Talking Heads

by Jason Muller
1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (7 votes, average: 4.57 out of 5)
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“Ordinarily he was insane, but he had lucid moments when he was merely stupid.”

- Heinrich Heine

It can be said that some people were born to be winners. This was not the case for Marty Tidwell, a middle-aged man (a very disturbed man) who often “heard” things. For him, life had been a series of misfortunes, despite his best efforts to build a prosperous life. But that was before today. That was before he discovered the talking head.

On this hot muggy morning in July, Marty Tidwell emerged from his apartment squinting up at the sky. He was a curious-looking individual, tall and wiry, with cheeks sunken and shaded with stubble. His eyes harbored a vulnerable glaze, as if wary of the world around him, and his comb over glistened with enough oil to reflect the Louisiana sun. Overall, he had a concentration camp look about him-a look that proclaimed the slow demise of a man.

Standing there on his patio, he looked out and studied the crude buildings that comprised Whispering Oaks, his longtime residence. Withered ivy scaled the crumbling brick walls. The window units sagged and rattled. The lawn was untidy, trapping bits of vagrant trash.

He hated the place.

The only endearing characteristic was the ancient oak trees growing between the buildings; sometimes he’d stand beneath their gnarled branches and talk to the birds.

Nevertheless…

He wouldn’t be living here much longer, the way he saw it. He had a philosophy. A vision: He believed that between scratch-off lottery tickets and his twenty-five cent gumball machine over at Southwest Charity Hospital (that’s where he was headed this morning; it was collection day), he would one day make enough money to rise to an unprecedented level of wealth and stature. That was the plan, at least. For now, however, he ambled down the sidewalk toward the gravel parking lot, letting his fingertips sing along the chain-link fence.

He climbed inside his dented-up El Camino, rolled down the window. Loosing lottery tickets littered the dash, their silvery shavings dusting the interior. The upholstery was torn and cracked, searing through his blue jean shorts. He started the engine and it roared to life-backfired. At this he smiled, hoping the blast had awakened his landlord.

(do it again, Marty, do it again)

Marty had plans, you see, though his plans had always been marked with delusions.

On his way to Southwest, Marty stopped off at the local Hit-n-Run convenient store, as was his morning custom. Inside, he grabbed a can of Mountain Dew and approached the counter with a curious lust brewing in his eyes.

The clerk, Kenneth, a squatty man with an Afro, looked up from his Sports Illustrated and said, “My man, Marty. I thought I heard you pulling up. What it is, chief?”

Marty just smiled and nodded, then peered obsessively through the Plexiglas lotto display. And after choosing six, one-dollar tickets and paying for the items with change from his lucky Crown Royal bag, Marty hurried back to the El Camino (he was a private scratcher).

Sitting behind the wheel, he cracked open the soda and guzzled it down. Then he sifted his fingers through the discarded tickets in the ashtray and selected a penny.

This was the moment. He loved feeling the coin scrape away the foil lining, beneath which was the prospect of instant riches. This is why he never played the Powerball. To him, it was just a glorified version of bingo. Besides, the odds of winning were astronomical, and gave hope only to the hopeless, which he was not.

And so he sat there in the broiling vehicle, the coin poised for victory, and began to scratch. “Something good is about to happen,” he said with feverish eyes. “I can feel it.”

(you’ll lose)

The first ticket was in fact a loser.

Marty tossed it aside and scratched another, and yet another-loser, loser…

(ha-ha-ha)

He slammed his fist on the steering wheel. “Shut up! Get out of my head. I’m gonna win. You’ll see.”

After scratching five consecutive losers, he pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. Then, as rivulets of sweat trailed down his face, Marty kissed the sixth and final ticket-and scratched away.

It was a WINNER: $2.

(lucky, lucky)

A smile spilt his face. Cha-ching! You see, I told you!” Unable to contain his glee, he leaned out of the open window and waved down an elderly woman who was entering the store. “Hey!” Marty called, holding out the ticket. “Hey, look. I just won two dollars.”

The woman regarded him curiously and shrugged. “Hey, I don’t care.”

Some might say Marty Tidwell’s perception was skewed, and they would be right. But glory such as this-however shallow it might seem-was the only time he experienced pleasure.

He slid the ticket into his back pocket; he didn’t like exchanging a winner right away. No, he liked to hold on to it for a while, savor the success.

After parking in the tower at Southwest, Marty entered through the adjoining automatic doors. He walked briskly down the main corridor, whistling Queen’s We are the Champions, and turned into the waiting room at the end. Inside, people were sitting here and there, reading dog-eared magazines, watching the wall-mounted television. His machine was in the far corner, half-emptied of watermelon gumballs, next to a peace lily that had yellowed from lack of adequate watering.

He reached for his retractable key set clipped to his belt (he thought it made him look like a professional vendor) and made to unlock the coin reservoir. It was then that he first heard the whispering voice.

“Mr. Tidwell.”

At this Marty glanced over his shoulder, curiously scanning the room. Everyone seemed preoccupied. His eyes crept toward the receptionist’s area, but the frosted glass window was closed, a silhouette moving behind it. Marty shrugged and resumed his task.

The voice came again-a genteel, English accent.

“Marty… Marty Tidwell.”

Marty whirled around, wondering if anyone else had heard the phantom voice. He began to eye everyone with a contemplative glare. Oh, they heard it, all right. They don’t know who they’re messing with.

“You were the only one who heard it, Mr. Tidwell,” said the mysterious voice.

Distraught, Marty released the key and it zipped back into the holder and he put his fists on his hips. “All right, now, who keeps calling my name?”

Everyone looked up, regarding him oddly. The receptionist slid her window open, her brows knitted. Marty smiled thinly, raised a reassuring hand. “Sorry, everything’s good on this end. I just…never mind.”

People began to whisper behind their hands to one another. He noticed; he always noticed.

The voice ensued.

“Down here, Mr. Tidwell.”

At last Marty heeded the voice, which seemed to be coming from the direction of the gumball machine.

“That’s it,” the voice urged. “You’re getting warmer.”

