Lunch with Les and Laura (excerpt from Success is for the Weak a novel)

stairs

AT LUNCH WITH LAURA in the student cafeteria, Les stood in line with a tray, and loaded up from the selection of comfort foods, potatoes, meatloaf, tacos, pizza, and burgers. He told her about his self-transcendent experience with the fishflies under the country bridge years ago, hoping to lead her into a discussion of knowledge based semi-mystical achievements.

“Sounds like a religion to me,” she said with her customary smirk, looking a bit like Drew Barrymore in that crazy movie about Chuck Barris.

“Well, in a way,” Les said, checking himself, “but I think the important element is the being outside of one’s self that is, you know, the thing of it . . . and how that was, and can be, . . . achieved through uh, you know, a solid appreciation of nature, the knowledge of nature.”

“What?” she said, wrinkling up her nose as they settled at a vacant table.

“I’m just trying to put into words the experience, that mystic’s self-transcendence, you know, that experience of losing your-self, through a sort of deeper understanding.” Les paused for a moment and while watching Laura shovel her meal into her mouth added, “it’s a kind of . . . ineffable-“

“I didn’t get enough potatoes, did you try those potatoes? They are goot!” she said in her play voice.

“I, no,” he chuckled, “I . . . I just think that apparent meaning in things is different than the subjective meaning we often add to things.”

She made a moue.

“You know, like some composer writing a symphony and saying it’s about the creation of the universe, or about the battle of Loos, or something.” Les poked a bit of chicken, thinking, “I mean, how can an A-note be about anything? It’s just a freakin’ note, it’s devoid of symbolic purpose, . . . I mean, the composer can say it’s about such and such, but does that really add anything to the appreciation of something purely fuckin’ tonal?”

Laura didn’t respond, a few moments passed while they ate.

“Anyway, I think it’s kind of a fascinating question-” Les re-attempted kindling a discussion.

“I’m going back for more,” Laura said suddenly and jumped up, leaving him leaning forward over his plate. He went back to forking chicken enchilada casserole into his mouth and letting his eyes roam the room full of undergrads.

He noted with dismay the number of young women who were dressed in their pajamas and house slippers, as if lounging in their parents’ house. Big screen televisions broadcast The Price Is Right every day, and there were students watching the show, sucking on their fingers, their feet on the chairs.

Les tried to analyze what he found so ridiculous about their behavior. It was something to do with the odd level of comfort they possessed despite being out in public, carelessly in their sleeping clothing, like little children. But then, it was possible that they had somehow decided that the dining hall was in close enough proximity to the dorms, that they really were at home sort of. Just a short walk down a cement path cutting through some greenery, easy enough in fuzzy slippers. All it required was forgetting that there were hundreds of strangers seeing you in your PJs.

It all made Les feel uncomfortable, he didn’t want to see them watching daytime television in their lazing about outfits. He wanted them to be grown ups, stimulating, exciting people. Passionate? He wanted them to be mature, to care about things, to participate in some kind of adult culture. He wanted to rail against them maintaining their childhoods like those church people who want to expand their religious culture bubbles to include all public spaces.

Laura returned with a big helping of soft serve ice cream covered in chocolate, evidently giving up on the potatoes.

“The line for the ice cream is ridiculous,” she said, rolling her pretty brown eyes as she took a mouthful of it, “Oh it is so awesome!” She said this with an exaggerated enthusiastic deep voice. This always made Les laugh.

“Is there any deeper hell than day-time television?” Les said, gesturing with his chin over his shoulder at the big screen.

Laura glanced at the television and went back to her ice cream, “I don’t know,” she said kind of listlessly.

“Look at those kids over there, enraptured,” Les said, nodding at the undergrads in their pajamas and chuckling.

Laura glanced over between spooning her soft serve, “It’s a comfort for them.”

Exactly his point, Les nodded.

“They get to recreate being home,” Laura said. “It’s not hurting anyone, so what if they choose to while away their free time with crap television?”

“I guess I wonder why they bother to come to university; isn’t there anything here more engaging than that?” Les rubbed his chin with his napkin and cleaned the grease off his mouth. “Maybe the university isn’t challenging them enough.”

Laura looked concerned, “What do you care what they do?”

“I’m, you know, I’m just observing.”

“You’re constantly criticizing, you can’t be happy like that. You’re always looking for ways to be miserable,” Laura said with some stress in her voice.

“I’m just thinking about things. I’m curious about people,” Les defended simply, “I’m just trying to understand them.”

“What’s there to understand? They’re kids watching TV.” She finished her ice cream and checked her phone for the time.

“Don’t you think it’s interesting, I mean . . .” Les thought about it a moment, Laura looked annoyed, “that children could be raised in sewers-“

“Actual sewers, you mean?” Laura interrupted with a skeptical air, her brow lowered, she was having none of this.

“Yep, right under Main Street . . . children, they aren’t self aware, they can’t compare their world to anyone else’s, like dogs, dogs don’t know some dog has a better life than theirs,” Les said.

“Mmm,” Laura said, leaning back in her chair and folding her smooth arms, “I guess.”

“They could be raised in actual sewers, later on they grow up,” Les said, smiling, “and actually, sort of reminisce about the sewer.”

“Uh huh,” Laura offered distractedly.

“Former sewer babies might even argue that those were the best years of their lives, you know, frolicking in the waste,” Les piled the plates on his tray readying them for transport to the drop off near the exit. “Momma’s sewer foraged dinners were the best!”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Laura said, suspicious of the tact Les was taking, examining him as if he were wearing a tin-foil skull cap.

“The point is,” Les pressed on, “I think people just want, or think they want, . . . or they value the most, whatever, . . . whatever is familiar to them,” he said waving his hand at the big screen television. “They love what is familiar, they never challenge themselves and in many ways that means no growth, just endless childhood, endless comfort. And the university is trying not to challenge them too much, trying to maintain them, holding their hands so they don’t drop out, so they don’t lose money.”

Laura screwed up her nose and made a sort of baby-faced sneer, “I don’t think you have that quite right.”

“Well then, there has to be some kind of criteria with which you judge what you love, right? In other words, you need to have an idea of why you think some things have value, you know what I mean?” Les paused, “some things have value, some don’t,” Les was watching a woman jumping up and down with exaggerated enthusiasm on The Price Is Right, old Bob Barker hosting. “And someone’s got to be responsible, somehow we have to maintain the education as being of value, we can’t just lower the bar so far that kids who do nothing but watch TV are easily pushed through the system . . . graduated, you know, our best so-called intellectuals.”

Laura looked at him blankly.

“Oh, uh-also, this happiness thing, I mean,” Les returned to Laura’s earlier remarks about his criticism, “just maintaining happiness, don’t you think happiness due to lack of knowledge is no real achievement?”

“What are you talking about now?” Laura wrinkled her nose, her brow creased with worry.

Les stood up balancing the dishes, “Can you imagine doing that show for forty or so years?” he gestured at the television, “That’s some dedicated passion.”

“I guess,” Laura sniffed.

They headed out of the cafeteria, they walked past the young women in their PJs, enraptured by the televisions. Les deposited their waste, and dropped their utensils into the soapy water, letting the conveyor belt take the rest of the food and dishes. Les caught a glimpse of the Hispanics and blacks working in the kitchen in the steamy heat, hairnets on their heads. When he first arrived he had been struck by how everyone in the service sector of the university had been a minority, but he’d gotten used to it.

Signs all over the doors proclaimed no food was allowed out of the cafeteria as they pushed through them.

Laura took his hand, hers under his, and they walked together quietly back to Lebrun Hall.

Enlightenment (excerpt from novel Success is for the Weak)

water shapes eno new year's

Some years ago, Les had been collecting and cataloging aquatic insects for a project paid for—and cheaply mind you—by a national conservation organization. He had arrived early one morning at one of his cold-stream collecting sites to an amazing spectacle. Thousands of mottled-winged insects had emerged all together and were clamoring up the underside of a tiny country bridge. They were all over the leaves, covering the bark of the shrubs and trees, paddling through the air with ungainly swimming motions on their long wings. They were large insects, upwards of two inches of wingspan, known as fishflies (Family: Corydalidae). Their larvae—familiar to fishermen as helgrammites—are often used as bait.

They had lived under the cold, rushing water, clinging to stones for many months before they could pupate and emerge in their adult form, wings and sexual hardware. These insects would not feed, they would only mate, lay eggs, and soon die. The adult winged forms were just meant to aid in dispersal, or so entomologists imagined, obsessed as they always were with the function of form.

Les had never seen so many adult fishflies, and was utterly stunned by the emergence. He did not know how much time passed. He became totally unaware of himself as the insects crawled over him and launched themselves off his net and hat. What he thought about just before he let himself become nothing but witness to the moment was that they didn’t know he existed, despite his standing among them. And that they’ve been doing this for probably over four hundred million years (a rough estimate based on our fossil evidence places insects back in the Devonian). Les wiped tears from his eyes and, feeling a bit daft, wondered how old this tiny rocky stream could be . . . how old this forest, or the land, or the world? How meaningless and empty our few millennia of history. How puny our existence. . . .

He had been lucky. No one could say what day this would happen on, or at what hour, or where it was likely to occur. It was a spectacle probably few people had witnessed, and even fewer could accurately identify.

Les was impressed that this had been a nearly mystical experience inspired not by faith, but by love of knowledge and natural beauty. This was a perfect example of knowledge providing the means to attaining the mystic’s self-transcendent moment. To the uninitiated this might just as well have been a frightening mass of cockroaches, or giant mosquitoes erupting from the stream. Instead it was like a step toward enlightenment.

The Package (excerpt of Success is For the Weak Part 1 Chp 8)

On the way in to Lebrun Hall Les checked the mail room, hoping Laura—already imbued with boundless romantic powers—had left the package she promised. There was no denying the fluttery, energized excitement in his heart.

There was indeed a package for him. It was wrapped in brown paper with string, too big to fit into his mail slot, and instead just sitting on the counter with “Les Paul Miller” written in big letters in a loopy girly hand.

He breathed deeply and consciously allowed himself to enjoy this pleasure. He’d done a good job this morning, he deserved something sweet. He’d read many people on their death beds complained that they hadn’t allowed themselves much pleasure in life.

He took the package straight out of the building and into the sun. He headed for a favorite bench in the gardens between the student union and the bookstore. He let his gaze drift over the grass and watched the flocks of students coming out of the buildings, and criss-crossing the mulched gardens. He unwrapped the package carefully, feeling decidedly sentimental about the whole experience.

First, was a small folded handwritten note, Don’t despair, I’ll be back in just a few days, and we’ll be able to explore all the things you want to explore. I have always found great people full of perfect honesty and huge passions. My friends are as big as all the sky. Yours in admiration, Laura. Les chuckled to himself, the “yours in admiration” tickled him. Under the note was a photocopy of a George Saunders story taken out of a New Yorker magazine. She had inscribed it with: This to me is a perfect love story. Saunders was one of Les’s favorites and he had forced Pastoralia on Lea just so he could say to her “No goat, no note.” Under the story was a computer diskette, and a cassette tape. A note described the contents of each. The diskette would have a few pictures she wanted to share. The cassette tape had music from a radio show she did some years ago. Finally, there was a book, a copy of Lewis Nordan’s Sharpshooter Blues. He opened the book and found she had inscribed it in distinctive, small, printed handwriting: Les- for me this book was a catalyst that helped me change my fear into hope. Maybe it will work on you too. Then she had drawn a heart with an L in the middle of it. And then a new paragraph, Or maybe your problem is you’re a Yankee and need to be converted to Southernism, happens all the time. Here she added a smiley face.

My problem. . . . My problem? Well, she could not help but have noticed a few things. . . .

Les’s mind was flying. There were gifts he wanted to give her, and there was an insistent desire to open himself to her. He wanted her as his people. He had often chided himself for never initiating with the women he was interested in, and instead being passive, taking what came to him rather than taking what he wanted. This was the first time he really felt like he’d hunted and chased and was feeling a thrill of victory. Before, everything had seemed a wearisome and vague dispassion. He had been like a Camus character, caring not for his life, or anything else, just drifting aimlessly, perhaps even killing without purpose or function. The sun was in my eyes. But now—was this what was meant by making the world you wanted to live in?—he had struck and won. Was it just luck or had he learned something? He felt himself uplifted and calm, but also on wires like a Cirque du Soleil performance. He sat a while longer with the materials on his lap, watching the young people flow to and fro, struggling with their loads.

She admitted to stalking behavior that only a cute woman could get away with, but her revelation of this made his guts feel light.

Well, of course, she knew about him. Maybe she had witnessed Monica and he together at a drop off, or a pick-up and assessed the breakdown. God, Monica could be a difficult charge to care for. Health professionals talked about bad patients and Monica was certainly one of these. She struggled stubbornly against solutions to problems.

Laura could easily have assessed the over-doting invalid care. But then, maybe his need wasn’t it at all. Maybe it was possible he satisfied her needs somehow? Or maybe it’s just dumb luck, and despite any detailed analyses . . . no lesson here.

Les gathered his gifts and made his way back to the lab, feeling somehow obvious, and exposed. Was the excitement evident in his walk, or face? And what did Laura mean by all this fear and hope? Was she reading something into this beyond his immediate frustrations? There was a slight ledge of paranoia in the thrill of this discovery. He was immensely aware of his vulnerability.

BACK AT THE OFFICE Dr. D was waiting for him, “Les, I could use some help,” the old professor was carefully saying something about what he needed being against policy and perhaps being something that could be misread as punishable behavior on his part, he made a lot of worried gestures, “with some yard work.”

“Oh sure,” Les quickly accepted, feeling some relief, Dr. D had a habit of turning everything into a prodigious amount of concern. But at least he’s not an alcoholic or something, Les considered.

“I’ll pay you, I know you’re going through a tough time right now,” Dr. D further explained that he had valiantly fielded some calls from Monica who was pitifully trying to convince everyone she could that she was not guilty of any wrong doing.

“Ah,” Les said, “sorry about that.”

“She’s very upset,” he said with a snicker. Less felt a twinge of embarrassed worry for Lea, hoped Monica wasn’t planning any surprises for his Latina friend.

“When do you want to do the yard work?” Les said, moving the subject on.

“I just can’t do it openly, were it to be known I was using you as a laborer,” and here he giggled some more, “there could be serious repercussions.”

“I understand,” Les said, nodding.

“Anyway, how’s Saturday for you?” Dr. D asked.

“That’s, . . . tomorrow is fine, I’ll be there,” Les chuckled. “Eight O’clock good for you?”

“Yes, that’ll be great!” Dr. D grinned and went into his rendition of the Bahama Men, stomping and singing, “who let the dogs out! Who! Who! Who! Who!” and giggling madly.

Les checked for Paulie-wallie, and noting him absent, pushed the floppy disk from Laura into the drive. He scrolled through the half dozen photos. There were a couple of Laura. She was very skinny in one of the pictures, her cheek bones stuck out gravely in the lighting. Then there were pictures of popular Japanese, mascot-like, dancing bear things. Something referred to as a Domo Kun. Les was having some difficulty understanding the appeal, he watched the Japanese cheerleader-dancing with scrunched features. It was all at least fun. These were just flat out pleasures he was determined to allow himself.

He’d been thinking deeply over the past few days about changing his overall world outlook. Changing it to something less compulsively cynical. Maybe the Dumas and Scott books had something to do with it, maybe having fled his wife had spawned this desire, whatever the catalyst, he was feeling buoyant for a change.

HE FOUND HIMSELF LOUNGING and watching a nature program at Lea’s place, while Lea snoozed under his arm, about how the Sahara had swallowed the Sudan. Once upon a time there were lush green fields and farms and cattle. Then, the sands came, the heat, the desert encroached, first just a little, and the people shrugged it off and behaved as they always did, as they had for millennia. Then, the sands came further, and the heat became more intolerable, the crops died, the summer and the winter were dryer than normal. Maybe some people grumbled then, but still people did not pack it up, they didn’t register that things had changed, permanently.

“We’re not big picture animals,” Les said to himself. And thought, we’re not good at following trends that take generations.

“Hmm?” Lea said, stirring.

“Oh, I’m just watching this documentary,” Les said, patting Lea’s rubbery behind, his lanky arm reaching all the way around and down behind her.

She squinted at the TV, “Oh, is it the one about the desert?”

“Yeah,” he said, “you know, I can’t even remember how hot it is in the summer, you know, when it’s wintertime.”

She murmured against his chest.

“And I’ve been through a few dozen of them at this point!” he looked down at her thick lashes closed over her big almond eyes.

“You know, watching this desert take over, . . . pushing the people out of their culture, . . . changing their culture, forcing them to change their culture . . .”

“They had to switch to camels,” Lea said breathily against him.

“It’s a lot like thinking about empires that eventually fall . . . like the British empire and how at one time, maybe a hundred years ago, they had it all. It must have been rough, politically and culturally to take that, sort of loss of distinction. I mean, there was a time when being British meant you could kind of arrogantly walk around the world assured of your superiority,” Les said with his customary mumble.

“If you were that kind of person, I guess,” Lea yawned and rubbed her cheek.

“It was probably great to be the king or queen of someplace, or a powerful nation who could exploit a weaker one, I mean as long as you’re not the one being exploited,” Les said.

“As long as you are not the Incas,” Lea whispered, tickling his chest hair with her breath.

“I worry about missing things, I worry that we’re here messing around, and the world is really changing, things are really happening somewhere, and we could be part of it,” Les dropped his arm on the bed with a thud.

“You mean like a revolution?” Lea said softly.

“Or, well it could be anything really, art, music, a Greenwich Village folk music thing, a Dadaist art movement, I don’t know, . . . I can’t think of examples of anything that aren’t already hugely well defined,” he dropped his hand on the bed again.

“You don’t like parties,” she nuzzled his chest. “Besides there are many bad things, it takes history to point them out, but you could be right in the middle of something now, it’s just hard to see it from inside.”

“Or maybe there’re chicks dancing in thongs someplace, doing shots off one another’s sexy bodies, and here I am lazing away . . . watching a show about the desert.”

