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Detroit City Blues

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.

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

“Once you are alive, you can never be dead.” – Tim O’Brien*

Somehow, I have expected to see more about 521 out there in the general culture. I have seen a couple copies of news articles from mainstream media; “Christian sect plans for end of world” type of thing, and one article from a San Francisco newspaper; an interview with HC (Harold Camping) that starts “HC chuckles when asked what he thinks about the prediction that the world will end in December 2012 with the end of the Mayan calendar.” Or something like that.

And I heard Garrison Keillor last night on the assiduously broadcast Prairie Home Companion do a skit about the rapture. “Theological Mystery Theater”. He always does something about the Christian faith. This show also included “Do Not Pass Me By” (an old gospel tune), and Brad Paisley singing one of his own ‘gospel’ tunes.

I do not know if it was an old show, or if it was in any way influenced by HC’s prediction. Probably not. In fact I only heard part of it. But I was struck by his interesting take on who was taken and who was left. Seemed like all the liberals were taken; and the narrator ironically aghast that they were raptured and the conservative Christians were left behind. I’ll have to listen to the repeat of the show today and see if that was the drift. I’m probably right. But anyway, it seems kind of like what CS Lewis was trying to get across in The Great Divorce, where a character in the book finally makes it to heaven and is met by someone he knew from life on earth to bring him across, and refuses to go with him because he felt that he was better than his heavenly guide; who after all had been guilty of manslaughter on Earth, and he wasn’t about to go to heaven with a, a murderer.

Goes to the point about God saving who he wants to save, I guess, and “man judges by the outward appearance and God by the inward”. Another mysterious epigram that has discomfited me ever since I heard it as a youth.

We’re getting so close now that the date is starting to crop up in schedules. I have already mentioned my wife’s retirement date falling after 521, and what a disappointment it will be to her to be cheated of her retirement, one way or another. (I think she is saved, though.)

Yesterday I was talking with my daughter and planning a party for C’s retirement. Guess what date is looking like the best date for the party? When I gave an audible snort at the mention of the date, my precious daughter, so sensitive to her crazy daddy’s every nuance of expression and mood, said “What? What about May 21?”

“I didn’t say anything about it.”

“You snorted. You made that little snorty noise you make when you think something is funny or annoying.”

“Yeah, well, that’s the date that HC has predicted for the rapture.”

“Oh brother.”

And that was the end of it. She is a highly intelligent and educated young woman, and has decided by now (she is 30) to not delve into her daddy’s curious and sometimes troubling preoccupations. To her credit.

So what does one so convoluted as I do when that date comes up as a possibility to schedule something? Do I believe or do I not, that the rapture of the saints will occur on 521? If I really believed it, I don’t think I would bother to schedule anything. In fact, if I REALLY believed it I guess I would be “blowing the trumpet” with Camping’s troops. So, like everything else in my life, I am of two minds. At least. In fact, do I believe or not in Jesus Christ, in the gospel as presented in the bible? Yes, no; yes with qualification. “Lord I believe, help you my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)

Then there is my brother M’s scheduled flight (with his wife) to Mexico on 521. His daughter is getting married there; a ‘destination wedding’. Don’t know what that is? I didn’t either. It’s an idea popular among the well-heeled young, where the couple picks a romantic spot to tie the knot far away from home, and guests are invited to the exotic (the more exotic the better) location to celebrate with them.

The only destination available at the time of C’s and my wedding was the austere little Baptist family church, where we were lucky to make it on time, with vicious hangovers from a night of wedding party carousing on the eve of our nuptials.

I have read, but cannot attest positively as to the authenticity of this quote, that Jung, when asked by some smug grad student if the great psychologist and thinker actually believed in God, said “No.”

The interviewer was pleased with this answer; until Jung went on to say “No, I do not merely believe in God. I know him.”

That strikes a very deep chord in me, and I reflect on the two occasions I have had in my life when I felt I actually knew God, occasions when I was so helpless and crushed that upon crying out to God for mercy and help, the presence of a loving power so much greater than micelf made Himself very much known to me. And, frankly, it is the recall of those two experiences that give me the most comfort, the most assurance, if you will of the possibility that I may escape damnation.