He knelt slowly before the machine, frisking around the base in search of meaning. His eyes seized when he noticed the quarter in the coin slot, showing heads.

“You weren’t going to forget me,” the quarter said, “were you?”

Marty’s face was a portrait of perplexity. “Say, what’s going on here?”

The coin glowed when it spoke, a white pulsating radiance, as though charged with life.

“No time for questions, my good man. It seems you’ve attracted a bit of attention to yourself. We must leave before they call security.”

This uncanny development surpassed anything he’d ever experienced, though it didn’t stop him from inquiring. “Who are you? And how did you know my name? How-”

“I’ll explain everything once we’ve left this place.”

For some vague yet valid reason, Marty felt obliged to obey the quarter. He discretely slid the coin from the slot and studied its features: It was unscratched, pristine. The year below Washington’s head showed 1963.

Marty pulled his gaze up to see everyone still scrutinizing him. Driven by a strange anxiety, he stuffed the coin in his pocket and bolted toward the door. The room breathed a sigh of relief when the door shut behind him.

He speed walked out of the building and ran to his vehicle, his footsteps echoing in the dark tower. He clambered inside the El Camino, slammed the squeaky door, and surveyed the tower for onlookers-no one was watching. He was frantic, sweating profusely. He closed his eyes and performed one of his breathing exercises. One, two three, exhale…

Slightly calmed, he warily fished the coin out of his pocket. Washington began to glow ethereally.

“Now, then, Mr. Tidwell, are we a bit more relaxed?”

“Okay, I’m not sure what’s happening here.” He regarded himself in the rearview-his face was pale, clammy. One, two, three…

“Relax, Mr. Tidwell. I’m merely a talking coin.”

“Something’s not right. I think I need to lie down.”

The coin chuckled. “Nonsense, my good man. There’s something we must…”

The voice became fuzzy, and Marty’s world began to swirl and spin. He detected an encroaching darkness from the corners of his eyes. Everything that followed was an indefinite blur.

He woke up screaming-and realized that he was no longer in the tower at Southwest Medical but sitting up in his bed. The window before him admitted eerie shafts of twilight, and the trees beyond stood out black against the reddened sky. His right hand was clenched. He opened it. “Sleep well, Mr. Tidwell?” The coin glowed.

Marty dropped the coin as though it were a searing ember. He scurried off the bed, clambered and crawled to the foot of the bed-and waited, listening to the darkness. Slowly he peeked over the top of the mattress, his eyes as huge as a nocturnal creature. The coin simply lay there on the sheets, glowing amid the darkness.

“Peek-a-boo,” said the coin. “I see you.”

Alarmed, Marty dashed into the hallway and then the bathroom. He snapped on the harsh fluorescent lights. Splashed cold water on his face. Looked in the grimy mirror.

“I must be losing my mind.”

He had heard whispers here and there throughout his life, but nothing as articulate as this. He had certainly never conjured anything so visual.

He was leery about reentering the bedroom, afraid that hearing the coin’s voice again would affirm what the doctor’s had always said about his “condition.” He thought about taking his pills from the medicine cabinet, but decided instead to close his eyes and breathe. One, two, three… But as he stood there breathing, breathing, he heard the sinewy voice traveling from the bedroom into his tormented brain.

“I hear you like lottery tickets, Mr. Tidwell.”

His eyes sprang open. The voice continued:

“Lottery tickets just happen to be my specialty. It’s rather a shame you don’t want to speak to me. I could’ve made all your dreams come true.”

Curious though cautious, Marty returned to the bedroom and said: “What did you just say?”

“You heard me, Mr. Tidwell. Let’s take a ride to the… Hit and Run, is it? Is that the establishment you frequent most?”

“Yeah,” he said skeptically,” the Hit-n-Run. Say, what is all this about, anyway? You said at the hospital that you would explain.” He rubbed his head in confusion. “At least, that’s what I think you said.”

“True. But first I must show you my ability. I wanted to earlier, but you just drove out of that parking tower like a madman. I felt so abandoned.”

“Abandoned? But you’re only a coin.”

“Precisely, Mr. Tidwell. I am a coin that is about to show you something brilliant.”

When Marty arrived at the convenient store the moon was high in the darkness. He parked in front and the lights inside shone brightly.

“Well, what now?”

“Why, do what you always do,” the coin said. “Exchange that ticket in your back pocket. Only thing is, exchange it for two more just like it. Do you hear me clearly, Mr. Tidwell? Get two that are identical.”

“I want more, though.” Marty began to sulk. “I always get more than two.”

The coin sighed. “Mr. Tidwell, you will have to trust me if you want to win big.”

Marty wasn’t sure what all this meant, but he was willing to go with it.

The clerk was some middle-aged woman he’d never seen before. Her skin was of a ghostly pallor, dark circles under her eyes.

“Whacha got, baby?” She asked.

With a trembling hand, Marty laid the ticket on the counter and requested two more. While the clerk was verifying the ticket’s authenticity, Marty began to experience a sudden surge of panic. Did she know about the coin? He tightened his fist around the coin. What if she suspects something? He dragged his skeptical eyes toward the coolers. Maybe the guy at the cooler knows about the coin. (Sir). Maybe everyone knows that I know that the coin really knows something no one else knows. (Sir). He inhaled deeply. Calm down, Marty-breathe.

“Sir!”

He looked up to see the clerk waving two new tickets in his face.

“Are you gonna take these or what?”

Feeling as though conspiring eyes were probing into his core, feeling an overwhelming urge to get out of there and back the hell home, Marty snatched the tickets, darted out the door, bounded into the El Camino, and sped off recklessly.

He didn’t feel safe until he entered his apartment and engaged the deadbolt. Breathing heavily, heart pounding, he ran into the bathroom and drank messily from the faucet. He sat down on a pile of dirty clothes. He looked at the coin in his hand.

Coin said: “Scratch away, Mr. Tidwell. There’s no use wasting any more time.”

Marty: “Were you serious when you said that I was going to win big?”

Coin: “Scratch and see.”