“With me!” Lea said, smiling softly, clinging to him, “giving me comfort, what could be more important?”

“I worry about our last moments of life, you know, struggling for consciousness just before we die and all we’ll have is some bullshit like a Doublemint gum advertisement, or Mr. Whipple squeezing goddamned toilet paper, . . . snuffing us out. It won’t be some bright light at the end of a tunnel, it’ll be some sequence of events etched into my mind about Sleestak, Cha-ka and Claymation dinosaurs!”

“What you are talking about is directionless, you are frustrating yourself for nothing.”

“Hmm, say that last bit again,” Les squeezed her plump bottom.

Te frustras por nada,” she smiled, opulently rolling all her rs.

Adventures With Tommy and KVK (excerpt of novel Near- Do- Well)

taiwan macquacs

The show is to be at the Grotto in New Haven—a good ninety minute drive. The fellow running the club wrote us a very odd, but entirely encouraging little fan letter referring to us as “moody reptiles”. He’d heard a dirt cheap recording we’d created with a friend’s Tascam four-track cassette deck and a handful of microphones. It’s pretty much just a live in-basement recording of us running through our dozen or so originals along with doors slamming, us talking between songs, and dogs barking.

Moshe had taken it upon himself to produce tapes for review. He’s the only one with the artist’s patience to do this, and this is the first we’ve heard back from any of the target clubs. We take it seriously.

After we’d loaded the gear in the van, we had a band meeting on the front porch of my parent’s house. We checked each other for affectation. Our ideal was that we were taking exactly what we do in the basement and putting it on the stage. No frills, no phoniness, no fake personalities, no stage antics, we were not actors. We were not performers. We convinced one another that we didn’t respect performance, that we were absolutely not entertainers. This was of the utmost importance.

We did not produce our music for the edification of shallow party-goers. We were not producing our art to merely entertain. It was serious business. We made music to elevate the soul, and I didn’t mean some ephemeral, post-humus aspect of ourselves, but the very quality of our very being.

We did not produce our music for the edification of shallow party-goers. We were not producing our art to merely entertain. It was serious business. We made music to elevate the soul, and I didn’t mean some ephemeral, post-humus aspect of ourselves, but the very quality of our very being. Or, saving that, some other spiritual equivalent, to bring people toward outer space, or, I didn’t know how else to put it, reaching out to the kindred spirits who needed us, heightening the quality of our selves, and, possibly—I have entertained this paltry little fantasy too often—there’s a girl who I’m speaking to through this medium. She’s depressed, possibly suicidal, and then she hears us, and the power of our expression, like a moonrise low over a fantastical forested glade, inspires her. She’s overcome with our transcendent message, a kind of appeal to life and beauty, a reason to carry on! And she looks like, at least this time, and this is altogether very important—a cross between a sexually charged curvaceous goddess, and a pixie-like, sparkly-eyed, waifish, pale doll-like creature who is both a perfectly beautiful and gracious pet for me to practically own, but also, charged with appreciation for my brand of tortured, suburban survival. This fantasy girl is both powerful muse and devoted lover. The scene is of Penny Priddy where a sensitive lead guitarist, Buckaroo Bonzai, has noticed her weeping in the rock-show crowd.

All of this is guiltily wrapped up in this: half-assed, Coventry, Row-die-lan, parent’s basement established, loaded to the hilt with poetic/romantic fantasies, directionless, musical near-do-well, passionately twisted up—like mating rattlesnakes—with a desire to emulate second British invasion heroes. . . . It’s important to note that while we are quite able to self-deprecate, it’s of a fashion, it’s Johnny Ramone telling you the Ramones “stink”. It is a pure aspect of our punk culture. And we never need to discuss it.

And so, keeping all this in mind, we’ve even dressed down a bit more than normal. We disallow one another sunglasses—especially nothing as cool as Wayfarers, which are exactly the glasses we all covet, and only Ty actually owns a pair of. And, of course, our uniform, as militarily strict as anything Johnny Ramone enforced while croaking about integrity: jeans, blank t-shirts, suburban flannel, cheap sneakers.

“You know, Ted, Ian danced,” Vinny pointed out.

“He wasn’t dancing, he was, . . . incapable of controlling that,” I react with a sort of pained dismissal, “epilepsy.”

“Oh, c’mon, you really think he wasn’t enjoying himself?” Vinny pushed.

I’d seen the video. Ian’s painfully spastic, seizure-like, ropy arm swinging, . . . “I mean, if that’s dancing— . . . ” but I have no place to go with this argument. Ian was doing something like dancing, he was doing what he did to the music, he was performing.

“Mark E. Smith does not dance.”

No one disagreed with this, and since the mighty Fall trump all on the horizon of our musical interests the discussion was over.

Finally, we drove out to the gig, feeling very like a real rock band. But what was our name? What had Moshe called us on the tape? He had simply written Kurt Vonnegut’s Kids. After a joke I had made about the Boston hardcore band Jerry’s Kids, itself a joke about the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy foundation. So we were KVK and this suited me just fine.

We weren’t going on first, and the club, which sported walls that looked like the insides of a cave, was nearly empty. There were stalagmites of sprayed granite. The walls were even decorated with Lascaux style cave art. Before us was a band fronted by a very cute woman in purple eye-shadow and a short skirt, looking for all the world like Torah Wilcox. Her boyfriend with a set of overtly clownish facial expressions was warming up on a key-tar slung round his neck.

“Will you be our audience?” he grinned at us.

We did our best. The music was a mix of pop and funk. They were called Hardly Serious and were entirely unmemorable, more like a study in becoming a pop band—having the requisite set of love, dance, spelling, and whatever audience participation songs. We moseyed around the floor not dancing, of course not, KVK does not dance, we were not, despite Ian Curtis’s epileptic arm-flailing, enjoying music that way.

“Hey everyone! This is dance music!” the key-tar guy whined at us between songs. He reflected a Saturday Night Live Charles Rocket.

Then it was our turn. We took the stage for the first time. I settled in behind my ugly gray drum kit. Moshe faced Tommy, who mounted the stage with a bottled beer, claiming it helped him relax. Vinny bravely took the microphone. I counted off our starting number, snapping the sticks in classic fashion, snap snap snap snap, kick-crack, and we were off, not bad, we got it together. The hardest part was stopping together. We’d been working on it. Our throbbing music filled the quirky club, maybe we were more apparently appropriate to a cave, we moody reptiles.

“Poisonous insects batter against the windows, . . . I wipe away perspiration on an already damp sleeve, . . . another piece of information, . . . where do I store it all, . . . I file it in the trash with a flick of my wrist, . . .” Vinny, when he sang, described small circles, like a dog looking for a place to lay down. Not my wrist, dammit, a wristflick of the wrist. Why must I be forced to fight for every last syllable?

Tommy’s guitar was nothing but a giant slab of indistinguishable, distorted flange. There was an element (an element, mind you) of west coast rockers Flipper in the noise, but Tommy is no Ted Falconi. There were no perceived chordal pluckings, no discernible notes. Tommy sipped at his beer, leaving it perched on his Marshall. He’d had a few already, and I was really extra sensitive about it. A drunk excuse would have been just his sort of modus operandi. We were doing a show, it was exciting. But Tommy’s playing was . . . infuriating.

I wondered now, right onstage, how much we should tolerate,  how far he should have been allowed to disturb the wa. Wasn’t it clear that having hired on a guitar player we’d actually not gotten one? Instead we had an unhinged noise generator. Making matters worse was that Moshe’s beginner bass skills relied a bit on being able to follow the rhythm and Tommy had entirely opted out of being a reliable rhythm, hell, he was doing nothing even resembling rhythm anymore. He could have just leaned the guitar against the amp and gone and joined the audience at this stage of the game. His equipment could handle what he was processing in terms of musicianship on its own.

When we finished the number there were a few new people in the crowd, some light, polite applause. There was some dude with a freaking cowboy hat on and another guy screaming at us to “Turn everything up to ten!” Well how about that, funny stuff that, but I didn’t see my fantasy muse out there.

A few more of these bass driven guitar-noise lyrical rants, and it was OK, I wasn’t feeling terrible about this. My drumming was quite rudimentary but many drummers respect rudimentary. You could seem like you had your chops together when you didn’t show off. It was the old adage about keeping your mouth shut to seem smart at the interview.

In the end, Moshe dedicated our last song to the guy in the cowboy hat, and we were done! We cleared off and made way for Cobalt Can Cat.

Cobalt Can Cat blew us out of the water. The front-man, a lean handsome black man, played the funkiest bass you’d ever seen, fingers flying. Moshe turned pale. They played a wild mix of funk and wail, it was damned near Gang of Four, but possibly even more skillful, and I was feeling red-faced and entirely impotent. Who the fuck were we? We don’t deserve to even share the stage—good lord!

My biggest contribution to the music we produced was to avoid playing I-IV-V variations. I wanted to lift us a little bit away from the psychedelic blues based rock so prevalent, and at least in some quarters, argued to be the only music that really sounded good.

However, just pressing away the simplest combos from the circle-of-fifths didn’t necessarily mean you make interesting music. It was sort of like attempting to become a unique master chef of Asian cuisine by avoiding rice. The Neil Young style of instant song writing—basically a C chord with a walking bass-line down to an A-minor—does indeed sound very compelling, but relative minors, I have decided, are cliche, bourgeois even. I had heard that the great Captain Beefheart didn’t even want to do four beats a measure, claimed it was too hypnotic or something. I wasn’t ready to throw away the momma’s heartbeat rhythm. I couldn’t bring myself to understand anything more complicated, honestly, my reach was still for power chords and a search for a less used progression. One day I even reinvented the Bo Diddley and didn’t realize it until way too late. What the hell, I’m not Robert Fripp. I’d never done anything as amazing as “Red”, but I kept quiet about that. I felt like we were always on the verge of finding our “Lust For Life”, or “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver” or, screw it, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”.

When Cobalt Can Cat came back to the dressing room, Moshe, Ty, Vin and I assailed them with praise.

“Holy shit, you guys are great!”

They mostly deflected and gave aw-shucks smiles. They’d played the new-talent night at least a dozen times, we were told, and this stunned us.

Tommy was making faces, seemed utterly offended, and piped up, “When we say, ‘we like you’, it really means something, we hate most bands.”

The bass-man from Cobalt Can Cat just smiled and said, “Hate’s a pretty strong word.”

This reminded me of that time Tommy said that we could presume ourselves doing something worthwhile, because he wouldn’t waste his time with us unless we were doing something worthwhile. He had meant this self-aggrandizing statement to ease our worries about validity, but, as usual, it only succeeded in producing one more chit of Tommy’s brand of insufferable pomposity.

And now, this arrogant speaking for the band, promoting his rancor . . .

Once Tommy was out of earshot, Vinny came over to tell me about a little exchange they had at a graffiti covered wall in the men’s room.

“I just—it’s stupid, I know, . . . but, I wrote ‘Kurt Vonnegut’s Kids’ on the wall with a marker I robbed off the bar coming in, there’s a ton of graffiti there, you know, the typical band shit,” Vinny looked over his shoulder to make sure Tommy was occupied, talking to Moshe. “Tommy sees me, grabs the marker out of my hand and adds ‘remember Belsen’ and hands the marker back to me, and walks out.” Vinny shook his head and mimed licking his fingers and rubbing out Tommy’s addition.

“Are you fucking kidding?” I said, knowing damned well he wasn’t kidding.

Vinny kept shaking his head in a mournful manner, “Mo says it’s insecurity, but, fuckin’ hell, did you hear what he said to those guys?”

“Yeah.” Shit. Shit. Shit.

Moshe went off for the money, a whopping twenty-five bucks, and we retreated from New Haven. “The guy kept disappearing down these winding corridors, apologizing over his shoulder, and I felt like I was some kind of thug after his money!” Moshe joked. We all got a laugh out of this.

This was our first, if we flopped we flopped out of town. But now we were a little more brave, having successfully gotten through a gig, we lined up a few more. We befriended another local band—headed up by an obscure-music aficionado guitarist by the name of Ricky Streaker—called Sirens of Titan, they also on their own understandable Kurt Vonnegut trip.

Ricky, for some reason, was entirely smitten with us, thought we were the right kind of weirdos. He laughingly told us we were playing Vonnegut’s “So it goes”, something he respected and wanted his band to do more of. I wished Ricky were in our band.

Ricky asked us to open a show for them at the Living Room, which was to be an all-ages show for their upcoming single release. We enthusiastically agreed. A release party! We were joining the world of release parties at nightclubs.

But before we managed to get to the gig for Sirens of Titan, things disintegrated further, like a nasal infection turning south into bronchitis. Tommy’s contribution to the band was no longer of just questionable value. We were of a combined opinion that he’d entirely become an annoyance we sorely tolerated for the the use of a P.A. system.

Moshe showed up to wake me for band practice, which happened every Friday, it being the start of my weekend from third shift at the lace mill (I napped on my folks’ couch to be ready for band in the basement). I ambled down the basement stairs, trying to warm up, dreading the arrival of our burden. Moshe was excited about the Sirens of Titan gig, and so was I for once. This was a gig with a purpose. Vinny, Ty and Tommy arrived nearly simultaneously, trotting down the raw wood cellar stairs followed by my dad’s hunting spaniels which Ty, laying on the floor, pulled onto his lap. And everyone turned their gear on. Even when Tommy wasn’t playing you could hear his amp’s electric hum being compressed and flanged by the MXR Omni.

“OK, what are we doing?” Tommy said with a bit of a swagger, that lovely Les Paul—a guitar he did not deserve—slung round his stack-of-dimes neck, run through a cheese-ifying device to hide his ineptness. I was sick of his little imp sneer, his entirely phoney I-was-punk-before-you-were-punk bullshit and his absolute need to have the last word, to even have the last sound when we rehearsed—always one more skronking noise he produced to finish the song as if it were a competition. We were all tired of his rudeness toward Moshe (thingy!), and his endless apocryphal stories all improvised to provide beef to his image. Who had image?

I was as uncomfortable and disappointed as a mugging victim, being told by the mugger that I should relax and enjoy it. I was weary of holding back the response. I wanted to respond to this carelessness about our music, about our sound. This carelessness Tommy believed was somehow an admirable distinction—a punk rock asset.

He even said to me one day: “A lot of people say ‘I don’t care’ but I really don’t! Har har har!”

“I don’t care,” I said, looking down at the sticks.

“See, this is what I’m talking about,” Tommy toggled his Marshall half-stack off (I can’t even calculate the months of work I would have to accumulate to afford it), “this is the shit I’m talking about,” he swaggered some more, he unslung the Les Paul. We were silent. His packing routine took a little too long for a storm out. He wrapped a pillowcase around the Les Paul, laid it carefully in its case.

“If you guys wanna talk to me, you know how to find me!”

He closed the lid softly and began snapping the clasps shut and then, maintaining, in our silence, his mask of preserved frustration, mounted the stairs, up, up, we still said nothing, barely even breathing.

“You want a hand with the amp?” I offered cheekily, but he said nothing. After all, it’s hard to storm out with a hefty amplifier in your arms.

He’d directed that last bit, interestingly, that you-know-where-to-find-me bit at Vinny and Moshe. We heard him cross the house above our heads, we heard the front door open and close—Tommy has left the building.

Moshe started laughing, actually doubled over with the effort, hanging on to his bass, “He thinks we’re going with him, he thinks we want to be with him!”

“Ted, he pulled us aside and said he’s had it with you, . . . thinks we should ditch you!” Vinny was grinning, “now, maybe, we can just lose him, we can get rid of him, finally!”

“Ted, we met a drummer,” Moshe told me excitedly, “you can go back to guitar!”

“This could be the best thing ever, we just gotta, . . . we gotta make sure he doesn’t come back, . . . ” Vinny’s face suddenly got serious, his fingers went to his chin as he was thinking, “how do we keep him from coming back?”

Ty was sitting bolt upright his eyes wide.

I was still reeling from Tommy’s attempted usurping of my band, there I was tolerating him. . . .

“He’s been complaining about you to us,” Moshe was recovering from his convulsive laughter. “He started trying to pressure us to ditch you after the New Haven gig!”

“I’ve got so many ideas, . . . so much I want to do, but I’m just not getting it done,” I waved at his former position on the floor, “he’s such a pain in the ass!”

“He’s out, we’re bringing in Rod, we met this drummer at the Barn-spider (Barnsider: a restaurant the fellows worked at in Providence), a good drummer, a real drummer, sorry, but, you know what I mean,” Vinny said, shifting his weight a little uncomfortably.

“Yeah, man, no worries, I want to play guitar, I’m not a drummer.” It too slowly occurred to me that this was really the end, that we were really going to sever our relationship with Tommy.

Back upstairs around my parents’ dinner table we pulled out paper and pen. And that was when it hit me in full. We tried to decide what to say as a finale for Tommy, something strongly worded, something that would leave no uncertain, . . . well, it was a break-up after all, and there’s only one good way to ditch the party, firmly, resolutely, not necessarily angrily, but squarely and without doubt, especially in this case. Tommy was so capable of manipulation, so full of his own special version of reality.

Tommy, we are sick of your goddamned lies! I wrote boldly on a sheet of legal pad paper. I wanted, really, to strike him, to feel him break.

Moshe and Vinny decided to meet Tommy, and tell him he was out, that we were continuing without him. I had written something else. And we are sick of putting up with your asinine bullshit.

The letter was taking on the feel of a fantasy confrontation, too often rehearsed and never unleashed. All those responses I’d held inside so that we could be a band, now coming forth in the exuberance new freedom inspired.

I was actually thinking Moshe and Vinny were going to bring this letter and unleash it on Tommy, somehow I’d be able to watch on a closed-circuit television or something, . . . slowly I got it, always a step or two behind the others, the letter wasn’t happening. The letter wasn’t necessary. Moshe and Vinny would see Tommy, and they’d end things, gently, smartly. And you are not a guitarist!

“He’s got our records.” I suddenly squawked.

“Yeah, we gotta get over there and get the shit back, drop off his amp. We’ll bring his gear to him, and get the records,” Moshe nodded.

