Category Archives: Stories

Previous Pilgrims

 

I am walking down a broad, stony, rocky riverbed that is almost dry. A tiny stream runs circuitously in the deepest part of the riverbed. It is hardly more than a foot wide. My brother and I are picking our way with rod and staff, among the ancient stones, using great care.

“This is the way I came before; little has changed.” he says.

I studied him, so handsome in life and now in this, even more so. I see his cheek, still damp from the tears I licked there as he lay dying; licked them to get the last of the salty essence into me that made us brothers.

There is a rushing of wind. Leaves and dust are blown up. I feel like laughing. Our clothes and hair are blown; our eyes are squinted for protection. I look up from my job; writing things down, that demands so much attention.  I see a pillar of water, then another and another.

“First the wind, then the rain.” I say.

The pillars of water are twelve feet high, revolving and about eighteen inches in diameter, no greater at top or bottom. I reach out to touch one as it moves by me.

“Don’t touch the water.” he says. Always the big brother.

There is graciousness in their movements, and as I touch the side, it pauses, as if waiting to be caressed. Water splashes out onto my clothing and shoes, and on the dry rocks and makes them shine, but when I remove my hands, they are not wet. The columns move on, gracefully, purposefully, effortlessly – with intent, as if following a path. They weave among the rocks and stones, and seem especially interested in those cairns and pillars stacked by previous pilgrims.

Their movements disturb not a single stone, although the power of these energized, kinetically happening, spontaneously generated columns of water is obvious. They pick up huge boulders, dozens of them, inspect them and set them down as they were for centuries. Only a light click of stone on stone can be heard, and this clicking has a musical ring to it, and a subtle, pleasing rhythm. There is meaning to it I cannot ken, like a code in song – more – it was as if a lock was being opened and tumbler after tumbler fell in sequence as the combination was advanced.

Many years ago, at the dock where my brother kept a small sailboat, some birds (I forget what kind) had built a nest into the gravel right on the quay. At first, I almost stepped on it. (“Killdeer”, he says now, “that’s what they’re called, Killdeer.”) It was so undistinguished. To distract me from the nest and eggs, the mother flew away as prey, a charade of injury to which I had no key.

The nest was but a saucered depression in the number six yard stone, yet the closer I looked the more evident, frighteningly evident it became that this was the work of a master mason that had no need of a compass or square, mallet or rule. Every stone, every pebble, every piece of dust and down had been laid so, just so into that concave depression.

“We’re almost there now.” he says. “Let’s keep going.”

 

H. Scott Derkin

Copyright 2018

 