A fear of damnation is, I admit, not the least thing on my mind as the date approaches. I wonder what Dr. Johnson would have said about Judgment Day being so specifically predicted and so close at hand? I know he had this to say about damnation:

“Dr. Johnson surprised [Mr. Henderson] not a little, by acknowledging with a look of horrour, that he was much oppressed by the fear of death. The amiable Dr. Adams suggested that God was infinitely good. Johnson: “That he is infinitely good, as far as the perfection of his nature will allow, I certainly believe; but it is necessary for good upon the whole, that individuals should be punished. As to an individual, therefore, he is not infinitely good; and as I cannot be sure that I have fulfilled the conditions on which salvation is granted, I am afraid I may be one of those who shall be damned” (looking dismally). Dr. Adams: “What do you mean by damned?” Johnson: (passionately and loudly) “Sent to Hell, Sir, and punished everlastingly.” Dr. Adams: “I don’t believe that doctrine.” Johnson: “Hold, Sir; do you believe that some will be punished at all?” Dr. Adams: “Being excluded from Heaven will be a punishment; yet there may be no great positive suffering.” Johnson: “Well, Sir; but if you admit any degree of punishment, there is an end of your argument for infinite goodness simply considered; for, infinite goodness would inflict no punishment whatever. There is not infinite goodness physically considered; morally there is.” Boswell: “But may not a man attain to such a degree of hope as not to be uneasy from the fear of death?” Johnson: “A man may have such a degree of hope as to keep him quiet. You see I am not quiet, from the vehemence with which I talk; but I do not despair.” Mrs. Adams: You seem, Sir, to forget the merits of our Redeemer.” Johnson: “Madam, I do not forget the merits of my Redeemer; but my Redeemer has said that he will set some on his right hand and some on his left.” He was in gloomy agitation, and said, “I’ll have no more on’t.”
Boswell: Life

I hope you read that carefully.

Now, if I am to understand HC, there is one thing in his system that sounds sort of like an escape hatch for the unsaved. Just this; that the unsaved are not doomed to an eternal torment in hell, as orthodox Christianity seems to teach, but simply that they will cease to exist.

Oblivion. Of course, this is hell for Johnson, the thought of oblivion is a hell on earth for him: “No wise man will be contented to die, if he thinks he is to go into a state of punishment. Nay, no wise man will be contented to die, if he thinks he is to fall into annihilation: for however unhappy any man’s existence may be, he yet would rather have it, than not exist at all. No, there is no rational principle by which a man can die contented, but a trust in the mercy of God, through the merits of Jesus Christ.” Boswell: Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides

Others, such as my brother M. have offered this opinion about that: “Oblivion doesn’t sound too bad to me.” I guess it all depends on how you value life on this plane; if you feel cheated by this little brief fling between two great darkness’s being all there is, like my friend Bobby Ray.

Me, I still ain’t sure.

OK, next time, then, the The Lamed-Vovnik, and their possible role.

*Tim O’Brien is the author of several books about his experiences in Vietnam. This is a quote from “The Things They Carried”

Final Thoughts

If 521 really is the day of judgment, then it is the biggest  thing in the history of the, well, I was going to say universe. Bigger than creation? I dunno. But big. Really big. I was surprised to see the signs in NYC. NYC! Not really so much surprised as disappointed. I was kind of hoping for a respite. The wondering; wondering if it is true at all. What if it is a few days off? M says that it would be just like “that jolly old jokester” to come back a day earlier or later than predicted.

Camping does seem like, that is to say when I hear him and watch him, as I did on TV in NYC, he seems like, well, if not crazy, at least something seems off. He almost seems dangerous.

He is not lovable, at least in the media. I have read that he has a gentle, humble appearance. One thing I was thinking was that he seemed frail. And old.

And then I think that maybe this whole thing – all his years of study and developing this theory – comes from his own fear of death. Then I read just that on some blog somewhere.

There are a lot of people fretting over this thing. Whatever is going on, it is spiritual and it seems imminent.

So. Four days off. I will say that it is cause  to inspect one’s own internal spiritual landscape. I would not as I told J today, talk to anyone in an evangelical sense about this. I guess that is an indication that I do not really believe it. I certainly would not want to be among those using it as an evangelical tool (“tool.” Ha.) And if 521 passes and nothing happens, then what? It does not mean that the hope of Christianity is over. I will still believe in the work of Jesus to save humanity.

I belive His work is universal, not only for those who believe in a certain way. There is the rub. Nobody can quite agree on what the Bible has to say about that. Just how is one saved? And from what? I know the PFEC community I grew up in was/is sure that they have it right. And there is pretty widespread agreement amongst the varying divisions of that following on certain basic tenets – that Jesus is God, that He came to save us, that He did it by dying on a cross and being resurrected from death; He conquered death that had been imposed on us (the human race) as a penalty for our sins; our mistakes, our utterly depraved hearts.

There is a lot of scripture slinging that goes on on all sides. “Read it for yourself” I am told. I have. I do not read the Bible much lately. I do read scripture almost everyday. It comes to me in the email. I do find comfort in scripture. There are also a lot of what I call hard teachings that do talk about hell. Those make it seem that there is a strong likelihood of pretty much everyone going there except some very few true and very righteous believers. But there are plenty of examples of God’s mercy and love too. I am depending on the mercy and love part. Give me Mercy over Justice any day.

So, C has retired and she is pretty cute about it. Clearly she would be pissed to have that cut short on 5/21. But wouldn’t one as a true Christian be rejoicing in the thought that instead of slogging through another 15 or 20 years of life here on the planet, she  (and I, hopefully) would ‘be caught up in the air to meet our Lord’?

