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Proper Preparation

I know I was a fuck off in school. I got no problem admitting that. All I cared about was getting high and getting girls, and it was kind of shocking to me when I got out most of my friends either went to college or got drafted and here I still was, in town and thanks to a high lottery number, not at Da Nang Tech. 

Only thing left to do was get a job. Buying gas one day at JB’s Gulf, Auto Repair & Towing I saw “Help Wanted” in the window and pretty soon I was pumping gas and changing oil for old Jim Brandenburg. I was a fuck off there too, and one day after I forgot to put the oil back in the crankcase and the customer’s engine seized up, old Jim came to me and said “Dean you can stay and work this off and I’ll teach you how to be a real mechanic, or you can get the fuck out right now.”

For eight years me and Jim worked ass crack to elbow in that little two bay gas station. There was nothing you could put a wrench on that him and me couldn’t fix. I was there every day at 6 AM and did everything he told me to do. If I come up on something that seemed like it was impossible to do, he would stop what he was doing and come over, wiping his hands on a shop towel and say, “Well, what would you do here if you did know what to do?” Just do the next right thing, that was Jim’s motto. I’ve tried to live by those words ever since.

When he died he left me all his tools. After the funeral, a company suit came into the station and told me that Gulf was going to make our station a ‘pump it yourself’ place with no service bays. I could stay on and maybe work my way to manager but I said no, I’m a mechanic, not a peanut and cigarette salesman.

For two years I bounced around and took whatever work I could find. I was working five eights for Brown and Root as a maintenance mechanic in Pensacola and 10 to 2 AM as a bouncer at a bar in when I met Char. We were married in two weeks. We talked about having kids. At the time there wasn’t anything I wanted more than to be with her until the end of time. There’s times now when I wish her legs would grow together.

When things started to go south for us I decided to take the next job that got us out of town. That ended up being out here in bum-fuck North Dakota. Frack city.

It is unbe-fuckin-lievable how things run around here. Do they think vehicles just fix themselves? I tell them you don’t know what you got until you get into it and they’ll just stare at the axle or the trannie, like, ‘bwoop-bwoop’ – something is supposed to go from their head into the gear case, take out the planetaries, lube them and reset. They don’t know a sun gear from a ring gear.

Management? In their own little world. Not a clue as to what it takes to get a vehicle back on the road. I walk by Marty’s office and for no real reason he calls me in.

“Ready for the battle today, Tiger? You prepared?”

I’m here on time everyday. I have my own tools. All of them. I’m prepared. It’s not like I’m trying to do everything with a fire wrench and a multi-tool like Goose. It’s like I told him the other day, showing him my tool box; you think a set of sockets and open ends like that just grow on trees? Hell no. All Matco drop forged made in the USA. The 5 ‘P’s”, dude. Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. You got to prepare for every eventuality, because this shit is real. Try to use a 1 inch socket when you really need a 25 millimeter socket and you don’t have one?  You’ll see how fast lack of preparation bites you in the ass.

Danny is always asking me “Dean, what is your goal for eliminating vehicular downtime this quarter? What kind of plan do you got for achieving that goal?”

Planning. That’s what I need. Planning and a goal.

With a plan I’ll know what I’m doing everyday. Right now I’m like a cat trying to cover shit on a marble floor. Sixteen trucks. Four mechanics, if you count Goose. Fucking Goose. He’s more of a parts changer. Saw him trying to wrench out an inch and a quarter boss plug the other day. He was about to put the fire wrench on it when I came by. I could not believe he was using an adjustable wrench. I put a box on it and torqued that bitch out. I told him bring your arms to work tomorrow, Goose. Leave your old lady’s at home.

A goal is like what you do in football; it’s a target, something you shoot at. So no problem. I’m shooting at totally eliminating vehicular downtime this quarter, dude. Keep all those g-wagons and vactors running every day. 100 per cent satisfaction, Danny. You like me now?

 Just the same, you can make your plans but you can’t really plan on the outcome. I never have been able to figure why some things seem to work out the way they do. Like when Char was taking those ‘modeling’ classes. She had big plans. New York City. Then one day I found a video tape she had brought home and thought it was some of our vacation stuff. Popped it in the old VHS. There she was, fucking some guy with her shoes on. Bunch of other people without their clothes on; all in knots. Don’t work for me. I thought I had a wife but I had a whore.

I got back in the shop just in time to see Goose getting ready to fire up the wire welder. I said, Goose! Did you change the wire? I was doing stainless this morning. Real smug like he hollers back, yes I did Dean, drawing out my name like “Dee-anne”.

Well you gotta change the gas too, dumb-ass, I told him.

He was gonna weld regular steel with tri-mix gas. What a loser.

 

Carl’s Baby

I have continued to retreat to the lake in the summer, keeping the same cabin we always occupied each year. For the last few years, Carl has maintained a full time residence in the larger cabin. Kathleen and Denise are both gone now, all the kids that are left have spread across the country.