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Not That Boy

It is a mid-winter Sunday evening in Columbus, Ohio; dark and ugly with a lurid orange sun setting in black clouds. Dylan and Frazier are walking into a bar where Dylan ended a week long gig the night before, a bar they both refer to as “The Club” without a hint of irony. Everyone else has picked up their instruments and amps; even the drums are gone. The bartender, an amiable giant called Goose sees them come in and flicks on the red and then the blue stage lights. Except for the PA and Dylan’s amp, the stage is bare and littered with broken drumsticks and guitar strings, pieces of guitar picks and overflowing ashtrays. Partially drunk bottles of beer stand among the empties. Cigarette burns on the carpet are now visible, and in several spots, burned clear through to the plywood. The jukebox is playing an old Rolling Stones song. “Well I told you once and I told you twice…” Dylan rolls his eyes at Frazier, who crosses the empty dance floor toward the stage, his limbs moving roughly in time to the music in something even the most charitable observer would not call a dance.
Frazier and Dylan are most often seen together, though they have never developed any real intimacy; not fraternal, not sexual; to say they were friends did a disservice to that term and lent an honor to a relationship that was not there. They were not buddies, or pals, didn’t even have the sort of wingman and leader bond informing their relationship that is practiced by so many young men. It was just this: Frazier owned a Dodge van and when they met, a Plymouth Roadrunner. The Roadrunner was of no interest to Dylan, but he immediately saw the benefit of a van. Even if the offer was a bit cheeky.
“Look at you. You’re a fuckin’ mess. You need a manager, man. You need me. Haul your shit around. Make sure you get to gigs on time.” Frazier said. “I’ll take care of you. I’ll make you a star.”
Dylan could see that Frazier would be a total pain in the ass, pushy and entitled. And the observation that he was a mess had not escaped his own notice. Dylan was currently without wheels, taking the bus or coping rides with other band members to get to gigs. Until very recently, he had been driving his own van (a beat up Ford Econoline) on a suspended license. It was currently in a police impound lot, somewhat the worse for wear after sideswiping a row of parked cars after a gig in Ann Arbor. True, he was distracted by the bass player’s girlfriend giving him head, but the police felt the cause of the accident was rather more related to his poor reaction time, the result of the wicked combination of sopers and Jim Beam. He spent the night in jail, the bass player’s girlfriend spent the night in the hospital, and the bass player; well, he quit the band.
Dylan felt worse about the bass player leaving the band than he did about the van (or the girlfriend). He tried to explain it to the bass player this way: “Man, I don’t even like your girlfriend. I was just trying to be nice to her.”
This is what he had to say: “You’re an asshole, Dylan. A real asshole.”
Frazier also received a disability check from Uncle Sugar to compensate for a steel plate in his head. The most Frazier had ever told Dylan about that was his tour leading a platoon of the 7th Cavalry; 2nd Battalion, Company A (“Just like fuckin’ Custer, man”) in Vietnam had been cut short by some sort of accident. Though he did not tell him what kind of accident it was, exactly, that resulted in the steel plate being put in his head.
It was this: 1969 was not a particularly good year to be an ROTC Second Lieutenant, especially one having picked the infantry (“queen of the battle”, his CO had told him) as his branch. He had been sent to Vietnam 12 weeks after graduation. He was not a good leader or even a good soldier; neither brave nor noble and deeply resented by the men he sent, rather than led into action. Men who hated being in the Ia Drang valley in the first place. So when the frag from a grenade clipped a few CC’s out of his skull, all parties were actually pleased when the doctors told him “You’re out of this fight, son.” His men were especially pleased, and it was rumored that the grenade may not have been VC at all. He got an honorable and a Purple Heart.
Dylan had told Frazier even less, just that he was from Pellston; a small town in northwest Michigan and that it was called the “Icebox of the Nation”, and that he thought it was more like the armpit of the nation, and that he had escaped the draft with a particularly high lottery number.
He didn’t tell him that the limp he had (so slight that Frazier has never noticed, or least commented on) was the result of a collision with a 280 pound defensive lineman for the Mackinaw Mustangs that ended his chances for a scholarship. He didn’t tell him that he called a number in Pellston about every other day, pumping quarters and dimes into the payphone in the lobby of the motel.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry Ma. Is it my fault? Can’t it be nobody’s fault?” he says over and over into the phone. There was never an answer to his questions, but just hearing her voice gave him comfort.
He didn’t tell him that he hates the long sets, that he hates the starless night sky in Ohio; he hates the way people pronounce their words here. The way they say “the heat needs turned up”. He hates who he is here; what he has become.
So they drink together.
As drinking companions went, Frazier was not ideal. Too small to be effective in a fight; neither particularly winsome nor successful with the ladies. He was, however, a cogent observer of the vibe in any given bar, particularly sensitive to situations with a potential for trouble. He never sat in the inside seat in a booth, or with his back to the door. At the bar, he never allowed himself to be between two people.
“Never let yourself get flanked, Dylan. You never know when you might have to make a tactical.”
That his own drinking was prodigious and frequently seriously complicated his life did not diminish his enthusiasm for it. In fact, just that day he had been fitted with new dentures, after suffering the indignity (the result) of all his remaining teeth being knocked out on the steering wheel of his Roadrunner, driven into a utility pole on Route 42 after a “shot-a-frame” game at Bowlero Lanes only two weeks ago.
His license plate, tossed into the Roadrunner through the shattered windshield and over the bloodied hood by a bored tow truck driver after the ambulance had taken Frazier to Riverside Hospital, was a vanity plate – “45STRYK”, commemorating his record for the most number of consecutive strikes thrown at the lanes.
They are there to pick up his gear but more importantly to find a girl that Dylan had talked to, and who then had booked on him before he finished his set last night. She came up to him between songs toward the end of the last set – a girl with the look of an American Indian about her – black hair, insolent dark brown eyes that offered a challenge and warning. At first he had thought her to be older. There was an age about her eyes but the skin on her hands and her neck was tight and smooth. She was cute enough, almost pretty. She had an allure; some kind of irregularity in her made Dylan feel connected to her and at the same time repulsed him. He thought maybe he had known her in another life, or that someone had warned him about her in a dream. That she could be the one for tonight thrilled him and yet frightened him. Perhaps he ought not to have been thrilled.
He thought she was going to make a request; instead she said that she heard his band was hot shit but that she thought they sucked. She said this in a tight, controlled voice keeping her molars together to prevent her jaw from moving out of sequence with her words; a technique used by people to control their diction when they have had too much to drink. She stood there swaying slightly, sipping her rum and coke through a tiny straw, a cross between a smile and a smirk on her face, looking not at him, but at some point over his shoulder, like she expected something or someone to appear there. There was a needy look in her eyes that made him feel helpless, as if she required something of him that he was powerless to provide. Then she laughed with a sound like breaking glass and walked away.
When the show was over, he looked for her. Goose told him she had left with a big guy who had a yellow ponytail. That’s just what he said. A yellow ponytail. Not blonde. Yellow.
“They been here every night lately.” he said. “Run with those boys and girls over there.” He had jerked his head over his shoulder to indicate a raggedy looking group in biker colors around the pool table.
Dylan looked over at them and seemed to be making a mental calculation as to the desirability of pursuing this girl any further. He was what the other members of his band called a ‘pussy hound’, a moniker not pejorative in those days. And he was. But not so much so that he was always willing to risk adverse circumstances to get what he wanted. Frazier noticed but misjudged.
“The poontang that got away.” he mocked.
“No, we’ll come back tomorrow.” Dylan said.
*
Now Dylan walked fast toward the stage, leaning forward, with his head bowed as if he were looking for something on the ground. He walked (and stood) with his feet turned out, like a dancer in first position. When he soloed his head was always down too, looking at the neck of his guitar and from time to time out over round, amber tinted and rimless glasses, appearing to scan the crowd. He knew this about himself; his father had often informed him of this and what he considered it to be; not just bad posture but a character flaw. His father, a florid man some 6 ft. 4 inches tall was given to alcoholic rages.
“You are ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag, boy! Hold your goddam head up! Walk with your feet pointed straight ahead! You look like a goddam loser!” This directive was most often followed by hard slaps to the back or side of his head that would leave his ears ringing.
Later, his mother, most often the primary target of her husband’s abuse, would try to soften his criticism of Dylan. “You walk like you’re going somewhere.” was what she said. “Don’t pay him any attention.” She would draw him close and hold him, hold him until Dylan felt safe again, until the smell of baby powder and Bond Street perfume pushed the pain out.
Dylan’s amp is not particularly heavy – a Princeton Reverb – and he slips on its vinyl cover and sets it off to the edge of the stage while Frazier packs up the mics and starts coiling the cords to the monitors and mains.
“Dyl! Get me a beer!” Dylan nods and goes to the bar, which is long and in the shape of a horseshoe. Before he can even order, Goose sets a couple long necks in front of him.
“Guess who’s here?” he says.
“Yeah. Cool.” Dylan says.
She is alone at the end of the bar, staring in to her drink. Somehow, she looks even less pretty tonight than she had the night before. But she was there, and he has come to find her, and he takes a few steps in her direction.
“So we suck?”
“Yeah. Your band sucks. You suck. I suck. We all suck.” She doesn’t even look up at him while she says this; just keeps staring at her drink. Then she does. “Oh. It’s you. Guitar boy. What’s your name, guitar boy?”
The woman, who, yes, is in fact Native American, has the surprising and depressingly inappropriate name of Fun. Her eyes are heavily lidded in green and dark eyeliner. A slutty style Dylan finds exciting; a style she learned in Marion Correctional cosmo class, where she had done thirteen months for forgery. Dylan struggles to remember the name for the rosy border of the upper lip (Cupids Bow) which rose full and sharply on Fun; her lower lip was full; almost too full for her smallish round mouth. The precious little valley running in the center of her face over the lip, (the philtrum) ran to nostrils with a powerful and sharp almost patrician flare that lent a noble element to her countenance.
“Dylan.”
That laugh again. It was like a recognition that she was talking to a fellow loser; welcome to the club. Dylan knew that in that laugh was judgement but also, perhaps, companionship. He knew what question was coming next. Was prepared to explain to her like everyone else that yes, Dylan was his given name, for the Welsh poet revered by his mother, and not, as so many thought, an affect after the scrawny folksinger from Hibbing whose songs were currently played almost incessantly on every juke box.
“Like Bob? Except that’s your first name. Jesus. I sure can pick ‘em”. Give me your hand.”
He hesitates.
“C’mon. What’re you ‘fraid of, guitar boy? Dylan, right?” She seemed to have a bit of trouble pronouncing “guitar”; she said it with two evenly accented syllables – “Gih – Tar”. Dylan wasn’t sure if it was a tribal accent or if she was just drunk.
Dylan read Castaneda, knew his natal charts, all of that. The I-Ching hexagrams. Not that it ever did him any good. He lets her take his hand.
She begins reading his palm, and talking about a weak fate line, and how a mons of Venus block just might be keeping him from being able to get it up from time to time, right? And how he will only have one real love in his life; that music is not his true calling, and that he will be rich, very rich someday. He doesn’t believe that, not for one minute. But he figures she’s having fun with it and if that’s what it takes to keep the ball rolling, that’s all he cares about. She moves closer and puts her boots on the foot rest of his stool, black and white J-toe cowboy boots engraved with skulls on the shaft, bones along the toe, and still holding his hand, pulls herself closer and puts her knees in between his, more than halfway up his thighs. She leans over to study the lines on his hand, and her hair falls onto her wrists. Dylan leans down and considers kissing the back of her head; putting his other hand on her shoulder, but does neither. He doesn’t even notice when the yellow haired man comes up behind him.
His long greasy hair is pulled back into a pony tail; not the man-bun of today but gathered by an elastic band just over his collar. The pony tail hangs six, maybe eight inches down his back. Tattoos on his neck and hands (a spider’s web; the spider in the hollow of his throat, “L-O-V-E” on the fingers of one hand, “H-A-T-E” on the other), he towers over Dylan. There is a patch on the front of his leather vest that says “Breaker” and a number of others with odd words and symbols that Dylan doesn’t understand. They are not merit badges for good deeds. Breaker seems unamused with what he sees.
“You’re in my seat, asshole.” Then, looking back at Frazier four stools down the bar, says, “Better get back to your wife.”
He snorts contemptuously and turns back to his business. He begins slapping Fun; slaps not full swung from the elbow or arm but little slaps from the wrist.
“Doing a little flirting while I was gone? I can’t leave you alone for a fuckin’ minute, can I?”
At first they could be taken as playful, harmless feinting between lovers to mock disapproval or annoyance. But these are too hard and frequent to be taken playfully; these are meant to sting, to humiliate, to shame, and are apparently less than welcome. Fun’s forearms went into a defensive positon, her elbows in at her sides, hands covering her face. She gives a little cry when he pulls her wrists into her lap and holds them there and continues slapping her.
Dylan retreats to his stool, and at first, watching the scene in the mirror behind the bar over the choir of bottles, talks to his beer as he peels off the label with his thumbnail. At the sound of each smack he appears to wince, as if a sudden pain is felt in his own body.
“Any man who would raise a hand to a woman…in a public place…what kind of a man…not a man…a goddam animal is what he is…” Smoke curls up from the cigarette Dylan is anxiously tapping, twirling the ash off on the side of the ashtray on the bar. The ashtray is full, and his cigarette ignites the filter of a previous butt.
“Goddammit!” He holds the smoldering ashtray up for Goose, who doesn’t see him, so he pours some beer into it. Finally turns to Frazier and says “Are we going to just let that go on?”
Frazier looks thoughtfully at the ceiling fan and blows a thin steam of smoke toward the blades.
“Dylan, you know, man, that guy is carrying, doncha? That he’s got pals over there shooting pool? That even Goose ain’t gonna fuck with him? You know that right?”
He drains his own bottle of beer and waves off another round from Goose, who came and took away the ashtray, now a pool of beer with cigarette butts floating in it.
“Dylan. Come on man, let’s get outta here.” Frazier said, slapping money down on the bar and shoving away on his stool. “Let’s leave it alone, man. You ain’t her daddy. None of our fucking business.”
The slapping had seemed to stop and the exchange between Fun and her implacable tormentor was now reduced to threatening tones from him and defeated whimpers from her. He still held her hands together by their wrists, on her lap.
Dylan stands up. The bar goes perfectly quiet as Dylan walks up behind him, puts his hand on the shoulder of the man’s black leather vest and says “I think that’s about enough, pal.”
Fun giggles drunkenly at Dylan’s command. Breaker ignores Dylan.
“Funny?” he says to her. Slap, slap.
Each slap gets harder until her cheeks now begin to show welts in the spaces between the marks made by the man’s fingers. “You think he’s funny?” Slap. “Still? Still?” Slap.
“I’ll give you somethin’ to fuckin’ laugh about.” Slap. Slap.
She freed one hand from her lap and, tries to wave his hands off like one would an autumn fly. She winces and says “No. No, I’m sorry, baby. I didn’t mean it.” Her eyes fill and pool with tears, which fly off her face with each blow.
“OK fella. That’s enough. Let’s take this outside.”
The man stood up, a full four inches taller than Dylan. He sweeps the bar in front of him with his arm, as if clearing a field for battle. Glasses and bottles go crashing behind the bar. He turns and stands square to Dylan.
“This ain’t the lunchroom, asshole. You gonna do something, do it now.” Dylan notices a teardrop tattooed on his cheek near one eye.
The movement in Dylan’s arm is almost imperceptible, but before he gets a fist made or raised above his waist, Breaker pushes hard on Dylan’s chest with both hands, knocking him off his feet and sending him skidding and crashing across a four top.
“Go back and finish your beer before I have to really fuck you up.” he said. He leans over Dylan, who had fallen on his back. He rests his booted foot on Dylan’s crotch. “I will put my foot up your asshole so far your stomach will come out your throat, motherfucker.”
“I hope you’re happy now.” Frazier says, picking up Dylan from the floor, now soaked with the drinks of the two couples who until a moment ago had been just watching the scene. “I hope you’re just real fucking happy now.”
Dylan’s hands are filthy with the detritus of what accumulates on a barroom floor; even the most hygienic are a cesspool of sputum, ejaculent, spilled drinks, greasy food and street dirt. “Upholstered sewers.” Frazier calls them. Through this layer of feculence a couple small cuts are bleeding profusely on the palms of his hands from the breaking glass, and tears of rage are boiling in his eyes. Dylan is on his feet with Frazier’s help, holding a wine bottle; Lancers, a cheap red wine best emptied in the toilet (often deposited by the consumer there anyway) and the bottle used as a candle holder. It is mostly empty now: it had fallen unbroken from the table. Its heavy crockery fits perfectly in his hand, like a small football.
His head pounds with defeat. But this time, he cannot accept the injustice of a man beating a woman. Any man. Any woman. If he did, he might just as well be part of it, just as well be a woman beater himself for allowing it to happen. Just as well be the kind of boy who would let his own mother get smacked around; to see and hear the blows falling on her. The thuds, hollow thumps, nauseating, grinding cracks and finally the bang and crash of her body falling over her davenport and through the coffee table. “You couldn’t defend me, darlin’.” his mother would say to him later, then a slightly built boy of fourteen. And his heart would choke in shame and impotence. He would not be that boy. He could not be that boy. Not that boy. Not this time.
Breaker, at the urging of the bartender and several others, starts to leave and is pushing Fun toward the door. Dylan watches him propelling her forward with a series of pushes between her shoulder blades. With each. Push. Her head. Jerks back. Her hair flies in a whiplash movement. His friends look up from shooting pool and see him leaving. Some noise, some movement behind him over his right shoulder where only his defeated enemy should be catches his attention, and he begins to turn to see where it is coming from. It is the last voluntary act of his skeletal/muscular system.
What happens; what he does in this moment in time is something that Dylan will not be able to recall with clarity for the rest of his life. The stone bottle makes a moaning whistle as it leaves Dylan’s hand, a perfect spiral through the smoky air. There is a noise like a large dry tree limb cracking as the bottle hits Breaker just behind his right ear. He goes down, a dumb beast at slaughter. Except for the sharp report his head makes hitting the tile floor; he drops with the sound a two hundred pound bag of flour might make falling from a truck. His eyes cloud and a sticky, gooey blood trickles from his right ear; a stream of bright red blood runs from a gash in his scalp through his hair, into his yellow pony tail and onto the barroom floor.
In the bar, it takes Dylan longer than it should have to realize what just happened. Frazier keeps repeating “What the fuck. Fuckin’ A.” before grabbing Dylan and shoving him past the body on the floor, past a few screaming women and drunken men who, still holding their longneck Stroh’s stand over the body saying, “He’s gone man. Lookit him! Dude’s dead! Lookit his eyes!”
Which were in fact undeniable testaments to the lifelessness in Breaker’s face. Frazier shoves Dylan past the end of the bar, past the bouncer’s station where Goose waves them past and hisses at them, “Get the fuck outta here man! Cops are comin’.” And out onto the sidewalk, where Fun, who had run out when her tormentor fell looks up at them, tear streaked make-up running down her face and says “Wait! I’m goin’ with you guys!” and runs after them, Frazier in the lead.
Reaching Frazier’s van, they drive in silence, Dylan sitting on the engine compartment cowling and Fun in the passenger seat. The cold air in Frazier’s empty van smells of cigarettes, weed and stale beer.
“Fuck. Fuck me.” Frazier says. “Somebody there will tell them what happened, Dylan. We’re fucked.”
“I just wanna go home.” Fun says. “Take me to the bus station. No. Take me home. I wanna get my cats.”
She puts her head on the dash, her face in her hands. Her shoulders shake with her weeping. Dylan touches her. She is never again slapped in the face.
So it was that Dylan met Fun and became a murderer that night in Columbus, Ohio, in a bar called The Reservation. Their lives together do not go well, or smoothly. In the bar, or in the consequent years. Not that they had up to this point.
Later, when Frazier is finally dead of his alcoholism, when Dylan and Fun are looking at 30 years on their jobs at Worthington Steel & Blank, taken “only until the band can get some more work, Fun”, when their children have been in and out and in again several State of Ohio penal institutions, including Marion Women’s Correctional, (where Fun learned so long ago to apply her green eyeshade and black eyeliner), when their grandchildren are going to rehab; when Dylan’s musical performances have devolved to evenings playing old Leonard Cohen songs on a battered sunburst Gibson 6 string, Dylan will not even be able to recall the details of this night. He will pull Fun close to him and touch her cheek, and wonder who she is.