Marty looked at the tickets, then at the coin. He was reluctant to scratch under these conditions, especially after what had happened last April Fools’ Day. Oh yes-Marty hadn’t forgotten about that. It had been raining. He’d just finished making his rounds throughout the complex, changing air-conditioning filters. He walked into the office, shoes squeaking and clothes sodden, carrying a cardboard box full of soiled filters which his landlord, Mr. Guidry (the cheap bastard), would have him hose down and reuse the following month; that was the routine. Yes, Marty recalled clearly that day when old man Guidry, knowing Marty’s addiction to lottery tickets, had bought him one of those faux lottery tickets that fooled one into believing they’d won a fortune. Marty scratched and actually thought he’d won $10,000. Thrilled, he danced around the office, shouting, “I’m free, I’m free.” But when he discovered the truth-rather the lie-and saw Mr. Guidry holding his gut and laughing spitefully, Marty experienced a wave of emotional distress-and then anger. He wanted to strangle the lying prick, then tie his balls up to the El Camino’s back bumper and drive around until SNAP. But Marty was incapable of inflicting physical harm upon others; he’d opted instead to just sit in his bedroom and cry, wallowing for hours in the throes of lunacy.

But now, sitting in the bathroom, ambition exceeded suspicion. He pressed the rim of the coin against the ticket, bracing himself for whatever it might reveal. His hands were fidgety, though he scratched both cards clean before peeking at the symbols. And when at last his eyes fell upon them…

…he could hardly believe what he was seeing. Each ticket boldly declared:

*WINNER: $50*

“Now, you see that? Congratulations, Marty. You are a winner.”

Marty sat there in disbelief, in shock. Am I dreaming? He bit his lip to repress his emotion, and when he did, when he felt the pleasant sting of his bite, he knew this moment was not a dream. A warm feeling rushed through him. A network of tingly sensations traveled pleasantly through his stubble face. And like a volcano on the verge of eruption, Marty spewed forth a thrill-laden “YES!!”

Years of public ridicule. Years of abuse by people who’d never given him a chance. He was tired of always driving on “E.” Tired of the whole goddamn treadmill of life. But now he’d shown them. He’d shown all of them. He was Marty Tidwell, by God. And he was a winner.

Tears of joy began welling up in his dark, globular eyes. He sniveled and wiped them away with the back of his hand. “Is this for real?”

“Of course it’s real, silly. Did you actually think I’d trick you? Did you actually think I’d do that to a… friend?”

Friend-a word so familiar, yet so terribly distant.

“What’s your name, then? Is it…George? George Washington?”

The coin chuckled. “No, but you can call me George, if you like.”

George… I have a friend and his name is George.

Desperate to affirm his victory, Marty beheld the tickets again. Sure enough, he was a winner.

He lay on his back in bed, holding the coin above his face, marveling at its magical glow. The moon was lustrous, spilling blue shafts of light into the room. A choir of frogs sang in the Louisiana night. Marty spoke first.

“Say, are you like a ghost or something?”

“No, I don’t believe so. But as you can see, I was born in nineteen sixty-three.”

“Born?”

“Well, perhaps ‘wrought’ would be a more accurate term. I still remember the day when I was rolled up and shipped out of the U.S. Mint. Interesting facility, you’d like it. There’s money everywhere.”

“Heck yes, I’d like that. Keep going, I want to hear more about you.”

“Well, I’ve had an extraordinary life as you can imagine. I’ve seen many hands and many people. In fact-and this is between you and me- I’ve met Lee Harvey Oswald. I was in his pocket the day Kennedy was killed.

“You’ve actually met Lee Harvey Oswald?”

“That’s right.”

“Are you serious?”

“I was serious about the tickets, wasn’t I?”

Marty considered the truth in this. “Yeah…I guess you were.”

The window unit hummed to life, drawing in air that smelled of moldy wood.

“I’ll let you in on a little secret, as well: Mr. Oswald was in fact the lone gunman on that fateful November day. You see, Marty, Lee and I had numerous conversations. We’d had an especially lengthy conversation the night before he shot Kennedy.”

Marty awed at the coin. “That’s amazing…well, not Kennedy being killed, of course, but, you know, meeting Lee Harvey Oswald.”

“He was an interesting lad, that Oswald. And he was the only celebrity I’ve met. Other than that, cash drawers and pockets have been my main home. Once I was in the pocket of a man when he died of a heart attack. Interesting sounds, the dying make. I was even swallowed by a kid a few years back. That was a rather foul experience, if you know what I mean.”

“Gross.”

“Indeed. I’ve also served time in jail: I was confined to a piggy bank for years.”

At this Marty did not answer, though he sympathized with the coin. Having been committed to a psychiatric ward when he was younger, Marty knew the anguish of imprisonment.

Over the next few hours, the coin summarized his journey through the years. He spoke of the many hands he’d encountered, the many arcade games and shopping mall fountains into which he’d been cast. Marty spoke of his past, a past filled with parental neglect and abandonment-and with a society that had always condemned his deranged behavior.

After a while the conversation began to fade. It was very late. Marty yawned.

They were silent for a while. A comfortable silence teeming with unspoken knowledge. Somewhere in the distant night a dog howled. Elsewhere, a train rattled by in the darkness.

At last the coin said, “I’m curious about one thing, Marty. I couldn’t help but notice those marks on your wrists. Are those scars?”

Marty frowned and turned his head away. “I don’t want to talk about that right now.”

“Was it an accident? Did someone do that to you? Did you do…?”

“I said I don’t want to talk about it, George!” Marty immediately regretted his outburst. “I’m sorry, George. I didn’t mean to be so rough. I just don’t like to talk about it, that’s all.”

“That’s fine, Marty. We don’t have to. But if you ever do, I’ll listen. After all, we’re friends. Now close your eyes and get some sleep. A man with many prospects needs his rest.”

Assured of his friendship with George, exhausted from all that had transpired during the day, Marty yawned and rolled on his side, the coin and the tickets clutched firmly against his chest. Under the spell of the window unit’s cold breath, he drifted off to sleep, smiling.