The lake as a resort area is well past it’s prime; the dirt road circumnavigating the shore ungraded, the lake shore dotted with fewer and fewer rental cottages and the mom and pop ‘resorts’ consisting of tiny faux log cabins or little A-frames hardly more than lean-to’s are mostly empty and run down. Time has passed the lake by in terms of its desirability to vacationers. Even a change of name by the locals from Carp Lake to ‘Lake Paradise’ didn’t help, and the obvious irony in the name (obvious to everybody except the locals) seemed to have actually hastened the loss of interest compared to glitzier places on nearby lakes with better beaches, better views, better restaurants, all-inclusive packages and deeper water. Our cottages, a cluster of three (in fact one was actually just a cabana), had been part of our family since the 60’s. Situated in a small cut in the lake shore, they share a long dock, maybe 150 ft that goes out in to the lake with a swim platform at the end, making it “T” shaped. The waterfront is the nicest part of the property. Back in the day, a 14 ft aluminum skiff with expired MC numbers was tied there, a 15 HP Merc mounted on the transom that moved it along smartly; enough to get Carl and me quickly out to the weed line where we would fish for crappie and walleye and sunfish.

But now, most mornings we join each other (a couple old widowers) for breakfast at The Lighthouse, a crummy little joint on the north shore of the lake, in a row of 3 or 4 shops that we call “The Mall”. This morning was a bit different, as it was the first we had met since Kathleen’s funeral. Carl was already at the table; he always took a four top and sat facing. He looked up from his phone and saw me coming in when he heard the door chime.

“So what’s happenin’ Harrison?”

“Everything.” I said. “Somewhere. You?”

“Livin’ the dream, man.”

“Always.”

“You all right?”

“No. Who is? Not anybody we know, that’s for sure.”

As soon as I sat down, Carl got up to go the bathroom.

“Don’t order until I get back, heayh?”

“Yeah.”

When he came back there was a Dylan song playing. On what? Not the jukebox. They don’t have those anymore. This was playing on their XM channel or something. Some music service maybe.

He came dancing up to the table and that is the kindest term I can use for what was really nothing more than a soupy shuffle; a bowlegged Popeye the Sailor deal, except he was grabbing his balls and holding them up like they weighed 10 pounds each.

“Gotta hand it to him.” he said. “Big balls in Cowtown. Doesn’t do an album in five or six years and then puts out a double with a bunch of songs he ripped off. Opens with a Chuck Berry song and a bunch other 1-4-5’s. Sick.”

Kathleen loved Dylan. She once told me that he was the only man she would ever leave me for. Which was just like saying she would never leave me. I knew the record he was talking about. I knew the song. We had it playing when she died, I was right there next to her. I can’t listen to that song anymore. The last few weeks were horrible, even if (and some people actually told me this might be true) we had acted like we actually planned them that way. I can tell you one thing. I am not the one doing the planning, in that case. At any rate, there we were right in the hospice room and Carl leans over to Kathleen and says, “It’s ok, it’s ok to go, baby.” It was his sister after all.

Which, at that she took a couple deep and seemingly peaceful sighs and stopped breathing. I had just told her I was here (whoever I am, and wherever here is) and had laid my head on her shoulder and was holding her hand. There was no pressure or response to my squeezes but a perfect tear formed at the corner of her eye and rolled down the path made by a previous one I hadn’t seen and dropped on my cheek. I looked up and saw her spirit escape through her mouth. I kissed her cheek and noticed (there’s a strange word – noticed) the wet from the tears and I licked them off her cheek. To get her salty essence into me.

I studied the lines on her face; no answers there. A couple of diagonal creases on her forehead over each eye; were they new? How could I have never noticed them before? I went to the mirror right there in the hospice room and tried to replicate them in my own face. I could not. Scowl. Frown. Nothing. How did they get there? Was there a message there or just some sort of twisting muscle in death that involuntarily makes them?

I have this incredible sadness. So many missed opportunities. Mistakes were made. Apparently. Not the least of which – that’s the understatement of the century – was what we started out calling “The Accident”, then later as if to take the sharp edges off, to eliminate the need to name a prime mover as one would in an accident, as in what caused said accident, it was just called “The Incident.” An incident has no cause. Incidents just happen. And who creates them? We all do. No one person does anything. I didn’t throw the baby in the water. But I might as well have. By what I did. Or didn’t do. At any rate, I don’t think there is enough time left to sort it out. So I’ll just pretend that this is exactly how it was supposed to happen. It’s all part of the show folks. Life appears, and then it is gone. A shimmering rush of events and happenings, none of which it seems that we have any control over; striving, pulling, fooling, loving, dying.

There. That’s said. OK, where was I?

Breakfast was ordered and came. Carl looked at me across a big platter of biscuits and gravy, his eyes all rheumy. He had to take his glasses off between mouthfuls and wipe them. At that point he stopped and stared at me with unfocused eyes. I bit.

“What’s on your mind, Carl?”