I am not too eager to meet Jesus because I feel like I have been such a bad guy. So unfaithful, so weak. So doubtful. I guess I am not alone in that. I was reading about the apostles in Gethsemane and Peter’s lack of faith. It is wearying, trying to be good. Look, I may not live long enough to get any better. Let go and let God?  I do want to but there is a sinew in me that resists it for some reason. Pride? Have I just too many fatal flaws?

God, please show up. I give. I will not question you any more. I will not question that you are in charge of my life and in fact of the whole universe. Give me the peace to rest in the comfort of your love. Let me know your love. Anne Lamott says she has only three prayers: PLEASE. THANK YOU. And WOW. I got three too: Please, show me how to do this. Thank you, Jesus. And – I am so tired.

The end of the day, the beginning of the evening. Writing to nobody. Looking through piles of scrap paper that represent what I jokingly refer to as ‘notes’. Pieces of paper that I think are important, that contain thoughts I have had or notes I have taken and mostly forgotten what they mean. Names and phone numbers written down that I can’t remember anything about them. Some I look up: one such piece of paper held the words scrawled at the top “SIMNEL CAKE”. Looked it up on BING. It is a fancy almond paste marzipan type cake used for celebration in England. I wrote it down when talking to L, who told me that she was making one for Easter, I think, and made me promise to “tell Mom”. I didn’t, but I think she did. You get the idea. Trash. Here’s a couple:

What if I AM taken?

Who will take care of Dylan?

Not going to talk much about these lines. Except to say that JD told me today that he saw a headline in the local paper that said “Atheist Will Care For Raptured Saints Pets: $350 In Advance”.  You can’t make this stuff up.

Prayasyou-go.com

This is from PW. A worship and meditative web site. Taize. That too. Check it out. As Art said “I cain’t describe.”

Talked to M.

Bottom line for him he said, was he hoped that “ God heard that little chubby 9 year old that prayed the sinners prayer. Just like the little skinny 9 year old Hindu boy who prayed the same prayer.”

“I’m not Hindu.” I said.

Then he said he was going to break one of his cardinal rules.

“Which one?’ I said. “Never take a shit in the  mens room at a bar?”

“No” he said. “Never tell a joke on a cell phone.”

Then he proceeded to tell me a joke about a moth who went in to a podiatrists office. The moth was mentally disturbed. The podiatrist said why me, why not a shrink? Punch line the moth: “Your light was on”.

We laughed til we choked.

I told him about thinking a lot about John Cougar Mellencamp’s line “life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.” He sang a few of the other lines. I said I really liked the part of life being a thrill. He said sometimes it isn’t. I said it is a choice.

Then I told him about the Zen story I heard where life is like a river falling over a cliff – in the waterfall the separated droplets represent conscious life, while the river before and after the cliff represent the flow of all life.

He liked that.

Zen. I hear a lot of purported ‘Zen’ and ‘Buddhist’ crap quoted and talked about. Like what I just wrote about. I think it sounds really great and insightful and ever so spiritually in-tune. And then I think: hey! Aren’t those the guys in the orange robes who set themselves on fire?

Today on the way back to the shop, I was listening to a show on radio – the “Mutual Fund” show – And the guy said in signing off – “There is a fella who has spent his entire retirement – $140K on billboards announcing the end of the world next week, Saturday May 21st, 2011.

Of course, as a follower of that irksome prediction, I know that 521  isn’t the EOTW but rather Judgment day; the EOTW isn’t until October. ” So if this guy is correct”, he said. I will not be on the air next week.” He said it pretty deadpan, although I could tell he didn’t really believe it, nor was he a student of it, like I am.

I called M. I told him about the guys comment. I wondered if he heard it too, because he listens to the same show sometimes.

“No, I didn’t hear it. I’m not surprised though.”

“Yeah,” I said, “I am.” I am surprised at the extent that it – the prediction – has seeped in to the culture.

Practically everyone you talk to has heard about it.

Then I told him the joke about what Japanese men do when they have an erection: They vote.  He liked that one.

I told him about my dualism, my belief being on a switch that I sometimes control, sometimes don’t. How this morning making tea I heard myself humming the lyrics to Lennon’s “God” – “I don’t believe in Buddha, I don’t believe in Jesus”.

Interesting that I should be humming that instead of some praise song or hymn. But does it really indicate the state of my belief? I think not.

I speculated about the angels ratting me out to the Lord: “Lord, Lord; guess what SD is doing now? That’s right, humming heretical songs! By John Lennon!”

M talked about how he is reading “His Utmost for His Highest”, a devotional book by some famous preacher. And today’s reading said something about belief not being enough to get you into heaven.

What is enough I said? Maybe trust. Total submission. OK God I give up. I think that is much more important. I can’t add anything to the process of salvation. If I could then I would be god.