My hands shook with the excitement of this divorce.

“Shit, what about the P.A.?” the hinging factor, the thing that made Tommy indispensable.

“Rod has a P.A.” Moshe grinned, “and if it’s no good, we’ll get a P.A.”

Dizzy Looking Up (swamp yankee early life PG-13) [Accepted for publication by Dead Mule School of Southern Lit Summer 2016]

feet and creek umstead bw

The sky was so high and so blue we got dizzy looking up at it. Contrails criss-crossed like giant, white, pick-up sticks. Falling out into the sun after so many hours of nothing but being fat-assed on the sofa, eyes glued to the Jerry Lewis Telethon, where Charo had played guitar and seemed to almost fall out of her dress, we were dazed. The mosquitoes honed in on our pale ankles. We squinted at the red and orange marigolds, batches of dead grass uncollected from the mowing, and the juicy red berries from the yew bushes like artifacts from King Tut’s tomb.

“We’re the fuckawee, ha ha ha,” Brit said, practicing a favorite joke.

“That’s not funny anymore,” Lauda said.

“I don’t get it,” Ray-Ray said.

“Maybe you’ll get it when ya playin’ bingo by yuhself!” Brit said.

“Wassat mean?” Lauda asked and I wondered too.

“He plays bingo by himself!” Brit waved over toward her brother.

Ray-Ray scrunched up his nose, eyebrows wrinkled together, “Cause you wouldn’t play!”

We made our way down the unkempt sidewalk and into the chained-in street-corner playground with the broken swings and the off-kilter carousel. The little kids, Roger and Kiki, came along.

“Litter bug,” Lauda said as she kicked at the McDonald’s bags and wrappers near the rusted trash barrel.

We climbed onto the flat, diamond-plate, steel carousel and started it spinning, each clinging to a welded post. Ray-Ray laid on the center and stared directly up. Each revolution had a strong tug where the lowest point of its uneven course took it, like a warped record.

“We’re the fuckawee!” Brit laughed again.

I tried to laugh at her jokes, catch her eye, but she didn’t seem to much care what I thought, she was perfectly fine amusing herself.

“Why do you keep saying that?” Lauda asked.

I kicked at the ground to get the wheel spinning as fast as I could.

We enjoyed the spinning world for a minute or two.

“Kiki and Roger sittin’ in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G . . . ” Brit suddenly sang. And putting up her hands Lauda began patting and clapping against Brit’s palms.

“Shuddup!” Roger squawked.

“First comes love then comes marriage . . . ” Lauda joined her in the shout-along. They did a kind of criss-cross, both palms together, then clap.

“Shuddup!”

“Then comes Roger with a baby carriage!” Lauda and Brit clapped their hands laughing, their faces pinched up with the effort.

Ray-Ray continued staring up at the clouds smiling.

Kiki looked from face to face.

“I hate her!” Roger said. And then, with a bit less assurance, “She stinks!”

Kiki started crying. And as the carousel slowed down she got off at the low point a little hard and wobbled on short kid legs away to a pile of sand and plopped down.

Kiki started crying. And as the carousel slowed down she got off at the low point a little hard and wobbled on short kid legs away to a pile of sand and plopped down.

“You didn’t need to say that!” I said to Roger.

“Brit didn’t need to say what she said!” he protested.

I hit him in his belly, but not hard, just to make the point, “Say yuh sorry.”

Roger leaned back and swung, hitting me hard in the face, for a second the pain brought a cloud to my senses. I jumped off the carousel, gained my feet, he was surprisingly strong for his age, and this violent reaction took me entirely by surprise.

“There’s more where that came from, Bum!” he yelled. Bum being the universally adopted derogatory for my name, Baum.

“You’re gonna get it now!” I said through the hand on my cheek.

Roger’s jaw drooped a bit, and he jumped off the carousel and ran, but he ran into the fenced in playground, rather than out of it, encouraging me to imagine I might trap him. Though I ran after him, I was fat. I couldn’t catch Roger and he knew it. Everyone laughed.

Then he stopped, “Lookit!”

He pointed into a juniper shrubbery alongside the little playground by the see-saws and there I could see a massive wasp nest. I smacked him when I caught up with him, like stealing a basketball, but the ball was his head. My open hand across his ear resounded with a satisfying pop!

“Ow!” he cried, but continued pointing, this was important.

We watched the white-faced wasps buzzing in and out of their paper ball nest, and we didn’t need to discuss what must be done.

Standing far back we began to pelt the nest with rocks and watched as the terrifying insects swarmed and vibrated angrily on the gray surface of the ragged structure. Ray-Ray joined us and we boys cheered at our good hits. The stones ripped right through the grey paper, exposed the inner ranks of holes, each full with fat, pale, horrendous wasp babies, which we sent crashing to the ground. The wasps buzzed angrily, circling wider, looking for a foe to engage. And then Kiki was among us, she grabbed up an abandoned and broken toy motorcycle, and walking right up to the wasps’ nest, swiped at it with the stupid toy motorcycle.

“Kiki!” I yelled, amazed by her ignorant brazenness, but too late, wasps were on her, and she covered her face and began to scream. It seemed impossible that she’d done that. We were frozen watching her, everything in a kind of dramatic slow motion, our cameras running twice the film.

“We’re gonna be in trouble,” Roger gawped at me.

And then Lauda and Brit ran to her, pulled her away from the nest, brushed wasps off her and dragged her to us, the wasps followed, and we ran as fast as we could.

I remember swatting at a few, the whole world a kind of blurring of chain link fence and scraggly unkempt yard shrubs as we fled, but I managed to not get stung.

“Them wasps are mean ones, the white-faced ones are the worst,” Ray-Ray said, nodding, authoritative.

I nodded but I’d seen some impressive wasps, big ones, with steely blue-black bodies and thread-waists. I’d seen some around a wood pile with shockingly long “stingers”. I’d seen a massive yellow and black beast digging a hole, buzzing around that hole menacingly, as big, it seemed as Kiki’s hand. Wasps were terrifying, and had an agenda. Sometimes it seemed like it was just us against them.

Roger disappeared.

The girls were mad at us, gave us severe looks as they went inside with Kiki. They came back out with bomb pops, but just for them.

“We got pops,” Brit said needlessly.

“We can get pops too,” Ray-Ray said and it was probably true.

“Oh yeah?” Brit seemed to challenge.

Kiki didn’t come back out, Mrs. Eklund was fussing over her stings. The girls had interrupted Mrs. Eklund’s stories, The Edge of Night.

“You guys be crocodiles,” Brit said.

And so, under the jungle gym Ray-Ray and I crawled in the sand on our bellies being crocodiles while the girls above us dangled their legs and screamed as we reached for them. We were going to eat them.

And so, under the jungle gym Ray-Ray and I crawled in the sand on our bellies being crocodiles while the girls above us dangled their legs and screamed as we reached for them. We were going to eat them.

I caught Brit’s foot and as she pulled away she left behind her shoe. It was black with a lavender inside and sported a flower on the toe. I was disappointed there was no girl attached to it. I pretended to eat the shoe and then handed it to Ray-Ray. He growled and seemed to imagine chomping on the shoe as well.

“Wait, time-out!” Brit cried, and climbed down the jungle gym, sock-foot, shoe-foot, sock-foot, shoe-foot and ran into the house.

We waited patiently, looking up at Lauda, who aimed her big brown eyes down at us studiously, as if trying to comprehend why boys would roll around in the dirt and eat girls’ shoes. Then Brit came back, the screen door clattered in its frame behind her as she climbed back up onto the colorful metal bars and dangled her legs again.

“OK,” she said cheerfully.

“We’re gonna eechoo up!” Ray-Ray said.

I added a roar, hoping that would satisfy the gravity of the situation.

“Eeek!” Brit said.

For a while I thought that it might happen, that the girls would fall and I would eat Brit or Lauda all up. I thought Brit would be better, but I was determined to eat Lauda if she fell to me. I was going to eat one of them. Eventually, Brit allowed herself to be pulled down. She dangled for a bit screeching, and finally, let go her monkey grips and fell into our crocodile mouth arms, extended, and opening and closing like crocodile jaws. She shrieked some more and we held her while she kicked her feet.

I hadn’t thought the game this far through, ended up with a mouthful of sand. It turned out we couldn’t really eat the girls, of course. The game had been kind of better as a stand-off. Plus, Brit could easily slap her brother around, and he surrendered when she sat on him. I didn’t feel encouraged to be a crocodile anymore, laying in the dirt with Ray-Ray defeated by the girl who was supposed to be our victim.

While I had been coughing sand and spitting and Brit had been conquering her brother, Lauda climbed down and ran into the house, flicking the porch light on. Just then I realized it had started to get quite dark. Lauda leaned into the screen and looked out at us for a moment, as if to assure herself that she wasn’t going to miss anything else interesting, and then vanished for the evening.

“Don’t even think about it!” Brit hissed at me as I tugged gently at her remaining shoe.

Then—the crocodiles proven to be harmless—we drifted over into the little graveyard in the Maguire’s back yard, fully grown over with weeds, many of the stones long ago toppled over by big kids. The railings were still in place on three sides, and we sat on these.

“Maybe spirits of dead people are here,” Brit said.

“We could do an Indian dance to wake them up,” Ray-Ray said, hopping about a bit like Chief Jay Strongbow on the “warpath”, one leg raised, hopping, describing a small circle.

“What would it be like to get possessed?” Brit wanted to know and opened her bright eyes wide, raising her arms and marching about like a robot. I wanted to try that too, so I raised my arms and opened my eyes wide, and Brit cracked-up. For a moment I felt great for making her laugh, but I soon got that it was only because she thought I looked like an idiot.

In the distance we heard the mournful firehouse howl, the eight O’clock whistle, it was time to go home.

I wolfed a bowl of Quisp, watching The Rifleman not shoot anyone while spinning and firing his lever-action rifle. I hated the episodes that ended without a gunfight. I dreamed of that lever-action Winchester.

“How can you get so filthy dirty every day?” Mom had said with despair the evening before.

“He’s a kid, June, kids get dirty,” Dad had chuckled.

Every day?” she looked at me and I shrugged.

She made me promise I’d not get so dirty today.

I rushed up the hill and up Eleanor Drive to the bus stop, where we lined our brown-bagged lunches, one line for the boys one for the girls, representing the all important age and popular ranking. While our bags held our places, we played tag.

Most days someone would donate a fruit to put under the bus tires so we could ridiculously indulge in the resulting mashed mess, it being obviously representative of someone’s head crushed to pulp.

Most mornings I had a particular head in mind, often enough, heads of girls I thought were pretty, girls I’d stare at for most of the bus ride: pale, slender Vicky Amaral or perky and bright Patty Reynolds.

These were girls who lived nearby and never gave me a moment of recognition. The fantasized violence made me feel cruel, powerful, awfully guilty, and wonderfully excited.

I was in love with Miss Cardin, our teacher. She was beautiful and I rarely took my clueless, greedy eyes off of her. She wore her brown hair big, and wore sweaters and skirts. Her legs were mesmerizing, and her shoes large and black. I studied Miss Cardin’s rump moving slightly but vigorously as she wrote our vocabulary on the board. Reaching high up on her toes, and coming down and jutting her rear out toward the side as she reached the bottom. Would she play on the jungle gym, dangling her legs, imagining me a crocodile? The class was arranged boy-girl, each boy surrounded by a square of girls, so that the girls would not talk too much to each other, or so we were told. The girls often dressed in fancy outfits, but I only had eyes for Miss Cardin.

I knew she caught me cheating on the multiplication tables, I could see her eyes leave me, look away during my one-on-one test. But she didn’t call me out when I’d obviously read an answer off my palm, my hands up on my face pretending I was thinking hard. It was only a couple that were tricky, seven times eight, who would imagine fifty-six. It was such a weird confusion of numbers: five-six from seven eights. She letting me get away with a small infraction made me feel closer to her. My fantasies about her included colorful mixing-up with I Dream of Jeanie, a captured Miss Cardin in a bottle that was mine, or she being in my King Kong paws, screaming as I lifted her to my immense greedy mouth, a lovely monster’s snack.

My classroom job was cleaning the sink and I took great care in its spit and polish, I wanted her to be impressed, and I left nothing to chance, wiping every last drop dry, and leaving the steel parts glistening. Miss Cardin often hugged me with appreciation.

At the end of the day we waited in a crush at the classroom door, and when the principal called the bus numbers over the intercom we rushed in a stampede for our seats. You learned not to get too close to the buses because there were evil kids who would spit out the windows into other passing kids’ hair. There wasn’t much time to rectify this offense and the giggling spitters could quickly hide themselves, making it hard to know for sure who it was. I imagined that those kids would go to prison one day or maybe just die young.

Ray-Ray and Brit Cannon, as well as Lauda Quattrocchi (The Roachie), went to catholic school and so I didn’t see them during the school day. And I’d only occasionally caught them in their uniforms.

Ray-Ray also practiced the organ every afternoon, which I found endlessly fascinating. He hated it. I dreamed of pushing those keys and making those amazing sounds. It seemed like wizardry to me.

Then it was paper route time, and I helped Ray-Ray unwrap the papers at the drop and distribute them for a few bucks a week.

“There’s Angel,” Ray-Ray said quietly as one of the big kids walked toward us at the end of our route. He was alone and switched to our side of the road.

I hiked the paper satchel up on my shoulder and kept my hand on the money in my pocket.

“We know you,” I said with as scathing a voice as possible when Angel got close to us.

He grinned at us, “Oh yeah? Who am I?”

“Yaw Bobby Angel!” I yelled at him. And Ray-Ray shot me a puzzled look. I felt a hot rage building in me and I yielded to it.

“I’m not Bobby,” he said and lowered his sunglasses, showing me his eyes.

“Yaw Bobby Angel! And my dad said if I see you I should tell you that he’s gonna find you and have you put in prison!”

“I’m not Bobby!” he said turning his palms up and pushing his glasses back up.

“We don’t have any money for yaw drugs, Bobby Angel!” I hollered as loudly as I could, a man several houses away looked curiously down the road toward us.

“I’m not Bobby Angel, sheesh kid, what’s your deal?” he said, stalking off.

After a few steps Ray-Ray said, “You know, not everyone is Bobby Angel.”

We walked over to and climbed down the stairs of the open basement where a house had once stood but had been demolished on Howard Avenue. We thought the place magical. Who ever saw a basement with no house?

“Wasn’t that Bobby Angel?”

We sat down at the white-topped, rusty, metal table in the center of the foundation and pulled out our horse chestnuts which had been stuffed into every available pocket. The big kids sometimes got high in here and it was a mess of old magazines, food containers and filthy rags.

“Naaa, I dunno know who it was. I thought it was, but it wasn’t.”

I felt certain it was the same guy I’d seen throw a snapping turtle at the girls when we were down at Middle Dam Pond, maybe a year back. He walked around with that charcoal-colored beast hanging by its tail, like a flat, baby dragon, its hard mouth open, creamy white inside. Bobby kept leaning back and selecting a girl to throw it at, like a pitcher lurching forward and letting it fly underhanded. The girls screamed and scattered as the turtle hit the ground on its haunches, but the girls didn’t leave. As usual it was only the turtle that mattered to me, it was terrified and tried to jump at Angel as he ran over to pick it up again.

Angel was an asshole. A drug dealer. My dad told me to let him know whenever I saw him. But now all I was really sure of was Bobby Angel wore glasses and had straight dark hair.

We decided on the best of our horse chestnuts, later we would run string through them to make clackers. The strongest nuts smashing others and allowing for bragging rights.

“Why are some chestnuts poison?” I asked Ray-Ray.

“I dunno,” he shrugged, “guess God likes it that way.”

As we crossed the playground with the tilted carousel and the destroyed wasp nest—we kept our distance but eyeballed it carefully—we sang:

“Let the sunshine in, face it with a grin, the Maguires never win, so let the sunshine in!”

“Why the Maguires?” Ray-Ray said, suddenly defensive of Roger.

“The Eklunds then,” I said.

“Let the sunshine in, face it with a grin, the Eklunds always win, so let the sunshine in!”

Ray-Ray laughed, “Kiki and Roger.”

“Eklund and Maguire,” I mused, their last names respectively. They were the little kids, a couple of years behind us. Brit sometimes babysat Kiki.

Brit, while close to us in age, was twelve and this entitled her to lord over her brother Ray-Ray at eleven. In fact, we both often did as Brit demanded. She usually had the best ideas, like going swimming up at Fones’ Pond where we found all the huge bullfrog tadpoles and I saw her in her panties as she changed behind the jewel weeds, or the time she decided we should all hike down to Battez’s corner store and buy penny candy. I didn’t even mind buying a lot of it for her, she convincing me to buy mostly her favorites, Swedish fish and Turkish taffy (foreign chic).

At church I watched Ray-Ray follow the priest around in robes. It was the most serious I saw Ray-Ray being, and church, any church, was so alien to me that I found it wildly fascinating.

 

 

We knelt, then we stood, then we sat again. At one point the priest wanted us all to shake hands, and I was suddenly shaking hands with none other than Andy Lebrun, who was dressed in a suit and standing between his parents.

Andy lived just across the street from our bus-stop and sometimes came over just to kick my lunch bag out of line. He had even once jumped on me unexpectedly and punched me in the ear after getting off the bus, pretending with con-artist smooth that it was just a joke, but my ear had swelled painfully. He also tirelessly abused Ray-Ray at their school. Though Brit often exacted a powerful shin-kicking revenge for that. Church-Andy smiled at me as he shook my hand. I am sure I smiled back, but I felt the unease of being duped.

“Our sins are black marks on our souls,” Ray-Ray explained to me as we hunted crayfish in Black Rock Brook.

It was a river to us, rolling past our houses and through the woods down to Pearce’s pond. We were experts at collecting the little crustaceans which endlessly fascinated us. We’d sometimes stage duels with them, getting them to lock claws. They always seemed far less interested in doing that than we wanted them to be.

“I don’t understand,” and I didn’t.

“We have souls, our souls have to be clean to go to Heaven,” Ray-Ray tried again.