He began firing questions at me left and right and center. Weird questions too; “Did you and the old lady ever go to strip clubs – get lap dances? Did y’all ever watch porn together? Did ya ever fuck Kathleen and have thoughts about fucking someone else? I mean, maybe somebody you already fucked somewhere sometime, or wanted to fuck, or wish you could fuck somewhere sometime? I guess ya never, huh? Like, I guess I can see that, if you are totally in love. Like you and Kathleen. Lame.”

Oh, wait, there’s more.

“D’ja ever go south on the old lady, Harry? Was that something you did for her? I always done it for Denise, and believe you me, buddy, she really ‘preciated it.”

By ‘goin’ south’ he did not mean a trip to Disney World. In between all this he was shoveling it in as fast as he could, scooping up sausage and gravy and grits, throwing salt and pepper and hot sauce on everything and putting it away. Little speckles of it flew from his mouth.

I was about to say something about a glob on his chin – I wasn’t going to answer any of his questions – but what he asks me next annoys the Bejesus out of me.

“Harrison.” He stopped eating, fork loaded with a quarter biscuit sopped with butter and sausage gravy inches from his lips. “Harry. In all them years did you ever lay pipe outside your own yard?”

Carl was looking at me; he was expecting an answer to his question. Apparently this was his idea of grief counseling. I gave him the one he wanted.

“Yeah, Carl.” I told him. “I did.”

Carrl stopped talking and looked at me, leaning back in his chair. Food was still in his beard.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Plenty of times. In fact, I did it with the hospice nurse one time in the hall outside of Kathleen’s room.”

“Ah, fuck you Harrison. I’m serious.” Then, “You ain’t gonna tell me are ya? Well that’s OK, because you know what – I did fuck around on Denise. A lot. I just never knew about you.”

There. See what I mean? Although I have always been fond of the rolling Appalachian dialect that Carl speaks in, the curious words and phrases he uses like ‘chimley’ and ‘it does it automatic’, I have never become totally accustomed to the coarse limpidity of his speech. This was the kind of subject matter Carl liked to bring up from time to time, though usually just when he was drunk. Which was not as often as it used to be, but still frequent. He had been known to once be so drunk that he ate cat food that Denise had sitting out in a bowl on the counter. There were always cats. Doesn’t leave a lot to be said. Already it’s more than he’d ever said about the drowning. He stared at me a beat and before he said anything else, his phone buzzed. He tapped it and after a quick look, shoved it over to me.

“Harry. Check out this sandstorm in China.”

I mean you never really know what someone else is thinking. They could be setting the table or watching TV and thinking about killing their boss.

By “old lady”, he meant my wife Kathleen; Carl’s little sister. Well, half-sister; they shared a mother, who had raised them with her husband and Kathleen’s father, Mick, who Carl always thought of as his father. Mick and Marie. M & M. As sweet a couple as ever graced the earth. Marie had Kat after her change, and supposedly did not even know she was pregnant until she went in to labor. Carl’s real father was an itinerant musician who, after learning of Marie’s pregnancy, had found the pleasures of life on the road with a gospel bluegrass group more alluring than family life. It was often offered in his defense that his relationship with Marie was a kind of an off and on affair, and after all it was ‘mama’s baby, daddy’s maybe.’

Carl’s mother was sure of his paternity, even though the days of off-the-shelf DNA testing were yet in an alternate present. But this was a secret she kept to herself for many years. Still, whenever Carl referred to his “Daddy” it was Mick, the hardworking maintenance foreman from Cheboygan, not the picker from Logan. Every Christmas and most of Carl’s birthdays, Helm showed up and visited, with gifts, Carl’s mom and his old friends Mick and Marie, and without acknowledging it, his bastard son. It was this history that was made known to Carl years later at a drunken wake for Mick. Perhaps this was what lead Carl to question the paternity of his own first child, a little girl, born in the first year of his marriage to my crazy sister Denise, dead now some two years and several months ago. I don’t know. I never had to find out my dad wasn’t who I thought he was, so I would not offer an opinion on what that might do to a man.

Kat and I never really talked that much. About that. We both knew what was going on between my sister and her half-brother. I don’t know if Denise fell for Carl because of his accent and his guitar playing, his long hair or what. Maybe it was his tattoo, a fucked up looking daisy, all in blue with eight or nine petals around a circle. I mean it is dead ugly. I think he did it himself when he was about 15.

“You could get that tattoo cleaned up a bit.” I told him once. “Looks like shit.”

“Oh, OK Harrison. I’ll do that just for you. Maybe I should get it blended into a sleeve over my whole arm, all psychedelic birds and mythical beasts and shit. Whaddya think? Or maybe just clean it up a little and get a hipster kind of tattoo with a quote from some obscure poet or philosopher on my inner arm or someplace that can only be seen when I specifically yet casually and seemingly without self-consciousness reveal it.”

I took his point and never said anything else about it.