Someone was banging on the front door. Marty snapped awake and the sun was bright in the window. Though he’d just been abruptly aroused, he felt unusually calm and relaxed. He checked the tickets. I’m still a winner.

Bang, Bang, Bang…

Marty, you in there? Marty…” It was Mr. Guidry’s voice.

“What does that bastard want?” Marty crawled out of bed, went to the door.

Mr. Guidry looked furious. His white hair stuck out wildly on his head, and his beer belly protruded from beneath his wife beater.

“Damn, Marty, what the hell were you thinkin’ this time?”

Marty yawned, scratched his ass.

“First of all,” Mr. Guidry continued, “you’re late for work. Second”-he stepped aside and pointed toward the parking lot-”you want to tell me what the hell happened here?”

Marty craned his head out the door to see his El Camino, sitting at an angle atop the now-destroyed chain-link fence. Dang, he thought. I must have overshot the lot last night. He was amused by this, as well as by Mr. Guidry’s rage.

“So what.” Marty said. “I don’t need that stupid truck. I have…prospects now.”

Mr. Guidry looked as though he’d smelled a fart. “What the hell’s wrong with you, boy? You sick or somethin’? You been takin’ your meds like you supposed to?”

Marty grinned. “Nah, I ain’t sick.”

“Well, I’ve got news for you, son. That fence is comin’ outta your pay, you hear?”

“Whatever.”

Mr. Guidry scowled. “We’ll see about that. And just so you know, I’m havin’ that piece of crap car of yours towed, which is also comin’ outta your pay. One of them fence posts punctured your goddamn radiator, and your back tires.”

“See if I care.” Marty had always disliked the El Camino, a car that wasn’t good enough to be a truck. He did, however, want to examine it up close.

Mr. Guidry stared after him as he walked leisurely down the sidewalk.

When Marty approached the wreckage, he smiled in amazement. Antifreeze had bled onto the twisted metal, neon green glistening in the morning sun. Wow, I did this. After circling the wreck, Marty strode back past a stupefied Mr. Guidry, and then reentered his apartment.

“Marty, you get back here! Don’t walk away from me. Hey, we ain’t through-”

Marty shut the door. He didn’t need Mr. Guidry bringing him down. Not today.

Back in his bedroom, he picked up the coin and cradled it like a baby hamster.

“George? You there?”

“Well, good morning, friend. Up for some scratching today?”

Marty slapped his knee. “Freakin’ A! I knew you’d say that.”

“You wrecked the El Camino, didn’t you, naughty boy?”

“Yeah, but so what. I mean, as long as I have you, I have the magic. I’ll make enough money to buy a black Mercedes if I want. And a new house. Maybe I’ll even buy this lousy apartment complex and have it torn down, fire old man Guidry.”

“That’s the spirit, Marty. But first, let’s go treasure hunting.”

First stop: The ole Hit-n-Run. Kenneth could hardly believe that Marty had two successive fifty dollar winners. “Damn, Marty. You be tearin’ it up, son.”

Outside, Marty consulted the coin about their next move.

Two miles later, at the Penny Saver grocery, he purchased a ten dollar ticket-something he’d never done before-and scratched it in a stall in the bathroom.

His uproarious laughter reverberated off the walls when he realized he was holding a two-hundred dollar winner. “Holy Jesus!”

He cashed it and shoved the crisp bills into the Crown Royal bag.

By four o’ clock that afternoon, Marty, at George’s discretion, had trudged several miles in the oppressive Louisiana heat. George would say, “Go here,” or “Go there,” and Marty would go, never once questioning George’s judgment. He walked down highways and through busy intersections, visiting various establishments-Circle K, Albertson’s, Tobacco Plus, Cajun Station, and two different Shop Rites. Each one yielded winning tickets. Once, however, he’d stopped for tickets at a Diamond Shamrock-and didn’t win a thing. In response to Marty’s dismay, George merely said, “I’m not perfect, but I’m the next best thing.”

By five o’clock, Marty’s clothes were sodden with sweat, and he was fatigued from all the walking. He stopped at a recreational park and purchased a Mountain Dew from a vending machine, then sat beneath the shade of an enormous oak tree. The western sky was blushing, and the clouds were etched with vibrant orange. Locusts shrieked from unseen places.

As he sipped the soda, Marty studied a pair of cardinals flitting in the branches of the tree. He liked birds. He liked them because their world was unrestrained and uninhibited. They could fly anywhere they pleased, defying gravity. He watched them defy it now as they flew across the street before him, and lit atop a billboard. What he saw next sent his mind aswarm with possibilities. It was an omen, a premonition. The coin had apparently seen it, as well.

“Now that’s what we need to do, Marty: Visit a casino.”

The billboard advertised:

*CYPRESS BAYOU CASINO*

*Nobody can beat our odds*

Open 24/7

“You mean you can predict other things besides lottery tickets?”

“I think it’s time we take things up a notch. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Heck yes, I agree. I’ve never been to a casino before. Say, won’t I need a suit or something?”

“Indeed you will-a tuxedo, actually. And, since you no longer have an operable vehicle, I’d say that a limousine service would be quite appropriate.”

“Yeah…” Marty said, dreamily. “I’ve never been in a limo, either.”

“We’ll go tomorrow night-a big Saturday night. And while we’re at it, you should reward yourself with a lavish steak dinner beforehand.”

“You know what, you’re right.”

“Have I been wrong so far?”

*####*

He arrived at Esquire’s Tuxedo Rentals an hour later. The bell rang when he entered and a brunette was behind the counter, a yellow measuring tape draped around her neck. Marty was immediately drawn to the baby blue tuxedo adorned with white ruffles.

“Wow,” he said, pointing. “I gotta have this.”

The woman approached him, rolling her eyes at this strange slovenly man. “Yeah, I bet you do. It’s one of our more expensive-”

“That’s okay.” Marty reached into the bag, eagerly producing a wad of cash. “And I want white shoes, like those over there.” He began to point at this and that, mesmerized by the colorful array of accessories. And then he noticed the hats. “Say, what do you call this hat here?”