I also didn’t understand Heaven, though, I’d heard of it, of course, as well as God and Jesus, but none of it made any sense to me, beyond mom telling me God was punishing me anytime I fell or got injured.

“Andy shook my hand at church,” I said as if it were a question.

“Uh, yeah, we have to, . . . brotherhood, you know, we’re supposed to all be family.”

As I tipped over a flat rock a cloud of silt floated by and a massive crayfish held its claws out toward me, its tail ready to flick and move it rapidly backwards, it was beautiful.

“God doesn’t want us to hate each other,” Ray-Ray said.

“I hate Lebrun.”

One day while studying the brook after school, we realized we were looking at a lot of red surveyor’s tape and clean wooden stakes driven into the ground. We began stripping the tape and breaking the stakes off. In a few days time, tractors arrived and began clearing the forest. We rushed there after dinner and opened the air stems on the tires and put pebbles in them and screwed the caps back on to deflate the tires. We shoved sticks and dirt into the ignitions. We saw ourselves as protecting the animals. Much to our dismay, the developers leveled the woods and built houses anyway.

On the other side of the new development was a dump we’d go to frequently to look for snakes. They seemed to like best to lay coiled under old car doors. Ray-Ray liked dumps because he believed in scavenging good stuff, and there was an almost magical quality to his expectations. His favorite dump was up by Ice House Pond.

“Whatever you want, you can find it there,” he said matter-of-factly. “Once I was hoping to find a record player, and then on that same day, I found a good jobber at Ice House Pond.”

I saw that record player, it was a broken piece of junk, but he was able to get it working. A small amount of garage tinkering and there it was. He was able to play some old Spike Jones records his father kept. When the gunshot sounds—so prevalent in Spike Jones’ music—happened, we’d pretend to shoot at each other.

One evening after Ray-Ray turned twelve, we decided to camp in the backyard at my house as a kind of celebration of his burgeoning adulthood. We notified the relevant parents and collected our packs, which were full of useless junk—a mylar “space blanket”, a magnetizing device, allowing one to magnetize the end of a screwdriver, a variety of dull pocket knives, a selection of Wacky-Pack stickers, a rubber nose, a pair of rubber ears, a topo map of Warren County Pennsylvania, my Audubon Guide to reptiles and amphibians, and Ray-Ray’s copy of Greek Gods and Heroes by Robert Graves—and set our sleeping bags on the flattest ground in the grass of the backyard.

Of course, we spent most of the night blabbing and telling terrible jokes.

“What’s it like to be twelve?” I wanted to know.

“Great. Everything’s better,” he said seriously.

My parents had helped me pick out a birthday present for him and it ended up being a baseball mitt even though I’d never seen him play baseball. Dad couldn’t really imagine a boy who didn’t want a baseball mitt. Ray-Ray had thanked me for it just the same, but I felt terrible watching my best friend unwrap this dumb gift.

“Is Brit thirteen now?”

“She will be in three weeks”

“A teenager,” I thought, awesome.

“Yeah.”

I couldn’t wait, I was many months behind Ray-Ray, wouldn’t be twelve for ages yet, it killed me to be so far behind, still a kid.

Plus, I rarely saw Brit anymore, her interests had taken her beyond our neighborhood afternoons of floundering about, no longer riding on the little park carousel, or having us be her crocodiles.

Then, while staring up at the stars, I saw something odd, a white streak of light that flashed and ended so precisely and so rapidly it took my breath away. Then there was another, interrupting our discussion. Ray-Ray had no idea what the occasional short streaks of light were either. As the night wore on and we counted dozens of these bright slashes in the sky, we decided that it must be some kind of lightening bug, flying high up, but we did not rule out the possibility of other insects, bats, very reflective ducks, or UFOs.

Fishing at Ice House Pond with Ray-Ray, we caught pumpkinseeds, though we saw some other kinds of fish as the sun struck obliquely into the series of puddles that had once been a larger pond. Someone had released all the water, pulling the wooden slats out of the dam, leaving behind a series of rivulets and smaller pools. This had happened long enough ago that the dry pond floor had mostly turned into a field. We had set-up our fishing poles next to the largest of these pools.

Ray-Ray gasped and he stood up, “Bobby Angel.”

“What?” I swung my head around in time to see Bobby Angel, and another big kid called Ricky Augustine coming out onto the dry hummocks of the pond where we were stationed with our can of worms.

Oddly, Andy Lebrun was with them as well. I stood up and shaded my eyes as the boys marched steadily toward us, Augustine and Lebrun grinning madly as Bobby Angel lead the way.

“Hey!” Angel yelled to us, like an enthusiastic aunt on the holidays.

Ray-Ray kind of waved.

“How’s the fishing!” he hollered with a big grin.

I realized now how I’d forgotten him. I’d totally forgotten his long sunken face, shining clear skin, toothy, with a light fuzzy mustache. His big black glasses magnified his startling, nearly divergent, dark eyes. Those eyes!

Ricky Augustine was as broad as my Dad’s VW bug, fifteen years old, a famously mean kid. Augustine had once shot every living creature he had come across with a coveted Sheridan air rifle at Middle Dam one afternoon, hitting everything with nine pumps. As he came across me fishing that day, he dropped a handful of dead bullfrogs he’d been dangling by their legs in front of me and snorted, “Have a frog, kid.” Each of those poor animals with its head hammered in by a .20 caliber pellet, their perfect leaping legs no longer tucked under, their determined angular jumping posture replaced with painfully akimbo, splayed dead ruin. Flies landed on their drying pale bellies, and I had wept for them.

Augustine now walked over to Ray-Ray’s fishing pole with a half grin on his porcine face.

“Lemmee help yuh wit dis,” he said and grabbing the tip, he bent it down and snapped it. “Oops, ah, man, dey don’t make ’em like dey use-ta, huh?”

Andy started snickering and Angel looked at their faces and licked his lips. Then Augustine kicked our worm can into the water.

“C’mon man!” Ray-Ray said, slumping his slender shoulders, “what’s that for?”

“Whaddaya gonna do ’bout it?” Augustine suddenly bellied up, shoving Ray-Ray, adopting a severe face meant to cow younger kids.

“I know who you are,” I heard myself blubber. Bobby Angel’s psychotic glare too close to my face for comfort.

“Oh yeah, Bum? Who ah we?” Andy said. His imitation of Augustine was light. Next to the big kids Lebrun was really a pipsqueak, a rat flocking with feral dogs.

I wasn’t talking to Lebrun. My only concern at the moment was Angel. Ray-Ray had focused his attention on the broken Zebco he’d just spent all his birthday money on at Benny’s. And then Augustine started bellying Ray-Ray toward the water, herding him with shoves and brutish laughter.

“I know who you ah!” my face was hot and I felt angry tears welling up.

“Aw lookit, he’s gonna cry,” Andy pointed and laughed. “We ain’t even done nuttin’ to ya yet.”

Andy was relishing this momentous encounter, teamed with the big kids, wanting badly to impress his betters.

Bobby Angel just stood staring, like he wasn’t there any more, like he’d left his senses, walked all the way out here and forgotten why. He looked a bit like a lizard in a filthy t-shirt, one of those Old World chameleons with the independently moving eyes.

“Yaw Bobby Angel, an’ yaw goin’ ta prison as soon as my dad finds ya!” I hollered and pointed directly at Angel’s smoothly shining face.

Lebrun put his arm around my shoulders and half turned me away from Angel, as if we were buddies and he had to tell me something in private, then with his other hand he punched me in the gut. It was a pathetic hit, I felt nothing, but I buckled anyway. Angel was looking at me. Lebrun was kind of leaning on me. At that instant, inexplicably, I saw a fish, a perch or a modest bass in the angle of the sun.

“A bass!” I pointed awkwardly, seeming to forget about the low- end assault taking place.

Lebrun hissed with disgust as he let me go, “shuddup.”

“Yaw a drug deala, . . . ” I blubbered but still choked it out, “and my dad tole me to let him know whenever I see you, he’ll be lookin’ for ya,” I held my stomach. I was running my mouth fast, not even sure of what I had to say.

“Ooh, Bum’s dad’s gonna git ya!” Lebrun shrieked with laughter.

“C’mon, let’s get outta heah,” Angel croaked, suddenly coming back to life, seemingly disgusted. His magnified eyes rolling about as if watching for hawks.

Augustine finally shoved Ray-Ray into the rivulet that lead to the hole we were fishing. Ray-Ray splashed in and got soaked up to his ass.

“Bastids!” Ray-Ray yelled.

“What’d ya call me?” Augustine said, adopting the same bully posturing a second time.

“Let’s go!” Angel hollered and started marching off.

Augustine picked up and threw Ray-Ray’s Zebco into the pond like a spear, it disappeared into the middle of the pool with a smallish kersploosh. Augustine and Lebrun giggled viciously.

Hot tears ran down my face as they walked away, Angel in the lead moving rapidly. I was having trouble with my breath as they vanished down the path.

“Fuckin’ babies,” Lebrun yelled over his shoulder.

Ray-Ray came out of the water with the worm can, managed to salvage a handful of very clean and agitated worms, wiggling about like the end of a flag in a storm.

I wiped my nose, snot on my sleeve, “Assholes.”

“See, I told ya that wasn’t Bobby Angel that time,” Ray-Ray smiled at me. He found his rod tip, and tangling the line around his hand he managed to retrieve his pole from the pond. He examined the tip of his rod and pushed it back together as best he could.

“Those guys’ll go to prison,” I said, feeling something caught in my throat, a sticky sob. “Or someone’ll kill ’em.”

“God’ll punish ’em,” Ray-Ray said distractedly.

I thought about having shook Lebrun’s hand at Our Lady of Good Council while Ray-Ray was doing his alter-boy work. I thought about those kids hocking loogies out the bus windows into the girls’ hair and guffawing, enjoying the pain they caused others. And this unfortunate run-in with not only Bobby Angel but the infamously mean Ricky Augustine, rumored to be not only dangerous, but also stupid as a pile of rocks, kicked out of school and now just following Bobby Angel around.

“If I had a gun, I’d shoot those guys,” Ray-Ray said, squinting.

I frowned, “I know. I was thinkin’ a takin’ karate.” I had seen an advertisement in the paper.

“I know a guy who knows a guy—has a place,” Ray-Ray nodded.

“My uncle’s a black belt!”

“Cool, where’s he at?”

“California.”

After a while Ray-Ray and I had had enough of fishing and hiked back home, cutting through forested edges, roadsides and backyards, along the way testing our strength by holding sticks for one another to break with the karate edges of our hands.

The Senior Year (short fiction psychotic HS rated-R)

playground

Lori’s arm is my zone of comfort, the respite from madness, and the madness prevails. Mrs. Gray wails from her stage, open notes, spittle flying, a phonograph tearing through the grooves, skreeeeech! Jesus Christ! I hate when her shaky, old lady hands mishandle that tone arm. Another arm, but no respite. I lay face down on Lori’s tender arm, it’s a small arm, soft, smooth, and warm, likely perfectly edible. I try not to eat her, she’d be gone in a flash, she’s only a morsel, a bite-sized thing.

She talks to me as I keep her little arm captive, though, she seems not to be concerned at all with that, and each day she sits sideways so that I may capture it. Indeed, its offered to me, not something I have to hunt, not something that I have to design a trap for.

“Do you know Berger? I like him, he’s a nice guy,” Lori says, extending her feet and sort of flutter-kicking her silver shoes. “He bought me a drink the other night.”

I know Berger, hate him, but I stay quiet.

I move my forehead up and allow my lips to brush the downy softness of Lori’s skin, she pretends not to notice me wrapping my lips around her, sort of pretends not to notice me fitting her limb between my teeth, which I do very gently.

I move my forehead up and allow my lips to brush the downy softness of Lori’s skin, she pretends not to notice me wrapping my lips around her, sort of pretends not to notice me fitting her limb between my teeth, which I do very gently.

“Berger and Allen were at the Millhouse, we were all there, I was there with Chrissy, you know Chrissy?” she asks and pauses for my response. “Chrissy Jackson?”

I let go of her arm with my mouth and say softly, “No.”

I’m lying, I know who she means. I’ve just never had the opportunity to talk to Chrissy. She’s not a friend of mine. Of course, there was that one time I was being pushed to dance with her, was told she wanted to dance with me. Of course, Chrissy had never suggested such a thing, and I knew that, so I didn’t approach her. I’m too smart for that. The chickens had just thought it would be funny to see me fail, or maybe thought because we were both tall we’d look funny together.

And then the bells ring and we are back out in the shit storm, highways of bodies illicitly rubbing against one another, hauling their bags and boxes. When you see someone you recognize you jut your chin out at them, raise your eyebrows. We’re really good at eyebrow expression. We practice a variety of eyebrow lifts and jostles, combined with the other eyebrow, or singularly with a scalp shift. Fusco is able to make his huge head of hair wave like he were riding in a convertible just through advanced use of his scalp muscles. He does this trick where things he strategically hides in his hair fall out. He has that fetching gap in his teeth too. I am sure someone thinks that gap is sexy. I keep telling him the girls love it, but he won’t smile.

Denni Nagy is going to ask me for my jacket, she’s coming now, I see her. Swinging herself along the polished floor, somehow like a gazelle, so slender and ungainly lanky. Still, I don’t think about her much.

“Can I wear your jacket?” she says with a soft smile and a tilt of her head. The top of her nose is flat and wide, her big blue eyes are well spaced.

“OK,” I say, slipping out of it, as if we don’t go through this routine every day.

It’s a Portuguese army camouflage thing I found it under the hood of a VW while I was being disappointed about there not being a spare tire. 

The jacket looks ridiculous on Denni, baggy, drooping well down to her knees, sleeves having to be bunched up so her small pale hands can stick out. She inhales deeply as though she’s wrapped herself in a garland of roses.

“Thanks!” she says.

“Sure,” I wave.

And she leaves me on her long feet. I imagine her heels up near her knees, her knees up by her hips, like a blue-eyed ungulate.

I sit over a half pint of milk and a peanut butter flavored thing with chocolate.

“I had three numbers, if I’d had one more I woulda had the ten thou,” Bianco says.

I’d missed most of the story already, so I didn’t bother to ask.

“What numbers was ya play-in’,” Simkowitz says.

“Parents birth years, house number, my age, my sister’s age, and the floater, the last number I always pick something different, but I mix em up,” Bianco says with a sly look.

“That’s a good system,” Simkowitz says.

I look from face to face. Simkowitz still doesn’t seem to realize that I have been deliberately hacking his shins with a hockey stick during field sport, including yesterday. Punishment for this infraction, still considered “accidental”, is in the simple removal from participation range, and that’s fine by me.

I find Simkowitz’s treatment of every sports opportunity as if he were some kind of athletic star deserving of our admiration, abhorrent. I’m not sure why he can’t see he’s just a tragically manipulated monkey boy, embarrassing himself. Whenever he has the ball his joy disgusts me. I hate his big, flat, pale face with freckles, his reddish clown-hair, his sports prowess, son of the coach. A real jackass in other words. His love of balls, leading him through this miasma of shaming. But none of this is something he needs to know.

“If you get five of the six numbers it’s fifty thou!” Simkowitz licks his lips.

“That’s a lot of bread,” Bianco says with a nod.

“Whad’d you do with it?” Simkowitz wants to know.

“I’d get a business going, training dogs, rotties,” Bianco says, “s’good money in them dogs.”

“Rotties are pussies, you should work on mastifs,” Fusco pipes up.

“How much ya need to get that going?” Simkowitz asks.

“Well I wanna build a world class kennel, you know, state-of-the-art,” Bianco says his hands palm up. But his eyes are trained on Fusco.

“What’s state-of-the-art for a dog kennel?” I wonder.

“Saw this thing where they compared the dogs, you know, rotties versus mastifs versus dobermans vs shepards . . . ” Fusco wants to argue about this.

God, it was starting all over again and it was only mid-week. The same swirling, cold bunko, the same desperate voices, the same insipid comments, as meaningless as buzzing flies on a summer window. Simkowitz, Bianco, Fusco, even Denni day in and day out, talking about whatever complicated organ and flower shop plots, or jai alai games they’d heard about, and, of course, the endless television commercials with people squeezing toilet paper like boobs and discussing Corinthian leather like it were love itself, a world of remarkable behaviors that would be recited and repeated with compulsive, monkey-see-monkey-do dementia. At any given time, the girls bent over, shuddering on their haunches as the boys attempt to mate them like randy roosters, and the overseers batting them off with rolled-up newspapers. The smart ones, the gays, meet up under the rarely patrolled stairwells, where the stink of human must terrifies the authorities.

There’s the bell and we’re up moving through the hallways again, our shoes feel like lead, our eyes seeking our familiars, our mumbles directed toward the floor with Islamic penitence. The voices over the intercom intermittently reciting the pledge of allegiance mixed with patriotic marching songs from huge brass ensembles. There is a stench in the hallway and it’s something like the sharp stench of Cladosporium—good name for a team. Meanwhile the girls have differentiated between plain ponytails and actual braids. One is for children, don’t screw up which one, they’ll hiss at you.

Finally, it’s time for Lori’s arm. I lean over and she deftly slides it under my head. It is the most delicious, beautiful moment of my day, her tenderness, her simple care. I fondle her arm as though it were something I’ve paid for, something costing hundreds of dollars an hour to be with. Xerxes himself had no greater pleasures.

“Do you know Bourassa? We was out at Tiogue Tavern. Bourassa bought me a drink, he’s nice,” Lori said, her beautiful fluffy hair about her shoulders, her big brown eyes gleaming wetly. Her feet extended and flutter kicking, this time in shining black flats. I can see the tops of her feet encased in some kind of darker sheer nylon that was not much of a match for her paleness.

I know Bourassa and I hate him. I hate his desire to see others in agony. I have seen him deliberately crash into people with the sole purpose of rending from their arms anything they might be carrying, stacks of paper, or collections of books or pamphlets, elements of projects under construction. He’ll drop his level like a wrestler going for a single-leg and shoulder his way into people to dislodge their encumbrance. He keeps running and laughing as his cronies kick the materials around the hallway. I am ashamed that I’ve never stood up to him. I’ve never cornered that asshole. I’ve never put him in his place. The fucking Tebrows are supposed to do it, but they usually select easier jobs.