There was a pause I the conversation.

I said: “I have to say something.”

What?

“His Utmost for His buttmost.”

Gales of laughter.

“Ok, that’s it. We have determined your spiritual condition.”, he said.

I said,”Yeah the angels have another one to report me on.”

“Oh that one’s skipping the angels entirely, and going directly to the Lord.”

There was also the  reference to “sitting in the seat of the scornful.”

I told him the  Helen Keller Joke; why does she masturbate with one hand? So she can moan with the other.

I think that is where we left it.

OK, I’ve had it:

New York’s View

The Tri-State Area will get two opportunities to see Endeavour flying with the ISS. The first will come on Saturday The Tri-State Area will get two opportunities to see Endeavour flying with the ISS. The first will come on Saturday morning, just over 9 and a half hours after both vehicles have undocked; so they will still be relatively close to each other. The two spacecraft will emerge from out of the Earth’s shadow at 5:21 a.m. EST, at an altitude of 18-degrees above the north-northwest horizon. morning, just over 9 and a half hours after both vehicles have undocked; so they will still be relatively close to each other. The two spacecraft will emerge from out of the Earth’s shadow at 5:21 a.m. EST, at an altitude of 18-degrees above the north-northwest horizon.

From http://www.haydenplanetarium.org/blog/tags/space-shuttle

This after reading some citizen’s blog that they thought it a possibility that the shuttle, knowing that 5/21 was, well, what Camping says it is, is actually carrying “mother Nature’s silver seed” as NY put it, to “a new home in the sun”.

Really, I think this will about do it for me. Probably won’t get another post in before 521.

I am chairing at my meeting Saturday, so we should know by then. HC says the earthquakes should start about 2:00 AM EST, in Australia, and work their way around the world. By meeting time they should be about to Israel.

I kid you not.

Hippie and Ellen

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

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

“What doesn’t?” Dean says.

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

Ellen’s eyes narrow in Dean’s direction.

“You’re an asshole, Dean.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Here. I gotta hit the head.”

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

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

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

She reaches for the toilet paper and wipes herself.

“Well?”

“Mace! Let’s split, man!”

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

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

Dean looks at him over the rim of his sunglasses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You look good tonight, baby.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lester’s High

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

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

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

Dean laughed at me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click.

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

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

He is remorseless.

Time to go Dean says.

For Chuck

Dear tender heart, dear restless soul

How hard it is to let thee go

Your murmured prayers

Our bitter tears

Seem helpless ‘neath the hammered blows

The last long moments, tended sure

By angels holding Father’s face

To see thy limbs,

Thy heart, thy self

Be healed by such costly Grace.

And now we yearn, and weep and rage

Our grief aroused until ‘tis spent

Exhausted thus

At last we know

Redeemed, remade thou didst present

For Chuck Parker

2012

Thanks to MD

The Dream Crab

The dream crab told me

“You and all the other weeping women must die.”

God forgive me, but is this the

Same creature who not so long ago said I was the only one,

The one and only, the one and only one whom ever could ever be

Once and for all part and all,

Answer and question

And now because I weep I must die?

All is loneliness.

Forgive me, but this does not seem fair.

I have no longer tits to suckle; this is why

I weep.

He Crept

He crept down back stairs

Screen door

Little metal hook

Went outside

Dog followed.

He stepped on wet grass

Stopped

Felt gun’s weight in hand.

“Don’t know why I have to be so quiet,

As if I can hide.”

Shot dog

Then himself

Wouldn’t have worked any other way.

May 28, 2009

Laurel and Stewart

Laurel

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s All Part of The Plan

I told my brother today about the End Of The World (EOTW). Specificially “The Rapture” as predicted by Harold Camping. Of “Family” Radio.

“So what’s gonna happen if C (my wife) is raptured and you ain’t? It’ll be like, ‘Hey! Where’s C? Hey! Don’t leave without me! Come back!’”

“Yeah, very funny.” I said.

OK, maybe I have decided that I will get a new car before 521. At least if something does happen, I will have the car for a few weeks and then I won’t have to pay for it. From the sounds of it, though, that will be cold comfort. Here’s what happens to those left behind according to Harold (henceforth ATH). This is rough:

