Voice

Shalom Auslander's short-story collection Beware of God, the memoir Foreskin's Lament and the novel Hope: A Tragedy are published in the UK by Picador. He lives in Woodstock, New York.
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Lunatic on the corner

He's mad, of course, strolling down the sidewalk, conversing loudly with the voice in his head, gesticulating with his arms and hands, clapping, stroking his beard. He's young, Caucasian, with thick dreadlocked hair, the sort that results from lack of washing, and wide-set turquoise eyes, the left one of which isn't quite looking at the same section of the material world as the right. He is barefoot today, his shirt is open and his soiled pants, torn at the knees, are held up with a thick yellow rope he has cinched tightly around his thin waist. He's mad, of course. And he is the happiest son of a bitch I have ever seen.

Whoever he's talking to, they get along fantastically well. There are no awkward pauses between them, no unspoken resentments, and it's pretty clear that the voice in his head is drop-dead hilarious. That voice is his best friend in the world; better than a friend, in fact, as I've been watching this happy lunatic from the window of the local coffee shop for some time now and the two of them have never had so much as an argument. On the contrary, all they ever do - I can only speak for the one I can see, of course - is laugh. Not smile, not giggle, but laugh. Out loud. And not crazy laughter, either, not mad insane guffaws - genuine "ha-ha-ha, I know, I know, yes, that's aha-ha-ha, that's so true" laughter. Chuckles is never violent (he's having too good a time) and he never accosts strangers or passersby (he's got everyone he needs in his own head).

They are not quite so kind to him, though, the passersby and the strangers; they shake their heads, roll their eyes, push angrily past the tittering crackpot as they hurry to meet their grumbling clients, to please their unpleasable bosses, to visit the parents they hate, to pick up the children who in turn hate them. They sigh with exasperation, mutter nutjob and fruitcake and worse, tell him to get off the street, to get a job.

And Chuckles, crazy bastard that he is, keeps laughing.

On the other side of town is another psychotic. She stands on the side of the road that winds through town, palms pressed together in prayer, blessing the cars as they drive by. Beside her stands a large sign that reads: I Can See God's Joy Within You.

Serenity doesn't laugh as Chuckles does - God's work is far too important for that - but she smiles, peacefully, beatifically, trying, it seems, to approximate the look of the Blessed Mother in some ancient oil painting; "The Blessing of the Automobiles" maybe, or "Christ Goes Antiquing In A Chevy Minivan".

Perhaps it's the joy of God within her, perhaps it's the chemical imbalance in her brain, but Serenity is utterly imperturbable. Teenagers shout insults at her from their hot-rodded cars, tourists laugh and take pictures, Harley riders smile, rev their engines and give her sarcastic thumbs up to the joy of the pedestrians walking by. And Serenity, crazy bastard that she is, keeps smiling.

Jesus nut, mutters one passerby.

Loon, hisses another.

This morning she pointed to my heart as I walked by.

God is in there, she said.

Thank Goodness, I thought. I was sure it was a tumour.

I haven't asked my fellow townspeople, of course, but I am fairly certain that they are angry with Serenity for the same reason that I am, for the same reason that we and I, watching Chuckles from the window of the local coffee shop, am angry with him: we're sane. Miserably, incurably sane, and every single one of us is jealous of the happy sons of bitches.

The voice in my head hates me. It's an amalgam of bitter, judgemental characters, dominated primarily by my mother, but there are also rabbis in there, dead writers, James Wood, Adolf Hitler (more frightening than James Wood, but less contumelious - I used that word just for James's benefit; he'll find something wrong with it). I don't talk to the voices in my head, of course, not out loud, but perhaps if they were more supportive I would. Perhaps if they didn't harangue me, criticise me, judge me, we could begin to build a more gemütlich (James?) relationship.

You're fat, says the voice in my head. You're old. You should be more successful by now, shouldn't you? You call that writing? You're no Philip
Roth. You're no Henry Roth. You're not even David Lee Roth.

If this is sanity, count me out.

The voice in Chuckles' head asks, What did the cop say to the child molester? What do you get when you cross a monkey and a lawyer? What's the deal with airline food?

He's nuts. He's bananas. He's off his rocker.

Sign me up.

I want that voice in my head. I want the voice in Serenity's head, the one that says All will be well My child, and You are forgiven and I walk beside you in times of need.