Carl’d come around when Kathleen and I moved in together and bring his guitar. Carl is a musician. Of sorts. Like his real father before him, he plays guitar, not too badly really. But he doesn’t have the cachet or the easy familiarity that real musicians have with their instruments. We’d have a few drinks and burn a little bush. Nothing too serious. One night Denise was visiting when he dropped by and that was it. I have often thought about that. If she wouldn’t have come by, they never would have met. And maybe her daughter would have been born to someone else, someone who deserved her. Or maybe she would have never been born at all. I don’t know how that works. Fate and all that. But there seems to be something to it. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. [The body] that is sown is perishable and decays, but [the body] that is resurrected is imperishable. That’s what happened. God put a sould in Adam and he passes it dwn with his sperm, and so on and so on through all the males. Of course you have to have a mate to carry the vessel for the new sould, so thts why women were made. I mena it sounds dumb, but thts the way it goes. So she was ooing ot be born to someone. Its just kind of sorry that she was born to someone who threw her in a lake.

She always seemed to go for the bad boys. There was one guy who treated her real nice her first year out of high school. Had a good job turning wrenches, and was real polite. She strung him on for a while then dumped him when Carl came along. Poor kid kept calling me up asking me about her and what he had done wrong. Nothin’, I told him. It isn’t you. Some girls are just like that.

Next thing we know Denise shows up with a ring on her finger and a five month along profile. A few months later she had the baby, a little girl. Carl wouldn’t hold her, wouldn’t touch her. Carl’s cruelty to Denise almost from the beginning was mystifying. Even more mystifying was Denise’s acceptance of his shit. Small ‘i’ incident after incident. The hand slapping game where he was ‘teaching her to develop quick reflexes’, slapping the backs of her hands as they rested on his palms before she could remove them, until they were welted with tiny blood blisters. Once emptying a shaker of salt on her food to mock, in his opinion, her overuse of it. And the jealous rages; suspecting her of all sorts of disloyalty and duplicity.

Carl’s baseless suspicions of Denise took on a lacerating and aggressive tone during her pregnancy. The baby was born in April, and when we all took our two weeks that summer at the little lake getaway up north, his constant ragging on her settled once again on the matter of paternity of the child Denise was carrying. Out of nowhere he accused her of having another man’s baby, just like he had been carried in Marie’s womb. Helm, his real father, never raised Carl, nor even acknowledged him as his son. He grew up thinking that someone else was his father, and that Helm was just an old family friend. So you could say that his mom, Marie, did the same thing to Malcom (“Mick”, the man who married Marie on the rebound from Carl’s real dad Helm when she was about three, maybe four months along with Carl), as Carl accused Denise of doing to him. Except Denise never was unfaithful to Carl, not for one minute.

We were all sitting around the fire one night, just a few nights before The Big ‘I” Incident. Carl was holding his guitar, idly playing a few chords.

“Here’s a little tune I wrote a few years back.” he said.

I thought he did a pretty good job with the song, but it rankled the hell out of Kat to hear him say he wrote it.

“It’s The Mighty fuckin’ Quinn, Carl.” She said. “You didn’t write that song. Bob Dylan wrote that song.”

To that he replied “If you hit a chord and just let it ring out totally, till the very last good bye, you think it will never end. But the notes tell you good bye. They really do. You think it’s over then you hear all the harmonics like a little tiny chorus of black girls. And yeah, he stole it from me.”

Carl and Denise were like wildcats that whole trip. Their arguing and slamming around could clearly be heard in the evening as Kathleen and I sat out on the deck trying to outlast the mosquitos while the sun went down in a blaze of reds golds and blues across the little lake. It was a twilit night in late June with lightening bugs thick as stars. Across the yard we saw Carl on the riding mower tearing up and down near the deck, a beer in one hand and steering with the other. We had an ancient Craftsman riding mower up there that we used to knock down the weeds a couple times a year. It was also fun to take the kids for little rides. I watched as Carl swung through the yard – what we called a yard. Nothing more than a stretch of about nine kinds of ‘ground cover’ Kathleen called it, that sloped down to the edge of a deck then to the dock itself and a set of steps leading to the beach. A couple hundred years ago the lake was a stop on the underground RR for fugitive slaves to fall into on their way to Canada. I imagined the poor devils coming across the lake in the near dark, stung shitless by mosquitos and black flies. Looking for a light signal from shore that would tell them they had found the safe house. They would run their sorry little boat or raft up onto the beach, which wasn’t really a beach at all (see that’s what I mean about words) and once in the water, they would find the bottom was a bunch of flat stones, almost like paving stones that had been laid in. They were moss bordered and slippery as snot, and Kathleen gave herself a nasty gash one year slipping on them and gouging her shin right down to the left front tibia (yeah I know that the tibia IS the one in front) right through her fair freckled skin on the Sunfish rack. But a few yards farther out where the baby was thrown in, the bottom changes to a loose soft sand, stained by the tannin in the water a dark, coppery brown.

He progressed more or less in even rows, transiting back and forth (I know there’s a better word for that) getting closer and closer to the deck. Denise and Kat had planted several big pots of flowers there. They looked real nice against the white deck. I don’t know what kind they were but they had some kind of blossom that was well known in the area for being rare and hard to grow and bloom. They were pink.

