"Doppelbänger" was originally published in Perversion Magazine, a little online/print literary journal that seems to have gone defunct. This story is republished here in slightly different form, pretty much exactly the way it appears in a volume of stories called The War on Xmas, which you can buy fairly cheaply if you want to make me a little bit richer.
Melora left me, after five years of non-marital union, over my disposition. My acid tongue amused her, but it left a weird sensation in her vulva. And then suddenly, just about a year after our bitter split, came a card informing me that the honor of my presence was being requested by Victor Jensen Johnson and Melora Simone Roland, who would be united in the sacrament of holy matrimony, celebrated at a nuptial mass on the fourteenth of February in the year of our Lord two thousand and fifteen at six o’clock in the evening at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, 1530 Logan Street in Denver, Colorado. Melora, the mellifluous one, is who trained me to say vulva instead of vagina, and she left me for a VJJ.
So I was grumpy and bitter, a fount of vituperation. What sentient being isn’t? If you’re not a raging misanthropist you’re not paying attention. Isis. Congress. Fracking. Murder. Lobbyists. Wal-Mart. Pedophiles. Rapists. Birthers. Birchers. Holocaust deniers. Fascists. Fundamentalists. Omnipotent corporations skullfucking the impotent people. Racist cops. Racist pundits. Racist leaders. Racist peons. White college kids having blackface parties. Superstition. Manspreading. People who talk on their cell phones in public restrooms. Sidewalk skateboarders who text and ride. Poachers. Pesticides. Credit cards. Climate change. Climate change “skeptics.” 9/11 truthers. Mitch motherfucking Albom. Fucking 19 Kids and Counting. Or is it Fucking 19 Kids and Counting? Plastic. Poverty. Insurance companies. People who trash up trails and campsites. War fatigue. Rally fatigue. Fact fatigue. The great unwashed, uneducated, unvaccinated. Ignorance. Patriotism. Here’s some fucking patriotism for you: my sister was raped by a soldier while on tour in Iraq, and when she reported it to her supervisor she was gang-raped by four men from her unit, men she had called her brothers. She killed herself, one shot to the head, and they walked free. The gods protected them, the brass, too; they all made it through without a scratch, no limbs lost, no traumatic brain injuries (that requires a brain), no post-traumatic stress disorder, all back in the States with their families, living their lives, raising hell over here. ISIS, by the way, did not invent recruitment through social media. And social fucking media. Cyberbullying. Internet trolls. Viral videos. Efuckingbola. Wife beaters. Men who wear wifebeaters in public. Homophobes. Drug dealers. Cartels. Meth-heads. Originalists. Tea party animals. Astroturfers. Populist plutocrats. Modern poetry. Burnouts. Binge-drinking. Binge-watching. At least Allen Ginsberg got to see the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness; the best minds of mine were destroyed by Netflix.
I gave up on humanity. I became a hedonist, albeit a bitter, cynical, miserable one. Fuck everyone. There’s no hope for humanity’s future, and we don’t deserve a future. We’re all fucked, and rightfully so. We’ve squandered this beautiful earth. In 2012, more people voted on American Idol than in the presidential election. Fuck them all, I said. Just let them kill themselves and be quick about it, as long as they leave me the fuck alone.
“You’re sucking me down,” she told me.
“I thought you liked it.”
“God, Felix, participate in a serious conversation for once. I can’t take any more negativity. It’s just misery, complaining, brutal snarkiness. I need someone who doesn’t make me want to blow my fucking brains out.”
“Sorry. I’m sorry. I’m just going to go.”
And she did, leaving me with a hole in my heart and an apartment I couldn’t afford. She came back for her stuff while I was at work the next day. I don’t even have a real job, just a car and a cell phone. I drive for Uber, hauling dumb tourists to and from the airport, dumb drunk college kids and even dumber drunk dropouts home from the bars. I charge them double if they throw up in my car, a 2009 Ford Focus. I keep a Dustbuster and a bag of sawdust in the trunk. All those years of college and nothing to show for it, a philosophy degree on the wall, two years of law school gone to waste.
