Short Stories & Other Mistakes
(Strippers, Madmen, Whores, and Other Saints)

Writing and poetry
From the 1990's

by Richard Van Ingram


He was the sort of fellow who woke up every morning and found himself standing in front of the bathroom mirror asking the question "Am I famous yet?" except he wasn't so he had to go pull on his clothing and go out to meet a world that would argue over whether or not Oskar Kokoshka was "disturbing" and whether references to him were obscuritanist. Perhaps they were, he reasoned, but it was equally likely that any audience that thought so was culturally retarded and he did not write for such people.

"Am I famous yet?" he asked himself again before dying laughing. He slept on a couch in a friend's living room and his books rested on shelves and in stacks throughout the ancient house. He was essentially homeless and living on the kindness of others - some candidate for fame. Yet there was something in the question, he thought, because while fame is fleeting and fickle, it is also an eternal possibility. Fortune's Wheel turns. There was always the chance, the barest chance that someone might see his work and wrench him free from the darkness and bring him into the light.

There was a chance. Wasn't there?

Warren Kerns had gotten a part time job through his therapist, a job as a van driver for the local mental health center taxiing people from this appointment to that one. It was his first job in over two years and because of it he felt as if he could go into town with his head up like anyone else. His boss, having mercy on him in his poverty, even allowed Warren to take the vehicle home rather than walking to work or bumming rides everywhere. He was mobile.

The van was an old Ford, battered and blueberry blue with white state seals on the doors. Its interior smelled lightly of urine and detergent from an incident with an incontinent passenger. Warren stood with the van door open, engine and defrosters running since it was 20 degrees and everything had ice on it, especially the windows of the vehicle. He pulled on his leather gloves and slapped his hands together to get the blood moving before digging out the scraper. Ten minutes later, windows clear, he was moving down the dirt driveway, past an unoccupied cow pasture, past the burned-out shell of a brick house and then out, onto the paved road to town.

The countryside was bright and the lines of things seemed more distinct than usual in the still, cold air of winter. Warren liked the winter, the angle of the sun in the sky, layered clothing. He liked walking around town after dark when no one was out; it was if the whole world were his alone, the aftermath of some magnificent disaster. And he liked it because it wounded him and made him miserable.

The morning rounds lasted about 2 or 3 hours, picking up folks from around the surrounding counties, delivering them to group meetings at various locations in the area. He listened to National Public Radio and gave anyone who requested a country or "oldies" station the evil eye while turning up the volume. For the most part, though, after they got used to him, Warren's passengers tended to like him and to open up to him about their lives so, in fact, he spent more time in conversation than in listening to NPR.

"You've got a face like a priest, " confessed a woman in the middle of pouring out her heart to him.

Warren smiled. Face of the Devil, he thought.

At his last stop, a training center, the man parked, went in and dashed off some figures on a few forms, said hello to his boss - a nice woman - and went right back out the door. His watch said 9 o'clock - he muttered something about an hour to kill - and drove to a store in town to pick up some smokes.

"You're here early," said the clerk. He was a large black man and the store was his. Warren preferred to give the man his business rather than shop the "white" gas marts if for no other reason than to thumb his nose at the existing order.

"Yeah. Made good time this morning because the schools are out for Christmas and traffic's better than usual."

"I hear ya."

Warren walked to the aisle with pens and paper and began to compare their prices, their relative comfort and the types of ink. He smiled vaguely, thinking how strange to be in the position again of having to actually pay attention to the price of a pen. He chose one, walked to the counter and asked for a pack of Marlboroughs.

"Big spender."

"Hey, it's half this week's pay."

"Know what you mean. Know what you mean."

He pulled the van down to the town square, parked across from the old courthouse building, got out and walked to a row of shops. The buildings were antique, over a hundred years old, whitewashed with so many layers of paint that sharp edges appeared blunted. In front of one shop was a tall oak, its circumference further around than one could reach, and it was there that Warren took up watch.

Through the haze of his cigarette and the steam of his breath Warren watched the cars go around the square, cars on the way to somewhere other than here, cars that, like the vapor trails of jets high in the sky, held dark promises and fantasies of escape. He watched the wheels turning on the cars and thought of Lady Fortune's Wheel.

It could turn, he thought, it could turn for me.

Cars passed. Shopkeepers arrived, crusty-eyed, and opened their stores. Warren walked up and down the sidewalk to keep warm and looked in the windows of the shops. Crafts, figurines, stuffed bears and other animals, all the glitter-gold foil-tin-fishing line paraphernalia of Christmas.

There was, though, hanging in one shop a hand carved and painted wooden angel. It was spectacular, red and gold with wings like a doves'; it had the hard, clear quality of a piece of fine jewelry, the genuineness of something made for its own sake.

But it was the face that really held his attention. It was female, beautiful like a Modigliani with fiery hair and gold foil halo. Something about the figure grabbed hold of his imagination and filled his mind with a whirlwind of ideas.

He glanced at his watch, very impatient, and it read 10 o'clock. He ran to the van, retrieved a thick notebook and then trotted over to a nearby house that had been converted into a coffee shop. Its proprietor had just opened the door when he arrived.

"Ah, good morning Warren," said Mr. Savinien. "Ready to have at, I see."

"Yes sir," nodded Warren.

"A cup of the usual, then?"

"If you would."

Mr. Savinien was a Frenchman who had moved to town - why? Warren couldn't guess - and opened the café with its wire-backed chairs and pastries and espresso by the demitasse. And he proved to have an uncommon tolerance, even fondness for artists and thinkers, encouraging them to come in, drink coffee, discuss ideas. But beings of that caliber were few and far in-between around here, so Savinien had to settle for Warren Kerns.