The woman sighed. “That would be a top hat.”

“Yeah,” Marty said awestruck. “A top hat would be…proper.”

She measured him, wincing at his sour stench, then collected his deposit and arranged for a deluxe limousine to pick him up on the following evening. The tux would be ready by noon the next day.

Back home, the El Camino was gone. The flood light in the parking lot cast a pale funnel of light onto the busted fence. He sort of missed the Camino now that it was gone.

Inside, he fixed himself a Salisbury steak TV dinner and ate it with little enthusiasm. After that, he took a shower and lied down in bed, staring at the water-stained ceiling, his naked body spread-eagled atop the sheets. He sighed with content.

“We did good today, didn’t we, George?”

“Tomorrow will be even better.”

Marty glanced at the window-a fat, yellow moon peering through. Although his life had taken a change for the better, he felt torn about how sudden it had happened. It felt too easy and too good to be true. It could disappear as quickly as it had come. He realized that without George, he was nothing.

“George?”

“Hmmm?”

“You would never leave me, would you?”

“Now why would you say such a thing?”

“I don’t know. I guess I just feel like this whole thing-you know, winning-is just too easy. I kinda feel guilty, too, like I did something wrong.”

“Good things come to those who wait, as the saying goes. Have you not waited for something like this your entire life?”

Marty considered this. “Well, yeah, but still…I feel like I’m cheating, like I’m breaking the law or something.”

George cleared his throat. “Ask yourself this, Marty: Did you steal anything?”

“No.”

“Then you’re not breaking the law, nor are you cheating. Don’t think about it too much. Just remember that tomorrow, you show the world who Marty Tidwell really is. Aren’t you proud to be so distinguished?”

Marty yawned. “I guess so.” It was late and his thoughts were muddled.

Minutes passed in mutual silence. The dog howled in the night.

As Marty gradually surrendered to the undertow of sleep, he muttered, “You would never leave me-would you, George?”

“Sweet dreams, Marty. We have a long day ahead of us.”

Marty Tidwell slept, but he did not dream.

Marty awoke at noon, feeling as though he could conquer the world. He called and made reservations for one at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse; he’d always wanted to eat there. After that, nibbling on a handful of saltines, he sat down on his tattered sofa, surveying his apartment. Upon making his fortune at the casino, there would be no more moldy walls or odorous carpet. No more leaky faucets or inferior furniture. He would possess leather furniture, designer clothing-and a black Mercedes Benz; he might even get himself a girlfriend. He smiled. He couldn’t wait to dress in his tuxedo, so he took off sprinting the mile to Esquire’s and picked it up.

Later, after showering and shaving and slicking his hair with generous amounts of oil, after dressing in his rented attire, Marty stood before the full-length mirror in his bedroom, looking like a gaunt variation of the Mad Hatter. The baby blue tux fit perfectly. The white shoes were pristine, shining like brilliant ivory. He was impeccable. He couldn’t believe how good he looked; moreover how good he felt. He’d grown particularly fond of removing the top hat from his head and bowing in the mirror like some gallant gentlemen from the Renaissance. He’d mimic classic lines like, “Evening, sir” and “The name is Tidwell…Marty Tidwell.” He sure thought he was something.

“You look stunning, sir.”

“Don’t I?” Marty beamed, viewing himself at every imaginable angle.

At five thirty, Marty went into the living room and just stood there looking out the window, thinking about the future. With twilight bleeding through the mini blinds, casting thin shadows here and there, he thought about this new turn of events. He struggled to reconcile his emotions. He struggled, too, with a disease that had always made him do things of which he was not consciously aware. And it scared him. It scared him because for as long as he could remember, he’d never had anything to live for. Lottery tickets were merely there to dull the pain-and to provide hope. Women had interested him at times, but they were a subject on which he was totally ignorant. Still, he hoped to one day find female companionship.

As he stood there exploring his innermost conflicts, there came the sound of a car horn. He peered through the dingy curtains to see a shiny black limo idling in the lot; it looked out of place amongst all the commonplace vehicles. He could see the driver’s silhouette behind the wheel. George said, “It’s six o’ clock, Marty. Your carriage awaits.”

With the unknown evening before him, and with his gut was teeming with sensations that both thrilled and disturbed him, Marty Tidwell stepped out into the balmy, Louisiana twilight.

On his way to the limo, he passed Mr. Guidry’s apartment. The old man was sitting in a lawn chair on his patio, drinking beer; empty Natural Light cans were strewn around his feet. Marty kept his head down, trying to avoid an encounter.

“Well, looky who it is,” said Mr. Guidry. “If it isn’t the world’s looniest fool.” He stood and staggered, then pointed at Marty. “You think you’re gonna walk all over me? You think you’re bitchin’? Well, I got news for you, you psychotic punk: you’re fired. And consider yourself evicted. I want my keys, you hear? I want ‘em. You got till end of the week to have your scrawny ass outta here.” He noticed Marty’s tuxedo for the first time, looking as if he’d bitten into a lemon. “Why are you dressed like a goddamn queer? I always knew you was queer. You gumball sellin’ son of a…”

Marty was angry. Livid. He whirled on Mr. Guidry and shot him the bird and roared, “You fat bastard. You have no idea. You have no idea who I am or what I can do. From now on, I say how things are going to be. You hear me, old man? I don’t need to worry about my job or this…this stupid apartment. Things have changed. I have prospects.”

He turned and marched toward the limo. He was shocked at his audacity, and thoroughly elated at his newfound empowerment, though there remained a lingering sense of apprehension for what he had just done. “Good for you, Marty,” said George. “Well done.”

Mr. Guidry simply watched him depart, bamboozled.

Marty’s apprehension faded once he had settled into the limousine. He was impressed with the long leather seats, the wood grain paneling, the shiny gadgets. Is this what the high-life is all about? The driver was an elderly man with glasses. Marty had felt a little awkward when the man opened the door for him. Was he supposed to tip him for that? Nevertheless, the limo was now rolling and Marty began exploring the interior. He played up-and-down games with the electric windows. He smiled upon discovering the radio.