The invitation arrived in November. I spent the weeks leading up to the wedding in a state of mental perseveration. What does this mean? Does she think we’re still friends? Is this just a big mind-fuck? Does she want me to rescue her, sweep her away from the altar and carry her down to the courthouse? An honest mistake? Obviously there was no way I could go, although Philippa would be there, Melora’s long-time best friend. A transplant from London, she would need citizenship to stay much longer, so she might be willing to marry me, at least go to bed with me after the Bacchic reception. No doubt she would be the maid of honor, an aphrodisiacal task. I’d always had a little flicker of interest in her, which developed into a wildfire after Melora left.
Denver is a nice place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit. If you came out here from Dogtick, Kansas, it would be overwhelming and amazing, but if you’ve been to New York, Chicago, even Wilmington, Delaware, you know what a real city looks like. Part of it is geography: every great city has a river; we have the South Platte, but except at Confluence Park, where it is joined by Cherry Creek, it’s been treated like an obstacle instead of a feature of the city. In a way it’s good, probably better for the health of the river, if you can forget about all the pollution, but it makes for traffic congestion and leaves a hole in the city. Our many bike trails don’t take you anywhere except the suburbs. You can have a nice ride along the river, but if you want to ride your bike to work you’ve got to suit up and nut up, take your life in your own hands, be willing to die for a clean commute. The traffic is unbearable, the public transportation disappointing, more expensive than the New York subway, far less convenient. The Interstate divides us, walls us in. All this was fine when the rent was cheap, but now the city’s been discovered by artists and entrepreneurs, and the rent, like most of our tourists now, is too motherfucking high. I don’t want to make it sound like I don’t like my city. I talk a lot of shit about it, but I love it, even if, thanks to the good people at Purina, the whole city smells like dog food during wet weather. But I’d probably be happier in a cabin in Montana.
“Technology is fucking everything up.” He had a point, my old chum Patty. We nearly got ourselves expelled from our fancy Catholic high school in Aurora, where we were scholarship students, with a time-consuming, labor-intensive prank that today’s tech-loving punks could pull off with about ten minutes of work and a good printer—if they had any goddamn imagination. Junior year. Patty and I went to a Catholic bookstore on Broadway and bought a copy of the lectionary our church used for readings. We then went to a high-end stationary store and found some paper and ink that matched exactly what was used in the lectionary. I had spent weeks learning calligraphy, and after devoting two solid weekends to ceaseless trial and error I was able to match the font. I copied out about a dozen passages from different gospels, splicing them together so that they appeared to all be part of the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. We cut out the original page with a razor and glued the doctored version in its place. I was a regular altar boy. Two weeks before that passage was scheduled to be read, I swapped our version with the original lectionary after mass. Then I got drunk on Jesus: you can’t just dump the leftover blood of Christ down the drain, even if it’s mostly backwash; whatever doesn’t get drunk during Communion is usually left to the altar boys to consume. Communion wine was one of the first red flags about religion for me: if Jesus was really divine, his blood would not taste so foul. Imagine, two weeks later, Jerry Swofford, rich jock, consummate fag-hater, reading monotonously from the Book of Luke, chapter one, verse thirty-five: “The angel answered Mary: ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you.’ Yet she became more and more promiscuous as she recalled the days of her youth, when she was a prostitute in Egypt and she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses.” It went on and on, a full page of what Patty and I had termed The Penthouse Bible, and Jerry Swofford was too nervous or stupid to leave off reading, so he regaled us with Biblical references to semen, rape, genital mutilation, and the Lord strewing dung in people’s faces. The priest, being asleep, did not notice. The principal noticed, suspected us immediately, but could not prove anything, though I later got expelled for quoting from The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, by Christopher Hitchens, in an argumentative research essay called “Supernatural or Superficial?: Sainthood As the Oldest Popularity Contest.”