The Non-Elect Who Are Still Alive on May 21, 2011
“This group of people, which is very large, normally would have heard the warning that the end of the world is almost here. Yet they paid no attention to it. They paid no attention to it because they did not believe that the Bible is the Word of God. Or they paid no attention to the warning because they implicitly trusted the teachings of their church, that is, Christ would come as a thief in the night, and therefore, they need not be concerned with what they believed were false teachings about the return of Christ. Or more likely, in their love for this world, they paid no attention to the warning because they did not want this world to end.
For more than 1,900 years, the Bible taught that Christ would come as a thief in the night, and He has not come. Therefore, many people think it is reasonable to believe that He will not come to end this world for at least another 100 years or more. Thus, they can be assured that they will continue to enjoy this world throughout their normally expected lifetime. But when an exact date is given, a date that is only a few years in the future, that is completely unacceptable to them. Therefore, they absolutely do not want to listen to the information we have now received from the Bible.
As additional punishment for the people who have heard the warning and refused to heed it, this group of people will enter, physically alive, into the horrible five-month period called the Day of Judgment, which begins with the rapture of the true believers on May 21, 2011. They will see people being raptured while they are left behind. They will be weeping and gnashing their teeth at God in anger. Moreover, for a period of five months, they will be subject to grievous pain caused by plagues that will begin with a huge earthquake that will occur on the first day. If they die during this five-month period, and a great many probably will, their dead bodies will litter the ground. Finally, on October 21, 2011, the whole universe, including the earth and all its works, will be burned up, and they will never again become alive.”
-From Chapter 5 of “To God Be the Glory!” by HC

I told you this would be rough. I do have, not surprisingly, a few comments about this selection. I am intrigued about HC’s use of the word “normally” in the very first sentence. “Normally” they would have heard the warning? As if they just weren’t paying attention this time (were there other times?)?

The reasons he gives are really not simple distractions, like being stoned – clearly Dr. Hook and The Medicine Show will have missed the warning – or having to work, or falling asleep during that part of the show. The reasons he gives are much more deliberate and arrogant: disbelief, listening to the teachings of that great whore, The Church, and simply, love of life and this world.

As if it were not enough punishment to be left behind, to see all (some of) your friends, and maybe people you would have never imagined in a million years be among the elect and get taken up to heaven in a cloud of glory; did you get the part about the left-behinds having to endure a 5 month period of the worst kind of nastiness, with “grievous pain caused by plagues that will begin with a huge earthquake that will occur on the first day.”?

The earthquake is a nice touch and a little bit freaky in light of the number of online references to the New Madrid Fault, the recent increasing seismic and other weird activity along that fault line, and the plans FEMA has for a mid-May 2011 “earth quake disaster exercise”. I’ll leave you to follow your own path of misery in the search engines and to wade through the stuff you find, and to determine for yourself what to make of it.

Potentially even more disturbing is the stuff that HC lays out in a section of this pamphlet (available online; go getcha one – http://www.glorytogod.co/) that sounds a whole lot like zombies:

The Resurrection of the Unsaved Dead
“We have learned that when a non-elect person dies, he is dead both in body and in soul. Moreover, he will never again come to life. The Bible nowhere speaks of the unsaved who have died as ever living again. But there are a few verses that at least infer that they will live again so that they can further experience the wrath of God. We should carefully examine these verses. We will learn that these verses show us how shame on the unsaved continues all the way to the last day of this world’s existence.”

He goes on from here with a bunch of Bible verses that don’t really clear things up for me as to what the unsaved dead will be like when they are resurrected, or if (in contradiction to the header of this section) they will be alive at all. Mainly just that they will be “shamed” by their corruptibility. If you’re dead, how can you feel shame? I have heard of “dying of shame” and being “‘bout shamed to death.” Usually accompanied by a back of the hand to the forehead and a rolling of the eyes, but I don’t think that is what is in view here.

I also want to say that it is kind of funny how spell check wants to change ‘raptured’ into ‘ruptured’.

Still want to get to: The Lamed-Vovnik, and their possible role.

Every Bird Must Fly

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toledo Man Big Fat Liar

TOLEDO MAN BIG FAT LIAR
Obsessive compulsions distress friends – ruin holiday

(June 28, 2002) – A vacationing man from Toledo, Ohio has caused heartbreak and distrust among his family and friends, ruining what was otherwise an idyllic OBX holiday. His misrepresentation of facts regarding a tragic accident in Rodanthe has left several Columbus, Ohio couples and their children in a state of shocked disbelief.

HS Derkin, 42, of Toledo, Ohio reportedly lied about the incident as he and two Columbus, Ohio couples were wrapping up their stay at a summer cottage in Rodanthe.

“We all had seen the helicopters flying over the beach and seen the rescuers searching for someone the night before we had to leave. All we asked Derkin to do was check at the realty office next day when he dropped off the key to see what had happened.” said TF, 65, of Columbus.

Apparently the report Derkin got from the agent (later proved false as well) was unsatisfying and he felt compelled to embellish what was already an untruth.

“Yeah, well, Derkin – if that’s his real name – came back with this story about two guys down the beach having a beef and challenging each other to a swimming contest.” said Mrs. TF. “I should have known. The man is incapable of telling the truth – like most men. The day before he had told me that a man who had been pulled form the surf almost drowned had his legs bitten off by a shark. I just don’t think that is funny in the least.”

