the contortionists’ manifesto

by dm gillis

There is no justice for the contortionist.

Sam Lytle was an old contortionist. He sat back and looked at the line he’d just written on a white paper napkin.

“I was an artist,” he moaned to acquaintances at the corner café. “An artist worthy of veneration.”

“Even the Gods struggle for veneration, Mr Lytle,” said Pradosh, the letter carrier sitting next to Sam.

“The Lytle Dislocated Backbend – that was mine! I created it. I perfected it. I performed it exclusively. Those who understand contortion comprehend the move’s complexity, its extreme difficulty. Audiences marvelled. Many tried to imitate it, but no one else ever pulled it off. Only me.”

“Would you like a refill, Sam?” Millie the deadpan waitress asked. “Would you like to order something off the menu?”

“We are sadly bereft of contortionists in Canada,” Pradosh said. “In India, there is a contortionist on every corner – sometimes two or three. It is like a national past time. That and religious rivalry.”

“Nothing off the menu, Millie,” Said Sam Lytle. “Retirement has been thrust upon me, and retirement is a world of cruel poverty. Coffee will be my only nourishment today.”

“Lunch rush soon,” said Millie. “If it gets busy, you’ll have to give up your seat.”

“Perhaps you need a protégé,” said Pradosh. “A youngster, one to whom you can pass the secrets of your art.”

“Bah!” said Sam Lytle. “A dimwitted generation of hipsters that believes it discovered facial hair and irony the way previous more industrious generations discovered gravity, spaceflight and insulin. How could a single one of them realise the divine possibilities of their potential double jointedness. I’d have as much luck passing my art on to a house cat.”

“I am sad to hear it, Mr Lytle,” said Pradosh. “There is much to be said about passing on one’s experience and knowledge. But alas, I have the rest of my route to complete. I must be going.”

“Yes, go. And leave me to the mercies of Millie the waitress who would cast me out for the sake of a truck driver and his cheese burger.”

“Cheese burgers pay the rent,” Millie said. “Coffee don’t.”

“Then I shall cast myself out now,” said Sam Lytle. “Before facing the public humiliation of being tossed by the cantankerous waitstaff.”

He took his white paper napkin, upon which he had written the first line of his Contortionists’ Manifesto, and stuffed it into his pocket.

It was a cold December day. He pulled up his collar and walked along Commercial Drive with all of its retail evangelism, a naturally gaunt man with a tendency to look down at his feet as he walked. Many in the neighbourhood believed him slightly crazed and perpetually destitute. He liked the idea. It created a dignified distance.

The contortionist is a solitary being, disconnected from the incommodious and the pedestrian. Isolation is the contortionist’s lot, and he stoically endures. His art being his sole companion.

Yes, he thought. That’s rather good. I must remember it and write it down.

The light at Commercial and First was red. He stopped and waited.

“Spare change for food, man?”

Sam looked up from his feet and saw an old woman with her hand out. She had the face of one who’d lived hard for too long. She wore two ragged winter coats against the cold and was carrying a tattered overstuffed gym bag.

“No,” he said. “You’ll buy drugs.”

“I ain’t no addict,” she said. “I’m too damn old for that. I’m hungry.”

“Then go downtown and stand in a soup line.”

“Need bus fare to get downtown,” the old woman said.

“Walk. What else have you got to do today?” The light changed to green and Sam stepped off the curb. The old woman followed.

“It’s a long way to walk on an empty belly, mister.”

“Life is hard,” Sam replied.

“Hey, man. Don’t be a dick. Share the wealth.”

Sam faced the panhandling old woman on the opposite corner and said, “You’ve chosen to harass the wrong man, my friend. I do not take well to being called a dick, and I have no wealth to share. I’m one pension cheque away from being right where you are now.” He turned to make his escape.

“Wait, man. I just need five bucks. I can eat pretty good on that.”

“Five dollars?” Sam pulled a puzzled face. “Is there that much money in the whole world?”

“Oh wow, man. You’re a bummer.”

“Am I getting you down, ma’am? Perhaps then you should move on and pester some more gullible citizen.”

“Okay three bucks.”

“Look, what happened to spare change? That’s what you asked for originally when you first accosted me. Spare change can be anything from a few pennies on up, no?”

“Okay two bucks.”

“No,” said Sam Lytle and he began to walk away.

“I can touch the back of my head with the flat of my foot. That’s gotta be worth two bucks.”

Sam Lytle stopped and paused a moment when he heard this. “Standing up or lying down?” he said.

“Standing,” said the old woman.

“Supported or standing free?’

“Standing free.”

“That’s a difficult move,” Sam Lytle said turning round to face the old woman. “Especially for an old gal like you. Are you a contortionist?”

“Nah. It’s yoga, man.”

“Well, I don’t pay to watch yoga,” said Sam Lytle turning again to go. “I can watch it for free at the community centre.”

“Wait. Yeah, man. Wait. I am a contortionist. Damn right I am. I contort all the time. I’m crazy for contortion.”

Sam Lytle paused once more and sighed. Then he pulled some coins out of his pocket and inspected them. “I have two dollars and eighty-five cents in my hand. It can be yours, if you are able to accomplish the move you just describe. Do you need to stretch first?”

“No, man. I’m loosey goosey. I’m steady and ready.”

“Then proceed,” said Sam Lytle assuming ahead of time that the old woman would fail.

The corner of Commercial Drive and First Avenue was busy that afternoon. A throng of shoppers and heavy vehicular traffic. An ample audience for a show. The old panhandler elevated her leg behind her and raised her arms over her head. Then she reached back, arching her back to what seemed an impossible extent and grabbed her foot. She pulled it then in a smooth and measured way to the back of her head where it landed flat. She held the pose then released. The whole move took only a few seconds to accomplish, and was completed with the grace and fluidity of a limber adolescent. But Sam Lytle could see now that the woman must have been over seventy.

“That was astounding,” he said.

A crowd had gathered and it applauded in appreciation. Now in a standing pose, the old woman was receiving handouts of change and small groceries from the spectators. She stuffed her pockets.

“You owe me two eighty-five, Buster,” she said to Sam Lytle.

Sam Lytle handed over the money. “What else can you do?” he said.

“What else? Well, I can head over to the greasy-spoon ‘cross the street and eat for the first time in two days.”

“But there must be more,” Sam Lytle said. “You’re obviously a master.”

“I ain’t nothin’ but a bum, mister. Have been for more ‘an thirty years. All this appreciation is real nice but in a minute it’ll be over an’ no one likes an old woman who’s a bum. So, I gotta go.”

She hoisted her overstuffed gym bag and waited for a green light. When it came, she evaporated into the crowd.

Sam Lytle shook his head. What other miracles were possible on a busy street corner in December? He took the café napkin and a pen out of his pocket and wrote.

The contortionist is pure and righteous in any guise. And in any guise holds within him or her the exclusive and essential mysticism required to attain divinity.

He liked that.

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