“Look at them. Trapped in their bubbles. People take everything for granted now. The whole world at their fucking fingertips and all they do is twat.”
A middle-aged woman in a business suit (I’m almost certain it was the former lieutenant governor) scrunched her face as if she had just walked in on her parents having anal sex.
“You mean ‘tweet,’” I said loud enough for her to hear. I may be an asshole, but I’m also a gentleman.
“Oh my fucking God,” he said, though his words were garbled, as he chewed a bite of cannoli. “That is the best thing I’ve ever had in my mouth. And I went down on Maggie Doyle in eleventh grade. Remember her?”
“Please don’t remind me of Maggie Doyle.”
“Holy fucking shit,” he said so loud that everyone in the sardine-can-inspired pizza joint, formerly known as Joey’s, turned and stared at us. “That dude’s your fucking twin.”
I looked, and he was. My gangly, baggy-pantsed, bling-laden twin.
“Creepy,” I said.
He got a slice and took it out on the street. He wore baggy jeans with shiny gold indecipherable lettering down one leg, a powder blue Nuggets jersey over a white wifebeater, and a shapeless Lakers hat. The jersey had Carmelo’s number on it, but “Anthony” had been covered with duct tape. Patty and I watched him through the window as he crossed the street and slapped hands with some shady-looking riffraff, typical Colfax characters, two guys, one tall, one short, the tall one kind of chubby, the short one deathly skinny, both in colorful polo shirts two or three sizes too large, jeans hanging off their asses, shapeless gaudy baseball caps with the word “Obey” in big letters, untied white retro Nike basketball shoes, both weighed down by gold chains and guilty consciences. They split off from my double in different directions, looking around them like subway rats.
“Dude, you got a goddamn doppelbänger.”
“Stay here. I’ve got to talk to him.”
People had told me I looked like John Cusack, like Tom Cruise, like Ben Affleck, but until I met Fruit Juice the only person I’d seen who could have actually passed for me was David Ray Harris, the murderer who appears in an orange jumpsuit in The Thin Blue Line, although he was much older than me, and by the time he was executed he no longer resembled me. But to my dope-dealing double I looked like Scott Baio.
“Ah shit, mothafucking Charles in Charge up in here. What I can do for you, son? Want to sample that applejack? Cracker jack? Got a buy one, get one half-off special if you’re in to back-to-back.”
“I don’t know what any of that means.”
“Terms of the trade, bro. Technical mothafucking jargon. Ah, shit, I knows what you needs. Some a that mothafucking white cross. Can give you a good price on this stuff called Trailer Park Truffle. Help you stay up for them all-night study sessions. Most popular among the college crowd.”
“I’m not in college. I was expelled from the University of Denver law school for speaking truth to power.”
“La dee mothafucking da. I’m a high school dropout. Working on my G to the E to the mothafucking D. Snap.”
“Listen, there’s this wedding.”
“Ah shit, I love weddings. Bitches be like, ‘I’m so drunk and depressed I want even you inside me mothafucka.’” Then he mimicked a female orgasm.
“Hey, you don’t by any chance talk normal at all do you?”
I had bumped into her in the bookstore, Kilgore’s on Thirteenth Avenue, a shop with even less space than the pizza joint, ex-Joey’s. Maybe I have a thing for cramped businesses, an extreme outcrop of my antipathy to the big box stores. She came up from behind as I was examining a rather pristine used copy of Dave Foreman’s The Lobo Outback Funeral Home and put her hand on my shoulder. “Hey stranger,” in that enthralling British lilt. “I’ve missed you.” My heart, what was left of it, melted. I’d always liked her, enjoyed being around her, liked talking to her, thought she was unbearably lovely, of course, but also funny, charming, intelligent, but I’d never imagined anything really romantic with her until that moment in the bookstore, wedged into the back corner where fiction converged with poetry and drama. We chatted for several minutes, our bodies mingling from time to time to let the browsers by, until she said she had to run. “But maybe I’ll see you at Mel’s wedding? I hope?”