“Wow, a radio in the back seat.” He duck walked to the glass partition and knocked and asked the driver if it was okay to turn the radio on.

“Sure,” he said. It’s your limo tonight, Mr. Tidwell.”

Like a child with a new toy, Marty fiddled with the radio’s buttons. He scanned past radio static and stopped on Ricky Martin’s Living La Vida Loca. Marty had always liked that song. He turned it up, bouncing his head and playing air drums to the Latin beat. He held George tightly in his left fist.

Polished SUVs, sparkling BMWs, and other lavish vehicles ornamented the lot at Ruth’s Chris. The driver pulled into the carport and opened the door for Marty.

“Enjoy your meal, Mr. Tidwell. I’ll be waiting for you when you return.”

Marty eyed the driver uncomprehendingly. “You mean you’re not coming inside? You’re actually gonna wait in the car…for me?” Marty was genuinely touched. Never before had anyone displayed such kindness toward him. He offered to tip the driver a hundred, but was waved off. And with that the driver returned to the wheel, drove to the far end of the parking lot, and waited.

Marty looked down at George in his palm. “He’s a nice guy. I feel kinda sorry for him.”

“Don’t be so meek, Marty,” the coin admonished. “Go and live it up.”

Inside, utensils clinked and the lighting was subtle. He gave his name to the greeter and she led him to his table. Everyone regarded him strangely and he wondered why. After all, he was now one of them. Self-conscious, he checked his fly- it was up. By judging the attire of the other patrons, he thought he may have overdressed for the occasion.

Nevertheless, he sat there at his table for one, sticking out like a clown in church. He ordered a New York strip steak and sweet potato casserole. The restaurant didn’t offer Mountain Dew, so he settled for a Coke; for desert he had chocolate mousse with shaved almonds. He devoured the meal. Steak sauce painted his mouth and he ate voraciously. Nothing had ever tasted so wonderful.

“I could get use to this,” he commented to George.

When he had finished, he paid and left a generous tip. He was surprised at how good it felt to pay big money for a meal. For the first time in his life, he felt important.

Back outside, night was falling quickly. Insects rioted beneath the carport lighting. He motioned for the car and they were back on the road within minutes, heading south on Highway 90.

Marty thanked the driver profusely for waiting, then instructed him as to the next destination. “Say, you ever been there?”

The driver looked in the rearview. “To the casino? No, I haven’t. But I hear it’s a nice place.”

“Yeah, I hear that, too.” Marty settled back in his seat, grinning with secret knowledge. “I hear a lot of things.”

Along the way, Marty recalled his fall out with Mr. Guidry. He unclipped his retractable key set from his waist and stared at them a while, contemplating. Keys to the El Camino, the gumball machine at Southwest Medical; keys to both his apartment and the office of the complex-all were there in his right hand, bound together by a ring of lack and failure. He looked at George in his left hand, and then back at the keys in the other. Without a second thought, he rolled the window down and tossed the set of keys out. They landed in the scrub along the dark highway. “Mr. Guidry can kiss my scrawny ass, George.”

Forty minutes later, at the stroke of eight, the limo pulled up to the casino. The sun had already set, amplifying the flashing neon lights gracing the facade. Lush palm trees lined the brick sidewalk leading to the entrance. When Marty stepped out of the limo, he felt like a celebrity on the red carpet.

The driver stood there holding the door open. “Good luck, Mr. Tidwell. I hope you do well.”

“You know what? Why don’t you go ahead and take off. I’ll find a way back.”

Marty reached into the Crown Royal bag and withdrew a one-hundred dollar bill. He held it out to the driver.

“No, no, I couldn’t possibly-

“Here,” insisted Marty, stuffing the bill into the driver’s breast pocket. “Go and get yourself something good to eat. Go buy something nice for yourself.”

The driver nodded and said: “Why, thank you, Mr. Tidwell. Are you sure you don’t want me to wait?”

Marty was sure. They said farewell and Marty watched the limo’s lights until they disappeared down the highway.

Marty checked on George. “Hey, you’ve been pretty quiet tonight. You’re not backing out on me at the last minute, now, are you?”

“Me? Never. I’m just enjoying watching you have a good time.”

“Well, here we go.” Marty, adjusted his coat, tipped his hat slightly, and entered the casino with vigor in his step.

If ever during his mundane life Marty Tidwell had seen beauty, it was upon stepping into the casino’s vast atrium. He was spellbound. His shoes clicked as he walked upon the pristine marble flooring, over which dangled sparkling chandeliers. Had beauty like this existed all along?

When he came to where the atrium opened up to the gaming floor, he just stood there, mouth agape, staring out at the countless rows of slot machines and gaming tables that extended far beyond the reach of his gaze. The place was immaculate. Everything shined and gleamed. Isolated bursts of cheering sprang up here and there, and he knew that soon, with George’s guidance, he would be at the center of one of those springs.

“Say, George, where should we start? I don’t know what to do.”

“Well,” said George, “why don’t we have a look around.”

Marty scanned the place, feeling pressured by indecision. He began to notice that he was even more overdressed here at the casino than he was at the restaurant. Many people were wearing nothing more than blue jeans and a collared shirt. One guy was even wearing shorts and leather sandals. He saw not one man wearing a suit, other than a few guys who stood here and there with their hands clasped behind their backs, and with microphones in their ears. Security, he figured.

As he strode passed the slots, he saw an old woman celebrate as a cascade of quarters came crashing down into the collection tin. He stopped and watched, knowing now what it felt like to be a winner. He walked on…

…and came to a more populated array of gaming stations, around which were more finely dressed people, holding drinks and cheering. He approached the craps table, baffled by what he was seeing. Words like PASSLINE and COME, as well as other words and numbers of varying color and font were printed on the green velvet. It seemed complex, but he watched with absorbed attention as players stacked their chips (convert your money to chips) and rolled the dice. He tried to listen and learn how the game was played, but the concept was far beyond his radius of comprehension…

…so he moved on and discovered the roulette wheels. Here his eyes got lost in the skip and bounce of the tiny ball. People were winning and obviously having fun. But he wasn’t. The rattling spin of the wheel made him dizzy, making it difficult to learn the game. He wanted something simpler. But first he needed gaming chips.