Bang. Carl ran hard in to the one nearest us. The pot didn’t break, but it spilled on its side and most of the flowers launched in to the lake. There must have been a dozen or so of these pink petals that were floating like little fairy boats on the water. Carl got off the mower and kicked the rest of the flowers and the pot; the whole thing, off the deck. Nobody else was around to see this, but he turned and looked around just in case, saw us, grinning and amazed, and gave us the old Spanish Shrug, as if to say, there you have it. I actually I thought it was pretty funny at the time, but I don’t anymore.

.

++

Sure, I get it. Everybody wants to know who a baby looks like. It is a subject of constant speculation. There is a guileless examination of the child; her eyes, her hair, the little vein on the bridge of her nose appearing through the translucent skin, the peaked ears. And beyond her physical appearance; her laugh, does she sleep well, demonstrate petulance or determination or is she easily frustrated, like Uncle Harry? We are pleased to determine that yes, indeed there is a family resemblance. But at the root of this is always the possibility, the suspicion, the unstated question in Carl’s mind; who did her mama? Who her daddy? Ooooo. Is that red hair? Nobody in the family has red hair for three generations. Ha ha. Better check the mailman. Aww. How sweet says Al the African American mailman, as he looks in to the bassinet. “At least she’s white.” As he slips a $50 dollar bill in to the bassinet.

This is as old as history; the desire to catch someone, to expose them is as powerful as the guileless curiosity – who do you think she looks like? But the question gets asked often and as the child grows, the physical similarities to dad better become obvious.

It’s hard enough if everything is on the up and up, mama and daddy are who you’d think them to be, who you’d expect them to be. But if question leads to suspicion and suspicion leads to what is euphemistically called a “curiosity test” and that test comes back “Chance of fatherhood” — ZERO. Now you got a situation. But this was before off-the-shelf Daddy kits. And polite people just did not speculate openly about such matters.
That the baby’s looks had become such a trigger for Carl was somewhat of a surprise to me. I knew Carl was edgy, drinking a bit and taken to leaning on the railing of the deck while we were barbecuing and snorting like a buck moose. Whatever he decided on the morning of the 9th of June at the cottage pretty much settles the question for him though. On that morning Kathleen was sitting on the porch of our cabin and saw Carl march down the dock and untie the boat and fire up the Merc. What she told me later was that from the swing of his shoulders and the heaviness in his tread that shook the dock you knew was pissed. About to show his ass.

The motor was usually obstinate; it rarely started on the first pull and was well known for it to require 10 or 12 shoulder jarring yanks to fire up. Not today. One pull and Carl roared off in the direction of the middle of the lake at full speed, throwing a sizable wake. Then he turned sharply, so sharply that I thought he would capsize, and headed back right at the dock, banking off at the last second and roaring back out into the lake. Kathleen stood up and started toward the dock, but stopped and instead said, “Harry! Come here! Something is happening with Carl.”

He repeated this maneuver twice; thrice, and then headed out maybe a quarter mile into the lake and cut the motor, or it stalled. By the time I got there, the morning once again became very quiet, and the call of the loons resumed. I heard a screen door slam and saw Denise coming out of the cabin and onto the dock, dressed only in baby doll pajamas and an open housecoat of some filmy material that flowed out around her in the onshore breeze. She was barefoot, and holding the baby on her hip most of the way out onto the dock, her voice breaking and wailing her husband’s name.

“Carrr-ul! Carl! Carl, God damn it!” Her voice echoed across the still lake. “Why are you doing this? Come and get your baby! Don’t do this! She IS yours…ohCarlplease! Please. This is your baby! This is our baby!”

Even from where I was I could hear the soulful, mournful tone of her entreaties.

The motor must have been idling, because as soon as he saw her come out he headed back without pulling the starting cord, the bow of the little boat cutting a white wake in the dark water of the lake. He was going too fast and for a moment it looked like he was going to come right over the swim platform, but he tacked over at the last second and cut back the throttle and started to glide alongside the dock. She held the baby out in front of her now, a tiny bundle loosely wrapped in a pink blanket. “Take her! Come take her! She’s yours! This is your baby, Carl! YOUR FUCKING BABY! Come and get her!”
At first I thought it was some sort of charade, a bit of theater they were performing for our benefit. It was something they were not unknown to do on occasion.

What appeared to happen next? Even now, there is some question in my mind as to whether she threw or dropped the baby. It looked like she threw it, pushing it out in front of her, and the tiny bundle flew in a shallow bow toward the boat and Carl; the blanket fluttering off and floating on the water. But maybe she tripped. No, she pushed the baby at Carl, in the general direction of the boat as it approached the dock. It was a baby, for Christ sake, a baby flying in a low arc about 10 feet out over the water and what crossed my mind? That it was a pretty good throw for a girl. She threw it like a girl does a basketball from the foul line, but with less height. For a second I thought that the baby would land in the boat which was rapidly approaching the dock, but spinning slightly (she must have pushed harder with her right arm) it followed a shallow crescent trajectory. It didn’t make a sound that I heard, but its arms shot out wide in that startle reflex they have when they realize they are falling. It landed in the water with a flat splash, on its back. She disappeared almost immediately, sinking out of sight under the dark water. The pink blanket floated on the surface. The water was still disturbed from Carl’s antics, and little waves from the boat’s wake were now lapping gently at the shore.