Unfortunately, though, I am sane. I'm so sane I'm on prescription anti-depressants. They're trying to make me more crazy, more happy.

They're not working.

At best, they make the voices in my head somewhat less shrill, slightly less critical and unforgiving. But there's no pill that can make the voice in my head sound like the voices in theirs - that can make that voice funny, that can make that voice supportive. There's no pill that can make that voice like me.

And so I stare out the window of the coffee shop at Chuckles and bristle with the realisation that no pill will ever make me as happy as the lunatic on the corner, slapping his knee at the voice in his head's newest jokes. This morning, it seems the voice has brought his A material; the voice is killing, he's on fire.

Another muffin? asks the voice in my head. That's your second one today. Shouldn't you be at home with your children, being a father? You're not even getting any work done, you're just staring out the window. You call yourself a writer? You call yourself a father? You call yourself a man?

Is the difference between sanity and insanity just that the sane hear hatred and contempt in their heads while the lunatics hear jokes, one-liners, zingers? I hear You suck, and Chuckles hears So a rabbi, a priest and a minister walk into a bar...

It's enough to drive you crazy.

Fortunately for me, and for the rest of my neighbours, there's Rocky. Rocky is a former boxer, but that was a very long time ago - he is now in his sixties, grey-haired, shaggy-bearded and decrepit, pushing a rusted walker in front of him as he struggles to make it along the town's uneven sidewalks.

Rocky isn't crazy. Rocky is so sane he's furious. He's so cogent he can't stay sober. Rocky's playing with a full deck, as they say, which is why Rocky doesn't laugh. Rocky isn't serene. Rocky is pissed off. At everything. All the time.

Fuck you, says Rocky to nobody about nothing. Fuck all this fucking shit.

Rocky must have my mother in his head. I have her voice in my head, and it makes me angry, too, but Rocky is so pissed off I think he must have my actual mother, physically, literally, inside his head. I don't know how she got in there, but she's in there, and she's not coming out.

Rocky shouts at tourists, urinates in the Village Green at the centre of town, bumps into the townspeople, reeking of booze and frustration and failure.

And we love the miserable prick.

Hey Rocky! says a passerby. How's it hanging?

Like fuck, he replies, how do you think?

What's going on there, Rock? asks another.

It's gone, he says. All of it, gone to fucking hell.

We high-five him as we pass by. We offer him rides to the bus station. We, Christ-like and looking to ease his burden, buy him booze at the local gas station.

Today, Rocky walks into the coffee shop, and the young woman behind the counter smiles and waves.

What's the good news, Rock? she asks.

Ain't no news, he grumbles. Shit's fucked, that's the news, always has been.

The coffee is on the house. Rocky goes to the condiment table.

Fucking sugar is something something, he says.

Outside, Chuckles is crossing the street toward me, laughing and waving his arms. A car horn blares at him as he crosses the street. He enters the coffee shop, and the woman behind the counter rolls her eyes. Rocky pushes angrily past him on his way to the door.

Fucking fucking something, grumbles Rock.

The people smile and shout their goodbyes.

Take it easy there, Rock.

Keep your chin up, Rock.

The door closes behind him, and I watch through the window as he stands at the corner, shouting at the passing traffic. I can't hear what he's saying, but I know it's not about the joy of God within the drivers. I know he's not laughing at some hilarious joke the voice in his head just told him. He's frowning. He's shaking his fist. He's shaking his head.

The people in the coffee shop smile to see him so enraged.

Good ol' Rocky.

Meanwhile, Chuckles had taken a seat in the back. He speaks loudly to himself for a moment, and then bursts out laughing, doubled over, slapping the table.

Nutjob, says the girl behind the counter to the customer in front of her.

The customer shakes his head. His daughter reaches for a muffin, and he slaps her hand.

More sugar? he asks her. That's all you need.

Outside, his wife leans on the car horn.

I'm coming! he shouts. Jesus Fuck!

We don't need pills to make us sane; we need pills to make us crazy. Joyously, ecstatically, knee-slappingly nuts.

Two tablets of Psychoprin.

One teaspoon of cherry-flavored Mushughanol.

20 mg of Delirium.

And so the rabbi, the priest and the minister sit down at the bar, and the
bartender comes over and he looks at them and says, "What is this, some kind of a joke?"

Heh.

Make it 40 mg.

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