While standing there he felt something pinch the back of his ear. He whirled around, rubbing his right earlobe, to see a woman, smiling behind the glass from which she was sipping. She had black hair, cropped at the shoulders, and her eyes were shaped like almonds. She was beautiful-and obviously a bit tipsy. She brought the glass down from her red lips and said: “Well, hey there, cutey.”

Marty’s face ran flush and his knees began to tremble. He felt his blood rushing to places it had never gone. He was terrified. The woman moved closer and removed the top hat from his head and set it on hers. She giggled and sipped her drink. His first reaction was not to reclaim the hat but to hide his thinning hair with his hands. The woman moved closer now and closer still, at last placing her hand on Marty’s chest, rubbing it sensuously. Now he could feel the warmth of her, could smell the flowery scent of her perfume. Never before had he felt so suffocated yet free. He forced a smile, wondering if his breath stank. The woman, still caressing Marty, began to navigate her French-manicured nails to his waistline. At this moment, all and everything around him- save this woman-became amorphous, a dark backdrop which mattered not. Somewhere in his mind he recalled the movie American Beauty, the scene when Kevin Spacey is entranced by the promiscuous cheerleader.

The woman, still smiling, removed her hand and sipped from her glass. She placed the hat back on Marty’s head. She then began to walk backwards, away from him, her magnetic eyes seizing his gaze. Then, as though she’d never existed, she disappeared into a crowd of people-and was gone forever. He sighed contentedly. (Marty) He realized that a very important element was missing from his life, and he put his hand over his heart, (Earth to Marty) grinning as he stared off in the direction this woman had disappeared.

“Snap out of it, Marty!” demanded George. “Have you forgotten what we’ve come here for?”

Marty became aware of his surroundings and sobered his face. “Right,” he said with renewed determination and started toward the exchange window. He glanced over his shoulder, wondering if the woman had been real, or if desperation had been so cruel as to conjure such a remarkable specimen of humankind.

“It’s gone!” Marty shouted in panic, patting his coat, digging crazily into his pockets. He shot a look at the woman sitting behind the glass window. “I just had it and now it’s gone!”

The woman shrugged. “Sir, if you don’t mind I’m going to have to ask you to step aside so I can help these other folks.”

Marty turned to the man behind him. “Have you seen my bag?” he implored, describing every possible aspect of the Crown Royal bag. The man murmured something, nudged past Marty toward the window.

Marty glanced frantically around the casino, like a child who’d lost his mother. He then dashed into an empty corridor nearby. He opened his clammy fist. “George… George all my money is gone. I don’t know what happened. It was just in my coat pocket and now…now…”

“There, there, Marty. Just relax.”

“What are we going to do now, George?”

“Well, if I recall correctly, you started with nothing just the other day, and everything turned out just fine. Did it not?”

Marty calmed a bit, slowing his breath. “You’re absolutely right. But how can we do this when I have no money?”

“Ah, but that is where you’re wrong, Marty. You have all the money in the world.”

At this Marty furrowed his brow, unsure of what George meant by this. And then it hit him: George was money. A fresh wave of optimism glazed Marty’s face. “But how?”

Then, as though he were a prophet proclaiming words of hope to a legion of oppressed people, George uttered two words: “The slots.”

The slots. These words fell heavily upon Marty’s ears, for the thought of releasing George into the bowels of the machine was ominous.

“I don’t know, George. What if…”

“It’s simple, actually.” I’ll show you what machine to play, you slip me in and pull the lever, and then, after the coins come crashing down, you’ll pluck me from the lot; I’ll be the one glowing.”

Marty glanced out at the slots, concern mounting in his eyes. He had no reason to doubt George, given that he’d never misguided him.

“Just think,” the coin continued, “when you win, your lady friend might be nearby, watching. How glorious would that be? To revive chivalry. She’d surely want to go home with you then, eh, Marty.

Marty blushed and smiled toothily, and after a moment of contemplation, he said, “Okay. I’ll do it.”

Marty sat on a stool in front the slot machine, surrounded by old people with plastic cups loaded with quarters. Some were hooked up to portable oxygen tanks and sitting alone, while others were huddled in small groups; all of them were feeding the machine with zeal. The ring and clink of the machines made him dizzy. He curled his fingers around the lever.

“George, just in case we…”

“In case we what, Marty?”

Marty had a bad feeling about this. But, dammit, he had no other choice. “Never mind, I trust you, George.”

“I suppose the next time we meet you’ll be a rich man.”

Marty forced a smile. “Are you ready?”

“I was born ready, Marty.”

And so Marty, sweat beading his temple, raised the quarter to the slit. He hesitated for a moment. “I’ll see you in a minute George.” He slipped it in.

“Tallyho…” George called, his voice fading into the depths of the machine.

Marty curled his fingers around the lever and took a deep breath. Then, with one swift motion, he pulled and the lever descended. He watched from left to right as the screen produced one lemon, two lemons-”Come on, come on.” The last icon spun and spun and then-an orange.

Silence.

The game was over. He looked down at the collection reservoir between his legs and it was empty. He looked back up at the screen and it said: Place Bet. He tried pulling on the lever again but it did not budge. He slid off the stool and felt his knees growing shaky. “George?” he said gently, and started poking aimlessly at various buttons on the machine. “Hey, George.”

The old woman sitting to his right shouted in victory as her machine spawned a flow of quarters. He turned back to his machine, started shaking it violently. “George…George…”

But George did not answer, and Marty felt a surge of greasy disgust billowing in his stomach. He fell to his knees and his hat tumbled to the carpet. He vomited between the machines, and no one seemed to notice-no one seemed to care.

What have I done? He thought as he wiped from his lips the soured chunks of steak that only hours ago had been succulent and desirable. Oh my God…George.