“Absolutely. Wouldn’t miss it.”
You can’t have that type of experience in a Barnes & Noble. Support your local bookstore. Your heart, and your loins if you’re lucky, will thank you.
Whenever I’m having a bad day I turn to the Bible for comfort: “I will pelt you with filth, I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle.” And when that doesn’t work I turn to the bottle. I don’t drink much, only on very special, very dreary occasions, when I am in an especially forlorn mood. I couldn’t go, but now I had to go, to see Philippa, but still I couldn’t go. I bought my book and walked from Kilgore’s over to Argonaut on Colfax, picked up a mid-priced bottle of tequila and some off-brand cola, because I refuse to support las aguas negras del imperialismo yanqui, even though Coke does taste better, and went home and binged on Charro Negros and 30 Rock until I passed out.
I did that every day for a week, until the day of the wedding, when, hungover, filling my void with greasy pizza, I saw Fruit Juice. Maybe I was still drunk, maybe just suffering from situational insanity. I offered him fifty dollars and let him borrow my suit, which I hadn’t worn since the Korbel Dinner and which fit him perfectly, to attend the wedding in my place.
“Just put in an appearance. Try not to talk to anyone. Let yourself be seen, but don’t draw attention to yourself. Try to sneak out of the reception after the first dance.”
He took Sundays off—“Got to observe that Sabbath”—so I met him on Monday, back at his spot, Colfax and Logan.
“Charles in mothafucking Charge. How the fuck’s it hanging, my brother?”
Bizarre weather for February: fifty degrees and dry and sunny. An even more bizarre handshake ritual: hand clasp, knuckle bump, elbow tap, finger waggle, bear hug. Fruit Juice was dressed up in what he called bidness attire: spit-shiny black loafers, baggy black slacks, and a silk shirt with a tiger on the back.
“Yo, I gots to thank you, bro. Fruit Juice got his mothafucking cherry popped the other night.”
“Do you know what that expression means?”
“The English language is like a constantly evolving thang, Holmes. Shit means what I want it to fucking mean and in this case it means I busted a mothafucking nut all over a sweet-ass ho. This like British bitch, maid of mothafucking honor and all, and she was all into yours truly like out a nowhere fast. Shit. I be talking”—and he did his orgasm impression again.
I flipped. “You motherfucker.”
I pushed him.
“Philippa? Fuck. God fucking damn it.”
“Bitch, don’t take the mothafucking Lord’s name in vain, mothafucka.”
“Fuck you. Fuck God. To quote Hemingway, ‘Fuck everything.’”
“Fuck me? Nah, nah, fucking fuck you, mothafucka.”
“Fuck you. Fuck yourself. Fuck your goddamn posse. Fuck you, you goddamn fucking pussy.”
“Nah. Nah, nah. Nah nah nah nah nah nah nah. You didn’t just fucking say that? You didn’t just fucking say that, did you?”
“I fucking did.”
“You want to go, bitch? You think you hard, mothafucka? You think you fucking hard?”
“Yeah I’m hard.”
“You fucking hard, bitch?”
“I’m so fucking hard. You want to see how hard I am?”
Buttcrack, the tall fat one, inserted himself between us. I never learned the origin behind Fruit Juice’s nom de rue, but Buttcrack’s was pretty obvious. The short one was Woogy. His parents were idiots.
“Fuck it,” I said. “Just get the fuck out of my face.”
The short one had filmed the altercation on his cell phone, and with their guts busting the two bumbling sidekicks scampered off to watch it.
“Shit, bro, I mean fuck, I didn’t know she was your girl. She just came on me hard, and I like returned the favor. Like literally. Know what I’m saying?”