H. Scott Derkin
Copyright 2018

Detroit City Blues

It’s been a little over a year since Mom married Edgar, and I will tell you that it has not been the best year of my life. Mom said he would be fun to have around, that he would probably take us fishing and to ball games and stuff. Dean said don’t count on that, but I was kind of hoping for it anyway, especially the fishing part. I am pretty sure now he doesn’t even like us, maybe even hates us.

On their first anniversary – Mom wanted to have a special dinner. She had made a red velvet cake and cooked a meatloaf. We were all there; Gramma and Pops too. It started off kind of wrong, and it was my fault I guess.

Edgar does this weird thing with his eyes that me and Dean hate; the eyeball thing. The Stink Eye. I mean we hate it a lot, but at the same time we like to see him do it. Like lions screwing on Wild Kingdom. Makes you sick but you can’t stop watching. It’s kind of a blink but when he does it his eyelids flutter and all you can see is the whites of his eyeballs. He does it when you ask him a question he can’t answer or when he is trying to explain something to you or when you do something he doesn’t like. He does it when he is lying. In other words, he does it a lot.

At dinner, I figured a good way to get him started would be to say grace, so I asked if I could. Gramma gave me a pleased-surprised look and said “Why, Mason honey! Bless your heart. You go ahead.” I folded my hands and real serious said “Good Lord good food good meat let’s eat, and protect us from Satan.” before Mom or Gramma could stop me. It was stupid and funny, and Edgar didn’t understand it at all. Sure as shit I got the stink eye from him. Dean looked at me over the mashed potatoes and we both started laughing that kind of laugh where nobody else knows what you’re laughing at and the more we laughed the more Edgar did the stink eye and was getting all red in the face. Finally we calmed down but Edgar wasn’t about to let that go, once he figured out that we were laughing at him.