“Uh huh,” I say, pressing my mouth against the soft skin on the inside of her arm.

“Bourassa’s wicked cool,” Lori smiles, rotating her arm in any direction I like, palm up, palm down, on the side. she allows me to explore it, suck it, lap at it. My heart rate decreases, and I feel a swooning sensation. I could sleep. I could escape for hours. But I won’t be allowed that. Lori’s arm is something I’m only allowed for about forty-five minutes. And next to the usual dumping of girl groceries out of girl grocery bags and the officials having to rush about putting the groceries back into their bags, no one takes much notice of my delicate affection for Lori’s slender limb.

I know the ulna, the radius, the tri-quetrum. I’ve massaged the brachioradialis and palmaris longus gently with my mouth, and have had delicious knowledge of the joint spaces of her lovely little hand. I’ve kissed the carpals, metacarpals and flexor tendons. And, of course, I feel her pulse with my lips. She is a memorized specimen. I have her arm in my mind’s eye. I am in junky-love with her arm.

It’s morning again and I’m seated across from Fusco, Simkowitz and Bianco, today, also, Badessa. They discuss a run-in with one of the Tebrows who threatened to beat them with a two-by. No two-bys are allowed, but some of the Tebrows get excited.

“What an asshole,” Badessa commiserates.

“All Tebrows are assholes.” Bianco says.

Of course, all our eyes flit about the corral, picking out the dark uniformed, pole-up-the-ass Tebrows, clearly giving off that idiotic stature. Their wrinkled together brows, their marching about whenever there is anything like an excitement in the room, as if they need to be there, lording over it, protecting us from ourselves, utterly ridiculous.

Fusco begins pounding on some kind of plastic wrapped cupcake and adds some milk to the mass. I would have been happy to have that cupcake, but, I suppose Fusco deserves to do what he wishes with it.

Denni sidles up to me with a smile I slip out of the jacket and she embraces it, wiggling into it like it were engulfing her, some kind of camouflage giant amoeba from an old black and white monster movie. She briefly disappears into it, and then pops her head back out.

“Mmmm,” she says, “thanks.”

“Don’t mention it,” I wave. Each time she returns it I go through the many military pockets, deep pockets, wide pockets, but there’s never anything in it for me, not a dime, not a note, nothing.

“The goddamned Tebrows” Badessa continues.

“What color is black people jizz?” Fusco asks with his usual lack of attention to subject.

“What color would it be?” I wonder.

“Doan know, but I was talkin’ ta Plante and he said black people got black jizz,” he squeezes the mess on the table in front of him into a pile.

“Thas ridiculous,” I snort.

“How ya know?” Fusco does some eyebrows, shakes his big hair a few times.

“Cause Plante’s an idiot, you don’t believe nuthin’ comes outta him,” I say a little more sternly than I mean to.

“Pizza for lunch today!” Bianco says with exaggerated excitement as he sees the glum-faced food service staff, all brown-skinned people, rolling in and then ripping open the boxes, pulling out the plastic wrapped sheets.

The bell rings and we all rush out to the hall and drag our feet, making eyebrows at our acquaintances as they pass. I do this chin jutting thing with a series of eyebrow lifts and a fancy scalp shake, almost belly dancer level of control, very distinctive, but it won’t be long before someone adds another wrinkle to it, complicates it, bastardizes it even. The pledge of allegiance is rumbling over the speakers:

“I swear my allegiance to the symbols of authority guiding me in my daily path, and if need be, I will protect those symbols with my life, . . . so help me until Jesus returns, Amen.”

Then the usual marching band music repeats the familiar rousing tunes. God I hate those tunes.

The Tebrows police us, swat us with rolled newspapers, without notice, a smooth-skinned petite chick named Dana swishes into my path, smiling at me.

“Where you goin’, Ted?” she sort of puts her hands on my shoulders, blocking me out, dropping her hips to keep me from coming forward, I move forward anyway of course, she’s only tiny. She smiles playfully up at me. Her braid dancing over her shoulder as she checks behind her as I push.

“Computers,” I chuckle.

“Oooh, you don’t wanna maybe go under the stairwell with me, just for a minute? Please?” she sways her hips back and forth, doing a bit of fancy footwork in her flats as she slides backwards against my weighty progress.

I do. I do want to go under the stairwell with her, but, the nerves are jittery and I glance around at the rolled newspapers swatting down on various chickens.

We are under the stairwell and she jams my hand into the back of her slacks. I grab up a handful of the most wonderful meaty, warm, softness and her lips connect to mine. Dana!

“You like that?” she asks breathlessly, pressing her whole little body up against my bulk. She smells good.

“Uh huh,” I manage to get out, I engage my other hand too, get that down behind her into her slacks, now seemingly a bit looser. I grab up her other butt cheek and squeeze it hungrily.

“Oooh!” she says with a smile and presses tiny pursed-lip kisses around my mouth. She bends her knee and lifts a foot. Her big brown eyes are closed. She looks like she rehearsed this.

“You like this?” I ask her.

“Uh huh.” gasp, “What do you like?”

“What do you like?”

“I asked you!”

“I like you.”

“I like you, too.” Her breath hits me, it’s sweet.

When did this happen? We gotta go. It’s already time we’ll be late, the bells will ring and the Tebrows will be punishing the stragglers. We climb over the gays, whose groceries are all over the place, and make our way out into the light again. Her hand finds mine and she squeezes it fast, blows me a kiss and runs under the gauntlet of rolled newspapers the other direction. I sniff at the air, maybe the stench is actually Alternaria. Under the stairwell though, it’s sharply something more bodily, sweat and tears.

I get in just under the bell and sit at the computers. Ranks and ranks of them all blank, all blinking that cursor. Demanding. I fumble around, check my pockets, look in my sack, look in the wooden drawers near the machines and I find a cassette tape. I jam that into the tape deck and hit play just as one of the Tebrows cruises by behind me with a sneer.

Sweet Dana! How did I suddenly become her favorite?

My hands shake. My privates are asunder. And then it’s the actual Commander Tebrow on the intercom.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it has come to my attention that some of you have not taken spirit week with the right spirit. The intention of spirit week is to raise everyone’s spirits, everyone! So please in future have more spirit, tomorrow will be nosegay day, please show your spirit by wearing a nosegay. Thank you.”

“Gay nose, what the hell?” I hear DiMeo mutter.

“Nosegay,” I correct.

“Fuck off, Ted, you ain’t got no spirit.” And he’s right. Ain’t got none at all.

I watch the clock and after another shift in the hall, I’ve Lori’s arm. I nuzzle the crotch of the elbow, press my schnoz into her flexor carpi radialis. I run my lips up and down the smooth pale inside of her forearm. I sigh deeply. My heartrate slows my eyelids begin to slip down.

“Do you know Bellville? Bellville is the best! We were out at Expressions last night and he bought me a drink,” Lori says sweetly.

“Mmmm,” I murmur. I do know Bellville, he’s a goddamned asshole, one of those kids grew up stuffing fireworks into little animals and gleefully watching them explode. No matter, it doesn’t matter I have her arm. Her arm is mine! Dana! What about her? Dana!

“Do you know Dana?” I say to Lori, lifting my head slightly.

“What?” she asks with a smile as if talking to a very little boy.

She isn’t used to me asking her anything, she has her feet extended and is doing flutter kicks in these cute sparkle sandals that slap her heels as she wiggles her feet.

“Never mind.” I go back to enjoying her tender arm, distinguishing the delicate little muscles with my teeth and tongue. My gorilla grooming, meditative state coming on.

Mrs. Gray is mincing about with her hands over her head.

“Double double toil and trouble . . . ” she’s saying, “fi-uh burn and cauldron bubble!”

I slip my coat off as I see the gazelle approaching. She coos, loving it as I hold the jacket open for her to slip her little stick arms into, pat her on the back and she goes off on her way smiling over her shoulder at me, wrapped up two or three times in Portuguese camouflage.

“Thank you!”

“Right.”

Badessa and Fusco sit opposite me, Bianco on my left. Fusco keeps squeezing to death the remains of a pastry created to have endless shelf-life. Now it’s just a gray mash that oozes between his fingers like a very charcoal laden clay. He tries to make “brass” knuckles out of it.

“Looks like shit,” Badessa says, chuckling at Fusco.

“Feels like shit, too!” Fusco guffaws.

“Do you guys know Dana?” I ask.

“Dana, you mean Dana Lemoi?” Bianco wiggles an eyebrow.

“Lemoi!” I nod, no eyebrow action, this doesn’t call for it.

“Slut,” Simkowitz says.

“Probably,” Bianco adds.

“I thought she was a guy, no tits,” Fusco grins.

I hadn’t noticed this, I was busy squeezing her bum, which felt great.

“She was kissing on me yesterday, under the stairwell.”

“Ah!” Simkowitz, Bianco, and Badessa together, lots of eyebrow activity.

“Which stairwell? Foster’s stairwell?” So named as the Tebrows pulled Foster out from under a pig pile of orgiastic gay humanity there last year, nearly dead, had to be revived with some kind of African tea mixture the goddamned psychopath nurse applied.

“Na, not Foster’s, across from that,” I say. “The parallel hall.”

You’d think the place was an underground temple with three thousand, mostly unexplored rooms, but honestly, I only go the places I have to.

“She hasn’t got tits and has a boy’s name,” Fusco continues, giggling.

“Laframbois’s stairwell!”

“Yes, that one,” I nod.

There, a couple years back, a senior fellow named Laframbois leaped to his broken-necked temporary paralysis down the two story drop. He landed on some gays. He was in the hospital for ages and never talked to anyone again, moved on. He figured something out that the rest of us hadn’t grasped yet. In his note, he had said something about there being no real hope. He had dismissed everything: Gods, boobs, sports, cocks, balls, grass, books, computers, pizza lunches, girls’ wonderful bums, everything! But, I thought, it wasn’t his fault he didn’t care about any of it. I mean, maybe he was just born like that, didn’t have the right gene, didn’t play the lottery. I felt badly about Laframbois. It was funny how people could get funny, and then soon enough, they became something you couldn’t get at all, pushed out of range of our getting. The zeitgeist being that he was stoned, or crazy, or both. How far off was that? How far did Laframbois stray from our path?

“Crazy,” Fusco nods, clearly on the same thought paths.

“Yeah, nuts,” Badessa adds as they search their minds for Laframbois knowledge.

“So you had Lemoi under Laframbois’s stairwell?” Simkowitz wants to know.

“Yeah, thirty forty seconds or so,” I do some eyebrow pumps.

The boys look at one another.

“Laframbois was fucked up,” Fusco says, punching his mound of shit.

“Right, so anyway, you guys are just living it up, huh?”

“I will, soon as I hit the mega-bucks!” Badessa grins.

“Which is never,” I add fiercely.

“Fuck you, Ted, you don’t know, you never know!”

“I know.”

“You doan know!”

“I fuggin’ know already, you ain’t gonna win!”

“You doan even play, you cain’t win!”

“So that’s what you guys are all lookin’ forward ta? Winning the fuggin’ lottery? Is that all ya got?” I throw some spittle their way. A pimply-faced Tebrow is making his way over to us, a stern look across his brow.

The bell rings, and we rush to the doors.

“It’s a lot of money, Ted, serious.” Bianco points out.

“Jess get a ticket,” Simkowitz adds, “I’ll pick one up for ya, what numbers ya like?”

The announcements come on and the pledge and the music. I smell the mold, the sharp smell of the Aspergillus, or whatever the hell it is, living in the vents, in the lockers, in the food service.

Then Dana is in front of me in a bright skirt. I do a thing with my eyebrows, and chin. She grabs my hand with a bright-eyed smile. Leads me straight to Laframbois’s stairwell, we push the clutter out of the way, the broken seats, the tables stacked against he wall, we step over a couple of gays doing something, I try to get a closer look at, but Dana!

She pulls up her skirt and I put one hand on each side of her terrific bum and pull her to me. She goes up on tip-toe and I bend down to her lips.

“What do you want?” she whispers to me.

I have no idea. I want more of her, all of her.

“You,” I gasp.

I want to be away from this place, these bosses, the Tebrows pushing us around. I want to . . .

“You want some of this?” she shakes her top up to her neck, and flutters her eye lashes, and I’m looking at her pert, little, pink-tipped boobs. I gasp as I force her to back bend and bury my face into the pale skin between her tender girly lumps, she pushes her arms together to make them seem a bit bigger and softer. I slurp them up. They are wonderful, she’s wonderful. I think she might have a fever.

“More,” is all I get out.

I slump to my knees in front of her and she chuckles, rubbing her beautiful tummy and tiny breasts in my face, pulling her sweater up over her face.

“I’m all yours,” she says through the knit.

And then the warning bell rings.

“Fuck!” I jump to my feet like a sumo and she starts to giggle.

She drops her sweater over herself and kisses at me, missing as I drag her out from under the stairwell. The bodies of boys, and a few girls this time, all over the place trying to get their items bagged.

Suddenly a Tebrow right in front of us, a long swing of the rolled newspaper, I duck, it’s well over Dana’s head, and I trip, and I crash my head against the safety bar on the emergency exit door under the stairwell, it bursts open. Ow! Cold air blasts us along with supernova bright sunlight. The naked kids scream as the gust whips them savagely. They grab at their clothes. I’ve never seen plebs move so fast.

“Shut that door, young man!” the Tebrow’s voice booms. Despite saying “young man” to me, I know this Tebrow and he’s my age. Only a junior league Tebrow. It makes me chuckle and the Tebrows hate that. The rolled newspaper is raised, but the bodies, all out of their grocery bags, are rolling all about the stinking floor, squirming and trying to jab cold groceries back into underwear.

The sunlight is blinding and the cold prohibitive. I drag Dana, she just laughing, back inside the door. It slams shut behind us, and it now seems to my sunlight constricted pupils like nighttime just descended in one fell swoop. Dana manages finally to land a kiss on my chin.

“Gotta go!” she flees me, disappears down the corridor like a bunny zig-zagging away from the hounds. Her skirt flashing paleness underneath. Dana!

By the time I get to the square dancing, I’m carrying an official reprimand, a slip that tells me I’ll have to be in rubber-room tomorrow. Detention. The humorless vice-chancellor with a stack of tickets had sniffed haughtily at me.

“Crime?” he said with tremendous boredom.

“Under the stairwell with another pleb, late for assignment,” squawked the Tebrow his badge polished up brightly.

“Where’s the other pleb? I’ve never seen this pleb before,” the vice-chancellor said, “where’s he been all this time?”

“Never caused no trouble before, sir.” the Tebrow said.

“Who was your partner, pleb?” the VC squinted at me, the first time he actually put his eyes on me.

“Partner?” I shrugged, cool con, “didn’t you all see all those partners? They were all over the floor.”

The gays behind me started chuckling. A kind of light switched on inside this new corridor of unknown possibilities. I had been totally unaware of it. They came here every day for this treatment, I had always thought like junkies. Why would they do that? . . . But they’re not junkies, they’re living.

“Shut up!” another Tebrow squawked at the laughter, feeling her power slipping, she lifted her rolled newspaper baton. “It’s people like you—”

“That’s fine, officer,” the VC suddenly seeming cheeky, but it’d be a mistake to underestimate him. He could smile at you and turn on you in a flash like an unpredictable junkyard dog, developing rabid froth faster than you could blink. “Give me your arrest booklets.”

The Tebrows scrambled forward for the arrest stamps, wave their neatly folded arrest booklets at the VC.

“Do you see how many I’ve got, sir? I’ve got enough for a stripe!” the girl Tebrow all aflutter, all her authoritative sham dropped off and the little girl she actually was, so eager for the praise, boiling out. Double double toil and trouble . . .

“Oh you’re just getting started, the fellow Tebrow turned to her haughtily,” and then rapidly to the VC who was pulling the stamping pad out of the cabinet behind him, “we get the blue stamps this time, don’t we, sir? This was a multiple co-op arrest!”

The girl Tebrow was bouncing on her boot polished toes she was so happy.

“Yes, yes you do,” the VC said with a kind of affectionate gift-giving air as the Tebrow reminds him that the green stamp won’t do this time, he put it back and reached for the blue ink-pad.

My eyes left the scene and I looked at the gays and other miscreants a little differently now, now that I was one of them. There was some new chin jutting and eyebrow activity to share.

When we are practicing our allemande left I have to do so with one of the junior Tebrows. There’s no actual girl left for me, being late and all. During the hexitation, she won’t even put down her rolled newspaper. Twice she has to leave our dance to swat at some of the chickens mounting one another on the other side of the floor, this breaks up their square. After the swatting, they vibrate insensibly, staring into space with the aftereffects of their encounter. Dana!

The following day I report to in-house detention. During this special form of low-level punishment we are forced to watch films of proper interactions between plebs of both genders, and of course, how to properly kowtow to the authorities. There is a hilarious sequence of a fellow, some fancy rich-type, asking one of his employees to secretly examine his wife when she undresses. All to satisfy some bet that the guy is married to the most beautiful woman in the world. Course, the end result of this bargain and subsequent earth- shattering viewing of the woman’s goods—depicted with golden sunlight blasting through a magnifying lens—is totally weird. At first the woman seems innocent, but then she wants the employee guy, who just saw her for the first time, to actually kill her husband. Who would behave like that? What has her desire to see her husband killed to do with nudity? Madness.

The films are old and cheap. The actors are attractive but clumsy. Episodes of a girl and a boy in their spirited class uniforms imply a kind of sexual contact between them, but of course, not even for the film were they to actually rub one another, or squeeze one another’s wonderful meaty parts. So they act the way someone might imagine it to feel, the girl leaning her head back and angling her hips forward like two feet away from the guy’s hands. It looks like a strange European dance. I keep expecting them to Flamenco-slap each other. Gay encounters aren’t mentioned—don’t even exist. Dana!

