Monday, January 9, 2012

Theoharides On Fiction: "Ugly Carlo"

Alex Theoharides shares one of his most recent pieces of short fiction, a story titled "Ugly Carlo."

Ugly Carlo

by Alex Theoharides

Several years ago, back when I was still living day-to-day, making what money I could rolling discarded tobacco ashes into cigarettes and stealing dollar bills from coffee house tip jars, I knew a fortune teller named Carlo who was the ugliest man I had (and have) ever seen. Truly, it doesn’t matter much that Carlo was ugly; however, telling fortunes is an ugly game, and I’ve always believed that a man’s ugliness is directly correlated to his understanding of how the wheels of the universe spin (whatever that silly expression means).

My point is that in the same way that when a beautiful person has a slight blemish it can be difficult to look away, Carlo’s ugliness made it nearly impossible to linger in his proximity, and even though at the time he was considered to be the foremost fortune teller in our city, his business was failing because no one could sit across from him for any extended period of time. Carlo never said much about his financial situation, but it was clear to those of us who were used to watching his ugly shadow pass along the streets of our neighborhood that he was struggling. To pay his bills, he took a job at the Mobil Station on the corner of 50th and Xerxes, where he pumped gas and wiped grit off customer’s windshields. We made fun of his job sometimes—shouting questions at him as we walked past the gas station on our way to rifle through the baker’s dumpster for stale bread. What’s the meaning of life Carlo? What will I be when I grow up? Who will I love? What’s big and ugly and works at a gas station? We all knew that answer: Carlo is, Carlo is!

Every January, he left town. There were rumors about what he did while he was gone. A few of us were convinced that he retreated to the desert. Meditating. Dreaming about the future. Growing uglier and wiser with every passing moment. Others were skeptical of Carlo’s disappearances, believing he didn’t leave town at all. After all, he was dirt poor. Where could he go? What could he do? Who could he see? I even had one girlfriend (I call her that because she was 18 and so was I and I was in love with her) who was convinced that Carlo was actually quite handsome, and that every January he stripped away his assumed layers of ugliness, combing back his scraggly gray hair, wiping clean his oily complexion, straightening his crooked back and changing into clothes that accented his slim (some would argue malnourished) figure. I tried not to think about it: Carlo wasn’t the sort of man it paid to think about, he could have gone anywhere, done anything, but none of it mattered to me, I was growing older and the pleasure I took out of my wastrel’s life was beginning to fade. Yet I still believed it was possible to become anything—to change your life for the better or for the worse. If someone had told me differently, I would have looked at them in disbelief and perhaps started a fight.

Around that time, I asked Carlo to speak to me about my future. He looked at me with those sad, ugly brown eyes of his, before he slowly moved his gas-stained fingers over the tarot cards until he found the three he was looking for. “In your search for wealth, you will meet with insufferable sadness,” he told me, pointing first to the lavish crown on a jester’s head, then to the saccharine smile on the Sun’s face and finally to the broken thrown on which the King of Cups sat. “The wealthier you become the less happy you will be.” “And what about my work?” I asked, trying to keep my gaze to the floor. “My novel: is it almost done?” “Some things are best not to finish,” Carlo said, not bothering to choose new cards.

A few years later, just before the Christmas holidays, I ran into Carlo at the Mobil Station. I was on my way to steal change from the washing machines in the Laundromax down the street, and as Carlo pumped gas for an elderly lady in a silver Lexus, I stopped to watch his reflection glimmering in the smooth exterior of her car. He was wearing the same over-sized sweatshirt he always wore and his stringy gray hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail that was held together by a rubber band. Although it seemed impossible, he was even uglier than I remembered. As I watched, I noticed his lips were moving even though there wasn’t anyone standing close enough to hear what he was saying. It felt strange, even then (especially then) to have such a thought, but I had the sense that his lips were moving on their own accord, almost as if he were telling his fortune to himself. As I walked past Carlo, I shouted his name several times, trying to drag him out of whatever hell he had fallen into. He turned, staring blankly back at me for a few moments as if he didn’t remember who I was. “It’s me, Carlo,” I said. “It’s me.” He shook his head and shrugged, before turning back to his work. Then his lips began to move again. This time I was standing close enough to hear him mumbling aloud the lyrics to “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” a song that had been popular years ago, when we were both younger men. “That’s a stupid song, Carlo,” I said. “It doesn’t mean anything.” I don’t think he heard me. In any case, he didn’t look back again. And the last thing I ever heard him say was, “Upside, inside out, she’s living la vida loca.”

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