Mom was in the kitchen cutting the cake. He waited until she came and held up a glass of beer and looking right at us said “Here’s to one year of marriage and two years of great sex.” That just isn’t something you say in front of your wife’s family, like they weren’t there. It was too much for Dean.

“Shut your fucking face, Edgar.”

Next thing I saw was Edgar lean across the table and take a swipe at Dean and connect with a kind of a slap punch on Deans left cheek. Dean grabbed Edgar’s wrist with his left hand and pulled him down toward the table, stood up and blasted Edgar right in the beezer. It was wonderful. Edgar fell to the floor, crashing a bunch of shit off the table and just lay there flopping around twitching a little bit and his left arm was flopping back and forth like he was trying to pull something off his nose, which I was pretty sure Dean broke.

Uncle Mark, my real dad’s brother had been in the US Army over in Germany. He killed a German soldier one day who was just sitting around eating lunch. The story goes that Uncle Mark came up on him and said the only German words he knew, “Mach Schnell” or something like that; the German soldier went for his pistol and Uncle Mark shot him twice in the chest with his Garand. He still has that guy’s helmet. It has “Wolf” scratched inside the back neck protector that the Kraut helmets had. He told me the way you can tell that a guy is dead is if he is still twitching. Wounded guys just lay there real still. But I guess he was wrong about that because pretty soon Edgar started to moan and swear.

“Goddam you Dean. Youdun it dis time. You definadly craught the line. You will regret dis til da day you die.”

As he talked bubbles of blood and snot were coming out of his nose. I think it was pretty much dumb luck that Dean connected that hard. He’s really not much of a fighter, but I know he did study up on it some after Goose Schneider kicked his ass last day freshman year. He wasn’t going to let that happen again. Edgar was on his elbow, trying to get up. My Mom dropped the cake and came running around the table to Edgar.

“Dean! Edgar! Dean, what have you done! Daddy! Mother! Oh, Edgar!”

It was like she didn’t know whether to shit or go blind. Finally she went to the fridge and cracked open an aluminum tray of ice cubes and wrapped a dish towel around them. I just stood there hoping that Edgar didn’t have any more fight left in him, which he didn’t.

Gramma was already wiping up the blood spatters on the floor and the kitchen cabinets. Mom knelt down next to Edgar and was holding the ice on his nose, saying “Oh my baby, my poor baby.”

“Looks like a murder happened here. My Lord.” was all Gramma said.

My grandfather was standing in the doorway, just looking things over. With two fingers on his right hand he motioned for me to come over to him. I did.

“I think a tactical retreat is in order here, boy. Make yourself scarce.”

“Right, Pops.” I said.

It was because of that when school let out for summer, Edgar had Dean sent to South Dakota to live with Uncle Mark.

“It’s either that or jail, tough guy. I swear to God I will file charges on your ass.”

Mom said it would be good for Dean to have a “season or two on the ranch to get his bearings”. I thought his bearings were just fine; there was never anybody in my life I would rather be like than Dean. I wanted to go with him, but he said no way; that I should stay around to help Mom just in case things didn’t work out with Edgar and her. And when Pops retired from the post office, him and Gramma moved to Fort Lauderdale. So it was me, Mom and Edgar in the house on Beresford St.

As much as I’d like to, I can’t really blame everything on Edgar. Things had pretty much went south the year before. That was my freshman year. School started off pretty good; I got Miss Costigan for home room, and had over $300 saved from my Free Press route and mowing lawns. And Kennedy hadn’t been shot yet. After that it seemed like nothing was the same. There was no rock and roll on CKLW for a month, and Miss Costigan said that things weren’t going to get back to normal for a while, with Johnson in office.

I was not looking forward to Christmas vacation; to being around the house. It was a white Christmas, with lots of snow, which was good for shoveling walks and picking up some cash. Bitter cold days, the wind biting and finding every opening in my gloves and parka but I was out every day delivering my papers or shoveling somebody’s walk. I liked my route, though. Every customer had their own preference for how they wanted their paper deliveredstuffed in the mail box, just put between the storm door and the inner door. Some people like the Phelps wanted me to ring the bell and hand them the paper. It slowed me down, but it paid off. I got really good Christmas tips that year.

After that, the holidays were crap; the plant where Mom worked, “The Rouge”, was on shut down for a line re-build and she spent Christmas Eve and most of Christmas Day moping and sitting in front of the TV watching Bishop Sheen or Perry Como with a Kessler’s and water in her hand. Edgar, when he wasn’t working or walking around the house in his underwear bellowing about this or that was down at The Library drinking with his other loser pals from the A & P.

Me and Dean didn’t mind not having a tree or getting any presents from them. All our presents that year came from Gramma and Pops. Soft stuff mostly; flannel shirts, socks, underwear. I got a card with a ten dollar bill stuck in the little slot and Pops gave Dean a three bladed pen knife with a yellow pearl handle. “A gentleman’s knife, Dean.” the card said.

I made Mom a little wooden hot plate in shop. Nothing really, a wood disc cut from a piece of Birdseye maple with a wood-burned flower on it, and then all I did was write “Mom” on it with the wood-burner in like an old English style writing. But it was pretty cool. I didn’t get Edgar anything.

New Year’s 1964 came and went, and Mom was excited to get back to the plant on January second. But when I got home from doing papers she was crying on the phone with her pal Vicky. They had pink-slipped her. Her and Vicky. All in all about seven hundred people were shit canned. Then she got all determined and would pinch her lips together stamp her feet and push her hands on the kitchen counter like she was testing it to see if she could move it.

“Boys, this is only temporary”, she said. “I’ve got some unemployment union money coming in, and I’ll find work on Woodward Avenue at an ad agency as an illustrator, or for a department store drawing fashion sketches.”

But day by day she came home more discouraged and disgusted. She would take off her coat and snap off her rubbers from her high heels and pour herself a Kessler and water. The interviews were hideous, she said, flopping on the old gray sofa. The old men interviewing her were leches who stared at her boobs and hardly looked at her drawings and sketch portfolio. Nobody cared about real artwork or fashion, she said. All they wanted was cartoons. And she would pour herself a couple fingers of Kessler’s on ice cubes, and swirl the cubes around with her index finger.

“Honey, freshen this for me would you. Just a little water. Thank you baby.” I did, but I didn’t like it.
It will remain forever a mystery to me exactly why this kind of shit happens. No matter what you do, you know something bad is going to happen once in a while. You can count on it. You’re going to lose your wallet, or your English report, or Paul Delamater is going to steal some of your papers at the substation while you are folding. Hopefully nothing really bad happens, like Tony Del Veccio last year falling off the overpass. But he was just stupid to be walking actually on the rail. I didn’t see it happen. I guess he had done it before. Most of us walked on the concrete part with our legs wrapped around the rail itself. That was scary enough. At first it was just something you had to do when you were new, to pull papers out of our substation. The older carriers made you do it. Then it got to be something that some guys got a kick out of and would dare each other to do it, just to be cool. Now, since Tony got killed they put up a wire fence and nobody can walk the over pass at all.

But Jesus. Godammit. I shouldn’t swear, but it helps. I don’t know why all this shit has to happen at once. It was that March. April. What difference does it make? OK, let’s just say April. The cruelest month is what Mr. Eliot called it. I remember that from English class. Now that I think of it, makes sense it would go back to that month. Three months after she got laid off. And that’s when she met Edgar, probably the worst thing to ever happen to us.

Edgar. Where did he come from? One Saturday a couple years ago he was just here, standing on the porch with a beat up yellow suitcase. My mom introduced us with pride, saying she just knew we would get along “famously”. She hugged me and pulled me in close and said in my ear, “He is going to be so good for us, darlin’. Your Momma needs this. You’ll understand.” You don’t have to be Carnac the Magnificent to know that wasn’t going to happen. But there he was.

I knew something was up; her not coming home on Friday’s the last few weeks. It was not hard to imagine how it went though. Friday night out with “The Librarians” as they called themselves, her and Vicky, another other single girl laid off from The Rouge. Hanging out down at the Library Lounge. Skinny Vicky gets quarters from the bartender for the table, racks and breaks. Mom sits at a table with one hand at her cheek and flips a dangly gold earring back and forth. She peels the label off her Miller High Life. She taps cigarettes from the pack of Raleigh’s Vicky left at the table. Gets up and dances to fast songs with Vicky. She wants to be noticed, wants to know that she is still desirable. There’s been nobody since Dad’s been gone.