This had to be a mistake, a fluke. He was Marty Tidwell. This was not supposed to be written in his fate. No, his fate was to rise above oppression and poverty. George didn’t mean to betray him. It was the stupid machine’s fault.

Marty grew angry, he all but forgot his top hat and stood up boldly, straightened his jacket to restore pride and dignity. He faced the machine, his comb over standing up wildly, exposing his true baldness. He pushed the stool aside and kicked the machine. Kicked it again and again.

(temper, temper)

An old man with rosy cheeks turned to Marty and grimaced. “Hey, son, what the Sam Hill you doin’?”

But Marty did not hear, chose not to. Then a man in a black suit-attracted to the raucous- sauntered into the aisle to see this fool in the baby blue tuxedo kicking away at the slot. “Hey! Stop that.” He ran up to Marty and grabbed his shoulders. “What’s the problem here?”

Marty turned, gritting his teeth. “This friggin thing stole George.” He pointed at the machine. “We’ve gotta get somebody over here to open it up.”

“Now just hold on, sir. Did you say…George?”

“Yeah, man. My lucky quarter.”

The officer narrowed his eyes. “Sir, consider this a warning. One more episode and I’ll have to escort you out.”

Marty opened his mouth to protest, but was struck with an idea, and suddenly thought it wise to heed the warning.

Marty gentled his voice. “I’m sorry for losing my temper.” He flattened his hair, only to have it stand back up in wild strands.

“So are we calm here?” the security officer asked.

Feigning composure, Marty laced his hands before him, and nodded.

The security officer backed away, slowly, his eyes studying Marty with profound interest.

When the officer had left the aisle, Marty relaxed his shoulders and turned back to the slot machine with purpose. It’s okay, he thought. Everything will be just fine if you breathe, Marty. We’ll just have to wait, is all. Yeah. Sooner or later someone will have to come along and play. And when they win, I’ll just explain to them what happened and get George back. Surely they’ll understand.

(No they won’t, Marty…George is gone…George betrayed you)

“Stop talking to me!”

Marty leaned and put his lips to the coin slot and whispered, “Don’t worry, George, I won’t let them separate us.” He then pressed his ears to the slit, hoping for a response. He heard nothing.

An hour had passed. Marty sat on a stool opposite the slot machine, his heel tapping impatiently on the rung, his eyes glancing nervously left and right in search of a prospective gamer. He encouraged passersby to play the machine, but in vain. As Marty waited, he never once posited how his bag might have disappeared, nor did he allow the thought of George possibly denying him enter his mind. Too, he never once thought about the enigmatic woman whom he’d encountered earlier. George-loyal companion-was the only object around which his brain orbited.

Meanwhile, people were winning. Their elation made Marty sick; it sent him deeper into himself. Mockery, he thought. They know how much I’m hurting and they mock me with their winnings.

(Georgie porgie puddin’ and pie fucked over Marty and made him cry)

“Not now.”

(Georgie porgie…)

“Not listening.”

(…puddin’ and pie fucked over Marty…)

Marty pressed his hands over his ears. “La-la-la-la-la. Not listening.”

(…and made him CRY)

He mopped his forehead with his sleeve. It was then that a middle-aged man, wearing a black New Orleans Saints hat and a Hawaiian shirt, took up the seat at the slot. Energized with renewed hope, Marty donned the hat and approached the man with tentative urgency. He stood over the man’s shoulder, watching him feed the machine and pull the lever.

Minutes passed without a win and the man began to grunt. He guzzled the last of his draft beer and slurred. “This’ the last damn quarter I’m feedin’ this dang machine tonight.” He fed and pulled. “Come on, you. Daddy needs a win.” The icons reflected magically in Marty’s eyes, lighting up with one…two…three oranges. The quarters came gushing down and the man roared, “Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about, baby!” As he leaned to collect his winnings in a plastic cup, Marty patted him on the back and said, “Hey, man, that was awesome.”

The man whirled on Marty and snarled. “Hey…why you touchin’ me, you freak? You don’t just walk up to somebody and touch ‘em.”

Marty was intimidated by the man’s sour breath, and by the rage teeming in his eyes. He swallowed hard and told the man about George.

“You crazy, man.”

“But you don’t understand. He’s my friend,” Marty explained.

Spectators began to gather. The security officer observed from the end of the aisle.

“Listen, buddy-”

“No you listen!” Marty boomed, stepping up to the man, groping at the cup. “I gotta get George, god dammit!”

The man tried to withhold. “Get off me, man. The hell’s the matter with you?”

But Marty wasn’t listening. He had one purpose and one purpose only.

“George…Hold on, George, I’m coming.”

Marty’s fingers found the rim of the cup, gripped it firmly. He ripped the cup from the man’s hands and it went twirling up in the air. Quarters-hundreds of them- took flight, then rained down onto the carpet.

The security officer jostled through the throng, as did another officer. By now the spectators had grown.

Marty dropped to his knees, his hands scouring the loot for that one, singular glow. “George, show me the light! Light it up, George!” Then, from the corner of his eye, he saw the circular glow. “George!” He crawled toward it, uttering praise.

But then something even stranger happened. To his left was another quarter, glowing. Marty hesitated, then made toward it. But then another lit up, and then another, until at last every quarter was ablaze with that eerie glow. Still on all fours, he was momentarily paralyzed. “George, where are you?” And then came the singular rise of George’s laughter.

“George?”

Suddenly two security officers were flanking Marty. They reached down and seized his bony wrists. “Wait, no…” Marty Tidwell began to writhe like a worm on hot pavement. “No…”

They began dragging him away from the madness, his legs trailing before him.

He yelled and yammered. He ranted and raved.

But all anyone could hear was the gibbering of the insane.

4 Responses to “Talking Heads”

  1. Helice says:

    Creepy, sad, vibrantly insane. Loved it.

  2. Kathy says:

    Greed wins and Marty loses!! Insanity at its best. Love it.

  3. A very well put together story, a piece of “magic realism.” 4 stars.

  4. “Relax, Mr. Tidwell. I’m merely a talking coin.” A well-written, entertaining story that had me chuckling and cringing in equal measure

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