Denise sank or fell to her knees and put her hands palm down on the dock and hung her head down between her shoulders. I imagined her to be sobbing, but I could not tell. I got up and started to move toward the dock. It seemed like I was trying to move through some sort of thick air, or run with elephant feet. I wasn’t sure if I was in a dream.

A lot of things went wrong that made a big difference. The bottom was all chewed up from Carl’s digging in that little Merc and tearing around the dock. The baby sank. I thought babies floated. I’ve seen picture of little babies thrown in swimming pools and pictures taken with Go Pros underneath the water show the little critters swimming like frogs. Not this one. Carl and I kept ducking down under the chest deep water looking for the baby. I was afraid I might step on her. Denise’s continual screaming didn’t help, and neither did Kat’s bossy instructions on where to look. And then when we did find her, she looked so bad that we didn’t do any CPR on her. Not that anybody knew how to do it anyway.

It was Carl who found his daughter and wrapped her back up in her pink blanket that was still floating next to the dock. And then he waded over to the dock and offered her back up to Denise. I think it was the first time he had ever held her. She just nodded at him and then sat on the edge of the swim platform holding her until the cops came. Anyone could tell that the baby had just died there.

Denise and the baby didn’t seem real. Carl didn’t seem real, sitting there on the dock next to Denise. Kathleen didn’t seem real. And I definitely didn’t feel real. The dock and the boat and the cottage – all these it felt like I was looking at them for the very first time; that those things themselves had actually just appeared from out of nowhere and not me not you not anybody had ever seen them before.

It was a horrible tragedy we all agreed. A terrible accident. A young mom trips on the dock and just like that. Boom. A little boy burned up at a fireworks display over on the point a few years ago. Ten thousand people die in an earthquake in Chile. These things happen. And we were all in agreement to that. Just horrible. And it seems just as horrible to me today, even though babies don’t seem as important as they were then.

Carl waved off the waitress who had come around with the coffee pot. Carl said he heard on CNN that it was now OK in certain states for doctors to kill a baby that survived an abortion.

“They have to ask the mom first though.” He said. Then playing the part of the doctor he said, “Are you sure you don’t want this baby, ma’am? Because, umm, we didn’t quite get rid of it for you. So if you changed your mind and want it now, you can still have it. Or we can finish it off for y’all like you wanted in the first place.”

There were a number of options open to Carl when Denise died two years ago; an infinite number, really, if the truth were ever to be known (it won’t). All equally good and bad. So no difference. In out. Up down. He did what was written, looking back. He sold the excavating business in Detroit. “Abandons” is perhaps a more accurate description. He was broken with drink, all fucked up and without successors. He liquidates the inventory and sells the equipment at auction. Each of his other two step-sisters urge him to move to their respective towns, where they say they can care for him and frankly, align themselves properly for the distribution of his estate, when the time comes. He’s the only one in the family with any wealth, so I get that.

He loves his sisters, but can’t brook the liberal politics of the older one and her husband, who live in Wyoming, Michigan. A town that doesn’t know if it is a state or a city. The younger sister Mary (or Mercedes as she is known professionally these days) lives in New York City, and makes a handsome income by “camming”, an activity the exact duties of which Carl is unsure of. Whatever “camming’ is, her calls asking for money have stopped. Even though his emotional compatibility with her is far greater than with the older sister, New York has only slightly more appeal as a domicile to him than hell, and is equally retributive. Not to mention what he suspects the nature of her career to be. So he stays up north; lives at the lake all year round in that tiny cottage, where a baby who was or wasn’t his daughter drowned so many years ago.

We pay our bills and stand outside trying to get out of this mood, not doing really well, and that song came on again through the outdoor speakers, and made me think of Kat and how much I loved her and how much I miss her and how there is nobody in my life now I can talk to the way I talked to her and probably never will be. Probably never was.

I can feel my bones in my body and I do not like the feeling. I can feel them moving inside their sinews; slipping along the musculature. I can feel them when resting on hard surfaces. I am afraid they will turn to jelly. That they will liquefy and I will not be able to stand. Or that they will become rubbery and cause me to walk in a rolling gait, willing my muscles and tendons to hold them straight. I start to cry like an old man does; constricted throat, wheezing, and more dampening of the eyes than actual tears, than actual bawling. Carl doesn’t notice.

Words are so raw, so fluid. So many things could happen now depending on how well we love, or are loved. Eventually, none of it will really matter. But there was all that that happened, apparently. And what had to be said. And for now, it seems so important. We’re just left starving in this mystery.

I looked at Carl and saw him without thought rubbing the tattoo. There was a bit of flecking on his cheek. We heard something dying down by the lake, like it was being strangled. A rabbit maybe, although they tend to scream.