Edgar, he’s watching her from the bar. On the lookout for some poontang. No wedding ring. Nice tits, he thinks. I bet he looks at himself in the mirror to check out his hair, which he combs into a black pompadour, frozen in Brylcreem. Twists his shoulders back and forth and looks in the mirror to see if his arms look too skinny; rolls his sleeves down, then back up, halfway. He gets a whiff of soured sweat from his armpits. He sets his glass down and makes a quick trip to the men’s room where there is a cologne dispenser, three squirts for a dollar. Comes back to his drink at the bar.

His moves I am sure were dickless. Probably said something stupid about her being alone and not having to be. Something like that. You wanna dance he’d say when a slow song came on. And she, after two or three beers and shots of Kessler’s and help from Vicky (Oh, he got a nice smile, Marie.) leaves with him.

When she called that night Johnny Carson was just about to come on. I was asleep on the couch. It was to let me know she was a little drunk and was going to stay at Vicky’s. Too drunk to drive but OK; would I mind getting my own breakfast and “I’ll be home about noon, honey. You are the sweetest baby boy a momma could ever have. The absolute sweetest.”

She called the next Friday, and the Friday after that. By then I kind of had it figured out she wasn’t staying at Vicky’s and when I heard a guy’s voice in the background saying “Come on Marie get your ass in gear.” there was no doubt left in my mind. I just hoped whoever it was with her used a rubber. Me and Dean sure didn’t need a baby around here to take care of too.

The Saturday Edgar showed up I was sitting at the kitchen table tracing the pattern on the Formica with my finger, waiting for her to come home. I had just found out I had been cut from baseball JV and wasn’t feeling real great about that. Dean had got pissed at me that morning too. He was leaving for work at D’Amato’s and he wasn’t supposed to go before Mom got home. I reminded him that.

“Big fucking deal.” he said. “She’s out all night with some guy screwing her brains out in Dad’s car and you’re gonna squeal on me? To her? What’s she gonna do? Spank me?”

But I didn’t say anything. I looked down and evened out the cuffs on my jeans. I was glad I had on my black tee shirt. It always made me feel good to have that on. I just wanted her to get home so I could get down to the substation to get my papers, which always came early on Saturday.

I heard the car, Dad’s car; pull in before I saw it. I jumped up and looked out the kitchen window but Mom and whoever was with her were out of the car already. When I saw him I thought “what now?” I could hear them coming up the front steps onto the porch. Her and Edgar.

He looked like an OK guy. Black wavy hair with a kind of corny pompadour and a chipped front tooth when he smiled. Grey gabardine slacks that had been ironed too many times and scuffed up black loafers. But there was something about the way he leaned toward me, like he wanted to get at me and mom was kind of holding him back.

“Mason, I want you to meet Edgar, honey. He’s going to be staying with us.”

She looked real happy and pretty. She had on her pink capri pants. Her blouse was open at the top two buttons and the collar was turned up, and she had this gauzy little scarf tied around her neck.

“How you doin’ kiddo?” Edgar said, and stuck out his hand. When I went to shake it, he poked me in the stomach. It caught me off guard and really hurt.

“Head’s up kiddo! You got to be heads up! Don’t you teach this kiddo anything, Marie?”

Then he picked up his suitcase and walked into the house, laughing his ass off.

Edgar worked at Churchill’s A & P Food Store until he got fired for stealing booze. He wore a nametag that said “Hi, I’m Edgar!” and under that “Assistant Produce Manager”. Sometimes I would put the nametag on at night and walk around our room like I was drunk, and say “Hi, I’m Edgar. I work for the A & Poo Feed Store. Lesh have a drink!” Dean would crack up.

With Edgar it seemed like we were always in conflict over something. Like the time that we were coming out of A & P carrying boxes full of dented can goods and old macaroni that Edgar said were “surplus”.

“Lazy man’s load, Dean. You got a lazy man’s load there.” Edgar said.

Dean had packed way too much into one of them flat cut-open boxes and about half way across the parking lot the bottom fell out and cans rolled all over. Edgar was on him like ugly on ape, hollering that Dean would have to pay him back “for every damn can”, even though he was actually stealing them, and then picked up a can of creamed corn and drew back like he was going to hit Dean with it. I believe he would have if I hadn’t come up with my mostly empty box and started to put all the spilt cans in mine. This pissed Edgar off so much that instead of hitting Dean he winged the can across the parking lot and it skidded right in front of a young guy and his wife going into the store. “Easy there, buddy.” the young guy said. Edgar didn’t say nothing but stormed back to the car and opened the trunk, and stood there glaring at us.

Dean and me just muled the stuff back to the car. I felt a bunch of little explosions in my heart. I was pretty sure I would never have seen my real dad throw shit in the A & P parking lot.

Edgar got in and slammed the door. His hands were shaking so bad that he couldn’t get the key into the ignition. “Goddammit! Goddammit! He kept saying. I just shut up and tried not to laugh, not because I thought it was so funny, but because I was scared. Finally he reached under the seat and took out a half pint of something in a brown paper bag. He glared at me like I was some kind of communist or something and said “You tell your mother and so help me God, Mason, you’re dead. I mean it.” He took a long pull on whatever was in the bottle and sighed. The bottle went back under the seat and he sat there another minute or two, eyes closed and breathing hard. With one final Goddammit! the car started and he wheeled out onto Brush Street banging a grocery cart halfway across the parking lot.

I reached over to turn on the radio, thinking that a little music or maybe if the Tigers were on, that would distract him.

“Don’t you put any of that jungle music on, goddammit!”

Jungle music. I never heard him say that before. I couldn’t help myself: I let out a kind of snort and turned to look out the window so he couldn’t see me smiling.

“Look at me! Go ahead, laugh you little fucker! Think it’s funny? I’ll have you laughing out of the side of your face!”

We had pulled out of the parking lot and were turning onto John R. I looked over at him and saw that in his rage his new dentures had dropped out and he was trying to get them back in. I lost it. I could not help myself. Edgar was driving with his left hand and trying to put his uppers back in his mouth between swings at me with his right hand. Sideswiping a car on the narrow street with cars parked on both sides was, I suppose, inevitable.

I was actually surprised that he stopped. It didn’t take long for Stosh to come off his front porch with that universal male palms-up-arms-extended-shoulder-shrug that means ‘what the fuck are you doing?’ and stand next to the driver’s door, looking at Edgar. As I got out of the car and headed down John R, I could hear Edgar, at once plaintive and defensive, blaming “that little prick” for distracting him.

When I got home I saw that Edgar was already there; the Ford was in the driveway with a flat tire and the driver’s side fender hanging by the headlight. Mom was in the kitchen, No surprise, she was crying. Edgar was sitting at the kitchen table. Flipping through an old copy of “Argosy”. Drinking a Stroh’s and flipping through the magazine.

“Well, there’s the little funny man now! Did you see the damage to the car? That’s your fault little funny man. And you are going to pay for the entire repair.”

It was then I saw that he had the cigar box that I kept my Free Press dough in, and taking the bills out was flipping through the $300 I had saved.

“Yes sir, the entire goddamm repair!”

I figured that since it was really my dad’s car, I didn’t mind so much. I mean, I knew Edgar was a thief now too.

One Saturday in April (that month again) mom got married. I walked past her room that morning and saw at her dressing table in the blue silk gown with dragons on it that Dad had sent her from Okinawa, putting on her make up. Dean was at work already at D’Amato’s and I checked that Edgar was gone too before I went and sat on the little upholstered bench next to Mom. She looked at me and tapped my nose with her powder puff and said “How’s my baby boy this morning?”

“Where’s Edgar?”

I wanted to make sure that he wasn’t around before I settled down too much.

“Today’s a special day. He’s out getting the Ford washed. Me and Edgar’s going downtown today to make it official. We’re going to get married.”

I watched in the mirror as she put on her lipstick and blotted it with a tissue between her lips. She rolled her lips back over her teeth and bent down with an “mm-wah” and planted a kiss on my cheek. She smelled like apple blossoms and I almost cried when her blue eyes looked right at me and she said, “Isn’t that wonderful?”

“Does Dean know?”