Finally, I reach Lori’s arm, it feels like a week since I’ve been able to dock my sorry head against it, to kiss it, to savor it. Lori wears a set of bangles today, gold and jangling.

“I missed you yesterday!” Lori says tenderly.

“Oh, I missed you so much,” I reply, accepting her wonderful arm.

“You know Bellville and Bourassa? We were all out at the Mapleroot Inn, they bought me drinks, but then, they got into a huge fight!” Lori says with glee, her feet extended and waving about.

“Mmmm,” I mumble into her skin. She’s wearing a sweet perfume today, something citrus-like.

“Bellville’s kinda big, and mean, I mean, he’s a great guy to me, but he threw Bourassa onto a table, Bourassa pulled out a knife, and then the bouncers came, it was wild!” Lori smiles down at me. And after a pause, “Why don’t you come out sometime?”

I kind of wish Bellville and Bourassa could have killed each other, that would have been a most satisfying outcome.

Suddenly an announcement comes over the intercom in the middle of Mrs. Gray’s Henry the Fifth speech about the breech, dear friends, and going into it one more time.

It is the officer Tebrow the head of the Tebrows, the discipline chief responsible for all the rolled newspaper swatting and moral subjugation.

“It has just—is this thing on? . . . It has just come to my attention that certain of the plebeian body have chosen to disregard certain of rules established, . . . established for the sake of all our good. You want to suffer, fine, do it on your own time, but from now on there will be serious consequences for doing it on our time. . . . “

He begins enumerating the infractions that will no longer be tolerably dealt with, no mashing of foodstuffs, no more sandals, no more enjoyment of naked arms. . . . I look up and eyes are on me. Lori looks at me in a kind of horror mixed with shame and retreats her arm, I release her arm, it leaves me. My head hits the cold desk top. My lips kiss nothing, trace no more warm muscles, no more citrus smelling skin. Her feet which until now had been flutter kicking, hit the floor and she twists in her seat, facing away from me. I can see her shoulders shaking softly, she’s sobbing! . . . no putting of arms around shoulders. . . .

The chickens are clucking in their seats, bopping their heads around, pointing their beaks at one another.

” . . . each of these infractions is now punishable by our strongest class of retribution. . . .”

There’s a rumble outside the door, and something that sounds like a chair being thrown against a wall.

We see several Tebrows running past our window.

“Those didn’t look like rolled newspaper batons,” someone mutters.

There’s a scream, followed by more screams and the same Tebrows run back past our windows, now unarmed.

“Please remain calm, we will have this disorder under control shortly.” Then there’s the unmistakable sound of the room door lock engaging, Click! And then martial music begins hammering in the speakers.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” I hiss.

I sit watching Lori’s little shoulders shudder. I press myself to a seated upright position. I look around at the chickens. They stare back at me. Something is expected of me. I look toward Mrs. Gray, but her eyes are down, she sits in her chair one hand on her book, the other dangling near her hip. It crosses my mind that someone is married to her, and I’m gently boggled by it. It looks as though Mrs. Gray’s been shut off, unplugged, batteries dead.

Something’s burning.

“There’s a fire,” I say, sniffing.

“If they was a fi-uh they’d be an alahm,” Mrs. Gray suddenly pipes up, her awful rural accent suddenly unaffected.

Now we could all smell it, it’s clearly a fire.

The intercom crackles back to life, “Plebs, please remain calm,” it’s the VC this time. “A small combustion has occurred due to an accidental misuse of . . . uh. . .” there’s a sound, something falling off a shelf, a scuffle maybe, “A small fire has occurred as a result of, . . .” then with a hand over the microphone, “what should I tell them? . . . I’m not saying that!”

The intercom crackles off again. Martial music comes back, some more Tebrows a bigger batch of them this time go trotting past the window.

“Oh, come on!” I stand up—surprised looks—I walk to and pull at the door, the lock keeping it shut. I turn around and look at all the chickens and the defunct Mrs. Gray.

“Please,” Mrs. Gray says to me. I can’t tell how old the lady is, could be thirty could be sixty.

“Well, we could go out the windows,” I jut my chin toward them with some eyebrow action. They’re big windows.

Suddenly the door opens with a click.

“Oh my god,” Mrs. Gray says, her eyes big, “please, Ted, don’t do anything.”

But she triggered the door open at her desk anyway, clearly hoping I’d just go away.

“Just doan break the winders,” she says nervously.

I grab the door as fast as possible and shove a desk up against it. The chickens gather around me clucking wildly. Lori squirms under my arm, holding it around her petite shoulders. Infraction!

“OK! Let’s go!”

We stampede down the hallway without looking back, the fuming stench hitting our noses, some of the chickens start gagging. We immediately come up against several Tebrows who after shouting the usual warnings back out of our way.

Another announcement: “Plebeians please do not panic, we have the situation fully under control.”

I take a risk, looking back, and see . . . nothing. I expected a raging fire, a mob battling with the Tebrows, the gays maybe rising up, throwing the furniture out the windows, but there’s nothing—well, almost nothing.

Far down the hall someone has a fire extinguisher and is lazily coating what looks to be the remains of a microwave oven with white CO2 spray. There are a few extra extinguishers lined up against the wall, the ones that were brought by the Tebrows earlier. The chickens look at me as I gawk. Lori hugs close to me.

“What should we do?” she looks up at me.

I’m the momma hen.

“They had fire extinguishers,” I chuckle to myself. “I thought it was, I dunno, weapons.”

“Maybe,” Lori looks up at me again, “maybe that’s just what they want you to think.”

I take a deep breath.

“Follow me!” I rally and we run down the main hallway crashing the bars on the front doors, and before we know it we are out in the cold, standing together in a small chicken mob by the buses, and staff cars. Some of the brown-faced lunch staff look over at us quizzically through their cigarette smoke break, wrapped in heavy, colorful duffel coats.

“We’re out!” Lori says with excitement as her teeth begin chattering. I rub her back through her flimsy blouse.

The chickens all stand closely together their frozen feet in the snow, they bob their heads, pointing their beaks every which way, clucking madly.

The front door of the building opens and the VC steps out and waves to us to come back.

“Should we go back?” one of the chickens asks me, chattering. The fickle little shit.

“If ya want, I guess,” I shrug.

First two, then three, then all of the chickens run back into the building and it’s just me standing with Lori under my arm shivering.

“C’mon, you kids are gonna freeze out here,” the VC calls over to us.

Lori aims her big brown eyes up at me, “I’ll go if you go.”

I pull her tight. The VC waves at us again, he seems to be laughing.

“You wanna go back?” she nods at me, then makes that reasonable eyebrow expression, “lets go back.”

I look up into the deep blue sky, so cold and so full of nothing.

As I sit in rubber-room for the second time in two weeks watching the films, I realize that Dana, seated behind me, has been working her toes onto my seat, under my butt. As I reach down to meet her feet—she slumping way down to afford me this contact—I smile softly to myself. Her perfect little phalanges meeting the cuneiforms, her petite talus and navicular on either side of me, hidden by my Portuguese camouflage jacket (Denni would have to do without on a punishment day) were perfect.

A Letter to Steve Hanley

Feb 6th 2015

For Steve Hanley c/o

Route Publishing

P.O. Box 167

Pontefract UK

WF8 4WW

 

Dear Professor Hanley,

I can’t express enough my pleasure in reading your reminisces regarding your career with The Fall. I have to tell you I worried some, worried terribly that you’d shatter my immature fan-boy idealism about what my fave band was like. I used to fantasize guitarring with you lot, and I may even still occasionally dream of being in The Fall. But of course, now I know, don’t I?

I am not only the proud member of a long defunct “post” punk (that post thing still gets me, I’m not sure what it means) band that did its very best to adhere to a kind of ideology of obscurantism (we were all a bit like Scanlon! We were all mostly into the most obscure items we could locate and then were only satisfied by those records imported into Boston (we were from COVENTRY, RHODE ISLAND fer cryin’ out loud – even Boston was a 90 minute trip for us shit-kickers)! And only the big Newbury Record and Comic actually had a FALL section).

So your book comes out at in interesting moment as I’ve also been writing about that period for myself over the last year and now have a huge book full of obsession with The Fall, along with the general endless nothingness of being a blue collar dolt growing up in American New England and working meaningless jobs and getting absolutely nowhere. Meant as a comedy, mind you!

Incidentally at 50 I’m still getting nowhere! And I’ve a PhD at this point!

The guitars are still here, leaning against fine tube amps. My dreams and skills still kept fresh, not sure what for. It’s funny, dammit!

What never ceases to shock me is the sheer gumption of just doing something. I worked forever at my skills, worried myself sick over not being good enough to do music. I often held the guys back from doing shows because we needed more practice! And now I find out so many of my heroes (just read Peter Hook’s book, too) really skipped straight to the recording of singles and basically shoved the worry onto the backburner. For a long time my bandmates and I argued about how our sound wasn’t Fall enough. A good song of ours would be LIKE THE FALL, this was a high compliment. We studied you!

Would our desire for seven minute one riff Fall songs full of incomprehensible lyrics ever be satisfied?

NOPE. We loved you. Still love you.

And there’s this thing about being in the band I suppose, I mean I can’t imagine how Paul McCartney lives his life, how basically every human being can only say, “Hey, loved your work . . .” and him going, “yar, thanks,” so often he must want to just kick someone instead.

There’s the other thing about being the magician, and knowing how the trick works that kind of undermines the magician’s ability to see the magic. How does the film director appreciate his movie?

But you guys were a kind of magic for us, and while you were suffering, we didn’t know! We dreamed of being you!

I’m going to include a bit of my writings, just a few of the bits that reference The Fall from my giant novel, I hope they amuse you. Maybe someone will even think enough of my hopeless 80s-90s life to publish it, you never know!

It’s hysterical to me that the Spinal Tap movie worked so well for you folks. I imagined that to be the polar opposite of you folks!

. . . Erika knows her way around Boston like a pro and promises to get us to the Spit to finally actually see The Fall touring their The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall album. She orders me to take up both lanes as she hasn’t decided which exit to take yet, the boys in the back of the van are discussing the various merits of jello-wrestling with Muriel Hemingway. I’m feeling so adult, responsible for blocking the road at Erika’s command.

The Fall take the stage while we try to pick lint off our black-lit trench coats. The opening phrases of “Lay of the Land” drone over the crowd. The band with Brixie, such a cute monkey-girl, chanting “lay, lay, lay”, I hear Smith but don’t see him. He’s begun the jeremiad, “Armageddon, . . . this beautiful tree, . . . boo hoo, . . . give up livin’, . . . I’m who I . . . be given!”

And then he stands up, ah, so he was laying down, there he is, nerdy, bony, after so many pictures, he’s so tiny. He’s wearing a pair of Guess jeans, and this I find almost too funny. A kind of weird-ass embrace of fashion strapped onto a man whose bony little behind could never embrace anything like a fashion beyond being a kind of poet and rock artist—Guess jeans! I get this joke! I have no idea if he intends it, but, of course, he can’t help this. I smile broadly, dumbly, he’s our sage, our guru.

The band kicks off the song in a simultaneous bluster of power and it is arguably one of their most arresting rockers. It has an almost Arabic-influenced swing to it. I feel more than hear the heavy bass driven riffs of Steve Hanley’s no-nonsense box patterns, driving the music. After Smith, Hanley is The Fall’s sound. I study Craig Scanlon’s lefty technique, and I cannot see how he can be playing guitar. His hands barely move, his rhythm hand without rhythm.

This is the first time I’m seeing my favorite band and my heart is pounding. Who are these people who have managed to inform me so? What are they really like? Would I be disappointed? Do I need to know? And then while I’m standing behind Erika she leans back into me, and I put my arms sort of around her, hold her shoulders, and she just kinda lets me. I am excited and a touch worried by this, but it seems entirely unremarkable to anyone else. The crowd hides us. I embrace her secretly.

All the way home we’re obsessing about the show, every nuance, did you see this, did you see that, that was the coolest thing, Brixie stepping back with the megaphone, MES using his pocket cassette recorder intermittently with his live vocals. . . . Rod is excited about Karl Burns’ powerful drumming style, he is certain it’s his style too, just like he plays.

By the way, we have a band too. We struggle with our own version of cellar rock in my parent’s basement. But ours is a band with issues, we struggle over originals. We’re all writers, all artists, all Fall lovers, and we’re all ridiculously critical of everything. We agree on almost nothing, argue incessantly and disturb one another’s wa.

. . . Mark E. Smith is shouting about being Damo Suzuki. The song has a nifty simplistic descending bassline, which is also plucked on the E strings, both high and low, of the guitars. Then a dueling drummer blast, double-time, kicks in after a minute or so and that makes the thing really groove. Who is Damo Suzuki? I wonder. “What have you got in that paper bag, is it a dose of vi-ta-min C?” rants Mark E. Smith in a fusillade staccato.

Among my books is a thick volume about Zen with a rock garden illustration on the cover, the book is written by Daisetz Suzuki, I’ve read extensively about Zen. I enjoy the concepts of skillful no-mindedness, self-transcendence. The idea that struggling for comprehension often enough obfuscates the understanding, like some kind of long understood Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle from the ancients. How deep is your “river” of Zen? Perhaps being tossed off the bridge will help you find out! I picked this book up on Thayer Street at the college bookstore one day. We didn’t have our own decent bookstore, only Mary’s Book Exchange and the tiny mall paperback outlet, both too small to have this kind of specialty. Is Damo also Daisetz? Has MES got my book? Suzuki is a very well known teacher of Zen.

“Ain’t got no time for western lessons,” MES shouts out, or at least that’s what I hear, “I am—Damo Suzuki!” No matter, really, some of what we hear from MES is open to interpretation. I suspect he likes it that way. I feel satisfied by my logic here, this is a sensibly obscure reference. I might argue that art honestly only becomes what you want it to, because you want it to. It seems to me to depend almost entirely subjectively on what you bring to the table. Kerouac filled me with no pleasure until I thought about my own dad going through similar experiences. And I never pick up hitch-hikers.

Then, one day Moshe rushed up to me at the Burger joint and stuck a cassette into my hand, “You have to listen to this immediately,” he said in his customary nearly Woody Allenesque excited style, shoving glasses back up on his face, his trench coat billowing around him.

“What is it?” I asked, flipping it in my hands, searching for scrawl.

“It’s Can,” Moshe said, “we have been missing this link, it’s a missing link!”

“Can,” hmmm, OK, I’d heard mention of Can, but never heard Can.

“Lead vocalist, Damo Suzuki,” Moshe shoved his glasses up on his nose again, grinning insanely.

“No kidding?”

Gotta run,” he hit the door, on his way to work. . . .

When I finally got out to the band van I shoved the tape in, and turned it down a bit. Moshe’s tapes were always plenty loud, his deck allowed him to increase the recording volume and he’d done that for all Kurt Vonnegut’s Kids’s recordings too.

Moshe’s written a note on the inside of the TKD cassette sleeve, “CAN: Tago Mago 1973,” and then, “Ted, fast forward to the third track.”

I reminded myself that I wanted to suggest a band name change, having Sirens of Titan out there, and having Kurt Vonnegut’s Kids was a bit superfluous, plus with the exodus of Tommy, careening off the cliffs of reality like the scooter in Quadrophenia—it was time for a revamping. We’d become a different band. Plus, we had never really, not really, decided on a name as a band. Moshe just needing one for the tapes he sent off, kind of grabbed at one that he knew would satisfy me, it was just a convenience, not a reality, just a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing. . . .

I’d been listening intently to the speeding noise as I held the fast-forward button, sounding like the super-fast voices of the cute but evil Japanese aliens from Gamera Vs. Guidron (1969), and as I let the button go at the second moment of silence marking the space between tracks, a thunderclap and rain started through my shitty speakers, and I leaned back on my seat which clunked a bit, the bolts loose under me. Then the drum pattern, now so familiar from The Fall’s “I Am Damo Suzuki” number began to rise, then weird backwards masked lyrics, an interesting ascending but otherwise plain bassline, a melodic organ—this is . . . weird stuff! My heart was pounding. The vocals stop, a low lone guitar note is pulled, the drums stop, and another thunderclap, a slight adjustment on the drums, hypnotic, and the vocalist is in English going forward now. He’s said something about vitamin C in a kind of nervous almost breathless manner. I felt like I was exploring an ancient ruin. It was mesmerizing, atmospheric, and thrilling.

So this is Damo Suzuki. I laughed, so much for my theorizing about Daisetz and Zen.

For the next several weeks Can rolled through our group. We learned the term Krautrock, slowly found out that Can had more than one vocalist, a fellow named Malcolm Mooney, who managed to go a bit more insane than Suzuki seemed, was the original vocalist, and Suzuki was already long gone. Plus we learned that the fellows were mainly jazz musicians. Can boldly threw away pop-rock conventions, and encouraged Suzuki to improvise his lyrics. Famously, they found Damo busking on the street, and invited the half Japanese artist in.

Soon enough we had our hands on Future Days and realized that The Fall lifted their bassline for “I Am Damo Suzuki” from the song “Bel Air”, and then layered the drums from “Oh Yeah!” from Tago Mago over the top of it.

Perry laughed when I when I energetically introduced him to Damo Suzuki and Can, sitting in his family’s basement watching crappy, straight to video, swords and fuzzy boots films.

“You guys are like graduate students discovering new methods of deconstructing art, or something,” he said, chuckling.

I liked this idea, maybe it was so, unrecognized scholars of rock. Perry was a kind of unrecognized scholar of allied aircraft of WWII. He’d built a plastic model kit of almost all of them at some point in his youth.

. . . On The Fall’s Hex Enduction Hour (and yes the LP is actually an hour long, my Sansui turntable automatically lifts off it before the sides end) The Fall totally flub the album’s opening number, “The Classical”, just a few seconds into it, but it matters little—good enough for rock and roll. I wonder if Hanley bothered to argue for a retake. Smith delivers one of his most aggressively nasty blasts of vitriol, ranting about this being “The home of the vain!” and asking “where are the obligatory niggers?!” finally crying out full-steam “Hey there fuckface!” several times. It’s challenging, and somewhat unnerving. Every time I hear it I’m moved to wonder, what a riff, what a healthy dose of callous anger, who is the receiver of this powerful stab. And then, sung with a variety of transcendent beauty not common to Smith, he basically croons, “I’ve never felt better in my life.”