Mr. F. was almost apoplectic as he made the following comments: “When Derkin came ‘clean’ and admitted that the real estate agent had indicated the rescue activity was due to a report of a floating body in the area, I was enraged at the waste of taxpayer dollars being spent in such a wasteful way. Let the damn thing wash up on the beach! It was probably just a porpoise, anyway. When I heard the truth, I was so upset I couldn’t control my bowels.”

The agent, “Swinging” Dick Peters of Duck, NC is a well known local figure. He is president of the social club, ‘People of the Marsh’, and organizer of the local Marsh Pride Parade, an annual event. What his motivation was in lying to Derkin about the incident is unclear. He was charged with malicious perfidy and released “OR”.

Derkin had never visited the area before, and apparently was unaware of the local regulations regarding dissembling and prevarication. A bench warrant has been issued for his arrest, should he ever return.

Derkin’s wife, C, reached by phone at the couple’s home in Toledo, Ohio said “I’m so ashamed. He does this everywhere we go. He has made my life a living hell.”

Derkin himself was unavailable for comment. “I can’t seem to wake him up.” his wife said.

The Colt (Part 1)

I’m in the back seat with everything I own. Not that I have that much. I am bringing my canteen though, and I wore my cowboy boots. I have packed myself and all my stuff in the Nash. I couldn’t put any of it in the trunk; that’s where my Grandmother’s dogs ride. I believe I will be here for a spell. For now I just sit here waiting to go; sweating, and wishing I could smoke a cigarette.

The back seat splits in two and each half folds down and you can crawl right into the trunk if you want or out of the trunk if you want. If it wasn’t for me in half of the back seat, my Grandfather could recline his drivers seat all the way back and sleep there, right in the car every night. If it wasn’t for the dogs, so could my Grandmother.

That’s what’s special about the Nash. What’s special about me is I’m always in trouble. For standing up for my rights. For protecting my Mom from her husband. For telling the truth about falling in love with an older woman. It’s what got me here in the backseat. If Ellen was 16 and I was 18, instead of the other way around like it is, then I guess you could say I deserved it. Mom’s looking at me from the porch with that sad “why can’t you behave” look.

Behaving to her is me letting a bastard like Edgar run my life. Behaving to her is letting him smack her around for having too much lipstick on or for telling the TV repair guy he could come over in the afternoon and look the old TV that doesn’t work. The next time after that when he came for her, I laid him out.

Edgar leans in the front window looks back at me and says “Son, you will have to learn that in this life that there are consequences for your behaviors. To live under my roof you have to play by my rules.”

I am not his son. But he is my Mom’s husband and I guess she loves him more than me, even with his hollering and slapping. Because they have decided that I ride with my Grandparents all the way from Stockton to Pierre South Dakota in the back seat of the Nash, and be left there with my Grandfather’s brother and his family “for a season or two”. They say they have a ranch, but it sounds a lot more like a farm to me.

Now I am lying on my back across my half of the back seat and play fighting with Riley. He is pulling on an old rag and growling. Tippy is looking out from the trunk trying to decide if she should join the action.

“Dean can’t you be still, boy!” my Grandmother says.

The back windows of the Nash do not roll up or down; they open a little bit at the back with a kind of snap is all. We are having a good time. Riley is pulling so hard that I have to brace my feet against the window and the snap opens. I see my Grandfather’s eyes in the rear view.

“Get your boots off the window, boy.” he says from behind the wheel. Then he says, “Like havin’ a goddam colt in the back seat.” He thought I couldn’t hear that but I could.

I might have told him that being a colt was better than being a worn out old bull, but I didn’t. He worked thirty years for the Railway Postal Service after he hurt his back busting broncs and riding rodeo while his brother worked their farm outside Pierre.

One time he told me, “Orville got the ranch and I got a pension.”

He also got a .45 ACP Colt 1911 from the RPS that he keeps in a holster in the glove box of the Nash. He doesn’t think I know about that, but I do.

I sit up and lean on the back of the front seat close to my Grandmother. She is slicing a yellow apple with a little wooden handled knife. I let her put a piece in my teeth. She smells like lilacs. I think she is at least fifty but still kind of pretty. Her hair is pulled up and I can see her sweat in the creases on the back of her neck. I want to wipe her neck off with the rag Riley and I were playing with but I realize she would not cotton to that.

“Open your window more if you’re hot, Gramma.” I say.

“Oh, I’m fine Dean.” She says.

Then, “There’ll be lots of girls your age there. They have dances on Saturdays.”

Like I care about dances, I might have said. I’m being sent away from the most beautiful women ever and you think that squaring up with some heifers at an American Legion hall dance will make it better?

“Will they be pretty as you, Gramma?” I say.

A truck in front of us slows down to 30 as we go around a curve.

“Son of a bitch.” my Grandfather says.