It was a moment that Dean and I had dreaded for months. “At least they’re not married.” Dean would say as we lay in bed at night. “We could wake up one morning and he could be solid gone. There’s always that hope.”

“No, Dean doesn’t know. We’ll tell him later when he gets off work.”

“I hate Edgar.”

I thought about setting him on fire. I didn’t know how I would do it, but it was the most horrible thing I could think of to do to him. Dean had told me one time that some guys from Highland Park; he didn’t know them but he knew some guys who did, had set a stray cat on fire and watched it run through a playground filled with little kids. The story haunted me for months, the cruelty of it, the act itself above and beyond anything I dreamed humans capable of. And now I was thinking of doing it to Edgar.

“You do not.”

She stood and slipped out of her gown. Underneath she had on a tan slip with white lace on the front, and putting one foot and then the other on the bench pulled back the slip to roll her nylons on. She snapped the tops into her garter belt and looking over her shoulder into the mirror asked “Are my seams straight, honey?”

I didn’t care about her seams, but before I even realized I wasn’t going to answer she sat down edgeways on the bench and said, “Will you come here to Momma a second, darlin’?

I sat next to her looking into her face. There was no one in the world besides us. Holding my cheeks in her soft paws she said “Darlin’, darlin’. Edgar is a good man. He puts food on the table and a roof over our heads. Your Daddy isn’t coming back, and your Momma needs some help. Can you try to understand that?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

Then I said, “Do you have to go?”

I didn’t want to look at her. I didn’t want her to be beautiful. I didn’t want her to put on her blue dress and her veiled hat; Gramma’s cameo brooch and high heels. But she did. I stood up and went over to her bureau and pretended to straighten up her jewelry box, which was always a mess. Then she came over and put her arms around me pulled me close into her. I could feel her lips moving on my cheek; feel the warmth of her breath on my ear.

“We’ll back before you know it. Then we’ll celebrate with our first dinner together as a real family.”

Her breath smelled like a warm peppermint breeze. I looked down and dragged my stocking toe in the powder that had dusted the floor. I started to think again about ways that I could hurt Edgar. I heard the V-8 rumble of my Dad’s Ford outside. I shuffled on powdered socks across the hardwood floor to the bay window and looked out through the sheers. Edgar was standing outside the car door awkwardly suited in a black jacket and tan chinos. He had a tie on and looking up toward the window hollered “Come on Marie! Get your ass down here!”

Mom came over to the window next to me and looked out.

“Isn’t he handsome?”

Then she was gone, and all that was there was the smell of apple blossoms and peppermint. I put my hand up and wiped her kiss from my cheek.

The fighting got worse after they got married. Mostly about money. They both drank hard; it was like gas on a fire. You never knew what kind of a deal you’d be coming home to. The one thing that I was most afraid of was coming home and finding Mom and Edgar; you know, doing it. Dean told me that he came home early one day from work and saw Edgar screwing Mom on the living room couch and he couldn’t even tell who was who. I mean, what if I walked in the house and heard moaning coming from their bedroom? Or worse, saw Mom and Edgar like Dean did, on the couch or in a chair? Gramma says that Mom was always a follower, even when she was a little girl she would always go along with the crowd. She never seemed like that to me. But I think Edgar talked her into it, doing something during the day, you know? He got off at two o’clock so he could be at the house before me or Dean, easy. Mom would be vacuuming or something, maybe ironing. She’d have the radio on listening to “Kelly in the Afternoon” on CKLW playing the Top 40 countdown, probably real loud, and he’d come sneaking up behind her and grab her. Of course she don’t put up much of a fight, maybe smacking him with a dish towel or something she’s ironing. And next thing you know – he’s feeling her up and that’s that. The very thought turned my stomach.

The days I liked the best she’d be sitting at the kitchen table when I got home from doing papers, her artists smock spotted with the oils and dyes she used to color photographs. Portraits in black and white or sepia; 5 x 7’s and 8 x 10’s on heavy paper of businessmen and families, babies and brides that wanted hand coloring instead of the harsh commercial color prints.

I loved to sit down next to her and watch as she tinted the clothes and faces of the people I would never know with touches of cotton swabs, a saucer for her pallet. She had a deal with C. P. Kenney, a photographer up on Woodward Avenue to do these prints. Fifty cents for the small ones; a dollar each for the 8 x 10’s. It was nowhere near the dough she made working the line for Ford at the Rouge transmission plant, but since she got laid off, doing these prints was all she had to supplement the measly allowance that Edgar gave her.

Other days I’d come home and she would be sitting in front of the TV with the sound off, a cigarette burnt down to the filter in her fingers, just staring at whatever was on in a defeated trance. Dean never called Mom anything but Marie after she married Edgar. It was like she wasn’t anything special to him then. Me, I couldn’t do that, even though I mostly went along with Dean in other stuff. Those days Dean would just walk on by, but I would sit down next to her, not saying anything at first, just listening to her as she told me over and over, “I’m such a failure, Mason. I don’t know how Edgar puts up with me.” Then I’d try to say something to cheer her up; to make her smile or laugh. Mostly all I could think of were lies; that Miss Costigan had picked me for the safety patrol, or that my art project won first prize and was to be on the front table for Open House, (which was a pretty safe lie because I was sure she wouldn’t come) or stupid jokes (How do you know if an elephant is in the bathtub with you? You can smell the peanuts on his breath.) but I told them anyway. Even at those times, or maybe especially at those times, I could coax a smile out from behind her tears. I loved her laugh; it was smart and interesting. It told me that really, she was OK, that her tears were no matter if I was there to tell her a dumb joke, to lean up against her and just be there.

Edgar was tons worse. One day me and Dean found him passed out naked on the couch with his .357 in his hand. You know what we thought at first, but no such luck.
My heart was pounding.

“Is he dead, Dean?”

“Do you see any blood? Come on Mace. He’s just fucked up. Don’t touch him. Just let Marie find him. He’s her man.”

We had to get by him to go to our room. I tried not to look at him as I walked by first, but it was like seeing a wreck on the expressway; you don’t want to look but somehow you have to. He was slumped down, his chin hanging on his skinny chest. His ankles were crossed, his knees open, his left hand cupped over his balls.

“Fuck, Dean. He’s got a boner.”

“He’s probably got to pee.”

That big ass Smith and Wesson Model 27 was in his right hand, palm up. He was definitely drunk; Southern Comfort. I could smell it as soon as I walked in to the room, even before I saw the bottles. Dean stopped and stood over him. He took the revolver gently by the barrel and carefully unfolded Edgars fingers from around the checked wooden grip. He grunted a little, but didn’t move. Dean pushed the thumb slide and the cylinder dropped open. He tipped the gun back and six rounds slid out into his palm.

“I’m keeping these.” he said.

He put the revolver back in Edgars hand and we went on to our room. I know he was thinking about Marie. We knew Edgar he had slapped her, and Dean said that if he saw that one more time it would be “all over” for Edgar. No way were we going to let her get shot.

Whatever we did, we had to get out of Detroit. That was our life’s goal. “It’s you and me Mace.” Dean would say. “Wait a couple years until you’re seventeen, then we’ll join the Navy together. I’ll get Marie to sign off for you.” So we had that to look forward to. I would imagine it sometimes; the two of us in Dress Whites, standing on the deck of a battleship in the ranks of sailors, our scarves flying in the wind and our bell bottoms blowing slightly to reveal our black oxfords. And I would be standing there at parade rest next to Dean, not even remembering all this, as if how that could have ever happened to us?

Besides the Navy, we most often talked about California, or Florida, where our grandparents lived. We talked about hitchhiking to Florida and living with Pops while we got jobs on fishing boats or a marina. We would sit in our room at night and talk for hours, making up the names of the boats we’d work on. Saying what kind of cars we’d buy when we got rich. I figured I’d have a ‘Vette, which Dean always made fun of. “That’s not a real sports car.” He said. Not like my Austin-Healy.” Our window looked out on the Davidson; cars were going by on the overpass, over the warehouses and garages, the billboards and the junk cars dead in the alleys below. There weren’t any ‘Vettes or Healy’s. It was all so dingy and sad looking. Mostly it seemed like that none of that could ever be possible. Honest to God, sometimes I think that you’d be better off if you were never been born.