“Fuck, shut the fuck up. I don’t need to hear that. And don’t call her ‘bitch.’ She’s a goddamn queen.”
“Tell me about it, son. Just give me my mothafucking money and split. The mothafucking queen’s prolly specting you to call her ass.”
“Fifty fucking dollars. Take it.”
A young woman walked up, bleary-eyed, bones trying to poke through her skin. She nodded at Fruit Juice.
“Ooh honey,” to her, “I ain’t seen you in a minute.” And to me: “Ah, shit, it’s time for her vitamins. We got a little barter system going on. Listen, can you do me like a favor, my brother? Just hold my spot here. Pretend you’s me for five minutes while I takes care a this. Here, you wear my tiger skin. Bitch needs her ‘vitamins.’ Know what I’m saying?”
“I almost never do.”
“Vitamins. Minerals. Those salty, fishy omega-3s. Got to administer them orally if you get my drift finally.”
“So just pretend you’s me for five minutes, bygones be bygones. If anyone hits you up just tell them shit’s hot, the cops be watching, and come back in a hour.”
“That’s it. Easy fucking peasy, bra.”
Easy fucking peasy—until a one-eyed shirtless nazi with a skull-themed face tattoo and arms like telephone poles rolled up, backed by a crew of evil-looking men with even bigger arms and weirder tattoos and death in their eyes. The butt of a pistol protruded noticeably from his pants.
“Fruit Juice, you fucking bitch, I done told you last time the next time I seen you here would be the last time I see you. You fucking dead, bitch.”
Ever since I bared my ass to George W. Bush at DU’s big Korbel Dinner in 2013, my only ambition had been to slide by, stay out of people’s way, live an impact-neutral life, so far as that is possible. I gave up my dream of fighting evil and protecting the earth, its wildlife and wilderness, even its human inhabitants, through the law. I set my sights far lower. Work a job that doesn’t do too much harm. Make enough to pay the bills, except my student loans. The way I see it, if they kick you out of school they forfeit payment. I wish they saw it that way, too. I kept human interaction to a minimum. I kept the music loud while driving my vacuous fares around. They were almost always too drunk or baked to mind. I spent my free time reading, hiking, watching TV. I went for angry runs at night. Fruit Juice was the first person who wasn’t a long-time friend I’d had a semi-conversation with in more than a year.
He and his crew carried me back to my apartment. I was not, as it turned out, dead. A fire truck roared by toward the tail end of the beating and Fruit Juice’s enemies, mistaking it for a cop car, split.
Fruit Juice hung around after his crew had gone. He kept me in ice for my face and drank all my beer.
“Why do you do this, Fruit? I know there’s not much money in it.”
“It beats flipping burgers at Mickey fucking D’s.”
“Actually, there’s this book.”
“I fucking read Freakonomics, bitch, so don’t even start with that fucking shit. This fucking shit beats the fuck out of fucking flipping burgers at Mickey motherfucking D’s. Know what I’m saying?”
“So wait, you read Freakonomics?”
“Yeah, bitch, and fucking Gang Leader for a Day by Suddhir Venkatesh. That’s like required reading for this job.”
I pointed toward a bookshelf in the corner.
“Third shelf from the top. Black paperback.”
He pulled it out and smiled.
“Reefer fucking Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market by Eric Schlosser. I ain’t read this one yet.”
“Take it. You’ll like it.”
I have a knack for getting people to reveal intimate information about themselves. Maybe they see me as a challenge; I clearly don’t care, so they want to make me care. Fruit Juice had had a rough life. He never met his father, and his mother had been addicted to half a dozen different substances throughout his life, until she found Jesus and started mainlining the blood of Christ. His grandmother raised him from the time he was two years old until he was seven, when she was killed during a break-in. They were looking for his father; obviously they hadn’t done much research. He heard the gunshots, found the body after the killers left, and hid under the bed until the cops showed up, none too swiftly. They treated him like human trash, acted like he was lying when he told them he hadn’t seen the killers. After that he traveled the foster home circuit until his eighteenth birthday. Forget college—thirty years old and he still didn’t have his GED. Tweaker. Juggalo. Dropout. He’d done the best he could with the worthless hand life dealt him.