Going up the Sierras toward Tahoe, the Nash keeps overheating. My Grandfather says that we get the other side of Tahoe, it’s all downhill to Carson. We’ll have to worry about the brakes then. But for now we have to pull over every hour or so, let her cool off, and top off the radiator. We got a little routine down. My Grandfather hollers at me “Water Boy!”, and I holler back “Right, Pops!”

I push the latch on the back of his seat and roll out his door to get the jerry can of water off the back bumper while he goes to the front of the Nash and opens the hood. It’s like a drill; a game with us.

Taking a rag in his hand, he’ll slowly open the radiator cap to release the pressure. I’ll hand him the tin funnel and he’ll nod at me to pick up the 6 gallon jerry can and pour the water in.

“How much water we got left, boy?”

“About half, Pops.”

We’re at a little roadside rest stop. My Grandmother is sitting in the shade at a beat up old picnic table with the dogs at her knees. She is feeding them little chunks of milk bone. She is always feeding something or somebody. There is a well head with an iron hand pump a couple yards from the table.

“Better get us some more water, boy. We can’t be without water. You remember that. Being without water out here can get a man in real trouble, real quick.”

“Right, Pops.”

On the way to the pump I reach in the back seat to get my canteen and head over to the shade with that and the jerry can. The mouth of the jerry can is nice and wide, so I set it under the spigot of the pump and start working the handle. It’s squeaking and making sucking noises but nothing is happening.

My Grandmother looks over. “You’ve got to prime it Darlin’. You’ve got to pour some water in the top first, just there; that’s right.”

I pour water from my canteen in the hole at the top of the pump and start working the handle. It spits out rusty red water and reminds me of what Edgar looked like after I took him to school; then it begins to gush out clear as it pulls through the head. It is too much flow to go right into the jerry can and it splashes all over. At first I worry that I’m wasting water. I look over at my Grandfather. He is on the passenger side of the Nash now, doing something with the battery, it looks like. Probably checking the cables. Just making sure everything is OK. He looks up from under the hood when he hears the squeaking of the pump handle and now he sees that I am getting good water. He waves his approval with the back of his hand, like ‘carry on’.

I’m lugging the full jerry can back to the Nash when I see them. Three guys in an old pickup truck with Nevada plates go past down grade real slow and look us over. I wave with my free hand, but none of them wave back. My Grandfather is still under the hood and I don’t know if he’s seen them or not. I’m about 50 feet from the Nash when I see them coming back and turn in to the gravel cut where we are. The driver stops and the other two guys get out. They are a raggedy-ass looking pair; not like the cowboy types we saw around at the fuel stop. One of them takes something out of the bed of the pickup and holds it behind his back. The other one, a skinny, mean looking guy with a brown hat mashed low over his eyes has got a tire iron. They start walking toward my Grandfather; the pickup creeping slowly behind them, tires crunching on the gravel as they roll up on the Nash. It takes me a couple seconds to realize that they do not mean us well.

I drop the jerry can and holler “Pops!” I did not think he saw them, but he did. In one move he reaches in the open passenger window and pulls the 1911 out of the glove box.

“Far enough, boys!” He has pulled back the slide, cocked the gun, chambered a round, and is holding it steady on them over the passenger door, before I can get three steps. “Drop the toys!” he hollers at them. Then to me, “Go pick that stuff up Dean.”

The bigger of the two starts to head toward me. The 1911 barks and a round kicks up dirt and gravel at his feet. An empty shell casing pings off the hood of the Nash. The skinny guy has already dropped his tire iron and now the big guy drops what I can see is a baseball bat. Grinding gears from reverse to first the driver is trying to turn around. Skinny is in the cab just quicker than hell. The other guy? What is all of a sudden about 250 pounds of chicken shit is trying to get about and into the bed of the moving truck. He grabs the side and tries to jump over into the bed but the truck fishtails in the gravel. How he hangs on is a miracle, but I guess the thought of the next round from that 1911 going up into his big ass gives him what he needs and he finally makes it, landing on a roll of barbwire coiled up in the back of the truck. The old truck disappears down the highway and around a curve. I never hear it come out of first gear.

“You OK, boy?” my Grandfather asks.

“Yeah, Pops.”

“Pick up the brass, Dean.” Then to my Grandmother, “Come on Shirl. We should get moving.”

She is already gathering up her sketchbooks and putting the pups in the trunk. Riley jumps right in but Tip can’t jump, she is so old.

“I got her Gramma.” I say. I’m holding the still warm shell casing in one hand and hand it to my Grandfather. He puts it with a dozen others in a cigar box that was under his seat, to reload. Tippy whines a little bit when I scoop her up and put her in the trunk.

Edgar hated dogs. Especially old dogs like Tippy. He would never say anything when my grandparents were around, but before they would come to visit he would bitch at Mom something awful.

“Them goddam dogs ain’t coming in the house. You make sure they stay out of my way, Marie. I am not shitting you one little bit. I will beat the living shit out of either one of them if they get in my way.”