I’m always amazed when I hear this song. How could they be satisfied with that obvious goof on the recording? How could they deliberately write a song that could never be a pop hit, starting their album with a song that could never be on the radio even? How could they write music that would never garner an audience beyond the cultist aficionados who already love them? How does a band choose to career in vain, knowing that their accomplishments will never be known by the great majority of people? How do you convince musicians to play that way, to devote like a concealed and mysterious mountain religious sect not seeking fame or recognition, relying on the audience to make the task theirs and come to The Fall’s way of thinking.

. . . “What the heck do you think he means by a ‘Siberian mushroom santa’,” asks Ty as we listen to our Fall tapes.

“I don’t think it’s ‘santa’ I think it’s ‘satyr’,” I offer as we rewind “Fantastic Life” again, one of my all time favorite Fall songs, and a very funny prickly lyric that seems to take in everything annoying about the considerable tendency of people to self-mythologize.

“What the fuck is a satyr?”

“It’s a sort of fancy Greek, . . . I don’t know, like a forest spirit, a half-man, half-animal thing, like Pan, you know, he refers to Pan in ‘Leave the Capitol’,” I’m leaning far forward engaged, this is a lyric I’ve tried to study.

“We’re back to that?” Vinny laughs. “Is it really that important.”

“Well I think it is,” of course I do, I’m the one who causes all the fighting with Vinny over the lyrics he casually changes. And, well, aren’t words important? Aren’t meanings important?

“You know, it’s entirely a-possible we’ll never know what Smith is actually saying, even that book you bought said ‘Welsh cat caravans’ and didn’t you say it was ‘Welsh camp caravans’?” Ty again.

“That had to be a misprint,” I say grumpily. This spawns a hearty laugh from the group.

Ty refers to a book I managed to get through my friends at Weybosset Street Records (another of our new Providence record shops), Janice brought it in for me, it cost me too much, and only had the lyrics for twenty one songs, also, inexplicably, translated into Dutch (this doubled its size from pamphlet to small book). But apparently it was penned by Mark E. Smith himself with a few sketches from his cute monkey-faced wife Brixie. We passed it around quite a bit, and, of course, it didn’t settle my cat vs. camp problem with Welsh caravans, these being someplace that Pan could be found, the great rural god, properly a satyr.

. . . We argue about whether or not The Fall are better now with Brixie, or before Brixie. The Fall have been through many members by the time we are fans, there have already been Martin Bramah, Mark Riley, Yvonne Pawlette, Mike Leigh, and others. Brixie is Smith’s fairly recently acquired American wife, who is also a cute guitar player added to the band around 1983. So the question comes down to whether or not Live At the Witch Trials, Dragnet, Grotesque, Slates, Hex Enduction Hour, and Room to Live are better than Perverted by Language, The Wonderful and Frightening World of . . ., This Nation’s Saving Grace, and Bend Sinister.

“You can’t argue that Brixie doesn’t add an element of something to the band, she really adds voice and something, a kind of spice,” Vinny says, and repeats, “spice.”

“I mean . . . I guess it’s true, but I’m not sure—” I start to say.

“Spice,” Vinny says again.

“I guess my favorite albums are still going to be Dragnet and Slates, it’s ‘Fit and Working Again’, and ‘Leave the Capitol’—”

“Spice,” Vinny adds again.

Once, during one of Vinny’s more interesting highs, he explained to us, while exercising excruciating sincerity, how much he appreciated air. He Worked his nostrils with horse-like exaggeration, smiling hugely, as if the action of breathing were a process we could better appreciate by panting along with him.

“Stop saying spice,” I say to him.

“I don’t know, . . . Wonderful and Frighting World of . . . has really grown on me,” Moshe chimes in.

And this is true for me too. We never got to see The Fall until they toured this album, and the next one, and these albums do measure a high point in production and melodic tones, but I’m not entirely willing to admit it yet, still sort of worried about the band losing its powerful garage rock edge.

“I’m not saying it hasn’t grown on me, I love it, . . . ‘Garden’ and ‘Smile’ from Perverted by Language, but—”

“She adds spice,” Vinny says one more time from his reclined position in the back of the van. “An’ everything nice.”

“Son of a bitch! Would you please stop that!” my hands shake emphatically.

Ty laughs and gives Vinny a shove, “Yeah man, stop it.”

“But I get where you’re comin’ from, I mean, I’m not sure that without Witch Trials we’d still love The Fall, I mean, if they started with one of these later records would we be as interested?” Moshe asks, hoping to redirect my anger into discussion.

“I love ‘Flat of Angles’ that riff is mesmerizing,” I say.

“That’s on Dragnet,” Vinny interjects.

“Ah, good he can say something else after all,” Ty laughs.

“I know it’s on fuckin’ Dragnet.”

We have a cassette of various Fall pieces in the deck, with a wad of cardboard rammed under it, as my cassette player is having difficulties. This compilation was assembled by Moshe, his personal favorites, and we are doing our usual Fall appreciation coursework.

“I think it’s easier to love the older stuff more because it’s been part of our lives longer, you know, we’ve got more associations with it, and there’s a lot more of it,” Moshe says brightly.

I scrunch up my face, I know this is probably, very probably correct, but I don’t like it. I want my appreciation to be based on something much more rational and quantifiable. I’m oafishly sure of this reasonable love.

“I’ll bet there’s a new Fall album out right now,” Vinny says sleepily.

To this we all rather agree.

. . . When Moshe returns from the honeymoon to beautiful Toronto, he tells me this story:

He and Erika were dining in a place called the Kit Kat Club, and Moshe, doing his usual thing of people-watching for amusement, suddenly realized he was looking at a familiar face a few tables away.

It was none other than Mark E. Smith with a lady, drinking a pint. Moshe called the waitress over and pointed the great MES out to her, “Oh yes, the singer for The Fall,” she chirped happily, blowing Moshe’s mind. “I want to buy him a beer, whatever he’s having,” Moshe said excitedly.

Upon receiving Moshe’s gift, Smith smiled and raised the pint to him, Moshe waved.

“You planned this whole Toronto trip because you knew The Fall were playing here,” Erika chided him.

“I didn’t, I swear.”

“Thanks for the pint, mate,” Smith said as he approached their table.

“I’m a big fan, I’ve been listening to you since the late seventies, got all your records,” Moshe gushed.

“Thank you so much, mate, that’s really kind,” Smith leaned forward a bit and asked if Moshe and Erika would like to come to their show over at a club called RPM.

“Very much so!” Moshe said over Erika’s wrinkled nose, Smith wafting some serious body odor over her dinner.

“I’ll put you on the guest list,” Smith said, smiling and more than a touch tipsy.

After MES said good night and headed out the door, Erika abused Moshe some more for his obviously concocting the honeymoon to coincide with a Fall show.

“He was smelly,” Erika said.

“Life on the road, I guess,” Moshe said.

They decided to go see the band, but of course, the great MES had failed to put them on the guest list and so they decided to go for an evening stroll instead.

And so it goes, sir. Thanks for clearing up a bit of my obsessive youth for me. For exposing me a bit to what it was we all were struggling toward and never reaching!

Sincerely,

Geoff Balme

things going wrong gamma

Stay Home With Your Momma (excerpt of novel Near-Do-Well)

Vinny begins to get under my hide with some of his roommate habits, one, which honestly is clearly just affectation, is a kind of morose hanging about in his underwear, sort of slouching and staring. I come home, and he’s on the sofa in the common room, television blaring at him, and he’s slack-jawed, heavy-lidded. I turn the TV down and he barely moves, eyebrows twitch just a touch in response—what the hell? The apartment of course stinks of marijuana (among other things). Ty has gone to work his shift at Burger Chef, he’s a manager at the Post Road location owned by the same jerk as the one I work at.

It’s not so bad at night, but when I find Vinny like this in the afternoon it’s really disgusting. The ash-tray cradles an obvious roach. There are clips and pipes about, the little baggie of green is right there. He makes no attempt to keep it camouflaged, privacy of our own home and all. He’s watching a duped videocassette of Rude Boy (1980) for about the fortieth time. I start to discern that he’s taken on a Mick Jones expression, sort of long in the face, droopy-eyed. He especially seems to have mastered this one look from the sequence in the film where Jones arrives late while the band is clearly standing around waiting for him and expressing their displeasure.

“What time is it?” Vinny asks, the clock is right behind him on the stove, I look over.

“It’s four,” I say.

“I have a shift from five to midnight,” he means at the Barn-spider where he works with Moshe.

“You might wanna get ready,” I say as I pass the bathroom and into my cramped bedroom.

But of course, when I come back out to get myself a bowl of cereal he’s still there, still staring at the movie. In the movie, Ray Gange is being mistreated by the band, and he’s pissed off, and drunkenly yelling at them.

“Vinny, you need to get to work,” I say, pulling out the Chex and dumping them in a bowl.

“What time ‘zit?”

“Time for you ta get your shit ta-getha and go!”

“Just tell me what time it is, pleeeease?” he moans pitifully.

“It’s just about four thirty-five,” I respond with annoyance.

Vinny has the timing down pat, he can get into his pants, on the road and to Providence in exactly fourteen or so minutes, barring any mishaps.

“Can you tell me when it’s quarter of?”

“No!”

I grab my Chex, spilling a bit, and eat it in my room, my artful display of band clippings, girly photos, horror movie stills, and National Geographic insert maps tacked to the walls in an attempt to make it feel a little less Japanese in its claustrophobic press.

Finally, I hear him futzing around, and he leaves, slamming the door.

Goddamn, if he wants his mommy he should have stayed home with her. Wow, that’s something my dad would have said.

I had complained about something on one of our famous outings. A canoe trip down the Moosup river that I had not foreseen, with my young teenaged mind, turning into one of my dad’s famously relished ordeals. . . .

Within minutes of setting out, all those years ago, in the light sprinkling rain—Don’t worry you won’t melt!—a downpour of legendary proportions properly commenced. After about an hour on the water the river swelled, and areas of it became indistinguishable from a vast swamp with no clear river to follow. When we found land we could actually stand on, we pulled the canoe out and dumped out the water. I was soaked to the bone and shivering in the early spring temps.

We were following a pair of my father’s work-mates who considered themselves to be hardy outdoorsmen of cunning and craft, though, not, apparently, of inclement weather prediction.

In the swollen swamps it became my job to look for twigs that may have been snapped by them as they passed through, since they had long ago pressed one another into a competitive paddling trial doing little more in the great outdoors than attempting to break one another’s speed records. At one point I snapped a paddle while fending off our being slammed into a rock sideways as the current suddenly bottle-necked and made itself dangerously apparent. The broken paddle irritated the old man—why not just take a hammer to everything, Ted—his eye a’twitch. Thankfully, the old man’d been bright enough to pack a spare.

Catching up to my dad’s co-workers after several more episodes of hauling the big green fiberglass boat onto the shore and dumping out the water, we arrived at a waterfall to portage around, a granite drop of only about five or six feet. Nothing magnificent, but fairly impressive in the wilds of Eastern Connecticut. The outdoorsmen, one of whom was called “Spiderman” by the group, decided they were going to brave these rapids.

I stood front and center on the shore, watching them as the rain pelted us. Their flannel shirts soaked to their skin, digging hard with their paddles, cruising fast over the stormy ink of the river right up to the falls, like a torpedo, fearlessly confronting nature, and then there was an impressive crunch as the canoe bottomed out on the crest. The prow stuck off the shallow edge as water rushed about them forming a break in the flow. It was almost a Bugs Bunny moment. The outdoorsmen bounced their butts trying to get the canoe to move forward, instead it lazily slung about sideways and emptied them over the height, like a horse balking at a hurdle at the last moment. The canoe falling over them into the swirling plunge pool, which I’m told can be very dangerous. The drag can sometimes drown children. They had already taken out all the gear in anticipation of a capsize.

A couple of Spiderman’s cronies on shore laughed, “Fuckin’ Spiderman.”

“You ready?”

The old man punched me and grinned, one of his bad trouble grins as he chinned at the falls. I hated it when he punched me. It was never a playful chuck. He always hit to hurt.

I’m sure my face was a mask of shock and fear. I did not have any desire to experience what those buffoons just did. The old man just scoffed, shaking his head and marched back to the canoe.

On the way home, some other of my dad’s mates having moved our vehicles to the rendezvous spot, I took a tremendous risk and told the old man that I didn’t really enjoy it.

“That was great, huh!” he wasn’t asking he was telling with his usual crowbar of enthusiasm.

“I wish it hadn’t rained,” I said as any natural human being might have.

“Well next time you can stay home with your momma, boy!”

As if it were something we’d been planning for months in advance, a kind of cold, aquatic trial for comfort-haters.

And now I seem to be owning my old man’s frustration leveled at Vinny, but Vinny clearly would have drowned on that trip, he’d have folded up not one hour into the storm, never have managed it. Was I annoyed because he was soft, was I perceiving him as not masculine because of my old man’s expectations of me?

Success Is For the Weak (chapter one of the first part)

DSCN0815

PART I

Chapter 1

Recommended listening: Mission of Burma—Vs.

” . . . He assumes that that is the impression he makes—a remarkable example of self-deception . . . but who does not live by self-deception?” ~Eric Maria Remarque

“At what age was Newton weaned in order to conceive the law of universal gravitation?” ~Foucault

Names have been changed. Some of them many times. On the one hand, change is good, science is not supposed to be stagnant, new information informs new and improved conclusions. On the other hand is the cost of ceaseless indecision, eventually it’ll be impossible to remember who or what to call anything.

Les’s chair creaked softly, its uneven wheels, and somewhat broken back-rest, created a tipping hazard whenever Les leaned back. Les leaned back. He felt the torn vinyl between his shoulders, and sighed. On the desk before him were his dissecting scope and light, his dissecting tools, and large numbers of tiny insect specimens on pins, glued to bits of paper, or submerged in little wells of glycerin.

What is the purpose of a name anyway?

He lazily reached out a lanky arm and pinched a leafhopper specimen on its pin, crushing it to smithereens, the way one might pinch and distribute paprika. Then, allowing the pad of his finger to withdraw across the top of the mounting pin, he thrummed it like a tiny spring door-stop. Dried remains of the leafhopper were strewn all over the desktop, the very frail bits stayed in the air.

He sighed and moved his hand over the next specimen in the row. They were itty-bitty bugs collected in western China by some wizened old raisin of an entomologist, long dead. Les mashed the next tiny insect. The dried leafhopper was glued to a bit of paper and pinned into a cardboard box many decades ago. It was an unidentified Erythroneurini leafhopper from Kuomintang China. Caught, no doubt, with a sweep net built like a white flag, by an elderly Victorian wearing pantaloons.

Les envisioned the scene, the thick lenses in heavy black glasses, the hay-stack of 19th century hair under a wide-brimmed field hat. The collector on one knee with a bronze loupe examining the tiny insect in a phial. Yes, a rare one indeed. Les rubbed his fingers together distributing the fragments onto his desk, and thrumming the pinhead like a note struck by a teeny African thumb piano. Les had an idea. He lined the pinned leafhoppers up by tribe, Empoascini, Erythroneurini, Dikraneurini, in a longish pinning tray—a small white box—just an inch or so wide. The heads of the pins standing out of the cardboard at different levels. He nodded to himself as he began to realize the creative beauty of his vandalism. The arrangement of pinheads now appeared much like a right-skewed curve when viewed from the side. Holding the box on his lap he allowed his thumbs to range over the pins, pulling them back in turn and letting them snap freely producing a tiny melody. The dried insects, no bigger than grass seeds flipped about the room, ricocheted off the walls and disappeared behind the desks and into the sink. A few bits were in his hair.

Les let the specimens lie. Dust floating in the air, some of it inhaled. The sun shone through the particles of dust guiding low afternoon light across the room from the windows. . . .

Les sighed again, letting go of the destructive fantasy. He stood up shoving the creaky unbalanced chair out of his way, it was time for a refreshment.

He strode out of the office, avoiding Dr. D’s office, turning left, and stalked rapidly to the stairs at the opposite end of the hall. He then ran fast down three flights of stairs, and bashing through the double doors—enjoying their slamming on their rubber stops—out into the sunlit brickyard. Here was the ever present, brown-jacketed preacher mumbling with his bible, pacing his small path under the willow oaks, his head down his mouth moving over the text.

The brickyard teemed with casually dressed young folks, all drifting in various directions, and almost all of them laboring under the weight of a backpack, causing extremely unattractive, bent, falling-forward postures in otherwise attractive young people, especially, Les noted with some consternation, the women.

Les marched the couple hundred yards directly to the bank of soda and snack machines lined against Griffin Hall and began pushing change into the first machine available. He wanted something sugary. A breeze ruffled his shirt. He pushed the dispensing button and waited for the usual mechanical grumblings of the mechanism. A Crush emerged cold and already producing condensation. He shifted over to the snack machine and began shoving change into that as well, letting his eyes drift over the possibilities for the limited spare change, peanuts, no . . . gum, no . . . popcorn, no . . . it will be chips . . . chips and soda. Les imagined a little song in his head, chips and soda, chips and soda—to what melody? To the melody of “Salt Peanuts”.

Chips and SO-da, chips and SO-da, sang in his head. He walked in a straight line back through the sunlit oaks, past lounging undergrads sprawled on the benches, so young, how old are these kids?Les had not been so academically oriented at their age. What did he spend his time doing? It wasn’t easy to remember, and the barrage of low-paying job experiences, disappointing hook-ups with the young women co-workers, and the fantasies of punk rock guitar hamming were somewhat better forgotten.

Chips and SO-da, chips and SO-da! Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie “Yardbird” Parker played in his head as if it were fifty years earlier, blame Ken Burns. Les could have selected the theme of “Who Let The Dogs Out?” which was otherwise the song most in evidence that summer. Dr. Dufresne could not stop himself singing the lines, “Who! Who! Who! Who!” The professor barked this while stamping his feet in time. The chips and soda song evidently not a particularly solid concept in Les’s subconscious, now mutated into a current pop chant: Chips and Soda . . . Chips! Chips! Chips! . . .