There’s pictures in my science book of the night that show just rivers of stars in the sky. Miss Costigan said that each of those little pinpoints of light were whole galaxies. So I guess if that’s possible, anything is. Then I got to thinking about some of the other things Miss Costigan had told me at school. Life itself, she would tell me, was my main job. I had to live it until it was gone; to pay attention to it, go out into it and be there in the good or bad; stand up and let it batter me, pound me, wake up and look at it, really look at it or I would miss the whole thing. She was right. I didn’t want to get to be old and go, like, what the fuck was that?

Hippie and Ellen

They come out to the courtyard to be in the last of the October sun; it is an unintentional irony that the name of the building is The Medina Azahara. It’s crumbling, garish, fake Moroccan-Spanish style architecture boasts eight apartments; four one-bedroom and four studios. They are all dumps. Hippie lives there in a studio apartment with Ellen; Dean and Mason are there to buy dope. Hip has twisted a couple up, and the three men pass a joint. When it comes to Ellen she passes it off with a frightened wave.

“Oh no.” she says. “That stuff makes my clothes come off.”

“What doesn’t?” Dean says.

“Aww, m-man. You made me lose my hit.” Hippie says.

Ellen’s eyes narrow in Dean’s direction.

“You’re an asshole, Dean.”

Ellen, arms straight at her sides, fists clenched at her hips, walks with more attitude than purpose into the apartment. The screen door slams.

This is the first time Mason has seen Ellen outside the bar. He is astonished that Hippie could actually have such a beautiful creature with him. Of all people. Scrawny little Hip. Long stringy blonde hair pulled back into a pony tail. All nerves and shattered speech; until he has enough whiskey. Then, flat footed and high stepping, he becomes amiable and quick to offer help carrying equipment for the band. Or to sell you reefer.

“Looking to get high? Need something for the head?” he asks.

Mason stands there, joint in hand, staring at Ellen as she disappears into the apartment and remembering how one evening he had, from the stage, seen Hippie actually throw a drink in her face and storm out of the bar. She had just sat there laughing and wiping her face. Mason remembers what Dean had said about her then; that she someday she would push Hip too far.

“Mace!” Dean says. Then, “Look at him. Spaced out and Bogartin’ the joint.”

“Here. I gotta hit the head.”

Mason hands the joint to Dean and follows Ellen into the house. Neither Dean nor Hippie comment or watch as Mason goes inside the apartment. The courtyard door opens into the kitchen; and past that tiny galley is a living room with a futon. The bathroom is on his right and beyond that, the door to the street is open. Mason assumes that Ellen has gone out, and he pushes the door to the bathroom open.

Ellen is sitting on the toilet, her jeans around her ankles and her face covered by her hands. She is quietly weeping. Mason stands there saying nothing. She looks up at him, red eyed and wet.

“It’s up to you, dude. What are you gonna do?”

She reaches for the toilet paper and wipes herself.

“Well?”

“Mace! Let’s split, man!”

It’s Dean. Mason backs out of the bathroom under the indignant glare of Ellen’s icy blue eyes.

“What is her story, man?” Mason asks Dean as they leave the courtyard and walk over to Mason’s van.

Dean looks at him over the rim of his sunglasses.

“She’s Problem, man. I wouldn’t fuck her with your dick.”

Later that night at the bar Mason watches from stage as Ellen and Hippie shoot a game of pool. Hippie breaks and sinks five of the solids on his first up. Ellen pockets two stripes. Men keep coming up to the table on the pretext of watching Hippie but can’t take their eyes off Ellen as she stands in the shadow slowly chalking the tip of her stick. Hippie misses his shot. The cue ball lay is covered by Hip’s two remaining solids and the eight ball at the foot of the table. What remains of Ellen’s stripes are in the kitchen.

There is not much left. Ellen stalks the table, hunting for a shot. She is all tight corduroy jeans, fringed buckskin jacket and J toed cowboy boots.  Already tall at five ten, senselessly beautiful and possessed of an alkaloid-fueled self confidence, her movements are followed by every eye in the bar. Twice she sights along her stick down the green felt table and twice lifts her cue with out finding a shot.  She turns in mock disgust and holding the stick at her hip like Patty Hearst’s M-1 she points it at Hippie. Her shoulders are pulled back, her stance wide.

“I’m ‘SLA’, pig. On your feet or on your knees.”

Hippie is sitting; no, more like slumped on his barstool, back to the bar, waiting for her to take her shot. His pool cue bumper on the floor between his feet; he is supporting himself by holding onto the tapered end, his chin leaning on his hands. The corners of his mustached mouth are stained with Skoal. He stares a thousand yards past her. Her allusion creeps slowly into his mescaline and Jack Daniels laced mind as a tale told by an old woman. He remembers his grandmother telling him about the rich people, the Hearst’s, who built and lived in a castle off State Route 1. Once, on the way back to Salinas from visiting his father in Lompoc, Hip had determined to visit the castle, but got lost in the foothills and cutbacks leading to the tourist entrance. Mostly he remembers thinking as a child that he would go there someday and become a knight, but that has never happened.

“That the way Cinque taught you to do it?” he says finally.

Moving toward him Ellen takes the cue stick between his legs and shoves the shaft toward his crotch.  Moving her hand down to where the shaft is resting against his rat and badgers, she says “No, this is how he taught me how to do it.”

There is not a man in the bar who would not change places with Hip for the sake of Ellen’s hand in their jeans. As far as any other part of Hippies life; anything else that he has or ever will have; in fact anything that he is or will ever be is of little or no interest to anyone in the bar, inSalinasor anywhere else in the world. Staying high and defending attempts to take Ellen from him are his primary and secondary motivators for living. Delivering pizza and selling a little weed, mostly $15 lids of Mexican dirtball is what passes for a career in his mind.

“You look good tonight, baby.”

Hippie entertains a view of himself as a man of chivalry, and it is this quality in him that Ellen finds so amusing and necessary to provoke.

“Good enough to fight over?” she says, looking down the bar toward Mason, sitting there now with Dean.

It is not an idle inquiry. It is a challenge meant to reassure Ellen and to determine Hippies readiness to fulfill for her what would be, had their union any sacrosanctity, his sacred vow. Twice in the last month Hip had met his obligation with determination and resolve, though not without some cost.

The first, a loud drunk who had snuck up behind Ellen as she danced with a girlfriend and to amuse his friends had imitated doing her doggy style went down hard with a blow from an empty bottle of Lambrusco that Hip threw at him. So hard, in fact, that when he saw the tiny trickle of sticky blood coming from the unfortunate drunk’s ear canal, Hippie was afraid he had killed him. He had not, but Hippie, whose real name is Edward Leon Carter, caught a battery case on that and spent a night in jail.

The last incident did not go nearly as well. At closing time push turned to shove on the way out of the bar between Hippie and a fat young Chicano who Ellen claimed cupped her ass as they were leaving.

Before he entirely realized what had happened, Hippie was on his hands and knees in front of the bar spitting blood, looking for his tooth and telling Hector Perez, “OK, I’m sorry.”

No matter. Win or lose it is the dispensation of gallantry that counts in Ellen’s ledger.

“You love me so much, don’t you?” she said as she knelt beside him on the concrete.

Lester’s High

Everybody in the band is sitting in the studio just staring at me or the looking at the floor studying the pattern on the Chinese rug. A joint is going around, but I don’t smoke that shit so I just pass it to Les. My first mistake.

Go outside and look if they’re still there Dean tells me. We got to get going.

You’re the road manager, I said. You go.

Dean laughed at me.

I walk out on the porch into the night and they are all still sitting in the old white Impala.  Illinois plates, with whiskey bumps and rail rash.  Waiting for us to leave. At least four of them, maybe five. I see heads and shoulders bobbing up and down moving from side to side. Studded leather jacket at the wheel. Mullet head turns around in the back seat and looks right at me.

I come back in. I tell everybody I think we need the gun.

Really, you think we need the gun Daddy Cool says.

I had gone over to Franks and borrowed it earlier that afternoon. A heavy stainless steel Smith and Wesson with a five inch barrel. He didn’t have a holster for it so I just stuck it in my waistband put my jacket on and got back in the truck. I really didn’t think we would be needing it so soon.

Daddy, there are all kinds of reasons to have or not have it I say. Best to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

Just to chase them off, if for no other reason Dean says.