Mom would come up to him and shush shush him, putting her finger on his stupid looking trout lips; looking up at him like he was just a big baby who needed a little comforting. I will never understand why she just didn’t tell him, “Those dogs have been in the family longer than you, Edgar Johnson. You will not touch them.” But I suppose if she wouldn’t tell him that for me she sure as hell wouldn’t stick up for the dogs.

We never seen the guys in the pick-up again. When we made grade and were rolling downhill I pulled out some postcards I had bought in Placerville. I wanted to write one to my Mom and one to Ellen, but mostly Ellen. I wanted to explain to her why I left her the way I did, and ask her to keep an eye on Mom. I knew anything I wrote to Mom, Edgar would read. I picked one for Ellen that had a cowboy on a white horse with a big brand on its flank. He was leading a mule with gear on behind him and the card said “Cowboy Looking for a Job”. I thought it might have reminded Ellen a little of me. We used to talk about how if I could find a job this summer, I could quit school, being sixteen now and we could elope and be together. No need for a fancy wedding or anything.

Mom and Edgar sure didn’t have one. Him and Mom just showed up one day after a trip to Vegas. Mom gave me a picture of them in a cardboard folder. He was in a tie and Mom had her real pretty blue dress on and a big flower pinned to it. She looked real happy. He looked like his regular dumb ass self.

“Honey, we’re man and wife now; me and Edgar.” She said.

“Yep. Justice of the peace.” Edgar stood there looking at me like, what are you gonna do about that now, Sonnywax?

It took me a minute to understand what they were telling me. I had just come back from Ellen’s house. We had spent the afternoon watching TV and making out. I had a serious case of blue balls and was thinking of jerking off. You might say I was not in the mood for an announcement like that.

“You’re married?” I said.

“That’s what ‘man and wife’ means, Dean. Look it up. Man and wife. Wife and man. The twain shall become as one.” Getting all Biblical and shit on me.

He held up Moms left hand and waved it in my face, like he was giving me the finger. She had on about the skinniest gold ring I had ever seen.

“Isn’t it pretty?” my Mom said.

I sat there in the Nash for the longest time with that postcard in my lap and a stubby little pencil in my fingers. Between bumps in the road I wrote “Dear Ellen. Will write more later. We are almost to Carson City. My Grandfather shot at two bandits today. Would you please tell my Mom I am OK. I still love you. Dean.”

I was going to say “with all my heart”, but I don’t believe I do.

“Dean, darlin’. Who are you writing that card to?”

My Grandmother has turned around to check on the dogs who have made their entrance into the back seat from the trunk. She is feeding Tippy the little in-between sections of a navel orange she has peeled.

“Mom, Gramma.” I say.

“Liar.”, I hear in my head. I do not think of myself as a liar, but I just told one. And that’s what liars do.

The week before we left for Pierre, I nearly added murder to my sins. I thought I killed my stepfather. He was lying on the kitchen floor just 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 I broke. Uncle Mark, my real dad’s brother had been in the US Army over in Germany. He killed a German soldier he surprised 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 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, and I could taste the blood in my own mouth where he had caught me with a windmill just as he was going down. I know it was pretty much dumb luck that I connected that hard with a good left
jab after Edgar took his first swing at me. I’m really not much of a fighter, but after Gary Schneider kicked my ass on the last day of my freshman year I pretty much decided that
wasn’t going to happen again. I did study up on it some. Edgar was on his elbow, trying to get up. My Mom heard us crashing around and came running in.

“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 a tray of ice cubes and wrapped a dish towel around them. I just stood there to make sure that Edgar didn’t have any more fight left in him, which he didn’t.

By now the whole family was there. My grandmother 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 my Grandmother said.

My Grandfather was standing in the door, 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 strategic retreat is in order here, boy. Make yourself scarce.”

“Right, Pops.” I said.

I knew what he meant, but just the same I kind of resented it. Ever since Edgar moved in with us and especially since my Mom married him, I’ve been getting scarcer and scarcer. I had told my Grandfather about the time Edgar slapped Mom and how he hollered at her all the time. About what he said at the table the night of their first anniversary.

My Mom had made a cake and cooked a meatloaf. As she was cutting the cake, Edgar held up a glass of beer and 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 son. The thought made my stomach turn.

“It’s none of our business, boy. Your Mom has got a good head on her shoulders. She’s just a little love struck right now. She’ll straighten him out.” is all he said. But I told Edgar that if he ever touched my Mother again or said a mean word to her, I’d whip his ass or die trying. He just laughed at me, but he’s laughing out of the other side of his face now.

I didn’t know it then, as I walked over to Ellen’s house, but pretty soon I would be so scarce it would be like I never existed in her life at all. Now who would have thought that would be possible? I saw pictures in my science book last year of the night sky that there were just rivers of stars in and Mr. Delamater said that each of those little pinpoints of light were whole galaxies. So I guess if that’s possible, anything is.