There was no one he recognized on the brickyard to interrupt his steady procession back to work. He passed the brown-jacketed preacher mumbling from his bible and always pacing. Once inside Les shot a quick look down the hall, and then ran back up the stairs two at a time (as the great Niels Bohr was said to, even in old age), striding up the hallway toward Dr. D’s and his own offices, unlocking his own office door—office mate must have stepped out—and finally dropping into his creaky chair, his own particular spot, of all the places where butts settle down, allotted to him.

Paulie-wallie came in right behind him and dropped back into his particular allotted spot, on the other side of the filing cabinet and refrigerator office barricade that divided the room, my side—his side.

Sipping his soda and munching he felt the overwhelming weight of the project that lay ahead, crushing him again, the spiral again, the dread of something insurmountable. The first steps of such a long trip, only to find out you’ve been going the wrong direction, each time retrying and each time not finding the right direction, the horizon never getting closer. There were few things worse than boring repetitive labor that in the end would need to be entirely repeated, perhaps cyclically, and finally—and this wasn’t allowed a likelihood—ending up meaningless.

On the desk next to him was a chart of numbers, large pages divided into tiny boxes, each box with a 0, 1, 2, 3, or nothing, things undecided, unseen. Les was creating long digital representations of insects. At the start of each row was an identifier that represented a tiny critter in a vial or in a glass well of glycerin. There were “Dick” 1-27, and “Shit” 1-9, and “Junk” 1-11 and others.

Les shoved some papers off a stack with his elbow as he reached for his soda. They scattered as they hit the floor on their bindings, some opening up, others slipping under the large oak desk, and under the wheels of the creaky chair.

“Goddammit”, he mumbled to himself. Running the creaky chair over the paper wedged under his wheels, he bent over and attempted to collect the articles without having to lower himself to the linoleum. Most of the papers were forty or more years old and included line drawings of wings, and male insect genitalia. In fact, all the articles were of male insects, no females of this vast group of tiny bugs could be identified. Many of them could only be reliably identified to species by their ridiculously miniscule and improbably shaped penises. Dr. D called them “dingers”.

The papers were yellowed and crackling a bit at the edges, chipping like the antiques they were. Many of them had been repaired with now yellowing tape at some point in history. Many of the papers were by one old Eastern European woman named Dworakowska. She was famous for never creating a diagnostic key to any of the species she described, and this made it impossible to follow her classification logic. She was also notoriously territorial about the entire leafhopper subfamily Typhlocybinae. Lastly, because her personal life was something of a well protected mystery, it had been rumored, or so Les was told, that she was a paranoid schizophrenic who imagined secret government forces were after her, presumably needing to silence her about some important entomological discovery or other. Perhaps there was more to her than met the eye, or didn’t meet the eye, as there were no photos of her anywhere. No, not even on the internet.

Les had laughed when he first heard about this character, but was less amused when he realized how much he would have to rely on her decades of pure descriptive efforts, like the ink cloud of a disturbed squid. It was easy to imagine her, dressed head to toe in black, sour-pussed, wizened, short and wide, like an early twentieth century prohibitionist—her eyesight ruined by decades of staring through lenses into bright lights. If Les’s life were a thriller he’d have to confront her someday, possibly armed, and possibly someplace dark and corrupt. Les got the papers together and stacked them on the end of his large wooden desk again, ending with a slam of his hand. As if this violence would warn them to behave.

Les steeled himself for work, and pulled one of the glycerin-filled well-dishes out, and glancing at the card associated with it, lifted the abdomen of one of the specimens for study with the point of a pin, very goddamned carefully. Coffee is off limits to keep the small motor skills fine. He placed it, with unusual care, on a slide under the dissecting scope. After fussing with the focus, Les located the tiny bit of insect for study, and raised the magnification.

The section wanted for study was the pygofer. A capsule at the end of the abdomen about the size of a poppy seed. First the pygofer capsule had to be coaxed out of the abdomen where it had been neatly, and somewhat inanely, stored after a previous examination. It had taken the better part of an afternoon to get good at this ridiculous standard operating procedure. Then with a few rotations of the pins in the gelatin swishing near the little lump to try to orient it just so, and playing with the lighting and focus with the other hand, Les tried to see if there was a patch of tiny hairs on the side, the so-called “disk” of the pygofer.

The old Leitz microscopes had been in service for at least three generations, maybe more, they were black, serious-looking affairs, with block construction, and sharp edges. Nothing like the cheery, modern, bright white, smooth-lined, pleasing Meiji scopes down the hall that were used in the classrooms. The Meiji scopes would zoom in with the twist of a knob, smoothly, continuously, nice. The old Leitz scopes had red velvet-lined boxes of lenses that had to be pulled and shoved back into place like F-stop steps on ancient box cameras. It wasn’t easy locating, in the labyrinthine folds of the historic systematics collection’s hoarding, a complete set of these lenses, but Dr. D insisted on them.

The pygofer drifted out of focus again, and Les swirled the glycerin counter-clockwise near it, tiny circles like signaling to taxiing aircraft under magnification. It didn’t look like there was any patch of tiny hairs, but it was tremendously hard to see: the field of view was dark, the focus shallow, and the proper angles combined with the lighting—difficult to create. It was a painstaking process to be able to look in the right direction to really see—or be sure you did not see (much harder!)—something as tiny as microscopic insect hair on an object as small as this. Yes, there they were! Visible as the capsule rotated out of focus yet again, casting improbably small shadows. Les sighed a deep sigh, leaned over and marked a 1 in the box under the column that read “Hair On the Disk of Pygofer” in the row for “Dick 22”, 1 for yes 0 for no.

The soda was already empty, chips gone. Les rubbed his eyes, the twin beams of light back-focused on his pupils and irritated him. He yawned deeply, stretched his neck and sensed a migraine coming on. He closed his eyes and leaned back in the creaky chair, it threatened to topple, but he’d learned how to position it just right, feeling the back of the chair touch the brace just before it lifted off the floor to dump him.

Les heard Dr. D in the hallway, and sighed to himself, hoping the boss was not coming his way. The boss had a very heavy walk, not a quiet hunter’s step, which was a good thing, because Les worked with his back to the door.

“Lessy-wessy?” the boss called out as he entered the room, his voice almost a refrain from an old Neil Sedaka song, “Have you seen the Blatchley Journal, the green one?” he twisted his pen in his mouth, chewing on it.

“No,” Les said simply, he had no use for the Blatchley Journal, not any color Blatchley Journal.

“It’s the one with the Wallace article in it, you know the one I mean?” he whined, hoping Les would make a late afternoon effort of urgency, arrange a posse, hunt the damned thing down.

“No,” Les responded again his hands pressing on his eyes.

Dr. D blustered past him, bellied up to the desk Les was working at, forcing Les out of the way, and nearly capsizing him. Les leaned forward fast and slapped his hands onto desk and filing cabinet for balance. Dr. D began pulling open the cabinets with a frustrated expression of expelled air, sounding like a threatened momma snapping turtle.

Doctor D was a large man, and the cramped space did not accommodate both he and Les.

Les recovered himself from nearly falling over with amazement, “No, I said, I don’t have it.”

Dr. D rifled through Les’s personal books and stacks of papers in the cabinet, irritatedly not finding the Blatchley Journal, the green one with the Wallace article in it, which was sensible because Les had no use for it.

“Paulie-wallie, have you seen the Blatchley Journal?” Dr. D nearly pleaded, his blue eyes moist under wiry brows.

But Paulie-wallie also did not have it. Dr. D was beside himself with misery.

Dr. D’s office was half filled with filing cabinets which reminded one of a Marshall amp wall from a classic 70’s era Ted Nugent concert. The rest of the office was a huge desk piled with papers and books barricading a central computer. The journal was most likely there.

“You know the journal I mean?” Dr. D whined to Les and Paulie-wallie.

“No,” replied Les.

“Yes,” replied Paulie-wallie. “It’s the green one with the Wallace article in it?” Les looked at Paulie-wallie but the senior graduate student would not meet his gaze.

“It’s the green one with the Wallace article in it,” Dr. D repeated and nodded, chewing desperately on his pen, a pair of glistening gold-rimmed glasses dangled around his neck by a grandma chain, his huge running shoes were scuffed and he shifted weight one foot to the other. Doctor D now expected Paulie-wallie to produce the journal, straight from nothing, “You know which one I mean?”

“No,” replied Les.

“Yes,” replied Paulie-wallie. Paulie-wallie had begun opening cabinets and drawers at random in the lab space. Paulie-wallie had an expression on his face that was a reflection of Dr. D’s stress.

“I need it . . . I had it . . . I don’t know where it is . . . You boys sure you didn’t take it?” said Dr. D chew, chew, chewing on his pen, rolling his eyes, shifting left to right, right to left.

“Yes,” said Les.

“No,” said Paulie-wallie.

Les went back to returning the specimen “Dick 22” to its tiny pool of glycerin, in the dish, associated with the card. To do so he manipulated the glycerin around the pygofer so that the pygofer aligned with the wide end of the disembodied abdomen and could be inserted back into the tiny insect body package it came out of, like pressing a tiny change purse into a tiny pocketbook. The process was laborious, a little like threading a needle that wasn’t quite big enough for the thread.

In Les’s head was a sequence he had seen many years ago, of the “Chicken Dance” being preformed on the old Lawrence Welk show. It featured a number of desperately smiling people in a line, miming chicken movements, and moving lock-step to accordion music. It had always struck him as something magnificently tepid and pathetic.

Paulie-wallie and Dr. D were rifling through every nook and cranny. A spare Leitz microscope lens was discovered hiding in the back of a mess. “Do you need a ten?”, “No, got plenty of tens.” Soon a stack of old phone books was capsized. Doctor D saved old phone books because, as he often said, “New ones have mistakes in them.”

“It’s crazy,” Paulie-wallie said with exaggerated amazement. It was one of Paulie-wallie’s favorite things to say. He usually did so shaking his head slowly and looking deeply pained, at least three or four times a day.

The chicken dance continued. You make the beaks by raising your hands and putting your fingers together, then you make the wings, folding your arms and flapping your elbows up and down, and finally, shaking your butt as if shaking the tail feathers. Hand clapping and twirling with your partner round out the sequence.

The pygofer stubbornly refused to be stuffed into the little pouch of the abdomen. Had it gone flat? The lights were brightly beaming back into Les’s eyes.

“Where did you last see it?” Paulie-wallie asked Dr. D.

“I was just using it . . . I was looking at the Wallace article,” Dr. D whined.

The people doing the chicken dance in Les’s head seemed to be doing so at gun-point. Their lack of joy was entirely apparent. They seemed to be victims of some diabolical mind-control plot launched by Simon Bar Sinister (Les had only recently learned that this name resembled that of a Jewish messiah figure who had defeated the Romans –in the manner of a true messiah, but was eventually reconquered).

“That’s crazy,” Paulie-wallie said yet again, finally done opening each of the cabinets and drawers a number of times.

“Oh, it’s just not here,” Dr. D finally moaned and stomped out of the room.

Paulie-wallie settled back down quietly, as unperturbed as a glassy lake after a storm. The pygofer finally slid into the abdominal package, as if it was made to, and now could be lifted with the tiny pin and replaced in the glycerin dish.

Les closed his eyes and snapped off the microscope light. As he rubbed his eyes he imagined the fire that would rip through this red-brick building, all the research fuel to feed the flames, the piles and piles of ancient and recent journal articles, the fluid tons of alcohol preserved and dry specimens stuck in cardboard trays. The fire would annihilate the research. The flames would rip through the halls, the ceilings, the floors. The entire historic building, Lebrun Hall, pregnant with fire-loving capacity, absolutely pyro-phillic.

Les imagined standing outside the building as it burned, mesmerized by the fantastic, golden and sanguine flames, feeling the tremendous drama and childish joy as years of work were consumed. He also imagined, as he was standing outside watching the fire, that Laura would be there. Her first floor office would already be gone, the cockroaches immolated, the ants popped like popcorn. She would saunter over to him and wanly smile at him as their respective future hopes burned away and say, “Hey”.

That’s enough for now. She would just come over to him and acknowledge him. Her short brown hair would be pulled back, showing off her small delicate ears and pale smooth neck. Her big brown eyes set in her soft rounded features would meet his. He enjoyed the way the corners of her lips down-turned slightly and opened brightly when she smiled, and of course, he loved her inspiring round behind tightly held in her white slacks. The ones she was wearing this morning when Les saw her in the hallway and smiled at her. “Hey” she would say. And that would be fine.

The Trees In Yurp

Standing around at the Tremblay’s as the old man rushed about getting the tractor ready one cold Saturday morning, one of the old dwarfs piped up, by way of making conversation, “You know in Yerp you gotta have a license ta cut down a single tree! There’s some surveyor works for the government comes out and looks at it and decides if you can cut it down. Har har har!”

The old man shook his head, “Ridiculous!”

They had a good laugh.

I felt myself going through a bit of a revolution. That was the answer right there. Rambo to protect the forests. Europe used to be covered in forests and then people used it all for fuel in their despicable hovels for millennia and so now the few trees left required protection.
Why were these people so unable to see this American west bison-shooting-free-for-all for what it was? Well, the answer’s easy to see, free, it’s free, it is free! Every tree was a virtual dollar sign in our mind’s eyes. And if there was just one left, the old man would be yanking the recoil on that little McCulloch as he raced toward it counting his lucky stars, imagining he’d just found a bag of money on the sidewalk.
It was the same story with over-fishing, I’d read that as the fish become scarce the fishing fleets worked harder than ever to fish them into non-existence, they never backed off. Industry had to meet its bottom line on each trip by any means possible. The mortgage on the boat didn’t skip a month if you had a bad month of fishing. I also read in the Yankee Swapper, or some other junky magazine, that the logging of the forests torn down in Michigan were more valuable than all the gold that California eventually farted up to fantasy laden prospectors back in those gold-rush days. Those forests were destroyed and sold to the American industrial complex, box turtles bull-dozed under the earth, bird’s nesting sites forever flushed away into the Great Lakes. But what gave them those rights? People thought nothing of the total exploitation of resources. They thought they owned them. Do they think any differently now? Like some crazy story of buying the land from the natives with beads, digging it all up and selling it to enemies abroad who come like cancer and never stop growing and invading and killing. . . the Sioux called us “wahseechus” which translated meant a persistent irritation. They were right.

I kept my mouth shut, your opinion is only valuable when you’re paying the bills. That’s why rich people tended to get to do the most blathering. The guys signing your check tells you what to do, whether or not he’s right. This system allows them to maintain their power and interests so no one else can climb the ladder. And of course, this is why we’re all doomed.

In the end it’s because we can’t keep from shitting in the rivers. Rivers look to us like nature’s way of making our lives perfectly simple, flowing by, taking the things we don’t want, the shit, the poison, the bodies of the dead, away . . . away . . . away, and never back, never.
The flush of a toilet being the end of our concern about what we’ve put in it. Then one day the salmon or the shad no longer come up that creek, no longer spawn in the inland ponds. But let’s face it who wants to change the way we live. Who wants to spend money on crap like that?

But wait, when was this old Lord Of the Rings character, Tremblay, in ‘Yerp’? What the heck did this Tolkien dwarf know about the old country? I shot him a narrow-eyed look, summed his swamp-yankee attributes.

“Stevie!” came a shout from behind me, it was old lady Tremblay, coming down off the front porch in her flower patterned moo-moo. Her helmet of black hair solidly in place over a face that looked for all the world like pictures I’ve seen of Sitting Bull. No kidding.

“Yes ma’am,” my old man straightened up from fussing with the choke, getting ready to crank the old machine over, suddenly at attention as if he’d been roused by a sergeant.

Old lady Tremblay made her way across the yard in her slippers, her exposed heels as wide and horny as draft horse hooves.
“We prayed to God for help, we did, and He sent you!” she turned and looked over at her middle-aged son, “Isn’t that right, George?” The way she said “George” as if to insinuate a plan, something unfolding.

“It sure is,” said George, a half grin on his thick lips through his beard. Then I saw him put down his tool box and step forward as if to intercept the old lady, but not too fast.

“Well, ma’am, I don’t know about that,” Pop had a loose embarrassed smile playing on his lips, he was stuck. I rarely saw him off balance like this.

“Well I know!” shouted the old lady, “And you come straight from the good Lord!”

Holy shit the old lady was planning to plant a big kiss on pop, and there was no place for him to run.

“Now, now,” he said, giving his best aw, shucks, his famous other-people smile on his face, eye a’twitching. Pop rarely smiled in the home, it was always for non-family members, and when he did it was a surprisingly unusual expression. It’d be like seeing George Washington doubled-over laughing from smoking a bowl with Vin and Ty.

Old lady Tremblay threw her arms up, kinda t-rex floppy arms, “Now you come give old Marry a big hug!”

I was rooted to the spot, watching the horror unfold. The old man put the crank handle on the iron seat and embraced the bell-shaped old lady as she laid a big smooch on his cheek.

I fled to the truck, got the door open and threw the seat forward and busied myself gathering our tools, my head down. I found the machete and the bow saw—yup, there they are—picked up the machete and put it on top of the bow saw readied them for moving over to the tractor, kinda peeking sideways to see George helping his mom back up onto the porch. The old lady was smiling over my way but I don’t know if she could actually see me.

“I want to thank that boy too,” she said with a bit of sorrow in her voice.

“Now he’s just fine, he knows you’re all grateful and such,” George said, helping his mother back up the steps.

I hauled the saw and machete over to the tool box on the tractor and grinned at the old man who refused to make any eye-contact.
“Well, I didn’t realize we were on a mission from God,” I joked.
“Yup,” said the old man feigning a kind of discipline, service rendered, from God.
“How was her beard?” I ask softly, “pretty scratchy?” I think I’m hilarious, but he doesn’t respond to this one.