H. Scott Derkin

Copyright 2019

 

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

 

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

Eulogy for Bruce

We are born and we die. Whether or not we go on after we die is the question of the ages. What does our life mean? That we are loved by God. Where is that meaning held? It is held in the hearts of those who love us. It is played out in the lives of those we come to know.

Our love for Bruce could not prevent his death. If so, he would be alive today, because he was loved by each of us in turn. Our natural feeling at this time is to search ourselves in fear of finding some failing; some action that we could have taken that would have caused him to recover. We ought not to hold that.

“When a friend is carried to his grave, we at once find excuses for every weakness, and palliations of every fault; we recollect a thousand endearments which before glided off our minds without impression, a thousand favors unrepaid, a thousand duties unperformed, and wish, vainly wish for his return, not so much that we may receive, as that we may bestow happiness, and recompense that kindness which before we never understood.”

– Samuel Johnson

His affliction, his devastating weakness, is the same as mine and thousands of others. That Bruce was ultimately unable to elude its grip is a testament to the nature of our enemy: cunning, baffling and powerful.

 Let us not regret the way he died but remember the way he lived.

I will forever be grateful to have known Bruce. I will forever be grateful that Bruce was there at the right times and places in my life:  My first days at University in 1963. During the ups and downs of my courtship with the girl who is still the love of my life. At my marriage. And at my fledgling company when I needed his help. I will forever be grateful for having a friend like him.

I met Bruce when I was 18 years old, a university freshman. We were both pledges of a social fraternity. On the road to becoming active members, he and I met another guy named Ed and we all became fast friends.

From the beginning Bruce was looked up to as the leader of our troika. He was the oldest by a couple years and for me, a Toledo boy straight out of high school, he was the epitome of the urbane east coast preppie.

Solid and self-assured, charming and smart.

He was devilishly handsome, knowledgeable about cars, clothes and girls. It was with Bruce that I made my first visit to New York City and was introduced to some of its pleasures.

He was like a big brother to me.  He was Holden Caulfield and Mr. Lucky rolled into one.

For all his urbanity, Bruce was always tremendously solicitous of friends and would listen patiently to school problems, girl problems and whatever else. Another friend from those days, remembered Bruce as “very put together”. He said “The Bruce I knew could have done anything.”

As the sixties wore on the halcyon days became fewer and fewer. These were times of expanding options and consciousness.

Before decisions that seemed good at the time took us apart, Bruce was a groomsman at my wedding. We still have the sterling silver candlesticks and platter that he gave us.

Ed remembers that Bruce, for as down to earth as he was, had the soul of a true spiritual seeker. When the college offered a course in Comparative religion – unusual for a public university in those days – Bruce was among the first to register for it.

Of the three of us, Ed was the only one to complete his degree at that time, and, graduating with an ROTC commission did a tour of duty in the Army. I had a deferment, but Bruce was vulnerable to the draft and on leaving school at that time, joined a National Guard Unit back in his home state of New Jersey.

Ed often joked that due to Bruce’s service with the guard during the civil disturbances in Newark, Bruce got shot at more than most guys who went to Viet Nam.

Another fraternity brother who was also from New Jersey spent a lot of time with Bruce during his time back home. Bruce was a frequent visitor at his home, and Goody told me the other night that his Mom adored Bruce. “Bruce was always doing things for people – if he could help you in any way he would. He fixed practically every appliance in my Mom’s home – broken lamps, toasters – even her TV.”

My life path took me away from Toledo, even as Bruce returned. A decade or more elapsed before I would return to Toledo and renew our friendship. We remained in touch over the years meeting for lunches and getting together from time to time. Bruce was sober in those days, and I was not. He saved a chair for me in the rooms, and when I had finally had enough of me in January of 1989, he was there.

All his friends speak of his kindness and sincerity. His openness about his own struggles. His genuine concern for others and offers of friendship. His frankness about his spiritual quest.

Again his ‘handiness’ is often commented on. One friend recalled how Bruce came to his house and ‘tuned’ the exhaust on his Harley Davidson motorcycle so expertly that he didn’t need to take it to the shop. Another spoke to me after the meeting of Bruce’s wood-working skills in carving and finishing a gunstock.

In 1991 I left a family business I had been part of. After a couple of years learning that I was basically unemployable, I ventured to start up a business of my own. At the time Bruce was selling for another company and an arrangement was made whereby he came on board with me, “just to help out”. Soon he became a solid part of what I was doing.

My daughter recalls Bruce at that time as being suave and debonair – classic Bruce.

In one particularly notable deal, Bruce closed a large sale with a German company who had found us on line. The owner of the company came from Germany to visit us and somehow Bruce managed to carry off the illusion that we were a robust international sales company. He decorated the office with German flags and our new customer left happy.

But storm clouds were appearing. Bruce’s struggles with depression were reaching a point where his effectiveness required what I hoped would be a temporary separation. It was not to be. Nonetheless we remained close during a difficult time in his life.

I would be wholly remiss if I did not speak of Bruce’s love of family. How often did he share deeply with me his concerns for, his love and pride of his children? His beautiful daughter and his wonderful son.