"So," said Mr. Savinien softly as he arrived with the drink, "how did the writer's workshop go?"

Warren offered a smoke to Mr. Savinien who took it, and both sat down at a table.

"About like usual," said Warren, his thick eyebrows pulled down over his eyes. "I wrote a new story - it was experimental, used Burroughs' cut up technique interspersed with paragraphs offering flashes of independent stories or scenes. Like television, the way it comes across when you use the remote to run through the channels quickly. And the piece was a sort of comment on how experience and consciousness are affected by changes in technology."


"Well, there were some good comments, both praise and criticism. O.K. But then the majority of the people just dismissed the thing outright because it 'didn't have a plot,' 'didn't have good characters.' As if a piece of writing has to have those!"

"Mmm. Go on."

"What capped it all for me, though, was the person who wanted to argue all manner of things, including my use of the term 'disturbing' to describe some of work by the painter Oskar Kokoshka. Sure, a lot of his work isn't disturbing, especially his mature paintings, but anyone who's looked at a lot of those pieces from the early years of this century would probably grant me that they are intended to disturb a viewer, knock him off balance. God, just look at 'Bride of the Wind'."

"It bothered you that badly?

"My work got covered over by bullshit. They were talking about everything except what I wrote"

"They always will, so long as you are an artist."

"Like Picasso?"

"Sarcasm earns you nothing. Picasso had his detractors, and his admirers may have been worse."


"They praised everything equally. The man could hardly wipe his ass without there appearing someone willing to pronounce it a masterpiece. This means much of his excellent and important work often goes obscured by lesser works. Your writer Bukowski's the same way."

Warren sipped coffee and smoked. Savinien rubbed his tanned hands across the grey hair at his temples.

"If I could only make enough money at it to get out again…" said Warren in a hushed voice.

The older man smiled gently and shut his eyes as if contemplating whether or not to deliver some bad news. He decided not to.

"I'll let you get to work, then. I'll bring more espresso in a while."

A few late breakfast regulars came in to occupy Savinien and Warren set his notebook before him, fished in his pocket for his new pen, and closed his eyes. Images flashed by, images of his passengers, his van, the route. Images of the house he slept in, his friends sitting around the kitchen table drinking beer and playing poker, smoke like fog on the river. Then there was a dim image, a child, a little boy far away, not seen in so long that his form was as fuzzy as the blanket the kid used to sleep with. His ex-girlfriend's picture was even darker - he could only see her golden hair now, no other features. These last two memories bothered him and he instantly tried to think about something else.

The angel.

That's it, he thought, flipping the notebook open to some clean paper. The pen flew across the paper, angular letters appearing.

Awhile later, Savinien reappeared with more coffee and sat down.


"Yeah. Listen."

Warren read a few paragraphs about a father who is too poor to buy a Christmas gift for his family. Walking through town, he sees the miraculously beautiful angel, comes back in the middle of the night, breaks the store window and steals it. The police see him, chase him through the streets and, when he turns, the cops think the angel is a pistol and cut him down.

"Well?" asked Warren.

"It's a good idea, I think, but cheap. You take the easy way out."

Warren nodded and went back to work.

First, the idea came that maybe the thief is a real punk but a kid gets under his skin and he breaks in the store to get the angel for it. Then he thought, what if the angel is alive? What if it breaks out of the shop and delivers itself to someone deserving? What if it attacks the thief who came for it? What if it is a murderous thing in rich disguise? He explored each possibility; each seemed a dead end.

He got up and went to the restroom to urinate. He watched the water fall and wondered whether Fortune was moving yet. Then there was the image again, the image of the child like a school photo seen in moonlight. There was a dull ache in his chest and gut, the same feeling that winter gave him at times, the feeling of loss and distance, of finality. Warren imagined for a moment writing a story about a man stealing the angel because it is magical, it can find his lost son and fly him there and heal the wounds that separate them. He imagined that the angel could kiss the man and heal the bad chemistry in his brain, the bad history in his life. Someone knocked at the restroom door. Warren washed his hands and left.

"So, did you get much done today?" asked Savinien.

Warren lowered his eyebrows and started to gather up his things.

"Yes and no. There's always tomorrow, right?"

"And if there's not, friend, you can always come work with me."

Warren didn't seem to hear the offer. He pulled on his gloves and looked at his watch. His evening route started in 10 minutes.

"Man, it's late. I've got to go. How much do I owe you?"

"You shared your work. That's enough."

"Thank God for French culture. Or for you, anyway."

"Thank you. See you tomorrow?"

"So far as I know, sir."

The evening ride was long, cold and very dark by the time he got home. Warren got out and observed that he'd completed the cycle of his route one more day. The accomplishment seemed empty, somehow. The house was dead and he had to turn up the gas heater and stay in the kitchen until it began to knock the chill off the air. There was a note on the kitchen table that said his friend would be gone for a couple of days and had a list of chores that needed to be done. He sat down at the table beneath the bare fluorescent bulbs, lit a cig and flipped on the television. The movie M*A*S*H was in the VCR so Warren scanned around until he found his favorite part, the one involving the Painless Pole.

He skipped dinner and had extra cigarettes instead. That and a good pull from one of the bottles of bourbon his friend kept over the refrigerator. He waited a while before taking his medications for fear that the alcohol might react too strongly with them and then went into the bathroom to shower and brush his teeth. Wiping the steam from the mirror and looking deep into his own tired, sad eyes, Warren whispered, almost involuntarily, "Am I famous yet?"

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