“I don’t let it get me down. I used to think God was evil, like he hated us. But he can’t be all bad. Mothafucka invented pussy after all. You got to have perspective, son. My life is fucked up, but at least I wasn’t born with a vagina in Afghanistan. Know what I’m saying? Shit. I just take it in stride.”
“Like a sex addict running an ultra-marathon.”
“Word. You’re fucked up.”
After Fruit Juice left I had a panic attack—bone-wracking spasms, uncontrollable weeping, heaving breaths—that lasted about twenty minutes. I started imagining I’d been killed, what that would feel like: nothing. What eternity, the afterlife would feel like: nothing. What I’ve left behind me on earth, what I’ve contributed: nothing. My sweet older sister, who never really got me, whom I never really got, who sacrificed her life for her misguided but honorable beliefs, is nothing, just a bucketful of ashes in my parents’ closet. I will end up that way. Sure, my energy will still be here, just in a different form; I will never be completely destroyed. Beautiful, maybe, but not comforting. My atoms will not disappear, but I will not be here. I will not be anywhere. My memory will be gone, my consciousness. What awaits us after all our striving, all our heartbreaks, fuck-ups, and experiences? Nothing. Hemingway again: “Fuck oblivion.” Islands in the Stream was his greatest work.
I hate to use the word “epiphany,” but something changed in me, something ineffable. We get seventy or eighty years in this life if we’re lucky, and that’s probably it. Seventy years out of more than four billion years of the earth’s existence. I was wasting my blip on anger and resentment. I didn’t want to be an asshole. It’s unacceptable for someone like me to be depressed and self-pitying. I can be depressed, but not self-pitying. Life is hard for almost everyone, but most people on this planet, most of the people in my own great country, have had it worse than me. I was still bitter, angry, and depressive, but I could no longer be a coward hiding behind my indignation. Fuck wallowing. Do something.
Not long after this non-epiphany there was a gentle knock on the door. I limped to the door and saw Philippa through the peephole. My heart beat faster. I opened the door and she barged in, nearly knocking me over.
“We have to talk about the other night, Felix. You were acting really weird, like seriously fucking strange. I know it had to be hard for you, but fuck, I’ve never let anyone do that on me, and that’s the last time it’s ever going to happen. OK? If we’re going to be something I need you to say OK. Jesus fuck, what the fuck happened to your face? Come on, sit down.”
I tried to explain, but my mouth wasn’t working.
“I don’t know what a fucking boppeldänger is. Are you drunk?”
When Fruit Juice told me what he’d done I was afraid she was lost to me, forever tainted, also probably so disgusted she would never speak to me again, might even forsake male company, as I would have done, but I’m happy to report that I was wrong.
She didn’t mother me, coo over me, try to fix me. She just led me to the bed and lay beside me.
“Holy fuck,” when I told her. “I mean, thank fucking Christ. That is such a relief. Sort of. Jesus fuck. I don’t know. Also fucking weird as fuck. And disgusting. But holy fuck. This whole fucking situation is just creepy as fuck. I need a drink.”
In the morning, she rolled out of bed to make coffee. My body had tightened up so that I could hardly move, and I was half-regretting my refusal of Fruit Juice’s offer of a free grab bag of happy pills.
“Holy fuck!” She was back less than five minutes later, doubled in laughter, announcing that she’d just pissed herself, holding her phone out toward me. “You’ve got to watch this.”
Woogy and Buttcrack, Fruit Juice’s crew, had edited the video of my argument with their fearless leader, auto-tuned my dialogue, and posted the result on the internet. I am now known to about thirty million internet addicts as I’m-So-Fucking-Hard Guy.