If Bobbies dog would have done what we thought he was going to do, then no we wouldn’t need one. Last time, ninety pounds of Doberman turned into a rug pissing pussy as soon as he heard the sound of glass breaking, I guess.

How many times can you let yourself get ripped off by the same assholes? It just isn’t done. Studio gear is expensive and that time they got my Strat and Daddy Cool’s Alto.

Les passes the joint to Daddy and holding his hit wheezes, lemme see that piece. Against my better judgment I grab the .357 around the cylinder and hand it to him butt first. Don’t fuck around Les I tell him. I am not shitting you.

Daddy groans, like omigosh please oh please what the fuck is you doing? Les just sits there with it in his lap for a good 10 seconds or so, lets out his hit and says Model 686. This is a wonderful, wonderful piece. A batty grin spreads out over his face.

We tried to keep Lester away from the herb. You just never knew what he would be like when he got high.

Like the time we were jamming with Donny who happens to be African Merican and Les just stopped playing picked up a jay that somebody had parked on the top of his Twin Reverb and said I can’t play this nigger music.

Donny was cool. He leaned over and took the jay from Les got right in his face and said I like your drummer a lot better than you. You’re an idiot.

We all laughed, but really it wasn’t that funny.

Les flips open the cylinder and six rounds slide out into his left palm. He takes one and puts it back in the cylinder, spins it, snaps it shut, cocks the hammer, points it at the ceiling and pulls the trigger.

Click.

Godammit, Les! Daddy says. You are a sick mother fucker.

Les hands the gun back to me. Your turn he says.

He is remorseless.

Time to go Dean says.

Laurel and Stewart

Laurel

Laurel stands at the corner sink, her apron untied and her slippers on; stands with heart bowed and head haloed by the circular fluorescent light above her. She is quietly weeping. Dishes from dinner are still not done; the laundry is still not done. There is a button in her apron pocket. The mending is still not done; tomorrow’s lunches are still not done. She is undone.

Laurel’s Playtex gloved hands plunge deep into the hot soapy dishwater, retrieve a greasy plate, then a cup; wipe and rinse. The ten-thousandth dish. The windows over the sink fog and rivulets of water run into the frame and on the sill, ruining the caulking and painting she did in the fall. The girls are bathed and sleeping, an hour or more.  His dinner sits plated on the Formica tabletop, wrapped in tinfoil, cold as death.

Laurel starts; her breath is taken from her, as if it were she who had just flown from the cold night into the window. As if it were her neck broken and she who lay there dying in the snow on the window ledge. As if it were she who had mistaken the light and warmth of her own kitchen as being attainable. The moment of sudden movement and the sodden thud has passed and she stares at an imprint on the glass, a wet imprint of the sparrow that had tried to flee the frigid dusk into the light of the kitchen. Ah! Well, she thinks, it’s for the best.

Laurel sees, for the thousandth time, the blue ceramic plaque that sits on the shelf between the windows, sees once again its painted mortised borders. Implements of a happy kitchen; a hearth afire and in the center of the hearth, and over the mantle and the fire below,  a printed poem: “Lord of all pots and pans and things, since I’ve no time to be a great saint by doing lovely things, or watching late with Thee, or dreaming in the dawnlight, or storming heaven’s gates, make me a saint by getting meals, and washing up the plates.”

Laurel can see a lot from the kitchen window: the mocking moon, the unfinished garage. She can see the failed flower bed, the sandbox half buried and softly outlined in snow, the clothesline canted with icicles; across the yard and into the neighbor’s window she can see Blaine settling into his lazy boy for an evening of Red Skelton and Jackie Gleason.  And she can see there is to be no more ‘dreaming in the dawnlight’ for her, there is to be no more ‘doing lovely things’. She can see the boxed oil paints in the basement. The stacks of sketchbooks. The letter from Miss Costigan at the Detroit Art Institute: “Laurel is an unusually talented illustrator. It would be the institute’s loss to see her leave.”

Laurel knows the Ford’s headlights will sweep the driveway when he pulls in. She shall see that from the kitchen window, steamed as it is. And he will come in, and stamp the snow from his feet on the linoleum floor, and ask “What’s for dinner?” And she will say “its right here, let me heat it up for you… how was your day, do you love me, do you love me, can you let me go?”

Stewart

Stewart is not worried about getting home in time for dinner. He knows when it is time to do business and when it is time to play house. Stewart watches Paul, Cookie and Jack as they drink and smoke and drink and reel off to the pisser, disappearing in the fog of cigarette smoke, elbowing their way past the crowd at the bar and then reappearing at the table. They are not his friends. They are customers. He knows how much his business and his family depend on them. He knows what pricks they can be. Demanding. Threatening. Disloyal. Powerful.  There is a purchase order in his pocket that absolves them for this.

Stewart loosens his tie. He listens to their stories. The stories he will tell Laurel. He edits and anthologizes. Stewart replaces ‘cocksucker’ with ‘bonehead’; ‘motherfucker’ becomes ‘jerk’; ‘cunt’, gal. Some are irredeemable. He considers the order in which he will tell them. Stewart will sit and eat re-heated meatloaf and tell her these stories. She will sit and listen, apron folded on her lap. Stewart will show her the purchase order he has received. He will not understand then that what he sees in her eyes is not adulation but hope given over to shattered wonderment at what she has become.

The little Formica four-top fills with empty brown longnecks and Stewart keeps buying rounds. Three Dutch and a Coke; three Dutch, three shots of Kessler’s and a Coke.  Three more shots of Kessler’s. Another round of Dutch. And a Coke. As the verbal violence and ambiguous laughter assaults his spirit, Stewart reaches into his suit coat pocket and touches the folded purchase order.

The waitress reaches over his shoulder to deliver shot glasses of Kessler’s, bottles of Old Dutch, and a Coke. Placing the Coke in front of him, she asks “What else do you need?”  Her breasts touch his back, and she stays there for a long moment. She doesn’t have what Stewart needs.

Stewart does not know that the crush of the waitress’s breasts against his back as she serves the drinks is one offer of fate. The purchase order in his pocket to supply Goods and Services for The Marblehead Quarry Operations in the amount of Thirty-eight thousand, three hundred and seventy-eight dollars, dated this 18th day of December, 1959 is a document of propitiation. The desperate fidelity that Stewart will leave the Sportsman Bar and Grill with and go home  is fate’s offer denied. The devotion of the two little girls who kissed him goodbye this morning is grace.

Stewart waits for a signal; waits to be guided from within as to the precise moment to leave.  He waits to shake on his overcoat and step into the falling snow. He reaches under the table and pushes his heavy wingtip shoes into their overshoe rubbers, snapping their back over the heel of his wingtips with a practiced pull.  He knows swirls of cigarette smoke following him out of the bar will mingle with the mist as warm air from the crowded bar hits the winter evening. He waits in satisfied anticipation of the fresh, cold air; of the long drive home through the indifferent night. The bawl of the jukebox and Cookie’s parting shots will fade as the door shuts. The snowy night will offer only silence at first as Stewart stands there on the sidewalk, smiling. A car will creep down the street and stop for the light at the corner. The illuminated sign above his head will creak as it swings in the winter wind, and send him home.

Every Bird Must Fly

How far is it to Cleveland if the gull has to walk and carry a broken wing?

Whatta buncha lousy godamm luck…whassamatta buddy you ain’t never seen an old grey gull with a godam broken wing? Twenty-eight miles to Cleveland as the bird flies? Hey! How far is it if the gull has to walk and carry a broken wing? Ha ha ha! That’s a good one.

Damn, this hurts! Ya know, when you break a wing bone, even a little one, it really hurts! The street is really hot on my feet. Hey! There’s Gus …yeah Gus. Hey! Hey, Gus!

I’m fucked up, man. I’m about outa my fuckin’ mind here. Gotta get to somewhere cool. Can you believe I broke my wing like this? Just trying to unload one on a couple tourists. Hit that freakin’ guy wire. What? What? The bridge is about to close? So that’s why there’s no traffic on this side. I didn’t realize I was on the road until just now. Shit.

Oh man. The bridge is going down. Here comes the traffic. Forward or back? Back, yeah back. OK Gus I hear ya! I’m cool.  Shit. Damn wing. Can’t fly. Shit.

Hey buddy! Slow down! I’m walkin’ here! What the fuck? Hit? I’m fuckin’ hit? He hit me! Godammit! Godammit! They finally killed me. What’s fuckin’ next?