while Norman rolled his eyes, tapped ashes into his coffee, took a swig, and declared “Busby. You’re insane. Leroy. What do you want?”

Leroy begged off, “Too early for no motherfuckin’ Chinese” and popped a Natty Bo. 

“Carlo how about you,” Norman asked.

“Chicken livers with spring onions’ll do me just fine. And let’s get a couple of orders of shrimp eggrolls.”

“How much is that gonna be?” Norman asked.

“How the fuck am I supposed to know,” Busby answered.

“$138.57 before tax,” Phil chimed in.

“I guess the till is out,” Norman laughed.

“Petty cash?” I asked.

“No. I used that for cigs,” Norman offered.

Phil left with the order and the company credit card just as two black sedans pulled up into the parking lot. Four well-groomed young men in cheap suits got out of the cars and approached the loading dock. They presented badges, “We’re with the IRS”. The breeze and its attendant stench was picking up behind them.

“Oh fuck, for a moment I thought you were with the FBI,” a relieved Norman chuckled. “Almost gave me a fuckin’ heart fart.” Leroy and Busby had already made themselves scarce.

“What can I do for you?” Norman asked.

“The company’s being audited. We’re here to take an itemized inventory.”

Norman and I looked at each other big grins breaking across our faces. We’re these guys for real. The main floor may be in impeccable order but there were perhaps 120,000 titles with shelving going up 20 feet. In the back of the main warehouse and the side warehouse there were literally thousands of boxes of used books, hundreds of thousands of titles in various stages of repair not to mention the mountain in the back room, a 15 foot high stack of loose books surrounded by shelves with a few thousand more boxes on them.

“You want a guestimate, right,” I offered.

“No, we’re here to take an accurate piece by piece count,” the fresh faced leader informed us.

“Oh!” I said surprised and amused by the young feller’s knee slappin’ naivete.

“Are there more of you on the way,” I asked.

“No. Just us four and your assistance,” the IRS agent Ted said.

Norman and I gave each other a ‘so what look and shrug’ . The IRS guys came in through the door while Busby and Leroy slipped out the opposite bay.

Look, even then I was no stranger to inventories having worked retail since I was 15. But the warehouse, no way. Later when I began managing the Dupont Circle location, I began to pull inventory from the warehouse. On one trip after several hours excavating box after box I found  a hidden wall of 200 pieces of 19th century Americana which I put in the store juicing sales for months to come. 

Norman and I each teamed up with an IRS agent as the other two agents went for carry out coffee and donuts. Norman and his agent took the main floor while I took the holding area to the side.

Now to characterize this holding area? Imagine a 60 foot by 40 foot space surrounded by 25 foot high library shelving reaching up to a habitually leaking roof. In this space, allow your mind to venture into a dark labyrinthian forest of stacked boxes some piles stacked eight or ten boxes high. Imagine “filth, age old and age thick,” as the poet Ezra Pound once had described fin de sičcle Europe.

Oh, there was filth and it was old --- and thick.

Then there was the tea. Yes, tea. Norman’s home brewed  Chinese jiaomu tea distributed in jars thoughout the warehouse where it sat for months, even years. Over time, the tea cultures gathered to create strange and eery phantoms in the jars. Some resembled deformed fetuses hunched in various states of dissolution. Some looked like pickled bonsai trees. Others just looked like vomit in solution or a loose bowel movement.  Randomly Norman would pull down one of these jars and take a long draft from its contents. “It’s why I’m so healthy,” he’d say without a sense of irony in his voice.

“Healthy? Norman, you’re sick all of the time.” I’d answer.

“Yeah. But that’s from the smoking and not having a decent place to live,” was the way he read it with his signature ironic grin and low huff of a laugh. Then he’d take another swig.

The grotesques in the tea visibly spooked the IRS agent. But he was determined. “Let’s start here he said,” pointing to a short stack of boxes.

I opened the top box. It was full of old Congressional Records from the 1910’s bound in half leather, boards detached, water soaked and mildewed. 

“What value would you place on these?” the IRS man asked me in a tone as innocent as any Opie ever used in Mayberry.

“Value?” I said after a moment.  “I don’t think these have any value at all.”

“Then what are they doing here?” the agent asked.

I shrugged while the musical theme to the Twilight Zone made the rounds in my head.

We worked for another 20 minutes until the other two IRS agents came back with the coffee.  The four agents huddled. The two working with Norman and I were already filthy and drenched with sweat. They had set aside their suit coats and rolled up with sleeves but their frocks were well past dry cleaning.

Norman picked up his violin and began playing Bartok’s haunting Sonata for Solo Violin. Ominous clouds gathered over the Potomac and winds swirled up dust and grit and trash in the parking lot. Dozens of gulls mobbed and squawked about the dumpsters. The reek of raw garbage in a 95 degree heat on a day with 90% humidity wafted into the warehouse. A fleet of black Huey helicopters flew upriver cutting its way toward the Pentagon. Several car alarms howled and beeped as the wind concussed the parked cars.

The Four IRS agents took stock and then suddenly in unison leapt off the lip of the loading dock.  As they rushed to their cars, Norman perched at the very edge of the dock, grit and trash swirling around him, his hair rising in the maelstrom, the sounds of Huey’s and alarms beating the air, and, forte, ‘spat’ the last sixteen bars of Bartok’s  dauntingly beautiful  piece into the clueless Virginia zeitgeist.