How passionately would he describe his hopes and dreams for them, and admit his shortcomings! But overall I have not known; I cannot count among my friends a more devoted and loving father.

Bruce touched many lives. That ultimately he was unable to accept in God and others the love that he showed so many is a great tragedy. Yet I know that he told me in his last letter from Glenbeigh that he was beginning to know his Higher Power.

And I know that Higher Power. And I know that once called upon, He does not leave us, even – especially – when we are unable to carry on as we ought.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

 – Psalm 34:18

And this; another Johnson quote.  He was a man especially intimate with the nature of friendship:

“Let us … make haste to do what we shall certainly at last wish to have done; let us return the caresses of our friends, and endeavour by mutual endearments to heighten that tenderness which is the balm of life. Let us be quick to repent of injuries while repentance may not be barren anguish, and let us open our eyes to every rival excellence, and pay early and willingly those honours which justice will compel us to pay at last.”

Bruce – “May the LORD watch between you and me when we’re unable to see each other.”

– Genesis 31:49

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?

On Sadness

“Why is it that men enjoy feeling sad at the sight of tragedy and suffering on the stage although they would be most unhappy if they had to endure the same fate themselves? Yet they watch the plays because they hope to be made to feel sad, and the feeling of sorrow is what they enjoy. What miserable delirium this is! The more a man is subject to such suffering himself, the more easily he is moved by it in the theatre. Yet when he suffers himself, we call it misery; when he suffers out of sympathy for others, we call it pity. But what kind of pity can we really feel for an imaginary scene on the stage. The audience is not called upon to offer help but only to feel sorrow, and the more they are pained the more they applaud the author. Whether this human agony is based on fact or is simply imaginary, if it is acted so badly that the audience is not moved to sorrow, they leave the theater in a disgruntled and critical mood; whereas if they are made to feel pain they stay to the end watching happily.

This shows that sorrow and tears can be enjoyable. Of course everyone wants top be happy; but even if no one likes being sad, is there just the one exception that, because we enjoy pitying others, we welcome their misfortunes, without which we could not pity them? If so, it is because friendly feeling well up in us like waters of a spring. But what course do these waters follow? Where do they flow? Why do they trickle away to join that stream of boiling pitch, the hideous flood of lust? For by their own choice they lose themselves and become absorbed in it. They are diverted from their true course and deprived of their heavenly calm.

Of course this does not mean that we must arm ourselves against compassion. There are times when we must welcome sorrow on behalf of others. But for the sake of our souls we must be ware of uncleanness. My God must be the keeper of my soul, the God of our fathers, who is to be exalted and extolled for evermore. My soul must guard against uncleanness.

I am not nowadays insensible to pity. But in those days I used to share the joy of stage lovers and their sinful pleasure in each other even though it was all done in make-believe for the sake of entertainment; and when they were parted, pity of a sort led me to share their grief. I enjoyed both the emotions equally. But now I feel more pity for a man who is happy in his sins than for one who has to endure the ordeal of forgoing some harmful pleasure or being deprived of some enjoyment which was really an affliction. Of the two this sort of pity is the more genuine, but the sorrow which it causes is not a source of pleasure. For although a man who is sorry for the sufferings of others deserves praise for his charity, nevertheless if his pity is genuine, he would prefer that there should be no cause for his sorrow. If the impossible could happen and kindness were unkind man whose sense of purity was true and sincere might want others to suffer so he could pity them. Sorrow may therefore be commendable, but never desirable. For it is impossible to stab you Lord God, and this is why the love you bear for our souls and the compassion you feel for them are pure and unalloyed, far purer than the love and pity we feel for ourselves. But who can prove himself worthy of such a calling?

However in those unhappy days I enjoyed the pangs of sorrow. I always looked for tings to wring my heart and the more tears an actor caused me to shed by his performance on the stage even though he was portraying the imaginary distress of others, the more delightful and attractive I found it. Was it any wonder that I, the unhappy sheep who strayed from your flock, impatient of your shepherding became infected with a loathsome mange? Hence my love of things which made me sad. I did not seek the kind of sorrow which would wound me deeply, for I had no wish to endure the sufferings which I saw on stage; but I enjoyed the fables and fictions, which could only graze the skin. But where fingers scratch, the skin becomes inflamed. It swells and festers with hideous pus. And the same happened to me. Could the life I led be called the true life, my God?”

Saint Augustine, CONFESSIONS
Book III; Chapter 2
Translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin

Just in time for St. Augustine Day, June 15. Laboriously, lovingly transcribed by yours truly. This, like much in “Confessions” so true and impossible at the same time. At least for the heart today. “Could the life I led be called the true life, my God?” Got a better question? Let’s hear it.

On Friendship

“Let us … make haste to do what we shall certainly at last wish to have done; let us return the caresses of our friends, and endeavour by mutual endearments to heighten that tenderness which is the balm of life. Let us be quick to repent of injuries while repentance may not be barren anguish, and let us open our eyes to every rival excellence, and pay early and willingly those honours which justice will compel us to pay at last.” – Dr Samuel Johnson